Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Bo Is Back: A Cautionary Tale

Once upon a Tuesday evening in 2004, a group of aspiring superstars gathered for Big Band Night, a slice of Americana. Although the genre was challenging and mostly unfamiliar to the teenagers and twentysomethings, they sang their hearts out. Near the end of the show, the host introduced the final performer by posing the question, "Have we saved the best for last?" Then the judges’ early favorite appeared and sang . . . a big band song from the 1930s? A big band song from the 1940s? A big band song from the 1950s?

Nope. The song was Queen’s 1979 Britpop classic, Crazy Little Thing Called Love, as performed by Fantasia Barrino with a be-bop arrangement. We may never know if Fantasia can sing big band style, but clearly her protectors in the control booth didn’t dare take a chance and the grand finale treatment she received guaranteed that voters could not forget her that evening.

Fast forward one year to ‘70s Dance Music Night, usually called Disco Night but not this time for reasons that are now obvious. Although the genre was challenging and mostly unfamiliar to the youngsters, they sang their hearts out. Near the end of the show, the host introduced the final performer. Then the judges’ early favorite appeared and sang . . . Vehicle by the Ides of March.

Vehicle was a one-hit wonder when I was in middle school. Yes, I was a kid then, but I attended every school dance, every church dance and every dance in my friend Jeanne’s garage. I was a dancing fool from the age of 3 and I will swear on a stack of old vinyl records that I never danced to Vehicle. If that is dance music, then so is everything by Chicago and Steely Dan and so is that campy ‘70s song, Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl), which I bet Bo Bice could sing really well but, dear God, don’t let him try.

The good news is that Bo Bice avoided vehicular manslaughter. The Bo we missed – self-assured and soulful – returned in excellent form. I am thrilled for Bo, for his fans, and for the AI4 competition, which would be poorer without the talented Mr. Bice. Happiest of all are the Idol puppeteers, who will be richer with the marketable Mr. Bice under contract.

Puppeteers? Oops! If your illusions that American Idol is a fair, equitable contest are intact, by all means stop reading. Pay no attention to the men behind the curtain. Just because I feel like someone pissed in my Grape Nuts doesn’t mean that I want to spoil everyone else’s delight in Bo’s triumph, of which he deserves to be proud. I hope this is the first of many more weeks of Bo-mentum.

Here’s my complaint. Until this week, I thought AI4 was relatively free of the backstage machinations that ruined AI3 and tainted AI2. Every season the idiots-in-charge, most visibly Simon Cowell, identify their American idol early and shepherd him or her through the competition. This year judges blatantly singled out Bo and Carrie Underwood as their favorites, but I thought they criticized the darling duo judiciously, so to speak, when their performances fell short. A good sign, I thought.

I know Simon is not on the Constantine Maroulis bandwagon, but last week I noticed that Constantine performed in the desirable grand finale slot, which I assumed was an acknowledgement of his enormous fan base. I interpreted that as a refreshing change from AI2 when the AI team actively thwarted the Clay Aiken phenomenom. Another good sign.

A twice-burned skeptic, I swore after last year’s debacle that I would never get invested in this Idol game again. I have not missed an episode of AI4, but part of me has remained detached. Nevertheless, I have been dazzled by the talent and riveted by what seemed like the fairest contest thus far in the franchise.

This week’s voting is over and I assume that Bo will live to sing another Tuesday. Stupidly, the results have been manipulated again. With their heavy-handed favoritism, the puppeteers have unwittingly harmed their favorite again. The contestant who leaves this week and viewers who care about the integrity of the competition may rightly feel slighted and cheated.

Ironically, the root problem is not Bo Bice’s professionalism as a performer, which is already established. The problem as always is the artificial push for diversity of style to make Idol television more entertaining. The reality is that contestants become insider favorites because they can fit a specific, marketable niche, not for their mastery on Big Band or Disco/‘70s Dance Nights. Each performer’s style becomes his or her trademark. Clay Aiken is a great example of a niche singer and his career has not suffered for it.

Bo knows his niche and I wish him infinite success. I doubt Bo knew that Vehicle would be a dance genre anomaly and in no way do I blame him for selecting a song from the list he was given that best showcased his strengths. I hope the foolish behind-the-scenes machinations are a one-show anomaly.

Before Tuesday's show I asked, "Does Bo care enough?" Now the larger question is, "Does the American Idol team care enough about the audience and their franchise to forego additional unwanted intervention?" We shall see.

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