Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Sparks afire

Poll: Who should be 2007 'American Idol'?

Probably the least truthful moment of Tuesday's "American Idol" finale came midway through, after Jordin Sparks emoted the heck out of Martina McBride's "A Broken Wing," then held out a gigantic note at the end. "This is a battle tonight!" Ryan Seacrest exclaimed, with Jordin nearby, towering over him. Maybe by that point the Season Six still looked like a toss-up to Seacrest, but Blake Lewis's efforts had begun to remind me of a thoroughbred entering a NASCAR showdown: Graceful and skilled as that horse might be at the event he's trained for, he just wasn't meant for a race dominated by loud, flashy power. That isn't at all a bad thing; Blake may not be for everyone, but I like him, and I suspect coming in second on "AI" - a very likely possibility - could help him a whole lot more than winning ever could. But more on that in a bit.

Overall, "AI's" weirdly perfunctory battle of the beatboxer vs. the teenager passed fairly quickly, coming off as more of a normal performance show than the penultimate night of television's world-beating ratings juggernaut. (Or, to - shudder - paraphrase Randy, it was just a'ight for me, dawg.) Where was the electricity in the air? Where was the special-occasion vibe? Where was the choir exultantly accompanying our two finalists as they hurtled toward a dramatic finish, performing this year's requisite sappy "Idol" single, "This Is My Now"? Not at the Kodak Theatre on Tuesday, that's for sure. Perhaps the giddiness is on hold until Wednesday's two-hour results extravaganza (which, after all, will likely include some form of Sanjaya, unlike Tuesday's show), the show that last year delivered jaw-dropping amounts of both the random (Meat Loaf? Prince?) and the insane (a Clay Aiken wannabe? Also, Clay Aiken's hairstyle?). Or perhaps it's decided to just not show up at all.

Even if not all previous years' "Idol" finales were major cliffhangers - honestly, only Season Two's Ruben/Clay ending was what you'd really call a nail-biter - they still all contained their fair share of tension, and a sense that something big was afoot. Tuesday, neither contestant seemed to fully seize the stage. Indeed, I was ready to write the night off until about 45 minutes in, when finally the moment came when the finale began to feel like The Finale: Jordin Sparks took the stage to take a swing at a big softball headed right down the center of the plate, the "Idol" single. Wearing a black dress and clearly taking the tune quite seriously, Jordin infused the song with soaring feeling and mature phrasing until the very end, when her age (all of 17 years, in case you hadn't heard it the first million times the "Idol" folks mentioned it) took over - and she broke down just a little, crying her way through the last few lines. Game over. Advantage, Jordin.

Of course, that wasn't the only sign she wanted to win more than Blake did (and needs it more than he does, too). Even though Blake won the "Idol" coin toss, he opted to go first, leaving the show's money position - the closing spot - for his putative competitor, Jordin. And while she talked about how excited she'd been about auditioning for the show, he freely admitted he tried out on a whim. Beyond that, the 25-year-old with a passion for rhythm and beats doesn't really have a reason to win - he's already established himself as a talented, likeable guy with his own fan base and musical vision. What could the "Idol" crown add to that, beyond heightened baggage and expectations? (And since when does "AI" know how to deal with unconventional winners, anyway? Ahem, Ruben, Fantasia, Taylor...) Jordin, meanwhile, could use the "Idol" help. Though her musical instincts seem pretty sound, the 17-year-old could surely benefit from guidance and assistance in shaping her style, and with her big voice and smile, she's certainly better suited to making the well-crafted pop music that characterizes the most successful "Idol" winners.

Indeed, she proved that again Tuesday, though her past few weeks have been somewhat rocky. She took on the challenge of Christina Aguilera's aggressive, guitar-heavy "Fighter" - kind of a curious choice, given that her previous forays into rock-esque songs fell flat - and mostly succeeded, even if she veered dangerously close to shriek city at times and struggled a bit to keep up with the wordy, fast-moving lyrics. Then, she moved in for the kill, expertly reprising one of her finest songs of the year, "A Broken Wing," and finishing with the "Idol" single - a major reminder of her strengths, not to mention a performance that spurred the judges to fall all over themselves to shower her with praise. "Last week I didn't think you were good enough to make the finals, and I want to say to you publicly now, I was wrong," Simon said. "It's a singing competition, and you just wiped the floor with Blake on that song."

If that was the case, Blake nonetheless proved a worthy mop, looking sharp and starting the show with an energetic, entertaining, unconventional, beatbox-heavy version of "You Give Love A Bad Name." His earlier rendition of the song was unquestionably one of the season's highlights, and Tuesday's take on it was just fine, too. But to me Blake's performing it seemed an attempt to make lightning strike twice: Though when we first heard it, the song was strikingly original, by this point, we'd heard it before, and it was drained of much of its magic. And though his second track, Maroon 5's "She Will Be Loved," would have been a perfectly acceptable choice under normal circumstances, it wasn't exactly up to finals par - if you're trying to win "AI," that sort of low-key tune (one that strains your upper register, too) isn't a song you win with. Simon agreed, saying, "I actually wouldn't have chosen that song in the final, because I don't think it makes that much of an impact." (Beyond that, Blake just sang another Maroon 5 song last week, so it also failed in terms of variety.)

But - perhaps a bit strangely, as it was the one song that wasn't his style or his choice - the performance that best exemplified Blake's situation was his take on the "Idol" single. Watching the seemingly quirky, cool guy up there on the stage, sitting on the edge of the giant video screen, leaning against it, and then walking toward the audience, doing what appeared to be his utmost with his thin voice to sing a rather treacly ballad about seizing the day and wanting more was so wrong, so ill-fitting and so un-Blake that it made clear that the guy not only shouldn't win "AI," it'd be kind of a tragedy if he did. Although he could quite possibly handle it, he doesn't deserve what for him would be a ball and chain - and for Jordin would be a blessing. The ability to connect with grade A schmaltz is a sure sign of an "Idol" contender. But thriving on the show without that? Well, it just might signal something more interesting.

Here's one "prize" we can already award: Ugliest fashion item of the year, hands down, goes to Randy Jackson for that hideous, hideous jacket trimmed with chains and random gold buttons. Oh my gosh, I'm still recoiling at the thought of it! I wasn't feeling it, dawg, I wasn't feeling it at all.

But man cannot live on beatboxing alone: "I'll give you a 10 out of 10 on the beatboxing...the singing for me was just alright," Randy told Blake after his performance of "You Give Love A Bad Name."

To think, if only he'd just saved up and bought himself a drum set: Although it was presented as this inspiring, life-affirming tale, it was a tad melancholy when Blake said he began beatboxing his senior year of high school, in part because he asked for a drum set every year for Christmas and never received one. "I remember driving into the garage and hearing drums, and I went, 'Oh no, somebody bought him a set of drums,'" Blake's dad said. "And I opened the door, and he was beatboxing, and I thought it was a set of drums when I walked in the house. He's still doing it." Oh, Blake's dad, is he ever.

But why didn't he ever say that to Jordin? "You should sit down because you're too tall, you're making me look small," Seacrest joked after introducing the larger member of the songwriting duo that penned the "Idol" single. Speaking of, what'd you think of the tune? For me, it falls kind of in the middle of the pack as far as "Idol" singles are concerned - it's definitely not the worst, but right off the bat it didn't strike me as the most memorable, either. Perhaps the radio-ready version will boast more charm.

Hyperbole, thy name is Randy: "It's the best singing competition ever in the history of television!" he exclaimed, in the midst of reminding viewers that "AI" is, in fact, a singing competition, and that Jordin deserved to win.

Also, every day is sunny, you're independently wealthy and there's a box of free puppies waiting for you outside: "You know how it goes, you know how it goes, they all end up winners, as you will see," Paula said somewhat drowsily, summing up the finalists' performances and alluding to Chris Daughtry, who was on stage in front of her, thought TV viewers couldn't yet see him. Simon then proceeded to say that Blake offered the best performance, with his first tune, but Jordin won out based on overall singing. "And they are all winners!" Paula continued. "And they are all winners, because you always say that," Seacrest said, totally mocking her.

Rock god posturing...that worked? "Cool" and "American Idol" generally don't go together, well, at all...and yet even amid those poor odds, I did think it was, yes, pretty cool to have Chris "Why, I was wearing eyeliner" Daughtry and his band on the Idol stage, performing "Home."

How was it for you? For all the talk of how this season was a letdown, I didn't think its finalists were the worst ever - for me, that dubious distinction still goes to the mostly-dreadful Season Three, even if it also gave us Jennifer Hudson and Fantasia. Instead, I think Season Six suffered in part because its semi-bland roster of finalists followed one of the best "Idol" years ever, the full-of-characters Season Five, and because those who run the show appear to have misjudged quite a bit this year - a sign, perhaps, of a show coasting on its laurels.

The Seattle auditions, which were pitched to viewers as some kind of wacky carnival freak show set nominally to music, turned out to be where both finalists auditioned. And I found it awfully hard to believe that the producers' choices for this season's Top 24 were really the best 24 undiscovered singers in the country, out of the, what, 100,000 or so who auditioned. Add to that a predilection for bland theme weeks that left considerably less room than usual for creativity or variety, and a lack of features that in past seasons helped us get to know the contestants better, and you've got this season. Plus, it's time to face the reality that even the most successful formula can go stale. Really, how many more times can we really stand to hear Randy prattling on about blowing things out the box, or endure Paula's utter loopiness (speaking of, she was in rare form last night, eh? it was almost as if she'd tripped over her Chihuahua and broke her tenuous sanity, not her nose)? And what does all of this mean for the show's future?


J Fitty said...

Yeah...who let Randy into Michael Jackson's closet?

Anonymous said...

did anybody notice that at the end of jordin's performance of 'this is my now' she was crying a lot. then at the end of the show where they re-cap and show clips of each song, she barely cries and has a smirk on her face at the end of the song.

the last clip was from a different performance. go back and watch. how does this happen on a 'live' show? it's all fixed. we've been duped.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Jen, for that last bit about why this season failed even though it has some nice talent.

I hope the "Idol" powers read it.

I think one problem this year was the seemingly nonstop focus on the hopeless rejects during the audition phase.

Last year, it felt like we knew some of the contestants well even before Top 24 week. I'll even admit I had forged a bond with one that continues to just grow stronger today.

This year -- the exception being Gina who I remembered from last year -- I felt like I was trying to match 23 faces with name tags at a plumbing fixtures convention.

I say bring back the sappy back stories and the shameless pimping from past seasons. At least it made for compelling TV.

Anonymous said...

To the first anonymous poster claiming a fix:

The clips at the end ALWAYS come from the dress rehearsals.

Anonymous said...