Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Less than inspiring

How do you laugh at a charity television show? Moreover, should you?

I must admit, I sort of asked myself that question before sitting down for Tuesday's "American Idol" - or, as Ryan Seacrest called it, simply "Idol Gives Back," the first in a two-night run devoted to assisting the impoverished in the United States and Africa. But then I began watching the program, and the answer hit me: Seacrest! Because, see, wherever Ryan Seacrest is involved, awkward moments - and, thus, incidents worth lampooning - are sure to follow, even if they are surrounded by sacred cows. When a show begins with the host saying "The calls you make will not only save your favorite contestants, they will also save lives," well, you know the game is definitely on, even if multiple instances of fresh-faced youngsters talking about their hopes for changing the world also followed.

In all seriousness, you won't catch me ridiculing the starving children in Africa or the struggling American communities shown Tuesday. No matter how much or little Paula Abdul & Co. can or cannot do to assist them, I hope the show does rake in a ton of dough for admittedly deserving causes. Even if it's sometimes hard to accept Seacrest and Simon as 100% sincere, their trip to Africa - which we heard about for the 100th time Tuesday - appears to spring from noble intentions. (By the way, "Idol" producers, is it just me, or aren't there, you know, countries in Africa? Where exactly were Simon and Seacrest?) Bonus: Instead of ripping contestants' vocal stylings or lack thereof, Simon was shown criticizing something considerably more substantial. "This is just intolerable, this is just terrible conditions," he said while touring a malaria treatment facility.

That said, there was plenty else ripe for the picking, such as: 1) Seacrest repeatedly praising Fox parent company News Corp.'s generosity for offering to donate 10 cents to charity for each "Idol" vote, up to $5 million. The media conglomerate's 2006 profit: $2.3 billion. Not that I'm scoffing at $5 million for charity, but comparatively speaking, especially with all this talk about "giving back"? And News Corp. is profiting from "Idol" as it is. 2) Simon visiting a Los Angeles food pantry and expressing surprise that there were hungry people - and generous volunteers - in the U.S. And, well, of course, 3) the performances themselves, which while no means the worst the show has ever seen, certainly weren't the most thrilling, either. The theme may have been "Inspirational Songs," but the only thing the program inspired me to do was go to bed earlier, because I'm telling you, I was pretty drowsy after that one.

Lord help me, after finding out about Tuesday's theme, I was totally expecting a schlockfest of the epic proportions. The category appeared tailor-made for the sort of bombastic ballads "Idol" winners usually sing when they learn they've won and confetti is fluttering around them onstage, not to mention "Idol" staples such as "I Believe I Can Fly." (No, but seriously, where was the "I Believe I Can Fly" Tuesday? Come on now, people! What kind of Inspirational Night are you running here? Then again, no, no, just kidding, we must be careful what we wish for...) Instead, many contestants (boys, I'm looking your way) opted for laid-back numbers. And the girls largely picked lower-profile songs, shunning blockbuster ballads from recent years. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because in a way it allowed contestants to be themselves. At the same time, who ever said all inspirational songs have to be ballads? Anyway, perhaps I was off by one night on the whole "schlockfest" thing, because Wednesday's two-hour spectacular promises a packed-to-the-gills guestlist, plus "one of the biggest shocks we've ever had on American Idol." Oh, goodness.

Although Seacrest started off the evening by promising us "six classics," Seacrest is a man who tends to oversell things. So instead, we got Chris Richardson tackling Eric Clapton's "Change The World," which was just fine, if you like Chris Richardson - hey, the judges really did - because he was basically in peak form. He chose an optimal song, then sang it blandly enough, with a few smooth runs thrown in.

Blake, meanwhile, went with John Lennon's "Imagine," a pretty gutsy choice that allowed him to stick to the theme and his guns at the same time, without selling out his ideals and personality. The song kind of dragged along, but then again, that's sort of the kind of song it is: As Simon rightly noted, "It didn't really go anywhere," but also "it's not a song you can belt out." It was a tough tightrope to walk, and Blake didn't fall off; instead, he managed it with sincerity.

And then there was Phil, whose version of Garth Brooks' "The Change" didn't strike me as terribly winning - he can still look so pained up there onstage - even if the vocals stood strong. The judges praised the performance, though, with Randy enthusing, "Two in a row! Two in a row!" after mentioning it was Phil's second decent performance in as many weeks.

The girls headed down a slightly more traditional path. In Faith Hill's "There Will Come a Day," Melinda chose a modern song for the second straight week, which surely must have set some kind of record. Though it didn't quite show off her voice as much as some of the other songs she's chosen, she again proved she can tackle pretty much anything and come away accomplished. The tune's message seemed to resonate with the crowd, too.

Then there's LaKisha. Oh, LaKisha, you're an amazing singer, but are you asking to get kicked off the show? Because that's one of the few explanations I can devise for why, seven days after you sang Carrie Underwood's "Jesus Take The Wheel" and barely survived to sing another week, you picked "I Believe," the song Fantasia Barrino performed after she was crowned the Season Three winner. (Picture me, like, slapping myself in the forehead, uttering the phrase, "D'oh!") Because clearly, there are few other inspirational songs in pop music, and few other songs to sing than those originated by past "Idol" winners.

Which leaves us with the one performance of the night that actually did provide some inspiration - not to mention hope that this season still could turn out just fine. As usual, Jordin sailed in to save us, taking on Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone," with considerable sensitivity and depth after overcoming some rough patches in her lower register early on, as she attempted to start the song by singing softly. At the end - the end of the night, as it happened, since she was going last - she hit a monster note and just held it, without unnecessary melisma or vocal acrobatics. Though the judges have never really panned her, it does seem that with each week, she's almost forcing them, through her performances, to acknowledge her talent more and more. "I think that's one of the best vocals by any contestant ever on this series, in six seasons," Randy said. And on a night where the contrast between serious matters and "Idol" frivolity sometimes stood out, that sure hit the right tone.

Wait, could that be because Sanjaya's gone? "It kind of feels that the competition starts properly tonight," Simon said after Chris Richardson kicked off Tuesday's performances.

Haha, way to inquire: "You're not gonna look surprised, are you?" Simon asked Melinda after her performance, which he proceeded to lavish praise upon.

"Great song choice"? Only if it's opposites day: "It was another great song choice by you," Randy told LaKisha after she, uh, chose a Fantasia song the week after choosing a Carrie Underwood track, neither of which really vaulted her to the heights of "Idol" glory. Could he really have meant that?

Oh Seacrest, you know "Idol" fame is fleeting: Seacrest brought the awkward late in this exchange with Phil, which came as Phil answered a viewer question that asked what he missed most about home:

Phil: "My two little babies ... they're usually here with me, but they haven't been for the last couple of weeks. They're with their grandparents in Oklahoma. But, you know, even though it's hard being away from 'em, we knew in the long run it'll be all worth it. This is gonna make a better life for them, so - "

Seacrest: "Because Daddy's famous! (correcting himself) Daddy's becoming famous."

Simon doesn't exactly know the feeling: "If you can connect now with (confidence and good tone), you could actually do very well in this show, because I think people like you," he told Phil.

Yeah, definitely more important than that "911" thing, or "The baby was just born!" or "Happy birthday, Mom!": "This could be one of the most important calls you ever make," Seacrest said, explaining that money raised by "Idol Gives Back" goes to help people in need. No, really? A related thought: Oh, Seacrest, master of hyperbole.

Bottom three: Just a guess, but I'm thinking LaKisha, Blake and maybe Phil? I'm not sure about much on that front, except that I suspect LaKisha is endangered following a few less-than-rousing performances.


Anonymous said...

I think Jordin is the only one left this year that offers a total package -- voice, charisma, looks, personality and the ability to really sell a song.

She's also continuing to improve, and that's one thing that helps win me over.

When I watch Jordin, I see and hear Jordin delivering what I kept looking for from Katherine McPhee last year and never got -- a beautiful voice that makes me believe that she truly feels every word.

Anonymous said...

Seacrest, for everything you said about him, is a MAN, and you label the females GIRLS. Good grief!