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Monthly archives: February 2008


"Idol" Girls: That One Note, and All the Other Ones Too
2008-02-28 01:05
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Okay, let's start at the very end of Wednesday's second night of performances from the female "American Idol" semifinalists. Two-thirds of the way into her misguided attempt to scale "All By Myself," Asia'h Epperson made a sound come out of her mouth for like 20 seconds that was not music. It was torture. She could have flown out to Boulder and jabbed me in the eye with a knitting needle and it would have been less painful. It made me want to renounce music forever and go live in an isolated yurt somewhere where Fox's HD signal could never reach me again. Why did you do that to me, Asia'h? That was mean! Epperson could sing the greatest song ever written in one-woman four-part harmony next week and I will still never again name her as a serious contender. In fact I'm tempted just to pick her to get ejected every week from here on out until she actually does, just so I can celebrate it. I am angry.

The hilarious thing was that the camera panned across the group of male contestants while the note was still going strong and about half of them were clapping while half of them were trying to hide the same stricken look that I had. Too bad they didn't show Simon Cowell's reaction. Randy Jackson ("Every time I actually know the name of the original artist that performed the song, all three or four times a week, I mention it like I'm divulging privileged information") and Paula Abdul ("Wow, are my pupils dilated") were so out to lunch they actually liked Epperson's vocal. Simon Cowell seemed too flabbergasted to even think of a good putdown, merely smirking that she wasn't good enough of a singer for the song and giving a meaningful look to those of us at home who knew all too well what he meant.

But the note might be a early watershed moment of the season, because it's a reminder that most of the 30 millions or so who watch "American Idol" each week don't know the slightest thing about music theory and think the comments that Cowell (in particular) and the other judges make about pitch problems are just meanness for its own sake. Perhaps that's why Simon has been so low-key so far this season -- he realizes that there's nothing he can do to make the voters see things his way, but there's plenty he can do to mobilize the fanbases of the more vulnerable singing talents. He must be getting kind of bored, because I know I am a bit -- last evening was a parade of bland, safe performances from the female cast. Not a one of them should be complacent. Amanda Overmyer, a chic pick to win it all after the Hollywood rounds, was so obviously horrible that she could have eliminated herself right here and now. Ramiele Malubay, who ought to be as much of a lock for the finals as David Archuleta is on the boys' side, completely wasted an opportunity to set herself apart with a could-have-been-anyone disco vocal. If anyone benefited it was the girls in the field who don't have huge, rafter-shaking power voices -- Brooke White remains charming if predictable and Carly Smithson, finally free of illness, has started delivering on her potential. But everybody still has a ton of work left to do. By this point last year, we had already seen multiple vocals by Melinda Doolittle that brought the house down and LaKisha Jones was moving into position as her principal challenger. While last week had some very solid technical performances from the ladies, not a one of them got to that higher level where the audience gets chills and the moment remains in every "Idol" fan's memory forever. This week no one even came close.

Carly Smithson I've been perhaps too unfair to Smithson, who did get way too much screen time in the Hollywood shows -- not her fault. Yeah, it's a little disingenuous the way her Irish accent only seems to take effect when she's talking specifically about Ireland. Yeah, her tattoos and tough attitude don't mesh properly with her voice, which is actually rather middle-of-the-road. But this was probably the first time we've heard Smithson operating at 100% health, and Heart's "Crazy on You" was a solid choice. I think Smithson is going to take a week or two to really get in the game -- she said the song was one of her favorites of all time, and yet she sang it as if she had just learned it, mostly on key but tentative and a little muted. This was only the first of two "Guitar Hero"-featured tracks on the night. I wonder if we'll see any contestant acknowledge the game's influence in picking a song before long. Anyway, a huge improvement for Smithson and she can totally come back all the way into a frontrunner's position with a bolder, more pyrotechnic performance next week. 7

Syesha Mercado I liked Sylvia's modern gender-bending take on "Me & Mr. Jones" as a concept, but the execution was lacking. I have to say, I have doubts about Syesha's bona fides as a musician. She's an actress with above-average raw vocal talent, but a singer with even a little experience wouldn't make the head-scratching mistakes that she does, bombing out on easy in-the-pocket notes even as she nails the big showstoppers. She might have gotten away with a couple of flubs last night if one of her pitch misses hadn't arrived on the sustained final note of the song. She's fortunate that a few girls were obviously far, far worse last night. 6

Brooke White White absolutely had to be excellent last night, given the theme -- she has been collaborating in earnest with the "Idol" behind-the-scenes machine from the very start to establish her image as a sun-kissed 70's soft-rock goddess, Carly, Stevie, and Carole all rolled into one. "You're So Vain" was a perfect song for her -- maybe too perfect, because the moment it started you knew exactly where it was going to go -- but at this point in the contest safe but memorable performances that solidify your identity in the viewers' minds are perfectly acceptable. I liked White's playful hinting that the song was directed towards Cowell and when she broke out in smiles during the performance they seemed quite natural and uncalculated -- just a cool hippie chick having a good time playing a song she loves. I don't have the slightest idea where White will go when the themes force her to consider music released within her own lifetime. Last year's female cast lacked any musicians who were inspired by female songwriters as opposed to singers; I think it'd be terribly brave and refreshing to hear a 90's night version of a Tori Amos song instead of four Whitney tracks and three Celine covers. Hell, even Alanis Morrissette would be an improvement. If White tried to do the diva thing she'd get drummed out in a heartbeat; she has a wisp of a voice. But I think I'm projecting a lot of what I would like to see happen on to White's slender shoulders because she happens to be genuine and winning and more musical than the average "Idol" diva. Her "Idol" bio lists nothing but hoary mainstream 70's artists as influences. If she really has no awareness of music released since the Carter administration it's going to be really difficult for her to hang on once all the more modern girls surrounding her get unleashed from the stupid theme night requirements. (Why did they begin the season with those again?) Big ups for thanking the band, though. If I was on "Idol" I would make sure to laud the band every week, those cats are ridiculously good. 8

Ramiele Malubay Ramiele is already second-guessing her song choices in only the second week of the studio shows, a bad sign. She's got a big voice but I don't know if she has the self-confidence to keep off assaults from the less talented but more self-assured, risk-taking group trailing right behind her. This week's performance was a forgettable place-holder, some lame disco thing that Malubay was able to wring a couple of good moments from but nothing that anybody will remember anything about in two weeks' time. She also chose a busy arrangement of the tune that helped to further bury the difficult-to-follow melody. I wonder if she doesn't have the same problem as Mercado -- not enough of a music fiend. She should know that she's a ballad singer by now; as we've discussed, losing sleep about not showing enough range in the second week is silly. Well, this was a bad theme night for her, the 70's were kind of short on torch songs that don't now sound embarrassingly dated. 7

Kristy Lee Cook I wonder if Kristy could have picked a song with more than three words, but other than that minor quibble this was a nice comeback for Cook, who's been mostly relying on her sex appeal to this point but has more vocal chops than, say, Antonella Barba from Season 6. She did about as well on "You're No Good" as she could have, with the exception of one attempt to rough up a note that instead of sounding bluesy just sounded phlegmy. After hinting at it last week, Simon just about ordered her to go country for the next time out. Cook seems to have taken the hint, but you're never going to get yourself in too much trouble underestimating the intelligence of the rank-and-file "Idol" competitor. I don't know if it makes any difference at all. If past seasons are to be any guide, Cook has the role of "hot chick who doesn't completely suck at singing" sewed up and in her hip pocket. That should be good for a slot on the big summer "Idol" package tour at the very least. That means final 10. She's not one of the ten best singers in the field, but she's not so far off that it would be a brutal injustice. 7

Amanda Overmyer Up until Asia'h's attempt to make my brain stop accepting the data stream from my ears in self-defense, the most startling thing about Wednesday's show was how horrible Amanda Overmyer was. She was terrific last week, and this time out? A disaster. She picked "Carry On Wayward Son" (another "Guitar Hero" track), which was random and clueless because it's a song mostly remembered for all of its instrumental, guitar riff-based sections. The band did a rather amazing job summarizing all of those riffs in a minute and a half, but Overmyer herself was completely adrift. The entire first verse of the song barely touched base with the key it was supposed to be in and the overall effect was nothing short of grotesque. This was one of the worst non-Sanjaya "Idol" vocals I have ever seen, and that's saying something. Also -- and maybe beauty school dropout Brooke White can help Amanda with this -- something needs to be done about the hair. It's like a three-way collision between Elvira, That Girl, and an improperly grounded outlet. I have to say, it would have to take a superhuman effort to blow the huge head start Overmyer had coming out of the auditions and Hollywood shows, where she got screen time galore. I think that was it. She should be going home. 3

Alaina Whitaker Whitaker looks set to be sent packing Thursday too, which is a pity in a small way -- her little introductory video from last night, where she talked about how she doesn't like different kinds of food touching on her dinner plate, was the dumbest "Idol" intro I've yet witnessed. It's always entertaining when people who are not at all burdened by higher thought processes are given free reign to talk about whatever they want to on national TV. (This explains the appeal of Fox News, I suppose.) Whitaker was so good last time out, but not so good that she could coast this week. When she's in key she's good but not that memorable. And when she's not in key, things get ugly, which her "Hopelessly Devoted to You" plainly was. The judges were kind of missing the point by criticizing her performance as old-fashioned. Whitaker's not old-fashioned -- she just sang the song really, really dreadfully badly. Kristy Lee Cook has been the more consistent singer and is better-looking, so I don't see why anyone to whom Whitaker would appeal wouldn't just vote for the improved model. 4

Alexandréa Lushington Like I was worried about, I have been having trouble keeping Alexandréa, Asia'h, and Syesha and their varied backstories separate -- which one is the one with the dead dad again? Lushington's defining characteristic is her very cool fashion sense, although she struck out this week by going urban casual to sing a chintzy ballad, "If You Leave Me Now." Other than the three ladies who just laid an egg last night, Wednesday was the evening of safe, B-/C+ vocals and Lushington was no exception. I really wish that she had the same musical confidence that she has with her clothes, because she seems like the best candidate to bust out and start getting the band to do cool new things with old songs. Lushington's vibe is hip-hop soul and she's got to learn that on "Idol" you can't afford to sit around and wait until a theme night that suits you arrives -- you have to find a way to put your own stamp on old material. I think that we are going to see some really impressive performances from Lushington at some point or another, but it is up to her whether they will be regular occurrences or few and far between. 7

Kady Malloy Too bad Fox doesn't also hold the rights to "American Mimic;" Kady and her dead-on Britney Spears could roll right next door and join a competition she might actually have a chance of holding her own in. Malloy's problem is simply that she has no identity whatsoever, and everything about her Wednesday night performance simply reinforced this failing -- her dress was ugly, the little whispered bits she threw in to "Magic Man" didn't work in the slightest, and when she got to the end what little hold she had on her pitch flew away. Others were much more conspicously bad last night, but I think Malloy's campaign is hopeless. She should just go ahead and do a Britney Spears tribute before she gets sent home so at the very least she'll have gotten her full 15 minutes out of the whole experience. 6

Asia'h Epperson I'm writing this more than two hours after my first tape-delayed exposure to that atrocity of a sustained note, and I still feel off-balance... normally I would be listening to music while typing this up but I'm sitting in silence because I feel like my ears need to recover. What's too bad is that Epperson almost, underline almost, made it through "All By Myself" unscathed. But what good stuff she did in the song was for me completely forgotten as soon as I stopped screaming and crying hysterically. She isn't going to get sent home, but I swear, if she does anything like that again, I'm going to just skip her performances from here on out and put an n/a for the score. 5

The picks: I have Luke Menard and Danny Noriega from the boys' side (although I really hope it's not Danny) and Amanda Overmyer and Alaina Whitaker from the girls'. The 10-sided die likes Jason Castro, Jason Yeager, Brooke White, and Alaina Whitaker. I'm 2 for 4 so far on the season; the polyhedral dice have yet to get on the board.

"Idol" Guys: The Fix Is In
2008-02-27 01:24
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I like watching "American Idol," I really do. I like the psychology of it, I like the way the writers mess with the contestants' heads to maximize the on-camera breakdown count, and I like the unambiguous, open and cheerful way that everything and everyone on the show is for sale. "Idol" doesn't make any excuses for what it is, with one glaring exception -- the judges' regular insistences that it's a singing competition. It isn't! It's a popularity contest! We all get it! It would be boring and predictable otherwise. The judges play favorites every season, but I think we're approaching the point where a line is being crossed with cutie-patootie David Archuleta.

Tuesday night's show had better songs across the board than last week's men's night, but there's still a number of boys in the field who just don't get it. The songs still aren't matching up to the right singers in the way they ought to do. It is becoming more clear that the hype about this season's cast being more talented than the last few isn't entirely smoke and mirrors. There were a lot of very good technical vocals last night -- apart from Michael Johns the guys only hit a blue note or two apiece. Archuleta's one major pitch mistake however was right at the climax of his piece, and came after a kind of shaky, weird interpretation of a song everybody knows by heart. And one the judges praised him effusively for... I don't know. For being adorable, I guess. I see nothing separating Archuleta from five of the other male semifinalists, and the judges have already openly named him the favorite to win the whole thing. If they are going to keep judging David A. on a completely different curve than the entire rest of the cast, I don't know if I'm going to enjoy watching anymore. The judges were pretty kind to Jordin Sparks last year, but she earned it -- her "I (Who Have Nothing)" was the performance of the season, and up until that point she took her lumps the same as everybody else.

Of course, since Archuleta is seventeen, the possibility exists that all of this praise will mess him up and he'll completely flub a performance sooner or later. Sadly, this will not get him voted off. At least we have comebacks from a lot of guys written off last week -- David Cook, Chikezie, David Hernandez -- to make the competition among the rest of the guys interesting.

With "Idol" remaining more or less unchanged in format since its inception, save some cosmetic things like allowing contenders to play instruments while performing, a recurring theme of these posts seems to be unsolicited suggestions for keeping the show fresh. I think there should be more nights in the semifinals where the producers or the judges pick songs for the contestants, because clearly the majority of the singers are way too stupid to be trusted with anything so important.

Michael Johns One good thing about the judges' obsession with Archuleta is that they no longer seem as excited about the Australian Johns, who is by a wide margin both the best looker and the worst singer left in the men's field. Johns is going to take some better vocalists down before he himself bows out, but the chances of him outlasting anyone who genuinely deserves to win are decreasing with each shouty, pitch-approximating performance. Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way" wasn't a bad song choice -- Johns has a little bit of that vibe that Lindsey Buckingham has where you don't know the guy, but you just kind of suspect he's obnoxious for no good reason -- but he's out of his league compared to everybody else in the field. Johns choked on some notes, swallowed some words, and hit more notes flat than the rest of the field combined. He has his moments, but frankly, everybody this year among the guys is capable of being good for at least a few lines, and the infrequency of such runs from Johns is shocking. And what's more, he's not a very natural performer -- he doesn't have the ease about himself that most real good-looking guys have. Johns is going to stick around a while, but his best moments I suspect are behind him in the Hollywood shows. 5

Jason Castro I like Jason Castro a lot, and I'm not totally sure why -- and that's why I think he's a dark horse. The guy just screams authenticity, and while the little introductory montage Tuesday regarding his camera-shy attitude might have oversold it, no one has ever really made a deep "Idol" entirely on the virtue of humility before. It would be interesting to see him try. I have no idea where Castro got the song he did last night and although I have to give him a little credit for playing the deep strategy route and going in the complete opposite direction from last week's winning "What a Day for a Daydream" this time a stop-and-start arrangement with Castro strumming a guitar too loudly and out of sync with the band didn't show the dreadlocked Texan in his best light. It will be interesting to see how things will develop if both Castro and David Cook continue to bring their guitars on stage with them. The producers seem like they haven't thought the idea through all the way -- it wasn't Castro's fault that his guitar was mixed completely too loud in relation to the rest of the band, and Cook also started off too loud and then was mixed down to the point where when he actually started doing some cool stuff you could barely hear him. Of course since I'm a player it matters to me that Castro and Cook can genuinely play, but my impression is that it will work against them for most voters. It's just confusing figuring out what if any credit you ought to be giving them, and while not impossible it's harder to move with authority and personality on stage when you're weighed down by an instrument. (Typified by Cook's kind of unintentionally hilarious walk over here... now walk back move.) Castro should have put the guitar down this week -- I think if he'd done the exact same vocal without it it would have seemed better to everybody. And he probably would have sung better. Both Cook and Castro need to be very careful about picking an unfamiliar song one week and spending more time learning a guitar part than concentrating on making their vocals great. 7

Luke Menard Oh, is he still here? Menard just doesn't have any appeal at all. He was a lousy choice for the final 24, although there seem to have been far fewer of those this year than last so maybe we should count our blessings. Menard's "Killer Queen" illustrated everything that's wrong with him -- he's got no distinctiveness to his voice (despite an excellent technical performance of an extremely difficult melody the whole thing just lay flat and sat there) and he has the self-awareness of a bug zapper (how can you possibly sing a Queen song, if you'll excuse the pun, straight?). There's a reason that we don't hear a ton of Queen songs on "American Idol" -- their songs aren't all that good. Their appeal is totally wrapped up in Freddie Mercury's voice and persona. Menard has a voice, but is a complete zero on the "it" factor scale and he can start packing his bags for home right now. 6

Robbie Carrico This is an interesting one. Carrico, as we all know by now, is a former member of a prefab boy/girl pop group who grew his hair and beard out after their failure and was anointed by the judges during the preliminary cutdowns as the "rocker" of this cast. I'm not entirely certain whether Carrico should be held responsible for this or not, but once the label stuck he did seemingly make a decision to go ahead and adhere to it. That's what led to his Tuesday night version of "Hot Blooded," a dumb pop song that has loud guitars in it -- not a rock song. Carrico has better instincts than the judges, because I think that is the milieu in which he'd be most marketable. But he might be toast because whatever the reality may be, the perception is that he was posing as something he isn't and the judges "caught" him and called him on it. That's ridiculous -- Carrico the rocker was utterly an invention of the "Idol" machine's own devising. I don't know why he should pay for their sins. But I think he's going to. Maybe not this week. Carrico's voice lacks the edge, scruff, whatever you want to call it to come across as a "real" rocker. He sang "Hot Blooded" fine but the overall effect was terrible -- it's a dire song anyway and without a little mischief in the singer's voice it plays as completely irrelevant. Next week Carrico has to completely reinvent himself, no mean task. That's if he survives, which I think he will -- by the skin of his teeth. 7

Danny Noriega I kind of like Danny -- it's hard not to feel for a kid so young who has such a winning, positive attitude about his own uniqueness -- but David Archuleta is going to poach his whole constituency. Noriega lost a ton of my sympathy by singing a really great song, "Superstar," and blowing it -- the song is pretty much all subtext and Noriega crooned it like a straightforward love ballad. I wonder if Danny knows that Sonic Youth's fantastic 1994 cover is on the bestselling Juno soundtrack. Not that I am saying huge walls of feedback was the right way to go for "American Idol," but if Thurston Moore and his four-note range can sing the tune convincingly, Danny Noriega ought to be able to do better than a torturously slow, needlessly schmaltzy "Star Search" shiny-suit train wreck. Also, what happened to Danny's stage presence? He was so animated and cheery last week and this time around he was just boring. I just don't see him having built a big enough crew of loyalists by this point to survive. 6

David Hernandez Hernandez is so generic he should have a bar code tattooed on his left butt cheek, but no one can say that he hasn't seized the "Idol" semifinals as an opportunity to show everything that he's got. The judges tell the singers to treat every performance like it was their last one and yet the contestants hardly ever do -- it's fascinating how they all claim to be huge fans of the show and yet one by one become complacent and flame out. Hernandez was working it on his reading of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," using every bit of his range and uncorking some good roars. Some parts of his presentation were clearly overkill -- the odd arrangement of the tune, with some grafted-on electric drum clicking serving no purpose other than to sound self-consciously "modern," kept David from ever getting into fourth gear. He desperately needs a hook, any kind of hook, but he's not going to find one. He's this year's version of Phil Stacey. 8

Jason Yeager A few guys who were lucky to make it out of last week came back really strong. Yeager was not one of them. He's not a bad singer -- really, this cast is better than last year's, I think a great deal of last week's disappointments can be chalked up to widespread illness and unpreparedness among the Top 24. Yeager richly deserves to be one of the first to get sent packing, and yet he's not all that bad of a singer. He's absolutely not a star, though, which both his choice of "Long Train Running" and a pinched, imitative vocal on it proved. What's funny is that even though the song doesn't tax a vocalist very much, Yeager didn't put it in a key that would have allowed him to sing it at maximum force. That's hugely revealing. I really wish they had a show on somewhere that documented the "Idol" contestants working out their arrangements with the band. I think the contrasts would be huge -- the more musical folks in the field suggesting ideas, collaborating with the players, picking up instruments to demonstrate their thoughts versus the nonmusicians coming in and singing off the chart as if the backing band was a reel of tape. Yeager was shown playing guitar and piano in his introductory footage, but being able to pick out a tune by ear on a guitar does not make you a musician. Being a good musician is every bit as much about listening as playing, and if Yeager is listening to himself his hearing isn't working right. How else could he choose such a repetitive arrangement, in such an unflattering key, on a make-or-break night for himself? Yeager thinks he's all about soul, but more than anything soul is about confidence and autonomy, and Yeager has neither. You know who has soul? Danny Noriega. Too bad we can't now put Yeager's pipes in Noriega's throat. 7

Chikezie The one-named soul merchant from L.A. has one thing in particular going for him among this cast: he's completely uncowed by Simon Cowell. Last season Chris Sligh built a whole fanbase around his ability to banter wittily with Simon and even come out on top occasionally; Chikezie is more confrontational than witty but at least this week his righteous anger about Simon's disapproval of his personal style was backed up by a pretty good vocal performance. Last week Chikezie was corny and pitchy, this week he was all over the place but more killer than filler. Like Hernandez Chikezie really went for it and while there were lumpy bits, they were outnumbered by some genuinely excellent moments. He can rip, and last week there was no sign of that. Last time around you wondered what he was even doing on the show. Now there's no doubt -- Chikezie belongs. Maybe even in the finals, but he needs to work harder and he should stick with the casual look, which somehow makes his vocals more convincing. 8

David Cook Somehow the producers picked Robbie Carrico and not Cook to carry the flag of rock into the round of 24, and we're only getting hints as to why now -- even though Cook has a background of playing in bands and as it turns out is a not half-bad guitar player, he's also a bit of an egghead who likes doing crossword puzzles and uses more big words than an "Idol" frontrunner really ought to. You got to love when the "Idol" machine decides somebody's unmarketable before they've even gotten a minute of a screen time. It's a little hard for me to put aside my developing kinship for Cook and rate his vocals objectively -- he looked way cool up there with a Les Paul and a Marshall stack. It was a totally new thing for "Idol" and Cook bravely even gave himself a little bit of a flashy lead guitar figure to play. In front of that band? Man, I've been playing guitar since I was 12 years old and if I was ever on "Idol" I would probably be too afraid to try and play an instrument with professionals like that watching. I think the vocal was pretty good, but I had to rewind it and listen to it with my eyes closed to really be sure. I don't know if everybody watching will do Cook the same courtesy. That's my worry for him -- that his skill with the guitar is only going to distract folks from his singing. Last week it didn't seem like that was such a bad thing, but now I'm not so sure what I think. There's Archuleta way ahead of everybody, there's a couple of cannon fodder dudes still lingering, but then in the middle there's like six guys who are all evenly matched. This could be a pretty good season after all. 8

David Archuleta Listen, I went back after the judges all but came out and gave Archuleta a little crown, scepter, and ermine robe to wear: his vocal sucked. Sucked! Only Michael Johns' was worse. He freelanced way too much with a timeless melody (John Lennon's "Imagine"), he fluffed the biggest note of the piece, he over-arranged a song that barely needs any instrumentation at all, and what's more, he doesn't seem to comprehend what his appeal is even though it's as plain as day. Why choose a tune you clearly don't understand when all you basically have to do to not lose is smile and wave whenever you hear your name? Archuleta is more talented than Sanjaya Malakar, but that's not saying anything. He's being done a huge disservice, in my opinion, by the judges, because he is talented enough to become the "Idol" winner if he gets some helpful advice. Right now everyone's just falling all over themselves to say how great he is, and I'm bewildered by it -- what is it, a reverse-psychology thing from the Sanjaya debacle last year? If "Idol" is interested in continuing to crank out "winners" whose post-show recording careers last all of one album, they're doing the exact right thing by anointing little David before he's accomplished anything (or even proved he's any better than like 15 others in the remaining cast). Man, I'm mad about this. I sure hope girls' night goes better. 6

Picking the losers this week is hard, because there's three obvious candidates and we may only choose two. On the theory that more often than not one of the eliminated is a slight surprise, I will say Luke Menard and Danny Noriega instead of Menard and Jason Yeager. Hard to imagine the completely uninteresting Yeager drawing enough votes to survive two weeks in a row, but I feel like what's left of Noriega's support will be jumping on the Archuleta bandwagon at this point.

"Idol" Girls Night: Nigel Lythgoe Has Much to Answer For
2008-02-20 22:47
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I raked most of the male cast of "American Idol" over the coals yesterday for tone-deaf song selections, but the second night made me suspect that the blame needed to placed elsewhere. We don't always get a clear picture of what goes on behind the scenes at "Idol" -- check that, we never do -- and sometimes the impression is given that the competitors have a lot more free choice when it comes to songs than the case may really be. I don't think there's any other way to explain the strange repetition of unfamiliar numbers like "More Today Than Yesterday" (mangled on Tuesday by Chikezie, managed rather nicely tonight by Alaina Whitaker) or "Tobacco Road" (this season tried by Syesha Mercado, last season the final hurrah of Phil Stacey) than that the "Idol" parent company bought a bunch of charts from some publishing behemoth or another and exec producer Nigel Lythgoe gets a nickel every time an "Idol" singer belts one out. That's lame.

I don't think there's a question any longer that this group of 24 is better than last year's. However, the possibility is there for the final 12 to be just as bad as Season 6's, if the voters exhibit the same questionable taste they have so often in the past. Here's an interesting bit of hearsay that may or may not be of use. I met a standup comedian moonlighting as a bar trivia host in Boulder who had auditioned this year in Omaha. He said that there were a ton of very good singers turned away because after a certain point the low-level producers who thin out the herd for Randy, Paula, and Simon figured they had enough actual talented people and needed to fulfill the quota for freakshow types. This isn't so good -- why sacrifice the quality of the last three months of the show for the sake of the first few weeks? It might be time next year to consider taking the auditions a little more seriously. All of Ryan Seacrest's propaganda to the contrary, there are definitely some folks of both genders in the final 24 who have absolutely no business being there. And again there are a lot of Brandon Rogers, David Hernandez types who are completely inoffensive and capable singers but have no chance whatsoever to win the thing... more care needs to be taken in finding potentials who have talent and personality, because this two groups of half-and-half thing makes for very tedious two-hour telecasts.

Kristy Lee Cook Kelly Clarkson aside, is it always the rule that contestants with bland names turn out to be bland singers as well? Cook and Amy Davis offer further evidence that this is so. "Rescue Me" was a foolish choice for the thoroughly Wonderbread Kristy Lee, and she proved that it's possible to sing a song with few pitch mistakes and still have it sound dreadful -- she simply had no force or distinctiveness at all. It seems obvious to me and the judges that the way Cook could get someplace in the competition is by going country -- that would take a lot of the pressure to belt off of her voice, and she's absolutely got the figure for it. There's no way she'll take the hint, though. Deer in the headlights. I think the extremely contoured shirt she wore to Elevator of Death day will keep her alive until they stop re-running highlights of it. Of course if she wises up and starts going to the Daisy Duke look every week, she could go to the final. It's worth noting that while Seacrest said that many of the contestants were suffering from the flu this week, Cook was the only one he singled out by name. That gets her sympathy votes, but I don't think she'll need them. 6

Joanne Borgella Borgella has a problem that I don't think there's anything she can really do about, and it disappoints me because I think she has a different style that could develop if given the chance. Borgella is a plus-sized model -- and that's not me editorializing, that's actually her job -- and she really is a lovely, well-proportioned, heavier gal. She doesn't sound like it, though. She has a nicely breath-controlled wisp of a voice that just doesn't seem like it should be coming out of someone who is going to remind most people of LaKisha Jones. I think that disconnect is going to keep her from building a following, since the female vote on "Idol" tends to split between the sexier girls and the ones with huge, undeniable force-of-nature voices. Borgella isn't in either camp and that's kind of what I like about her. It's also probably enough to doom her, that and a take on "I Say a Little Prayer for You" that didn't gel. Borgella moves confidently, but her voice sounded overpowered by the band at points (she of all the females should have selected a ballad) and almost everybody else had more personality onstage and a meatier backstory. Sorry, Joanne. Might have been able to make a case for you last year. 6

Alaina Whitaker Sometimes, you don't need to hear them sing, you can just look at them and you know they're not serious. And sometimes, you think that, and you're really embarrassingly wrong. Whitaker looks unassuming and is only sixteen; from her audition footage I couldn't see what the judges saw in her other than her youthfulness and the just-perfect little gap between her front teeth. Whitaker's "More Today Than Tomorrow" was a revelation; you could actually see her gaining confidence as the song picked up steam. Whitaker, skin tone aside, has a lot in common with Jordin Sparks -- like Sparks, if she can avoid a major misstep she has enough appeal to overcome the fact that there are better singers in the field. Her fate is in her hands -- if she continues to grow in confidence, that might not ever matter. 9

Amanda Overmyer Very interesting! While Overmyer struck me as overrated in the auditions, her voice a weapon with no practicable uses due to its essential unpredictability, she more than anyone else sounded like a new woman with the muscle of the expanded band behind her. Cannily, Overmyer shared the stage with a raging, almost metal guitar lead that was the rowdiest thing anyone pulled out in two days and did the most to modernize the 60's theme in the way the judges were pleading for both nights. Being a rock singer isn't about being the biggest badass in the land always -- David Bowie and Ozzy always knew when to let their lead guitarists take the lead, and how to take credit for it too. Overmyer deserves all the credit in the world for taking what seems like the biggest leap, even though she was only doing what it seems obvious all the contestants ought to do -- listening to the judges. She didn't scream the whole way through, she took an entirely unexpected approach to a scatting section in the middle (Scat and metal? Sure, why not, works for Korn), and displayed stage presence without spazzing out. She is absolutely the best contestant among the women as far as knowing her identity and playing to it. Whether you can build a big enough consensus of fan votes to win as a hard rocker (it hasn't happened yet) is another issue. 10

Amy Davis First of all, Davis's parents already had custom-made shirts with her face on them when she came out of the Elevator of Death. That's creepy. Canny branding move on the part of Mom and Dad, but creepy nonetheless. If Davis could sing in the very least she'd have a case for herself, but there seems to be a certain point past which even "Idol" voters can spot a poseur. By and large, if you're good enough to have made it to Hollywood and beyond, you're going to be a pretty good singer. One upshot of this is that when "Idol" performances go sour, it's mostly a string of sharp notes or a string of flats -- not both. Davis almost hit for the cycle, stringing scores of both together and throwing in some meter mistakes. All she needed to do was forget a lyric and her fate would have been sealed. As it stands her "Where the Boys Are" wasn't quite bad enough to trump the fact that Davis is one of the foxier girls still in the competition. Here's her path to an extended run: Play on the fact that she's older than a lot of the other really pretty girls, and slut it up pronto. Kady Malloy at 18 probably doesn't have the wardrobe options that Davis does at 25, but it's going to be one or the other of those two getting the hormone vote and I wouldn't discourage a flagrant open competition. I think Davis thinks that she is going country, only she doesn't in fact know how to do so. Simon does too. 4

Brooke White I had some affection for the perhaps too blonde White from the Hollywood show, when Simon needlessly harangued her for a minor hitch in her keyboard self-accompaniment. I suspect White may have some real original music inside of her somewhere, but "American Idol" is probably not the proper venue in which to develop it. Even if she wasn't too squeaky-clean for words, she has a voice that's friendly and quirky, but not overpowering, and the streets of Los Angeles flow thick with the blood of such female "American Idol" contestants. I had a terrible ominous feeling before White's turn Wednesday, but she acquitted herself about as well as could be expected -- she might benefit a lot from the fact that David Cook mangled the same tune, "Happy Together," the night before. White restored order, not rushing the song's fast verses, singing every word clearly, and turning on the charm during the softball choruses. Quite likable, but I feel without a drastic image makeover we've seen White's ceiling... she isn't terribly natural and seems unlikely to become so with Simon seemingly dead set on pursuing a comedy bit with her rather than offering any useful criticism. I would absolutely love to hear White sing a Liz Phair or Jenny Lewis song but that's never going to happen in a million years; as we've learned already Carole King is more her depth and a Carole King clone isn't winning a TV singing contest in 2008. But if she gets drummed out in three weeks and signs a record deal as a singer/songwriter I'd love to audition to play bass in her band. 8

Alexandréa Lushington Not "Alex-Andréa," mind you, but "Alexandréa" -- it has to all flow together, see. I like the name, and there's a lot more to like about Lushington, who has amazing personal dress style -- style counts on "Idol," especially in the ladies' bracket -- and was the only contestant to inject a lot of between-line chatter and audience-encouragement into her first performance, a bold and worthwhile choice. If anything Lushington could stand to turn her wattage down a little bit when it comes to singing -- she can belt, but she isn't the best belter in the race, and as Ramiele Malubay proved later, it's best to let the song do the work. If you save your biggest notes for when you really need them, the overall effect will be more impressive -- and it'll be a lot less hard on your vocal cords in the long run. Besides, if you murder every note every night for weeks upon end it leaves you with nowhere to go (which is what happened to LaKisha Jones and Melinda Doolittle last year). Lushington could win without a Howitzer, which means she should put it away until she really needs it. Her song choice was interesting and she handled its challenging changes competently. However, I think she was a bit hamstrung by the 60's theme and is going to hit us with her real style next time -- I don't know if I can hear her singing over a Timbaland beat yet, but I can definitely visualize the video. 8

Kady Malloy Malloy can't be discounted because she's 18 and she's a looker, but the judges hit the nail right on the head -- Malloy seems animated and interesting when she's mimicking other people, but she has no voice of her own. At all. Her "Groovy Kind of Love" was accurately sung and pleasantly presented, and it was also utterly irrelevant. Malloy has all the personality of a seat-filler. Once again, we had a cover of a 60's song that was even less timely in this day and age than a rehash of the original recording would have been. And what the hell was Malloy thinking with the drippy ballad arrangement? The judges asked her why she was so stiff and she said it was "a serious song." "Groovy Kind of Love?" Where do they find these kids? 7

Asia'h Epperson Epperson is the girl who went to her audition immediately after the death of her father, something that has only been rehashed about 14 times in the last two weeks and will give her an unnatural bounce that might end up costing someone more qualified, although I think either way Epperson is middle-of-the-pack. The vestigial "'h" in her name isn't as funky as Alexandréa's accent mark and Epperson (perhaps justifiably, she did just lose her dad) isn't as kinetic as Syesha Mercado. Maybe it's clumsy reasoning to assume that the three young black girls are going to cancel out each other's votes, but... to be fair, they are all kind of similar. Epperson did "Take Another Piece of My Heart," an odd choice (particularly given its obvious association with competitor/vocal Joplin doppelganger Amanda Overmyer) but one that she got over with a totally different but equally valid interpretation, more of a straight soul vocal. One key thing to watch about Epperson: She is capable of delivering perfect vocals, I feel, but definitely would rather experiment and take risks to put her own stamp on tunes. I think that's admirable and I think it's something voters respond to, if maybe only subconsciously. Also -- and this is a totally unquantifiable thing -- Epperson feels authentic to me; if we want to go ahead and view them as her immediate competition, Lushington and Mercado both seem to have more calculation to the way they present themselves. 8

Ramiele Malubay Speaking of cold calculation! Malubay nailed down her reputation as a pint-sized powerhouse who doesn't take any guff from anybody with her breakdown of her first audition: "They thought I was the little girl with the great big voice... and that's exactly what I wanted them to think," she revealed to the "Idol" cameras, tenting her fingers like Mr. Burns and cackling. The judges refused to take Ramiele seriously in the Hollywood rounds, and Malubay struck back with rare delicacy for a 20-year-old. She could have tried to blow the house the down and popped a blood vessel, but instead she sang her song with a seasoned pro's restraint, continuously building until surprise, there it was, maybe the best voice in the top 24. She may have to build more of a case that she's a star recording artist and not just a good singer -- others more talented have failed -- but she's off to the best start; she's the co-favorite with Overmyer as of now. I wonder though if most "American Idol" watchers will ever realize just how good she is; subtle mastery appeals to untrained ears far less than brute force. 10

Syesha Mercado The most energetic of the female field, Mercado has a vibe like one of those always-positive best friend characters from tween movies and TV... absolutely unsuitable for "Idol," of course, because the supportive best friend never gets the cute boy or wins the televised singing contest. She has a built-in fanbase, I'm sure, from the storyline which followed her during Hollywood week, when she lost her voice and communicated with adorable little signs instead of talking to rest up for her big audition, which to be fair she really did knock out of the park. Mercado lacked that urgency on Wednesday, and a dreadful song choice ("Tobacco Road") with an equally ill-chosen arrangement full of odd stops and starts sucked out more momentum still. One thing you must be aware of: While it seemed like a dippy Paula gag to point out that the spelling of her name has a "YES" hidden in it, do not disregard the subliminal effect this has on viewers when Syesha's name and hotline number appear on the screen. Once made aware of it, that "YES" was all I could see. I am confident "Idol" seasons have been won or lost over less. 7

Carly Smithson All of that buzz about these two foreign invaders, Smithson and Michael Johns... both of them given the choice first-studio-night finale spot... both huge disappointments. I have never seen what others see in Smithson and I thought her Wednesday performance was a huge drag, a chintzy, Disney-soundtrack ballad that just got tuneless and shouty at the end. The slow jam seemed like a misfire for the tattooed Smithson, who is turning out to be not really that much of anything -- not that Irish, not that rocking, not that good. She looked listless and clammy and I felt like neither of us could wait for it to be over. This is where it becomes terribly unfair how unbalanced the coverage of the final 24 is in the early weeks; Smithson probably already has a 10,000 strong MySpace fan club who were going to vote for her before she even sang anything. Here is what I think should be done: The "Idol" producers should completely throw out the current schedule and begin the season with the first live night -- then flashbacks can tell every contender's story at the same time. The currently useless results-nights shows could be filled with backstory... and, yeah, I guess, the truly-awful-terrible-horrible-no-good-very-bad audition footage everybody besides me loves so much. Would that be so hard?  6

OK, whom did we say yesterday? Luke Menard and Jason Yeager. For the girls, I'm going to say Joanne Borgella and Amy Davis.

Back from soundly beating me last year, the oracular 12-sided die says Jason Yeager and Robbie Carrico for the guys and Asia'h Epperson and Brooke White for the girls.

"Idol" Tuesday: Hooray, Once Again I May Begin Arbitrarily Assigning Numerical Scores!
2008-02-20 00:41
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Well, they say the talent in this year's "American Idol" top 24 is the best it's ever been. Who says this? Well, Ryan Seacrest does, a lot. Why would he lie?

The group of males selected for Season Seven seem more talented on average than the also-rans of Season Six, although that bunch did not set a high bar. I don't think there's one instance of a Sanjaya type who just flat-out can't sing here, although check with me again next week regarding Luke Menard. Assuming he survives... Menard wasn't the worst performer Tuesday night in a show that oddly imposed a 60's theme even though it was the first studio show and in a few cases the first time we'd heard some of the 24 sing at all. However, he doesn't have the stage presence or personal appeal of David Cook and doesn't have the judges mesmerized by his Australian accent like Michael Johns (a fraud). And here's another difference from last season to this one -- camp. I'm not going to offend the P.C. police by making any far-off assumptions about Danny Noriega and Colton Berry, but let's just say that there's more of a musical theater representation among the guys this year and leave it at that.

If you're new to this, the numerical scores are more or less just there for a sake of an argument, but in theory I'm rating the performances purely on a technical basis, with a little within-reason leeway for impressive exhibitions of style or partial-credit adjustments for ambitious failures. It's in the text that I'll discuss the tactical elements of their performances, so sometimes the numerical scores might seem to contradict what I've written. This is fine, of course, because both are for entertainment purposes only.

David Hernandez The "Idol" showrunners did a good job of structuring the show last night, breaking up the kind of hopeless guys and saving the most crowd-pleasing acts until the end. Hernandez was a solid opener because he sounded the major season theme everyone's making sure to emphasize: the talent level is better this year. Hernandez isn't a contender by any means, but his "In the Midnight Hour" didn't embarrass himself or anyone else. There's not enough of an injection of personality in Hernandez's technically correct but uninteresting style such that even flawless song choices could preserve him. That was another big recurrer on the night -- even though most of them appeared on camera discussing how they had been watching "American Idol" since the first season, few of the male contestants appeared to have much of an idea of how they might come across. Hernandez, a velvet crooner, took on a song that most people associate with deeper, rougher-voiced roarers. He did better with a bad choice than a lot of his peers. 7

Chikezie Good move by the big fella getting rid of his surname -- his catchy handle is like three-fifths of his appeal right now. Chikezie could go up or down from here, but he'll need a bit of luck to survive a boneheaded strategic mistake. It was 60's night, but there was no reason to turn "Love You More Today" into a hideous time warp into the more misguided realms of Al Green's deeper back catalog. It was incredibly corny and what's more given a slowed-down version of an uncomplicated melody he didn't even sing it all that precisely. And somehow his aggressively challenging Simon and the judges after his performance didn't really seem like something that would inspire people to vote to keep him on. I don't think he's a goner... but, well, maybe he is. 6

David Cook Despite Simon's being convinced of Cook's reliance on his guitar during the Hollywood show, I don't find David Cook believable as a musician at all -- he's a pretty boy posing as a rocker. Actual former boy-band member Robbie Carrico is more convincing. Cook deconstructed "Happy Together" by mumbling a deathly slow intro and then yelling the rest of the way through; he forgot a few of the words, jumbled some other ones, and wasn't clear throughout. Cook is almost identical to Michael Johns in vibe and performance style only Johns is better-looking, better-accented, and hits the right key slightly more often during their long ad-libbed Rock Singer Shouting sections. I don't like either of them very much, but Cook is the one who has a fair shot at getting ashcanned quickly. 4

Jason Yeager Yeager's introductory clip, which portrayed him as a humble and modest soul who never expected to get this far, kind of made you want to root for him. But then he sang "Moon River." Dude. "Moon River?" Really? The whole night was marred by clueless song choices, but Yeager's was surreal. He stuttered a few times during what was otherwise not a bad technical vocal, and while I could sense him at least trying to put a 21st-century infusion of ...anything into it he didn't come close to succeeding. More than anything else, I think Yeager exposed himself as cannon fodder by letting his first extended appearance in front of America be singing that song. What a doof! 6

Robbie Carrico The "Idol" hype machine is overselling the dreadlocked, bearded Carrico as a rocker. What's interesting is, it's his background as a former bubblegum teen group member that makes him a serious threat. Carrico was the first performer in the whole show to take a 60's song and make me think "Wow, I forgot how much I loved that song!" instead of "What on earth made him choose that?" He did "One Is the Loneliest Number" and his control -- especially in contrast with the shouters, Johns and Cook -- was what kept the familiar melody in place even as Carrico and the band (sure, why not) rocked it out a little. I don't think the fact that Carrico is more polish than spit will hurt a bid for the "Idol" title under the mantle of the Rocker Party, as it were. I think his love for rock is sincere and I suspect his experience elsewhere will give him a leg up on the less prepared come the theme nights that are less suited to big singers. 8

David Archuleta Archuleta's calling card is youth, and it worked for Jordin Sparks, so why not. He is talented, unquestionably showing so in the audition rounds and last night, and he has a husk to his voice that's not usual for someone so young. But like Sparks he seems to be completely at the mercy of the band, with no sense of how to inject his own attitude into his numbers and little sense besides as to what that atittude would even be. Archuleta is cute, to be sure, but I think the judges consciously chose a couple of cutie pies to split that vote and make sure there's no repeat of Malakarpalooza. If he sings great and gets a lot of breaks, Archuleta could go places. But he's not quite ready for the limelight yet. Case in point -- I forgot to write down in my notes what he song he performed and now as I write this only about half an hour later, I can't for the life of me remember what song he sung. I absolutely remember what Carrico and Jason Castro did. 7

Danny Noriega Ladies and gentlemen, isn't he fabulous! You have to hand it to the eighteen-year-old but fully self-assured Noriega, who is a bubbly, positive object lesson about being your own you. He even spoke charmingly about trying to fake a different image for Season 6 and being drummed out in the Hollywood rounds because of it. I'm all for Danny being the Danny he's got to be, but in his effort to sell the performance he ended up with kind of a wobbly vocal on a very simple song, as the judges noted. However, compared to Colton Berry's later turn it was a far less sacreligious Elvis cover. I for one kind of dug Noriega's goofy little hip shakes. For sure he was having a good time. It did trend a little bit towards the realm of the high-school theater production... but what did you expect? Give Danny a song he has a bit more of a connection to and a slower tempo and I think he could surprise us still. But having shown that he loves being who he is so clearly, he could stand to dial it back a little bit. 7

Luke Menard The biggest loser of the evening -- at least Chikezie got to mix it up with Simon and hold his own for a little while. Menard just whiffed big time on a song I love, "Everybody's Talkin'," which he sang with no subtlety, a host of pitch mistakes, and a consistent detachment from the band's meter the whole way through. He delivered the evening's most glaring blue note, and he left a bad taste in the mouth with his obnoxiously self-deluded defense in the postgame Seacrest interview. I think he's dead meat. 5

Colton Berry Another young veteran of the stage, Berry I think is a little less polarizing than Danny Noriega and has a really nice voice, if not much in the way of a distinct style. I took it somewhat personally that Berry chose "Suspicious Minds," because it's a song I love to sing along to in the car, and taking the melody up an octave and wussing it out was more than I could handle. He did do a good job with the vocal such as it was -- until things went sour. Berry made himself look like an amateur by missing badly on several climactic ad lib figures and his stage moves were haphazard and unnatural. He probably built enough of a fanbase with his Hollywood airtime to get past this one but he needs to shape up or ship out. 6

Garrett Haley There is a high number of good singers in this men's group, I feel, who are going to get sent home without America ever getting an idea of how talented they really are. Haley has a nice voice, I think, but everything else about his performance Tuesday was such a disaster that it's hard to say for sure. He picked "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," which is a crappy song with an annoying, facile melody. He allowed the band to lead him into a garish, Pat Boone-esque slow pop arrangement of the song that made it even less relevant than the 60's original. Oh, also he had the barest hint of a mustache -- probably only visible on HD, but still an absolute no-no. If Haley doesn't bite the dust, it's based on love for his long curly locks and sod all else. 6

Jason Castro This could be the guy! Castro sure acts the part of the one guileless "Idol" contestant left on the planet, an aw-shucks former drummer who had barely ever sung in front of an audience before last night. Castro has the gift, not just of a fine voice like many of his castmates, but of an innate sense of how to sing a song and make it his own. His "What a Day for a Daydream" was both perfectly matched to his vibe and invested with a real bit of himself. I thought to myself that he could have done it even better with just his guitar and the audience clapping, and to my surprise, Simon Cowell (who's been a real skeptic with the self-accompaniment thing, new for this season) said the very same thing. It's pretty amazing to make a little bit of "Idol" history (the first studio-round performance ever with a contestant playing an instrument) and have the song totally come across as a standout on its own merits. Castro's happiness, in his countenance and his voice, really won me over. It's possible that a difficult theme week could present him with a challenge he's simply not able to adapt to, given his lack of experience. But I don't know -- he claims to be a drummer, and he was totally at home playing the guitar in front of an audience of millions. Maybe he's just one of those musical polymaths, in which case, watch out, everybody else. If Castro could get it rolling he might be just the kind of "Idol" the show needs to rejuvenate itself -- not just a new interchangeable pop face but a genuine new musician. Or maybe he's a flash in the pan. 9

Michael Johns Fraud, I say! Fraud! Johns was the big star of the Hollywood show with his bombastic "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Down Under hunkiness. But his "Light My Fire" was just bad, compounded by the fact we had already heard him sing the same song better before and giving the distinct impression that Johns is dangerously overconfident. He certainly has the judges eating out of his hands -- Randy compared him, creatively, to INXS's Michael Hutchence (wot, Randy, not the guy from Men at Work?) and Paula and Simon seemed not to notice that after four lines Johns just gave the song's whole melody a pass and did freelance yelling for a full 90 seconds. I did find it funny that the producers saw fit to insert a small video section clearly designed to assuage people's fears about a foreigner winning "American Idol." "I've lived in America my whole adult life, mate!" John protests, his cheeks dimpling slightly. It's going to be a long while before Johns's laziness puts him in a position of real danger, but I can see it coming. 3

Who's going home? My picks are Luke Menard (high degree of certainty) and Jason Yeager(somewhat less so). I could see Chikezie or Garrett Haley taking a fall, and David Hernandez wasn't really noteworthy either. But I'm sticking with those two guys.

Tomorrow night: the girls. Should be fun.

Those Music Industry Rapscallions
2008-02-19 16:38
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Last week I bought a copy of Genesis's Nursery Cryme on vinyl and was tremendously tickled to see this logo printed ominously on the inner sleeve:

That's a pretty scary image, right? Look at the little crossbones under the cassette tape! However, reports of music's demise in 1971 were overstated.

The major labels then were concerned about the re-recordable audiocassette wiping out the vinyl market, but here in 2008, cassettes are completely dead while there at least remains a small cult of vinyl devotees large enough in size to justify the release of new recordings in the format. If you've bought a CD lately (I don't know why you would, but just suppose) you've probably noticed the equally intimidating, official-seeming "FBI Piracy Warning" printed larger than the track listings on the back.

It seems to me as if the same record labels (and in many instances, the same people, note the long, fawning piece on Clive Davis in the new Rolling Stone) are in business today despite the ubiquity of home tapers flying the cassette-and-crossbones flag back in the 1970's. So perhaps current hair-tearing and garment-rending taking place over the apocalyptic menance of Internet file-sharing is an overreaction. It's true that the uncertainty right now allows for the possibility for the paradigm to change; artists seizing control of their own rights a la Radiohead or signing more full-service personal management/live promotion deals as Madonna and Korn have could become the norm rather than the exception. But it's probably not a good idea to bet against the infrastructure and capitalization of the established music industry -- if they could only get out of their own way and stop fighting battles they've already lost.

On an entirely unrelated note, I wanted to mention somewhere that the third and fourth episodes of "Breaking Bad" really raised the stakes for the series, and the first two episodes (which can you watch online) were already pretty darned good. There was one long scene in the third episode, in particular, that struck me as just about the best filmmaking I had seen all year. Vince Gilligan clearly spent a ton of time working out the tone and arc of the whole series; I love the way "Breaking Bad" uses long interludes of silence (which is almost unheard-of for television) and huge contrasts between dark interiors and sun-blasted New Mexico exteriors. Fans of the Coen brothers' crime movies and Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan are strongly encouraged to get on board with this one.

And also: I am so fired up for "Idol." I think I'm more excited than I was for the Super Bowl or the "Lost" relaunch. At least with "Idol" we'll get to watch the action unfold in an unbroken line from now until the end of the television season; all our scripted dramas will not be so lucky.

"Idol" Fever Returns
2008-02-17 14:47
by Mark T.R. Donohue

I can't bear to watch even a second of the open-call audition episodes of "American Idol," so the "Hollywood Week," which cuts down a pool of about 150 auditioners to 24 semifinalists, serves as both series pilot and recap for what I've missed for me. I am most interested in "Idol" as a sped-up, made-for-TV microcosm of the pop starmaking process, and the geek-show quality of the first several weeks has little if anything to do with that.

Season 6, while entertaining enough to me as a first-time viewer, had its shortcomings. The talent pool was very shallow. Only two of the female contestants were great singers, and neither had much personality; the male field was bleaker still. Chris Sligh managed to coast along for several weeks based on one clever comment he made to Simon Cowell during auditions; Phil Stacey lasted even longer based on nothing more than sheer unobtrusiveness. Blake Lewis, despite a weak, rangeless tenor that impressed nobody, made it all the way to the final two thanks to decent taste and a likable, mildly distinctive personal style. The constant harping during Season 7's Hollywood shows that the talent pool assembled for this casting was the best ever on the part of the judges and Ryan Seacrest seemed a calculated attempt to set this season apart from the last.

It is very hard to say for sure whether the showrunners have delivered on their goal and brought together a more talent-studded cast. It's a peculiarity of the "American Idol" style that the contestants who have a practical chance of winning the competition seldom get much if any screen time during the early weeks. The Hollywood Week episodes focus in on the poor souls who almost reach their dreams only to see them dashed on the rocks at the last possible minute -- and how can they not? This makes for undeniably entertaining television. Season 7 may have already seen its high point with the execution-style dismissal of insufferable 18-year-old moppet Josiah Leming. Leming, whose bowl haircut and overemotive singing highly suggested the malign influence of similarly talentless indie-lite hack Connor Oberst, picked fights with the judges, the "Idol" band, and the show's musical director before finally getting the axe at the final turn and collapsing into an immensely psychologically satisfying tear puddle just outside the Elevator of Death. Leming would have been a disaster as a contestant -- he was emotionally fragile and completely unable to cooperate with others (one can only imagine the expressions of the deeply professional "Idol" band upon hearing the young Phil Spector's proclamation that he had worked out new arrangements for each and every instrument on the song "Stand by Me") -- but on the other hand among those granted much screen time in the Hollywood shows, Leming was the only one with a Lewis-like personal creative identity.

The format has been changed, even, to avoid future cases like Lewis. "Idol" is supposed to find diamonds in the rough like Kelly Clarkson -- whatever you might have to say about Clarkson's career decisions since "Idol," her talent as a vocalist shouldn't be in question. The trouble is, when you're digging deep in the rough, you're going to find tons of people with no musical training whatsoever, whatever their raw vocalizing talent might be. Season 7 semifinalist Amanda Overmyer, the nurse with the pipes that completely blew away the minimal instrumental backing during her Hollywood audition, is a good example. Her voice is a weapon, but one that might be completely impossible to aim -- I've heard her sing three songs so far and each one sounded pretty much like the exact same melody. But man, what a melody!

Lewis was a adequate singer with a ton of music knowhow -- a category not much exposed on "Idol" before last season. His longevity probably surprised and confused the showrunners, who all but stage-managed Jordin Sparks to the crown to keep the embarrassment of a "singing competition" winner who couldn't sing a lick from souring the momentum of their franchise. (Well, that's being overdramatic -- Lewis wouldn't have won anyway. But it was very hard to watch the final, with its awful compulsory ballad "This Is My Now," without thinking that the fix was in.) There isn't anyone in the final group this year, or at least among those to whom we've been introduced, with similar savvy.

One of the ways that the format of the Hollywood week was reconfigured to produce this desired result was the elimination of the group singing round. Potential finalists used to have to form up into groups of three and four and arrange and perform one number that way. This was tremendously entertaining, for obvious reasons. What happens when you take a bunch of monomaniacal, delusional, overstressed "Idol" wannabes and force them to cooperate for an evening with their direct competition? Well, two or three massive breakdowns and at least one colossal made-for-TV catfight. Both Lewis and Sligh made it through to the Final 24 last season largely on the basis of their group-round performance (which they did together with two also-rans). That allowed both of them to coast through on strengths -- Lewis's beatboxing and arranging, Sligh's self-deprecation and general affability -- that weren't at all the traits which "American Idol" is designed to exploit. In place of the group round, this year the producers went with a "last chance" format -- singers who had not already received a pass through after their first solo performances were brought out in rows of ten and given a couple seconds to plead their case. As the limited amount of time the telecast granted this section proved, this ended up being way less dramatic than was intended. Few of those granted reprieve here came out of the Elevator of Death happy.

It's hard to assess what will take place from here on out since our exposure to the contestants still standing has been so limited to this point. When the studio singing rounds begin this week, it will be a fresh start for both contestants and viewers. What's stood out most about the Final 24 thus far is its international flavor. Michael Johns is very Australian and very good-looking; the judges might be bigger fans of his singing than I am but if Haley Scarnato was able to ride tight pants all the way into April last season, I am certainly not going to hold the more talented Johns' photogenic qualities against him. Carly Smithson seems more American than Irish (her accent comes and goes like David Boreanaz's in "Buffy" and "Angel" flashback sequences) but she seems like more of an authentic tough chick than any of the Season 6 crowd and we still haven't heard her sing fully unencumbered (allergy problems dogged her throughout the Hollywood round). I'm more intrigued by the handful of male contestants from whom we have hardly heard anything. Early indications seem to confirm that this group is vastly better than the Season 6 rogues' gallery, where the hugely bland Chris Richardson was actually one of the more talented vocalists. I don't care at all for Colton Berry's inbred-cousin sideburn look, but the little, unassuming guy has some pipes. And there are about five or six male semifinalists who look interesting, even if I haven't heard them sing at all yet.

Come on back Wednesday, when we'll for sure have something to say about each and every one of the one-half of the semifinalists who will have performed by then.

Some Uninformed Thoughts on the Juno (Backlash) Backlash
2008-02-12 14:46
by Mark T.R. Donohue

There is an interesting piece on Slate regarding the battle lines being drawn between people who love Juno and thought its Best Picture nomination was just buttons and those who hate the movie, its dialogue, its soundtrack, and its screenwriter in particular. I personally find Diablo Cody's sudden ubiquity obnoxious -- I have issues with people who commoditize their misery, as did Cody in her self-serving runaway stripper memoir. But I haven't seen the movie. It's not that I don't want to, and I've heard enough positive recommendations from people whose judgement I trust that I'll see it on DVD eventually. I just don't go to movies, because I'm cheap.

Anyway... it's easy to compare the righteousness of movie fans who constantly perceive the legitimacy of the Academy Awards to be under siege with the kind of people who tear their hair out over guys like Tony Perez and Phil Rizzuto being in baseball's Hall of Fame. All of these self-styled defenders seem to have huge blind spots when it comes to a long historical record in the cases of both institutions when it comes to popular opinion drowning out artistic merit (often) or screwball choices that defy all rational analysis (also often). The Oscars serve a very significant self-congratulatory function for Hollywood. Creative types are inscure, and the moviemaking community in particular needs to have several major annual events where they get to remind themselves how good and right they are. The "Best Picture" award, for as long as I've followed it, seems to track not the best movies of each individual year but rather the incorrect piece of contemporaneously popular opinion that got bucked: Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven make westerns fashionable again and get statuettes, Gladiator does the same thing with swords-'n'-sandals epics, Titanic serves as penance for the movies' forgetting about the older female demographic for a couple of years, Lord of the Rings gets a big win for the science fiction/cult community to make up for the systematic cinematic butchery of every major SF fiction and/or comic book property in the years following... you see how it works. The Academy Awards are instant revisionist history.

It's been the conventional wisdom in the movie biz the last few years that when it comes to comedies targeted at young audiences, girls will go to see movies with boys in the lead roles but boys won't go to see movies with girls. Hence... American Pie, Superbad, Van Wilder, Harold and Kumar, Loser, Accepted, Road Trip... and so on with low comedies good, bad, and in between featuring nonthreatening young male leads. Juno, which has made $100 million by getting the guys who went to see all those movies to care about (or at least pay to go see) a female protagonist, has one of those instant revisionist "We were so wrong, but we have all now realized it simultaneously and will celebrate our new insight with the giving of awards and wearing of hideously impractical clothing" stories to it. Don't count it out as a big winner on Oscar night... particularly with so many of the "serious" nominees fitting that "far easier to appreciate than to watch," Criterion Collection kind of label.

"Lost" Week 2: It's a Jungle Again
2008-02-11 16:40
by Mark T.R. Donohue

After the season finale last spring, "Lost" felt on again, in a way it hadn't been since the first season. Rather than watching out of a sense of obligation as I had been doing for the better part of two seasons I was all excited to watch again, the way I had been about "Heroes" before that show, too, seemingly lost the mission. Briefly, anyway. It could very well be that the writers' strike was the best thing that could have happened for "Heroes," since the ill-conceived plague storyline ended up being moved along rather faster than would it have otherwise and when things go back in production the writers will have had plenty of time to learn from the online response, not to mention the clever way the "Lost" writers have made their show competitive for buzz again.

But it's hard not to feel skittish about where "Lost" might go next, because on the face of things the second episode of the new season seemed to be bringing back some of the same issues that made the second and third years of the show less entertaining than they could have been. More new characters? Four major ones all at once? All of whom are apparently tied into the mojo of the island and will be having tedious flashback adventures that will randomly feature supporting characters from older seasons' tedious flashbacks? I'm not that interested in finding out that an archaeologist newcomer might have once used a woman Sayid knew as a guide.

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Kids Love Bullets
2008-02-09 13:29
by Mark T.R. Donohue
  • I am really, really ready for the real part of "American Idol" to start. I know a lot of people seem to like the first couple weeks' geek shows, but I'm not one of them. Maybe I am out of touch with the fanbase on this one, but I suspect part of the reason that the "Idol" ratings are finally beginning to erode is that the formula is due for a shakeup. If I were they I would have changed the way the first month of the season works completely. Instead of three or four brutal weeks of auditions, I would edit the Hollywood round (one of the most exciting, emotion-overloaded, high-stakes examples of what drew us all to reality TV in the first place) across the first several episodes with flashbacks to the various contenders' audition rounds. Of course, that's just what I would like to see -- I am most interested in the psychology of the people who have a chance to win when watching "Idol." Most of the viewers might like watching clueless middle Americans embarrass themselves hideously for the better part of the month, I don't know. Maybe they could do a separate special for them. I didn't like the way that last season there were some people who made into the final 12 into whose personalities we had no insight whatsoever.
  • The new episode of "Psych" from Friday night was noteworthy for two reasons: First, it was co-written by star James Roday, and second, it featured a performance by Melanie Lynskey of "Two and a Half Men" and "Drive" fame that was fascinating. At first, I thought Lynskey's British accent, which she didn't seem to use for the first couple of scenes, then lapsed in and out of for the rest of the episode, was just bad American acting. But wait! Lynskey isn't American! She's from New Zealand! In fact, she was in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures, a film I had seen without ever before making the connection. But clearly either British accents are really hard for New Zealanders to do (I don't think) or like Mel Gibson in turn Lynskey's accent has just completely disappeared. Well, I don't know, this was interesting to me.
  • After viewing and really enjoying the first two episodes of "Breaking Bad" I added "Malcolm in the Middle" to my TiVo list. I haven't really watched any "Malcolm" since the first two seasons were on and I'm kind of fascinated by its status alongside "King of the Hill" as a barely-profitable cult show that Fox just kept running... and running... and running, probably for lack of better alternatives. As for "King of the Hill," which as barely anybody seems to know is still in production (12th season), it's a fantastic show. Going back to "Malcolm" after all these years... I don't know. It feels a little weird. For all of its single-camera surrealism and over-the-top attitude... there's kind of a lot of jokes about poop and farts and eating bugs. Not my thing. One thing, though, and I have no idea what he's doing now... Erik Per Sullivan is the best preteen sitcom actor in history. His timing as Dewey is unreal. As for Frankie Muniz, I hope he has invested his "Malcolm" checks wisely. He's no Topher Grace, that's for sure. I did hear he was like a big L.A. Clippers superfan, though, so that's a point in his favor.
  • The only bad thing about the new episodes of "Psych" and "Monk" running on USA now is the constant blaring promotions for Courtney Cox's show, "Dirt." For me they're just irritating, but... both of USA's lighthearted detective franchises are rare cable shows that can be watched by the whole family, to drag out a tired old saw. I first fell in love with "Monk" watching episodes on vacation with my mom, a huge fan. USA is showing rather poor recognition of its brand with "Dirt," a show that (to be fair) I haven't watched. But whether it's a good show or not isn't the point. The point is, the network ought not be running vulgar ads with Cox cracking "jokes" about sex and drugs during its squeaky clean mystery block. I'm not trying to be the Thought Police here or anything... it's just not good business. I like smut as much as the next guy, but nothing takes me out of my fun times with Monk, Shaun, and Gus more than seeing Courtney's disturbingly taut face spewing lines about cocaine and vomit.
  • Speaking of "Psych" and "Monk," those two shows along with Showtime's great "Dexter" will be some of the only beneficiaries of the writers' strike, with the chance to win larger audiences with some network airings. I have no idea how the bowdlerized network versions of "Dexter" will play, but I suspect that the editors will be missing the point -- you can take out all of the severed body parts and the spraying blood, but the show is just so fundamentally adult that even with the swear words taken out I am not sure whether it even belongs on network television. Among other things, the commercial breaks will utterly disperse the show's admirable tension -- it's the first show in my memory where the audience isn't merely afraid for the life of the hero, but also fears that the hero will come and kill THEM.
New Shows Update: Reports of Wall-to-Wall Reality Programming Were Exaggerated
2008-02-04 10:31
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Two new, very different shows have managed to crack my viewing schedule, occupied as I have been these last few days re-viewing Seasons 2 and 3 of "Lost" (more about that later). I feel as if the writer's strike has pretty much rendered this entire television season impotent -- few if any of this year's freshman shows are going to make it to a second season. Many are already cancelled and forgotten. For different reasons, it's starting to resemble the season of 2001-02, where viewers universally announced with their remotes that they simply didn't have the emotional energy to commit to any new programs.

So why do I persevere and keep watching all of these pilots? I don't know. It's cheaper than going to the movies.

"Breaking Bad" The premise sounds like a slight inversion of Showtime's "Weeds," but quite early on in the pilot to AMC's new series with Bryan Cranston the creators make it clear that Jenji Kohan's show merely provided a launching-off point and the tone and goals here are quite different. Cranston, who had a weird energy even for a sitcom dad on "Malcolm in the Middle" and was as dark and disturbing on "How I Met Your Mother" as that show gets, doesn't mug in the least as high school chem teacher Walter White. White responds to a terminal cancer diagnosis by seeking out a lowlife former student (Aaron Paul) and opening a meth lab, ostensibly to provide security for his wife and handicapped son. What quickly becomes apparent as Cranston, his eyes motionless and dead, begins to cheat, lie, poison, kill, and dismember is that the whole speed dealer thing is just a front to allow Walter to treat the world as unpleasantly as it has treated him. While "Weeds" spent its whole first season putting its characters in place before things really started accelerating in the second, "Breaking Bad" sends Walter out into the deep waters almost from the very beginning, and it's the right choice -- while slower-paced, this is a tenser, higher-stakes show. Walter's customers aren't harmless cheery slackers like Nancy Botwin's, they're unpleasant and dangerous people -- and so is his principal confederate, Paul as a callow and arrogant addict. "Breaking Bad" can walk the line between finely dramatic and just hard to watch -- creator Vince Gilligan, off a long run on "The X-Files," gives his antihero a finely assembled set of frustrations, from the contempt of his students to a nicely nuanced supporting role by R.J. Mitte as Walter's son, whose cerebral palsy gives him a poignant physical need for his father's assistance even while he still resents his dad in the accepted teenaged way.

The show has a built-in clock with Walter's illness (and its status as a short-run basic cable series), which kind of takes away the one word of warning I might give -- this sort of tension exercise can't really be sustained over multiple seasons. "Weeds," which didn't start out anywhere near as high-stakes, more or less burned itself out by the third season. "Breaking Bad" seems designed to be a 12- or 20-episode self-contained story, something we're seeing more and more of on cable TV these days (ESPN's "The Bronx Is Burning" was pretty good) and something of which I wholly approve.

"Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles" Thanks, but no thanks. SKYNET should still be your go-to reference when you need to name-check a fictional futuristic computer that will be death of us all, but the Terminator TV spinoff neither detracts much from the blissfully mindless first two films nor adds anything of interest. It's well-cast, with Lena Headey effectively stepping in for Linda Hamilton, Richard T. Jones getting more than is really there out of a stock menacing government-y guy role, and the minute Summer Glau looking lovely if not really selling a weird River/Schwarzenegger-hybrid robot delivery. "Sarah Connor Chronicles" is all action, which is kind of cool to see on TV (and it hasn't cheated thus far, all the episodes have had big-screen effects budgets). But... after a certain point you run into a lot of problems, not the least of which is credibility. Is John Connor, a wary but otherwise completely unskilled kid, going to managed to escape point-blank small arms fire from programmed killing machines from the future every week? See, that doesn't work. In a two-hour movie, you buy these crazy escapes because things keep moving quickly enough for there to be something else to hold your attention by the time the gunfire quiets enough to let you really consider the matter. For a weekly series, you've got plenty of time to wonder why John hasn't gotten shot yet. For television the basic Terminator plot has been rotated a little to emphasize the modern, non-science fiction analogues to Sarah Connor's plight, but not enough -- this is still mostly special effects chasing people around, and the Terminator mythology (to the extent that it's even coherent; the three films all loudly contradict one another) isn't rich enough to sustain a series. Really, they should have been happy to have gotten two pretty good movies out of it. If people were really lining up to give Glau money to kick ass in front of a greenscreen, couldn't they have just laid out for Firefly: Phase II?

Feel Good "Lost"
2008-02-01 11:46
by Mark T.R. Donohue

It's a funny thing about "Lost": I'm a big fan, have seen all the episodes multiple times, have even allowed myself to fall into the rabbit hole of its fanatical (and endless) Internet fan theory webs on a few occasions, and yet I don't feel like I've ever been with the crowd when it comes to the show. I didn't pick up the DVD's of the first season until after the backlash against the second season had already began, and I didn't start watching the show on a week to week basis until the beginning of the third year. When I began watching it off of DVD at that point I had the same complaints that a lot of people did about the beginning of the second season: new characters that only served to give an excuse to rehash old scenes from a fourth or fifth "new" angle, writers that seemed to be winging it, wildly swinging emphases... you name it. So I stopped paying attention closely, I missed a few important episodes (the one where Desmond becomes unstuck in time Billy Pilgrim-style really would have helped me with understanding the whole rest of the third season), and I was blindsided by the spectacular third-season finale. Then, finally, I seemed to be on the same page with consensus popular opinion on "Lost" -- it had led astray, but all was now forgiven. Who wasn't anxiously awaiting the fourth season? Was anybody who had seen the first three still planning to wait for the DVD this time?

I can't say with any certainty that the show isn't going to drift again. There's a lot of story left to be told and although we know now that showrunners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have an arc sketched out for the rest of the story, it's also clear that a lot of what remains still has yet to be written. (This interview with Lindelof gives some hints about how the writers went astray in seasons 2 and 3 despite having strong overall ideas.) The crossover to a weekly flash-forward from the old marriage to flashbacks (which became redundant right around the fourth or fifth trip down memory lane for most of the central characters, particularly the well-defined ones like Sawyer and Jack) is something that the third-season finale implied was coming and what had most fans excited for the new feel of the show.
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