Bad news: Emily is otherwise engaged tonight, so I'm filling in for her. As anyone who's read her reviews knows, Emily has this show down cold, and can provide a vivid sketch of any of the contestants and judges in a few sharp, pithy words. This is the first time I've seen the show. I can't say I was ever a big fan of American Idol, either. In fact, my greatest sustained previous exposure to Simon Cowell was when he was the guest on the "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car" segment of Top Gear and spent most of his interview chastising Jeremy Clarkson (who, insanely enough, is actually a few months younger than Cowell) for his reluctance to submit to plastic surgery. So the contrast between what you regular visitors are used to getting here and what's about to follow… well, it should be interesting. A good, useful, vague word, "interesting."
I wish I could say that the show itself was mostly interesting, or even just "interesting," but it was mostly just blah. Of course, we're still waiting for the real competition to begin. After four episodes' worth of auditions and a couple of episodes of "boot camp," the judges are now left with the cream of the selection process, and a quick sample of that cream has to make you wonder what the cows have been eating. Thirty-two sound-producing entities have been divided into four weight classes, eight "boys," eight "girls," eight human beings of various genders who have mysteriously persisted in producing sounds even though they've passed their 30th birthdays, and eight "groups," and shipped around the world to various way stations: the palatial homes of the judges, each of whom has been given the task of "mentoring" them. In "X"-speak, "mentoring" seems to mean listening to everyone sing a song and then telling half of the people cluttering up the lawn that this isn't their year. I can see where it would be worth putting up with a lot to have the chance to tell some of these people that it's time to stop dreaming and make mom proud by passing the Civil Service exam now.
For the first several minutes, until these future Tony Bennett duet partners could actually line up and start running Lady Gaga compositions through their larynxes, the suspense was all about who would be mentored by which sage music biz pro, who in turn would discuss the performances with a specially selected music biz consigliere. In the Hamptons, L.A. Reid listened to the boys, while, at his side, Rhianna fixed each contestant with a big, milky stare that made her look as if her eyeballs had been installed backwards. In Malibu, former Pussycat Doll and victorious Dancing With The Stars contestant Nicole Scherzinger pondered the fate of the over-30s with "one of the biggest international superstars" and actual thirtysomething Enrique Iglesias.
In Santa Barbara, the groups, including a couple of instant prefab groups composed of people who entered the competition as solo artists but who were yoked together at the end of boot camp so the judges could prolong their suffering, showed their stuff to Simon's endearingly unhinged work wife, Paula Abdul, and her sidekick, Pharrell, who stole the episode just by not trying to lay claim to it at all. His relaxed, unpressurized demeanor made him seem like the sanest person connected to the show; he acted if he he'd agreed to be there because he was going to be in the neighborhood anyway and was told there'd be free food.
A continent away, Simon welcomed the girls to his French chateau with all the hospitality one would expect to see extended to a group of virgins arriving at Castle Dracula. Simon had no special celebrity advisor, because Mariah Carey's plane was grounded on account of Hurricane Irene, and I guess that nobody thought that waiting for the storm to pass and the flight to be rescheduled was worth the expense of letting the girls have an extra day in Paris. On the plus side, most of the singers just seemed thrilled to the marrow to be allowed to set foot in any of these people's sprawling, big-ass estates. More than one contestant could be heard saying something to the effect that, yeah, as soon as he made his first couple million, he could definitely stand to live here.
My big prejudice against these shows stems from my crackpot impression that they reward singing that's "technically accomplished" but not especially distinctive or idiosyncratic or deeply felt or otherwise memorable, and when the contestants started marching up Calvary in hopes of earning one more week on TV, I did get to hear a lot of that sort of thing. Young Caitlin Koch, whose specialty seems to be doing strenuously "correct" versions of Brill Building classics, sweetly filleted "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" of its soul, and was patted on the head by Simon for her mastery of pitch and tone. I rather liked Simone Battles' slow, soulful take on "Help!," but the voice from the other end of the couch assured me that it was actually garbage, and I do suspect that it's her fashion sense more than her voice that's keeping her on the show; being in France really brought out the New Bohemian in her. Among the oldies, Stacy Francis belted "Purple Rain" into the next time zone. I gather that, between her and Elaine Gibbs, the 53-year-old wedding singer, it's Francis who's the fan favorite, but I prefer Gibbs, who communicates as much without slopping her voice around till it spills over the edges. That high note she threw in at the end detonated one of my fillings, though. I guess when you've been out there in the wilderness so long, it's not likely to occur to you to try to stand out by a show of self-restraint.
Right now, the show is still at a stage where the technically capable but erratic or colorless singers have trouble claiming full attention from the weirdos and the borderline train wrecks. And most of the contestants who fell into this category were weirdo and train wrecky in a bland, second-hand way, as if it were their real mission in life is to make you miss William Hung. In some cases, it's not an audition that these people need; it's an intervention. For example, somebody who cares about Phillip Lomax should ask him if he really thinks the world really needs one more guy who was 8-years-old when Frank Sinatra died and who now thinks he's carrying on a tradition when he struts around in a funny hat introducing himself with the words, "I'm a crooner."
On the other hand, someone who knows L.A. Reid well enough to penetrate his veneer of authoritative hyper-cool needs to ask him if he really thinks there's a point in humoring poor Skyelor Anderson and his bad Scrabble hand of a first name, just because his being a black teenager who likes to sing country music makes him such a conversation piece. ("I wonder," Reid mused, "if he chose country as a genre, or if he's an authentic country singer." Short answer: He's an authentic singer of whatever he can sing well. It's what, if anything, he can sing well that remains the open question.) And since the 14-year-old rapper Brian Bradley, nicknamed "Astro," but not because he's such a big fan of The Jetsons, seems so energetically devoted to his dream that it seems likely he isn't going away anytime soon, someone should at least tell him that if he's going to perform numbers that he doesn't really understand, like "The Message," he'd be better off not assuming that they should be delivered with an uncomprehending smile, as if he were addressing the musical question, how much is that doggie in the window?When he was finished, Rhianna said, "I can't comment right now; he's just so cute." That probably made the kid's day, even though I heard it as, "I'm not bad-mouthing a 14-year-old boy for mangling a Grandmaster Flash song as long as that camera's pointed at me."
For those who don't enjoy seeing the doomed have their dreams cruelly yanked out of their hearts and run through a wood chipper, the good news is that most of the people who went before Simon were at least okay, and most of the ones who went before the largely unreadable Reid at least flirted with adequacy, while the stink bombs flung by the doomed souls in the "groups" category landed at the feet of the hard-to-offend Paula and the just-happy-to-be-here Pharrell. As you might expect, the liveliest and most wildly unpredictable selection was the over-30s, so it's probably a good thing that the Pussycat Girl and Willie Nelson's old singing partner's kid were such doe-eyed sweethearts.
They probably held it together as well as anyone could when it was time to pay attention to Dexter Haygood, the pushing-50 onetime homeless man who imitates James Brown with his voice while his body below the waist is slavishly channeling Mick Jagger, so that he looks and sounds as if he's doing a one-man mash-up of the last twenty minutes of The T.A.M.I. Show. While he departed the stage and went to have a good cry all over the post-game interviewer's shirt, the judges opined that "He made it his own," but "I would have liked to have heard the song a little more," by which they seemed to mean not that they wished his performance had been longer but that the performance had more greatly resembled the song in question. Finding a middle ground between "making the song your own" and actually, recognizably doing the assigned song is a paradox that came up more than once tonight.
- Worst performance, hands down: Nick Voss. I wish I could go into greater detail, but consulting my notes, I see that I just wrote down in his name, followed by the letters "WTF," three times. After he took his leave, Rhianna turned to Reid and asked, in the politest, nicest way possible, what the hell was that? "I've seen him better," said Reid. What else could he have said? "Hey, we needed an even number of guys, and you should have seen the ones we cut before we were left with him!"
- Most unsuccessful heartfelt speech about what it's all for: 34-year-old James Kenney saying, "This is not just about changing my life. This is about providing the kind of life my child and… my wife deserve." He paused so long before saying "my wife" that you'd have to be a saint not to assume that, in his excitement over his impending stardom, he'd forgotten her name.