Monday, May 29, 2006

Haditha and Memorial Day

Six months ago, a terrible thing happened in Haditha, Iraq a city of 90,000 people  An American soldier was killed by an improvised exploding device (IED) and twenty four Iraqi civilians died shortly after the explosion.  The first reports indicated that the 15 Iraqis had died in the same explosion.  Sadly, that’s does not appear to be what happened.  It now looks like the surviving members of the 3rd Battalion of the USMC on the patrol began to open fire on any non-Americans who might have been in the vicinity of the explosion.  Several women and children were among the dead. Some reports claim that many of the victims were killed execution style.

Since Gulf War I, certain individuals in the American military-industrial establishment have argued that technology has made it possible to wage surgically precise war.  Allegedly, bombs can be so accurate that they only hit their targets and kill only military personnel.  Soldiers on the ground also are so well trained and equipped that they have become consummate military technicians, ever courageous and always respecting protocols.  

Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells us that Haditha was not typical of 99.9% of American soldiers in Iraq.  I assume that he’s right, but I also suspect that these weren’t atypical soliders at all.  

Three years ago, I had flown into a commercial airport in North Carolina that then still had security courtesy of National Guardsmen armed with m-16s.  Just as we went to get our luggage, a detachment of soldiers had just come off another plane.  Most were about nineteen years old or at least looked it.  I remembered the one year I had taught high school and how a handful of my students graduates and joined the service immediately thereafter.  Actually, one joined, completed his enlistment, and became an Elvis impersonator.

I was their senior U.S. Government teacher.  I had read their essays.  We had discussed various issues that faced America back then.  Truth, there are many extraordinarily well-iformed high school seniors.  There are also large numbers who even after having me as a teacher or more likely especially because they had me as a teacher, who wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to tell the difference between a “just war” and one based on false evidence.  There was something to like about all of them.

I think about the Marines that day in Haditha and I do not see young SS guards at Auschwitz or the detachment that slaughtered a village at My Lai.  I see instead those young faces in the airport and the handful of my own students who joined the service.

I don’t condone killing civilians under any circumstance.  I do, however, believe that ordinary people are quite capable of the most monstrous acts and had I been nineteen years old and frightened enough I might have well done the same thing.

As I sit here, peacefully typing away the last few minutes of Memorial Day 2006, I appreciate the sacrifices others made in wartime.  I also recognize that atrocities and war are less a function of evil armies and evil regimes than we like to believe.  We send young men to fight and there comes a point in combat when anything resembling compassion shuts down in favor of the survival instinct.  When that instinct goes off, some emerge heroes.  Others, especially when they wind up on the losing side, wind up being war criminals.

Over the next months, there’s going to be a lot said about how the third battalion of Marines turned into renegades, how their leadership failed, etc.  I agree completely when it comes to the cover up.  Had I been there that day, I have no idea what I would have done or not done.  Incidents like this happen in true wars of liberation and self-defense.  They happen in wars of oppression.  All wars have horrible incidents like this.  I suspect there are hundreds we don’t hear about for every one that is documented like Haditha.

I don’t mean to say that American soldiers have purposely killed thousands of Iraqi civilians, but I doubt that Haditha is an isolated incident.  There are any number of incidents in which Iraqis have done similar things or worse to other Iraqis and if anyone remembers Nicholas Berg, it’s clear that no side has a monopoly on cruelty.

I do believe that at least in theory there are such things as “necessary” wars.  I know even better that anyone who thinks that war will raise the moral level of either the “liberator” or the “liberated” is probably dangerously delusional.  Whatever the technology and training of the combatants, war will always be brutal.

How so much of our country ever came to trust anyone who proclaimed “Mission Accomplished”, I have no idea.  But I do know who some of the real war criminals are in this particular conflict.  Many of them aren’t named Saddam or Zarqawi.  The worst crimes in any war don’t generally happen in the wake of explosions.  They’re far more likely to take place on artificial lakes catching oversized perch, duck hunting, or mountain biking.  

Too often, we reserve Memorial day thoughts for those who die in a literal sense during a war.  I try to think about those who die in other ways and how many of them were sitting behind a desk in some high school classroom within the last two years, their entire lives ahead of them.    


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Friday, May 26, 2006

American Idol(review) Triumph of the Hicks

As we left for work this morning, I kissed my wife and said “Bye Dear, whooo!”

She first ignored me then shook her head at my bright purple blazer as I raised my fist and chanted “Soul Patrol, Soul Patrol.”

“Dear, What are you doing?”

“America and American pop music are forever changed because Taylor Hicks beat the Simon-declared odds and became America’s Fifth Idol. I felt it was important that we observe the moment appropriately.”

My wife, who still hasn’t forgiven the show for letting Chris Daughtry get voted off by Elvis, began to back out into the street. At that precise moment, sixteen blue-robed zombies joined me in the driveway to sing that certain- ground-breaking chart topper “Do I Make You Proud?”

At least this was better than the alternative, which would have consisted of Toni Braxton popping out of the sunroof of my Honda Civic in white lingerie, to duet with me on “In the Ghetto”. I know the concept wasn’t Taylor Hicks’s fault, but could somebody have paid attention to the words a little before unleashing Toni Braxton as fembot prancing around Idol V?

If I combine that visual with the lyrics, I get this - white southern male does the vertical limbo with hot black woman dressed as hoochie mama , she gets pregnant, he abandons her, she raises child in the ghetto, child has to attend a school that got left behind too, and grows up to run Enron unless someone can teach the angry young man to be soulful and play the harmonica like his dad.

This is Civil Rights in 2006-white boys and girls can now have sexual fantasies about Toni Braxton and Taye Diggs in public and black boys and girls get to have sexual fantasies about Taylor Hicks and Kellie Pickler. Think about another southern male, Strom Thurmond, who in 1960 would never have done this duet on tv. Of course, by the time he died Strom not only had his segregationist cause honored by Trent Lott, America found out a bit more about Strom’s private perspectives on race. I suppose too that “In the Ghetto” was better than having Ryan make bawdy innuendo about Elliott Yamin’s mother and her Idol statue, which I’m convinced never did happen.

btw Toni Braxton is a very attractive woman with a great voice, but it didn’t help that they lit her and made her sound like someone Eddie Murphy might pick up hitchhiking at three in the morning.

Okay, obviously I wasn’t one of the millions of Americans who voted in greater numbers for Taylor than for George W. Did Ryan really say that American Idol was the biggest election in the world without even a hint of irony? Unlike real elections, I know that American idol voters still often seriously believe that their own votes actually affect the outcome. Some of them buy special cell phones just so they can get in mass text messages and not have to worry about busy signals and Dial Idol making like the NSA. Maybe the key to revitalizing our democracy might be to let everyone vote as many times as he/she wants by cell phone and eliminate all campaign contributions except from Ford and Coca Cola?

One idiosyncrasy of Idol’s last week is that after a season when the Tuesday show is the interesting one, the reverse is true once it grinds to the finals. All through the season, the producers pad Wednesdays with Ford commercials, group sings, less than probing interviews by Ryan, and sadistic variations on the week’s inevitable game of un-musical chairs. The coronation show, though, is two hours of tasteless TV genius in which “Can you top this?” alternates with “What were they thinking?”

This was especially true this year. It didn’t help that both singers reprised numbers that they’d had some success with earlier in the season followed by two Idol “exclusive” songs that must have been rejects from the “Up With People” libretto. Yes, Katharine should still have done a better job staying in key and maybe enunciating better, but shouldn’t the contestants at least get to sing music? Taylor did do a better job with the coal he found in the Idol “Here’s your single….Sucker!” stocking, but that was a just a brutal way to end the competition phase.

At 9:00 pm Tuesday, I could have gotten better odds of Ryan reconciling with Terri Hatcher than Katharine McPhee winning idol especially after Daniel Powter came on stage at the end of the Tuesday show to announce that he would sing his McHit. The actual singing in the finals may have been less a factor than people think. Taylor also won because he had the better narrative. First, they cast him as the underdog while simultaneously giving him more time on screen than the promos of a new NBC Thursday night sitcom. Second, late in the game I noticed the narrative of Taylor as musical journeyman who had spent the last ten years singing in dive bars and at events like the Mullet Festival seemed to be all over the internet.

“Had my brother not talked me into going to Las Vegas to audition after I got flooded out of New Orleans, I was going to take a day job.”kept replaying.

Compare that to “My tv producer dad cries a lot”, “Mom was in "Showboat"with Donald O’connor”and even taught Marianne Willamson how to sing cabaret(perhaps someone wants to turn "A Course in Miracles" into a Broadway Musical), and I’ve spent the last year auditioning for pilots and plays where I pretend to be a whale with good cleavage. Given that America loves to come to the rescue, faced with this choice, who were millions of Americans going to rescue with their cellphones?

As a second matter, I suspect Katharine McPhee shouldn’t have taken “Advanced Smoldering Look” during her short time at the Boston Conservatory in lieu of Talk Show 101. If you want to be a celebrity, you have to learn to do the five minutes on the couch next to Leno or Letterman. They ask you vapid questions, you give them enough to make you seem loveable, inoffensive, and sincere before they cut to commercial. Whenever she had to be mediated by Ryan, Katharine was mostly giggles, thank yous, and maybe a bit too much honest reaction. She came off as a late model Valley Girl with a voice, which is like, you know, totally, like who she happened to be.

As I was watching the two hour coronation show, it occurred to me that whoever put the thing together must have the blueprint of Idol’s TV genome sequence. This year’s kitsch-fest homaged all the show’s myriad influences. Obviously, the show is a direct descendant of Ted Mack and Star Search, but it tapdances on the naïvely-sentimental essence of its direct TV ancestors by dosing it with an edge of mean spiritedness. The Gong Show aspect of the show mostly comes into season during the audition episodes, but Simon is Idol’s magic ingredient, the jalapeno on the bologna-cheese sandwich, because he gives Idol to keep it from slipping into Amateur Hour blandness.

I’ve long maintained that when the music is bad, the judges deftly step up the sideshow and the center of that is inescapably Simon who is the direct tv descendant of Charles Nelson-Reilly and Paul Lynde, two individuals who extended the game show genre with sarcasm-covered honesty as subtext for the idiocy of the goings on around them.

Similarly Paula Abdul carries on the chaotic non-sequitur tradition of Charo crossed with her very weird take on the Delphic Oracle. I tend to think of Randy Jackson as an uncool version of the Fonz, but it would likely take me too much space to explain that one other than to mention the longstanding tv technique of creating “catchphrases”, Dawg.

On Wednesday night, Idol’s provocative balance between sentimental and mean took the form of Kevin Covais and Michael Sandecki aka Clay Faiken. Early this year, the show created a niche for Covais as its stud manqué. Whether he was singing "Part Time Lover", or being called “Chicken Little” by Paris, Idol only avoided looking like the high school bully because the show constantly reminded us that Kevin was in on the joke and having fun too. By the time he was soloing to "What’s New Pussycat", I was starting to wonder, “If I were mom and dad, would I want my son turned into Pee Wee Herman just for the sake of fifteen minutes?”

As one of the hundreds of Idol bloggers out there, I’m well aware of Idol’s latent tv ancestors. Reality TV’s roots are in events like Miss America and the Academy Awards . By the late sixties, much earlier if you happen to be gay, roughly half the tv audience for both events watched less because they were interested in the competition than because they loved to snark. Miss America and Oscars viewing parties became a regular social event where people would get together to see who could supply the best subtitles about the absurdity of the outfits and other goings on. This, of course, is why Miss America died with Bert Parks. Ryan's tv great-uncle. The producers never quite got the Camp-factor which in a tv version of Heisenberg only works if the makers of the show pretend to be oblivious to it.

For millions of people, the Idol technology triathlon is to Tivo the show, vote with cell phone, then post on the internet in a post Y2k Oscars’ viewing party. It’s even evolved to a point where many of the participants don’t even bother to watch the show. In any case, Idol is rooted in the great winking gay cultural tradition that runs through television that starts at least as early as Liberace, moves through Robert Reid and Felix Ungar, came out through Ellen, and culminated in Will and Grace. Of all the semi-stars who have emerged from the Idol machine, the one who couldn’t have gotten America’s attention without Idol is Clay Aiken. Aiken also happens to be the most sexually ambiguous of all Idol finalists.

I don’t think the show or Clay’s management have ever known how to deal with it. Sandecki, who was audition round fodder, just happened to be a parody of all that the producers feared most about Clay Aiken winning the show. I don’t presume to know Sandecki’s personal life, but now that he’s had his fifteen minutes, I doubt that his my space page is being mobbed with female fans wanting to date him.

In any case, the producers managed one of these perfectly constructed tv moments. Sandecki got to act out the homage to Idol’s awards show roots, we watched his Clay Faiken audition in all its bladder tightening glory, then Ryan made us wonder if the show had jumped the line to full on mean by asking Sandecki to sing again. As he screeched while scrunching up his face for a few painful bars, suddenly from behind door number three Idol 2A version of Clay Aiken popped out.

Of course, the show can’t directly reference the fact that Aiken disappeared for several months in the wake of tabloid stories about his sex life, but this version of Aiken almost seems like the brocuhre model from one of those “Help me Choose to be Straight” seminars. He’s tan, a bit more muscular, has lost the hand gestures, and has been sprayed with extra testosterone. Even more dramatic, the full on makeover was standing next to the exaggerated version of the old-model nerd Aiken. As a bonus, Aiken sounded better on Elton John (wow interesting choice there) than any of this year’s contestants ever managed. Yes, I’m looking at you, Levon lite.

I don’t know how the Idol version 2 Clay Aiken molded from the pale ball of Clay 1,will ultimately do now that he has K.D. Lang’s hair, but this was breathtakingly good reality TV. It played out on more levels than any Robert Altman movie. In the meantime, network tv continues our bizarre cultural dance between its attraction to American pop culture's inner-homo and its need to act terrified of openly acknowledging it. No show makes the tension of this ambivalence more palpable than Idol.

The only thing that didn’t quite go perfectly was that the seemingly shocked Sandecki kept singing after the punch line. I suspect the producers allowed this so that Meatloaf could feel better about his performance. (I did hear that he’s been sick, so in that sense he did the trooper thing) A few others have noted that Katharine McPhee seemed notably more relaxed on Wednesday and sang better. I suspect it had something to do with the format of the coronation show which is much closer to jump into production number and do your role than sing while everyone stares at just you and talks about your dress being too tight.

I’m pretty sure too that Bucky was tapping on his mike during “Raindrops” because they built experimental technology into it that allows anyone to sing without an accent. “The Raindrops on Idol fall mainly on the plain, I think he’s got it.”

He actually sounded pretty good as did Mandisa. It was also definitely heartwarming to see Chris Daughtry sing a Live duet with his hero and role model Captain Picard.

Stardate May 2006, our band has landed on the stage of an alien planet. The Enterprise is being tracked by a wannabe who appears to be a Borg clone, the chain hanging from his belt being the only clue.

We Walk a careful Line with this situation. I order evasive maneuvers and go really really high to get out of his range. It seems to work, but seconds later he's still there. We go into hyperdrive.

Whoops, something's wrong! There’s Burt Bacharach, Prince, and is that Scott Bakula from "Quantum Leap" piloting my ship? The singularity must have taken us into a time warp. It can’t be later than 1986. I’m pretty sure the one who calls himself Ryan is a poorly disguised Ferenghi.

The pilot for the Kellie Pickler sitcom worked less well. How does one say “More obvious than Hee Haw” in French? If I may be so bold Chef Puck, to get someone like Kellie to eat anything all you have to do is deep fry it. Had you done that, she might have even been willing to try your line of frozen pizzas, say the one topped with kiwi fruit and fiddlehead clams.

Speaking of stupid trends, what is this whole bit with the chefs as tv celebrities ? Except on Star Trek, you can’t taste food even through a high definition plasma screen. I know they use food shows to sell lifestyle accoutrements, but they might as well make bloggers into TV stars.

For some reason, I actually rather liked the Burt Bacharach medley. First, it made me feel like I’d stepped into the first Austin Powers movie and I’ve always liked watching Elizabeth Hurley. (Jay Roach also used live down the hall from me) Second, it came bundled with a free ad for Psychic Friends Network.

If someone could tell me they paid their 50 cents a minute back in 1984 and Dionne Warwick told them she’d be on tv singing with Kevin Covais and Melissa McGhee while promoting one more tour, I’d buy a block of a thousand psychic friends minutes right now to ask about "Peak Oil", global warming, and Karl Rove's possible indictment. In the meantime Elliott as aFurby singing “House is Not a Home” sounded very good, maybe it was the producers way of making up for letting Mary J. Blige yell him off the stage.

If only the Idol producers could have matched that great scene in My Best Friend’s Wedding, this tribute to the guy who kept pop alive during the Woodstock era would have been perfect.

After three hours of Idol this week, my mind is frazzled to the point of being reduced to random bits about other parts of the show. Carrie Underwood (I was never a fan) actually looked and sounded good. Now that she gets to sing in her zone, she struck me as a deserving winner in this sea of the season five final dozen. After a season of telling Lisa Tucker that she kept choosing material that was both too old for her and too big for her voice, what was "Alfie" all about?

I thought the musical highlight of the evening was Paris Bennett and Al Jarreau. She doesn’t have his rubbery inflections, but she matched him surprisingly well with the vocalese. Also, it was one of the few duets that night where the participants actually seemed to be listening to one another. The song from Dirty Dancing with Katharine in a bridesmaid's gown (talk about your not so subtle hints) and Taylor in a tux felt like it was lifted from a bizarro episode of Donnie and Marie .

One last comment on the Idol genome, the show has one other hidden ancestor. In a time of extraordinarily divisive politics and constant talk of bleak prospects for the environment and our children, Idol almost pointedly ignores the truly topical. Except for Josh Gracin, the war in Iraq doesn't exist in the Idol universe, Katrina never happened, and the only reference to global warming is Kermit the Frog in a hybrid Ford Focus.

Idol’s popularity owes much to the fact that it’s the equivalent of cultural comfort food. Does anyone remember that the most popular show on television at the height of the sixties revolution was Laugh In , an electrified version of Vaudeville with little touches like paisley, stickers of flowers, and Goldie Hawn in a bikini. Idol, ostensibly the revival of Amateur Hour, is this generation’s Laugh In

I remember thinking that none of the jokes on Laugh In were actually funny maybe especially “Sock it to Me” and “Here Comes the Judge”, but I laughed and kept watching, maybe because I needed to laugh in those times. Some of the music on Idol is genuinely wonderful, but mostly it’s not. I suspect I watch the show because I want to believe in music, any shared music, in a time where discord or even apocalypse is always just below the surface in America.I know that no second coming of Paul Robeson will ever sing “We Shall Overcome” on the show. I even know that I’ll probably never hear a voice as good as Johnny Hartman’s or Sarah Vaughan’s on AI. Still, I keep watching because in all its tastelessness, manipulation, and silliness, Idol seems to catch some warming echo of tv culture that resonates for me.

In 1987, I was on a bike trip with a group and we were camping in the Mojave desert after being told that the area was filled with roving bands of death worshipping Satanists. For some reason, in the spirit of scary campfire stories it got us just scared enough. By one in the morning a couple riders were crying that they weren’t ready to have their hearts ripped from their bodies for some sick ceremony as if they really believed it, a fellow biker whipped out a guitar and started playing and singing "American Pie" (a song that was a hit when most of the group was in pre-school). Here inthe hottest, most bug infested, waterless spot in California, suddenly everyone started singing along with him and the whole group was feeling safe again just because of the shared comfort of pop music.

Idol is a British show that’s been made deeply American. This year’s finale caught all that’s weird and yet endearing about our own popular culture in its marriage of convenience between the rhetoric of cell phone driven democracy and amateur singers with backstories. Somehow too, it reminds me of that night with Don Mclean after midnight in the Mojave.

What can I say, but “Soul Patrol, Soul Patrol.”

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Thursday, May 18, 2006

American Idol (review) Elliott Yamin Out at Third

I was reading the Idol message boards this week (Yes, I confess I read them) and I learned the following about Katharine McPhee.

  1. She helped plan 9/11, but she won’t accept criticism about it.

  2. She kicks puppies and makes fun of disabled people.

  3. Her mother should have been turned into social services years ago.

  4. She  stalled on home run 713, because she’s off the juice now.  The steroid rage has left her arrogant , you can see it in her face.

  5. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” wasn’t sung nearly as well as William Hung.  This is according to someone who was a professional singer, has 37 gold records,  and now just like to hang out on Reality Tv message boards though someone from the entourage does the actual typing hence the ISP from Henryetta, Oklahoma.

No one said that in just those words, but she must have done all those things to provoke that kind of hate.

By contrast, I learned that Elliott Yamin had not practiced between appearances on the show because he insisted on  doing diabetes charity work while also helping his invalid mother.  The fact that Elliott sings at all is really quite amazing because for the first fifteen years of his life he was completely deaf and the family was too poor to afford even a radio.  After being exposed to the music of Al Green while riding a city bus, Elliott worked three jobs at age fourteen to buy a used CD.  He started singing the week before the audition.  On one Idol charity visit, Elliott met a leukemia patient and the boy went into remission minutes later. Elliott then became the first Idol contestant to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and is also an object of veneration for the Falun Gong.

Equally fascinating, one finds out almost nothing personal about Taylor Hicks other than hundreds of posts about the “Soul Patrol” and how Simon must hate him.  Beyond that, Taylor apparently didn’t have a childhood, doesn’t have a wife or girlfriend, or has no friends who want to dish about him.  The only reason I knew he had ribs for breakfast one day is because Ryan told me so.  

Of course, your average AI scribe wouldn’t take the time to investigate, but ever since it came out that I’m on Elvis's speed dial(Okay, I know it has two meanings, but I’m not going there) doors have opened for me.  I got the following e-mail from someone calling himself “Thetan”.  

“CL, you wanna know where all the Katharine hate comes from, meet me on Wednesday at 6:00 at xxxxxx in the Valley.”

I found my way to some sort of reading room filled with people offering to test my spiritual potential.  Thetan, a slightly chubby young man was seated at a library table.  He held what looked to be a soup can with a wire sticking out of it.

CL:  So, I don’t understand why the hate here for Katharine McPhee?

T:  She denied that she was a Scientologist.

CL:  I think she said she went to a meeting once because she was dating some guy who was in the church. But, they broke up.

T:  She lost twenty pounds and she dumped me, but that has nothing to do with it.

CL:  Okay.

T:  You noticed that ever since she denied that she was a Scientologist, the judges turned on her. You remember “being in God’s hands” when she hit the bottom three?

CL:  Yeah, I guess it was during the Church of Mandsa.

Thetan  picks up his soup can and holds it out to me.

T: This uses advanced alien technology.  Any time you want to make Katharine McPhee laugh or smile at inappropriate times during her performances….In fact, it works on anyone with DNA similar to hers.  It can also make them cry. On certain kinds of music, it can make her shriek in pain just at the wrong moment.  For some reason it works best on songs sung by Whitney or Christina, but we’ve gotten it to work with other music.  You wouldn’t believe how well it works with Phil Collins.

CL: Wow.  Look, I don’t want to get too personal here, but when Katharine was losing the weight did you think about maybe joining a gym yourself? Maybe see a dermatologist, go on “The Swan”, instead of maybe this….

T:  You’re not very advanced are you?

CL:  Well, I’m no Tom Cruise I guess. But, why doesn’t this thing….

T:  It’s called an E-phaser.

CL:  As in Elliott Yamin?

T:  I can’t tell you that unless you pay me thousands of dollars for auditing and bring two of your friends.

CL:  Could you tell me what’s up with the message board hate stuff?

T:  You are aware that the Church of Scientology has controlled all message boards on the net ever since  Just post something negative about the church and see what happens.

CL:  I take it you don’t watch “South Park” much these days.

T:  I know what you were going to ask.

CL:  Sure.

T: You wanted to know why the E-phaser doesn’t work on ballads.

CL:  Actually, you’re right.

T:  We can’t figure it out. Also the rays seem to come in just above chest level.  Have you noticed that whenever she sings on her knees, she does really well?

CL: Well, I sort of thought that it was because she was self-conscious about her butt…. (I started feeling oddly uncomfortable) Thetan, uh thanks, this was the most amazing interview.  

T: You know we almost got her anyway last week. We had a connection to Lisa Marie Presley….(he paused as if he’d just said too much) You realize that you can’t ever tell anyone about this.

I then pointed to someone near the door and said “Hey, I remember you.  You were in the volcano in "Battlefield Earth".”

I ran up to him, pretended to shake his hand, then ran out into the street.  For three days, I’ve been laughing at the oddest times though. If the Unification Church can run the Washington Times, the Church of Scientology can certainly control “American Idol” in its way.

That brings me to the big Taylor secret.  You remember Billy Bass, the fish that you hang on the wall and it wiggles around and sings Bobby MacFerrin?  

Okay, have you noticed that the Taylor forums are filled with animated Taylor icons?  Ever wonder why they call the show AI?  Also does anyone remember a six-sided black plastic box that had brightly-colored trapezoidal buttons.  It would play notes and you had to follow the notes or it would squawk at you.  Do you think it’s a coincidence that the gadget was called “Simon”?

Each of the last three years, there’s been at least one contestant who was accused of being the product of Artificial Intelligence.  First it was Di-bot, then it was Scott Savol and even Carrie Underwood,  then  Lisa Tucker.  Simon would even joke with them about it just to throw America off.  You don’t have to believe me, but there’s a factory in the West of China that has already made three million animatronic Taylor Hicks’s for thirty seven cents a unit.  Target has committed to the first lot for the Christmas season.

If you order now, you can get a full set.  There’s a dancing version that does “Taking it to the Streets”.  Another does “You are so Beautiful”.  Plans for one doing “Country Roads” fell through after a battery drain issue problem caused it to seem sleepy and lifeless.  With all models, you press on his stomach, he goes into a crouch, and pulls out a harmonica.  At the end of the song, each animatronic Taylor chants “Soul Patrol” four times with raised fist.  Until you’ve seen 383 Taylors do this simultaneously, you really haven’t lived.

They say Nigel wants an artist that 19-E can truly control.  After Kelly and Clay got out of their contracts the first two seasons, who can blame AI for what it’s doing?

Now that that’s out of the way.  I’m sorry to see Elliott go.  There was a lot of talk about his having perfect pitch, but I think even more interesting he had perfect emotional pitch in front of a tv camera.  When Elliott started crying Wednesday night, who didn’t cry with him?  Here he was, the consummate but talented underdog taking on the pimpage that be, somehow never showing any signs of frustration at what often amounted to unfair treatment, simply thanking America for the opportunity.

I do think that reality tv folk have too primitive a notion of what it means to be telegenic.  It’s not necessarily about being Ace Young or Kellie Pickler.  I’m not sure I’ve seen a reality show person send the Q factor spinning the way Elliott quietly managed from week to week. When he laid into “Trouble” last week, I thought this guy could be a star.  He was also great on “Moody’s Mood for Love” relaxed and vocally showy at the same time.  Had he hit that level on his three songs on Tuesday (he wasn’t bad btw), I think he might have won.  

As is, he’s clearly a different singer from Clay Aiken, but he’s Clay’s heir on Idol, the ordinary guy who grew as a performer over the course of fifteen weeks while America watched.

Not all charisma is palpable the first time through especially on television.  If you remember Harry Morgan or even Bob Newhart, people just kept watching them because they were so darn likeable.  Consider the fact that Regis Philbin has been on television since 1963.  One of the keys isn’t so much that people love you immediately, it’s that they don’t hate you after continuous exposure.

My fear is that they’re going to make Elliott the next “Bachelor” a la Bob Guiney, with similar results.  He’ll appear on Oprah then be partying with Lyndsay Lohan and Paris Hilton instead of hanging out with his mom.
I point out that the show fashioned his story line.  People still say, “Gee, that Elliott knew nothing about music and just appeared on our tv set one day.”

Somehow, the fact that his mother was a professional singer never got repeated much.

Of course, nothing about AI is straightforward.  Were the Bush v. Gore figures from Wednesday night for real?  Who knows?   How hard do the producers and judges work to manipulate America’s reaction?  It’s part of the genius of the show.  Much like real elections, everyone complains about the results, the process, the integrity of the counting itself, but without viewers/voters the system doesn’t exist.  In the end, you get the candidate/Idol you deserve.  In this case, people vote for anti-Idols like Taylor Hicks in the oddly deluded belief that it’s some act of rebellion against a system which may have manufactured your own rebellion.  You want quirky original, how about Tom Waits, James Brown, Rickie Lee Jones, or even Woody Guthrie-all of whom made it pre-“America you decide”.

By the way, when they posted the percentages in the blue-bordered boxes like that, my first thought was that they were making fun of the California High School Exit Exam.  
Can you imagine the millions of graduates watching going, “Oh geez, which number is larger?….Would you like to super size that sir?”

“So sorry, my English is not good.  I am here on H1 visa as computer engineer.  What is to super size?”

I then thought that Ryan was either going to offer us a “lifeline” or make us answer in the form of a question. “I’ll take cheesy entertainment for 500, Ryan.”

Ryan pulls away the door and reveals the answer “Vonzell Solomon.”

I raise my hand and say, “Does anyone really remember who finished third on this show?”

Camera cuts to Jasmine Trias in the audience and a crying Elliott Yamin on the stage.

I suspect though that it’s not going to be that way for Elliott even after waking up to Daniel Powter on Thursday morning.

Oh yeah, about the music….  

I thought Taylor was generally very good.  I did think Paula made a lousy stand in for Courtney Cox, even pre-Monica Gellar Bing.  If I remember the Springsteen video, they slipped in Courtney Cox because they wanted to do MTV type videos with someone like Springsteen and the working class-political edge always implied in his music.

Think about the  lyric to “We’re just dancing in the dark.”

I get up in the evening
and I ain't got nothing to say
I come home in the morning
I go to bed feeling the same way
I ain't nothing but tired

They always talk about Taylor being the one who connects with the meaning of the song, but he didn’t with this one.  Might have been Clive Davis’s fault for telling Taylor it was a love song.

Taylor was much better with  “You Are So Beautiful”. Taylor didn’t just ape Joe Cocker, he also caught the “pained love” feel that Cocker got into the song’s otherwise “puppy love” lyric. You feel like it’s being sung to someone who doesn’t think of herself as beautiful and really can’t see it by someone who isn’t so conventionally beautiful himself.

I thought that Taylor was Taylor on “Try a Little Tenderness”, but also thought Simon was right about the throwback ending.  With performers like Taylor, the aesthetic choice is constantly between when to be a showman and when to be a musician.  This slow motion ending was all about cheesy performing.  If he had to go that way, he should have done the splits when he broke the last word into syllables.  Sheez, Gedeon McKinney would have done both far better.  

All in all though, I thought that Taylor performed very well and made himself the favorite even if the balloting results proved to be more ambiguous.

First was Clive Davis trying to “bobby trap” (darn these double entendres) Katharine?  She’d spent several weeks tripping over Whitney, so he divaishly sticks her with R. Kelly?  Second, no one really remembers the performance just that Katharine talked back to Randy and called the judges out.  For me, it was more a question of who to blame Katharine’s limitations or Clive than it was anything like the “moment” that Simon suggested it was.

I think of this season in general as the year of the “Geek” on “Idol”.  Of  the last three standing, each has an outsiderish quality.  In Katharine’s case, it’s a bit less obvious, but part of her charm is that you sense that she hasn’t gone through life as the babe. When they do the pictures, they skip junior high and high school with her.  There’s something  Lisa Lupner waking up in Catherine Zeta Jones's body (maybe she was heavier or just way tall really early) that at its best gives her a sense of vulnerability on camera.  If you saw the back to Catholic School clips, she wasn’t hugging the football players and the cheerleaders. Her people seemed to be the high school commoners.  I just don’t think high school Katharine was one of the “Plastics”.  

Anyway, here she is suddenly looking like a plastic on national television and her teen years maybe didn’t prepare her for it.  I honestly think her rougher moments come from the fact that she’s not used to the role and doesn’t take to it well.  When she deals with the judges, she’s both giddy and emotionally unprepared.  My side theory is that most Americans have their sense of adult sexual esteem formed some time in junior high school.  If you’re cute and popular as a pre-teen, you can gain a hundred and fifty pounds as an adult and still flirt with confidence.  If you were a geek back then hiding in theater productions, no matter what happens in your adult life you never quite lose that fear of not being fully accepted.

I think perhaps the Judges criticisms occasionally bring out the Lisa Lupner in her.

Of course, I’m basing all of this on absolutely no evidence, but that doesn’t stop anyone else.

Back to topic-“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is the song that put her in the finals.  She was really good. It was sort of Broadway-good and I think that’s possibly the best fit for her, but what’s wrong with that?  Paula is right, the more relaxed Katharine sounds the better she is.  

I differ with the judges on “I Ain’t Got Nothing But the Blues”.  A lot of people have been saying “Didn’t sound like the blues to me” or “Ella did it better.”  First, I know the Ella Fitzgerald version.  She wasn’t Bessie Smith nor is the song really a mournful blues.  In its time it was a pop number and Ella sang it with a smile. In her time, critics often went at Ella Fitzgerald for ignoring the lyric and just going off to scatville.  I don’t think Katharine matches Ella’s vocal purity or subtly perfect sense of time on the song, but that’s not the AI standard.  Even dressed as Nancy Sinatra, it was meant to be a fun song that contrasted with “Rainbow” and in a saner world that’s exactly what she accomplished.  

Maybe she should have aimed a bit higher with her closer, but the judges were harsh.  

Heading into the final, I’d say Taylor comes in off a game with two extra base hits and a single.  Katharine hit a home run and made contact on two outfield flies.  As a fan, I prefer Katharine’s inner-geek, but I won’t threaten to move to Canada if America votes for Taylor.

The best part though is that I just have one more of these to write.

Other Chancelucky Idol Reviews

Sir Linksalot American Idol articles

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Borderline Immigration Policy

At the end of his immigration speech on May 15, the President shared a Reaganesque anecdote about being present at the naturalization of a Marine Sargeant, Guadulupe Denogean, who had come to the United States from Mexico. He didn’t mention the fact that Denogean was naturalized in April of 2003 nor did he mention the fact that Denogean was one of two military men in Bethesda who were naturalized that day. The other was OJ Santamaria, a native of the Phillipines.

The Denogean story is significant because it reveals some of the very slippery ground in what amounts to our cultural borderline personality disorder. Both the President and the news stories were pointedly vague about what Denogean’s precise immigration status was when his family came to pick crops in Arizona when he was a child. (to be clear, I have no idea what it was) For purposes of the 2006 speech, the President rather slyly implied that Denogean’s family had been illegal at some point. As Balidilocks points out, it would be somewhat odd in a speech on “illegal” immigration to be touting a citizenship ceremony for a “legal” resident.

After all, no credible person has argued that “legal” immigrants pose any sort of problems. Some, however, have pointed out that the all the 9/11 highjackers entered the U.S. legally or at least had papers.

Let’s just say that Denogean’s family happened to be illegal at some point. Certainly, he was far too young when they came here to bear any responsibility for having broken American law as opposed to say the moral law of trying to feed one’s family. If you read the Marine Corps press release from 2003, you’ll see that the Sargeant dropped out of high school at age 17 to join the Marines and served in the Corps for some 26 years before becoming a citizen after having been wounded in his second conflict as a U.S. Marine.

In his words, “It was a better life than continuing to work in the fields like his parents had to.”

In any case, I have no problem at all with granting Denogean citizenship regardless of what turns up about the legality of his family's immigration status. I certainly have less problem with any illegals who might be serving than I do with Jonah Goldberg not serving.

At the same time, what a subtle and brilliant plan on the President’s part! Instead of rounding up thousands of illegal immigrants and arresting them or sending them back to their native countries, why not just draft them? There’ve been some problems with recruitment quotas in the last year. After all, most point out that illegal workers already do jobs that not enough Americans care to do.

I could also see this fascinating scenario unfold on our now better-armed border with Mexico. Given all the stories about National Guard units having to stay in Iraq for unexpectedly long tours, we could have National Guard units of former illegals sent to the border to identify and catch illegals. We slap the uniform on the person, implant a tracking chip, and he/she goes from security threat to security asset just like that. It's much better than "catch and release". This way, you never run out of National Guardsmen to round up illegals- solution by induction at its finest.

Yankee fans, the baseball ones, have already seen this transformation by uniform technique work with Johnny Damon.

I will grant that it might be confusing. One day, you’re comparing illegal immigrants to terrorists and drug dealers, the next day the same individual becomes a shining beacon of all that’s good about America, so much so that the President drags out your story three years later. At the same time, everyone’s happy. The former illegal immigrant now has a job that comes with benefits, training, and a path to U.S. citizenship. Conservatives can continue to support the war without actually risking their own children. In the meantime, no illegals are driving cars without licenses, using our public schools, or filling up our emergency rooms. It’s the ultimate guest worker program.

I can’t remember who said that the mark of genius is to hold two mutually contradictory ideas in one’s mind without going crazy. By combining a proposal for a border army to keep out illegal immigrants while simultaneously and subtly endorsing the notion that an illegal immigrant can be a great American by joining the army, the President has clearly asserted his genius.

I do find it interesting that our culture has become obsessed with both illegal immigration and foreign terrorists at the same time I say “foreign” because the second biggest terrorist action on U.S. soil was the Oklahoma City bombing and no one pre-emptively invaded say Michigan to root out the Michigan Militia.

We took our time catching and convicting Terry Nichols and Timothy Macveigh while still respecting the Constitution. After it turned out that the Atlanta Olympics bomber, Eric Rudolph, was an anti-abortion activist, we didn’t send all anti-abortion activists to Guantanamo. Has anyone ever seen some of the stories about the kinds of weapons some of these groups have been accumulating?

To me, the reason is pretty simple.We’re going through yet another stage where we are more comfortable blaming “others” for our problems. Americans don’t want to look at themselves as the source of their woes.

Illegal immigrants are stealing our low-level jobs, yet we somehow have to keep raising the number of H1 visas to bring in high-tech workers and teachers. Illegal immigrants are taking advantage of our health care and education system which both obviously work perfectly but for the demand they place on those institutions. Foreign terrorists threaten us our every waking moment, yet we shoot each other, poison ourselves with alcohol and cigarettes, or simply run over one another in our SUV’s at a far greater rate than any jihadist plots have managed. Should we do anything to say just regulate those problems? Absolutely not-it limits our precious freedom.

By the way, why is it okay to track all our phone calls but not okay to make someone register a gun? One threatens the creation of a police state, but the other is just about keeping us safe?

In the meantime, I look forward to the technology that our genius President referenced to help us police our borders. Perhaps he can pass a law for NSA to implant a chip inside every American and then turn the border into a fifteen hundred mile long bar code scanner. When someone comes through the gate without the chip, a buzzer goes off. Perhaps the President's dad could come out of retirement to help with this project since he seemed so impressed when he saw such a device at the supermarket so many years ago.

Prior to the Fugitive Slave Act, they had a similar idea called the “slave bracelet”. The Germans also used tattoos to help distinguish real Germans from impostors. Perhaps this is the tamper-proof worker ID that he proposed in his speech. So, these kinds of ideas do have a track record.

In any case, I’d like to be the first to volunteer to help the administration with any or all of these plans. I’m sure they know how to reach me by phone these days.
another immigration post link

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

NCVA update pre-June Board Meeting

"Counting the points for the Blue, yellow, and green division became unexpectedly complicated after the person posting them got hungry."

This is an update on the parent group and NCVA.  The board meeting is June 12, 2006.  Please let me know if you have any interest in attending, being informed, etc.  Please do not worry about being an “expert” in anything or “knowing enough”, the group believes that parents are generally the best experts on what their children need and deserve and this has largely been about making certain that the region has a constructive and effective way to hear from its parents.   

After Regionals, we sent the following e-mail to Donna Donaghy, the Regional Commissioner.


Having just gone through both Far Westerns and Regionals as parents, we're exhausted just from following our daughters around. We want to thank you and your staff for putting the two events together. Both events have been running more smoothly each year and we appreciate the enormous effort and attention to detail they take.Now that your "main season" is over, the group would like to take the opportunity to meet again with you. After our preliminary meeting, which we believe was helpful, it was clear that we were just beginning a process and we'd like to visit some of the items on the agenda in more detail.In addition, you informed us that we were to address the board at their June meeting and because you both suggested this group and offered to serve as the intermediary for it, we'd like to work with you to discuss how best to share our concerns and interests with the board.At this point, we are happy to meet any place and time that is mutually convenient and we'll likely have four to five parents to represent the group which cotinues to grow. If you could possibly suggest a time and a place that works for you, that would be helpful. We look forward to meeting with you again. In the meantime, we'll be sending a copy of a renewed agenda for the meeting.


A few minutes later, I received this message.  

Dear Mr. _____
This email is to inform you of information you will need for the June 12th, NCVA Board of Directors meeting being held at the NCVA Offices in SanFrancisco @ 72 Dorman Ave., San Francisco, CA 94124
You have been scheduled to address the Board at 7:30 PM until 8:00 PM.
Due to a continuance of closed session items form the March 13, 2006 NCVA Board of Directors meeting, the June 12th BOD meeting will be in closed session starting at 7:00 PM until 7:30 PM and again from 8:00 PM until the close of the meeting.
We are requesting you supply the following information by 9:00 AM on Monday June 5, 2006 via email to so that the Board can better prepare for the meeting.
Number attending the meeting with you.
Name, contact information and club affiliation of the individuals attending the meeting with you.
Your agenda of the items you will be discussing with the Board.
If you have any questions you can contact me a
Thank you very much and see you on Monday, June 12 at 7:30 p.m.
Donna Donaghy


This morning, Wednesday, May 16, I received the below e-mail.  


I thought I would be hearing from you shortly after our meeting the first weekend in March. My calendar fills up fast and it is easier for me to plan meetings if I have plenty of advance notice. At this time with the Area League Regionals, California Finals and National Championship just around the corner and my already scheduled meetings with other NCVA customers my available dates are June 1st to June 10th . I can meet during the week day or evening and/or during the weekend. Please respond ASAP as my dates fill up quickly. You are welcome to choose a central location for the meeting, I am not sure where the additional parents are coming from, maybe a place in the East Bay will work? I will wait to hear from you.


First I am glad that we are having a second meeting with the commissioner.  E-mail and the Internet have their uses, but in person meetings still work better for certain things.  I look forward to moving forward the original agenda that wanted to set up some better way for the Region to communicate with its parents.  

It did strike both the other members of the parent group and myself that it was a little odd that our meeting with board was to be scheduled between two “closed” sessions.  Many people wanted the opportunity to observe a board meeting just to see how they worked.  In my other life, I often have to review the agendas for public meetings (for Brown Act issues fwiw the Brown Act does not apply to NCVA) and usually the closed sessions don’t sandwich the “open” session.  It’s generally done the other way so that the public has a bit more open-ended opportunity to discuss matters with the board and for the board to respond.  

I also, honestly, had been concerned when I got the first e-mail that it was essentially sending the group the message that the Commissioner was refusing to meet with us other than in the board meeting.  I am very glad that this isn’t the case. We had not requested an earlier meeting because her own letter and e-mail had strongly suggested that she was too busy to meet until now.  As a second matter, the group was not willing to meet until it saw bylaws and budget information.  The bylaws took some time to be posted.  

One final matter and this is personal.  There’s been quite a bit about “Beachgate” and also league points postings recently.  I don’t think these are “Parent” matters per se and generally should be between the clubs and the Region.  I would, however, say that in that both represent some communication issues that the Parent group should have some interest in addressing that aspect of the two issues.

Link to other volleyball and NCVA parent group posts

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Treated Like a Dog

     My wife woke up this morning, Mother’s Day, with a migraine so severe that she had to go to the bathroom twice to throw up.  Kaiser told her to come to the emergency room and after some convincing by me, we went at about 10:30 this morning.  Once there, we had to wait in line at the emergency room for fifteen minutes until an emergency room triage nurse did a quick check to make sure there were no neurological problems.  She then explained that the emergency room keeps a bank of appointments for Kaiser’s weekend clinic and sent my wife over there.  

     We waited for about an hour in a crowded emergency room with the usual assortment of coughing children, elderly people in walkers, and a large middle-aged man in a bathrobe who sprawled out on three of the chairs in the more empty part of the waiting room.  There were a lot of mothers in the clinic waiting room.  One walked by with a big aluminum balloon and a bunch of flowers.  The staff, many of whom were probably mothers too, didn’t especially seem to notice that this was any different from any other Sunday.  Perhaps, Kaiser isn’t allowed to acknowledge Mother’s Day for religious or political reasons.   

     We got seen by a doctor who initially thought my wife was some other patient then walked out the door after she discovered the mistake only to return ten minutes later.  For the fourth time that morning, my wife got to explain her symptoms.  The doctor did a second set of neurological tests that looked like a longer version of the one done in the emergency room waiting area.  She mentioned to my wife that the onset of the migraines might be do to menopause (a true happy Mother’s Day moment) then sent her off to the pharmacy to fill her prescription.

     We waited in a third line at the pharmacy for half an hour until we noticed that everyone who had been there when we started had already picked up their order.  My wife got in line despite the fact that her name hadn’t appeared on the board, the clerk then explained that the Doctor had sent the order to the wrong pharmacy. My wife's migraine suddenly got worse.  We waited another fifteen minutes which ended with my wife complaining to the clinic and me listening to the pharmacist explain how she was supposed to put the pill on her tongue without water and that if she still had the headaches after taking the pills three times in a day, she needed to come back to the doctor.

     We came home at two in the afternoon.  Our daughter saved the day by making Greek pizza and fruit sorbet for Mother’s Day dinner.  

     A month ago, Lucky the eleven year old border collie had gotten sick to the point that she wouldn’t eat her food and was spending most of her day just lying on the deck.  We first thought she might be reaching the natural end of her life, but decided to take her to the vet to make sure.  We made the appointment that morning.  The vet works out of a restored Victorian that has a sunny waiting room with two friendly receptionists who complimented my dog while reaffirming the description of the symptoms I provided over the phone.  

     Within about ten minutes, a tech came in to check out the dog and gave her a full body exam while jotting down some notes.  The exam room was clean, pleasant, and looked out on a fenced yard.  The Vet came in as scheduled, petted the dog, asked some pointed questions then presented three courses of action.  She asked me to wait a few minutes while she made up a batch of antibiotics and I returned with dog to the waiting room where the receptionist asked how the dog was.  

     Within a few days, Lucky was doing fine.  Fwiw, my wife was also fine this evening, but I’m still struck by the stark contrast between the quality of my dog’s veterinary care and my wife’s Mother’s Day experience at Kaiser.  I’m threatening to insist on going to the vet the next time I get sick.

     I’m trying to figure out some of the reasons.  A simple one is that there are probably good and bad vets just as there are good and bad Kaisers or hospitals of any kind.  Some other things came to mind.

  1. The vet world doesn’t involve insurance much.  There’s a direct relationship between the payer and the provider of services.  I’m not sure what kind of malpractice vets have but I suspect it’s not as significant a percentage of the cost of running a practice.

  1. Vets don’t have to keep patients alive at all costs.  The owner and the vet are free to decide when prolonging life makes sense.  

  1. Vets honestly seem to like their patients and their jobs much better.

There are some other differences.  One big one is that we don’t have anything close to universal health care for dogs and cats.  Another is that most animals don’t talk back, but will bite if you treat them badly. Of course we don’t have universal health care for children either. Certainly, some people treat their pets better than some people treat their children.  Still I have to ask what kind of screwy society has veterinarians who understand "humane" better than those who treat people?

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

American Idol (review) Chris Daughtry Leaves the Building

I got a call from Elvis after the results show aired on the west coast.  First, he wasn’t happy about the way Priscilla looked.  

EP: This is what happens when you let your daughter marry Michael Jackson.

CL: It must have been a pretty painful period for you.

EP:  Uh ah hunh.

CL:  You know, I never expected to get a cell phone call from Elvis, but I’ve got to say I like that “Little Less Conversastion” ring tone.  

The king ignored my comment as he was on a little bit of a roll.

EP And that Simon reminds me of Colonel Tom, he’s always telling everyone what they should do, what they shouldn’t do.

CL: Simon Cowell knows talent though.  Robson and Jerome were like the British Elvis.

EP: And who the heck let Tommy Mottola into my house?  Memphis mafia is one thing, but….

CL: He was cleared by Sony before they promoted him…Elvis, what’s your point here? I’ve got a blog to write.

EP:  Those leeches use my house and my memory, but does anyone ask me, the real American Idol?

CL:  Ask you what?

EP:  Who should win…..I had to spend all Tuesday night dialing Katharine McPhee’s 866 number on my cell phone.

CL:  You voted for Katharine?

EP:  Sure, ever seen pictures of Priscilla or Ginger Alden in dark wigs? (he sends me photos on my cell)

CL: But Elvis, it’s supposed to be a singing contest.  It’s all about the music.

EP:  Yeah right and “Change of Habit” should have been best picture. Speaking of which, Mary Tyler Moore was kind of hot, even as a nun.

CL:  (I cross myself)It was better than Blue Hawaii and GI Blues.  (I hear the sound of a 45 magnum and what sounds like an exploding television in the background)

EP:  You know, I thought I had an in on the voting anyway.  Ginger and Teri Hatcher were both on Capitol when Ryan Seacrest was in middle school, but then Ryan went and screwed it up.  (EP sends me an old film clip)

CL:  Are you saying that you got Chris Daughtry eliminated?

EP:  This was American Idol not American Kojak.

CL:  Come on, really?

EP:  I’m sure the NSA has the phone logs.  

CL:  Wow, I didn’t think of that.  NSA can probably count the votes better than Dial Idol. You know, that’s kind of spooky.

EP:  They might have called me the “King”, but that George W., he’s serious about being “King”.

CL: Being King is one thing, but modelling yourself on King John the Second before Runnymede and the Magna Carta, I'm a little less sure.

EP: Anyway ask your friend Karl Rove, he’s got the NSA report. (Elvis sends me the document via text message)

CL: Wow, five million votes for Katharine McPhee from a cell phone in Memphis.  By the way, thirteen people with Jihadist ties voted for Taylor Hicks...Why Taylor?

EP:  My contact at the NSA tells me that they think when Taylor makes those funny noises that it sounds like coded messages in Arabic.  

CL:  No way.

EP:  Look, you’ve got to trust in the U.S. Male my friend.

CL:  So why not Elliott instead of Chris?

EP:  I almost threw some votes Elliott's way.  He loves his mother.  I put a Star of David on my mother’s grave.  He did a great job on “Trouble” and he found a song that even I don’t remember singing.  But talk about someone they should only shoot from the waist up on tv!  That boy can’t move at all.

CL:  Did you like Taylor’s “In the Ghetto”?

EP:  You know he sounded pretty good, but this is the era of personal responsibility.  In 1969, a white southerner like me singing about generational poverty made him seem relevant and with it. Elvis starts singing,

People, don’t you understand
The child needs a helping hand
Or he’ll grow to be an angry young man some day
Take a look at you and me,
Are we too blind to see,
Do we simply turn our heads
And look the other way

CL: Darn Elvis, that game me the chills. Didn't know you were a liberal.

EP:  Elvis sang it. People should believe it.

CL:  You got a point there.

EP: If Taylor wanted to sound modern, he should have sung about tax cuts and how poor people are just lazy or just need faith-based intitiatives.

CL: Are there songs like that?

EP:  There are libertarians who support the president on this NSA thing and having an Air Force General run the CIA, so I’d say anything is possible.

CL:  Elvis, I didn’t know you followed politics this closely.

EP:  I used to call Richard Nixon in the middle of the night.  If you remember the story, he was going to make me an honorary DEA agent. That’s why I was working so hard on my karate.

CL:  Elvis, you and this whole DEA thing….Uh, I have to say given what I’ve read about your later habits, it’s kind of well….

EP:  Look, if Rush Limbaugh can tell drug addicts that they have to take personal responsibility for their crimes, I could have been a DEA agent…..(in the background)  Can you fry me up another peanut butter and banana sandwich?

CL: Can we talk about the show?  Taylor always talks about Joe Cocker and Ray Charles, but the facial expressions and some of his dance moves kind of seem like they were lifted from you?

EP:  You mean like Elvis on LSD?

CL:  Well, I wasn’t going to say that.  

EP:  Man, if he wants to be original, he’s got to figure out whether it’s “Soul Patrol” or “Sold Out Patrol”.  I mean they need to ask Elvis.  Elvis knows about that stuff.  You know what gets me….They do my night and not one of them has the fashion sense to perform in a white jump suit with rhinestones and a red scarf.  I thought that show had stylists working for them.

CL:  Can we talk about Chris a little more?

EP:  Yeah, you hear that interview after he got eliminated?

CL:  Elvis, for those of us who are still in the building, the People Magazine and Entertainment Weekly interviews haven’t happened yet.

EP:  Well, they will.  Elvis would never have given an interview like that.  Humble and polite. None of this “My fans must have been too sure I was gonna win stuff”.

CL:  But there are suspicious minds out there who say the vote off couldn’t have been right.

EP:  There are suspicious minds about the jump in the cost of Fuel, maybe the two are related.  Geez, talk about paranoid.  Anyway, I did Chris a favor.

CL:  A favor?

EP:  Sure, here’s a guy with two kids a wife.  He loves his family.  Everyone says what a decent guy he is.  Look at my life.  Taking drugs just to perform two hundred and fifty nights a year for an agent who took almost as much of the money as 19E’s contract does.  People wanting me to be Elvis, wanting something from Elvis.  You think a guy who can’t decide between boxers or briefs is going to survive that?  

CL:  Elvis, I got to ask you straight out about Katharine.  You don’t think she got a little screechy and she shook up one your lyrics.

EP:  Did you notice how quickly they said Mariah Carey in the Tommy Mottola film clip?

CL: I do remember they said Jennifer Lopez and Hall and Oates awful loudly first, but I thought that was to keep Randy from yelling out “I worked with Mariah.”

EP:  Look.  If you’re an idol like me, you know it’s kind of lonely.  Do I want to hang out with Chris, Taylor, and Elliott as fellow Idols or do I want to hang out with a young woman with a great voice who looks like Priscilla pre-Michael Jackson’s mother in law phase?  

CL: Well America.  There you have it.  The King has spoken and apparently voted 5 million times in two hours.  I guess it helps if you can be in any time zone you want to be.

EP:  It’s now three to get ready and go Kat go, uh hunh.

One other note:
     On Wednesday morning, my wife who now swears that she’s not going to watch the show again this year left an unopened package of boxer-briefs on the bed.  The problem is that they weren’t my size so it made me a little suspicious.  I started looking at our credit card statements and found all these fed-ex bills on days when she bought junk food, sun block, cologne, and well the list goes on.  Anyway, I confronted her about it and she says I should never have bid on that yellow dress on E-Bay that already had a rip in it.  
     Elvis wisely counseled us.  “Don’t be Cruel or you’ll wind up in Heartbreak Hotel.  Love her Tender and you’ll be back on the Mystery Train of love.” I can now honestly say that Elvis and the cell phone company that sponsors Idol saved my marriage and our happiness.  

I just hate having to shave my head every day along with carving those funny patterns in my sideburns.  Also, she’s making me take a microphone twirling class and I bopped myself in the head a couple times.  So Chris needs to know, if America and Elvis didn’t necessarily love him enough there are plenty of people who still do.  

I’m just hoping tonight we have a little less conversation, but I'm afraid she's going to make me be John Peter Lewis.

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

American Idol (review) Paris Bennett's Last Kiss

When this Idol season started gas was just two dollars a gallon and the tv news was talking about getting out of Iraq instead of nuking Iran. I’m pretty sure that Paris Bennett was in middle school and Taylor Hicks had dark hair. I vaguely remember that they were talking about Ace Young being one of the favorites and Elliott Yamin was in danger of being lost among charismatic performers like Mandisa and Kellie Pickler. I was still having nightmares about Kevin Covais outlasting Scot Savol.

As I watched Tuesday’s show from my hotel room in Florida this week, I got this odd but in some ways relieved feeling that I’d run out of things to say about the show. In much the same way the blogosphere had stopped finding new ways to dissect Stephen Colbert’s doing the dozens with W at the press corps dinner. Of course, this president is expected to face less criticism than your Average Idol contestant.

I’d heard Taylor Hicks chant “soul patrol” a hundred and seventy two times. I knew Paris Bennett would say “thank yew” in her squeaky voice even if Simon was saying “That was completely unlistenable. Had I compared it to nails on a chalkboard, it would have insulted chalkboards.”

I even knew the exact moment Chris Daughtry would strangle his microphone stand.

As I watched Katharine McPhee self-consciously avoid a repeat wardrobe malfunction instead of connect to yet another power ballad, I was starting to tell myself”Wow, that Cal Ripken did the most incredible thing!”

Can you imagine watching seventeen hundred episodes of Idol in a row?

In any case, what are you supposed to comment about when there’s no weird musical guest to somehow slight one of the singers, the judges do almost nothing bizarre, Kellie Pickler is gone, and the music itself never quite makes it to memorable? Had Sominex become the show’s news sponsor?

I have to say that what’s been an entertaining season is now seemingly flirting with boredom.

Years ago, there was a Super Bowl that ended like 16-14 with a last second field goal miss. As close as it was, the game simply wasn’t exciting because each team mostly turned the ball over and there were no spectacular plays. With the show down to five finalists and each one now asked to do two songs on the same installment, it was an opportunity for one of them to grab the viewer’s attention and declare himself or herself the frontrunner.

Instead, the survivors chose to kick musical field goals. There was Chris Daughtry rocking away again with "Renegade." The judges loved it, but I found myself thinking during the better of his two rock out numbers, “Sure, fine, but is this any better than the eight other times you did this?”

Taylor Hicks jumped around the stage and into the audience with “Play that Funky Music White Boys,” as the Taylor the Soul Patrol knows and loves while the rest of America may have wondered if he did his bit any better than way back when on the show when he was Taking it to the Streets.

There was Elliott Yamin doing the R&B bit with George Benson’s cover of “On Broadway”. If you ever saw the way Bob Fosse choreographed Benson’s version to undulate with anticipatory energy to open All That Jazz, you would know that America’s best film choreographer couldn’t have managed the same thing over Yamin’s take on the classic.

Finally, there was Paris Bennett shimmying through a way too adult Prince song in yet another hairstlye. If she was doing one of those Sandy-like transformations from Grease, it felt more like dress up than full-on “Wow, what happened to Paris, the girl who sang Streisand last week?”

In all five cases, I was certain that each of the finalists had done this and done it better at some point. The judges appeared so bored that they didn’t even summon the energy to put on their usual sideshow. Idol fatigue had announced itself. Whatever was good about the singing, I’d simply seen too many times.

Had I been directing, I would have sent Simon and maybe Paula into the locker room at halftime to do the Vince Lombardi thing as they switched form song from the year you were born to something on the current Billboard Chart.

“If you really want to be the bloody American Idol then maybe you want to sing like it,” he might have said, “This is like some karaoke bar, at a wedding celebration, in a second rate saloon, on a cruise ship somewhere, if I had to be perfectly honest.”

Paula could have said something like,”Guys, you sing about as well as I did, but… I could dance.”

Perhaps the producers could have brought in Balco labs and given them the musical equivalent of steroids. Actually, I would have settled for Barry Bonds singing, not even to the grand jury, over the been there done that feel of the first half of this week’s show. I’m fine with baby pictures and all, but at the rate this was going I was convinced that I didn’t care who won this year because I’m not going to remember him or her anyway six months from now.

Totally random, but does anyone else remember Mitch Miller urging the audience at home to sing along by following the bouncing ball? I guess I actually listen when they talk about the social security trust fund for a reason. To be fair, Idol is better tv than that was.

The second half was better, but not markedly so. Elliott did a Michael Buble song about wanting to go home. While he sang it well enough, I’ll mostly remember that he broke the jinx by not turning the title of a song like that into wish fulfillment.

Chris rocked again then explained that his voice is wearing out as the judges went “Meh, meh, okay I get it, you’re a rock singer.”

Paris did Mary J. Blige and a few days later I just don’t much remember it. This is a shame. Paris may have the biggest musical upside of any of this year’s finalists. At seventeen, she proved herself the most versatile finalist and with the one exception of country night I thought there was always at least something to like about her performances.

If, however, you asked me what she will be singing in eight years when and if she gets our attention again on the charts, or whatever they call them in the second decade of peer to peer file sharing, I couldn’t tell you.

This makes perfect sense for a seventeen year old. As is often the case with these step into fame scenarios, I suspect that even she knows that she’s better off going out now than actually winning and getting trapped into being a “star” without first finding a musical identity. When Lisa Tucker returned last week to plug her appearance on the O.C., she hardly seemed upset to be in the audience instead of on stage.

Katharine Mcphee sang "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" while dancing on her knees to the rhythms of two guys playing something called the “box drum”. She was good at it. It was different from the diva in training she’d affected over the last couple weeks and it kept her in contention. The only problem is that her self-admitted miss on "Against All Odds" hurt her odds because it raised the question “Has any winner whiffed that badly this late in the show?”

Taylor Hicks then took on that brand new song “Something” by a hot new group from England called the “Beatles”. The interesting thing about the choice was that mellow Taylor hadn’t worked after the first time or so some seven weeks ago. This time, he showed that he could go slow and soft and keep it interesting without having to spaz out at all. Also, a lawyer from Apple Computer came on to explain that after the court ruling, all Beatles songs are now "current" hits on itunes without any need to mention Apple Music.

It wasn’t just a change of pace. It also appeared to remind America yet again that the music of thirty five years ago somehow stands up better (even if you’re kneeling like Katharine) than most of the actual contemporary stuff on the Billboard charts. Actually the last time anyone cared about Billboard Magazine was also probably when the Beatles were still together.

Now that it’s down to four. The judges continue to work hard to make Chris Daughtry the favorite. Perhaps it’s because he’s the only one with a family to support. He’s also had at least one strong performance in each of the last two weeks. I’m wondering if Taylor and Elliott have anything new to reveal musically at this point. Actually, one could say the same of Chris, but at least based on the judges’ reaction, he doesn’t need a trick play at this point in the game.

Katharine McPhee, who has already had someone bring out the Elvis in her, remains the one who seems to have the best chance of pulling the “upset” by maybe scoring big as Katharine McPhee rather than daughter of diva dearest who can’t sing high notes. “No more wiry melisma, no more wiry melisma!”

Other than seeing Chris Daughtry or Elliott Yamin come out in a white jumpsuit as lounge lizard Elvis (Katharine Mcphee as early Elvis impersonator would also be cool), what I’d like best is to see one of the performers go for the bomb, even if it’s just a Randy bomb, and actually generate some excitement during Graceland week.

Speaking of Graceland, it’s in my head that if he’d ever do it, Paul Simon (think of all the great "Paula"-"Simon" jokes there would be in it) week might be a good fit for the remaining finalists. In the meantime, wasn’t Tommy Mottola married to Mariah Carey and is he going to help them channel Elvis or urge them all to go Diva City which I heard is just west of Russellville, Arkansas? And what’s the over under on the number of minutes before Randy makes a reference to working with Tommy Mottola or Mariah in some way?

Otherwise if none of the finalists find a way to step up the excitement next week, America may soon learn for sure that Elvis is alive and home at Graceland next Tuesday night when he pulls out the magnum and shoots his tv set again.
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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The End of Time

Sorry I haven’t posted in a few days.  My daughter had a long volleyball tournament in Reno and I went straight from there to a conference in Orlando, Florida.  The Coronado Springs resort is quite pleasant.  It’s built around a big, likely artificial lagoon.  The main swimming pool surrounds a replica of a Mayan pyramid only they have a water slide instead of an altar for carrying out human sacrifices.  My friend Pogblog is rather big on the whole business of Mayan time.  The Mayans being agricultural had a sophisticated calendar system, but a very different conception of time from ours.  The western calendar is linear and begins with a date that’s supposed to be based on the birth of Christ.  Strangely, though Christ’s actual birthday in that calendar system is not January 1 in the year 1 (01:01:01).  Instead it comes one week from the end of the calendar year, which means that Christ was either born in a year that’s BC or before Christ before the beginning of “Christian Time” or Christian time somehow began eleven months before the birth of Christ.

The whole Christian calendar actually doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you think about matters.  First, the religion believes both in the resurrection which suggests that Christ was in some sense reborn and it does occur to me that that particular “miracle” really should be the year 1 and Easter should mark the beginning of the year.  Second, the Bible endorses the notion of the “End of Time” when God calls all true believers into a kind of perpetual paradise after frying the rest of us.  It occurs to me that if these Christians were serious about this whole rapture business, they should check in with Hal Lindsey and start counting years and days in reverse (counting down instead of up) as we near the rapture.  Personally, I believe that the Christian rapture is likely to be a lot more like God’s version of the y2k bug.  There’s all this talk and preparation for the catastrophe, then not a whole lot appears to happen.  Fwiw, If you ask my brother in law who happens to be a Jehovah’s Witness, we’ve been living at the end of days since World War 1, it’s just that no one told us gentiles.

Still, no matter how many dogs, women in bikinis, or pictures of mountains they stick on our calendars, it can't cover over the fact that our system of time is relentlessly flat and boxy. I'd just say that a calendar system that just goes year to year never differentiating one from the other implies that life and us don't have a whole lot of point against the backdrop of Western timemarking.

In any case, if you’ve ever seen one of those Mayan calendars, they look like big coins in that they are flattened  embossed circles.  The circularity is no accident, the Mayans believed that time was not linear, but continuous and circular.  Pogblog tells me that we’ve hit some big date in Mayan time and that the new cycle brings on a spiritual awakening for everyone rather than this whole business of God picking teams at the end.

I imagine that thousands of kids a year go down that water slide built into the Mayan Temple at Disney’s Coronado resort without much thinking about the implications of calendars and time.  There is no there in these thousands of acres of former swampland reshaped by Disney into a family vacation paradise.  It’s really just a sanitized vacation version of a suburban development.  The architecture is hauntingly similar.  In fact, much of Orlando itself looks like any other place in America.  Shopping centers have the same stores and layouts.  Housing developments are all conceptualized around homes that contain all basic functions with each household having a yard and a place to park one’s horse or vehicle.  Disney’s resorts more or less are designed in the same spirit.  

Everything is standardized, sanitized, and anonymized.  I was there for three days, western time, and after the second day I wasn’t exactly sure how long I had been there since there are no signs there of actual history or development.  One gets the impression that no one’s ever been shot at Disney world, gotten divorced, or had a nervous breakdown.  As long as you have money to keep spending there, you are free to enjoy its blandness as long as you can stand.  There’s even a guard at the gate to make sure that no one who hasn’t booked at the resort drives in just to get a look around.  

Unlike my friend Pogblog, I don’t know that the Mayans were necessarily swell people.  At the same time, I’m not sure what they would think of having their sacred architecture turned into a water slide.  I think they’d enjoy the pool and if they happened to have one of those credit card vouchers that comes with your room (Mayan credit cards would probably have been circular though where you go broke then get rich then go broke), they might have enjoyed the vaguely exotic drinks that come out of the poolside bar.  I suspect they’d look at the assembled vacationers around their faux Mayan pyramid and wonder how such a bland, soul less people (at least based on the place) always confused passing time with their notions of the passage of time as a spiritual event. I mean first they came to find a fountain of youth, now they build these big fountains filled with youths.

Our Christian dominated culture seems so obsessed with the end of time and far too little concerned with the point of time, but that may be what happens when you hae a God who insists on choosing sides. I'm beginning to wonder if our own stagnant cutural spirituality is the result of tying ourselves into the literal Kantian box of a calendar system that looks on time as the number of times one body orbits another rather than as something that measures changes inside us.



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