Sunday, April 4, 2010

TV Review: American Idol (Expanded Format!)

I’ve enjoyed some pretty terrible TV shows in my time. Dragnet; Surfside 6; Dance Party USA. My time covers the entire history of commercial TV in the United States, every minute of it: I was born the month before the number of TV’s in private hands jumped from 23,000 to 250,000 to watch Uncle Miltie.

Now, for some strange reason, I’m investing three hours per week in the quest of a relatively untalented bunch of singers to become the next “American idol.” This terminology persists, in spite of the fact that past winners have consistently failed to set the world on fire.

The shows for the first week of April, 2010, were typical. The contestants had been pared down to the “Top 10,” and this week they’d be singing songs from the “Soul and R&B” catalog. The popular singer called Usher would be “mentoring” the young singers. The night of singing went this way:

1. Sioban: She sees herself in the Aretha Franklin mold, and she does have a big voice for a (slightly chunky) little girl. She sang “Through the Fire,” by Shaka Kahn, I’d never heard it before. I thought that it was a good choice, and that she did a great job on it. The judges were very hard on her, including their typical assessment: “not your best performance.” She took it hard, she seems to lack confidence.

2. Casey: He’s a tall, handsome blond with a decent voice and a considerable facility for playing the electric guitar. Casey illustrates some of the mysterious allure of this show, in earlier rounds he was obviously nervous and his renditions were tentative and unappealing, but as the weeks have rolled on he has found his “voice” and he’s having more fun and performing better. Tonight he sings “Hold On, I’m Coming,” by the great Sam and Dave. I thought it was a big step backwards for him, he wasn’t sure of the song, couldn’t really figure out what to do with the guitar, and held back his already limited voice, clipping the phrases in an almost annoying way. Here we could see the greatest problem with the show: the judges were effusive in their praise, even Simon loved the performance, or claimed to. There’s the rub, sometimes I’m sure that the judges comments are programmed to benefit the show somehow.

3. Big Mike: Usher gave Mike some great advice. Mike is a giant of a man but he can hold on too tightly to a song and forget to project if he’s not careful. Usher told him to sing to the back row, which is advice that is as old as the performing arts, but he added that “the back row is the camera,” which helped Big Mike to understand what he was talking about. Mike sang, “Ready for Love,” by Indra Ire, I’d never heard the song, nor had I heard of the singer. Mike accompanied himself on guitar, which was a mistake. The only benefit was that it distracted us from his awful outfit, but even that benefit was cancelled because the three-quarter sized acoustic-electric made him look even more giant. In spite of the guitar, and the outfit, he really nailed the song, a beautiful job, and the judges correctly praised it to the high heavens.

4. Di Di: This poor girl has no voice at all. Usher was polite with her, it looked like a considerable effort. Her performance of “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?” was just a mess. Her voice was terrible; there was no sincerity; she was frozen in place with a death grip on the microphone stand. Simon said it was like “swimming in jelly,” whatever that means, all of the judges hated it, “it flat lined almost right away.” She’ll be gone very, very soon.

5. Tim: He’s a ridiculously pleasant, not unhandsome brunette with long hair cut in a style that would be most appropriate for a late Sixties English rock band, in fact his ingratiating manner most reminds me of Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits. It’s impossible not to like him, even though, unlike Mr. Noone, Tim couldn’t find a song with a map, a GPS, and a native guide. Tonight he weirdly chose to sing “Sweet Love,” by Anita Baker. The judges said, “at least in was in tune,” even though it wasn’t. I don’t think they can tell, although they always pretentiously act like they have perfect pitch. Kara called it “uncommercial,” which was the understatement of the year. I had him on the short list to go home very soon, but I thought that his status as a fan-favorite could save him.

6. Andrew: Voting on this show is positive, you call to vote FOR somebody; if voting were negative, I’d call every week to get rid of Andrew. He’s overweight, with an ugly wardrobe that does nothing for him. He’s got this neck tattoo that he obviously thinks is very cool. He’s been getting more nervous and terrible as the weeks go on, his first audition was literally his best performance. Tonight he was ok, and the judges agreed with me that it was “better than recently.” They seemed relieved; I think he’s a favorite of the people behind the scenes.

7. Katie: I can’t believe that Katie is still here, she’s such a no-talent. Usher was kind to her, he obviously subscribes to the “no-negativity” theory of show business commentary. She sang “Chain of Fools,” the Aretha song, and it was just plain terrible. Her outfit made her look pregnant. The judges came from another planet to offer that it was “one of the best performances of the night” (Randy), that she had a “great voice,” (Ellen), and that it was “one of your best,” (Kara). Even Simon’s negativity was restrained. But it was horrible! Just horrible! From front to back, horrible! This obviously manipulated so-called judging is becoming the most interesting aspect of the show for me.

8. Lee: This guy is ok, but he’s lacked confidence and presence in prior shows. Tonight he sings “Treat Her Like a Lady,” by the Cornelius Brothers (actually “the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose,” poor Rose got left out in the credit). He really clicked tonight, he sang the song with a guitar, standing alone on the stage. He was way up on the beat, a great rhythm guitar performance, he nailed the vocal and really sold the song, a great job all around. The crowd loved it, and the judges went nuts too. He’ll be around at the end if he can keep this up.

9. Crystal: Of all of this years contestants, Crystal is the most poised and professional. She’s obviously had thousands of hours experience singing for the public, she’s a street-singer, a coffee shop performer, a “got my guitar and I’m ready to go” kind of girl. If she was better looking, she’d be a star already. Tonight she decided to stretch a little bit, switching from guitar to piano and dressing up from her usual busker duds. She totally nailed “Midnight Train to Georgia,” and everybody loved it, me, the crowd, and the judges. She’ll be around at the end.

10. Aaron: He’s just a kid, sixteen I think, and he’s really got nothing going for him. He sang “Ain’t No Sunshine,” the Bill Withers song, which he had no business even being in the room with. People are just being nice voting for him. The judges are vaguely positive, as usual. He could go any minute now.

The process then becomes, wait until tomorrow to find out which one of the ten will be zotzed this week, reducing the number to nine for next weeks jamboree.

The Results Show

The judges can be a little rough on the singing night, but the really brutal nature of the show becomes clear only on the night when the audience votes are tallied. The whole thing isn’t about winning, it’s about losing, who will lose tonight? Who got the fewest votes? This simple proposition is dragged out for an entire hour.

Tonight’s show opened with Ruben Stoddard singing us a song, evidently he was the American Idol for season number two. If tonight’s performance is any indication, Ruben cannot carry a tune, and he is not a particularly enthusiastic performer, although he did manage to look pretty pleased with himself. Ryan Seacrest commented that it looked like Ruben had lost weight. Well, Ruben was standing there, still morbidly obese and much, much more, so one can only imagine how big he used to be. He was wearing a very nice suit, though, sewed up for him, no doubt, by the people who create tents for the Wringling Brothers’ Circus.

Time for the cruelty to begin! Now “we will begin to build the bottom three!” Only one out of ten contestants will be sent off tonight, but all of them will be kept in as much suspense as possible, for as long as possible.

Lee and Casey are quickly rendered safe, after very little teasing. Next to squirm was Aaron, one of my danger-listed candidates. He is forced to listen to Ryan and Simon’s annoying mock-negativity, they are having some kind of manufactured feud, after which he is informed that he too is, unaccountably, safe.

Sioban and Katie are asked to stand together. Sioban is apologetic about her rather good, but seriously panned performance, but it is Katie who is told to sit in the Stools of Death.

Taking a break for entertainment, Mr. Usher sang a song, I think there was a song in there somewhere, hidden among the dancing and the back up personnel, appearing occasionally like a tiger’s eyes obscured by jungle foliage. Usher may be a good singer, it was hard to tell through the electronic processing, but he certainly is a fine dancer, and he is certainly charismatic, something like forty-million CD’s worth, actually. That’s entertainment!

Di Di, after some merciless jerking around, is sent to the Three Stools of Doom. So now she knows that she may be going home tonight, but it still might be Katie, or the third victim, so some hope remains. What a diabolical show.

Big Mike is safe, no one wants to tease him too much.

Crystal is also quickly declared safe.

Now it’s Tim and Andrew’s turn to be called up in two’s, and here lies drama, because either of these gunsels could be dismissed for cause. Tim is a genuinely friendly and cheerful lad, but Andrew is obviously thinking, boy, I hope it’s Tim that’s going home. Well, it might be, Tim is sent to the bottom three, now completely formed.

But not for long! Katie gets an “only kidding!” from the judges and goes back to the safe zone. So either Tim or Di Di is going home.

Another break for entertainment, in the form of a Hip Hop act that I did not recognize, lots of people performing some kind of boring pseudo-rap, “make some noise!” The artist was quite the little plug machine, “available now on I-tunes!” It might have been Sean Combs. Hip Hop is the Oakland of musical genres, it’s close to something cool, but in the final analysis there’s no there there.

Ooops! Di Di is the loser of the week, but the cruelty goes on as she is forced to sing for a desperate attempt at a “save” from the judges, she picks the song and if the judges really, really like it, she can stay. She sang “Rhianon,” it was awful, and the judges declined to save her, although Simon did say that it was “better than last night.” Oh, thanks for that last, gratuitous bit of cruelty.

Next week, the cruelest twist of all! Everyone must chose a song from the Lennon-McCartney songbook. I’ll bet they completely miss the three or four really great songs in that much overrated catalog. I’ll be watching though. What could be more compelling that watching a bunch of relatively untalented young ignoramuses being tortured by professional sadists?


Anonymous said...

Wow Fredward! Taking notes then or just memory + cuff links? Great summation, I agree with almost all of it.
Crystal is my top pick. She slays dragons every week.
Casey is also a favorite but mostly because of an early performance where he played slide guitar. I think it was the first time they were allowed to use instruments and he went to town. Totally loved the guitar, who cares about the voice let's here some boss guitar. You're 'spot on' about his singing. He holds back and leaves the audience wishing he would get it together.
I think I started watching. . . last season. The entire season. I'm not crazy about the results shows, like you said, fodder-drama.


Anonymous said...

After being diappointed year after year by the final choice (that gay guy last year should have won), I vowed to not watch this year. BUT I broke my vow. The cruel deconstruction of wanna-be stars' dreams in front of a national audience is just oddly compelling, like driving past a car wreak. You can't look away Good job summarizing the show to date, Fred.

fred c said...

I passed on the first five or six seasons myself, or just missed out, you might say. It all started about when I left for Thailand with the Peace Corps.

From this day forward, though, I will watch the show forever, because it is as illustrative of human nature as anything you could find in the New Testament.