Wednesday, April 13, 2005

It's the Talent, Stupid!

If you missed Fantasia Barrino’s return to American Idol during last week’s results show, I can report that success has not changed the reigning champ. She still looks like Chris Tucker and sounds like Macy Gray in a choir robe, two strikes against her for me. The third strike was the way the judges effectively ruined her and the entire AI3 competition by neglecting other talented contestants while heaping inordinate praise upon Fantasia too early and never critiquing her bad habits, i.e. vocal strain and throwaway gospel filler. Nevertheless I like her video for Truth Is, which hints at new maturity as a singer and encouraged my false hope that she has grown similarly as a live performer.

Since I completed chemotherapy sixteen months ago, periodically I see, smell, taste or think of something that takes me instantly back to that awful time and induces an involuntary full-body shudder. Now, I’m not saying that hearing Fantasia’s tiresome screech and watching the judges beam like proud parents last Wednesday was as sickening as a chemo flashback, but it sure elicited some unpleasant memories I prefer not to revisit.

These contract-mandated visits also serve as benchmarks to help us chart the show’s progress or lack thereof. The contrast to years past made me appreciate our current contestants all the more and helped me understand what is so different about American Idol 4. For example, one big complaint last year was the youth of some controversial contestants. Instead of raising the minimum age limit to 18, as many viewers requested, the powers-that-be raised the maximum limit to 28. Some of this year’s most popular performers would have been ineligible under the old rules. That was an unexpected change that produced immediate dividends.

Perhaps the biggest viewer complaints last year, including mine, were about the behavior of judges, specifically Sideshow Simon Cowell. Throughout the first three seasons, for better or worse, Simon has been the face of American Idol.

This year the face of the show is Talent.

Talent has always been the soul and saving grace of American Idol. But, until this year, it was talent as defined primarily by Simon Cowell. When we first met Simon in season one, he sported the freshest mouth and snottiest attitude since Anne "Weakest Link" Robinson. The Idol chatter around Simon multiplied exponentially during season two, which owed much of its success to the banter between Simon and Clay Aiken. Season three was a mess of diva egos overfed by Simon and fan bases rebelling against Simon.

Simon still holds the power to intimidate but not so much to influence. Really, hasn’t the pause in front of the judges’ dais become less of a forced march to the firing squad and more of a quick breather for contestants before they solicit phone votes? Although his commentary can be as snarky and smarmy as ever, now there’s a musical muzzle to drown Simon out like he’s just another awards show blabbermouth instead of a founding pillar of the franchise. In four seasons he has devolved from idol maker to fangless figurehead.

Last year some of us begged Randy Jackson to improve his communication skills. This year Randy is the most (only?) improved judge, offering more coherent criticism and finally forming complete sentences. I just wanted Paula Abdul to leave but not on a stretcher. Poor thing, she could not be more sugary or glazed over if she were a Krispy Kreme doughnut. I hope she’s okay.

Whether it’s due to talent in ascendancy or judges in free fall, this season the talent commands our attention. With so many talented contestants at this juncture, none can afford another weak performance. And the difference between a good performance and a compelling performance is selecting the right song to showcase one’s strengths.

Take Anthony Federov. Before Tuesday, I would have said, "Take Anthony Federov. Please." Then Anthony gave a surprisingly authoritative rendition of Every Time You Go Away that won me over. He injected elements of rock and soul and showed us more of his smooth moves. Anthony’s flaw has been blandness and he countered it appealingly. I played several video highlights for my husband, Luis, who attends work meetings most Tuesday evenings, and he was quite impressed by Anthony’s performance. Luis predicted great things for Clay Aiken just from his audition clip.

Luis was blown away by Constantine Maroulis, whom he has not really seen since January. Constantine was absolutely audacious to attempt Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, probably considered musical royalty by Simon whose response was, "Astonishing!" That may not have been an endorsement, but it should have been. Constantine instinctively knows which songs showcase his strengths and I’m starting to think he can sing anything compellingly.

That’s how I used to feel about Anwar Robinson. He has all the mechanics a great singer needs. I bet he can sing jazz, scat, even opera. He’s a beautiful man, but he’s just not that interesting to watch.

Carrie Underwood rocked out on Love Is a Battlefield, a welcome departure from her usual clean, controlled performances. She looked hot, she strutted, she sounded earthy and sloppy in a really good way. But that permanently fixed expression she wears reminded me of the B word. No, I mean Botox. How can she sing with such power and emotion and yet her face is always frozen?

Does Bo Bice have a fear of success? He must still be picking songs off a list blindfolded. My husband laughed – hooted, really – as he watched Free Bird. If there were an award for worst song selection, Bo would win walking away. Unless his fan base is more devoted than Anthony’s, I suspect he will be walking away sooner rather than later. Such a waste.

Scott Savol probably bought more time for Bo by picking the right song but the wrong key, a distinction without much difference at this point when he is already a marked man. In some ways, Scott is as polarizing as Fantasia. He elicits strong reactions from viewers who either like him a lot, as I do, or don’t get him at all. He does old school R&B with a big, lazy vibrato that I will miss.

Back when Bo was good, I didn’t pay much notice to Vonzell Solomon and she snuck up on me slowly. Now I think she’s just about the most likable, reliable AI4 performer. She is a solid balladeer who tackles challenging songs with deceptive ease. I wonder if viewers fully realize how difficult that is to achieve and if her soft persona gets lost among the powerhouses.

Nadia Turner is an always-interesting performer who chose another forgettable song and no doubt it will cost her consideration as a serious contender, as will her emphasis on style over substance. I suspect the day is fast approaching when she will be eliminated and Anthony will stay, and I was dreading that day until their respective performances this week flipped my preferences. That is an indication that this competition remains fluid from week to week.

Anything is possible for the talented seven who return next week.

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