Sunday, April 27, 2008

Jason Castro: Semifinalist or Scapegoat?

Disclaimer: I am not an actual American Idol historian, but I fare pretty well at those online trivia quizzes that test your knowledge of the show. Here are two questions to gauge how closely you have been paying attention to AI. Ready?

1. This contestant gave some of the most memorable performances of the season and brought a new musical genre to the show to the audience’s delight. He had such a mellow hippie vibe that rumors abounded about his alleged recreational drug use. The AI media openly speculated about whether he was really committed to the competition after his seemingly nonchalant reaction when he landed in the bottom 3. Can you name him?

The correct answer is Bo Bice from season 4. When in the bottom 3, Bo revealed casually that he auditioned for AI only because of a bet with his mom and, if eliminated, he could happily return to playing small gigs with his band. Bo survived until the grand finale when he was bested by Carrie Underwood, but his reputation for detachment continued after he wasn’t crushed by his defeat.

You answered Jason Castro. Sorry! Please try again.

2. This contestant became a polarizing figure among the AI media and other contestants’ fan bases, which expressed outrage when he was declared safe as a more popular contestant went home. During the shocking top 6 elimination episode, the camera kept catching him in unflattering poses. Can you name him?

The correct answer is Scott Savol from season 4. When Constantine Maroulis was eliminated before him, the camera captured Scott’s relief and he became a convenient scapegoat until he was expelled the following week.

You answered Jason Castro again. Obviously, those were trick questions. My answers were correct. So were yours.

How can that be? How can Jason Castro have so much in common with season 4 runner up Bo Bice and fifth place finisher Scott Savol at the same time?

Is Jason Castro a semifinalist or a scapegoat?

That, my fellow pitiless dreadheaded Castrocopian daydreamers, depends on how our favorite season 7 troubadour performs this week and how we the voting public respond.

As a close observer of American Idol since its debut in 2002, I have no doubt the same bus that took out Savol is gunning for Jason. While I do not believe that the AI crew has ever engaged in vote tampering, I do believe that they engage in every voter manipulation the FCC allows. For example, although we know that the eliminated contestant is always the lowest vote getter, we are never told the other contestants’ results except in the finale. But the vote rankings are implied by the order in which their safety is announced, although viewers have no way of knowing the actual rankings. By repeatedly bringing out David Archuleta and David Cook first, the impression that they are “winners” is reinforced. Likewise, the implicit “losers” are the last to be declared safe. The reality could be the exact opposite.

It is no random coincidence that the AI camera caught Jason yawning offstage as he waited with Carly Smithson or gazing sideways at the band instead of giving his undivided attention to bottom 2 performer Syesha Mercado during what could have been her swan song. It is no random coincidence that Jason – instead of Brooke, David the younger or David the elder – was in the last pair to learn their voting status. It is no random coincidence that Jason – instead of babbling Brooke, little David or big David – was placed and kept alongside Carly as her elimination drama played out. Every convincing tragedy needs a villain.

Not content to rest on his TV manipulations, Nigel Lythgoe singled out Jason as “the weakest of the bunch” in a media interview while admitting he was surprised and disappointed by Carly’s departure after her “fun” interpretation of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Maybe he was referring to Jason’s sickly condition before and during his live performance of “Memory.” Between Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s condescension and Lythgoe’s ham-handed machinations, poor Jason was dealt the worst one-two punch by the musical Cats since the Team America character Chris was violated by Rumpleteazer and Mr. Mistoffelees – not to be confused under any circumstances with these cats.

What other tactics does Lythgoe have planned for Neil Diamond week? Since AI history does tend to repeat as predictably as a Randy Jackson critique, maybe Nigel will give Jason a last minute lyrics change as he did to Clay Aiken – “Vincent” or maybe he will force Jason to substitute an entire song less than 48 hours before performance night as he did to Taylor Hicks – “Just Once” in place of “Try a Little Tenderness.” Perhaps Randy will use some Simon Cowell reverse psychology to disarm Jason’s fan base by being excessively complimentary in the hopes of lulling us into a false sense of security.

Those in the AI world who don’t appreciate the emotional power of Jason’s voice are quick to attribute his popularity to his good looks or his goofy charm. I firmly believe that Jason has earned his standing on American Idol on the strength of his raw musical talent. He has delivered two of the most unique, outstanding and memorable broadcast performances – “Hallelujah” and “Somewhere over the Rainbow” – in seven seasons of American Idol. Subsequently, beloved interpretations by the late Jeff Buckley and Israel Kamakawiwo’ole respectively were catapulted to the top of iTunes sales charts. The kid has an impeccable music sensibility.

Jason’s studio version of “Memory” is exquisitely sad and haunting while his lower register and falsetto are more assured than ever. When you listen to his recordings in chronological order, his growth in vocal confidence, range, and expressiveness are hard to discount. His fans include serious music aficionados such as Chris Sligh, John Norris, Michael Slezak, and me.

For Neil Diamond night, I hope Jason will perform “Red, Red Wine” UB40 style and accompany himself on the drums – standup kit, bongos, congas, I don’t particularly care which. “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” or “Solitary Man” would be excellent guitar strumming choices. However, Urge Overkill recorded a modernized version of the former and Cookie might already have dibs on it.

No matter what, under those flexible FCC rules, I will be voting for the entire allotted time period with both hands and maybe a modem, if I can figure out how that voting software thingamajig works with digital phone. I will cast my votes in honor of Chris Sligh, who was taken from us too soon. I will cast my votes to honor the AI rock pioneers who cleared a path through the musical wilderness overpopulated by pop singers and R&B crooners – Bo Bice, Constantine Maroulis, Chris Sligh, and maybe Jon Peter Lewis but I'm not sure. I will cast my votes to honor the great American tradition of singer-songwriters, most of whom are unknown by Simon and Nigel, to which Jason is an heir apparent.

Finally, I will cast my votes to hear Jason Castro sing the winning coronation lyrics about rainbows and dreams because he is the only American Idol contest authentic enough to make that syrupy drek palatable and he can play his ukulele again, too.