Until last week, I had never watched a single second of television karaoke contest phenomenon "American Idol." I figured this season was going to be as good a time as any to jump in and give it a chance. I am trying to write more stuff for Homes Dot TV, and apparently the show is something of a hit, so why not watch one episode and see if there was anything in particular I had to say about it? I am allegedly a music critic, although most of the promos that find their way to my address are of the handmade package, stoned undergrads with a four-track variety. I don't know how much of the general Toaster audience follow the show, but as soon as I got through my first episode, I knew that I was pretty much going to have to write about it, for one minor supporting reason and one big huge obvious one.
The minor supporting reason is that it's a very strange, watchable little show. The whole "voted off the island" thing was compelling enough for me to watch one and only one season of "Survivor;" I already feel that "American Idol" does a better job of sustaining drama out of the concept. I mean, this isn't a game show for these people, nearly all of whom try to feign bravado but resemble unmistakably deer in headlights. Every week, people's dreams get crushed. Isn't that poetic? Well, no, it's the TV-PG analogue of a snuff film, but we've all got a little bit of sicko in us that enjoys watching the suffering of others. (That's why so many people saw Passion of the Christ, I bet. And Simon Cowell is easily as sadistic as Gonzo Mel.) The first episode I watched was the most brutal, the "Hollywood round" where they went from 200 people to 24, and it was like watching mass executions, with twitching corpses and bodily fluids and everything.
When I watched the first episode of the studio round, which featured the twelve male finalists swinging their respective things, I immediately saw why the deviously simple format is so competition-crushingly effective and at the same time pleasingly postmodern. Since the studio shows are all live and the audience votes each week, there isn't any way for the "Idol" editors to build storylines. Several of the contestants in the final 24 hadn't gotten any screen time at all before Tuesday night's show. A lot of the likable folks who got the most burn in the Hollywood week are gone. It seems terribly unfair to the guys like Jared Cotter that the more immediately engaging Chris Sligh and Sanjaya Malakar already had huge fanbases before he even got to sing note one over the air. But nothing about "Idol" is fair -- it's contrived, garish, arbitrary, and profoundly American. I kind of love it already.
But that isn't even the major reason! The major reason is, as I found while I was watching the 12 guys do their business, writing copy inches about "American Idol" is insanely easy. You just get a notebook and write two or three things about each guy, stick a numerical score 1-10 on him, then go in the other room and type it up. If I ever get my laptop fixed, I can cut even the notebook-to-computer bit out and voila, three effort-free posts a week! Hooray!
One more thing. I want to be sure to justify this as a scientific experiment and not merely wallowing with the masses out in lowest-common-denominatorland. Therefore I'm going to get a male and a female (it's 2 a.m. as I write this, so I don't know whom exactly, but probably the research department and one of my various sisters) who don't watch the show to look at photos of the finalists each week and pick the ones they think are going to get axed based on appearance alone. Then we'll compare them to my picks and the actual results and make a bar graph or something. Maybe if there's a place where you can listen to the audio of the performances alone without seeing the singers I'll get an experimental group for that too. (The control group can be my parents, who will continue blissfully knowing absolutely nothing about "Idol" or indeed any popular music created since 1972.)
Well, anyway, for Tuesday's show with the guys, here's what I thought.
Rudy Cardenas Like I said I haven't watched "Idol" before this year so I had no idea where the curve would land. I thought Cardenas was an average male singer, on a scale where 10 is Robin Zander and 1 is Wreckless Eric. As it turns out among this group Cardenas was one of the better technical singers. He made a good decision picking an upbeat song ("Free Ride"), but he was a little exposed on the high notes. He was the only one of the twelve performers who could vocally ad lib with any confidence, but his movements were pretty stiff. 5
Brandon Rogers Definitely one of the guys who can get by on his looks so long as he doesn't take any big chances with material that will expose his mediocre instrument. Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" might have been a bit too generic. Like a lot of the male cast, Rogers is in his late 20's but appears to be much younger. He has charm, and pro dance moves from his background as a backup singer, but I don't think he's a heavyweight. 6
Sundance Head Head was the star of last week's climax, when he and a substantially less immediately dislikable guy were brought in to face the judges together with only one men's spot remaining. It was surprising that he got through there, since he was terrible in both the group performances and his last pre-studio solo shot. The judges must have really seen something in his initial audition. Anyway, he got two second chances, but I highly doubt he will get a third. I didn't give him the lowest score of the twelve, but I think he's a near lock to get the axe Thursday. His "Nights in White Satin" was pretty monstrous. He was out of key throughout with zero stage presence. In the interviews before and afterwards it was clear he just couldn't take the pressure. 3
Paul Kim* Kim is the Asian-American guy with the bare feet gimmick. He dug himself a huge hole, in my book, by choosing "Careless Whispers," a song I can't stand. I might even have ended up scoring him a little high because despite the awful tune he showed me a few things. He was hardly the first person to start the first verse timidly, but when he got to the chorus and hit his third gear I was surprised by the power he had held in reserve. There is an interesting risk/reward system going on when it comes to the performers' choices between ballads and uptempo material. The rock numbers are fewer, so anybody who chooses to do one is getting a bit of a free boost from change-of-pace factor. (It also doesn't hurt at all to lean on the "Idol" band, which is so sharp it's sick. I hope all of those guys are getting mad paid, especially the lead guitar player.) But, on the other hand, if you do pick a ballad and you nail it, you've got to have a degree-of-difficulty boost coming. Kim's vocal was technically all over the map, but overall I had a positive impression. He could be a sleeper because he's got the all-around game. He's not the most charming, the best looking, or the best singer, but he's definitely got at least a little something going in each of those areas. Cowell: "Well, the original is so good...." 7
Chris Richardson Unlike Kim, he has some very big strengths and some very glaring weak spots. He picked a rocker ("I Don't Want to Be") with a pretty simple melody right in that first tenor wheelhouse, so he ought to have been blasting, but while his pitch control is quite good he's the weakest projector in the male cast. Lack of booming pipes didn't hurt Justin Timberlake's career, and that's who Richardson is acknowledgeably channeling. The judges might harp on Richardson's lack of originality, but somehow I don't think the voters will be concerned about that since he looks quite a bit like Timberlake too. One thing you can say in plagiarism's favor, at least when you get up on stage you know what it is you're going to do up there. Richardson was most of the most confident guys as far as playing to the camera, moving around naturally, and just generally exuding charisma. I had to dock him a point for hitting the last note flat. Everybody except A.J. Tabaldo hit many blue notes, but pop songs nearly always end on the tonic and if you can't hit the first note in a major key in pitch in a song that's been arranged specifically for your voice, there's not much I can do to help you. 7
Nick Pedro I only wrote down two words and a null set symbol for Pedro. The first word was "TEPID," in all caps. Then came the ø, then the word "personality." I came this close to reducing his score to the minimum because he made a "Vote for Pedro!" crack right after his "Now and Forever." Then I thought better of it, thinking that ultimately it's not Nick Pedro's fault that I loathe the film Napolean Dynamite for much the same reason that Eric Cartman loathes "Family Guy." (And for stealing one of Elvis Costello's lesser-used pseudonyms, although really now how many pseudonyms does one man need?) Well, you can see I don't have a lot nice to say about Nick Pedro, since I'm meandering even more than usual. I will say that if you plugged a tape of his bit into a computer and had it calculate how closely he adhered to pitch, he would probably be second- or third-best in the ensemble, behind only Tabaldo and maybe Richardson. That's not all it takes, though. Mick Jagger has been singing consistently a quarter-step flat for 45 years and look how that ended up, there's a show on TV where comedians try to rob him. Cowell on Pedro: "Didn't think it was all that bad actually." 2
Blake Lewis* Going in, Lewis was sort of an enigma. He was one of the most prominent figures in the Hollywood show, teaming up with fellow finalist Chris Sligh and some also-rans for the standout song of the group stage. The thing is, we'd hardly heard him sing at all. Lewis is a real good beatboxer, which was a neat gimmick to get him past the auditions and through to the big show, but as the judges kept reminding him this week and the last, it's a singing contest. He made a very risky choice with "Somewhere Only We Know," a Keane tune that's a little AOR for usual "Idol" tastes and, like the national anthem, is more or less impossible to sing for all but the most experienced and well-lubricated professional vocalists. Lewis gave it the old college try and did about as well as could be expected, but he could have and should have chosen a more gradual path. The smart move would have been to pick something more in line with his established style and that he could sing comfortably. Lewis's misstep when it comes to song choice contrasts nicely with the judgement error made earlier on by Brandon Rogers. Rogers already had established his chops in the early rounds and desperately needed something into which he could invest his personality, assuming he has one. Lewis on the other hand has already won over the judges and the rest of the cast with his versatility and his easy, grounded manner. What he needs to do now is prove he belongs in the contest on his merits as a singer alone. Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, who like Ryan Seacrest are complete dead weight included only to pad the shows out to two hours ("American Idol" is about Simon and his victims, period) unhelpfully told Lewis afterwards that they were disappointed he didn't beatbox. Cowell and I were for once in agreement: Lewis was "100% right" to concentrate on singing his first time out on the "AI" stage. 6
Sanjaya Malakar* The Indian subcontinent's answer to David Cassidy, the 17-year-old has Q factor emanating in beams from his ridiculously wide eyes and bright smile. The producers manipulatively cut Malakar's sister right after she performed with him, leading to a stagey tearful hug scene which might give Malakar enough of an unfair advantage that he can hang in there long enough to get his act together. His voice is fair, and he did us all a favor by shaving off the eyebrow-pencil goatee he wore at his first audition. No doubt about it though, the sequence of heavyweights that followed Malakar -- the four last singers were very clearly the best of the night -- exposed the kid as a lightweight. The judges were pretty ruthless about telling him so, too. Jackson: "Not even remotely close." Cowell: "The most dreary performance all night." He sentimentally allowed his fallen sister to choose his song (Stevie Wonder's "Knocks Me Off My Feet") and I dunno, maybe she was trying to sabotage him or something, but it was schmaltzy and dreadful. Malakar kept in key for the most part and despite his lack of movement he still has decent stage presence, but it's going to be really hard for him against a bunch of men in their late 20's, many of whom have years of professional experience. 4
Chris Sligh Sligh's place in the finals was the lockingest lock of locks that ever locked even after his first audition, but his obvious utility as a character on the show (he's disarming, quick on his feet, and utterly unintimidated by Cowell) might cause people to underestimate his chances to win the whole shebang. Sligh is so goofy-looking ("What would people be surprised to learn about you?" asks his "Idol" Q+A page, "I'm chubby," Sligh responds) that your brain can have a little difficulty accepting how accomplished of a singer he is. Sligh boasted before he went on that his secret weapon was song choice (and became roughly the 83rd contestant thus far to guarantee his eventual victory) and while his vocal on "Typical" was roundly above average it was hardly the best in the show. It was indeed the choice of song, with funky bass and the most modern of the arrangements chosen by the male performers, that won Sligh the highest score of the evening. The one thing Sligh might want to look after is moving around a little bit more on stage, but he's a contender and don't let the Joe Maddon glasses fool you into thinking otherwise. 9
Jared Cotter There are definitely a handful of guys in the final twelve who got way more than their fair share of screen time in the early episodes, but no one got hosed more than Cotter. I honestly didn't recognize him when I saw Tuesday's show. On the other hand, if Cotter managed to make the big cut without demonstrating any personality at all, his voice must indeed be impressive. And it is. He's one of the only guys in the cast who can sell a weak song ("Back at One") hard and get away with it. I was prepared to give him my second nine of the night but he completely fluffed the bridge, sang the whole thing out of tune, a mistake he can afford at this point but not in a week or two's time when the more obvious cannon fodder has been cleared out of the way. Cowell was on point again when he told Cotter, "Take a few more risks." 7
A.J. Tabaldo If you're going to have a pair of favorites among the guys, best that they contrast. Sligh is your style guy, and A.J. Tabaldo is Mr. Substance. He's kind of little and not at all striking-looking, but far and away he has the best tone control in the group. He did something called "Never Too Much" and was on top of it the whole way through. Other than pure vocal ability, however, he would rank in the bottom half in everything: style, stage presence, song choice...but it is a singing contest, right? Tabaldo and Kim stand to benefit most from the obvious not-ready-for-prime-timeness of Head and Pedro. The fan-vote format must be murder on the guys who are great singers but don't really have immediately memorable ways of carrying themselves like Sligh, Lewis, and to a lesser extent Rogers and Richardson. Thankfully, before the guys long in substance get unjustly shipped out, the dudes with neither chops nor star power will eat it. Probably. If Malakar becomes a big fan favorite (it's certainly not impossible) he could end up riding roughshod over more competent but less telegenic guys such as Cotter and Cardenas. Tabaldo I feel is too obviously talented to end up receiving an unjust shafting on the part of the capricious American home viewing audience, but not everyone agrees with me. Cowell gave A.J. the backhanded compliment "Better than I originally thought" but couldn't be convinced to say anything more charitable than that. 8
Phil Stacey Going first and going last both must really suck. By the time the bald, vaguely asymmetrical-looking Stacey hit the stage, most "Idol" viewers were probably deeply involved in debate over whether Malakar or Richardson was cuter. Stacey is a bona fide musician and knows how to handle himself on stage, taking a number by noted wuss-rocker Edwin McCain and actually making the thing groove a little bit. Trouble is he's not the best at anything and there are a couple of guys who are both slightly better singers than he and substantially better-looking. His luck of the draw in having to go on twelfth hurts a lot. As it shook out, he had to follow the three best performances of the night to that point. I doubt it will cost him his place in the dance, but he would have been able to build up a great deal more momentum going forward had he gotten to follow Cardenas, Head, or Pedro. 8
Well, tomorrow we'll do the girls, and hopefully will also introduce our crack scientific experiment team. One more thing: Not once but twice during the broadcast celebrity coathanger Ryan Seacrest made unfunny, knee-jerk homophobic jokes -- once when he said he was glad he wasn't sitting next to a male finalist who was quite innocently complimenting the looks of some of his counterparts, and then again when Cowell amusingly called him "sweetheart." I can't believe that the most popular show in American television is perpetuating that junor high school stuff. You know what homophobia really says about you, Ryan? Oh, I could go for a very, very obvious joke right here. But earlier I castigated a castmember for making that stupid "Vote for Pedro" joke, so I'm going to take the high ground and leave it out. But you can build it yourself if you choose. All you need is the two words to Seacrest's sublingual catchphrase, an ellipsis (...), and a question mark. Think about it.