American Idolism
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/4/03


  Late last summer I started to tune in & watch the last few episodes of what was then the hottest show on TV- Fox’s American Idol. Basically, this was a ‘reality’ TV show that harkened back to the many amateur hour contests in TV’s 1950s infancy. It also was a bit like the 1980s Star Search TV show, in that there was voting allowed by the public. AI proved so popular that it paved the way for a # of clone TV shows, including a revamped Star Search. Reality TV is in its 5th or 6th year of popularity- riding the wave caused by the late 1990s quiz show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, the athletic endurance shows Survivor & its sequels, The Bachelor & its dating show clones, as well as other less successful fare- most of which have debuted in summer months & made the old rerun dead zone actually worth watching. But no show became the phenomenon AI is.
  Now, in season 2- started in January- the show is an absolute ratings juggernaut- destroying all competition in its Tuesday night performance show & its Wednesday night results show. I only saw the last few episodes of last year’s show- but here’s a recap. There are 3 judges who sift through the 1000s of wannabes, They whittle it down to 32 singers in 4 groups of 8. America then picks the top 2 from each show. Then the judges select 2 (or this year 4) ‘wildcard’ singers to get a Top 10 (or 12). Then each week 1 singer is eliminated by getting the least votes from a national call-in poll. By the time I started watching the show they were down to the final 5 or 6. I was stunned by how absolutely void of talent & originality the finalists were. The Final 4 were a white ex-stripper with an out of wedlock child & badly dyed red hair named Nikki McKibben. Her mouth was best suited for fellatio, not singing. Yet, she made it to the Top 3, to the consternation of the judges & show’s fans, over a seemingly more talented Whitney Houston wannabe named Tamyra Gray. While Gray was obviously a better singer she was no great shakes herself. Still, she landed a record deal & an acting job on Fox’s Boston Public TV show, while McKibben is back doing karaoke.
  That left a Top 3 for the judges to praise & rail. & just who were the judges? Record producer Randy Jackson (not Michael’s brother)- a tubby, but occasionally savvy reviewer. His criticisms can be scalding, asskissy, or just plain banal. Then there’s former pop diva & dancer Paula Abdul- the judge with no judgment. She praises all the contestants & lies through her teeth. She also spars with the show’s ‘breakout’ star- judge Simon Cowell- also a record maven, from Britain, who is chided for his, shall we say Schneiderian?, criticisms. Yet, he is easily the best critic- & the only 1 who values honesty.
  Joining the stripper in the Top 3 were a ½ black-½ Italian kid with an out of control afro, named Justin Guarini. This kid was seriously Bar Mitzvah-level singing to a T! The other finalist was a cute, plump brunet named Kelly Clarkson- who, along with Gray, were the lone singers with a little bit of talent. So, the stripper got bounced & that left ‘fro boy Justin vs. chunky good girl Kelly. Kelly won & is now on Season 2 promoting her new CD Thankful- which opened at #1, due to relentless AI publicity.
  Could season 2 top season 1? Yes. In spades. 7 times as many contestants auditioned, & the quality of singers was manifold better than season 1’s finalists. In fact, this year’s Golden Dozen was so good that only, perhaps, Clarkson & Gray could have cracked it, with neither making the Top 6.
  The early season saw some memorably bad performances & a solid Top 32. As the Top 12 was formed with 8 show winners & 4 wildcards some biases were evident in the judges’ choices- they seemed determined to have more male, & more black contestants. Often mediocre &/or generic singers were advanced over more obviously talented singers. From here on in I’ll just go contestant-by-contestant, via elimination date, until I get to the Top 4 still in the running as of this date.
  The 1st finalist to bow out was a chunky little 22 year old Hispanic singer from Atlanta. Vanessa Olivarez’s most memorable ‘moment’ was being chided by Simon for needing to lose weight. This caused an Internet uproar- especially since there were several other finalist far fatter than Olivarez. While not a great singer she was someone who could be a great Las Vegas entertainer, something only Simon was astute enough to point out. She was canned on 3/12/03. 1week later a sweet young black grocery clerk from Ohio, named Charles Grigsby bowed out. He had very little range & was lucky to make the finals. Then scandal hit as a 23 year old finalist from Memphis- named Lashundra Cobbins (aka Trenyce [single name])- was outed by the Smoking Gun website for a shoplifting incident as a juvenile. It was suspected that Olivarez’s family passed on the information to spite those who were kept instead of Vanessa.
  The next week, 3/26/03, saw 1 of the show’s ‘villains’ sent home. AI does the expulsions in a hyperdramatic style. The bottom 3 votegetters are called centerstage. Then the 1 of the 3 with the most votes is given a reprieve before the bottom tallier is revealed. On this date it was a cheesy brunet from New Jersey called Julia Demato (24 years old- BTW, all AI singers must be 25 or younger). She was a villain because she had earlier gotten in to a catfight with fellow contestant & blond finalist Kimberly Caldwell. The show hyped the rivalry between the 2 for ratings, & ultimately both were perceived as bitches. Earlier, Demato had trumped Caldwell in a qualifying show (Caldwell got to the finals via a wildcard), & now both were in the bottom 2. This time Caldwell was safe. Demato had earlier in her run butchered the theme to the film Flashdance. At her parting she raped Faith Hill’s Breathe.
  On 4/1/03 Corey Clark was disqualified for failing to reveal an arrest record (unlike the come-clean Trenyce). The mixed-race Clark was a 22 year old crooner from Tennessee, who was a contender for the finals- with a hit & miss approach. He had a Michael Jackson-like demeanor (from the Off The Wall days) & voice. He was brilliant with higher-pitched songs but bombed when he tried country. Before his arrest record was revealed he was considered a serious contender- of all 12 finalists he had the most charisma & stage presence. This fact, according to Internet gossip, explained why he was a lady killer- supposedly bagging both the divalicious Trenyce & the blond bombshell Caldwell. Nonetheless, even his brilliance onstage (especially a memorable rendition of Foolish Heart) could not save him from being tossed. Not that he did too poorly- he got a feature on him in People magazine & superstar songstess Mariah Carey was so impressed that she, reportedly, offered to have Clark sing a duet with her, as well as produce his 1st CD. Talent + an image as a redeemed ‘bad boy’ point to success for Clark in the future. Unfortunately AI cheated its fans by not disqualifying a singer that week, as they relied on Clark’s DQ to satisfy their need to extend the show in to the May sweeps ratings period.
  On 4/9/03 the soulful but limited Rickey Smith got canned. The 23 year old black Texan bowed out. No memorable performances stood out, but he was always cheerful & his schtick of doing the Nutty Professor’s ‘Hercules, Hercules’ gag made him a likable favorite. The next week saw blond sexbomb Kimberly Caldwell (21, & from Texas) kicked off- after 1 of her better performances. The Demato rivalry had hurt her appeal, + she garnered resentment for being the sexpot of the show (blond & beautiful), while also having talent. Her throaty sound should have propelled her farther but instead of doing Janis Joplin-type material she showed she was too callow an artist by choosing songs which limited her. This despite being 1 of the most stage-experienced finalists- having already won 5 rounds on Star Search years earlier. She did have some great performances (like her take on I Feel The Earth Move) but she was inconsistent & had too many expectations on her, which led to some unduly harsh criticism fro the judges- Simon & Randy. Those criticisms, the anti-blond factor, the ‘bitch’ label from her Demato spat, & her utter lack of self-awareness of her talent & strengths, made her a victim before some others who definitely should have been booted. Think I’m wrong? Those who heard the girl’s Joplinesque voice might be shocked to know she thought she was most like Faith Hill, or Pink- 2 singers she sounded nothing like.
  On 4/23/03 18 year old Mormon Carmen Rasmussen was kicked off. Next to Julia Demato Rasmussen was the most hated finalist. A cute blond with a country twang & limited range, she survived past better singers by sheer virtue of a Mormom phone campaign to keep her on. Why Simon Cowell- of all the judges- picked her is a question beyond mortal ken. The performance that was her worst was a take on Blondie’s Call Me, a song perfect for the aforementioned badgirl Caldwell, but ridiculous sung by a cutesy-pie Mormon. Neither girl had the maturity to know their strengths. Last week (4/30/03) saw the anti-Trenyce crowd can her. On that show she nailed 2 songs well, & gave the 2nd best performances of the night (after the stellar Clay Aiken- more on him later), but AI is not about talent but popularity. Trenyce should not have won the competition but could have placed 2nd or 3rd by any objective measure. She was very hit & miss in her song choices & performances. But her daring in vocals & style should have won over more fans. Her last 2 renditions of Proud Mary & Neil Sedaka’s (he was guest judge that week- a tactic that serves no real purpose since even the ‘real’ judges’ votes are meaningless at this point) Love Will Keep Us Together were smokin’. But, she also had some horrid performances- she destroyed Leeann Rimes’ I Need You & a couple of other tunes. She aced mostly Whitney Houston/Celine Dion/Mariah Carey type screech ballads & her last 2 songs p[roved she could move beyond that. Her future career is bright because, next to Corey Clark, she had the most charisma & presence- I tag her as a young Diana Ross, though, rather than a young screech diva.
  That leaves the Final 4 & my predictions. There’s 22 year old Marine corporal Josh Gracin from California- an affable kid with very limited range. His few successes have come from Garth Brooks imitations. He’s bombed with pop songs. He should have, like Carmen Rasmussen, been gone long ago- but the patriotic fervor of the country, these last few months since the war, have kept him around despite landing in the bottom 2 several times. The most memorable thing about him is that he cannot decide whether his ‘country accent’ voice is real, or his ‘pop’ voice. That & the fact that he has steadily gained weight throughout his run. Hopefully, he will be ousted this coming week. But he’s already earned the dubious dishonor of being ‘this year’s Nikki McKibben’.
  The remaining 3 singers all were from the 2nd group of 8 Final 32 contestants. That show’s 2 winners were a porky black girl named Kimberley Locke- whose performance won that show, but was a puzzle since she was mediocre. Perhaps it was because a better & fatter black female singer had been earlier booted for posing in lingerie for a porno website. That singer, Frenchy Davis, has also parlayed her notoriety in to a possible post-AI career. K’Lo, as he has been dubbed, was a dark horse, after a string of bad performances early on in the finals. She landed in a couple of Bottom 3’s early on, but then seemed to grow in confidence & stage presence. She seemed to grow from being lounge lizard material to a contender for the crown, especially after the judges started to give her a big push (to use the pro wrestling terminology), ostensibly because other female contenders were obviously limited- Rasmussen was callow, Caldwell subject to pathological hatred, & Trenyce was doomed because no American Idol could have an arrest record- make a good run? Yes. Win? No. The 25 year old Locke- the oldest finalist, seemed to be 1 of only 2 finalists to actually listen to the judge’s early critiques & apply herself. Early disasters were overcome by some stellar performances- especially an early take on Over The Rainbow, & a later take on Where The Boys Are. Locke can make a song her own, but still botch a tune as well. Still, 1 wonders why Simon railed against Vanessa Olivarez’s weight when K’Lo is bigger & fatter?
  An even bigger & fatter contestant- by far the biggest in the 2 year AI history, is Birmingham, Alabama soul crooner Ruben (the Round Mound of Sound) Studdard, a 25 year old 350+ lb. behemoth who quickly became a fan favorite & judge’s pet (spawning a craze in the sales of his 205 sports jerseys- the area code for his hometown). No matter how badly he’d butcher a song Ruben got a pass. He won the group 2 show along with K’Lo, & I wondered whether that night was ‘Have Pity On Fat Black Singers’ night- especially since Ruben (pronounced ‘Rooooo-Ben!) had butchered The Carpenters’ tune Superstar. His voice always drags on slow songs, & this version was painful to hear- BUT he won! Conspiracists thought that he was an easy sell to fill the Barry White/Luther Vandross market, but the kid is a generic soul singer at best, & proved it when he actually did a Barry White song, & poorly. He can only do slow soul, & unfortunately sings every song as slow soul. He’s a good, solid singer, but WAY overpraised- to his detriment. While K’Lo has grown Ruben has stagnated &/or regressed as an artist. Probably the most absurd moment in the show’s 2 years was when Ruben (on the country rock show) sang Lynard Skynard’s Sweet Home Alabama- a 1970s paean to 1960s ‘good old days’ of racism. Obviously, the kid did not understand the lyrics. Among the songs that were over Ruben’s talent level were Billy Joel’s Just The Way You Are, Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, & the slow (painfully so, so much Ruben’s voice screeched like a squirrel dragged along asphalt) version of Breaking Up Is Hard To Do. Only once has a judge (Simon) called Ruben on his limitations & predictability.
  Now, you may wonder why I’ve included the finalists’ ethnic backgrounds in my comments. It’s because this last show saw racism charges rear their ugly head. Ruben fans charged he landed in the bottom 2 with Trenyce (over the terrible Josh) because he was black. This is ridiculous. 1st off, based on just that show Ruben deserved to be in the bottom 2- with Josh getting booted. Clay Aiken dominated with his 2 performances (in a bit!), Trenyce was a solid #2, with K’Lo giving a strong performance. Ruben was 4th best- despite what his fans thought of him as an unassailable frontrunner. Josh was easily the worst, yet he was not in the bottom 2. #2- racism is absurd when the racial breakdown of the Top 12 is thus: 6 blacks, 5 whites, & 1 Hispanic. As for the Top 5 there were 3 blacks & 2 whites. These ridiculous charges are the kind that always give cover for real racist incidents. That Ruben has gotten this far has been because of bias FOR him.
  The last of the finalists is a white geeky kid from Raleigh, North Carolina named Clay Aiken. He is easily the most vocally gifted singer in the show’s history. Only Ruben’s inordinate fandom has overshadowed what should be obvious- Clay should win the competition in a walk. He is the only performer without a single dud performance, he- ala K’Lo- listens to the judge’s criticisms & improves, he has tried new styles & songs after being accused of incessant pop balladeering. He is tall & skinny, & started out wearing glasses & having saucer-sized ears. Yet he has evolved in to a fan favorite. Simon has ridden him the hardest of all contestants. Despite stellar performance after stellar performance Simon always found something to rag on- Clay was not AI material, despite the jumbo-sized Ruben’s overpraise, he was too swishy & fluttering with his eyebrows- & could not dance. This despite making diverse songs his own in different ways. Contrast that with the immobile & fat Ruben who Rubenizes all songs into slow soul. Clay made the wretched power ballad Open Arms, by Journey, in to a song I enjoyed. Same with the saccharine Elton John tune Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me. Ditto with I Could Not Ask For More & I’ll Be by Edwin McCain. Last week he hit 2 grand slams with the 60s tune Build Me Up, Buttercup- an uptempo toetapper- & The Carpenters’ Solitaire. Compare his Carpenters song with Ruben’s hatchet job on Superstar & the difference in quality is clear. The mark of any great artist is to excel, & in the interpretive arts (acting, singing, adaptation) 1 must excel- but not imitate a great performance. Clay does that, Ruben does not, & K’Lo is inconsistent- but getting better. Josh is a joke. Simon’s jab that Clay is better suited for Broadway is a good 1- I’d love to hear Clay sing anything from Oklahoma, or South Pacific. He’s a natural entertainer.
  So, that’s where things stand. Here’s how the final 4 should end up: Josh is next to go. Then Ruben should go. Then Clay outdueling Kimberley in the Finals. Ruben’s fear of improving should not be rewarded. Kimberley & Clay have been model students & have the 2 best vocal chops left. That said, Clay is head & shoulders above them all. Will he actually win? There’s a chance that next week Ruben’s fans will make an all-out effort to boost him, Josh’s Marines fan base will swell, & Kimberley will be toast. Clay’s fans (especially since he’s the only teenybopper type left- they abjure obese black men & puffy married men) should lift him in to a finals showdown with-  ? I think Ruben’s fans will outdo Josh’s this time & finally vanquish the overrated Marine crooner. The show has wanted a male winner all year, & from the start of the finals it has seemed that a Ruben-Clay showdown was what seemed pre-ordained- & a ratings boon. Will the front-running but complacent Ruben grab what has been handed to him on a silver platter, or will the deserving underdog Clay grab hold of the glory? Either 1 is assured of a post-AI career in the biz. This is TV at its most essential & communal best. I’ll be watching. You should too. Later.

Update 5/22/03

  Yesterday night Ruben Studdard edged out Clay Aiken to win American Idol 2. Yet, since Clay easily gave the better performances 2 nights ago- including a great ending of Bridge Over Troubled Water- Clay fans are grumbling about the conspiracy they see. That is, that Ruben was so fawned over by Simon & the others that the title was a foregone conclusion. Also, there were problems with the text messaging portion of the voting, & the 800 #s were jammed. Add in that host Ryan Seacrest gave 3 different answers as to the voting results. Out of about 24 million votes he said the % differences was 50.28%-49.72% which would have been about 134,400 votes. Yet he also stated about 13,000 votes separated the 2, then gave a final tally of 'just over' 1335 votes. Who knows? The truth is that Clay probably would have won if there was a level playing field- but Ruben is a good solid singer & both kids will do well. The controversy will only fire Clay fans. Such is Reality TV.

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