Thursday, January 15, 2009
American Idol, Year Eight
"Does this shit matter anymore?"
This is the question that ran across my brain like a ticker tape as I watched the Golden Globe Awards last Sunday night. I used to eat up awards season like a decadent slice of cake. Watching the stars prance down a red carpet dressed in the world's most expensive designer finery actually got me off at one point in time. At work, pageants like this were seen as the ultimate reward for a D-girl's years of underpaid office toiling. This was supposed to be the dream, man.
Watching the Globes this year, I felt much like I did when I returned to work on September 12, 2001. The world was in such crisis that none of this mattered anymore. How could I possibly care about feeding the Big Man's boundless ego, working toward making films that would get him those kind of nominations and further feeding that ego in the process? When the world is falling to pieces around us, was entertainment even relevant anymore?
Entertainment has always been a distraction from crises. The most successful film in history, Gone With the Wind came out at the dawn of World War II. And in the aftermath of 9/11, reality TV boomed, broad comedies ruled at the box office, and on the FOX network, a little singing contest debuted in June 2002 as a replacement series in the ratings-dead summer season. Eight seasons later, it's still a ratings behemoth.
Oooooh whoa oooooh whoa!! American Idol is back, and just in time to ease the pain of worldwide financial crisis! Save us, Simon Cowell. Help us forget the pain of opening up those credit card bills with 29% juice and notcies of our falling 401(k) balances. Give us a pithy quip. Make fun of people whose lack of talent and utter cluelessness makes them deserve it. Let us say to each other, "Thank God we're not like them!"
But here's the thing. I love American Idol. I love it for exactly what it is-- highly addictive fluff that is the ultimate distraction and does so unapologetically. Idol is crystal meth for anyone who ever starred in their high school musical or sang a solo in church, or brought down the house on karaoke night and ever dared to dream of a life of stardom. Even for just a minute, before coming back to earth. Performer or not, tone-deaf or pitch-perfect, there's something of that in all of us. And that's what keeps the American Idol train running season after season. I mean, let's face it. Idol isn't about the end result anymore. We all know that the winner will release their album maybe six months or a year later before losing their recording contract and beginning the slow fade into oblivion. But now, in the eighth year of the show, the real story and the real entertainment is found on the journey. In journalism, they call it a process story, and Idol is one long, juicy page-turner of a six-month process story.
Pass the cake.
Supposedly, there will be fewer "audition" episodes this year though this week featured performers from only the first two of the eight cities where auditions were held this fall. Tuesday's episode took us to Phoenix while Wednesday night's installment featured Kansas City, which no doubt earned its spot on the audition tour by virtue of producing last year's winner, David Cook. We were also introduced to the new judge, "superstar hitmaker" Kara DioGuardi, who thus far appears to be an intelligent, measured voice on the panel.
In the audition room there were, of course, great surprises and total horror shows. People cried, people stomped, people's relatives quaked with excitement as their loved ones came through the door with golden tickets. Here's who impressed me:
Change100's Top 5 Idols to Watch: Audition Week 1 (Phoenix/Kansas City)
5. Jessica Furney. The redhead from Kansas who lives with her mostly deaf 93-year old grandmother, Furney has a sick voice, but will sadly have to undergo a serious makeover if she wants to make the Top 12. Will a bunch of Idol flackers give her a trendy haircut, strip her of the geek glasses and "suggest" she hit the gym? I don't care what she does, I just want to hear her sing some more.
4. Stevie Wright. Named after Stevie Nicks (and she makes sure to let us know that several times), Wright lived up to her name with her rendition of Etta James' "At Last." Not only did she have the balls to take on a song that difficult, but she slayed it and did so effortlessly.
3. Emily Wynne-Hughes. Wynne-Hughes showed up at the audition with tragic platinum hair streaked with pink and yellow dye but sang the hell out of "Barracuda" to earn her ticket to Hollywood. Now that's a song with a 10 on the difficulty level and she nailed it to the wall.
2. Danny Gokey. Gokey and his best friend Jamal Rogers auditioned for the show together and both got through to Hollywood. A music teacher from Wisconsin, he lost his wife only four weeks before the audition. Seriously, I don't know how he fucking got out of bed let alone traveled hundreds of miles to try out for Idol given those circumstances. Gokey, though, has this throaty, soulful quality to his voice that could adapt across a wide song catalog. I'm not only rooting for him but predict him to go deep.
1. Lil Rounds. Yeah, that's her real name and she's lovin' it. Blessed with the vocal chops of a young Aretha, Rounds' home was recently ravaged by a tornado, forcing her to move her family into Memphis' version of the Redneck Riviera. With the combination of a tragic background story and the talent to potentially lift herself up from it, Rounds is easily the early front-runner.
Honorable Mentions: Deanna Brown (think Grace Slick meets Janis Joplin), Scott MacIntyre (blind dude who tore up Billy Joel's "And So It Goes"), and Von Smith (who did a totally overwrought rendition of "Over the Rainbow" but has one helluva instrument).
Next week will take us to Louisville and Salt Lake City (home of David Archuleta, a Mormon, and lots of other Mormons) before heading to Jacksonville, Puerto Rico, New York City, and San Francisco.
Agree/disagree with my favorites? Leave your thoughts in the comments!