Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Finale insanity!

Oh goodness me, "American Idol" fans, I don't even know where to begin. Excuse me while I recover the pieces of my blown mind. See, it's not that I'm shocked Taylor Hicks bested Katharine McPhee for this year's title - you know the victory must have been lopsided because Ryan Seacrest mentioned nothing about how close the vote was. But it's just, how do you process a show as utterly, awesomely schizophrenic as the one we just witnessed, a rollercoaster hurtling towards the end of the line?

One minute, it was about serious singing, and the next, a reeeeeally bad contestant from the early rounds would gallop onto the stage for a 16th minute of fame. One minute, Elliott Yamin was delivering a lovely "A House is Still a Home," and the next Kevin Covais was warbling "What's New Pussycat?" Any more, and I would have started babbling as incoherently as Paula. And yet, it was all perfectly "Idol." No other show could have even conceived such a spectacle, let alone pulled it off. And the ending? Perfect! Of course, of course, that kind of night would end with Seacrest crowning the seemingly unlikeliest of Idols, a nearly 30-year-old, goofy, gray-haired dude with a talent for singing '70s music.

At first my opinion about the two-hour finale swung back and forth about as much as the show itself did, as I tried to decide whether the whole thing was awfully great or just plain awful. But once I finally stopped thinking about it and realized how thoroughly entertaining it was, the choice was clear. ("Great!" for the record.) Heck, this warm, fuzzy, crazy celebration of all things Season Five wasn't only an "Idol" finale like none other, it was two hours of TV unlike any I'd ever seen. Seriously, what other primetime show would bring you Carrie Underwood, Al Jarreau, the band Live, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, MEAT LOAF, Toni Braxton, Clay Aiken, Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick, and Prince - PRINCE?! And mix it in with a group of smiling teens and twentysomethings singing? Or perhaps more accurately, what other show would even think to do that, or want to? Yet there it was, the most popular program in America, throwing it all at us in bizarrely entertaining fashion! Even when it was bad - and oh, at times it surely was - it wasn't boring. But hey, I guess you can do whatever you want when you're on top.

The proceedings literally caused me to release blood-curdling screams twice (Note to my neighbors: No, really, everything's fine. I'm still alive), once when I saw Clay Aiken stroll on stage looking unrecognizably terrible, and the next time near the end, when, right after that trickster Seacrest informed us there would be no more special guests, Prince (?!?!?!?!?!) emerged from a fog of dry ice and performed two songs. Prince!!! On American Idol!!!! Ok, so he didn't sing "Purple Rain" or anything, but still, just the fact that he was there, randomly, well, I'm still trying to recover.

Also good: We got to enjoy all of the final 12 once more. (Ok, maybe I didn't quite "enjoy" Ace, even on this final, festive night, because he's so hopelessly lightweight. But still, he tried.) Yay, Mandisa! Paris! Chris! We got hilarious clip montages encapsulating each judge's personality - Paula breaking down and gesticulating as "So Emotional" played in the background, anyone? And, speaking of, apparently Finale Night's classy dress code led Paula to wear a tasteful white dress that actually covered her chest. Hurrah!

However, the night also gave us Seacrest handing out "The Golden Idols," "awards" that basically served as an excuse to show more of the season's worst of the worst - i.e., the overexposed-in-every-way Rhonetta (Charlotte's own!), the hyper-tan girl who screeched "Lady Marmalade," the crazy guy in the White Sox t-shirt who combined the Isley Brothers' "Shout" with XTC's "Making Plans for Nigel." In that regard, the whole awards thing was patently unnecessary, except perhaps as space-filler. After all, the crappy contestants already had their day - it's called "the whole first part of the season." And Seacrest? Not funny. Please, take your audition for awards-show host somewhere else. But even amid that there were unexpected bright spots: The "Golden Idols" provided another reason to spotlight Elliott's mom, Claudette; allowed "Crazy Dave Hoover" (who memorably, scarily leapt from the stage to the judges' table in the second round) to fling himself around the stage some more; and led to the previously hapless "Brokenote Cowboys" performing a surprisingly decent, tender-hearted version of "Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys."

After that surreal moment was followed by, well, the even more surreal Prince performance, Kat and Taylor coming out to sing "I've Had the Time of My Life" seemed a relative return to sanity. They cracked me up singing to each other, and it looked like they amused each other, too, with Kat twirling and swirling around in a flowing silver dress even she seemed to think was a bit much - a dress that, crazily, matched Taylor's hair.

Then came the moment of truth, with Seacrest announcing that 63.4 million votes had been cast for the final - more than any president in history has received. Oh, good! Another reminder "American Idol" is making the world safe for democracy! (But hey, on the bright side, "Idol" isn't exactly all about "one man, one vote," and its vote total was still 58.6 million less than the total number cast in the last presidential election. Gotta grasp at straws when we can!) As Seacrest informed us Taylor had won, neither contestant looked terribly surprised, and both reacted graciously. Wait, was that David Hasselhoff in the audience? Oh, and here I was thinking the night couldn't get any weirder!

"What would you liked to say to your fans?" Seacrest asked Taylor, who hilariously, fittingly, exultantly replied "Sooooooul patroooool! Soul. Patrol!" Then, he once again belted out his "Idol" single, "Do I Make You Proud?" Seeing him up there, singing with such heart, shouting out "C'mon America! I'm living the American Dream!" in the middle of the song, as the gospel choir joined in and, later, fireworks rained onto the stage and confetti flew everywhere, it was hard not to get caught up - and easy to forget about all of the silliness that had led up to that point. As Taylor finished singing, his fellow contestants mobbed him to wish him well. What happens to them after this is anyone's guess, but here, at least, at Taylor's crowning moment, all was right with this very strange world of ours.

Contestant duets, ranked from first to worst:

The top five finalists each sang a duet with an established artists ... some better than others.

1) Chris Daughtry with his favorite band, '90s rockers Live: Maybe it's because he's so intense all the time, or maybe it's because he's that good, but Chris was the only person who didn't seem at least slightly ridiculous during his duet. He and Live lead singer Ed Kowalczyk stood next to each other like a couple of bald-headed, rock-singin' twins, their voices meshing admirably, with Kowalczyk hitting the high notes. (If Live's career hadn't peaked about a decade ago, I'd suggest they ask Chris to join the band.) Afterward Chris looked completely stoked, and the crowd applauded raucously, as if to send a not-too-cryptic message: We've missed you!

2) Elliott Yamin and Mary J. Blige doing U2's "One": In which an uplifting Elliott stands in for Bono, then hangs out off to the side bopping as Blige breaks it down, doing her passionate soul thing. Blige overpowerd Elliott as they sang together, but I suspect she'd have that effect on most anyone brave enough to duet with her. Still, quite nice.

3) Paris Bennett and Al Jarreau: Paris is so, so good, and she proves it once again with this. She even looks relatively normal tonight, or at least relatively normal for her, wearing what appears to be a, er, tweed bustier and matching capri pants.

Tied for last or, as we like to call it, "so preposterous it was hilarious" place: Katharine McPhee and Meat Loaf, "It's All Coming Back to Me Now," and Taylor Hicks and Toni Braxton, "In The Ghetto." Ridiculous, ridiculous, riiiiiiidiculous all around. Kat and Meat Loaf, both of whom are experienced in theatrical over-singing, looked like father and daughter belting out what's ostensibly a love song. A love song never intended as a duet. And Loaf's voice? Not quite what it used to be, it seemed. (Still, the choice of Meat Loaf as duet partner? Inspired!) And speaking of songs not intended as a duet, and people looking like father and daughter, Braxton looked entirely inappropriate strutting around to "In The Ghetto" wearing a short, skimpy white dress and heels, gyrating and being all seductive with Taylor. Ew! Poor taste! (I know, I used the words "seductive" and "Taylor" in the same sentence!)

Boys 1, Girls 0: Let's hear it for the boys, whose group performance rather wiped the floor with the girls'. They gave us "Takin' Care of Business," sang "Tobacco Road," with Tar Heels Chris and Bucky, appropriately, starting the whole thing off, and finished with a joyous "Don't Stop Thinkin' About Tomorrow." The girls sang well, too (how is it Kat can be so good and then, so...not?) but were stuck with a medley that attempted to include every pop hit with the word "woman" the title. Ok, we get it, these are empowered ladies, now give them more less predictable songs to sing.

I am quite possibly scarred for life: Before I say anything else, let me make it clear that I adore Clay Aiken. He's unquestionably my favorite "Idol" contestant of all time (although for somewhat different reasons, I think Kelly is the ideal and best winner), and whenever I see him onscreen or hear his wonderful voice, I can't help but grin. That said, could he have possibly looked more hideous last night? It was bad enough that the producers brought back the talent-free Clay wannabe from this year's early rounds, but then Clay himself strode onto the stage to surprise him, looking nearly unrecognizable with a dismal, Beatles-style haircut - and dark haircolor. I couldn't even believe it was him until he opened his mouth and started in on one of his standbys, "Don't Let The Sun Go Down on Me." Meanwhile, FauxClay sang along feebly - that is, when his jaw wasn't hanging open - even after until the producers cut off his microphone. Seacrest then forcibly escorted him to a nearby stool, where he proceeded to freak out. Clay, dear, what ARE you doing? Didn't anyone ever tell you you're better than this? Fire your managers! It would have been one thing if they'd dressed him up to look like the guy that was trying to look like him, thus emphasizing the joke, and still another if he'd simply declined to take part in that and just wowed us with his singing. But this? This? Oh. My. God.

Live with Wolfgang and Kellie: Whoever thinks "Idol" is just about singing clearly didn't witness Kellie Pickler in action last night, as Wolfgang Puck sat her down at one of his restaurants for some lessons in pricey food. She's not a bad singer, but the hilarious Puck segments again made it clear her talents lie in her way with words. Kellie experiencing escargots...or, uh, hiding one in a napkin under her seat? Kellie trying on Puck's glasses ("Do I look smart? Maybe people will take me seriously?") Kellie instructing Puck on how to pronounce "Albemarle"? Priceless! Give that girl a talk show!

"Idol Thoughts," out! The season's end - what will we do with ourselves? - means it's curtains for me, too. But before I go, I wanted to thank you for reading my blog. I appreciate that you've taken the time to check it out, and I hope you've enjoyed what you've seen. I've had a blast sharing my musings about good ol' "Idol" with you, and it's been great hearing from folks throughout the show's run. So, thanks again! And who knows? If some interesting "Idol"-related events break - say, someone attempts to dye Taylor's hair - perhaps I shall return. :-)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Taylor's Made

Get ready to hail King Taylor, the next "American Idol" - because the show I witnessed Tuesday night was more a coronation than a competition, from the performances down to the crowd's frenzied cheering of all things Hicks. But enjoy it while you can, Taylor fans - and yeah, I guess I'd count myself among them - because chances are good, sadly, that after tomorrow's two-hour results spectacular, you're never again going to see or hear the gray-haired wonder quite the same way, or enjoy him quite as much.

Let me explain: As worthy and talented as both season five finalists are, Tuesday's performance show left no doubt that Taylor Hicks deserves to beat out Katharine McPhee for the "Idol" title. Taylor is a joy to watch onstage, and he's been far more consistent than Kat. But as nice an honor as winning would be, Taylor would in some ways be better served by coming in second, leaving him a whole lot freer to do his own goofy, bluesy thing for as long as he sees fit, free of the "Idol" bubble that threatens to water him down.

The qualities that make Taylor Taylor - his crazy dancing, his energetic stage presence and yeah, even the mugging and ad-libs like his incessant "Soul patrol!" shout-outs - are those most elusive to capture on CD. They don't translate to all-important pop radio. And Taylor’s best performances have come singing gritty, soulful songs from the late 1960s and 1970s – the likes of which aren’t exactly being made anymore by just about anyone, especially not hired hands in the "Idol" machine. Taylor fans, do you want to hear him singing generic platitudes? (Ok, maybe you just want to hear him singing, period, but wouldn't you rather he sing good songs?)

Katharine, for all of her confused stage presence and unsettled musical identity, is clearly more conventionally marketable and adaptable to modern pop. (Is that why she should win? Not really. That'd be kind of cynical.) Though she needs to realize she's no Mariah or Whitney - not an entirely bad thing, believe me! - she's sublime with the right material (see: "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree"), the kind that doesn't require screechy oversinging. And because Kat's younger, she can also grow and be molded more, whereas for better and worse, the Taylor we've got now is probably the Taylor we're always going to have.

"Idol's" original British incarnation was called “Pop Idol,” and that’s exactly what the show found there: The UK's season one winner, Will Young, is still going strong. Here, "Idol" also, inadvertently, hit the jackpot its first season, when Kelly Clarkson won. She was the ideal pop star, young, pleasant-looking, with a likeable personality, a rich voice and a knack for choosing good songs. And sure enough, she's gone on to success no "Idol" contestant since has been able to match, releasing a smash follow-up and transcending her TV-show beginnings to forge a bona fide pop career.

You think music packagers like those behind "Idol" would be well versed in all kinds of marketing, but they don't seem to know what to do with unconventional finalists – that is, those who wouldn’t fit right in to today’s pop scene, no matter how much "Idol" viewers, to their credit, love them. In fact, the way the show's talent gets squandered after the TV portion ends is probably the "Idol" machine's major failing, even if you go in expecting middle-of-the-road results. Consider Ruben and Fantasia, who have by no means failed, but have definitely not fullfilled their potential. Clay Aiken's debut album drowned his glorious, soaring voice and masked his personality in bland, overproduced songs. Whatever interesting Southern rock edge Bo Bice possessed appears to have been surgically removed, with the lead single from his new album sounding not unlike, say, a Nick Lachey track. As for Carrie, she probably fits into the pop world better than any contestant since Kelly, though it's kind of too early to render a full verdict. Certainly, she made exactly the kind of album she should have made – albeit one just like what other country-pop artists are making, and selling lots of. So, we'll see.

As for Tuesday's show - yeah, guess I ought to talk about that, too, eh? - we knew it was A Big Deal right off the bat, because Ryan Seacrest had shaved and, apparently, gotten a haircut, and Simon had slapped on a gray blazer over his usual gray-black t-shirt. Both contestants played it safe with two songs they'd succeeded with before, then belted out the requisite, schlocky, made-for-"Idol" ballads. Out of all five seasons' songs, season one's "A Moment Like This" is the only one I can actually remember, and I wouldn't say that memory is terribly fond. Predictably, both of this year's offerings were a festival of lame, too, even though Kat and Taylor gave them their all. Taylor's song was, I think, marginally better than Kat's, sounding a little like Lonestar's "Amazed" and meshing appropriately with the also-requisite gospel choir that emerged two-thirds through the song to bring the whole thing to a thunderous close. By the way, who are the contestants singing these songs to? Their parents? The judges? Some imaginary boyfriend/girlfriend out there? It's weirdly hard to tell.

Kat's "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" was a laid-back treat, though not as transcendent as her rendition a few weeks back. But, as Simon correctly noted, it was simply too "small" a song for the big night, and thus wasn't the kind of thing that would win it for her in the end. Then, she pulled out her ace in the hole, "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," after just performing it the week before. Once again, it was wonderful - of course, it brought her dad to tears - but not too fresh, either. After both songs she responded to Seacrest's gentle questions in stunningly inarticulate, nervous fashion, babbling on about wanting to have fun and choosing a song from today's top 40 and hoping she can be in the top 40 and oh gosh, her ear monitor failed to function properly before "Rainbow," but hey, she started the song in the right key anyway. What a ... relief? Oh, my. And it's not like this is a girl who's never been on stage before, even if this stage is larger than most.

Taylor, meanwhile, burst onto the screen wearing what Simon oh-so-accurately dubbed "arguably the worst jacket I've ever seen in my life," an insanely hideous (and yet appropriate!) purple velvet blazer. But it mattered not, since his "Livin' For The City" brought the house down. "Round one to you," Simon said. Taylor fell flat in the next round, though, delivering a version of "Levon" - which he did so well earlier in the year - that failed to fire on all cylinders, even if it did include a nice note at the end. (It seemed Taylor was, understandably, nervous.) In the end, he recovered, pulling off his "Idol" single so convincingly you almost wanted to end the suspense and tell he he'd won right there and then. (Which, come to think of it, Simon kind of did.) He was so excited afterward that he let out a big, jubilant "Whooooooo!" To which a typically dry Seacrest responded, "That deserves a couple of woo's." Indeed.

Speaking of good song choices! How awesome was it when the "Idol" powers that be opted to play Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" in the background as they showed clips of Kat and Taylor's, er, journeys on the show? (Ok, yes, I do think this was awesome. Really.)

So Chris did make it to the finale: But alas, not the way a whole lot of us had hoped. He (like most other members of the Top 12) was in the audience, and got a heaping helping of applause when introduced by Seacrest early in the night.

Hey, wait, Taylor has parents? Who knew! Not those of us who've watched the show all year. Or, at least, if we met them, it was a loooong time ago.

Hallucinogens, this is Paula. I think you've already met: "You and I match tonight, we match!" Paula exclaimed after Taylor performed wearing (oh, gosh, I have to mention it again! it's so wrong!) a purple velvet blazer. Now, this statement would have made sense had Paula been wearing, say, a purple velvet dress, or such. But she wasn't. She was wearing a dress with a sort of wavy, striped, multicolored pattern - in other words, clothing that would match just about anything, if you looked hard enough. (Note to self: Only one more day of having to endure Paula. Stay strong.)

"Pitchy" plus Paula, a drama in one act:
Subtitle: A recipe for p-word disaster.
Cast: Two men, one woman. Three total.
Setting: The Kodak Theatre, Hollywood, Calif. The "American Idol" final performance show. Taylor Hicks has just performed a milquetoast version of Elton John's "Levon."
Randy: Alright so check it baby, uh, nice song, to be honest with you, though, to really keep it real, I always keep it real, right, I gotta keep it real - it was a little pitchy for me this time, this song.
(The crowd boos.)
Randy: It was, it was a little pitchy, a little pitchy for me.
Paula: I don't know, what may be pitchy to you is the essence of who Taylor is, and Taylor's just getting into the song.
(The crowd, irrationally, applauds.)
Randy, as if one can argue rationally with Paula: Naw, it wasn't as good. The first song was unbelievable. This song was just ok for me.
Simon, as if one can argue reasonably with Paula: That doesn't make any sense, Paula, what you just said.
Paula: What, I don't think that was pitchy.
Simon: But that doesn't make any sense, what you just said.
Paula, lashing out: When do you ever make sense?
Simon, abruptly lowering the boom: All the time.

The beginning of Kat's "Idol" single, "My Destiny": "I have always dreamed of this/I'll admit that there was something I missed/Wondering if it is for real/Every mistake, every wrong turn, every time I lost my nerve, led me to this moment of bliss tonight."

The beginning of Taylor's "Idol" single, "Do I Make You Proud" (I sense an inspirational trend!): "I've never been the one to raise my hand/ That was not be, and now that's who I am/ Because of you I am standing tall/ My heart is full of endless gratitude/ You were the one, the one to guide me through/Now I can see, and I believe it's only just beginning."

Observation on the song titles, otherwise known as "Yes, we think about this too much":
Courtesy of a fellow Idol-watching friend, who pointed out they kind of reflect judges' reactions to the contestants early in the show. Kat was destined for the top from the get-go, but Simon was initially reluctant to even send Taylor on to the next round.

"Bad Day"? Nope, wrong note! Didn't the season's final face-off - an exultant, celebratory occasion, you'd think - deserve to end with something a tad more uplifting than, oh, Canadian songsmith Daniel Powter performing his song "Bad Day," which the show played each week after a contestant got eliminated?

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The E-train stops here

It wasn't quick. It wasn't easy. It took weeks of caterwauling, criticism, singing and oversinging - and, oh, apparently, 50 million votes Tuesday night. But we've got our "American Idol" top two, Katharine McPhee and Taylor Hicks, and we got 'em in true "Idol" fashion: at the very end of an hourlong results show full of moments I loved...and moments that made me hate myself for loving this show.

Even right when Wednesday's show started, I got kind of excited. I mean, who does that? At the beginning of the show! But there was no fighting it. At the end, when Ryan Seacrest was standing onstage as the ohsoclose voting results flashed across the giant video screen in black and white - 33.68 percent of the vote was the top? 33.26 in the middle? 33.06 sends someone home? - my stomach was aflutter and my legs turned to jelly. And I was sitting down. As pretty much everyone's hearts pounded, the "Idol" studio fell silent, and then came the news: Elliott's hitting the road.

This week, at least, the booted contestant got the sendoff he deserved - a standing ovation and time to thank folks, express appreciation and sing one last time without getting unceremoniously cut off. "Elliott, this is not 'I'm sorry,'" Seacrest said. "This is 'Congratulations for doing what you have done on this show.'"

Though Elliott fought hard and performed admirably for his place in the top three, he did deserve to get the boot after Tuesday's performances. That said, I doubt he'd have been headed for the exits if they'd shown his hometown visit earlier (say, a night earlier), because his trip to Richmond was about as heart-warming as television gets. Or, as heart-warming as it gets as long as you try not to think about the broader concept, and implications, of entire states and cities and their elected officials going hog-wild over contestants on a TV talent show - admittedly, a pretty influential and popular TV talent show, and one that has the power to change its' participants lives. But still.

"Virginia is for Elliott lovers," a sign at the governor's mansion proclaimed, and sure enough it was. With his mom, Claudette, in tow most of the way, Elliott signed autographs at the drugstore where he used to work. He chatted up radio hosts with all the comfort of a guy who, well, used to be a DJ. While riding along in a massive white SUV limo, he stuck his head out the window and yelled, "Can ya smell it? Can y'all smell the sweet Virginia air?" People were practically - or was that literally? - hanging off of buildings to see the dude, for goodness' sake, not to mention losing it as they lined the roads Elliott traveled. And then, to top it all off, he threw out the first pitch at a Richmond Braves baseball game, wearing a custom jersey - and from the looks of it, the pitch was pretty good. After the clip reel ended, Elliott was, needless to say, in tears.

Now that he's gone, though, what happens next? Well, right now it's pretty clear the "Idol" crown is the wildly popular Taylor's to lose, especially after Katharine came off as weirdly cold on her "trip home," which encompassed visits to local media outlets, her old high school and her actual house, in an LA suburb. Of course, Kat couldn't help that she's from Los Angeles, which doesn't exactly provide the Norman Rockwell-style setting of typical "Idol" hometown welcomes. Not only is "Idol" taped in LA, which takes away from the whole carefully planned "Oh, you haven't been home in so long!" aspect of the visit "Idol" depends on, but the city of Angels is also pretty much as far removed as you can get from the small- to medium-sized cities usually shown warmly welcoming their potential Idols, with parades, cheering crowds and the like. Add to that Katharine's demeanor, which I'm convinced was more the result of awkwardness and nerves than her actual personality, and you've got a bit of a problem - one indicative of her failure to really connect with people during a lot of the season, unfortunately, despite her talent. If she wants to, uh, "Walk Away" with the title - to borrow the title of a Kelly Clarkson song - I suspect she's going to have to pull off something really special next week. (Not that second place is anything to scoff at, though, especially in the world of "Idol.")

Meanwhile, when Taylor went home to Alabama - where he was greeted with a parade, a giant crowd at a mall and several politicians - we learned the following things:
1) The Soul Patrol is, apparently, an actual patrol! Or, at least it was when police cars and motorcycles accompanied Taylor's black SUV limo through the streets of the Birmingham area, lights flashing. Aw, come on, did any of the contestants really need that?
2) Alabama is, according to a sign in the background at one point, Where Idols Are Born. Man, do you want to say that to North Carolina's face?
3) If this whole "singing" thing fails, Taylor could have a promising career as a TV weatherman, at least if that clip of him doing the weather was any indication.
4) Taylor needs to play guitar more often. Yay for him performing with his band!
5) What's worse than Taylor's constant cries of "Soul patrol"? Cheerleaders on parade shouting "Soul patrol! Soul patrol!"
6) Tom Petelos, the mayor of Hoover - where Taylor went to high school - is gonna have a hard time living down his stiff attempt to bop and clap along to one of Taylor's live performances, which was captured in a priceless camera cutaway. "You know what, you know what, he tried to do the sprinkler," Taylor said afterwards, after Seacrest told him to "get with the mayor of Hoover and teach him how to dance." The Sprinkler, eh? Is that the new term for "Well-Meaning Middle-Aged Guy With No Rhythm"? ;-)

At any rate...

Is it possible I'm still laughing at this mental image? "Will we have a boy-girl finale like Bo and Carrie?" Seacrest asked at the start of Wednesday's show. "Or will Elliott and Taylor slug it out Ruben-Clay style?" Slug it out Ruben-Clay style? Goodness gracious, just the thought of it is downright hilarious. Now, if only we could get that long-awaited "Idol" movie sequel, "From Ruben to Clay"...

AARP ain't ready for this: Here, uncensored and unedited, is my initial reaction to that insane commercial the top three did to the song "Young At Heart": OH MY GOD WHAT IS THIS COMMERCIAL. ELLIOTT REALLY LOOKS LIKE AN OLD MAN, IN A BOW TIE, BALD. TAYLOR IS SOOOO SCARY in the hot tub with the other old ladies? WHAT DID THEY DO TO KAT'S BUTT? it is so large. ohhhhhhkay. (By the way, I don't usually write in all caps.) Seriously, though, Elliott with a walker? Taylor sporting a porkpie hat (and, surprise surprise, gray hair)? Kat wearing a white wig and a fake butt and belly? All of them wearing red tracksuits? Talk about a senior moment. I'm still recovering from the sight of it...

Score (a rare) one for Seacrest: "I didn't know Simon was having a party," Seacrest quipped after showing the senior citizen-themed Ford commercial.
"That was a good one, man," Randy said - to which Seacrest said something along the lines of, "I only get about one per season."

Ixnay on the Xay-enmay:
I know, lamenting the fact that last night's "Idol" featured a gratuitious commercial in the middle of the show is like complaining about McDonald's super-sizing things when you admittedly love Big Macs, but did we really need to see that big ol' plug for the new X-Men movie? Yeah, I didn't think so.

Soul (food) patrol: "It was like a Southern food tour for me," Taylor said, describing his trip home. "There were just loads of ribs, and turnip greens." "I heard you had ribs for breakfast," Seacrest said. Oh, yeah: "I did, I had ribs on pancakes," Taylor replied.

The spirit of (good) radio: Katharine's "trip home" left me with decidedly mixed feelings, but one part of it provided some hope - and yet, made me wonder - about her taste in music. Her favorite radio station, she said, is Los Angeles' influential alt-rock powerhouse KROQ. But if that's so, how can we explain all the Celine-style bombast Kat's given us? Chalk it up to mom? Weird.

Bad "Idol"! No singing to the judges! Dear "American Idol" producers, let me propose a new rule: No contestants are allowed to insert judges' names into the tunes they're singing, as Katharine did during her rendition of Aretha Franklin's "Think."* I believe it went something like, "You needed me, Simon, and I needed you." Why do we need this rule, you ask? Because, for one thing, the whole, "Ah, let me personalize the song for the judges" idea generally makes me want to retch. And isn't that reason enough? (Oh, it's not? Rats. Well, anyway...)
*On a related note, was I the only one who thought, "Damn, Kelly Clarkson would have done this so much better," as Kat took on Aretha?

Citizen Claudette: "And, you know, I voted for you, too," Elliott's adorable mom, Claudette, told Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a recently elected Democrat, as the "Idol" entourage visited the governor's mansion - prompting laughter all around.

Selective memory? Oh, yes: Toward the end of the show, when Clive Davis was rattling off a list of Idol winners' and runner-ups' successes, recognitions and record sales, he conspicuously failed to mention Diana DeGarmo and Justin Guarini, both of whose CDs flopped. At least the preceding clip montage, though, showed a photo of DeGarmo's CD cover, which is definitely more than could be said for Guarini's "wait, that actually happened?" solo album.

A refresher course in Yamin style: Wow, before watching last night's "Here's his journey" clip reel, I had totally forgotten how much Elliott's look had changed since he auditioned! For one thing, his current haircut was about 500 times better than the close-cropped, sorta squared-off one he arrived with...

Prescient lyrics, it seems? "One of these days, and it won't be long, you're gonna look for me and I'll be gone," Elliott sang as the show ended, and he reprised "I Believe to my Soul."

Somehow, I think I'm not the only one: I'm happy with a Kat-Taylor top two - to be fair, any of the top four was talented enough to be there, in my book - but watching this week, I still couldn't help but miss Chris and the intensity he brought to the stage. Ah well. It's not worth dwelling on, especially because at this point all of the finalists have earned plenty of attention and exposure, and, yeah, Chris should be just fine, whether he's The Idol or not, but the thought did come to mind.

Next week: The finals! Of course! BRING IT ON.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Good things come in top threes

Taylor, Taylor, Taylor! Can I get a woo-clap? Actually, scratch that. After watching Tuesday's "American Idol" top three, the whole night deserves major props - and a great big "It's about time!" In Katharine McPhee's "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," we got this season's carefully staged, much-anticipated Moment. And in Taylor Hicks' "You Are So Beautiful" and "Try A Little Tenderness," we got the gray-haired wonder singing exactly the right songs - and nailing them in a style so spot-on, even his ever-increasing "Soul patrol!" shout-outs couldn't ruin them.

The night featured songs chosen by the judges, the contestants themselves and longtime music mogul Clive Davis, currently the head of BMG North America, who selected the first round o' music. Wearing what appeared to be a blue suede shirt, he sat in an armchair near a fireplace and discussed the picks with the three remaining finalists, looking very grandfatherly and dispensing advice to match.

Clive wanted to show that Elliott could pull off a rock song, so he chose Journey's "Open Arms." Because it was kind of a break from the R&B-flavored norm, this was actually my favorite Elliott performance of the night. But the judges gave it a lukewarm reception, possibly because as decent as it was, it didn't exactly take the expansive power ballad to a higher level. Compare it with Clay Aiken's soaring version on Season Two, for instance, and there's no contest. For Elliott, the rest of the night continued along pretty much the same familiar path, with competent, friendly performances of Paula's so-so choice, Bobby Caldwell's "What You Won't Do For Love," and his own selection, a jaunty, brassy arrangement of Ray Charles' "I Believe To My Soul." It was good, but it was all a little bland - which, come to think of it, pretty much sums up my feelings about Elliott.

Going into last week's show, Elliott was the odds-on favorite to leave - yet he sailed into the top three after spot-on performances that made it clear he was the hungriest performer on the stage. He was in survival mode, and he went out and attacked his songs in a way that made it apparent he simply wanted it more. Though he was still perfectly competent this week, he lacked that urgency, perhaps because he was riding higher after last week's success. Under such circumstances, the stage can just swallow Elliott, rendering him a sort of "white boy goes R&B" like Justin Timberlake - without the personality. That's not to take away from his accomplishments, or his potential, though. As Simon said Tuesday night, "Elliott, your songs are not going to carry you through next week," Simon said. "That's the problem. However, you are a great guy. You are a great singer. And whatever happens, you will make your mum very proud for what you've achieved in this competition."

Clive saddled Katharine, meanwhile, with the misfortune of having to sing R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly," one of the most overdone songs in "Idol" history. (Under the Ironclad Rule of "Idol," apparently, it must be performed at least once per season, in all of its inspirational, bombastic, middle-school-assembly glory.) "I'm looking for you to soar on it," Davis told her. "Oh, I'm looking forward to soaring," she said hoarsely. Sure enough, she tackled it with aplomb, improvising over the melody and hitting only a few stray notes while wearing a lovely green dress. After Randy criticized her for song choice - which made no sense, as Davis chose the song - she shot him an off-putting, very "What, you criticized me?" look, but recovered once Simon said he felt Randy was being unfair. Indeed, I didn't really notice it before tonight, but Katharine just can't seem to ever satisfy Randy, who always finds a bone to pick, sometimes for things totally outside Kat's control.

Katharine seemed a lot more pleased when Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa announced Simon wanted her to sing "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." "Oh gosh, what a great song!" she exclaimed. Sure enough, it was, bringing the show quite possibly its first, and only, true "Moment" of the season, along the lines of Clay's "Solitaire" or Fantasia's "Summertime." Of course, this is what Simon wanted. (He even said so.) All the clues were there, and a neon sign couldn't have been more obvious: Kat seated on the stage beneath a spotlight, singing a capella before spare acoustic accompaniment kicked in. But it more than worked - it was beautiful. Inconsistent as she's been, Katharine has a tremendous, sophisticated voice, and it's at its best - as the judges correctly noted - when she reigns in her over-the-top tendencies and just sings. Her spunky final song, "I Ain't Got Nothing But The Blues," was inevitably less moving than "Rainbow," as the judges duly noted, and it was sung with the perma-smile that comes from having a voice coach for a mother. But it, too, showed off her range and allowed her to be more relaxed on stage than she's seemed in weeks past.

And then there was Taylor, who pretty much guaranteed we'll be seeing him next week by...being ridiculously entertaining and having his best night of the entire season. Great timing? You bet. Despite, or perhaps because of, the overall awesomeness of Bruce Springsteen - Boss, hurrah for letting "Idol" use one of your songs, by the way! - Taylor's performance of Clive's choice, "Dancing in the Dark," was probably his weakest of the night. That's probably not as much his fault as it is, it's hard to compare to Springsteen. And no, dancing with Paula definitely did not help the situation. Taylor's judges' choice announcement didn't start too promisingly, either, as Alabama Gov. Bob Riley read a fax from Randy Jackson: "Yo, Governor Riley, you are an official member of the dawg pound..." Nooooo! Not the dawg pound again!

But things got a lot better fast, as Riley announced Taylor's song was Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful." If I hadn't had a laptop on my, well, lap, I would have leapt up and jumped for joy. If any "Idol" contestant ever was born to sing that song, and indeed, sing anything by Cocker, it was Taylor. All season I fervently hoped he'd tackle the Cocker catalog - and once he finally did, the results were pretty darn awesome. Gone was Goofy Taylor. In his place was Serious Singer Taylor, wearing a gray suit and savoring a fine arrangement of a classic song. It was even enough to make Simon smile and blush - a sure, and rare, sign of success. And Taylor's own choice, Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness," was just as appropriate, proving a funky, lively, altogether perfect ending to the show. "I'm doing it for the soul patrol," he noted beforehand, and afterward he was beaming ecstatically.

So where does that leave things? By this point in the season, it's not about booting off the worst contestant. No one remaining is even close to bad. Instead, it's about keeping around the people who entertain and interest you the most. Despite my proclamation last week that I'd prefer Elliott leave sooner rather than later - which led to a whole lot o' angry emails and comments, plus a few nasty personal attacks, from Elliott fans across the Web - I was still open to the possibility that the E-Train might once again come through and win me over. But if anything, this week solidified why we should be seeing Kat and Taylor in the finals. Feel free to disagree, though - after all, that's part of what makes "Idol" water-cooler debating so interesting.

Blond and blonder: Roseanne was in the audience Tuesday...with hair blonder than Ryan Seacrest's. Why, why? But hey, at least they didn't bring her onstage to sing.

Elliott, thy name is confidence! Or, overconfidence? Displaying his characteristic humility - and a little something else, Elliott told Davis, "I'm just thankful for the opportunity to meet you in person, and just to be in your presence is an honor, and I'm really looking forward to working on some projects with you in the very near future."

Way to hold on to that feeeeeeeling: After Elliott performed Journey's "Open Arms," Randy, who once played bass in Journey, proclaimed Journey "one of the greatest bands ever!" (That's just a coincidence, I'm sure. ;-) Then again, it is hard to knock the group behind "Don't Stop Believin'"...

Corniness, thy name is, of course, Taylor: No! Taylor did not just make a shooting motion while singing the "Dancing in the Dark" lyric "This gun's for hire." Oh, but he did.

"Too Much Information," with your host, Paula "Wear More Clothes" Abdul! "I wish I would have known, I would have gotten double-stick tape," Paula said after Taylor led her up on the "runway" for some dancing during "Dancing in the Dark." "Because that was a little nerve-wracking." For us, too, Paula, for us, too.

Can she say "funky white boy" one more time? "I think Elliott is full of love," Paula said, explaining why she chose for him to sing "What You Won't Do For Love." "Each week in this whole entire season, that's what he's about. And I've always said he's the funkiest, most soulful white boy. Because the funky white boy who has soul and rhythm can get into this song."

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Heartbreak Hotel, population Chris

Wait, did that just happen? Did I really just see Chris Daughtry get kicked off "American Idol," the show that not so long ago - even last night, maybe - he was favored to win? Chris, he of shaved head, modern rock sensibilities and powerful voice, the final Tar Heel in this year's "Idol" hunt? Chris, kicked off while Taylor Hicks and Elliott Yamin sat on the couch in safety, and a flabbergasted Katharine McPhee stood next to him, visibly distressed and with jaw agape? Oh, dear.

Judging by his expression when Ryan Seacrest announced the news, he was just as shocked - and pained - as, well, pretty much everyone in the audience seemed to be. In fact, Chris's was one of the most honest reactions I've ever seen from a booted "Idol" contestant. He told Seacrest that, yeah, he was shocked at the news. He looked like he'd been punctured and deflated. And then, in true "Idol" style, he was forced to sing anyway - and we didn't even get to hear the whole tune, because earlier shenanigans had pushed the show behind schedule.

Maybe the fact that the news shocked Chris is a sign of what the problem could have been - in recent weeks, he had to some extent coasted on earlier success. Perhaps he even got a little overconfident. But still, had he ever been really, truly bad? Nope. And he was decent enough Tuesday, too. "Bad Day" wasn't even close to the appropriate song to play in the background as they showed clips of his "Idol" journey, because he didn't have a bad day at all. More like lousy luck. Even though worthy "Idol" contenders have bit the dust early before, they haven't been contenders as worthy as Chris - who, unlike previous ejectees, actually had all the components you ought to have to win.

At any rate, things were looking grim even before we learned Chris was a goner, because Katharine was in the bottom two with him - deservedly, to be sure, after a seriously flawed Tuesday, but still, choosing between losing Chris and losing Kat? That's not a decision I was hoping to have to make 'til the finale. Ouch. Poor Katharine looked nearly as stunned by the results as Chris, considering she'd spent all night looking like she figured she was going to get kicked off. Personally, I'm glad she's still around. Though I know not everyone really has McPheever, I think Katharine is plenty talented, likeable and full of potential - and would make a fine winner, unlike some other folks, who are simply good contestants. (On a semi-related note, check out's interesting point on this season's roster of guest coaches. Namely: There hasn't been a woman among them.)

That aside, Wednesday's results show also blessed us with a group singing number - a lively, totally entertaining Elvis medley that ended with the final four cutting loose (and cutting a rug) to "Burning Love" and also displayed how talented they all are. (Or, were. Tear!) Of course, they probably only resorted the the group medley, a onetime "Idol" staple, because they couldn't get Elvis to perform on Wednesday's show. But I won't quibble. That kind of enjoyable cheese has been far too infrequent this year, even though it's just the sort of thing that makes you love American Idol...right before people like Chris get kicked off and you start hating it.

Tonight also marks the start of my official Elliott Must Go campaign. Not because I dislike him - far from it, seriously, and yes, I know he's nice and has a good voice and all - but it's just, he can't be in the top two. He can't. Something about it just isn't right, especially because of the injustice of Chris's ejection. A two-hour show featuring Chris, I could take, although I guess that's no longer a possibility. Same with Katharine and Taylor. But "The E Train" has got to stop here. (*Side note: And yes, as I suspected last night, he has definitely gotten his teeth fixed somehow.) If this is the final three we've got, then Kat-Taylor is the best possible outcome.

Destination, burned retinas: Certainly, I couldn't have been the only person in America disturbed by the sight of Paula sitting on Simon's lap right before the first commercial break...

Couldn't ya just call your local radio station, or TRL, or such? Rebecca Romijn was in the audience Wednesday, and she was, like, really freaking out, really freaking out, as she informed us repeatedly. Dude. Supermodel or not, would it really have been that difficult to, uh, not do things like REQUEST SONGS and receive on-demand performances in the middle of the results show, as happened Wednesday, when she asked Taylor to reprise his "Jailhouse Rock"? Even worse, Ryan Seacrest and the show's producers actually obliged. At first I was a little suspicious: Could this be an elaborate plot, leading into Taylor getting kicked off? But those suspicions soon turned to plain old irritation, when I figured out we'd probably be hearing more of Taylor next week anyway, and his random performance was cutting into the final song from the week's low vote-getter - you know, the person we wouldn't be seeing more of on the show? You've gotta wonder what Taylor thought of it, too. (Sample internal monologue: Why am I doing this again? But wait, a supermodel did just ask me to sing. Let me dance around some more and not think of it further!)

Methinks she'll miss more than his voice: All of the judges looked disappointed at the news Chris was getting kicked off, but Paula, predictably, topped 'em all in terms of emoting...probably because Chris's leaving also means the show is losing its one good-looking guy. (And before anyone starts to tar and feather me, I should note that I love Taylor, but "hot" isn't quite the word he brings to mind.)

"Idol" all shook up

Elvis Presley changed the course of American music with his rich voice, sex appeal and blend of blues, r&b, country and rock. "American Idol," well, not so much. Fortunately, many of the King's famous songs are so solid they readily lend themselves to adaptation - and on "Idol" Elvis week, some contestants took to the challenge as hungrily as Elvis to a grilled peanut butter and banana sandwich. (Yes, worst analogy ever. I'm hungry. Give me a break.)

The final four traveled to Graceland, where they met Priscilla Presley (demeanor: gracious; hair: an odd purply red; face: alas, still looking as plastic-surgified as ever), Lisa Marie Presley, who took them on a wild golf cart ride, and record industry bigshot - and former Sony Music head - Tommy "Way More than Mariah Carey's Ex" Mottola. The Seacrest voice-over mentions he's helped launch Mariah, J-Lo, Destiny's Child and Shakira, but suspiciously neglects to mention his role in mentoring Hall & Oates. Hey, I saw that photo of Oates that flashed briefly on the screen!

Judging from his comments about the contestants, guest coach Mottola wouldn't mind a Chris-Katharine final, with Kat - upon whom he lavished praise - emerging victorious. I wouldn't necessarily mind that outcome, either, except, the final is still a few weeks off, and if Tuesday's total toss-up of a show was any indication, things can still change dramatically. The dilemma - and blessing - at this point is that "Idol" is more about keeping the best around than booting off the not-so-good. Can't we just get rid of Paula instead?

Alas. Chris was listless during most of his final song, "A Little Less Conversation," Taylor split the difference between his serious, soulful side and goofy, wedding-singer persona and Katharine's nerves appeared to get the best of her, as she hastily delivered two off-kilter performances. Which leaves...Elliott, who nailed both of his well-chosen songs with panache. Before this week I was not exactly a fare-paying passenger on "The E Train," and I'm still reluctant to board. In fact, I wouldn't mind if he reached the end of the line this week. But yet, can you really vote off the only guy who got the night right? The guy who, as Simon noted, came out fighting and showing personality? The guy who in many ways just seems to want to win more than anyone else, or is at least more blatantly eager? I'm not so sure, even if based on past voting patterns Elliott should be a goner. But then, if Elliott doesn't get the boot, we'll lose Kat, Chris or Taylor...and I don't really want to part with them, either. Oh, Idol! Why do you vex us so?

Taylor started the whole evening belting "Jailhouse Rock," which he called "completely fitting" because of the "dancing" and "whole nine yards" - phrases that do not really inspire confidence as far as dear, dear Taylor is concerned. Sure enough, he's wearing a ridiculous burgundy striped suit, twirling maniacally around the stage, grabbing the microphone stand and whirling it around. He's obviously really feeling this tune, but performances like this emphasize his dorkiness more than his talent. Taylor, no! Stay strong! Sing some songs that aren't overplayed already! We love you, but, but...and while you're at it, please, enough with the "Soul Patrol" shout-outs. Just. Enough. Already. Anyway, his energetic rendition brings down the house, and Paula, and Randy, but Simon, as usual, injects a dose of reality to the proceedings and labels it "Karaoke with a capital K." Karaoke as done by someone who can actually sing, yeah, but karaoke nonetheless. So imagine my relief when Taylor emerged for Part Deux wearing a comparatively normal black leather blazer, talking about how he's going to "leave the dancin' out of it" while singing "In The Ghetto." Sure enough, it's Taylor at his best. Randy says he's chosen the right song in the right key and should make a record that sounds like that. Simon displays a Cheshire cat grin. "You know what I'm gonna say," he says. "I mean, there is a world apart for me for that first performance, which was just silly, to what Randy just said, which was just absolutely perfect song for you."

Chris, meanwhile, didn't appear to be firing on all cylinders, either. Save for his ridiculous sunglasses - and the calculated, corny way in which he removed them mid-song, right around the line "I would never lie to you" - his take on "Suspicious Minds" was well-sung. But "A Little Less Conversation" was strangely lifeless, and lacked his characteristic intensity - which, admittedly, he can overdo - until the end. And then he finished with what sounded like two hoarse shouts! What? Perhaps he was holding back at the beginning so he could let loose at the end, but that didn't really seem to suit the song's structure.

Into this void stepped Elliott, who threw down the gauntlet with soulful versions of "If I Could Dream" and "Trouble." Last week, Simon advised him it probably wasn't the best idea to sing "I want to go home." This week, his lyrics included "Please let my dream come true." And even if after hearing him sing, "If you're looking for trouble, you've come to the right place. If you're looking for trouble, look right in my face," I'm still not convinced that he's some kind of rebellious wild child who's "evil" and whose "middle name is misery," he managed to succeed with a song choice that on paper might have seemed doomed. And after Seacrest commends his performance, he even said "Thank you, thank you very much." Did he even mean that as an Elvis reference?

Which brings us to Katharine, who sounded laid-back and sublime in practice and clearly wowed Mottola. But he somewhat inadvertently hit the nail on the head when he said, "She's so much better a singer than I've even heard so far on the show." And therein lies the problem. When she's managed to sound as good in performances as she has in practices, she's been unbeatable. But the "Idol" stage seems to turn her into a nervous wreck. Take her first number last night, a clever combo of "All Shook Up" and "Hound Dog." In practice: awesome! On stage: A sped-up, hyperkinetic jumble featuring a few huge notes - and some missed lyrics. And speaking of "on stage," can the powers that be please stop dressing her in items that resemble garbage bags, a la Tuesday's gray shirt? Anyway, you know things are not good when Paula says she had fun watching you have fun and complements how you choreographed the part where you forgot the lyrics. So then you have to hope she'll knock one out of the park in song #2, as she did with last week's "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree." Initially, things look promising. She's singing "Can't Help Falling in Love," a beautiful ballad. She's lit from above, which "Idol" producers apparently like to use as a sign that someone's Big Moment is approaching. Could this be it, finally? For about half a minute, yes. It's lovely. Understated. But then she launches into Celine Dion territory, oversinging with a totally overblown, electric guitar-heavy arrangement. We already know she can sing, so hasn't anyone learned to power of toning it down? Simon's withering words leave her looking totally devastated, but seriously - how do you end up singing that song that way? We know she can do better, but will that be enough to keep her around? Or, for that matter, will another favorite get the boot - say, Chris?

Fashion, Seacrest-style: What was with Seacrest's gray three-piece suit? I half expected him to whip out a monocle at some point. And surely it couldn't have been an homage to Elvis, because that would have been Seacrest in a white, rhinestone-studded jumpsuit. Perish the thought!

The world according to Paula, May 9 edition: Because Paula is just that loopy, here's a guide to some of her sillier comments Tuesday.
After Taylor sings "Jailhouse Rock": "Taylor, you look fantastic, you're as original as ever and you were phenomenal." Three strikes, Paula! For starters, did you see that burgundy suit he was wearing?
After Chris sings "Suspicious Minds": "You forget how great that song is until you hear Chris Daughtry sing it. See ya in the finals!" True, because that "Elvis" guy - maybe you've heard of him? - who also sang it was such a hack!
After Chris sings "A Little Less Conversation," Paula cradles her head in her hands and sports a glazy grin: "There's nothing else I can say. (So true!) I mean, I adore you. (Gee, really?) What I love is that you picked a song that showed a little more personality. That was a lot of fun."

Simon envy, anyone? "Ok, so let's start with Simon," Seacrest says after Simon criticizes Taylor's "Jailhouse Rock," which the crowd loved. "Have you ever lived in the real world?" Then, he goes on to insult Simon for...being rich and successful. All right, then! Nothing like Seacrest's rapier wit, eh?

Whew, now we know! "There's a debate going on with all my fans, and to answer their question, it's boxer briefs," Chris informed Seacrest early in the show. "I'm a little uncomfortable with this conversation here, Chris," Seacrest replied, after taking a few exaggerated steps back.

Wait, didn't he sing his way into the semi-finals months ago? "Taylor, what you have just done is, you have just sung your way into the semi-finals," Simon said after Taylor's "In The Ghetto."

Random post-vacation tidbits: 1) Being on a long car trip gives you perhaps too much time to think, and as I listened to the radio and put my iPod on shuffle, a couple of times my mind wandered to thoughts of awesome songs "Idol" contestants should sing. Yeah, I know, I was kind of ashamed about that, too, but such is the price of liking "Idol." Anyway, what do you think? What gems have this year's Idols failed to unearth?

2) I've heard from a few folks - some kindly, some more along the lines of hate mail - regarding my not-entirely-kind treatment of Kellie Pickler. Admittedly, I should have been more generous in giving her credit for emerging inspirational, and with good cheer, from a very rough upbringing. But based on her performances, it's hard to say she didn't deserve to go.

3) Yep, Paris is gone, but that doesn't worry me. She's such a gifted vocalist that she'll be just fine once she settles on who she is and dispenses with the personality crisis that plagued her "Idol" run. And at age 17, she's got time.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Pickler picked off

Wednesday's "American Idol" results show was Kellie Pickler's first time in the bottom of ... well, anything this season. It was also her last: As the Albemarle native stood in the middle of the stage next to fellow low vote-getter Paris Bennett, the Seacrestian justice was swift, the news harsh - and definitely deserved. After weeks of surviving on pluck and a personality that carried her far beyond where her talent alone would have landed her, after a string of underwhelming performances, Kellie's headed home. At least figuratively speaking. (Who knows where she's really going next, after all. Probably "Regis & Kelly" or somewhere like that.)

So, Season Five, say farewell to bright blonde hair, to blue eye shadow, to bubbly enthusiasm, to a very pink wardrobe, to a thick-as-molasses Southern accent that carried like a foghorn. Wave goodbye to Miss Stanly County, she from the self-proclaimed "middle of nowhere," with experience in both Sonic waitressing and having a father incarcerated, the Simon-labeled "saucy little minx" of down-home quips and verbal stumbles - salmon or calamari, anyone? - and ... notice I didn't mention anything about her singing?

But of course. Because when "Idol" fans remember Kellie - and they will, much to the chagrin of all the "Idol" loathers out there who wish we'd use our brain space for something a little weightier - they won't recall her tortured renditions of more than a few songs (such as Tuesday's "Unchained Melody," which earned her the boot), the way she failed to connect with a bunch of music and her subtlety deficiency. (Or perhaps they won't
want to recall those things.) And they probably won't remember her decent performances, either - ok, well, except maybe that insane version of "Bohemian Rhapsody," but just because it was so bizarre, so "Only on American Idol."

With Kellie, all of that was in many ways beside the point. In fact, her success probably made her one of the most polarizing and unintentionally thought-provoking "Idol" contestants ever, even when accounting for the fact most "Idol" contestants haven't provoked very many thoughts at all. Yes, thought-provoking: the girl who supposedly didn't know what the world "ballsy" meant. After all, if "American Idol" is supposed to in some way reflect society, then I suspect Kellie's presence made at least some of us think about what people like, and prefer, and how much of an advantage - to a point - it still is to be, or at least to act, cute and blonde and silly in a culture that in many ways celebrates cute, silly blondes. Anyway, though, not to get too philosophical here. Next thing you know, I'll hit the slippery slope and end up blubbering like Paula after an Elliott Yamin performance. Oh goodness, perish the thought!

Most of the time booted "Idol" contestants finish the show by singing - singing the song that got them booted, illogically enough - but the powers that be, or Ryan Seacrest, or whoever makes such decisions, played to Kellie's strength and decided to talk to her instead.

"Well, Kell, 'Idol' will never be the same," Seacrest said, with what appeared to be not a whole lot of surprise, but nonetheless some disappointment at losing his most trusty comedic foil. As for Pickler, she said she'll be back in Albemarle soon enough. We shall see. When she does arrive, though, you can bet those pink ribbons will be flying, and Clyde "Cutest Grandpa in the South" Pickler will be waiting. All together now: Awwwww.

You know things are bad when the guy who can't stop saying "dawg!" is labeled "the sane one": "Now, put your hands together for our emotionally unstable panel!" Ryan Seacrest said, introducing the judges. "You're the only sane one, Randy."

Meanwhile, in a totally different galaxy: The last time a voice as powerful as Andrea Bocelli's graced the "Idol" stage was, well, never.

Making "Bad" a bit better: After Seacrest told Kellie she was out, the quick recap of her "Idol" journey and hard-luck upbringing was accompanied by a rendition of "Bad Day" that mercifully wasn't the already-overplayed Daniel Powter original.

As Seacrest would say, "Coming up...after the break": I'm off work next week, which means this fair blog will be taking a break, too. Hey, even "Idol" bloggers - er, I mean, serious journalists - need a little rest and relaxation sometimes! Will I be watching "American Idol" anyway? Chances are good. And will I be back for Elvis week - that is, two weeks from now? You bet. After all, with a top five of Real Singers and no terribly easy targets remaining, things are bound to be interesting.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Love, "Idol" style

Love. Sure, it's the most popular subject in the history of music, recorded or otherwise, but when it comes down to it, well - as Howard Jones sang in the 1980s, "What is love, anyway?" In the case of Tuesday's "American Idol," it sure wasn't a many-splendored thing. It was, however, alternately frustrating, boring, overwrought, ill-conceived and, yes, occasionally decent. Still, to have such results when the contestants had their pick of pretty much any song out there? Er, um, how do we get an "Idol" from that?

The supposed adults on the show didn't really bring the maturity Tuesday, either, save for classical crossover star and guest vocal coach Andrea Bocelli, who really played more of a figurehead role, anyway. Everyone else opted for claws-out cattiness, with Simon pissed off and terse, Ryan Seacrest sniping, and Paula swinging from pole to pole, alternating (believe it or not) insightful, accurate criticism - I know, I'm as stunned as you are! - with wild gestures and tearful declarations. Meanwhile, seeing guest coach David Foster - superproducer, songwriter and winner of 14 Grammys, as the "Idol" bio clip helpfully noted - provided telling insight into how exactly it is so many of the soppy, sappy, fists-punching-the-sky Celine Dion-type power ballads (his specialty) get made and top the charts. Foster, I should note, knew plenty about music and turned out to be cool. But still. The man needs to be held accountable for some of that Celine.

As for the contestants, well...
Katharine's take on Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing" - which Foster wrote - was just too much on every level, from the way she stalked the stage in a yellow, cleavage-baring dress with a slit uptohere, to her manic oversinging and the range of uncomfortable facial expressions displayed during and after the performance. She decided to go for broke and hit us over the head with her vocal talents, when less would have been a whole lot more - a lot more subtle, a lot more sublime and just plain better. She's still one of the best in the competition, but McPheever ought to cool a little after that.

Then there was Elliott, ah, Elliott. I like him, I really do (really!) and I enjoy his singing. But despite that, he just doesn't interest me - and no, it's not a looks or appearance thing - and I suspect I'm not the only one who feels that way. I can't hop onboard the "E" train, as one sign in the audience encouraged viewers to do. At any rate, judges showered accolades upon his version of Donny Hathaway's "A Song For You," though Randy correctly noting that its overly complex arrangement diluted the power of Elliott's performance. "You move me. You - celebrate what this competition is all about," Paula said, wiping away tears as Simon attempted not to crack up. Simon, meanwhile, called the rendition "superb" and "a vocal masterclass."

Now, here's Kellie, all blonde and smiling, wearing some shade of pink, looking like she just stepped out of Barbie's Dream House. Unlike a whole lot of other "Idol" contestants, she actually has a personality, so it's easy to see how she's proven so popular. But after a string of emotionless, disconnected, flat-out off performances - interrupted by only a few gems - it's a lot harder to understand why people keep voting for her. Pickler's personality has evaporated nearly every time she's opened her mouth to sing - witness Tuesday's thin, Stepford Wife-style performance of "Unchained Melody," which Foster correctly noted "can be one of the most boring songs on the planet" if "it's sung without passion." How right he was! It dragged on forever. This, possibly one of the greatest, most haunting pop songs of all time, sung with none of the feeling of the original, not even of Clay Aiken's version from season 2. And this has happened before: Any time Kellie ventures outside her fairly small comfort zone, her limitations are painfully evident. She likely has at least another good week left, but people haven't won "Idol" based on how well they banter with the judges, semi-flirt with Seacrest or dispense homespun pearls of wisdom. And, they shouldn't. Or as Paula - yes, again, Paula! - put it: "I don't see you raising the bar each week. I adore you. I think that America has fallen in love with you. But at this point it is about greatness, and I didn't feel that from you." To be fair, few other contestants really emanated greatness Tuesday, either, but Kellie was farthest from the mark.

Paris, all of 17 years old, bizarrely thought Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were" was an appropriate song choice based on her age. "The Way We Were" when? In kindergarten? Despite that choice, on stage, she has "it" - great control and comfort, and a tremendous voice. Talent? Oh, yes, she's got that in spades. But "it" wasn't enough to overcome a molasses-like arrangement and ill-fitting song. Like a lot of Paris' other performances, I found I'd already forgotten it by the time the show ended. Alas!

And then came Taylor, who - well, oh, boy, what was he thinking this week? Will he ever again deliver on his obvious promise, or will he just continue to frustrate us (particularly those of us who love him)? First of all, there was the suit - black velvet, with tuxedo pants and a red handkerchief stuffed in the jacket pocket - that made him look like he'd just defected from a wedding band and was heading out back to hang out with the catering crew. And the song, James Ingram's "Just Once"? Argh! Misfire! Mostly because he seemed just...on edge. "I think Taylor potentially has the most charisma, which is a very, very important part of being a star," Foster noted. True. But I fear he can squander it with bad, bad song choices.

Which brings us to Chris. After five performances, I still felt like Foreigner: I want to know what love is! Especially beause I haven't seen it tonight. But if anyone can salvage the proceedings, it's Chris, he who emerged safe from last week's bottom two. Sure enough, he pulls it off, flanked by acoustic guitars, singing Bryan Adams' "Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman?" His admiration for Adams is not entirely encouraging, but as he sings, sincerely gazing at the camera, hitting all the right notes, at long last, something about this night rings right. So, in some ways, I guess, Love won out in the end - even if it didn't conquer all.

Now, for...

Yes, but great news for eardrums! "Last week it was bad news for the ladies as we bid farewell to Ace," Seacrest said at the beginning of the show. Ah, but as anyone unfortunate enough to catch Ace's performance on Regis & Kelly this week knows, we haven't seen the last of him quite yet.

You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours? "Andrea Bocelli truly is one of the greatest singers that have ever walked the face of this planet," Foster said. "I think that David is the greatest producer in the world," Bocelli said a few minutes later.

Foster's laws: Early in the show, Foster offered these cutting remarks. Judging by the show's performances, I'm not quite sure they sunk in.
"If you can't cut it in my studio, you're gone. Period. It's hardball. It's not softball."
"If you can't bring something new to the table, you're gonna die in the real world. You can't just copy."

Wait, where does that leave the Idols? "You become great only if it's your destiny," Bocelli noted.

Yes, Idols, there is such a thing as "taste in music"! Props to Elliott for paying respect to Donny Hathaway, saying he was performing "A Song For You" in part because he loves the R&B legend's music and wants to help bring it back to the forefront. "I've been waiting my whole life to sing that song on a stage like this," he said."

The weekly Seacrest-Pickler gab session:
Seacrest (tongue sure looking like it was in cheek): "So, Pickler, love songs tonight. Are you dedicating your song to anyone special?"
Kellie: "Um, well, thank you, Ryan, for reminding me that, um, I don't have a boyfriend. I'm lonely. So, no. Maybe to a future boyfriend. (eagerly, leans toward him.) You know the movie Ghost?"
Seacrest: "I do."
Pickler: "I'm singin' 'Unchained Melody.' Yay! The little pottery scene, the little pottery, I don't have anybody to play pottery with."
Seacrest (dryly): "By the end of the season you'll find a pottery playmate, I'm sure."

Wild guess? "You probably haven't sung much classical in your life," Foster said to Chris. "Ah, no sir, I have not," Chris replied with a smile.

This is a compliment, right? "Chris sings great. If he delivers the performance of his life, he'll do amazing," Foster noted after the practice session.

Best: Chris - not only because he chose an appropriate song and delivered a heartfelt performance, but kind of by default. After all, he sang last, and by the time he rolled around, I think we were all feeling kind of desperate for something decent to latch onto. The judges, accordingly, heaped praise upon him. (Paula. Seriously. There is no need to get up and start flailing your arms around, repeating "LOVE YOU" like a fat opera singer about to launch into something big.) And that clip of Chris lying down on the practice-room floor, trying to improve his singing technique, as his shaved head got ever-redder? Priceless!

Bottom three: Ok, I admit I have no idea. Except for Chris, no one should be immune from joining this unfortunate trio. Kellie gave the night's worst performance, but she was the worst singer last week, too, and we all know how that turned out. Yep. Not even in the bottom three. This week she deserves to know what it feels like - although weirdly, despite her subpar singing, a part of me isn't quite ready to say farewell to her just yet. Something about her just screams "one more week." I guess we'll see, eh?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Ace's Low

As a nation duty-bound by laws, traditions and a deep commitment to cheesy pop music, we may get the American Idols we deserve. But whatever our sins in the voting booth, however wide-ranging the ways we've neglected our civic duty, we did not deserve Wednesday's "Idol" bottom three - well, except that it resulted in Ace getting kicked off.

This week featured American standards - because we sure do have standards here, after all - and accordingly, Ryan Seacrest was doing the usual. As he separated the contestants into groups to determine the bottom three, everything seemed to be making sense, with Elliott on one side of the stage, and Chris and Paris on the other, and - well, this is interesting, an embarrassed-looking Kellie joining Elliott. But then - WAIT, WHAT?! - Ace is next to Paris and Chris? Katharine is next to Kellie and Elliott? The earth is spinning off its axis? And Taylor, who is safe, is all by himself on the couch, about to be forced into the impossible, Seacrest-compelled position of "joining whichever group you think is safe." (Wouldn't it be great if just one week, at least, a contestant would refuse to budge, decline to pick sides? Is it possible Ryan's head would explode?) He heads over to shake hands with Chris, but - oh, no! - Seacrest is telling us that Taylor has chosen wrong, and that Chris, Ace and Paris are this week's lowest vote-getters. As Chris laughs in the face of elimination, Elliott stands at the side, looking all "Wow, people liked me this week! I guess I'll stand here, then!" Kellie and Katharine leap up and joyfully hug each other, and Kellie then hugs a puzzled-looking Taylor.

After Paris is sent back to the couch, Chris and Ace remain center stage, looking pretty much identical in black button-down shirts and jeans - well, minus the hair (or lack thereof). Our only consolation comes when Ace - a nice, likeable guy, don't get me wrong - gets the less-than-surprising news: He's going home, and he can take his flowing locks, kind smile and boy-band leanings with him. ("I bet you he'll end up on a soap opera," my mom advised me in a post-"Idol" conversation.) But did we really come that close to losing Chris, even after a just-ok performance? Ouch. Harsh. Not good.

So what does this mean? Well, in the grand, planetary, geological sense, absolutely nothing. But otherwise, it means that at this point in the season, every contestant left has been in the bottom three except Kellie and Taylor. Both have understandably won loyal fan bases that vote for them through thick, thin and just plain abysmal. So will anything be enough to sway, jar or otherwise alter that course? Actually, on further contemplation, I'm wondering if Kellie's awfulness - and gracious conduct afterward - Tuesday may have actually won her more votes, simply out of "aww" and sympathy and things of that nature. Hmm. Either way, she can't seem to go wrong, even when she goes wrong, if you see what I'm saying.

On a related note, though I'm not fond of quoting myself - chalk that up to the whole "journalism school" thing - I should point out I said this after Tuesday's show: "And if, after a performance like Tuesday's, Kellie doesn't get to finally experience the bottom three for herself, we might as well just all throw our CD collections into a bonfire and give up."

Those logs you smell burning? Those flames you hear crackling and popping? Those overpriced silvery plastic discs you see melting? Man, I give up. At least for now. If Kellie's run enters Nikki McKibbin territory - and it may well, with other talented contestants biting the dust while she soldiers on - then perhaps the war is on.

Da ya think I'm...oh, nevermind: Listen! The "Idol" band is playing a brassy, rollicking arrangement that sure sounds like the intro to Rod Stewart's "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" Rod strolls onto the stage! Could it be he's going to dispense with that whole Songbook spiel and go old-school (even if technically, the classics in the songbook are older than "Sexy")? Could it? Could we hope? Oh, wait...that's just his walk-on music. Then he gives us a laid-back take on "The Way You Look Tonight," full of the raspiness and that typically Rod sort of winking slyness that's somewhat embarrassing, like the randy old uncle in the Bridget Jones movies, and yet shamelessly winning. Say what you will, but no one can say the man lacks personality.

Seacrest would point this out: "Where'd you get the jacket?" Ryan Seacrest asked Stewart, who was sporting a dapper dull-gold blazer. "It's an old Dolce and Gabbana," he replied. "It matches the highlights," Seacrest quipped. Ah, now that's the clean-shaven metrosexual we know and...well, I guess, just know.

That'll stop traffic: Last night's "Idol" commercial - to Kim Wilde's "Kids in America" - featured, among other things, Ace hopping around a "billboard" wearing - of course! - a sleeveless shirt. The words next to him read "Ace: Greatest Hits." Wait, they exist? And while we're on the subject, Taylor's blue, black and white sign was definitely featured the coolest design.

Cheese is on the menu: "Next week, make a date with Idol. Sparks will definitely fly," Seacrest said in the kind of voiceover that makes you simultaneously love and hate this cursed show.

One appearance of impropriety, coming up! Ace's farewell clip montage included a shot of an adoring Paula saying, "Those eyes? Hell-o!" In other words, clearly having learned nothing from the whole "sleeping with a contestant" debacle.

Next week: Love is in the air, and on the air, as opera crossover star Andrea Bocelli schools the Idols in The Greatest Love Songs of All Time. Wait, you thought they were going to make them try opera? (Ok, so I admit I feared that for a few seconds, as Seacrest was introducing the biographical montage.) No, Chris, nothing from the Nickelback oeuvre counts. And yeah, you could say I'm already looking forward to watching, say, Taylor practice with Bocelli. (Oh, the gray hair! Oh, the possibly unintentional comedic gold!)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

"Idol" cleans up nicely

Thanks to Tuesday's "American Idol" clip montage - or perhaps a good memory, depending on how old you are - we know this much: If guest coach Rod Stewart, a man who once leaped, rolled, writhed and twirled around stages worldwide wearing tight fuschia suits and low-cut orange shirts (often together), can don classy attire and ride interpretations of great American standards to renewed success, then surely the remaining seven "Idol" contestants can do the same. After all, they don't even have to live down "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy"!

Sure enough, opening the Great American Songbook proved to be the dose of medicine "Idol" didn't quite know it needed, the cure to the malaise that had been ailing the show of late. This week, when faced with classics of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, most of the contesants chilled out, backed off and sang well - which is what we're looking for when we watch them in the first place, right?

If the idea of an aging Englishman like Stewart showing "the American Idols just how an American classic should be performed," as a voiceover noted, seems more than a little off, remember that "Idol" itself is based on a British show and has a British star, Simon Cowell. And if you're wondering how Stewart, who first built his repuation as a rocker, could possibly provide any insight into American standards, well, let's face it - during his more than 30 years in music, the man has never shown much shame about jumping on whatever gravy train he felt would serve him best (disco, adult contemporary, etc.) and has always survived with his pop instincts intact. Accordingly, the whole evening worked better in practice than in theory, with the good-humored Stewart hamming it up practically nonstop. He mugged for the camera. He saluted Paris. He belted out "There's No Business Like Show Business," dancing like a chorus girl. He fumbled through music with Kellie. He - well, enough about him. Now, on with the show.

So wait, what have we been watching the rest of the time? "Tonight, American Idol is going smart," Seacrest intoned at the start of the show, introducing the "Great American Songbook" theme.

And tonight's winner for "Most British first name" is...Rod Stewart and girlfriend Penny Lancaster's adorable baby boy, Alastair, who was shown in the introduction. Try finding that one in an American nursery!

Wherever did we put that kitchen sink? See if you can follow Rod Stewart's logic regarding how American standards led to, uh, rock 'n' roll - otherwise known as the music that, as far as pop culture was concerned, kicked the standards to the curb: "If you look back, we wouldn't have rock 'n roll if it weren't for these songs, because first we had blues, and then, you know, jazz came out of blues, and these standards came along with the jazz era, and jazz eventually turned into swing music, which eventually turned into rock and roll, so it's all connected."

Activities Rod Stewart mentioned doing - aside from singing - when he was the same age as some of the contestants:
1) Going down to the pub for a few drinks
2) Digging graves (?!)

17 going on 40: Wearing a businesslike red suit, Paris described how over the weekend, she got an Easter basket from her mom and went rollerskating with friends. Then, Seacrest made an odd comment about Simon dressing up in a bunny costume and laying eggs. "Sank like a stone" doesn't even begin to describe how that one went over.

Yes, acknowledging the famous "woo-clap"! Apparently, "Saturday Night Live" recently parodied Taylor and, well, what I guess you'd call his dance moves. "Yes, I saw it," he excitedly told Seacrest, "and I fell out on the floor. They did a great job. Woo! Well, you know, they didn't do the clap. I got the clap, hey, woo, yo!"

Weirdest sign of the night (by far): The cameras spotted this one in the crowd before Elliott performed. "Ryan, will you be our brother?"

Can you say "awkward"? "Well, you took a load off my chest," Kellie said after Stewart complimented her rehearsal. "Well, ha ha ha ha," Stewart laughed semi-lasciviously.

Kellie's down-home wisdom, volume 458: "When all else fails, ya better have great shoes, right?" Pickler said after Randy and Paula criticized her woeful version of "Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered," but complimented her fashion. Girl has a point, but wouldn't singing on-key would have been a better plan than sporting sparkly silver heels?

Please tell me you're kidding: "I'd like to hear you sing a whole song in (falsetto), dude. False is your money, baby!" Randy enthused after Ace broke out into a bit of his crutch - er, trademark - falsetto. "That's your back-pocket token to whatever you want," Paula added. I don't even want to know what all that implies.

Best: Katharine and Taylor, each for different reasons. Katharine, because her beautifully phrased, sublime "Someone to Watch Over Me" was the class of the evening. (And at long last, her outfit - a black suit and a bejeweled necklace - looked great, too.) Taylor, because his soulful breakdown at the end of "You Send Me" made me want to leap up, shout "Woo!" and clap, too. Plus, the gray-haired dude is just so darn goofy and gleefully infectious - though I understand how the same things I love about him could also rub some the wrong way.

Very honorable mention: Chris, because his "What A Wonderful World" actually provided convincing proof he can do something other than modern rock. Not that he should be commended solely for trying something other than rock, mind you, but he pulled it off. Paris, because her composed, controlled "These Foolish Things" showed that even at age 17, she possesses an innate sense of how to interpret jazz standards. Her slicked-back long ponytail, red suit and heels lent her a somewhat matronly look, but for me it worked in this context, serving as a complement rather than a glaring fashion distraction (hello, last week's Biker Gang ensemble).

Bottom three: Ace, Kellie, Elliott.
Sure, Ace's take on "That's All" wasn't that bad. You could even say it had some endearing moments. But by now, that shouldn't be enough to cut it. It just can't be. Only Kellie's flying bellyflop into the pool of song kept this mediocrity from being the night's worst, and that plus Ace's past sins should be enough to punch his ticket home Wednesday. If you're still looking for reasons he should go, consider his crimes of fashion, such as: The decision to sport slicked-back hair and a suit, which should have looked sharp, in theory, but instead came off as part Mafioso, part high school jock on the way to the prom. And the hair. Oh, the hair. Was it in a ponytail? A bun? I'm still not entirely sure.

Elliott, meanwhile, again did admirable work, with a great song ("It Had To Be You") and a butter-smooth vocal. But is just being a good singer, perhaps even a really good singer, enough to keep him from the bottom three? I'm afraid not, not when Simon got it right in saying the performance lacked "a degree of personality." The comment visibly wounded Elliott, whose awkward outfit - was that really a normal button-down shirt underneath a tux-type jacket? - didn't do him any favors, either.

And if, after a performance like Tuesday's, Kellie doesn't get to finally experience the bottom three for herself, we might as well just all throw our CD collections into a bonfire and give up. Sure, she looked like a living doll of sorts, wearing a magenta prom-style dress, and she displayed a winning humility in accepting the judges' harsh (but accurate) comments about her off-key, off-beat, off-everything take on "Bewitched, Bothered & Bewildered." "I butchered it!" she exclaimed to Randy, throwing her hands up to her eyes. But at least she was willing to admit her mistakes, instead of getting all petulant 'n' sassy (Kevin Covais, we're calling your name!) or just plain delusional (now, for some thoughts of Ace applauding himself after last week's embarrassing performance).
"You didn't even need to bother with the Bewitched and Bothered, did you?" Simon asked, his almost-smile a testament to Kellie's likeability. "You could have just done 'Bewildered.'"
Worse still, all this came just one week after Kellie ripped up the stage with a blistering, weirdly good "Bohemian Rhapsody." Such maddening inconsistency may be enough to doom her chances, particularly if boring, tentative performances result every time she's forced to sing an uncomfortable or unfamiliar song or genre...

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Bucky: Not the champion, my friends

Wow, talk about a kick in the teeth. Everything was going along swimmingly on last night's "American Idol" results show, which promised a full hour of the unadulterated filler and cheese we've grown to know and (mostly) love, and Ace was in the bottom three, poised to get the boot he deserved, and then...Bucky gets kicked off?! And right after we just watched a moving segment on how much his "Idol" run has meant to folks back in Rockingham? Ouch. Certainly, Bucky deserved to go sometime well before the final two. But did Tuesday's performance of Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls" really earn the aw-shucks guy a one-way ticket home? I think not. Not after Ace's soul-sucking stab at "We Will Rock You." Then again, it could have been worse - fellow Bottom Three member Elliott, who was excellent this week, could have been ousted instead.

Awkward departures aside, Wednesday's show delivered a hefty serving of cheese, and I liked it. Yes! For instance, we had this: The medley begins!'s only taking up about one-third of the screen, and the rest is consumed by a clip montage! Could this be an attempt to disguise the Idols' silly choreography, or lack thereof? I feel ripped off! Where's the full-on Velveeta? Anyway, at least the singing is good. And Taylor got to belt out "We Are The Champions," after all! And then there's the weekly commercial, this one featuring the contestants singing "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" at a miniature golf course - and they're all decked out in INSANE golfing attire that strangely reflects their personalities. Was there any doubt that the goofy-grandpa golf gear would look most natural on Taylor? And wasn't Ace's pink argyle vest entirely appropriate?

The segments featuring contestants' families and friends got the waterworks flowing - onstage, I mean, not in my house - and got me thinking, too. In a way, this is also what "Idol" is all about, the backstories that help us make sense of the contesants. Ace, we see, came from a smiling Colorado family that could have sprung from the pages of the L.L. Bean catalog, complete with parents named Jay and Kay and a whole bunch of brothers to roughhouse with. Aww, it's like Ace's own mini-frat! Paris wanted to be...a gynecologist?! Chris' dad and brother work in a lumber mill, but Chris was determined to follow his dream. And despite a format that's set up to be at least somewhat corny, moments of American reality - as opposed to American reality TV - poked through, as when Bucky's dad spoke with sadness about Rockingham's speedway losing its NASCAR Cup dates a couple of years ago. As shots of the empty racetrack and shuttered ticket windows flashed on the screen, Gene Covington explained that the race went to California, because you've got to go where the money is. The inference, of course, is that it's not in a place like Richmond County. Bucky's success has been the biggest deal in town since the race left, and it "just put a whole new light into everybody," Gene Covington said. "I ain't never seen a NASCAR race bring people together like this has," he said. Too bad, then, that a few minutes later his son left the show - very graciously, I should add.

Now, today's randomness.

Model of inefficiency: You know that problem that constantly confounds designers and engineers and makers of items like iPods and Volkswagen Beetles, the whole "how do we fit so much into such a small space" quandary? American Idol results shows are like that, inverted. I can just picture the powers that be huddling in a conference room somewhere, trying to figure out how to fit so little in so much space. :-)

No, seriously, Paula's a real singer: "I didn't realize how difficult Queen songs were to sing," she said at the beginning of the show. What? Really? Are you kidding?

"Cheshire cat" about describes Simon here: "Simon, each week you look more and more agitated to be here," Seacrest commented early on in the night. "I think he is," Randy added. Simon just sat there soberly, but Seacrest pressed on. "You're the grumpiest millionaire I've ever met. Simple question. What will it take to get you to enjoy American Idol?" Then, Simon went for the kill. "Well, I could pretend to be insincere like you, but I don't think that's what America wants from me. I think America respects honesty." Cue a crafty grin. But wait, isn't "pretend to be insincere" kind of a double negative of sorts? If you pretend to be insincere, doesn't that mean you're really...sincere? Oh rats, now my mind's in a pretzel...

Southern "Idol," you're making me hungry! When Seacrest asked the contestants what they missed most about home, three from the South brought up the cooking: Taylor missed turnip greens and barbeque, Kellie missed "okra, fried okra," and Paris missed fried chicken with hot sauce. Yeah, that was pretty much my stomach you just heard rumbling.

Wait, was that a Harry Truman reference? "Give 'em hell, son," Elliott's mom, Claudette, urged.

Cute runs in the family: Round, white-haired Clyde Pickler is quite possibly the world's cutest grandpa (my own dear grandpa excluded, of course), and Kellie's little brother Eric offered his fair share of adorable, too. The shot of the two of them strolling down the street in Albemarle, both wearing fluorescent yellow "Pick Pickler" t-shirts, was straight out of Mayberry.

In which Seacrest is officially commissioned "Captain Obvious": "Have you heard the expression 'too much information'?" Seacrest asked Kellie, after she repeatedly mentioned the "community snot rag" - a.k.a. tissue - she was holding.

Now that's optimism: After a clearly rattled Ace, looking all boy-bandy in a sleeveless t-shirt, learned he was in the bottom three, Seacrest asked Paula if she thought Ace was in trouble. After hemming and hawing, she said, "You know, Ace, I don't think you're in big trouble." Dude, I don't know about you, but I'd call "being in the bottom three" big trouble, especially if you performed as poorly as Ace did Tuesday.

Next week:
Rod Stewart coaches the contestants and - oh, but of course - performs live on Wednesday's show. Rod the Bod's years in the music business should prove invaluable when it comes to dispensing advice. I can just picture it now! "Now Chris, what you really need to do is date a model half your age. Oh, wait, that's wrong on so many levels...back to the music, then..."