The Raw and the Cooked (Idol 7 finale)
At the end of Tuesday night, Randy “phonebook” Jackson was telling America that the show was all about picking the best singer and how that was David Archuleta. By itself, that might make for an interesting debate. Instead of talking about the two Davids trapped inside that boxing metaphor from hell, my mind wandered briefly to Melinda Doolittle. Did someone not get Randy’s memo last season? I don’t think anyone seriously argued that Blake Lewis was a better singer than Melinda. Talk of Jordin Sparks vs. the former backup singer wasn’t about chest voices, head voices, breath support, articulation, etc. , mostly it was that the Arizona teenager was more the total package. Does anyone remember how hard Simon Cowell made his case for Melinda Doolittle as the real singer at the end of last year’s round of 3? Similarly two years ago, Katharine Mcphee had more of a voice (in a conventional sense) than Taylor Hicks. Honestly, I’m wondering what show Randy Jackson was watching the last couple seasons.
A few weeks ago, I came out for David Cook and compared David Archuleta to a singing blender. I then started hearing from rabid David Archuleta fans. Much to my surprise, they didn’t seem to be teenaged girls waving their arms in the front row of my blog. One guy claimed to be a former Deadhead. More surprisingly, I heard from two voice teachers (yeah, I know that one never knows who anyone really is on the net, but they seem real enough) both gushing about David Archuleta’s amazing voice and extraordinary musicality. Apparently, they call him “the voice”.
I have to say that was pretty clearly in evidence on his version of Imagine on Tuesday and in the way he threw down the gauntlet not to David Cook, but Clay Aiken, with Elton John’s Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me. At the same time, David Cook sang quite well on Tuesday fwiw I thought it was th best-performed final I've seen on the show. Still I don’t know that there was any diminished-chord conspiracy when the judges more or less prostrated themselves before Little David on Tuesday as he shook his head, said “Gee Thanks” “Wow”, then sighed in the general direction of the camera.
My own kids are very athletic. In fact, I missed part of the finale because we were attending an awards banquet last night for our youngest (long story about my daughter changing the channel when she came home that afternoon and winding up with two hours of Flavor of Love on our digital video recorder). While they were quite successful in their sport when it came time to be recruited by colleges the fact that they didn’t have the ideal body for their sport came up repeatedly. In essence, it didn’t matter what they did in the actual games. Recruiting is often about “potential” first. Coaches tend to think they can fix the other stuff. Personally, I don’t think that’s necessarily true.
I bring this up, because I see a bit of a parallel with the Davids. I suspect that music producers and the people who market pop music tend to think they can teach stagecraft, song choice, image management (compare the early photos of David C to the newer ones). They also know how rare a really good voice is. It’s about the equivalent of being seven feet tall and coordinated in basketball. Anyway, basketball coaches think constantly about upside and I would guess that music producers and teachers sometimes do the same. In other words, they weren’t necessarily noticing what was happening on the AI stage as much as they were simultaneously figuring what was possible with someone with David Archuleta’s voice, look, and youth.
All that said, I’d love to know the behind the scenes story for this year. While I think the voting is reasonably honest, I do think the producers and the judges (they may not have the same agenda btw) have been blatantly manipulative at times. For most of the beginning of the season, David Archuleta was clearly the judges and the producer’s favorite. He got the pimp spot twice in the early rounds and even when he forgot his lyrics and more or less stopped mid Beatles song, Paula and Randy were suspiciously forgiving.
After the show last night, I looked at some of the early clips of David Cook. It’s clear that Simon was concerned about the guy’s marketability. Btw, I never found any reference to the brother during the Omaha audition. In Hollywood he not only accused him of having to hide behind the guitar, but actually voted “no” on David Cook. Fwiw, Simon voted “no” on Taylor Hicks and Chris Daughtry as well. My favorite came after a semi-final performance of “All Right Now” where Simon played the “Charisma” card and David Cook said “That’s for voters to decide”. It showed a little rocker backbone, but the weirdest part was that Simon turned it into a “bitch” fest. So much for a couple longstanding Idol myths, Simon Cowell is often wrong in a big way and sometimes contestants do talk back to him and thrive. The very next week David Cook did “Hello” and essentially vaulted past Amanda Overmyer (an early judges’ favorite) to become this year’s real rocker and “artiste”.
By the finals, it was clear that the two Davids were both judges and producer favorites. That’s the only explanation for the whole screaming girl thing that quietly disappeared during the final. My take is that the show was especially excited by the “tween” market, but something happened during Idol Cares and her name was Miley Cyrus. She not only sang two songs on the telethon, she also got an extended and painfully bad skit with Billy Crystal. I suspect that Miley Cyrus’s inclusion on the show basically bombed. Worse yet, she got a bunch of bad publicity for the Vanity Fair shoot with Annie Liebovitz all of two weeks later. Suddenly, having a male Miley who actually can sing doesn’t seem like such a sure thing. In the meantime, people start accusing Billy Ray Cyrus of being yet another bad stage parent.
With Miley suddenly looking more like Lyndsay, Britney, and the lost Olsen twin, the producers start noticing Jeff Archuleta a bit more. I don’t know that he did anything different in those last few weeks, but he became his son’s Jeremiah Wright and the producers ran with it at the critical moment by letting America know that they’d banned Jeff from being backstage in the name of fairness.
There is a point during the Idol season when the music matters less than the story. When you get to the final 6, the singers generally have some reasonable level of talent. In the last couple years, the finalists have worked in very different genres as well so it’s even more difficult to compare the music. This became the story for Season 8.
David Archuleta: really talented, but almost genetically-engineered to be a pop star. Overbearing stage father who manages every musical choice. Started so early with Junior Star Search that he nearly hurt his voice (oddly Jordin Sparks hurt her voice earlier this year) between Junior Star Search and Idol. Not terribly articulate though very pleasant personally. You know all that talk about thoroughbreds being forced to run too early? The whole bit of David Archuleta hugging fellow Junior Star Search alum, Alexandria Lushington, seemed like a long lost memory when they showed it during the finale. Btw, did you notice how many shots of Jeff they suddenly showed this week and then a whole bit with the Grandfather pointedly saying how proud he is of his son as well?
Yes, he didn’t seem to have a great sense of rhythm which I maintain is a big part of the “pop” in pop music. He also didn’t inject much personality into his performances. Every performer has strengths and weaknesses though. David’s storyline was still “Child Star”. Whether it’s horses or humans, this hasn’t been a good year to be a “child star”. Just as significant, there was this undercurrent of “even if he doesn’t win” he’ll get his chance.
David Cook: Hard working, unassuming, a little bit nerdy with the word thing, certainly talented. But also a great brother to one brother who maybe didn’t sing as well and another with cancer. Mom and Dad seem almost scary normal No-temparment issues. Very generous on stage. Smart enough and mature enough to deal with the quirks of the Idol judges. Crying at just the right moments as his time comes just before the dream of a national career fades out. The guy Simon said didn’t have the charisma to do it. The guy who let his music speak for itself and who didn’t frantically try for a charisma fix.
David A’s musical big brother, a guy old enough to have perspective on the whole Idol thing.
So tell me, which story’s going to make people vote? No shock that David Cook won by something like a 16% margin. Of course, if this were a Democratic primary that would mean that David Cook would have gotten 13 delegates and David Archuleta would get 11. I have heard that Idol 9’s getting super delegates.
The actual singing on Tuesday and the judges’ reactions didn’t really matter. I believe the America was voting on the two Davids very different storylines. This one was Taylor Hicks the hard working guy who almost quit the music business in frustration vs. Katharine Mcphee the tv producer’s daughter with the vocal teacher mother.
In the meantime, the show has both Davids to promote. I suspect that David Archuleta actually won a bit by losing, because it wasn’t handed to him after all.
One of the oddest things about the season was that this was the year of the ringer, yet it went strangely flat for several weeks. I have heard that the finale did very well in the ratings though, I suspect partly because whatever happened on Tuesday with Simon proclaiming the knockout had much of America yelling “low blow” and demanding the tko the other way really built some doubt about the winner on Wednesday. Anyway, I did start thinking about which finalists actually could have careers and I was a bit surprised to count half a dozen or so- the two Davids-Carly Smithson-Michael Johns-Syesha- Jason Castro- Brooke White. I’m not saying I’d pay to download their music, just that I could see that happening with any of them. So why was the season so boring?
I believe that part of the magic of tv is the power of the unexpected. There were certainly surprises this year. Anyone who saw the Hollywood rounds and the semifinals then left the planet might be a little surprised that Carly Smithson or David Archuleta didn’t win. There were also a number of early exits for various contestants. Michael Johns might have been the most notable. Still, those aren’t the kinds of surprises that matter. The longest lasting shows on tv think Johnny Carson, Bonanza, MASH, ER have always found ways to reinvent themselves without violating the essential identity of the show.
Idol hasn’t exactly done that yet.
All the talk of greater talent and more professional experience this year and I think the most compelling story on the show might have been the opposite of that. The producers missed the opportunity to present the most provocative contrast of all. Think about the buzz of David Archuleta’s story line being compared to Josiah Leming. They should have let Josiah Leming get voted off on his own. I think Levi-Strauss called it The Raw and the Cooked:}
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