Wednesday, January 17, 2007

American Idolatry

AMERICAN IDOL opened tonight to highest-rated opening in its six-year run, with more than 37 million people watching.

There is something very bizarre about this cultural phenomenon. As a musician (I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston) and a singer myself, I was offended by the whole idea of the show. It seemed antithetical to finding true musical talent by trying to groom a new pop star, so I skipped watching the first season of the show. My wife, however, started watching it, and I ended up seeing a few shows towards the end of the season. The choice of Kelly Clarkson as the winner only confirmed my suspicions of misplaced talent. We ended up seeing her perform at the Grammys the following year, and outside the studio setting, she is truly awful and can't carry a tune.

When season 2 began, my wife and I had just moved into our new home, so I started watching it regularly with her. It was at this point that I got hooked to the show. They have tweaked the format a bit (including voting rules) so that the show is a little bit fairer, and the judges seem to be looking for different kinds of talent now. Seeing Reuben Studdard, a blues singer, win this season was worth it.

The show is very addictive. Like 49 Up, once you see the contestants in an early week, you want to see what happens to them. There are certainly valid criticisms of the show. The opening two weeks are all about the comedy of humiliation. The open auditions deliberately siphon all the worst singers into auditions in front of the three judges (most don't make it that far) just so we can laugh at their reactions. In last night's season opener, there were several people who left crying. Numerous people quit their jobs to travel across the country for the auditions, only to get heckled on national TV. Some of the auditionees are very young, many are 16. They are not mentally prepared for this. I've always felt (as has Simon) that they should set the age limit at 18. But the record producers want the teeny-bop audience.

Which is weird. The show's core audience is not kids... it's adults! That's why they get guests like Barry Manilow, Prince, Gene Simmons and other people only 40+ audience members would recognize. Most of the contestants do not even know who these people are. Last night they had Jewel. Rumors are that Paul McCartney is a big fan of the show and may appear this year, which would also open up the Beatles songbook for them.

I can see why some viewers are turned off in the first few weeks. But at the same time, they plant the seeds for some of the good singers. You can see the excitement in the judges' eyes when someone good finally starts singing.

By the time you get to the Hollywood round of the auditions, the humiliation is, for the most part, over, and the show becomes about watching talent develop. I think Clay Aiken probably showed the most development over the course of the show. The intensive rehearsals they do between each show helps each singer blossom over the three-month course of the show, so that by the time you get to the end, it's very satisfying to see the top 6 or so.

If there's any doubt about the success of the show, Jennifer Hudson is a stunning example of success. She was eliminated early on in season three, and last night won a Golden Globe for her amazing performance in DREAMGIRLS.

I can't guess from last night's show who might make it to the final 12. But I did like the young version of Charo, whose "koochie-koochie" demeanor is very endearing. It will be interesting to see if she can do more than Latin music without making people laugh. There's also one great story in the making already; a 16 year-old boy who auditioned against his parents' wishes (he was the only one auditioning without his parents there) made it to the Hollywood round, and when he called his parents to tell them, it's the first time he heard them say "we're proud of you." He cried like a baby.
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