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..."

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Queen for a night

American Idol, consider my mind blown. You tell me the theme this week is "The Music of Queen," and immediately I suspect the worst - and expect the absolutely absurd, figuring few "Idol" contestants will be up to the challenges posed by the legendary British rockers' hard-to-sing, quirky songs. And then, Tuesday night happens, and not only do the contestants not bomb, but most of them are actually really good - in a way that's beyond weird, mind you.

Instead of the last few weeks' cheerful guest coaches, we also had the Idols attempting to rip it up out on an arena stage with semi-cantankerous old British men. At times, surviving original Queen members Brian May (guitar hero, curly hair) and Roger Taylor (drums, white hair) looked uncomfortable, like they didn't want to be there. But as it turned out, they liked most of the contestants, loved Chris, Taylor and Paris, and had little patience for things like Ace and, oh, Ace trying to get them to change their classic songs to suit his needs. Didn't they know what they were getting themselves into? It is "American Idol," after all! And does this mean we won't be seeing them hawking their wares on tomorrow's results show?

Anyway, without further ado, here are three of the most insane things about this week's show, in the order they happened:

1) Ace's festival of awkward. Everything about Ace last night was painful, painful, painful. First, he tries to convince Queen to alter their arrangement of "We Will Rock You" to fit his concept - which includes "an army beat," apparently - and is summarily rejected. "I don't think we're gonna play your arrangement," May says coldly. Later, Ace is shown trying again, expectantly. Again, he falls flat. "That I can't do, not to my own song, I can't do that," May says. What, an artist trying to protect his work from the likes of Ace? Guess he can't be blamed for that. When Ace and his dark, shiny locks take the stage, well - "We Will Rock You" has been played so many times, it's practically impossible to put a new spin on it, and whatever Ace had in mind doesn't pan out, even if he does triumphantly hold the microphone aloft when he concludes. Randy calls the performance karaoke, then later says, "I was trying to be kind." Paula tries to be nice, but nonetheless uses the word "bastardized." Simon calls it "a complete and utter mess," saying "it didn't work" and was "all over the place." "It was 'We Will Rock You' gently," he says. "I really, really, really hated that. Sorry." Ace politely thanks him for the tongue-lashing, and then, when prompted by Seacrest, says, "You know, I think I rocked. I had fun." He claps for himself. He asks the crowd for approval - and receives it. But he's totally transparent, his forced grin a sign he's trying to compensate for getting slammed.

2) Kellie's "Bohemian Rhapsody." Going into tonight's show, I wondered which contestant, if any, would be daring enough to take on the mother of all Queen songs, "Bohemian Rhapsody." And like Randy and Simon, I was more than a little skeptical when I heard Kellie was going to take the plunge. Boy, was I off base. In some ways, this kind of wonderful insanity is what "Idol" is all about. First, Kellie knows the song and knows there's no way she'll ever sound like Freddie Mercury, or that she can try to sound like him - so it's already clear her version won't come off as some hollow imitation. Then, she starts singing and stalking the stage, wearing a whole lot of black; looking and sounding like Britney Spears, Tanya Tucker and some '80s rock band all rolled into one; and condensing a six-minute opus into a bizarre, completely entertaining minute and a half. You could even call it, yes, ballsy - and now, even Kellie knows what that means.

3) Taylor being Taylor. So we start with a clip of Taylor on stage with Queen, wearing a zebra-print buttondown (where does he get these shirts?!) and belting out "We Are The Champions" like a man semi-possessed. "I love 'We Are The Champions,'" he says, wide-eyed. Indeed, he strikes you as the kind of guy who would love "We Are The Champions," even after hearing it at approximately five million sporting events. But wait - he's decided that instead, he wants to do a song that will be more entertaining. A song that will let him dance. Don't say you weren't warned. So he strolls into the rehearsal room:
Guy at piano: "What's up, T?"
Taylor: "We're not the champions anymore."
Sure enough, he's changed his song to "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," a choice that caused me to whoop right there in my living room. Hurrah! It's not exactly a run-of-the-mill Queen song, but its shuffling '50s feel struck me as perfect for Taylor. When he hits the stage, he's wearing a jacket that (again!) matches his gray hair, and he ebulliently shakes and shimmies around the stage, sort of building up to something vocally. Toward the end, he lets loose. "I don't know whether we should give you a record deal or a straitjacket," Paula quips. "Taylor, are you drunk?" Simon asks. "No, not at all!" he replies. "I thought it was ridiculous," Simon concludes. But when he says that, he's smiling. Because it was ridiculous in a good way - after all, the sight of a goofy guy with prematurely gray hair leaping around a stage tends to be - and that's part of what Taylor is all about.

Now, odds and ends:

Of course not, Seacrest! "We've pushed the contestants to their limits before, but tonight their talents are stretched further than ever," Ryan Seacrest intones at the beginning of the show. "Can anyone measure up to (dynamic, flamboyant and deceased Queen singer) Freddie Mercury as they take on the music of Queen?"

Did she know the ax had fallen? The Idols performed with Queen before last week's results show, so...anyone else notice the blink-and-you-missed-it shot of Mandisa in the audience as Bucky sang with the band? She looked highly skeptical, that's for sure.

It's just a saying: Seacrest asked Bucky how he felt about performing a Queen song and received this reply: "Good, good, it was fine. Playing Freddie Mercury, ain't nobody to wanna jump up behind, but, uh, ya take what you're given." To which Seacrest said - with a semi-mystified look on his face - "You can say that again." AND BUCKY ACTUALLY SAID IT AGAIN! "You take what you're given," he repeated. He was grinning, though, so perhaps he was in on that humor...

Inappropriate juxtaposition, anyone? A voiceover montage about the history of Queen included a shot of American Idol 4 contestant Constantine Maroulis', uh, memorable performance of "Bohemian Rhapsody." Somehow, I reckon that's not exactly what the Queen boys would pick as a shining moment in the band's history...

The weekly Pickler-Cowell exchange: You didn't exactly ask for it, but here it is:
Simon, after Kellie's performance: "Kellie, you're a very brave girl, very brave girl. Apart from the fact that it started, I mean, the whole look of it was like 'Night of the Living Dead,' you know, with the eyes and the lights, but actualy, I kind of agree with Randy and Paula. On paper, it should have been completely hideous, and I think a lot of people will think it was hideous - "
Kellie: "Huh? On paper?"
Simon: "Well, you know, the idea of you singing - oh, it doesn't matter."
Kellie: "I'll take it!"
Simon: "Kellie, I think it worked, you did good."
Kellie (to Seacrest, about Simon): "He has the weirdest terminology."

Best: Elliott (his "Somebody to Love," well, that's quality for ya), Kellie, Taylor. Katharine's singing wowed too, but her song choice - "Who Wants To Live Forever?" - was just eh, ok.

Awesome singing, now pick better songs: Chris. Here's a guy who rules the stage with arguably the most powerful voice on the show - and taste in music that's a little worrisome. A few weeks ago we had Creed, and Tuesday we got a song that, ominously, Queen has never performed live: 1991's "Innuendo." Chris made the song fit his modern rock sensibility, so I can see why he chose it, and he tore the house down belting it out. But after Randy's enthusiastic response and Paula lapsing into utter incoherence, Simon got it right: "Chris, they don't perform that song live because it's not a very good song. Look, ok, I wil grant you, the best vocal tonight, the best believable vocal tonight, but I just think it's a shame you didn't decide to entertain the audience at home with one of the great Queen songs, because you could have had a moment tonight, and...once again, the song was too indulgent."

Bottom three: Ace, Bucky, Paris. Bucky, bless his heart, sang a countrified - or country-fried? - version of "Fat Bottomed Girls" that weirdly worked. Paris looked preposterous in her rocker-chick gear - just stop it with the different hairstyles every week, already! - but hit a whole bunch o' big notes during a powerful rendition of "The Show Must Go On." In fact, only Ace was truly outclassed. He's been lucky for a few weeks now, but it's time his hopes of "Idol" glory bit the dust.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Mandisa gets the (cowboy) boot

"American Idol" viewers, repent! The church of Mandisa has lost its charismatic preacher. This season's bold, big-voiced, big-everything diva is headed home, one night after underwhelming with a version of Shania Twain's "Any Man of Mine."

Call it this season's Jennifer Hudson moment, in honor of the vocally gifted Season 3 contestant who was kicked off fairly early while other, less-gifted potential Idols remained. No matter how good a singer has been, they're history if they a) have an off week, and/or b) don't have the built-up fan base to reliably vote for them. Mandisa qualified in both categories, it appears, even though Simon once called her this year's best female vocalist and no one questioned her tremendous pipes.

After Ryan Seacrest announced the 29-year-old Tennessean had been kicked off - Elliott, who has also earned heaps of praise for his skillful singing, received the week's second-lowest number of votes - the crowd reacted with stunned silence ... then booing, then clapping, then a standing ovation. It probably wasn't the way Mandisa wanted to go, or the way she deserved to go. But if it had to happen, at least she left with the crowd showing her the respect she had earned. "I thank you and I bless you in the name of Jesus," she said. Amen to that, sister.

Now, on to a disturbing trend I've been stewing about for weeks. Far be it for me to wax on about a concept as silly as upholding the sanctity of "American Idol," but like most viewers, I think, I watch "Idol" to see the contestants perform, and the show has kept me hooked by generally sticking to its very successful script. So I resent that this season has been partially turned into a showcase for 1970s pop stars who serve as singing coaches and then use the Wednesday results show to perform and hawk their new albums (a la Stevie Wonder, Barry Manilow and Kenny Rogers). Don't get me wrong, all three are talented musicians who have been far superior to most of the toothless guest judges the show used to bring in, but their presence comes with a price. Clearly, being allowed to perform and promote their new work is their reward for coaching the contestants, part of some deal the producers have cut. Isn't the show about hearing the unknowns sing, though? And, for that matter, seeing them perform the cheesy, coordinated song-and-dance routines that have long been an "Idol" staple? I miss those. After all, don't we see enough commercials during the breaks?

Speaking of, the theme next week is "the music of Queen." The quirky, campy, seemingly hard-to-sing, harmony-and guitar-loaded music of Queen. Who picks these themes? Didn't anyone see Constantine take on "Bohemian Rhapsody" last year? Oh, goodness me. But, hey - it could be decent. It's not exactly Manilow, after all, and many of the band's songs have held up well ...

Now, a few asides.

Taylor's inner monologue as Seacrest separated the contestants into three groups of three - one of which would be the bottom:
"Hmm, ok, so I wasn't all that great last night, and I'm standing here at the near side of the stage by myself. Mandisa and Elliott are in the middle. Paris joins them. Ace goes over to the far side. Wait, Seacrest is telling Kellie to join me here! YES! Chris, too? Score! There's no way I'm going home."

Yeah, right: "Here we have Taylor, Kellie and Chris potentially in the bottom three tonight," Seacrest said - right before sending the wildly popular trio back to safety.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Idol enters bland country

Thank goodness for Kenny Rogers. No, not for that delicious but now-vanished rotisserie chicken chain (alas! Roasters, where have you gone?), but because he was the best, most sane thing about Tuesday's "American Idol," which otherwise offered mostly the musical equivalent of warm beer. Warm, non-alcoholic beer.

The now-white-haired, still-bearded country great, a fairly - perhaps unnaturally - youthful 68-year-old, provided contestants and viewers alike with helpful advice and insightful criticism. For instance, he advised Elliott not to oversing, saying "You're not trying to impress (people), you're trying to make 'em cry." He also proved his voice was still in fine form as he joined the nine remaining contestants for a spirited version of "The Gambler" at the beginning of the show. After all these years, it appears he still knows when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em - well, you get the picture.

When it came time to perform, though, the contestants only knew how to play it safe - the opposite of gambling, if I'm not mistaken. They chose mostly boring songs, delivered them in mostly boring fashion and often failed to enunciate, leading to a whole bunch o' muddle. It's especially disappointing considering they had the whole of country music to choose from. Where were Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, the Judds or even newer artists like the Dixie Chicks and Toby Keith (and yes, I realize juxtaposing those two is less-than-ideal)? Nowhere to be found! Surely, past "Idol" country nights weren't this dreary. Were they?

Tuesday, we had Taylor - generally-awesome Taylor! - starting the show with a tepid, forgettable "Country Roads, Take Me Home." From there, well, much of the singing was nothing to kick up your boots over.

The judges and host Ryan Seacrest, on the other hand, appeared to have entered an alternate universe where:
1) Randy wore a glaring red vest that made him look "like Cupid," as Seacrest quipped.
2) Paula actually - and accurately - criticized a contestant (Paris, whose hair finally looked normal! yay for the sleek bob!), then got booed by the audience. Afterward Simon complimented the same performance, starting his remarks by saying "Paris, I have to disagree with Paula." (Then, following some wild applause: "Oh, I am loving this.")
3) Seacrest, Mr. Hyper-Groomed Poster Boy himself, sported dark, haggard stubble. Get this man a razor!


Low praise: Randy said he liked the last four bars of Mandisa's "eh, ok" version of Shania Twain's "Any Man of Mine." "The last five seconds were great!" he remarked.

Clash of the metrosexuals:
Simon: "Ryan, with respect, I'm not the one trying to look like someone out of Desperate Housewives."
(Seacrest, who is reportedly dating DH star Teri Hatcher, angrily rests his chin on his hand and glares.)
Randy: "Whoa, whoa, don't go there! Whoa!"
Simon (gesturing, to Seacrest): "Lose the beard."
Seacrest (bitterly, rattled, spluttering): "No, Simon, but you definitely fit the bill in that baby blue powder tight sweatshirt sweater cashmere garb you've got."
Mandisa (waiting for Seacrest to read her phone number): "Whoa, where's the love tonight?"

Paula, here's looking at you! "For sure, someone at that (judges') table has a flask," Seacrest said, following the above-mentioned contentious exchange. I think he directed that comment at Simon, but didn't you think Paula's eyes appeared weirdly shifty and guilty?

So that, uh, explains? Kellie told Ryan that she mangled the word "salmon" because "There's an L in it, so I thought you pronounced it."

The one-woman Southern welcoming committee:
Kellie ran up to Rogers in the rehearsal session, exclaiming "Haaay, it's so good to have a familiar accent!"

Least valid point of the night: "Remember Simon, you're here to judge the singing, not the songs, with all due respect," Seacrest said snarkily, with no due respect. Correct me if I'm wrong here, but Seacrest, of all people, as a DJ - a pop DJ, no less - should know that within reason, songs are usually a lot more important than the singing in determining musical success, especially in the pop world.

Best: Chris, who abandoned modern rock for a night to deliver a subtle version of Keith Urban's "Making Memories of Us."

Semi-decent: Ace, because even though his voice isn't overly strong, his song, Keith Urban's "Tonight I Wanna Cry," was a good fit. ("Ace matched with this song is the best combination of music and singer of the whole bunch," Rogers noted.) Kellie, for her convincing performance of Reba McIntire's "Fancy," which appears to be about a self-proclaimed poor, white-trash girl whose dying mother saves up, buys her a saucy dress, dolls her up, and sends her out into the world to make her way, advising her to "just be nice to the gentlemen...and they'll be nice to you." Well, you know how that goes. Katharine, but only for the way she sang the chorus of Faith Hill's sassy "Bringing Out the Elvis" - the rest was kind of hard to hear. Her singing can be so hot and cold in the same song! Paris' vocals were ok, too, but seriously, how many times over the years have we heard "How Do I Live" on "American Idol"? Blech!

Bottom three:
Sort of tough to call this week, but my wild, weird guess is that maybe Elliott and Mandisa will face some pressure. Neither deserves to go, but Mandisa's only so-so performance was further overshadowed by the Ryan 'n' Simon sideshow that came afterward, and Elliott's nervous, shaky take on Garth Brooks' "If Tomorrow Never Comes" did him no favors, even if he finished strong and earned some praise from the judges. And who knows? Maybe irony will make an appearance and decide it's finally Bucky's week to go, even though he's as country as they come.