Sunday, March 07, 2010

American Idol: Season Nine or Nein?

Is it just me or has American Idol stopped being must-see TV? Are you saying "nein" to season nine?

That’s a rhetorical question since I know several fans who have watched the Fox juggernaut since season one and recently become casual or lapsed viewers. Clearly, it’s not just me. But I wonder how widespread this phenomenon is. The ratings will tell.

Due to a particularly busy life, I am catching up with the first two week’s semifinal episodes on Sunday afternoons. I find the contestants to be very likable, talented and varied. The vibe this season is mellow, even among the judges. Ellen DeGeneres, in my opinion, is a welcome addition and substantive critic. I am encouraging my friends to give this season a chance before becoming attached to a new Tuesday night favorite. But I understand the reasons they got burnt out after season 8 and there are exactly two: Kara DioGuardi and Adam Lambert.

A fourth judge is superfluous. The panel’s reactions and interactions with Ryan Seacrest eat up precious air time better left to the performers. Kara in particular talks too much and doesn’t offer anything unique enough as a judge to justify her presence. She and Paula Abdul were redundant last year and she and Ellen are redundant this year – not because they are females per se, but they both fill the role of the constructive, nurturing critic. One is enough and Ellen at least brings much needed humor of the self-effacing type blended with pinpointed criticism that judges not named Simon Cowell tend to pussyfoot around. Kara and Simon also share the same top 40 pop/rock sensibility, but Cowell is still the judge to please and impress. Randy Jackson’s value is as a rock musician and producer, which I have come to appreciate even more as the show has attracted rock musician contestants. That leaves Kara as the unnecessary fourth leg on the stool.

I don’t dislike Kara and give her credit for improving tremendously this year, but she has one idiosyncrasy that bugs. Often when she is talking to a black performer, she becomes a character I like to call Ghetto Barbie. Suddenly she gets this distinctly urban accent, her neck swivels and she uses exaggerated hand gestures. What is up with that?

We’re stuck with four judges for another season and so far the time crunch, coupled with Abdul's absence, has made Simon a more succinct and precise critic, which is a net plus. But the Adam Lambert circus is over. Anti-Adamites, it’s safe to come back to your TV on Tuesday nights.

Look, I was an early Lambert lover – in a purely platonic way, of course. Based on his videos prior to the show, I thought he was the most gifted vocalist in the franchise’s history and was thrilled by his potential. I still do and am. But Adam aspires to be more - or less - than a great singer. He mounted each performance as though he was submitting it to the Oscars as a short form video nominee. The intensity with which he attacked and complicated each song, rather than inhabited and interpreted it, was ultimately exhausting. I adored Adam’s version of Ring of Fire, but each successive week I started to miss a certain dread headed troubadour from season seven more and more. Jason Castro understood and understands the beauty of a song sung from the heart with respect and honesty. I knew from the start that Adam was a performance artist, but I was disappointed when he consistently prioritized performance values over vocal artistry, preferring to emulate the personality-driven success of Madonna and Lady Gaga instead of the musical legacy of artists like David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Matt Bellamy of Muse, who contributed a song to Adam's debut.

It’s not news that Adam was a polarizing contestant due to the AI crew’s inability to curb their manipulations to benefit their favorite. Adam’s sexuality became controversial, but I believe it was his sexually charged performances probably more than his choice of offscreen partners that alienated a larger share of AI fans. The people I know who had a “problem” with Adam were similarly turned off by Constantine Maroulis four years earlier for skeevy behavior they found inappropriate on a family-oriented TV show. Furthermore, I did not see any campaigns online to attack Adam for his sexuality and in fact saw the opposite - vicious attacks on Danny Gokey's faith by Lambert fans. Adam is not responsible for the drama caused by his fans, but the drama he manufactured onstage is gone. Meanwhile, the show’s inherent machinations remain the same.

The judges have their favorites and they are never subtle about promoting them. My favorites are Crystal Bowersox, Andrew Garcia, and Michael Lynche, followed by Lilly Scott, Siobhan Magnus and Alex Lambert. I’m concerned that Andrew Garcia is getting the Danny Gokey frontrunner-turned-threat-to-the-chosen-one treatment. I haven’t voted for any contestant since Jason Castro, although I am tempted to vote for Andrew. Of course, I’d have to actually watch the show on Tuesday nights again, but Andrew is sucking me in with his sandpaper smooth vocals and touching backstory. He reminds me of another underdog, Elliott Yamin, but with more confidence and instrumental talent to boot. You can catch the entire season five cast of memorable characters, including Elliott, on American Idol Rewind.

Speaking of Danny Gokey, did you see him performing on Thursday’s results show? Last season I got fed up with the crass and sometimes scary ugliness permitted to fester on some major AI fan sites, including an especially big blog where I used to be a regular. The hate and intolerance unleashed against Danny was appalling. I defy you not to enjoy the infectious optimism of My Best Days Are Ahead of Me.

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