American Idol Thoughts

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/29/04


  Recently the Fox Network’s top hit American Idol ended its 3rd season on the air, amidst assorted charges ranging from racism to favoritism. Some of the many charges are true & others are not. I’ll touch upon some as I go along. I started watching the show during the last few episodes of its 1st season when Kelly Clarkson defeated a bizarre Sideshow Bob look-alike named Justin Guarini in the finals. What struck me about that 1st season was the fact that none of the 10 finalists really was any good. There had been a controversy when the singer universally dubbed the best by the judges- a black girl named Tamyra Gray- finished 4th behind Kelly, Justin, & an awful karaoke singer named Nikki McKibben. Yet, in listening to Ms. Gray perform several times this season as a ‘guest star’ it’s plainly obvious that she is another off-the-rack r&b singer, at best- just as Kelly Clarkson is a rather bland & generic pop singer. Both girls have some talent, but I suspect neither will be around in 5 or 10 years if American Idol is not around to give them airtime.

  The 2nd season was even more popular than the 1st- with the top 3 all getting record deals & having some chart success. Kimberly Locke, who finished 3rd, was a far superior singer to anyone from the 1st season, while runner up Clay Aiken proved to be 1 of those once in a lifetime musical talents. His voice had power, clarity, range, & he moved effortlessly between genres. The same could not be said for that season’s winner- Ruben Studdard- who was a solid, but unspectacular, soul singer. How Studdard, an obviously inferior singer to both Aiken & Locke, won is where the influence of the 3 judges on the show come in. They have become almost as famous as the singers. There’s Paula Abdul- a washed up pop star, who never says anything negative, Randy Jackson- a record producer & ex-member of pop group Journey, who sometimes speaks his mind, & British curmudgeon & record producer Simon Cowell- whose blistering critiques are usually the most correct & always the most honest. Still, he & the others had anointed Studdard as the favorite early on in the Top 12. As Studdard would sing every song the same- not too loud nor soft, not too quick nor slow- Aiken was working up a large fan base despite overly negative & often wrong comments from the judges. When the margin of Studdard’s victory was given as several figures many Claymates- as Aiken’s fans called themselves- felt robbed, & the controversy harkened back to the old quiz show scandals of the 1950s. The fact that Aiken has since done far better in his post-AI career while even many of Studdard’s supporters now admit that Aiken was the superior singer, only lends credence to the ‘favoritism’ charge that was claimed against the judges, who saw Studdard’s bland r&b as an easier sell than Aiken’s all-around excellence. The fact that Studdard & Locke were black & Aiken white never became much of an issue outside of the show’s fansites, just as the fact that Kelly Clarkson, a white girl, defeated Justin Guarini, a black man, was little discussed. More had been made of the fact that in the 1st season the show emphasized looks over talent, while in Season 2 talent ruled- as Locke & Studdard were fat, & Aiken a skinny geek.

  As Season 3 started there was fear that AI had topped out- that it could not produce the same high ratings as the Ruben-Clay showdown had. This seemed to lend credence to the idea that the judges skewed their selection process to try to get a Top 12 that appealed across a wide demographic, rather than just let the best singers advance. Throughout the show’s 3 years there has been a schizophrenia on the show in that sometimes it claims to be a talent or singing contest & other times a show to make an idol- as its name claims. Pasty-faced dj & comedian Ryan Seacrest, especially, does not know what the show is about. When a singer the show deems talented is voted off he chides the audience for their stupidity, yet ends each show urging voters to vote (by toll-free phone # or text messaging) for their favorite- not the person who sung the best on that episode.

  The show also seems to prefer to generate personalities & storylines early on, rather than merely present good talent. Evidence of this comes from the 2nd season when the show’s editing tried to show an animus between 2 young attractive female singers (Kimberly Caldwell & Julia DeMato) to imply backstabbing & catfighting. Over the years the show has tried to shame singers that advanced (Nikki McKibben- year 1, Josh Gracin- year 2, John Stevens & Jasmine Trias- year 3) at the expense of supposedly superior singers that were eliminated before them. In Season 2 a young black singer with a voice reminiscent of a young Michael Jackson, Corey Clark- who enthralled the audience with a performance of Foolish Heart- was kicked off the show when charges of domestic violence against his sister came to light. He was booted even though the charges were later dismissed because he supposedly never told the show of the case- he claimed he did. That same season a large black female belter named Frenchie Davis, an early favorite in the competition, was eliminated before the Top 12 when her posing for a topless website came to light. As with Clark she claimed to have told the show of the incident, but was summarily dismissed. Another female singer, also black- but thin, named Trenyce was allowed to sing, however, despite being convicted of shoplifting a few years earlier. Other contestants have been eliminated early due to charges of drunk driving & manslaughter.

  But, while the show might be able to defend its hit & miss elimination of some contestants, the way they manipulate the contestants’ images & feelings is something that worries me. Early in Season 3 a young Chinese college student named William Hung sung a comically bad version of Ricky Martin’s She Bangs & was summarily dismissed. His demeanor & claim of not regretting his wipeout for he gave his best oddly resonated with many viewers & Hung became a mini-star in his own right- releasing a novelty album. Yet he generated controversy as many Asian-American groups objected to his success because Hung’s buck teeth, poor enunciation, & crossed eyes cast him as the worst sort of Asian stereotype. But it was not only racial stereotypes that dominated. Early on in Season 3 another contestant generated controversy & rabid hatred- she was a drop-dead gorgeous brunet bikini model named Lisa Wilson, who had a delicate, yet smoky voice. After making it through the initial round, & out to Los Angeles she was cast as the show’s vixen & bad girl, shown cavorting around the hotel pool & not caring for others. Yet, she claimed that she had been told to do much of what was filmed, as if she were set up as a heavy. When she made the Final 32 she initially was going to sing a song that might favor her voice, but at the last minute had her song switched. She rasped out a terrible version of Melissa Etheridge’s Come To My Window & was eliminated. Online female detractors who probably never heard her audition, claimed the girl had made it as far as she did only on her looks, even as they enviously derided her looks! An even crueler fate awaited another Lisa- Lisa Leuschner. She was a plump redhead who had a terrific voice. She also made the Top 32 & gave by far the best performance in that round, only to finish 3rd to the staggeringly untalented Camille Velasco & husky ex-footballer Matt Rogers. That was the 1st time she was robbed. The 2nd, even crueler, robbery came when she was 1 of 12 singers invited back for the wildcard show & then told she was 1 of the 4 singers who was not going to be allowed to perform on the show, despite Randy Jackson telling her she had 1 of the best voices he’d heard this season. She had developed a fanbase after her 1st robbery, & they exploded after her 2nd ripoff. But the show was also as wanton in the way it treated 2 other quirky female singers with talent- ‘Army Girl’ Martha Krabill, a perky brunet with curls & a beret & ‘Scooter Girl’ Nicole Tieri- an even perkier, wackier blond who zipped around on a scooter. Both had better voices than Top 32 singers as the awful Roman brothers- Jesus & Noel, & even Top 12 finalist Camille Velasco. Another singer who gave a terrific performance in the Top 32- Chain Of Fools- but was deemed ‘not saleable’ by the show was a pretty American Indian/Cajun girl with a rich voice named Charly Lowry. The problem with the way all of these people were treated is not that the show wants to determine its winner but the schizophrenic & nonsensical approach that it takes.

  As for the Top 12 this year the 4 Wildcards were America’s winner Jon Peter Lewis- an impish singer-songwriter with an ok voice, Abdul’s pick Leah LaBelle- a pretty brunet teen with future potential but not much stage presence, Jackson’s pick Jennifer Hudson- a large gospel singer prone to bizarre facial tics as she sang, & Cowell’s pick- George Huff- a soul singer who only got called back for the Top 32 after another contestant was arrested for DWI. The other 8 who advanced by finishing top 2 in their shows were show 1’s Fantasia Barrino- a thin gospel singer with great stage presence but a tendency to shout rather than sing, & Diana DeGarmo- a 16 year old powerhouse singer with great potential. Show 2 saw ‘evil’ Hawaiian Camille Velasco- perhaps the worst finalist in the show’s 3 year history & holder of Lisa Leuschner’s rightful spot, & Matt Rogers- a footballer with an operatic voice, advance. Show 3 saw La Toya London- a polished rock singer who made the horrid All By Myself sound great, & Amy Adams- a Celine Dion sort of crooner with pink hair, advance. The 4th show saw redhaired Big Band crooner John Stevens & ‘good’ Hawaiian Jasmine Trias advance. Here is how I would rank the singers from worst to 1st- with #1 being the singer who should have won:

12) Velasco- could not hit a note in a single song

11) Rogers- never let his Opera voice, nor masculinity, roam

10) LaBelle- entered 2-3 years too early

9) Lewis- solid, quirky, but unspectacular

8) Hudson- oversang everything, no subtlety- the difference between a belter & a singer

7) Stevens- could have challenged for title if had more vocal power

6) Trias- lacked power, but made each song hers better than any other singer

5) Adams- poor song selection hurt her most- she did not showcase her strengths

4) Barrino- gospelized everything & overemoted songs- did not ‘get’ the songs she sang

3) Huff- faltered in non r&b songs, but still much better than Ruben Studdard

2) DeGarmo- easily the most pure singing talent, just a little raw

1) London- a shade less talented than DeGarmo, but with 9 years more polish

  Obviously I thought London should win, with DeGarmo a close 2nd. DeGarmo did finish 2nd, but to Barrino, not London. I’ll now give a week-by-week rundown of who went & why. The 1st to get canned was Leah LaBelle. While no threat to win the whole thing her dismissal was too early. Cowell, especially, resented Abdul’s picking her as a wildcard over his objections, & unfairly lambasted her. Velasco should have gone, as her Son Of A Preacherman was far worse than LaBelle’s You Keep Me Hanging On. Week 2 saw Matt Rogers go- he never showed off his operatic power, & died singing the cheesey country hit Amazed. Velasco butchered Desperado- by the non-country Eagles. Week 3 saw Amy Adams bow out with Dancing In The Street. By now Velasco haters started springing up, & talk of the Hawaii Effect took root- since the 50th state is several time zones behind the rest of the country they had the 2 hour post-show window to vote for their favorites all by themselves. Velasco had sung For Once In My Life painfully bad. By Week 4 the story of the season was Velasco’s surprising staying power though clearly the worst of the Top 12. But, she finally fell in Elton John week by killing Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road.

  Down to the Top 8 & the only real surprising absence was Amy Adams, who just never really connected to the audience. Jon Peter Lewis had, & had shown some potential when he fell in Week 5 when he did a so-so version of Jailhouse Rock. Week 6 was when the real controversy began- Jennifer Hudson, who I think was due to go, & showed no real singing ability- merely a powerful voice, finally was canned after Barry Manilow week & delivering an over the top gospel version of Weekend In New England. Fans screamed in protest & hurled ridiculous racism charges because joining her in the bottom 3 were also La Toya London & Fantasia Barrino, the 2 early favorites. All 3 females were black, though. Never mind that Barrino had also delivered an unrecognizable & scream-laced version of Manilow’s It’s A Miracle. After the show Hudson fanned the racism charges even though she had truly been lucky to get as far as she did. In the Top 32 she mangled Imagine, by John Lennon, & later gave some horrid performances- including Heatwave. 2 weeks before her elimination she did an over-the-top version of Elton John’s Circle Of Life & seemed to feel she was a top contender. She, London, & Barrino had been dubbed ‘The 3 Divas’ by Simon Cowell, & the appellation went to her head, as her arrogance led others to call her Jabba the Hud, in response.

  Hudson’s elimination saw redhead John Stevens emerge as the most hated singer on the show, even more so than Velasco. Yet, he was a much better singer than Velasco &, in fact, sang better than Hudson. He actually sang songs, not shouted them. Yet, even though the judges early on advanced him because of his crooning, they also bizarrely made him their whipping dog- especially Randy Jackson, who emerged as far more willful & manipulative than in the 1st 2 years. While Stevens had  some weak performances he also had some quite good 1s: Billy Joel’s She’s Always A Woman, King Of The Road, Elton John’s Crocodile Rock- where he was unfairly ripped, & Manilow’s Mandy. He bowed out a week after Hudson, amidst death threats, & claims that he had been part of the racist conspiracy to can the bitter Hudson. That left a Top 5 with only 1 male- George Huff. He had gotten to this point in the show with some strong early r&b-tinged tunes like Lean On Me, Dock of the Bay, Ain't Too Proud To Beg, & Take Me To The Pilot. But, some poor song choices & theme weeks outside his purview brought an end to his run in Big Band week with 2 solid, but unspectacular performances.

  That left a Top 4 of all females. Early on in the season the judges predicted (or decreed?) that this season had a stronger female crop. Conspiracists thought the show wanted a female winner to balance out the 2some of record sales generated by Studdard & Aiken- who were seen as almost co-winners of Season 2. Just as the faux racism charges about Hudson’s elimination died down 1 of the 2 co-favorites, La Toya London, was eliminated. But, this was not unexpected as she, Barrino, & Hudson drew from the same base. It would have been demographically impossible from the way the show played the contestants off each other for both London & Barrino to make it to the finals. But, the show had clearly favored Barrino over London from the get go. Although London was the better & more powerful singer the judges planted the seeds of her demise early on suggesting that London was, unlike Barrino, a cold fish whose singing was great, but never connected to the audience. Of course, charges like this were aped by online detractors. Tell a lie often enough & people believe it. This is the real purpose the judges serve- to give the illusion of objectivity & plant ideas in fans’ heads. Often when unable to properly critique a good performance from a contestant they did not favor Jackson, especially, would vaguely dismiss something as ‘pitchy’, or point out flaws that were not, or gloss over real flaws in a favored performer- like Studdard in Season 2. As for London? She was deemed too perfect, especially on movie night when she flawlessly aced Somewhere from West Side Story- easily the performance of the night, but was overshadowed by Barrino’s Porgy & Bess song Summertime- a too slow, & overemoted song that was wildly overpraised by the judges, as well as aped in online chatrooms. That London’s song was far more difficult to sing than Barrino’s had no effect on the level of feedback- the fix for Barrino was in. The judges early on decided to steer the audience opinion of her to where they wanted it to go.

  This made a villain out of the other Hawaiian in the competition- Jasmine Trias- who felt the wrath of London’s elimination. Fortunately, she did not have to endure the weeks of unjust abuse Stevens did, nor the knowledge that she did not truly belong. Although London, Hudson, DeGarmo, & Barrino had more powerful voices Trias showed the most artistry by changing song arrangements to fit her style. Ultimately, though, she entered a year or 2 too soon. She was a stunningly attractive young woman & benefited not only from the Hawaii Effect, but in picking up Velasco’s fan support. Still, she gave memorable performances of Inseparable, Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me, When I Fall In Love, & I'll Never Love This Way Again. Her departure set up the finale between Diana DeGarmo & Fantasia Barrino- the 2 singers from Group 1. While London was probably the best overall singer this year DeGarmo just had the raw talent, at 16, that made you know she will be around decades from now. Barrino, while not as good a singer, & prone to shouting, had the sass & ‘it’ thing the judges were pushing.

  Barrino’s favoritism was evident in the group of 8 round when DeGarmo dominated with a rockin’ version of I’ve Got The Music In Me while Barrino showed both her strengths & flaws in a so-so version of Something To Talk About. Through the weeks both girls had made it more than once into the bottom 3 for elimination- DeGarmo early on, & Barrino as her fan base clashed with Hudson’s & London’s. DeGarmo also was ill during the early weeks & it showed in lackluster performances of Do You Love Me, I’m Still Standing, & the infamous Celine Dion/Titanic song My Heart Will Go On. Meanwhile Barrino had solidified her frontrunner status with some good r&b performances- Signed Sealed Delivered, & I Heard It Through The Grapevine- & some really bad 1s outside of her best genres- on country night she croaked Willie Nelson’s Always On My Mind & the gospelized Manilow song It’s a Miracle. But, you could not tell that from the way the judges praised her bad renditions. She was gonna be their moneymaker, no matter. This was most evident in the overpraise for Barrino’s Summertime. The best versions of this Gershwin classic have always been the up tempo 1s, like The Zombies version in the mid-60s. The song is supposed to be about the solace 1 finds with others in suffering, but Barrino sang it bathetically.

  DeGarmo began her rise to the finals on the same week Barrino hit a low point. Her One Voice was 1 of the 2 or 3 best performances of the season. On Big Band night DeGarmo emerged as a strong challenger to Barrino’s fated coronation with a strong version of Get Happy while Barrino seriously slipped, 1st by picking a non-Big Band song by Queen, Crazy Little Thing Called Love, then butchering it. Both did well on disco night. On the penultimate show DeGarmo gave 3 strong performances, yet only got praise for her last song- Don’t Cry Out Loud, while Barrino gave 2 solid performances, including a Chain Of Fools that was nowhere near as good as Top 32 singer Charly Lowry did, & 1 real clunker- Whitney Houston’s The Greatest Love Of All- a song for which she tried to make up for her lack of power by shouting- her biggest flaw as a singer- & overemoting. Of course, these flaws were overlooked. This set up the finale on 5/25/04, with the results the next day.

  In truth, few arguments could be made that 2 good singers had not made it to the finals. There were no Guarinis nor Studdards this year, & 1st season winner Kelly Clarkson probably could not have cracked the Top 5 this year. While La Toya London should have won it this year- she had impeccable stage presence- always knowing where the camera was, DeGarmo had the most talent & potential of the Top 12, while Barrino had a good voice, but even better way of working a crowd. It seemed like it would be a close contest. While the vote was close- separated by less than 2%- artistically speaking, it was no contest. DeGarmo won in a sweep, although the show, via the judges & some odd technical problems that only seemed to inflict DeGarmo, did their best to get the outcome they desired.

  In Round 1 DeGarmo did a stellar version of a banal song penned by Tamyra Gray, which the winner will release as their 1st single. Barrino sings All My Life- a terrible song, terribly arranged that is subdued, yet screeched. It’s an odd choice because she excels at rowdy tunes. DeGarmo wins Round 1 in a walk.

  Round 2 has DeGarmo belt out her version of Donna Summer’s No More Tears. As she did on disco night she kicks ass. Barrino goes back to sing Summertime. This is the 3rd time she’s sung the song- 1st on movie night, then on a recap show. Each time she gets worse because she does not understand the song, nor does she do anything different in each rendition. Not as wide a gap as song 1, but DeGarmo’s up 2-0 & even the judges seem a little worried that she’s mopping the floor with Barrino as their comments to DeGarmo are a nervous praise, yet they fawn over Barrino, even though the song was manifestly overemoted- & more so than the 1st time.

  Round 3 shows the most overt instance of sabotage yet in the 3 years. The show knows that DeGarmo is clearly ahead. As she sings the song Don’t Cry Out Loud there are about 10 seconds where the microphone is going on & off & Diana’s sound goes kablooey. But, she rallies & really ends the song strongly by holding the last note. The judges, of course, are rough- they pick on 1 note in the middle of the song that she undersang. When Barrino does her version of Gray’s song her voice noticeably cracks on the 1st note, then about 30 seconds later. There is not even a vocal challenge in this song, the song which Diana brilliantly sung. Also, the background choir that did little for Diana is whooping up the stage as Barrino goes wild & screams. The song is almost as bad a mess as the 1st song. Not even the judges can bail her out- right? Wrong. Nothing but across the board praise. Cowell says that song was Barrino’s acceptance speech. There’s not a vocalist that would agree. It’s 3-0 DeGarmo, & 4-0 if you compare the versions of the Gray song head-to-head.

  That’s not the way the results go. Barrino, of course, wins. She could have rubbed her legs together like a cricket & the show would have crowned her. That said, she’s an improvement over last year’s Ruben Studdard, & even Kelly Clarkson. Still, she was nowhere near London nor DeGarmo as a singer- her voice was distinct- not great. So why did the judges push her even as they claimed AI a singing contest? Why did they always point to her sass or style in compliments while ignoring her actual vocals? Simple- they see her as easier to market than DeGarmo or London. If nothing else the fact that for the 2nd year in a row a lesser black singer beat out a demonstrably superior white singer should forever squelch claims of racism. While DeGarmo would adjust her style to each song Barrino made gospel songs out of almost all her songs. Why? Because she’s a very limited singer who growls when she can’t hit a note or her voice cracks, then flails her arms about. Gospel singers are taught to use power over all else- this is why Barrino & Hudson shouted & screamt all their songs & had no subtlety. It’s also why DeGarmo will have a longer & more successful career than Barrino, despite losing.

  American Idol is just about the only tv show in the last few decades that attempts to have any level of discussion about art- which is part of its appeal to me, but a recent parody show called The WB’s Superstar USA follows the AI format except they are trying to find the nation’s worst singer. They even nail AI down to their host’s parody of Ryan Seacrest’s closing phrase ‘Seacrest, Out!’ Too bad AI has started to unwittingly parody its own earlier seasons itself.

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