Sunday, February 26, 2006

American Idol 5: Big Ratings, Bigger Talent

NBC decreed, “Let the games begin!”

Following nine months of growing anticipation, the big day finally arrived. “It’s a boy!” proclaimed Randy Jackson. The Dawg Pound barked its appreciation. Fox executives thumbed their noses at NBC and said, “Neener, neener!” The American Idol season five contest had commenced at long last.

After watching the top 24 elimination round, I endorse Randy’s initial assessment. Even Paula Abdul begged the producers to allow more than six males to advance to the finals. Since the AI5 auditions began, I agree with Randy so often that it’s scary. As my husband likes to joke, “He’s saying what I’m all thinking.”

American Idol has become an unstoppable ratings juggernaut. This year the talent is so diverse and impressive, the personalities so endearing and the performances so poised, that the show might have to change its name to American Idols. That is, if the Idol crew doesn’t botch it all up.

This is the time of year when I question the stupid quota system that insists on phony symmetry between genders. Thursday evening four contestants went home. Why? They received the four lowest vote totals, right? Wrong! The two members of each sex that poll the lowest are eliminated. It is possible that two of those eliminated Thursday evening were not among the real bottom four.

Hypothetically, if gender was irrelevant, one or two more girls could have joined Becky O’Donohue and Stevie Scott in the dreaded loser’s circle. One or two other guys could have followed Patrick Hall and Bobby Bennett into the annals of Idol history. Of the remaining ten girls, I think Patrick has more talent and potential than at least four of them.

For all we know, American Idol sent Becky home due to her revealing photos publicized on the eve of the results show, not because of her vote total. I find her departure a bit premature, even unlikely. I wouldn’t vote for Becky, but other pretty, albeit mediocre, girls have lasted longer in past competitions. Well, as we have seen every season, the unexpected is always possible. However, the producers reserve the right to alter the results and they are under no legal obligation to tell us when or why.

The order in which contestants perform is no random accident, which makes me wonder whether the schedule is set before or after the powers-that-be see the singers rehearse. Patrick was careless with his song choice, a typical rookie misstep, but inexperience is not the reason the crew so carelessly assigned him the first slot of twelve on a two-hour program. Mandisa, who led off for the ladies, had several advantages over Patrick. She was already well-known from the auditions and performed boldly. What if Patrick had followed David Radford, Bucky Covington, Will Makar, and Jose “Sway” Penala? I imagine the judges would have been a lot more complimentary and appreciative of Patrick’s pitch perfect performance.

Anyway, Patrick is gone and the show must go on, so why not enjoy it. When the show is blessed with this much talent, we can blithely ignore the men behind the curtain. And the judges bickering onstage between songs. And the otherwise amiable host delivering heartbreaking news heartlessly. I could almost imagine Ryan Seacrest saying, “Bobby, I’m sorry. The audience thought you were a bloated buffoon. But I just saved a ton of money on my car insurance.”

Whatever the judges saw in Bobby Bennett in the auditions was not evident in his performance. His best TV moments were his comical reaction after he was told he made the top 24. His interpretation of Copacabana was so vaudeville that I half-expected him to close with the old tag line, “I’ll be here all week. Try the veal.” Bah dah boom.

Stevie Scott alluded to some kind of illness that affected her performance. She seemed to be over-controlling and softening her voice until all the dynamics were drained out of it. I wish her better luck and health.

This is also the week when we meet all of the contestants. Now we know that Simon Cowell’s surliness beginning with the auditions was not due to the quality of the talent. Some seem instantly familiar like characters out of American Idol central casting. At first Kellie Pickler may seem like the new Carrie Underwood or Bucky Covington the new Bo Bice, but both their styles are more “country” than their predecessors.

The judges compared Paris Bennett to Fantasia Barrino, but I would have cited Diana DeGarmo. The next day they complimented Ace Young on his natural magnetism while mocking the camera readiness of an unnamed contestant from the past, whom I assume is Constantine Maroulis. If Ace reminds me of anyone, it is Justin Guarini with a stronger voice. Simon, who is still haunted by Clay Aiken, saw his likeness in Patrick Hall. The Claymates may have voted for Kevin Covais or Will Makar instead.

Some comparisons are unspoken. When David Radford auditioned in Chicago, Paula and Randy were reluctant to advance him to Hollywood, remembering how Simon savaged John Stevens. When David performed last Wednesday, I forgot all about John Stevens. I think David is a cutie patootie, but singing transforms him into a be-bop bobblehead. His jaw quivers manically like a beaver at a buffet of nuts. Dude, as my muse Randy might say, nobody should have to work that hard for a vibrato.

Note to James Shepherd of Beavers on Idol: I think we’ve found your mascot.

Seriously now, there is little value and considerable harm in perpetuating these comparisons. Every performer is an individual, not a type. It is hard enough to be judged on one’s own performance, appearance, and song selection. To be judged on false, unrealistic expectations is a shortcut to failure. That said, does anyone else think Katharine McPhee looks like Tanya Memme of Sell This House?

The narrowness of Simon Cowell’s frame of reference is becoming more obvious and troublesome. Whether he enjoyed it or not, he didn’t recognize that Sway Penala’s falsetto was a faithful tribute to Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind and Fire. He was slow to appreciate the rare, raw soulfulness of Taylor Hicks despite the popularity of Ray Charles, B.B. King, Van Morrison, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, Dr. John, and Dave Matthews, among others of distinction who share Taylor’s musical tradition.

Simon redeemed himself three times in one evening, an occurrence more extraordinary than lightning strikes. First he complimented Chris Daughtry quite generously. Then he acknowledged Elliott Yamin’s uncommon talent. Finally he apologized to Taylor for his oversight. Remarkably, in each case Simon eschewed his trademark snarky asides about perceived physical shortcomings.

The avowed purpose of American Idol is to find the best undiscovered singing talent in the country. As defined in season one, an American idol looked like Kelly Clarkson or Justin Guarini. Over the years, performers such as Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Jon Peter Lewis, John Stevens, Scott Savol and even Constantine Maroulis invited the audience to reconsider their idol ideals.

Until American Idol, Chris, Elliott and Taylor reached the respective ages of 26, 27 and 29 years singing in obscurity. They needed only one legitimate chance to prove themselves. This is what American Idol does best.

Forget about packaging and pre-selling conventionally attractive mainstream performers. I really, really wish the Idol crew would this year. Forget about controlling the variables. Forget about manipulating the results. Just buckle up and enjoy the ride. If they are very, very lucky, they may get to do the Snoopy dance with Taylor Hicks.