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.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Two for the Show

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Congratulations to two of my favorite American Idol contestants ever - Elliott Yamin, the most naturally gifted vocalist to grace the AI stage, and Taylor Hicks, the most compelling performer! With the other talented top 10 contestants, their tour is shaping up to be one of the summer's hottest tickets.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Warbling in a Winter Wonderland

If you asked me last week, I’d have said it would be a cold day in Hollywood when Bucky Covington outperforms Ace Young on an R&B-themed episode of American Idol. And it was. Over the past several chilly days, snow fell on the desert sands near Palm Springs, blanketed the southern California mountain ranges, and even lightly coated the hilltops of the O.C., my home county.

Stevie Wonder has been an American idol for 40 years, but you wouldn’t know that by asking newbies Bucky or Kellie Pickler. Their prior unfamiliarity with Stevie’s extensive body of work is mirrored in the American Idol audience, where the cultural gap is also generational.

My son, now a college student, has been exposed to a wide variety of popular music all his life. Chris’s personal tastes range from Pantera to Japanese soundtracks, but he is an American Idol fan rooting this season for Paris Bennett and Taylor Hicks. The other day I was driving my four-wheeled stereo around town and Chris was a captive passenger. I had been listening to my favorite Stevie Wonder CDs ever since Ryan Seacrest announced this week’s theme.

Suddenly Chris asked me, “Why do people think Stevie Wonder is so great?”

I paused before I answered – only because I was singing along passionately to Songs in the Key of Life. My family teases me about being like that annoying character, Brenda, from Scary Movie who instantly stops whatever she is doing to shriek, “That’s my song!”

Anyway, Chris knows full well what to expect when he asks me leading questions, so he got what he deserved: a music history lesson. Then the distinctive opening strains of the next track began to play and I shut up, proving that music does speak louder than words. Pastime Paradise is Wonder’s 1976 composition filched by Coolio for his monster hit from 1995, Gangsta’s Paradise. With a look of recognition and surprise, Chris observed, “Hey, isn’t that Amish Paradise by Weird Al Yankovic?”

Motown, we have a problem.

Stevie Wonder is the quintessential singer’s songwriter, not to mention a gifted singer himself, a record producer, and a versatile musician who played nearly all the instruments on his album Music of My Mind. Some songs that showcase a vocalist’s power feature a well-placed glory note. Stevie’s entire catalog is glorious – but melodically complex even for the most proficient singer. He is one of the few so-called pop geniuses from the 1960s who not only survived but thrived in succeeding decades, dominating and innovating R&B in the 1970s.

As if having to master Stevie’s masterpieces wasn’t challenge enough, this week the top 12 performed for the first time on the full-sized stage before a regular, noisy, intimidating audience. So – which of the American Idol contestants passed the Stevie Wonder test, who fell short, and who copped out?

Greatest Hits

Elliott Yamin knocks me off my feet – and, according to my traffic meter, I am not alone. What a faithful tribute to the joyfulness of Stevie Wonder and what an appealing introduction for new listeners. Elliott’s talent and humility give me goose bumps. When he was wiping away tears of happiness at meeting his idol, Stevie, I was crying, too.

Over four American Idol appearances, Elliott has performed two of my Stevie Wonder favorites with awe and tender loving care, starting with If You Really Love Me. Elliott's performance this week was the one I anticipated with the most excitement. I hoped he would sing Knocks Me Off My Feet, a gorgeous love song with special meaning for my husband and me. It was a dream come true for me and obviously even more so for Elliott. We already know that Elliott is technically adept, the best among the top 12. So I think he was smart to select a song that, while by no means easy to sing, displayed his warmth and emotion, as well as his skill. The payoff was the most intimate performance of the evening.

Taylor Hicks was, as usual, the most compelling entertainer. The stage may have gotten bigger, but it was still not big enough to contain Taylor’s free spirit. If I ruled the world, the AI5 finalists would be Taylor and Elliott and they would have their own weekly two-hour show. Taylor is such a throwback to the wonderful soul greats of my childhood that, watching him Tuesday, I wished my sister were still alive to see him.

Like Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald, Taylor has his own unique phrasing, the mark of a confident, naturally gifted singer. My favorite line from his Living for the City: “His parents give him love and a-ffec-tion.” He did superb justice to Stevie’s gritty tale of racial injustice. Plus, he can really dance. Seriously.

Paris Bennett showed off her eye-catching moves, adorable spunk and authentic soulfulness. I expected her to choose one of Stevie’s bouncy hits like Isn’t She Lovely or Sir Duke. Performing the relatively unknown All I Do was a bold risk that worked spectacularly. I felt like I was watching the opening number on the Paris Bennett world tour.

Katharine McPhee more than met the challenge of Until You Come Back to Me, immortalized by Aretha Franklin. In fact, she was flat out awesome. Despite a bit of shouting at the top of her register, her pitch and tone were just lovely, especially in her clean, silky ending. Normally Katharine smiles and flirts with the camera even when delivering the saddest lyrics. Her coy self-consciousness wasn’t as distracting this week.

Lisa Tucker has been stuck in a rut of seamless ballads, none of which I can recall right now. She tends to be smooth and professional to the point of blandness. On Signed, Sealed, Delivered, she displayed some welcome energy and dynamics. She even stole a “whoo” from Taylor’s repertoire. Let’s hope being in the bottom three this week shakes this talented contestant out of her bad-choice complacency.

Bucky Covington was my happiest surprise of the evening. His voice isn’t the most flexible, but he packs a lot of blue-eyed soul into his growl. I give him maximum credit for venturing outside his comfort zone and not copping out. Considering that he never heard Superstition before, Bucky offered a credible version that compares favorably to Stevie Ray Vaughan’s.

Songs in the Key of Ouch

Mandisa picked the wrong song, Don't You Worry 'bout a Thing, and the wrong key. I bet that never happens again. After struggling with her lower register through the first verse, she raised the melody an octave and then lowered it, trying to salvage the song. And yet she still outsang five other contestants. Just imagine what she could have done with Golden Lady or Superwoman - with gender modifications, of course. Sigh.

Kellie Pickler was about as far out of her element as she could get. Her bare bones performance of Blame It on the Sun was subdued, but her tone was winsome. Apparently, Simon missed her trademark shimmy shake and disparaged her outfit, a very flattering yet fairly modest dress. Kellie, just ignore Simon and his bipolar sadism. But pay attention to the vocal coaches.

Kevin Covais. I remember Nikko Smith. Nikko Smith knows how to sing Part Time Lover. Kevin Covais is no Nikko Smith. What happened to our sweet little Kevin? Chicken Little has become the cock o’ the walk.

Melissa McGhee started Lately lost and shaky, forgot the lyrics, recovered for a gutsy finish, and won’t be back next week.

Ace Young was first to perform and first to disappoint. Ace did an okay version of Do I Do, but Mario Vasquez sang the stuffing out of it last year (see Covais, Kevin). Ace is a tenor with a sensual breathiness and a pleasing falsetto. If he had chosen one of Stevie’s lush, romantic songs, like Creepin’, he might be on top of the world instead of in the bottom three.

Chris Daughtry was the pre-ordained showstopper – not by Broadway standards, but of the theme park variety where the grand finale is accompanied by deafeningly loud music and blindingly bright lights. Chris was my biggest disappointment of the night. Higher Ground was the most predictable, safest choice of the night. He was out of his depth and he knew it. He was lucky to get a glowing review from the judges – and he knew it. He hit a hideous clunker on the line “Sleepers just stop sleeping.” Check it out.

Like Ace, Chris squandered the opportunity to perform a song that would have won new fans and cemented his base. Chris has the potential to be another Aaron Lewis of Staind, one of the most powerful rock singers of the post-modern era. Chris could have taken a hauntingly beautiful Stevie song like Visions with its stripped down arrangement and blown Wonderland away. Instead we have to closely watch the Ford commercials to spot his softer side on Toad the Wet Sprocket’s All I Want [note to self: dig out those Toad/Glen Phillips CDs].

Shame on the judges for damning Elliott with faint praise. I have been a Red Hot Chili Peppers fan since the days of Hillel Slovak. Anthony Kiedis is a highly quotable front man, but he’s no singing idol.

As long as American Idol is a singing competition, I will take “just a good Stevie Wonder rendition" over a louder, shinier Anthony Kiedis every time.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Savor the Final Flavor

An All-Day Marathon Precedes Tonight’s Series Finale

When we first saw the advance previews for the VH1 series The Flavor of Love, I flippantly remarked to my husband, “That’s another stupid reality show I’ll never see.” One more lousy prediction down the drain.

My husband had been a fan of Public Enemy, the influential rap group that unleashed Flavor Flav on the world. I never really paid any attention to Flav’s career until he became a cast member of Surreal Life 3, another stupid but perversely addictive reality show I did watch - and where he made an improbable match with Brigitte Nielsen. Their spinoff, Strange Love, was too excruciatingly awful to watch and their strange love – or whatever strange excuse brought them together – burned out quickly.

Nielsen is a magnet for cameras, men and trouble. Without her sucking most of the oxygen out of any given room and contaminating the rest with ever present cigarette smoke, Flavor Flav – with his crunk, Viking helmets and billowy costumes – seems like the lovable pimp next door.

And that would make his Flavor of Love harem of hopefuls . . . the ones who put the ho in hopeful. To protect their real identities or perhaps their families, Flav gave them nicknames to help him tell them apart, no doubt.

The show’s premise is similar to The Bachelor, but then it goes hilariously off kilter. A bevy of lovely ladies move in with Flav and must compete to prove which one loves him the best. Instead of a perfect rose, the women he selects to return for another episode receive a trademark Flavor Flav clock to wear around their necks as he tells each one, “You know what time it is.”

The challenges by which they are judged include baby-sitting bratty children, cooking his favorite meal of fried chicken, going to church and dinner with his mother, and taking a polygraph test supervised by Brigitte Nielsen. Goldie, the sweet and zaftig country girl, was the only contestant to pass the polygraph. She survived until the final four, when she balked at intimacies with Flav that we saw him enjoy with other ho-ho-hopefuls. That makes Goldie a winner in my estimation.

His ultimate choice is between Hoopz and New York. Hoopz is the prettier, younger, more fit, easier to like of the two. Mama Flav gave Hoopz her stamp of approval and Brigitte seemed threatened by her. Hoopz’s hot single mother made her own icky, inappropriate play for Flav. Hoopz says she is falling for Flav, but her wide eyes and barely concealed laughter when she first spies him in one of his usual unusual getups belie those words.

Pumkin, who spat at New York on her way out the door at the dramatic climax of the last elimination show, shares Brigitte’s Nordic facial features and her obsession with appearing on TV. Like Nielsen, New York is totally nuts – and Flavor Flav seems to go for that. We discovered why she is such a needy drama queen when her vicious, controlling mother arrived from hell via Syracuse, N.Y.

New York appears to be the behind-the-scenes favorite. By far, she has amassed the most camera time of anyone, including the prize bachelor himself. Mostly we see New York telling the camera how much she loves Flav. She is the most obnoxious contestant, although she had plenty of competition in that category. She cannot get along with the other girls. In fact, she barely gets along with Flav. He looks at her in the same scared way that Hoopz looks at him.

Whomever he picks, I am sure their love will last until the batteries on those clock necklaces wear out. They should stay together long enough at least to film The Aftertaste of Affection or Affectation or whatever they decide to call Strange Love 2. And then Flav will move on to his next VH1 project.

I don’t think this is the last we will see of New York. If she isn’t cast in the reality TV show version of Fatal Attraction, I expect her to star in Surreal Life 8 with J.D. Fortune of Rock Star INXS, Brenna Gethers of American Idol 5, Jeff Conaway of Celebrity Fit Club 3, Kristy Swanson of Skating with Celebrities, and Wilder Valderrama.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Is This a Singing Competition – Or What?

Officer, arrest that TV show! There’s been a felony travesty.

Somebody stole Gedeon McKinney’s slot on American Idol – and the AI crew are accomplices.

This week, one of the top 16 contestants may have been eliminated because of her biography and another because we didn’t get to see his biography.

During the auditions, we learned that sweet Ayla Brown is the daughter of a Massachusetts state legislator and a TV reporter. Some viewers decided she is a child of privilege, an heiress to the easy life, even after her interactions last week with Simon Cowell revealed that her success in singing and sports are the product of hard work. A hard worker who strives for excellence? Gee, we don’t want one of her kind in the top 12.

Today I read two articles detailing the obstacles Gedeon overcame to compete on AI5. I have been paying close attention to every broadcast, but I don’t remember American Idol publicizing Gedeon’s remarkable human-interest backstory.

  • Gedeon is the valedictorian at the Yo! Memphis Academy of Visual and Performing Arts.
  • When the Memphis auditions for American Idol were cancelled due to Hurricane Katrina, Gedeon wanted to audition in Chicago but his family could not afford the expense.
  • The Academy's artistic director suggested holding a concert to raise the needed money. Gedeon’s fellow students paid $2 and adults $5 apiece to watch him perform.
  • The local Afro American Police Association donated $300.
  • Gedeon and his mother drove to Chicago with $700.
  • Gedeon is one of seven children, so his mother had to send his grandmother to Hollywood in her place.
  • Gedeon’s father, singer Tony McKinney, died in December 2005 right before the semifinals.

At seventeen, Gedeon already performs like a mature professional. Simon of the stingy praise compared him favorably to the legendary Sam Cooke, whose civil rights era classic A Change Is Gonna Come Gedeon sang so powerfully during top 20 week. Simon even speculated that, in an earlier time, Gedeon could have been one of Berry Gordy’s Motown superstars. Clearly, his singing wasn’t the reason voters failed to advance Gedeon McKinney to the top 12.

Some viewers found Gedeon cocky and even creepy. Do you think his triumph over so many personal obstacles might have tempered their negative impression? How about the fact that Gedeon never portrayed himself as a victim? Thanks, American Idol. You screwed up big time.

The most publicized backstory of any contestant this season belongs to Kellie Pickler. From her video clips, we know that her father is serving time in prison and has a history of arrests, her mother abandoned her, her grandparents raised her, and then her grandmother died. Wow.

Do you want to know what I consider creepy? The image Kellie promotes is that of a na├»ve, innocent victim of a tragic childhood. And yet the nineteen-year-old has injected blatantly sexual moves into her last two performances, inspiring Simon to call her a little minx. Minx is defined as a “seductive woman who uses her sex appeal to exploit men.” Little wonder that Simon likes her better than Carrie Underwood, who merely sang her heart out.

The last thing teenage girls need to see is another pop tart with daddy issues acting out sexually. Do I hear an amen? Get this girl some self-esteem counseling and put a muzzle, or a really uncomfortable codpiece, on Simon.

I haven’t been this creeped out by American Idol since Simon drooled over another famously disadvantaged nineteen-year-old, Fantasia Barrino, as she lay on the floor, singing Summertime. Twice. How strange that AI viewers learn more about how Simon likes his ladies than how hard it was for one of the best season five contestants to pursue his dream.

Last year Constantine Maroulis and Nadia Turner oozed sex appeal – and Simon looked mightily appreciative when one of them, I’ll let you figure out which, danced close to his chair during the season four grand finale. But they were both grownups with sturdy personas, nobody’s victims. They were also decent singers and interesting performers, until they weren’t and then their fans stopped voting.

I have two words for anyone clinging to the illusion that American Idol is a talent contest: Kevin Covais. Aside from his hometown friends and family, who is voting for Kevin? The Cabbage Patch Kids? Kevin is amiable, poised beyond his years, and quick with the quips, but his singing and performing are mediocre. I found Clay Aiken’s nerdiness charming, too, but Clay can sang.

Let this be a warning to Mandisa, Melissa McGhee, Taylor Hicks, and Elliott Yamin. The self-appointed experts on how an idol should look and behave who frequent the AI-inspired message boards are gunning for you next. You better film those tear-jerker video clips pronto.

And Gedeon - God bless you.

Friday, March 10, 2006

What I Know about Clay Aiken

Three years ago this week, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I can scarcely forget what a tumultuous year 2003 was for me and my family. In addition to the constant stress of life-threatening illness and harsh medical treatment, I had to deal with upheaval at home and at work. Then my only sister died unexpectedly. For years she served as caregiver for our oldest brother, who has been handicapped since birth. Within two weeks of her passing, we moved from the cozy home we owned into a larger rental to accommodate my brother and his service dog whom my husband had to relocate immediately from Florida.

When I reminisce about 2003, I tend to focus on my many blessings. The final visit I had with my sister that summer which healed longstanding rifts between us. My amazing husband Luis, who held my hand through every chemotherapy infusion and dispelled my vain fears after disfiguring surgery. My son’s silent strength and newfound maturity as he watched over me anxiously. Remarkable friends who lifted my spirits and prayed for my recovery. And the charming stranger who made a challenging year seem magical.

I will probably never meet Clay Aiken, so I have to thank him publicly. Here.

When he first appeared on our television screen during the 2003 auditions, Clay sang a few memorable a cappella notes of Always and Forever and my husband said, “There’s the next American idol.” His look and sound were new to the competition, unlike any of the season one contestants. After his masterful performance of Superstar, I became a Ruben Studdard fan. But Luis and I were both discouraged when Clay initially failed to advance to the final round.

Three years ago this week, Clay was the viewers' wild card selection and began his domination of American Idol. He captivated us right away with his undeniable vocal talent. However, his engaging individuality and artistic growth are what made him and the second season so phenomenal. As we got hooked on Clay’s personal metamorphosis from week to week, American Idol was transformed into something more extraordinary than the crass star-making machine it really is. Like a classic drama, there was the villain, Simon Cowell, versus the underdog, Clay. Whenever the judges openly favored Ruben while nitpicking him, Clay would apply their criticism to improve his next performance and come back for more. No matter how many limitations the show’s format and crew would impose on Clay, he transcended all of them.

When I was admitted to the hospital for cancer surgery on the morning of Monday, May 5, I told my medical team that they better get me home in time for Tuesday’s broadcast of American Idol. The next evening I was back in my living room, rooting for Clay. For two nights every week, my family was transported to a parallel universe where we completely forgot our earthly burdens. Reality TV became our escape-from-reality TV.

After an anticlimactic finish to a close contest that was overshadowed and rendered irrelevant by its celebrated loser, we spent a few months watching Clay’s American Idol video clips online until Measure of a Man was released. We snapped up the album and quickly replaced our first copy when the CD player ate it. The songs were strong and well written. Regrettably, on too many cuts, the heavy-handed mix muted his powerful vocals.

Radio essentially ignored Clay. The music industry didn’t understand his appeal or how to exploit it. American Idol moved on but without the Aiken magic.

In 2004 we purchased Merry Christmas with Love. We will buy his next recording, too, and hope for a better showcase for his talents.

I think Clay would make the perfect judge on American Idol. He knows the show, the process and the industry. He would be articulate and constructive, a combination missing from the panel. Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest were never more likable than when interacting with Clay in season two. I don’t know if Clay or the AI team would ever seriously consider my suggestion, but now is probably not the right time.

Recently Clay has been the object of tabloid allegations and lurid speculation. Barring criminal behavior, Luis and I don’t care to know about the most private aspects of anybody else’s life – ever. Clay’s attraction for me was never romantic or sexual. However, to countless other female fans, Clay has been the embodiment of a softer, sweeter masculine ideal. I figure many see Clay as the non-threatening boy-next-door type they regret bypassing in favor of the bad boys they couldn’t resist. But what do I know.

Well, I know what I know and what I don’t know. I know that Clay owes his success thus far to his large, devoted fanbase who collectively created an industry niche for him. Like most entertainers, he is always vulnerable to fan expectations and gossip because the commodity he is selling is himself.

Clay is a singer of other people’s songs. He doesn’t write, play or produce music. His recordings are only as good as the production team in control of them. The quality of the production team depends on Clay’s position in the industry to command higher quality. Clay’s position in the industry depends on his loyal fanbase purchasing his recordings.

Here is something important that I know about Clay Aiken. He has a very special talent for entertaining. The world needs entertainers who can make us forget our troubles. I don’t know how Clay conducts his private life, but I do know that his public life has been admirable. He uses his microphone and his spotlight to help children in need all over the globe.

I also know that those who publicize and spread these allegations have contempt for Clay and his fans. Those who want to believe that “outing” is somehow noble are fooling themselves – it is intentionally destructive, malicious and selective. They specifically target popular icons who are Christian and/or have Christian followers. The outers’ faith is the cynical belief that all Christians are intolerant hypocrites. In this case, they are trying to shake up and shake loose so-called “conservative Christians” who support Clay.

Let me tell you about one conservative Christian fan of Clay Aiken: me. I am very political and politically conservative. When Clay began to move in political circles after leaving American Idol, I noticed they were on the opposite side of the spectrum from my deeply held views. So what! As a conservative, my shelves and my soul would be pretty bare if I boycotted artists, performers and writers who disagree with me politically.

Clay is tangled in a “catch 22” not necessarily of his own making. His fanbase includes many heterosexual women who began to fantasize about him from his earliest appearances on American Idol when he was just being his gawky, adorable self. Without any obvious manipulation on his part, the fanbase multiplied faster than the most aggressive cancer and carried him triumphantly to impressive sales success. Ever since, Clay has been on a rarified pedestal where no mortal can remain happily or permanently. Inevitably, Clay would do something – get married or whatever – to disappoint the unrealistic expectations of some fans and imperil his career, which is so dependent on fan support.

Clay knows the facts regarding these allegations and so far he is not really responding to them. I do not know the facts and am not making any assumptions. Speaking strictly for me, I don’t need any explanations from Clay. I understand that other fans may feel differently.

For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that Clay is gay. How would that diminish his genuine talent? The audience saw the real Clay Aiken blossom on TV week after magical week and many of us were enchanted. I know that much was true. His gift to entertain was an unexpected joy during the hardest year of my life.

Is there any monolithic Christian reaction to these allegations? Of course not and once again I can speak only for myself. I will never forget a news segment I saw in the mid-1980s. A small town pastor was interviewed about his controversial ministering to AIDS patients, to which some in his congregation objected. The reporter asked him, “How do you answer those who say that AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuals?”

The pastor replied gently, “Maybe AIDS is God’s test for Christians.”

Maybe this is a test for Clay’s fans, Christian and otherwise.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Boys Rule, Girls Drool, Ryan's Cool, Paula's a Fool

We can play “What Did Paula Abdul Have for Lunch Thursday.” You go first.

The producers should play Spank the Judges. Next Tuesday I expect we will all see Paula eating crow or Barry Bonds sitting in her chair.

Me, I’d rather play Wednesday’s broadcast of American Idol – over and over and over again.

Paula's not the only girl in trouble. This week, only Lisa Tucker and Mandisa showed strong enough chops to hang with the boys, who have an advantage not only in depth but breadth of talent. At sixteen, Lisa is already a diva divine but without the brat-titude. The house band and backup singers are tighter than ever, occasionally drowning out the lead vocals. But Mandisa has such awesome power and control that she will never be in anyone else’s shadow.

I thought Melissa McGhee delivered the third best performance Tuesday, showing professionalism and versatility that earned her another chance.

Kellie Pickler’s take on Bonnie Raitt was all hot and bothered in an appealing way that made up for her vocal limitations.

Paris Bennett is still one of my favorites, but she carried Wind Beneath My Wings like a pallbearer. Kinnik Sky has a lovely, warm, rich tone and probably fatal pitch problems.

The good news for Ayla Brown is that Simon Cowell acknowledged how hard she is working to improve. I think she may overtake Katharine as the best of the diva wannabes. The bad news is that her singing seems like all work and no fun.

Katharine McPhee wasn’t a whole lot better than Heather Cox, who was the second of the top 10 females to be eliminated. Katharine is watchable and well-trained, but her vocal runs are ragged. She floundered embarrassingly on the line “I had to go away” from All Is Fair in Love.

The first to be eliminated was Brenna Gethers. What can I say about Brenna that hasn’t already been said about the uninvited buttinsky who crashes your family reunion? At least she left the stage without handcuffs.

The boys have a problem, too. Eight of them should advance to the finals, but there is only room for six. Most of the males who are eliminated during these first three weeks of the contest would have been top 12 contenders in seasons one through four.

The unprecedented talent on display this season is no accident. Before season four, the maximum age limit was raised from 26 to 28, opening the door for Bo Bice and Constantine Maroulis. Aspiring singers from genres traditionally underrepresented on American Idol took notice and are leading this year’s pack.

Previously, the standard for best vocal performance by a male contestant was established early in season two by Ruben Studdard on Superstar. Unfortunately, that was also Ruben’s high-water mark, which he never equaled again. Fortunately for him, he had only one serious competitor, Clay Aiken, breathing down his neck.

Two weeks in a row, Elliott Yamin surpassed Ruben’s achievement. Elliott has a jazz musician’s ear for every half-step on the musical scale. Yet it may not be enough for him to win. Taylor Hicks and Chris Daughtry are compelling, charismatic singers with unique appeal.

My husband, who recognized Clay’s rare talent when he auditioned, loves-loves-loves Taylor Hicks. Who can resist his contagious passion for music? We agree that his Easy had more character and soul than the Commodores’ original version. Taylor proved that he can cool it down as well as burn it up.

Gedeon McKinney sang Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come – and, sure enough, it did come in Simon’s estimation. Gedeon’s star-making performance reminded me of a Broadway showstopper. The producers should have assigned him the final slot.

However, that was reserved for the current frontrunner, Chris Daughtry. Chris is more than just a great rock voice. Like Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, Alex Chilton of the Box Tops and Big Star, and Bruce Springsteen among others, Chris sings as though his life depends on it. Plus, he has really kind eyes that mesmerize. He is special from the inside out.

If Ace Young’s vocals consistently match his dreamy gaze, he could steal voters’ hearts. Following Taylor and Elliott this week, he seemed tired and not as confident.

David Radford sang two of my favorite songs before he was eliminated. Call me shallow, but I couldn’t get past his facial contortions.

I think Sway Penala is a better vocalist than Simon realized. When we first saw him onstage, Sway was Mr. Smooth. After Simon worked him over, he was visibly rattled. He picked a difficult song, Overjoyed, and performed it with technical proficiency – but no joy.

My husband is a fan of Bucky Covington. I am charmed by his personality more than his voice, although he is growing on me. If I found this week’s performance to be a huge improvement, he may have increased his fan base.

Likewise, I was quite pleasantly surprised by Will Makar. Like Paris Bennett, he resurrected a song that has been done to death, but I actually enjoyed every cheesy note of Lady (sorry, Paris). He has an unforced, dynamic voice with a natural vibrato.

Kevin Covais is another uncommonly poised teenager who can sing well. However, he is not a great singer and, much as I am tempted to root for the underdog, I will be upset if he takes the place of more deserving contestants.

Thursday’s results show may be remembered for the folly of one or two judges laughing callously and mugging for the camera as Heather Cox and Sway Penala were eliminated. I have been dismissive of Ryan Seacrest’s contributions to the success of American Idol and criticized his scripted milking of the weekly elimination drama. I owe Ryan an apology.

Ryan always improvises well and it looks effortless. He is never better than when trying, usually in vain, to lead the unruly judges into more constructive behavior. Off script Thursday night, Ryan admonished Paula and Simon while restoring some much needed decorum to the set. The final screen shot revealed Simon smirking and Paula ruefully resting her head in her hands. Classy.