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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 22, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Idol This Year So Far

American Idol is back, with some interesting changes this year.

The most welcome change was that the auditions did not give anywhere near as much emphasis as in past years to the "how-sad" auditioners who clearly needed therapy -- or honest friends.

This has always been the part I hated about Idol -- the train-wreck auditions of people who were obviously deluded or, in extreme cases, mentally ill. It seemed to me that the producers were, in many cases, quite cruel -- when they weren't simply rewarding people for flamboyantly bad behavior.

Even with the improvement this year, they were not without sin. There was, for instance, the video of the man who, after being rejected, awkwardly said some convoluted version of "take care." Because he also looked a little scary, his words were taken as a threat. The guy seemed to me to be trying to be classy, but got his words all twisted. That was cheap TV.

With less time wasted on catastrophe, we got to see a lot more people with talent than in past years. But the fundamental contradiction of the show remains: The judges are looking for singers they can record and make money from; the show's producers are looking for "good television," which means "whatever will get viewers to tune in," which means train wrecks take precedence over good singing.

As usual, after the audition rounds we end up with some contestants who have had a lot of attention from the cameras, and some whom we are seeing for the first time. This is patently unfair, and the "new" contestants labor under a great disadvantage.

Except when what we saw of more-featured contestants made us hate them.

Another change this year was taking thirty-six people out of the Hollywood round. They have broken them into four shows: Three groups of twelve, from which three contestants -- top boy, top girl, and second-highest vote-getter of either sex -- are chosen by audience vote, and a fourth group of twelve "wild cards" who were not winners in the first groups.

In effect, this is a final audition round -- especially for the contestants we're seeing for the first time.

What we learned was that in previous years, they have done us a favor by starting with the top twenty-four instead of the top thirty-six. Nine of this year's first group of twelve were rejected -- and I only regretted losing one of them.

Perhaps they gave less help to each contestant, since there were so many.

But it's more likely that there simply aren't thirty-six people in America in any given year who (a) have the talent, (b) ambition, ( c) intelligence, and (d) skill to do well in the competition, while also having the (e) weirdly delusional personality that would lead them to go through the grueling and frustrating audition process.

After seeing the first group-of-twelve show, I can say that the judges are doing a better job than usual. Even Paula was candid with the singers who did an awful job. And Simon was honest enough to question why the show's producers had allowed one contestant to choose a particularly useless song.

The judges talk about "song choice" as the main problem of most contestants, but that is just shorthand for the real problem: lack of self-knowledge. Usually there is nothing wrong with the song itself; what's wrong is that this particular person should not be singing it!

You can have a great singing career with a very small voice (no list need be provided; you can probably write your own). But such singers did well because they did not choose their songs from the same list as, say, Aretha Franklin or Michael McDonald.

"Song choice" can also be a problem when singers with good voices choose songs without regard for the actual music. "I love that song" is no reason at all to sing it for what is likely to be your one chance to get American viewers to vote for you!

The song needs to have more than three notes in it. Whatever you do well as a singer must be displayed in the song you choose. Whatever you are not good at should be avoided.

If you have a weak low voice (i.e., you don't sing from the Karen Carpenter songbook), then don't sing a song with low notes in it! This seems so obvious that it shouldn't need saying -- yet week after week, women singers kill themselves by showing how much range they don't have.

If you don't have the break-the-back-wall power of, say, Fantasia, then don't take on the big shouty songs -- you'll just embarrass yourself.

If you're a man and you haven't mastered your falsetto, so that it doesn't integrate at all with your regular voice, don't sing those high notes. It makes us look for the chipmunk who is apparently singing backup.

The one dishonest thing about the judging is that I don't believe for one moment that any of these judges thought that the two most obnoxious contestants from the auditions actually deserved to be placed in contention.

Tatiana, whose utter narcissism is not inconsistent with a career in music but is inconsistent with getting votes from regular people, had no business making it to Hollywood -- except that I'm sure the judges were told, "She makes great television and she's not completely unbelievable as a singer."

And the clown guy who keeps doing a "comic" character (not for one instant did I find him anything but excruciatingly needy and sad) might have won the genuine liking of the judges -- probably because of interactions offscreen which we never saw -- but as my daughter points out, "He belongs on America's Got Talent, not Idol."

Naturally, I already have my favorites. But I don't have any expectation or even desire that my current favorites turn out to win.

Last year, David Cook was one of my least favorite contestants during the early rounds -- it was only in the third show that I started to see that he might have something.

By the end, it was obvious that nobody else on that stage was in his league. But at the beginning even he wasn't in that league! He grew on the show, and I expect that to happen again this year with some but not all of the contestants, so that I'll end up voting for singers I didn't care for very much at the start.

Danny Gokey and Alexis Grace were both very good at the kind of song they sing -- because they actually chose to sing the kind of song they should sing! Michael Sarver was not better than Ricky Braddy -- but he was not worse. Braddy simply couldn't overcome his utter lack of exposure in the previous shows.

We had high hopes for Anoop Desai and Stephen Fowler, whose song choices were incredibly bad; I hope we'll see them on the wild card show.

Jackie Tohn knew she didn't have a strong voice, but she chose a song that could be sold by performance alone, and she sold it. The judges treated her with disdain because of this -- but it's the same thing they did to Constantine.

It's as if being good on the stage is some kind of crime, to these recording-centered judges. And, when you come to think of it, it makes sense.

Ultimately, this show exists to sell records, not to sell out small theaters where the audience is sitting close enough to be wowed by personal performances.

When you go to a big rock concert, you're not going to make a connection with the performer, period. In fact, you're most likely to make a connection with the drunk woman who stands up directly in front of you through the entire concert and loudly sings along with all the songs.

And the kind of performance that clicks on television -- close camera, audience sitting on soft chairs -- doesn't really work even in small theaters. I think of a brilliant performer like Janis Ian, whose shows are breathtakingly personal and warm.

She's simply too "hot" for the TV screen, because the amount of personality projection that works across thirty or fifty feet in a theater feels overpowering and unpleasant in your family room. (Janis understands this, by the way, and on camera gives a completely different performance, much more intimate.)

Idol really is the wrong place to launch a live-performance-centered career. If you're "good in the room" you won't be good on the show, and vice-versa. So when the judges punish singers for relying on their personality and charm over actual singing ability (i.e., being on pitch more often than not), they are ultimately right.

Here's a sign of how things are going: Though all the performances from the first show are available for download on iTunes, there is not one of them I wished to own and hear again.

Because even though Alexis and Danny chose songs that were good for their voices, they also happened to be songs that I don't like.

And nobody else gave a truly recordable performance. The only one I might break down and buy is Ricky Braddy's "A Song for You," because I know I'll never hear him again.

But then, I already have two brilliant performances of that song: Karen Carpenter's and Leon Russell's. Will I ever really listen to Braddy's?

And Ann Marie Boskovich's how-sad performance of "Natural Woman" made me pull up Carole King's timeless and perfect recording and listen to that.

That's another thing about American Idol. If there's anything rarer than really good singers, it's really good singer-songwriters.

Carole King singing "Natural Woman" and Leon Russell singing "A Song for You" are performing songs they wrote themselves. They have their songs down to the bone.

But singer-songwriters are the antithesis of what American Idol is looking for. They seek out package-able singers who can be shaped and controlled by producers and turned into predictable money-making machines.

It was inevitable that a folk-singer like Brooke White would be overproduced and destroyed by producers like that. But David Cook, who specializes in finding cool and quirky twists on songs and applying his magnificent instrument to them -- he's just what they dream of.

But for me, it's the singer-songwriter who really creates and grows the music scene. American Idol will never find one of those, because such artists have to be nurtured over time and build a following.

They have to have the time and space in which to write almost-good songs, or keep improving good songs that still have lingering problems. They have to be able to write and sing the ten songs that don't really succeed in order to get the one that thrills the listeners.

In all of Dan Fogelberg's career, maybe one out of ten of his songs really worked. The same is true of Billy Joel, and Paul Simon's average is only a little higher. Carole King had a whole career of songwriting to draw from when she turned singer, but still only got a couple of solid albums before she ran out of decent material.

American Idol will never be the show that creates American music. It always lags behind. It rewards performance talent only, and has very little encouragement for real creativity.

And think about it. Can you imagine a young Paul Simon or Billy Joel or Karen Carpenter standing in line to try out for American Idol?

OK, well, yes, I can too. But can you imagine any of them getting past the judges?

I can just hear Simon Cowell saying to Karen Carpenter: "These Burt Bacharach/Hal David songs, over and over, they aren't working for you, show us some variety! ... and you need to lose a little weight."

And if Billy Joel had performed "Piano Man" or "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" or even "We Didn't Start the Fire," sans piano, in some tryout city, I can already hear Simon Cowell saying, "Next!" while Paula pats his hand and says, "You're really very talented, dear."

Or maybe not. Maybe the star quality would already have been visible in those impossibly cold rooms where you stand alone in front of three or four judges.

Or, worse, the screening rooms, where you sing at the same time as three other contestants in front of judges nobody heard of and no one will ever see, who are looking, not for voices that might grow into something, but rather for people who will be "good television."

I'm betting Paula and Randy and Kara and Simon would never have seen Billy Joel or Paul Simon or Karen Carpenter, because they would never have been passed through the first screening round.

But Barbra Streisand would have made it through! So would Bette Midler! Because their in-your-face performing style would have made the screeners happy as clams.

We just have to accept the kind of show American Idol is, and either enjoy it or not. No use complaining because it isn't a hotbed of musical innovation, or a discoverer of brilliant creative talent.

It's a contest for a certain kind of recordable singer, singing a certain kind of song, and David Cook -- who is very, very good -- marks the outward edge of the creativity possible on this show.


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