Saturday, April 08, 2006

Ho-Town Hoedown on American Idol

Tuesday Throwdown

Someone somewhere was asking, “Whatever happened to Kenny Rogers?” And – whoops – there he was hawking his new album on American Idol, fresh from his appearance-altering appearance on Nip/Tuck. Just kidding. I understand his greatest hits compilations sell well in Europe, where he and David Hasselhoff are considered gods.

Chris Rock was in the audience to check out a new show with a lot of industry buzz, Everybody Hates Simon. Whoopi Goldberg, too. So was actress Rachel Bilson. Or was it actress Amber Tamblyn? It must be Bilson because Tamblyn doesn't have a show currently on Fox. Either way, she looks like she could be Katharine McPhee's sister.

The only obvious qualification for a guest performer or coach this season is the need to plug a recording. So, who acquired QVC - Fox or RCA? I don't have enough time to keep track of all these mergers and American Idol.

Pearl Jam has a new release due May 2, 2006. Should we look forward to Complaint Rock as an upcoming theme? I relish the prospect of Eddie Vedder coaching Chris Daughtry. “Not enough vibrato,” Eddie would say. “More intensity.”

Daughtry’s abbreviated version of Jeremy would feature the line “Jeremy spoke in, spoke in” snarled repeatedly for 80 seconds. Elliott Yamin would open the show with an emotionally charged performance of Black, ruined by its early placement and constant bickering between Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest.

Of course, that would never happen. Pearl Jam is the antithesis of corporate rock – and, anyway, I suspect Vedder is a Taylor Hicks fan.

Back to Kenny Rogers, whose last two high profile gigs were promoting Indian casinos and selling chicken. Couldn’t the Idol crew find a country star with a smidgen of relevance to today’s youth – or at least the ability to put aside personal biases to offer constructive advice? I could have sworn I saw Travis Tritt in the audience Wednesday.

Rogers coached the way Cowell judges. Simon allows his limited tastes and libido to guide him. He disdains country music, but he shore likes purty Kellie Pickler. In similar fashion, Kenny instantly cottoned to her. Apparently he thinks with his little Simon, too.

Kenny’s frame of reference is the sleepy country-adult contemporary market. His coaching didn’t seem to help any of them – and actually harmed Elliott. Rogers was complimentary to the contestants who could fit those niches. He was iffy on Chris and negatory on our good buddy, Taylor.

I have watched Tuesday’s entire show four times now and still think everyone performed well, especially Bucky Covington who deserved the evening's pimp spot. In less than two minutes, Bucky conveyed the heartbreak of Best I Ever Had, giving my husband and me chills and moving us to tears. We have replayed his performance over and over. It was a star-making turn that I think assured Bucky of a recording contract.

I understand why Taylor, Chris and Bucky have large, loyal fan bases. They know exactly who they are and remain true to their musical vision. They are authentic, consistent, and confident - a distinct advantage they have over the younger or less experienced contestants.

Is American Idol trying to sabotage Taylor? On Fanilow night, he was nearly drowned out by a completely unnecessary saxamaphone. This week he was drowned out by a fiddler at the foot of the stage, a hopped up arrangement, and backing singers who shadowed his melody on the chorus. Next week the theme will be Queen. I half-expect the crew to tie a boulder around Taylor’s waist and push him off the Queen Mary into the Pacific Ocean. That’ll clear the way for Simon’s pet, Chris, to win, by golly.

Kenny Rogers was dismissive of Taylor’s talent and downright contemptuous of Elliott – the only soul singers left in the competition. Coincidence? I think not. His advice was tantamount to giving a sprinter cowboy boots to run a marathon.

Rogers actually told Elliott, “If the lyric’s important, don’t do a lot of licks. Sing it simply. I have a feeling that’s your comfort zone – that, as long as you’re doing those, you know people are impressed.”

Them’s fightin’ words.

So, Kenny, I guess that Billy Joel is just a piano show-off who should stick to Chopsticks. And jazz musicians – they only play those complex lines and chords because they suck at country music. Grrr.

I scrutinize every note Elliott has sung on American Idol. He has never oversung, not once. His vocal runs – or licks, as Kenny called them – are never gratuitous. In contrast, Katharine McPhee tends to pad the more intricate melodies with aimless vocal runs that fall apart when she tries to improvise, as heard on All Is Fair in Love.

Elliott and Katharine have arrived at the same destination from opposite directions. If she gained more experience and he more confidence, they can become superstar vocalists. Like Ayla Brown, Katharine is a hard worker more than a raw talent and deserves credit for doing so well, as does her mother, the vocal coach. She pretties up every song - and I am referring more to her singing style than to her looks. On Until You Come Back to Me, a pure R&B composition immortalized by Aretha Franklin, her coquettish delivery was distracting. Every time she glances off to the side with that little celebratory smile, I imagine her thinking, "Look, Ma, no clunkers."

Too often Katharine seems detached from the material she sings. Usually she purrs when she should growl, although she did rock out this week quite effectively. For that reason, I enjoyed Bringing Out the Elvis in Me more than most of her serious, challenging selections. However, the song must have brought out the Beatles in the arranger because it sounded at times like I Am the Walrus.

Elliott has only one good ear, but it’s a doozy. He is a rare vocal prodigy with a powerful instrument. His talent is so natural that it's certified 100% organic. He would benefit from professional training, but not from some drive-thru album-plugger du jour who doesn’t appreciate righteous soul. His pitch is nearly flawless, as are his instincts. His most enjoyable performances have been the under-coached, heartfelt favorites that he selected.

American Idol edits the video introductions for each performer. Shame on whomever decided to play that particular clip right before Elliott began to sing. As Simon has noted, a visible lack of confidence has held Elliott back before and, unsurprisingly, did again Tuesday. Nevertheless, his performance of If Tomorrow Never Comes was clean, warm and lovely.

I think the judges have been very fair with Elliott. Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul are unabashed fans. On our local Fox news affiliate this week, Simon reiterated that he is interested in signing only each season’s winner to a contract or else it would cheapen the victory. I like to think that, no matter how Elliott fares in the next seven weeks, Randy will do what he can to help his singing career. But I will still be voting constantly for two hours next Tuesday.

Wednesday Showdown

By the luckiest accident of birth, I was raised by parents who were ethical to the core – sometimes to their own detriment. They taught me the value of good moral character by modeling it throughout their lives and as they confronted death.

My definition of an idol was influenced by everyday heroes that I have known or read about. The modern celebrity culture elevates personalities of minor accomplishment to superhuman status, albeit with their full cooperation, and then annihilates them when they fail to meet our unrealistic expectations. Folks of good character need not apply.

To paraphrase one of my favorite maxims, character can be measured by how we behave when we think nobody is watching. I believed that was the ultimate test of one’s mettle until Wednesday’s American Idol results show. Elliott Yamin exemplified character, courage, compassion, and class under stress with 25.4 million viewers watching.

As much as anyone competing this season, Elliott wants and needs to win American Idol. Standing in the bottom three lineup, he must have felt his dream slipping away. I have received plenty of bad news over the years and anyone who knows me even casually would attest to my personal strength. Elliott Yamin handled his with a depth of unselfish kindness that I find hard to describe. Generous. Loving. Awe-inspiring. Just flat out inspiring.

We have seen several contestants cry, but few tears were more touching than Elliott’s when he met his idol, Stevie Wonder. In those heart-stopping minutes as the elimination drama played out, Elliott did not cry. He did not even appear to sweat, but he was glowing with an unexpected aura of serenity.

Elliott applauded and threw a supportive glance Paris Bennett’s way when she was declared safe. Immediately, he grabbed Mandisa Hundley’s hand and assumed a protective stance until she was revealed as the lowest vote getter. Then he hugged her tightly and said, “I love you, Mandisa.” With a sad smile and a few more words to cheer her, he relinquished her reluctantly.

The stylists have been working their magic on Elliott and he looks hunkier by the week. I dare anyone to watch Elliott with Mandisa and not see what a beautiful human being he is, inside and out.

Those of us who dote on Elliott Yamin already knew about his humility, honesty and humor. His charm is quintessentially American - that of the common man with uncommon talent. Many of us believe that Elliott is the most gifted vocalist in five years of American Idol.

He listens respectfully to the judges and coaches - perhaps more to them than to his inner voice, a trend that needs to be reversed immediately. He is caring and considerate of his peers. He adores his mother, who raised him and his siblings primarily as a single woman.

Elliott has endured much adversity in his life but refuses to act the victim. He is 90% deaf in one ear and wears an insulin pump with a monitor that clips to his pants – hence, his untucked shirts. After dropping out of high school, he earned his GED while working full-time and turned his life around with the help of a mentor who remains a close friend.

On a good week, American Idol offers wholesome entertainment and delightful singing talent. Since Clay Aiken technically did not win season two, the show has never delivered on its self-titled promise of an American idol.

Ladies and gentlemen, for your considerationand reconsiderationhere is your American Idol.