If you have friends who hate American Idol, make sure they never see Tuesday's "Music of the 21st Century" show. Ever. They will use it against you, and with good reason: Perhaps more than any "Idol" performance show yet, this one showcased all the things people who don't watch the series decry and ridicule - poor song choices, pale imitations of Actual Performing Artists, a startling lack of originality. It's all the more distressing because it's just one week removed from a show so entertaining, it had you wondering how you could even pick a bottom three - because everyone was so decent. Tuesday, I kept waiting for promising contestants to toss me a life preserver and rescue me from the insanity. Alas, all I got were boulders. Mercifully, the show was only an hour long.
That's not to say Tuesday's installment made for bad TV, because it had its moments. Paula, as usual, embarrassed herself enough to ensure that. But, oh, the music. Oh, the agony. This was a night when Bucky, who seemed destined to be kicked off, was one of the better contestants. This was a night when, less than one minute in, "Idol" got all postmodern and meta on us, with contestant Lisa Tucker announcing she'd be singing Kelly Clarkson's "Because of You." Yes, an American Idol contestant singing a song made popular by...an American Idol winner.
The night's events led me to conclude either:
A) Wow, there hasn't been much good music this century.
B) Wow, American Idol contestants have really dubious taste in music.
As much as a case can be made for "A" - after all, this is the decade that's given us "My Humps," "I'm N Luv (Wit A Stripper)" and the reality of Nickelback as a band that plays arenas - I think "B" is a lot more likely. How else can we explain - well, let's just look at the night chronologically. Surely, this cannot be the best music of the past six years:
- Lisa belts out what Randy calls a "not that good," "just a'ight" version of "Because of You" - oh, how popular these "something in my childhood sucked" songs have become! Paula calls it "a tough choice" and says she ought to have done something more to make the performance distinct. Simon is already souring on the evening. "I went for it," Lisa tells Ryan Seacrest. She shrugs her shoulders. Looks like she might be shrugging them right off the show tomorrow night.
- But wait, ah, here's Kellie! "I’m singing 'Suds in the Bucket' by Sara Evans, because it’s such a fun song," she says. "It’s like your typical fairy tale story, except with a little twist. Instead of your Prince Charming coming in on a white stallion, he comes in on a pickup truck, and instead of moving to a castle, you go to Vegas and you get hitched." She grins widely. This is why we love Kellie! Who else would pick a song called "Suds in the Bucket"? But then she starts singing, and it's boring, totally run-of-the-mill, like she's back on "Gimme the Mike! Charlotte." The judges hate the song choice. It's beneath her, they say. "Look, Kellie, the reality is, you’ve got six years of songs to choose from, and you choose a song called Soap Suds in a Bucket," Simon says. "No, it's cute!" she interjects. "I mean, come on," he persists. "There are thousands and thousands of songs to choose from and you choose some gimmicky, rodeo, lassoing whatever (nonsense) song."
- Ace then regales us with Train's "Drops of Jupiter." He sincerely likes this song. He sings earnestly. He is not bad. He is also not very good. Mid-performance, he pulls away his shirt to reveal - a scar? He ends the song gazing into the camera, arm outstretched. Randy is not pleased. "I don’t know what’s happening," he says. Oh, Randy, you're not the only one. Then, there was this.
Ace, gravely: "It’s a real scar. I have a real scar on my chest." (He pulls away his shirt as camera zooms in on said scar.)
Paula (she who was once accused of sleeping with a contesant): "One day you’ll have to explain how you got that one."
Ace, grinning: "You got it." (At this point, Simon and Randy simultaneously throw up their hands and look at Paula, "oh, crap" written all over their faces. The crowd whoops.)
Simon: “Paula, listen Paula, no no no no.”
Paula, with a "What, me?" look: "What’re you talking about?"
- Taylor: Aw, he’s so goofy! What is this black leather jacket and other evidence of stylists at work? (The judges, of course, don't fail to make comparisons to Clay Aiken's infamous makeover for '70s night, replete with the red leather jacket Simon apparently cannot forget - in a bad way.) Taylor sings a more unusual choice, Ray LaMontagne’s “Trouble," saying he wants to show a great vocal range. He does, and eschews his usual manic gestures to stay put behind the mic stand. Exciting, it's not, exactly, but in this sea of ridiculousness it's a welcome safe harbor.
- Mandisa, meanwhile, praises God and scorches the stage with "Wanna Praise You" by gospel duo Mary Mary. The judges love her voice, but are not impressed by the song. Simon calls it "a bit indulgent." Paula attempts what she surely must think is a witty remark: "All I know is that there’s a new religion and 40 million people have just joined to the church of Mandisa," she says somewhat stone-faced, apparently trying to get the comment out before it escapes her. Mandisa politely shakes her head, either in acceptance of this bizarre praise or, more likely, thinking, "No, I'll stick with the old-time religion, thanks."
- Oh, hurrah, it's Chris, come to save us from this drudgery! Ryan, though, is concerned. Will it be possible for Chris to pick songs going forward? He is awfully partial to the modern rock style, after all. What if they have a love song night? What if it involves Celine Dion? Chris is not worried. "I’ve got some of that up my sleeve," he says. "I think I’ll surprise everybody." Then, Chris surprises next to no one and performs a Creed song - "What If," which he calls one of his favorite rock songs of the 21st century. He rocks out and intensely barks lyrics, but at heart this song is a dog. Randy says it wasn't his favorite performance, though it is a good indication of the kind of record Chris would make. Because clearly, the world has not heard from enough Creed-like bands. Simon labels the choice indulgent: "There is a line you don’t cross," he says. "Creed would not be seen dead on this show. The show is American Idol. You’ve got to start showing, in my opinion, a different side of you. I think you’ve gone too far with that song tonight. It stands out, but I’m just saying I think you’ve got to start showing at this point another side. You can’t keep doing this week after week after week."
- Katharine: Ok, here's some more hope. Oh, wait: “This week, I’m going to be singing Christina Aguilera’s ‘The Voice Within,’" she says. Well, there goes that. And what is this shirt she's wearing! It's Medieval Times crossed with horseback riding attire mixed with bohemian weirdness! Anyway, she starts of shakily but sings a very difficult song rather admirably, if not originally. Simon proclaims it "the best tonight," but then, she's one of his favorites.
- Bucky? Bucky! Hey, he's still here, on the show, singing "Real Good Man" by Tim McGraw because he flat-out likes it, decked out in a sharp Western-style shirt and a McGraw-like black cowboy hat. At times the band drowns him out, but he's in his comfort zone. "Yo dawg, this is definitely the right kind of song for you," Randy says. "You're back at home in your country suit." Paula, meanwhile, criticizes Bucky's diction, while not actually speaking all that clearly herself. Simon says if it was a paid concert, this would be the point at which he'd leave.
- Paris sings Beyonce’s "Work It Out." This has potential. She actually looks her age. She's energetic. She's...shaking her butt and whipping her hair around like a mini-headbanger of sorts. Randy calls it fearless and "the bomb." Simon calls it "precocious," like a "little girl pretending to be Beyonce." Paula makes an age-inappropriate aside that the Pussycat Dolls may be calling Paris to star in their show - which, mind you, is a scantily clad burlesque act.
- So who does that leave? Elliott. I’d forgotten he existed. Not a good sign! He sings "I Don't Wanna Be," by Gavin DeGraw, an excellent song...also performed by Bo Bice last year. Elliott says he doesn't want to treat it like Bo did, though. He wants to give it a more soulful vibe. He succeeds partially, but doesn't bring much personality to the stage. This could doom his chances. Randy, Paula and Simon liked what they saw, but then, the previous nine contestants haven't really set the bar too high. "I loved the arrangement, and I love that you made it your own, because you are one funky white boy," Paula says.
After all of this, it's time for Idol to broadcast the recap of tonight's performances. No, no, no way am I going to watch this. I have had more than enough. Besides, if Idol's less-than-tribute to the 2000s wasn't strange enough, apparently Shakira is performing on Wednesday's show. Get it, she's made music this decade, too! Go figure. Boring, at least, won't be an option there...