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?