Saturday, January 27, 2007

American Idol 6-State of the Union Week

I turned on the Memphis auditions for American Idol on Tuesday night and there was Ryan Seacrest talking to America about alternative energy sources, global climate change, and how to save the health care system through tax deductions. Even though he smirked every now and then along with Dick Cheney who happened to be in the audience I think because Ryan is the donor for the vice- president’s soon to be next grandchild, little Defense of Marriage Cheney, Ryan seemed a little more serious than usual.

I looked a little more closely it occurred to me that it maybe wasn’t Ryan at all, but his co-host from the "Celebration of Freedom" concert in Washington, DC, in January of 2005. I thought about it a little more though and realized that this couldn’t possibly be George W. Bush, because that guy only talked about drilling the Arctic refuge, didn’t believe in global warming, and was assuring us that victory in Iraq was just around the corner. Back then, people who liked him said his best quality was that he knew what was right and stuck to it. So this obviously wasn’t that W. and this couldn’t be the State of the Union.

I thought, “What a clever idea! Idol and the Fox Network have gone Saturday Night Live and they’re using this parody of the State of the Union to boost the Ai's ratings. “

I was very excited to hear whether Simon, Paula, and Randy thought this guy should go on to the next round of American leader , but that never happened. Instead, they had this guest judge named Jim Webb who accused this would be American Leader of all sorts of macaca. The guy sure has aged since he wrote "Macarthur Park" and "Up Up and Away."

It was clearly a wasted opportunity. I wanted to see Simon say “You know that wasn’t “Mission Accomplished” or even “Bring ‘Em On”,”

The W-impersonator would then say, “Well, mistakes were made.”

Simon: “I’m not being rude, but you need to go back to Crawford and give up singing for America. Maybe you can hang out with your good friend and neighbor Ted Nugent and go ride a mountain bike or something.”

Randy: “Yes, a thousand percent. You didn’t blow it out there, man. That just wasn’t good.”

Paula: “Keep dreaming. Believe in yourself, because you’re not nearly as cute as that Jenry guy from the New York auditions so I’m not going to vote for you either.”

The rest of the hour of the State of the Idol show took a kinder-gentler turn than the Seattle auditions. Simon was pointedly nice comparing Roy Head’s son Sundance favorably to Taylor Hicks. By the same token, I guess that wasn’t a nice thing to say if you happen to be Taylor Hicks. Still, as he often is about entertainment matters Simon was right. This guy does have a much better voice. It’ll be interesting to see if he can be as tactically adept as Taylor.

In fact, the only bitter reaction they showed was from Wandera Hitchye who had some reason to be mad. She sang a bluesy thing quite well and certainly better than some of those sent on to Hollywood. For whatever reason, the judges told her “Really good singers who do your thing are a dime a dozen.”

This of course explains why some genuinely mediocre singers find their way to the top twelve each year. In the meantime, I suspect the effort involved in being “nice” for a whole city’s worth of auditions got to Simon Cowell. The next week, Mr. Professional apparently stayed out too late drinking in New York and missed half a day’s worth of auditions.

Essentially the audition shows are like NFL exhibition games. If you buy a season ticket for your favorite NFL team, you have to pay for the exhibition games too even though they don’t count in the standings and most of the players will be gone by the time the real season starts. The formula is simple. Idol gets to sell three more weeks worth of advertisements. At the same time, they have the Hollywood rounds where you already get a better feel for the eventual finalists and their back stories. For the last two years at least, the main objective of the audition rounds has been to find the next William Hung.

How big a thing was William Hung? Quick, name three other famous Asian-American males. Okay, there’s Tiger Woods and Keanu Reeves. Does Yao Ming count as an American? There’s that guy who’s secretary of transportation. What’s his name anyway? Maybe Hines Ward. Interesting isn’t it? The ones who are household names aren’t normally thought of as Asian. I have no idea what that says about race and the whole William Hung phenomenon.

In any case, Idol’s producers work overtime to bring on the quirky in the audition rounds. How else do you explain the ten minutes they devoted to Ian Benardo in New York or Travis Mckinney “I wrote this song for my girlfriend” guy or the Paula stalker guy who got to call his ex-wife the “B” word on television. It’s odd to me, but as much as they pay Idol staff to have an ear for this stuff. They never got William Hung. It wasn’t that he was bad or that he was a bit outside the norm. The thing that America took to was that he was too nice for the show. He endeared America because at the end of what should have been his 90 seconds of fame the guy said “Okay, I tried my best. Thank you” . In the midst of what was intended to be the snidest, smirkiest, snark moment of that year’s auditions, Hung managed to both let people laugh at/with him and still injected dignity and grace into it.

The producer do have a dramatic touch. They introed Sean Michel as if he were going to be one of the crazies. They often intro really bad singers as if they’re going to be great. Michel came out looking like the ultimate anti-American Idol, dressed as some cross between Fidel Castro and Osama. I even briefly wondered if my comparisons between the show and terrorists last week had gotten to Nigel et. al. Michel then let loose with an intense version of “God Will Cut You Down” (interesting choice for an Osama impersonat) and got himself to Hollywood where he was immediately invited to dinner by Sean Penn and Tim Robbins.

There was also an actually charming segment with Melinda Doolittle, the career backup singer unleashed a soaring “For Once in My Life” and managed to come off as genuinely modest before she performed and genuinely relieved after she got voted to Hollywood. After the show I even tivoed back to her audition. Gee, they actually did draw a character I wanted to root for.

I compare this to the odd segment of the guy who came to the audition while his wife was having a baby. He wasn’t that great and it was like there was this giant closed caption at the bottom of my set that said “Bring on the Back story bring on the Back Story.”

I think the biggest surprise to me about the New York auditions was that I think they went a whole two hours there without mentioning 9/11. The closest they came was the segment with the best friends forever “Jersey Girls” who were more like valley girls than the brave ladies who forced the administration to actually formally investigate the tragedy that killed their family members. Again the producers did their bait and switch thing because it turned out that Antonella Barba, the dark-haired one, actually turned out to have star quality. Of course, they want you to think that once the Jersey Girls hit Hollywood they’ll turn into Mean Girls as soon as Amanda realizes that she’s no longer the alpha partner in the friendship. Now that I think of it, the other biggest surprise was to see how Carole Bayer Sager suddenly turned into Olivia Newton John for about three minutes without anyone noticing. It was kind of like having an episode of Bewitched suddenly slipped into the show.

I’m also trying to figure out what moral lesson to take away from the opposite fates of the young lady who had already been to Hollywood twice and the one who trained like Rocky and who dressed like a sluttier version of Madonna. Both of them worked really hard. Both clearly wanted it badly. One of them begged really hard at the end. The only sense I can make of it is that given a choice between hitting notes that only dogs can hear (though maybe not Dawgs like Randy) and showing butt cleavage, the latter wins every time on reality tv. The group hug was great tv though.

I liked Kia Thornton even though she needs some help from Terrell Owens with her end zone celebrations. Jenry Berjarano at least presented as the ideal Idol contestant. He has the look, the big voice, the heartwarming back story. There’s the small matter of the page, but I imagine that’ll wind up being like Bo’s drug arrest, just not that big a deal.

Even if she didn’t make it to Hollywood, Nakia Clairborne had one of the more memorable auditions I’ve seen. She was genuinely good with "Dancing In the Streets” and was terrible with the ballad. Reality TV tends to work best when they find rather than hype the story. You could feel the sudden shift in her fortunes with the judges and her disappointment shot right through the screen.

Jory Steinberg, the Canadian living in California who came to audition in New York and had met the queen of England, was both very good and a little bit puzzling. She seemed like an actual professional dropped into the Idol mix. That was true of Taylor, Bo, and Chris too, but for female contestants it’s tended to play against them in the end. For instance Latoya London finished behind Jasmine Trias somehow. It might be interesting to see how this one plays out.

If they ever do steroid testing on American Idol, Christopher Henry won’t be one of the suspects. The guy looks vaguely like both Simon and George Michael (the latter might have been a sly joke) and sounds like Kelly Clarkson. Perhaps some day soon they’ll do the movie version of Anne Rice’s Cry to Heaven (novel about castrati) and they’ll cast this guy. In the meantime, Simon go to make his annual drag queen joke. The drag thing seems to be one of Simon’s obsessions. It really makes me wonder what kind of bar he was getting hung over in the night before. Fwiw I still want to hear Christopher Henry do Barry White.

Perhaps inspired by the whole American news obsession with Natalee Holloway and other missing young white women, the New York auditions featured two runaways. Sarah Burgess, the girl who escaped from Ohio by telling her Dad she was staying with a friend, made an inspired song choice by combining that backstory with Blondie’s “Call Me”. It also seemed to help that she was cute. Probably the spookiest thing about the phone call was to hear the dad say “Who is this?” If she happens to make the finals, what are the odds that they’ll bring Dad to Hollywood and keep crosscutting to him as she sings?

The second runaway was opera escapee, Rachel Zevita, who cut out of conservatory to come sing Jeff Buckley. She then switched to the gentle ballad “Get Here” and finally the judges made her do opera. Of the three, I thought she was the weakest at the aria which suggests that she made a wise choice in risking her scholarship. Simon did a Sybil thing with her as in “Which one are you really?” I mostly wondered how much the mismatched medley was pre-arranged by the producers. She was good at each of them and not especially great in any of the genres, but at least she’s interesting and can sing.

By the way, why is it okay to be a Justin Timberlake type and not okay to be just another good blues singer? Apparently, Christopher Richardson gets to find out in the Hollywood rounds. In the meantime, the real Rocky sequel of the New York auditions was set up for Nickolas Pedro, who may be this year’s crooner. Last year, he took a dive on Fill Me Up Buttercup. This year, he wants to redeem himself.

After seven hours of American Idol auditions in ten days, my wife and I took a night off from Carrie Underwood et al to watch the Leonard Cohen tribute, I’m Your Man. It’s part concert footage part documentary about the anti-idol Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet, singer, troubador. One of the interesting things about Cohen is that he made a musical career for himself with something like a three note range. The movie looked vaguely like American Idol in that it consisted of singers like Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright, Beth Orton, Teddy Thompson, Bono and every member of the Wainwright-Mcgarrigle music family except Loudon getting up on the same stage and taking turns in front of an audience. Not a single one of them would get out of the American Idol audition rounds. Asside from the fact that they were all too old, none had the look, their stage movements were sort of awkward, and no one was trying to be slick or note perfect. Instead, it was just a bunch of singers who were all about the music, Cohen’s carefully-crafted lyrics, and connecting to the song first rather then the audience.

I should mention that my wife is the Leonard Cohen fan and I got the movie for her. I’d never been a fan. Still, the contrast between this Sydney, Australia venued tribute to the Montreal born Cohen and AI was fascinating. This was an argument that music didn’t have to have a beat or a melodic hook. Instead Cohen’s music is about stillness, an appreciation of ambiguity, and intimacy rather than bravura and singing lots of notes. To put it in Cohen’s words, “A singer must die for the lie in his voice.”

Now that they’ve taken Manhattan, I sort of hope that American Idol doesn’t take Berlin. That’s the state of our union. Seacrest and the W-impersonator, out.

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Sir Linksalot American Idol articles

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At 1/28/2007 12:18:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If only G2 would appear in that splendid hairdo in your lead pict and try to weasel support for the Surge. 'Twould make my week.

Should I know who the hairdo guy is?

Couldn't we have interactive Idol-like voting on things like the State of the Union? Vote for or against your favorite climate change idea, etcet. Might increase democratic participation by the citizens?

At 1/28/2007 10:09:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

The hairdo guy is the music producer Phil Spector. Spector produced one album with Leonard Cohen which more or less failed at the time, but has since picked up a cult following.
It was sort of Cohen's attempt to go "commercial".

I think the photo is from Spector's trial for shooting his girlfriend. At least I think she was a girlfriend.

Idol is a very interesting take on the marriage between democracy and technology.

At 1/28/2007 08:42:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Synchronously today I 'chanced' upon an article by David Lynch about how the idea of the necessity of suffering to do art is a crock. "The Myth of the Suffering Artist." He thinks suffering (not recognizing it, but inhabiting it) suffocates and paralyzes creativity. He's a great believer in the freedom of creativity that he thinks meditation opens the door to.

I believe something similar, tho my version of meditation is more fractal than his is likely to be.

At 1/28/2007 10:04:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I can see how being in a reasonably stable even placid place at the time of creation can be helpful and even necessary in any creative endeavour. I can also see how it might "flatten" one's perspective. I don't think that automatically happens, but did think it applied some to Yusuf Islam's current album.


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