Sunday, March 26, 2006

“Unhappy Days” Starring Paula Abdul

The chemistry between Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul has become toxic to the American Idol talent pool. Too often this season, and especially last Tuesday during 1950s night, the focus is diverted from the talent onstage to the HazMat emergency at front row center.

Just as the audience began to applaud Elliott Yamin’s masterful rendition of Teach Me Tonight, the microphone picked up the male judges’ initial reaction. “Fabulous, fabulous,” muttered Cowell, who had been nodding his head approvingly throughout the song, grooving to the beat.

Randy praised Yamin’s complex, ambitious, well-modulated performance. As Paula Abdul rambled on about her goosebumps and how much Elliott is loved, Simon mocked her openly. Then Simon and Paula continued their pointless debate about dancing interspersed with tiresome insults.

Responding more to Paula than to Elliott, Simon concluded archly, “Since this is a singing competition, allow me to judge your singing. It was fantastic.”

To recap, Simon was preparing to pay an extraordinary compliment to Elliott Yamin, a contestant who would surely benefit from the coveted Cowell Seal of Approval on any given Tuesday, particularly during the week when Dial Idol predicted Elliott's departure. Instead the compliment got mired in the feud with Paula and was used as a back-handed slap at her. As Idol faded into a commercial break, what do you think viewers remembered – the awesome performance or the awful judges?

Well, excu-u-use me, but this isn’t a judging competition, either. If it were, I would have to rate it as something that rhymes with pitchy. Simon and Paula offered some words of clarity and insight Tuesday evening, but those are not the moments that linger in our collective memory. As disrespectful and disturbing as their friction is to the audience, it must feel discordant to the contestants who share their environment.

Only four days earlier on Larry King Live, Simon described how Abdul serves as a sort of perverse muse.

KING: Do you have a problem with Paula Abdul?

S. COWELL: I love her.

KING: Then what are all these stories about?

S. COWELL: Well, we bicker but I don't know about you but if I'm comfortable with somebody I'll argue with them. If I hate you, I'm icily polite. So, it must mean that I like her because she is -- she annoys me. She irritates me but I couldn't do the show without her, couldn't do it.

KING: Really?

S. COWELL: No, honestly, I genuinely couldn't because when you're sitting there thinking now what am I going to say to this performance, Paula says something. You're like thank you. Now I've got something to say. It makes it because we're such polar opposites. It just works.

It just works? I’m sorry, but I will need a real judge’s ruling on this.

In the next issue of Rolling Stone featuring the AI trio on the cover, Cowell admits to interviewer Erik Hedegaard that he abandons his famous bluntness on occasion.

HEDEGAARD: If you were to lie about something personal, what would you lie about?

COWELL: I lie about whatever is appropriate at the time.

HEDEGAARD: You don't have a problem with lying?

COWELL: No! If it gets me out of trouble or makes a situation easier. Absolutely! And it's a fairly continuous thing, I would say.

So, did Simon lie to Larry King about Paula? Whenever the truth is in doubt, we can always count on our own lying eyes. Even Stevie Wonder can see that the Simon-Paula relationship is not working.

Paula gave her own bizarre interview to Rolling Stone. This week Us Weekly reports that American Idol producers considered firing Abdul earlier this month. According to their source, Jessica Simpson and Britney Spears are potential replacements. I guess that means they won’t be revising the job description.

If the AI crew cannot control their unruly judges, and we know that they will not remove Simon Cowell, they must replace Paula Abdul with someone more knowledgeable and articulate who can shake the male panelists out of their complacency. The female candidates who come to mind include Sheryl Crow, Stevie Nicks, Joni Mitchell, Tori Amos, and Cyndi Lauper.

On American Idol as on the U.S. Supreme Court, sometimes the best woman for the job is a man. I nominate Stevie Wonder. Like other professionals who mentor the AI contestants, such as Barry Manilow and Elton John, Wonder offered truly constructive advice and the kind of encouragement that inspires great performances. Stevie's blindness would balance a panel too often distracted by physical appearance - which is only one reason that a blonde bimbo does not belong in the chair next to Simon - and equalize treatment of gifted singers who otherwise might stagnate from neglect. Remember Jennifer Hudson from season three? Sir Elton recognized her talent when the judges ignored her out of deference to their favorites. Now she will be starring in the film version of Dreamgirls - and Stevie is starring in my fantasy of an idyllic American Idol that will never be.

Realistically now, I think Mark McGrath, a guest judge during the AI4 auditions (and was that his audition?), is uniquely qualified for the position and may even be available to start right away. He is well versed in the history of pop music and is better informed about contemporary music than Simon and even Randy. He would have recognized that Chris Daughtry’s alt-rock take on I Walk the Line originated with the band Live. Fortunately for Chris, the judges really liked it. Generally, though, Simon and Randy tend to critique a performance more sharply when they are unfamiliar with the song or unhappy with the genre.

Two seminal rock’n’roll songs were performed Tuesday evening, a fact completely ignored by the judges. What is the value of theme nights with songs that are foreign to half the audience if the host or judges do not place them in their historical context?

Taylor Hicks selected Not Fade Away, Buddy Holly’s rockabilly tribute to the style of Bo Diddley which has influenced every generation of rock musicians since the 1950s. Younger viewers can find Bo's distinctive rhythm in the songs I Want Candy by Bow Wow Wow and Desire by U2. I really didn't like Barry Manilow's yakety sax arrangement at all when the song cries out for a bluesy guitar and harmonica. Undaunted, Taylor showed us his trademark knee-bending, hip-pivoting dance known hereafter as the Diddley Squat.

Lisa Tucker gave a lively, pitch perfect performance of Why Do Fools Fall in Love by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Despite its happy, bouncy spirit, the song is technically challenging with multiple chord changes. As one of the earliest rock’n’roll recordings, it created the framework for Motown, particularly the Jackson Five, and Phil Spector’s girl groups of the early 1960s. When it became a hit in 1956, Lymon was only 13 years old. He died tragically of a heroin overdose at the age of 25.

Most contestants can only do as well as the material they select. Mandisa is the exception to that rule. I believe she can take any song and make it instantly memorable. I Don’t Hurt Anymore is not the catchiest Dinah Washington tune, but Mandisa powered it up several notches. Simon commented on her sexiness and said it was a great stripper song. Simon, please, keep your private life private.

Kellie Pickler impersonated Patsy Cline – that is, if Cline were a streetwalker instead of a heartbroken woman walking the streets, searching for her man. Her exaggerated enunciation on Walking after Midnight seemed artificial. Still, it was an improvement for her over Wonder week.

Paris Bennett is another dynamo, reprising Peggy Lee’s Fever from her auditions. Unlike Mandisa, Paris turns it off and on to dramatic effect.

Like Elliott, Katharine McPhee tackles challenging songs every week. Ella Fitzgerald is probably the most talented female vocalist ever and Katharine did just fine on her Come Rain or Come Shine.

Elliott was at the top of his game from the charming conversation he had with Ryan Seacrest – in which he declared himself a converted Barry Fanilow – to the way he sold the song Teach Me Tonight, Al Jarreau style. His phrasing also reminded me of Frank Sinatra.

Ace Young picked the classic In the Still of the Night. At the end of each line, he had to hold the note for two or three counts, which emphasized a nasal tone I don’t remember hearing before. Was it the weather or does he always sound so stuffy? I’m not certain this was the right song for him. To regain his momentum, he needs to select the right songs every week and rise to the challenge.

I am certain that Barry Manilow’s arrangement of Oh Boy was the wrong choice for Bucky Covington. Plus, Bucky sang above the melody line as if the key were wrong for him, too. I like Bucky, but he is very lucky to be in the top 10.

Kevin Covais didn’t reach the top 10 and won’t be back for the summer tour. He is young enough to improve as a performer if he applies himself.

Chris Daughtry has gotten nothing but glowing reviews from judges, but the blogosphere and some mainstream media outlets aren’t as kind. Last week he gave attribution to the Red Hot Chili Peppers when he performed their alternative version of Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground. This week he copied Live’s arrangement of I Walk the Line. Maybe viewers truly object to Chris getting so much credit for an original rendition when it really wasn’t, but it was the judges making that claim, not Daughtry.

Chris risks becoming the one-trick pony some are calling him unless he dramatically steps out of his comfort zone. I liked how much more controlled he was on the first verse of I Walk the Line. I wouldn’t say it was soft exactly, but it was more intimate. He dedicated the song, which deals with temptation and fidelity, to his wife.

If Chris continues on the same musical path made only of hard rock, we may look back at this performance and think, “Yep, that’s when he jumped the shark.” I suspect there is a backlash against Chris for being so obviously the judges’, especially Simon’s, favorite. Did Chris ask to be the favorite? Has he brought any undue attention to himself? Does he mug for the camera? I think not.

All of the top 24 contestants are young people living their dreams in front of three dysfunctional judges and millions of self-styled critics at home. As Marty Casey wrote, “It’s a combination for disaster.” Against all odds, it has been a recipe for magical entertainment that we will feast upon greedily for nine more weeks – as long as the judges don’t spoil it.