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.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Me! Me! Me! Meme Times Four

I read and respond to e-mail about as often as I blog. Sorry!

A few weeks ago I got tagged so, reluctant as I am to write about myself and if anyone still cares, here is my contribution to the Four Things about Me meme in random order:

Four Jobs Once Held By Me
1. Astrologer (when confronted by a clientele that needed serious help I was untrained to offer, I found I did not believe in astrology any more)
2. Newspaper ad copy writer
3. Piano teacher
4. Credit/collections manager for jewelry store (ruined talking on the telephone for me forever)

Four Favorite Movies
1. Defending Your Life
2. Four Weddings and a Funeral
3. Groundhog Day
4. When Harry Met Sally

Four Places I Have Lived
1. Canoga Park, California
2. Westminster, California
3. Huntington Beach, California
4. Garden Grove, California

Four Television Shows I Enjoy
1. Special Report with Brit Hume (FNC)
2. House Hunters (HGTV)
3. The Young and the Restless (CBS)
4. Family Guy (Fox)

Four Favorite Books
1. Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
2. Happiness is a Serious Problem - Dennis Prager
3. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
4. Good News for Modern Man

Four Places I Have Been on Vacation
1. Florida Gulf Coast
2. Orlando, Florida
3. California Central Coast
4. Las Vegas, Nevada

Four Websites I Visit Daily
1. National Review Online
2. Drudge Report
3. Real Clear Politics
4. Just One Minute

Four Favorite Foods
1. Prime rib well seasoned, tender and rare
2. Pork ribs with Mad Will’s barbecue sauce
3. Trader Joe’s chocolate/hazelnut spread
4. Coffee ice cream

Four Places I’d Rather Be
1. Since this is a fantasy question, at a gathering of all my loved ones, living and deceased
2. On a cross-country road trip with my family
3. Playing in the snow with my family
4. Walking on a beautiful beach with my husband

Four Things To Do Before I Die
1. Finish my neverending novel
2. Beat breast cancer
3. See my son fulfilling his potential
4. Overcome my motion sickness

Four Play
Tag, you’re it!

Please pass it on.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

You Make Me So Beary Happy

Image hosting by Photobucket

I love you
more today
than yesterday,
but only half
as much as tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

"The Five Year Itch" Starring Simon Cowell

Season five of American Idol began with an off-screen shotgun wedding. After a "delicate and hugely expensive renegotiation,” Simon Cowell was threatened and/or bribed to return to his aisle seat at the most famous table on U.S. television.

Phew! That was a close call.

American Idol without Simon Cowell would be like … Celebrity Fit Club minus Harvey Walden IV. The O’Reilly Factor hosted by Larry King. Oprah’s Book Club without The Smoking Gun.

For me, Tuesday and Wednesday nights without Simon Cowell would free up two more evenings per week for Board meetings. I could keep up with my daily Digital Video Recording of The Young and the Restless and spare my family Saturday soap-a-thons. I could use those ninety precious minutes to exercise while listening to my choice of music, not Clive Davis’. Or not.

Back to reality … TV. I tuned in expecting the Simon Cowell who made mincemeat of fools but reveled in the thrill of raw talent. Instead I was left to wonder, “Who is this dullard and what have they done with my favorite acid-tongued critic?”

If the AI production team had any sense of irony, Cowell’s first screen shot of the season would have been serenaded by Warren Zevon as it was in my head. Thanks to Lawyers, Guns and Money, they were spared a fate worse than cancellation. For now.

As Dorothy Parker purportedly observed, you can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think. Well, you can glue someone’s butt to a fancy chair, but that doesn’t mean he will be happy or you won’t be sorry. Ask any woman who begged a man to stay how well that worked out for her.

So, where did the coerced groom go on his honeymoon? Week one began in Chicago with a relaxed Simon true to his trademark snide and snotty form. In Denver, Simon’s interest and patience waned noticeably.

I’m guessing that, somewhere east of the Mile High City, Simon was scolded for his surliness. By the time he got to Greensboro in week two, he adopted an eerie, weary, too cheery fa├žade and prefaced his barbs with disingenuous disclaimers.

In San Francisco, Simon acted bored, restless, and impossible to please. Finally he just walked out and limo-ed back to his hotel. Throughout a third week of cheap insults and lethargy from Las Vegas to Austin, he was nursing a Headache as Frank Black played on my internal jukebox.

The Boston show - the final stop, which made the judges' relief palpable - was downright silly, but the auditions ended as they began. Paula Abdul was a model of charity, clarity and self-discipline. Randy Jackson embraced the goofiness and was the only one having fun. Perhaps Simon was suffering from a perpetual hangover or migraine from reading the fine print of his new contract. He couldn't be bothered to muster any coherent criticism, relying instead on a few lazy buzzwords like "mess" and "horrible."

To be fair, all three so-called judges seemed worn down by the tiresome, repetitive succession of exhibitionists vying to be the new William Hung. I thought this season’s auditions were mostly hollow and joyless - and I only had to endure the edited highlights, which focused on Simon’s sourpuss. I can empathize with his apathy, but it depresses, rather than entertains, me.

In reality TV as in the mainstream media, the editor lets you see only what he wants you to see. Apparently he wanted us to see Simon Cowell being mocked and ridiculed at length by Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and Ryan Seacrest. One moment I particularly enjoyed came after Simon's surprising support of David Radford, an old-fashioned crooner from the Chicago area who sang Frank Sinatra's The Summer Wind. In an amusing twist, Simon had to convince his incredulous colleagues to advance Radford to Hollywood.

As Paula and Randy tried to warn the teenager about the uphill battle awaiting him, Simon told him, "Just be an original."

"'Cause, you know what," Paula snickered as Randy laughed. "He's gonna cut you once you get to Hollywood."

The editor never wants us to see too much of the talent before the field of Hollywood hopefuls narrows. The downside of this strategy is that the talent we were shown thus far elicited little interest from Simon. After four seasons together, we know that Simon is an astute and reliable judge of talent. He identified each of the four American Idol winners early in the contest. When Simon designates a preferred idol, he becomes a passionate campaigner who will not rest until America votes for his favorite.

Is this year’s talent so uninspiring? Does Simon need the auditory equivalent of Viagra? The next phase of the competition should be revealing. I'm still cautiously optimistic that Simon will get his American Idol jones back when the talent emerges in the semi-final rounds.

The AI team went to unusual trouble and expense to put Simon in his place, in their place. They must understand what I recently came to realize after contemplating his possible departure: Simon Cowell is the eyes, ears and voice of the fans. Love him or despise him, he is our proxy. He sets the tone and the standards.

As any divorcee can tell you, the enemy of love is not hate. It is indifference. If Simon’s indifference continues, the audience will become indifferent. And the Idol-makers who congratulated each other for keeping Simon contractually obligated will find themselves legally bound to a marriage in name only.

Their dilemma is that Simon is so closely associated with American Idol that he has become the brand. When you see Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino or Carrie Underwood, you think of American Idol. But, when you think of American Idol, you see Simon Cowell.

So what are they going to do, sue him? Try to convince a judge that he has harmed the franchise by being ... less critical and churlish? And then Simon could subpoena the gay rights activists to testify that he is just as mean as ever. Now that would be must-see Court TV.

Remember that annoying tag line, Seacrest out? The editor excised Ryan from most of the audition clips and I didn't miss him. Did you? Fine, let’s hire Ant away from Celebrity Fit Club.

Paula has honed her constructive criticism into genuinely helpful advice. Randy's weakness remains his poor communication skills. Either of them would be missed, especially Paula who has emerged triumphant and graceful from a tainted year; however, they are not irreplaceable. Adding a fourth panelist would improve the personal dynamics, although my suggestions will have to wait until the next episode.

But Cowell out? Lights out.

Whither Simon Cowell goes, so goes American Idol. Hither, thither and yawn.