Saturday, April 01, 2006

Tweaky Tuesday on 21st Century Fox

If I didn’t have incontrovertible evidence, courtesy of Digital Video Recording, I would still be questioning my visual faculties. If you watched the March 28, 2006 edition of American Idol, you saw it, too.

In the space of one hour, Taylor Hicks and Elliott Yamin pulled off a body swap.

It is not unusual for people who spend large chunks of time together to assume each other’s language and idiosyncrasies. But this – this was more like identity theft. Yaminesque, Taylor stood relatively motionless at the microphone stand, pouring himself soulfully into an unfamiliar song, Trouble by Ray LaMontagne. He remained stationary and uncharacteristically subdued as the judges assessed his performance.

As Taylor did on Stevie Wonder night, Elliott entered dancing from the band side of the stage. His delight in performing I Don’t Wanna Be was transparent and contagious – one of those moments of perfect joy when he was obviously in love with the world and everything in it. He reacted to the judges’ varying degrees of praise by laughing heartily, spinning and bouncing – a self-effacing variation of the Hicks Snoopy dance.

I may be one of the few regular AI commentators not whining about Tuesday’s show. What that tells me is that the others’ favorites performed less than spectacularly this week. I completely enjoyed Taylor Hicks, Elliott Yamin and any combination thereof. T-H-E-Y are my top two from season five, not necessarily in that order.

Taylor seems like the least likely AI contestant ever – the anti-Idol, in fact – but is the most likely to win this season, provided that his enormous fan base votes consistently. He is like pure, unfiltered sunshine – or moonshine, if that’s how you get your kicks. His irresistible appeal is that of an overgrown, unspoiled boy with an old white man’s hair and an old black man’s mojo for music. He is the Steve Martin happy feet skit sprung to life.

One week he sat down on Stevie Wonder’s piano bench and said, “It’s nice to see you.” An awkward pause followed. The next week he walked into rehearsal, greeting Barry Manilow with a Mandy serenade.

Undoubtedly it helped Taylor to show this week that he is a serious singer who can control his rubbery limbs when necessary. Almost certainly Elliott had to prove that he is more than a bashful crooner of jazzy, complex ballads from a bygone era. Missions accomplished.

Elliott dared to select a song the audience closely identifies with the ever-popular Bo Bice, scrubbed away the pretty soft-rock veneer and uncovered the raw funkiness underneath. While displaying more versatility than any other contestant this season with the exception of Paris Bennett, who was equally impressive on Tuesday, he conquered yet another intricate melody, this one testing the bottom of his range and his falsetto. As he roller boogied across the stage on invisible skates without losing his pitch or his nerve, he looked the part of a crowd-pleasing idol for the first time since If You Really Love Me.

Elliott took a huge risk, leaping out of his comfort zone with no guarantee of a soft landing. Miss Pickler, this is what a ballsy looks like. Instead of choosing a 21st century composition that he could retrofit into his niche of classic R&B, he used the theme to modernize his image and tweak audience expectations. In return, Elliott was rewarded with the so-called pimp spot, the final showcase of the evening under star-maker lighting just as voters are picking up their phones. He also earned his most flattering reviews since shocking us with the unsurpassed musicality of Moody’s Mood for Love.

Growing legions of Yaminiacs, Yaminions, and E-Train passengers swoon over his every note and move. Someday his sweat towels will fetch big bucks on the internet. I write proudly as one of the Yamin-obsessed. Regardless of our age, gender or religion, we are all his Jewish mothers. [For the record, I am not Jewish. However, during my first marriage, I was Jewish by injection.]

We kvetch on message boards when our boy is criticized or under appreciated. We rack our fixated brains to find just the right song for him to fit each theme. We are impatient for Tuesday to arrive and, when it does, we await his turn with hope and high anxiety. We vote with the zeal of true believers and fret when his phone line isn’t busy enough. Then we form a prayer circle to get through Wednesdays until we know that he is safe for another week.

We consider Elliott a prodigious vocalist, perhaps the most naturally gifted in American Idol history. We note that the perceived AI5 frontrunners benefit from advantages that Elliott does not – formal training, industry contacts, onstage experience, superficial beauty. We understand that he may be a long shot and worry that he needs more AI exposure to secure a recording contract. We want the fairy tale to come true for our Cinderfella.

This week Taylor Hicks and Elliott Yamin proved how much they want to win this competition – not for the sake of victory or celebrity or the perks of success, but because they were born to sing. After T-H-E-Y zap themselves back into their respective bodies, please pass the magic wand.

If only for one very special episode of American Idol, I would like Taylor and Simon Cowell to switch places. Just imagine Simon doing Taylor's signature dance, the Diddley Squat! Now that would be a show sure to please everyone.