Friday, April 04, 2008

Hello Dolly Is Anyone Home? (Idol 7 round of 9)

Did Dolly Parton dial it in? You know that bit last year where Celine Dion sang with a virtual Elvis? They could have used a virtual Dolly Parton as a mentor and I don’t know that I would have been able to tell the difference. Did she offer any of the contestants anything resembling constructive advice? Basically it was, “I love his voice”, “That’s a good song choice”, “You’ll do well”, followed by more or less perfunctory hug which in turn was followed by a performance that didn’t seem to show that any of this year’s Idols benefited in any way from their encounter with this year’s first official mentor.

One of the sub-themes last year was that Lakisha Jones would get advice from the mentors then seemingly pointedly defy it during her actual performance. This time through, I couldn’t actually tell that Dolly had suggested anything of substance. The overall effect was an odd kind of disengagement. Dolly Parton mentioned rather poignantly that she never had children so her many songs are her children. If so, did they take on new life and growth with the nine remaining Idols? I don’t know that they did and some of that looked like Dolly’s doing or non-doing.

She could have at least had the guts to tell Syesha Mercado that if you’re going to be a soul singer, you have to show your soul. Dolly Parton’s own original version of I Will Always Love You is the product of a very different soul than Whitney Houston’s. One is small and a bit wounded. The other is gigantic and sort of triumphant. If you combine the two and top it off with Michelle Pfeiffer’s Fabulous Baker Boy’s packaging, you don’t have an individual soul you have a commercial for frozen peas.

The thing is that Dolly Parton is one of the smartest performers going. She knows this sort of thing very well. She just decided not to intervene. A serious mentor would have pulled the woman aside and asked, “You really want to do the most obvious possible of my songs in the most obvious manner? Simon’s going to call you on it no matter how well you execute it?”

Instead Syesha Mercado reinforced my biggest reservation about her. As a performer, she’s calculated, contrived, and insubstantial while posing as the kind of singer who's about being the opposite of all of those things. There really is supposed to be a “you” in I Will Always Love You. Syesha was all about the “Me” as in see I have this big voice and this song has nothing to do with losing someone and moving on.

Btw….I check in on Dancing with the Stars now and then. Priscilla Presley looks almost as lifelike as the virtual Elvis. Dolly would have made a better contestant on Dancing with the Stars, though I have to say that she looked awfully frail this week and that contributed to her feeling a bit smaller rather than larger than life. Anyway, I don’t know that being a great performer/musician automatically makes one a good mentor/teacher. She just seemed intent on being as safe as possible in her encounters with the Idols. It made for dead tv. Barry Manilow is hardly my favorite musician, but as a mentor on this show he always seemed to get something out of at least a few of the singers. As a result, he came off as a generous teacher. Anyone who did well this week just seemed to be drawing on his/her own resources rather than anything that Dolly Parton specifically imparted. Even Diana Ross had that moment with Chris Richardson last year where she suggested that he needed to “sell the song” rather than “sing it” implying that the material didn’t suit him (it didn’t).

Actually, the whole Dolly thing reminds me of my biggest problem with this season. The producers went to great pains to get a variety of musical styles and experienced performers into the final 12. That said, their personalities seem to be oddly bland. No one really trusts the film clips prior to the performance as an accurate guide to the performer’s real self. They’re too manufactured. It’s the reaction to the judges’ critiques or praise and that little window with Ryan that lets you feel who the various Idols are. A couple years ago, Kellie Pickler and Elliot Yamin scored huge points for different reasons in the way they projected a personality in what I call the “dismount”. Last year, Sanjaya Malakar got a following at least partly because he was so gracious in the face of withering criticism. Jordin Sparks also won at least in part because she came across as an unusually poised teenager. This year, they’re all running for office and appear to be managed in some way.

Consider the two Davids, both judges' favorites. Basically, David Archuleta breaks out the smile, says thank you, and seems afraid to say much more. In one sense, he seems realistically seventeen in being this way but he also doesn’t seem to take any chances. Early on David Cook was a little sassy and a couple weeks ago scored some points when Ryan asked him how he felt about some Simon comment about his performances by saying “I don’t think about it.” It worked, but much of the time, he also just says thanks and little else, again taking no chances.

It’s like this year’s crew has over learned some lesson about reacting to the judges. It’s agree, say thanks, get away from the camera. I’m not saying that there haven’t been exceptions, but I’m not seeing much spunk. Brooke White lately has been handling criticism by agreeing loudly and amplifying her “thanks” mid comments. This week she did try the interesting tactic of pre-empting Paula’s usual bit with female contestants by telling Paula that she looked lovely. I’m not sure it served her well and it may have contributed to her fall to the bottom three. Way back when she effused about doing Let It Be in front of an audience of millions as “her dream”, she scored big time because it made us feel Brooke White and gave us some sense of who she is. The formula’s not that simple though. Carly Smithson defended Blackbird as her attempt to stand up for all the wannabe singers who never get the chance to sing, it rang false, and it dropped her to the bottom three. Had she just said, “I sang it for me because I tried to fly once and broke my wing, I’m trying to make it back”, it might might have flown.

Instead this year’s group of singers just seems oddly reluctant to reveal much of themselves at least spontaneously. Yes, there’s an exhaustion point in most seasons around now. We have heard everyone sing seven times. In many cases, the contest exposes performers’ expressive limitations after a few songs. I think one reason that Ramiele Malubay finally went was that this week established that she just didn’t have any musical surprises to bring in future rounds. Still, I’m feeling like this year has hit more of a dead spot more than most right now unless you happen to be a Michael Johns fan (I seem to know one or two) because we’re not getting insight at a personal level about the performers. Btw, I’m wondering if I could care any less about the approach of Idol Gives Back 2. Yes, it’s nice that they do their telethon, but it’s clearly not energizing the show this season. I’m not sure it did last year either.

All I know about Kristie Lee Cook is that she hocked her horse and I know that Michael Johns plays tennis. What do I know about Jason Castro, David Cook, or Syesha beyond what the producers have told me so far? Television is an intensely revealing and intimate medium. The public sees people on tv and the phenomenon is such that they see the tv personality on the street and they actually think they know the person. The truism is that tv actors don’t act as much as reveal a personality that America comes to love. That’s why there were two different Bob Newhart shows where he basically played the same character and why Kelsey Grammer had to stay Frasier. Ted Danson stayed Sam and I suspect America never was willing to see Becker as “different”. I was very critical of Kellie Pickler, potential sitcom character, when that season unfolded, but I wonder if anyone this year is projecting any kind of personality.

Ramiele Malubay: the story should have been that she was the amateur in this year’s group of ringers who just happened to keep growing as a performer and finding her potential. I simply never saw any growth. Instead it was a big voice, cutesy personality (too much baby talk though), who kept trying to do what the judges told her to do.
Even though she’d never been in the final three, her exit seemed inevitable.

David Archuleta: I kind of like the social conscience in his song choices. He needs a sense of humor or at least some way to make fun of the whole screaming girl thing they’re trying to foist on him.

David Cook: I liked that he didn’t rock out Dolly Parton.

Kristie Lee Cook: Coat of Many Colors was almost as obvious as Syesha’s choice. It’s her personality that keeps her from being a country singer. Usually there has to be some “grit” there. I think Idol convinced America that Carrie Underwood really was a farm girl (not saying she wasn’t). Kristie Lee Cook mentioned horses a couple times. Has anyone ever been bottom two this many times though?

Carly Smithson: She tries so hard when she sings. It’s in her face, her bearing. It’s like she’s making music instead of letting it come through or out of her. It’s a little painful to watch. She has a terrific voice and the tattoo almost reminds me that she doesn’t come off as comfortable in her own skin as a performer.

Michael Johns: He was very good with something that wasn’t a Queen Song. It was a Dolly song, but he mostly sang it as a straight blues with no hint of Dolly Parton. It was nice to see someone in the pimp spot who deserved to be there this year.

Jason Castro: You can be goofy and slightly laid back, yet still come across as “invested” in your performance. Last couple weeks, he’s given the impression that he’s had as much fun on the show as he wants to have. I don’t blame him. I’m thinking the closer he gets to the top the more it’s going to be like those group sings. He may just be smart enough to see that. Now that people know my name, do I really want to be THE Idol? No friggin way.

Whatever they tell you about it being a singing competition, anything on television is by its nature a personality competition. I hope a couple of these folk figure that out or Simon's pat line from this week "Will anyone remember that performance" will quickly turn into "Will anyone remember you?"

btw: Condolences to Elliot Yamin who lost his mother the other day. Idol often tries to "sell" family stories, but there seemed to be something very genuine and endearing about Elliot's connection to his mother that had nothing to do with producers and tv cameras.

Other Chancelucky Idol Reviews

Sir Linksalot American Idol articles

Buddy TV AMerican Idol Page



At 4/04/2008 07:13:00 AM, Blogger BeckEye said...

If American Idol were a radio show, Carly or David A would probably win, hands down. Carly, most likely. But you're right, the fact is that if you're gonna be on TV, there has to be something about you that's memorable. You don't even have to be gorgeous (like Michael Johns) to get people to remember you. Taylor Hicks wasn't gorgeous (Oh God, don't let a few people on my blogroll hear me say that) but he had that "everyman" thing going for him. And the gray hair, of course. That was his defining characteristic.

I think Amanda Overmyer had the most memorable persona. I wasn't a fan, but I was certainly in no danger of forgetting her name.

I don't think it's the fault of these kids. They reveal what the producers allow them to reveal. Their lives are so controlled at this point. I've seen several interviews with Michael on the AI website and they just keep asking him the SAME questions. When did you move to America? What were some of the jobs that you've had? What do you like to do in your spare time? So, okay, he moved to Atlanta when he was 15, he worked as a mascot and he plays tennis. WE KNOW! Get down to the nitty-gritty! They need to let me interview him. Then we'd really get down to it. Oh, yes we would.

At 4/04/2008 08:14:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I'd love to see you interview Michael Johns either for real or faked. I've interviewed God for the show and Elvis. Seems like Michael Johns would be easy.

I think the "personality" thing is a sign of their taking everything too professional and their misunderstanding of what happened last year. Sanjaya was good for the show because it was something that wasn't planned and didn't feel completely contained. This year, they brought in a bunch of "pros" and there's been a real loss of spontaneity.

At 4/04/2008 11:23:00 AM, Blogger Gifted Typist said...

I agree with you. Idol is the triumph of process over personality.

It's so tightly managed and scripted. Why not have Ryan do proper short unscripted interviews with these kids to draw them out.

Carly has a wit that doesn't get much of an opportunity. David A could tell us his favourite subject in school and why. And Michael could take off his shirt and show us his tennis muscles.

The show diminishes them to "products".

At 4/04/2008 04:09:00 PM, Blogger benny06 said...

CL, my spouse totally agrees with you, and thinks it is darn shame that you don't get paid for your commentary somewhere...and means it.

I have mixed emotions on Dolly Parton's role in AI. One could say since they are judged by "arrangement" she felt less compelled to say on camera any mentoring comments. Paula has been attacked a million times, and I think she was trying to support her as Dolly had little encouragement early on when she was with Porter Waggoner and "boxes of Breeze" which sold towels to those who couldn't afford it.

Just a thought. Your analysis is dead on otherwise, which is why I return here, and it is about cultural ph's.

At 4/04/2008 05:54:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I guess it's always been about product. I also imagine I could go on and on about how "unreal" reality tv can be. Idol is tv anarchy compared to the Bachelor where the cameras often wait for the ladies to say what they want to film.

tell your spouse, thanks. If he ever decides to ride his bicycle in Northern California tell him to let me know. Of course, you should come for the trip too.

Dolly Parton's very smart. A lot of people dont' know that she's one of the few country music performers outside the Dixie Chicks whose commented in her concerts against the war. She's also a believer in staying positive and encouraging, so yeah she may have kept more probing advice off camera. Still it made for lousy tv.

At 4/05/2008 09:06:00 AM, Blogger benny06 said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 4/05/2008 09:38:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

It has been a snooze fest and Dolly didn't wake me up so much as scare me a little with her Jesus and Gravity bit. The Barry Manilow and Lulu mentoring were probably the ones where with the most impact, they really participated.

I do enjoy the way GT mentioned Idol diminishing the contestants to "products" when she clearly prefers "objects" like tennis muscles, haha.

At 4/06/2008 07:23:00 PM, Blogger Gifted Typist said...

Dale you see straight through me.
Tennis objects indeed

At 4/06/2008 09:58:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

You know Beckeye and GT's shared fascination with Michael Johns has been one of the few interesting things about this season.
The more I think about it the more I'm dreading Idol Grows Back (gives back) whatever it is.

It's going to be interesting to see how it does. This year there's all this talk about recession here.

GT, feel free to obsess on all the tennis muscles you care to.

At 4/08/2008 08:03:00 AM, Blogger Sunny said...

I did not even complete my blog about the week. It sits in its incomplete state in my post list. Most fun about this week was the Muppets video I found with Dolly as a Muppet singing "Count to 5"featuring the contestants monkey dancing around. Jason was especially funny in the group dance segment. His arms hear one beat and the legs another. Just the hazards of being a drummer perhaps.

At 4/08/2008 06:23:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

the muppets thing sounds better than the rest of the show.


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