Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Idol" Year 8: Now Double the Number of Fortysomething Women Dressed Like Hookers

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

I started watching "Idol" with the Hollywood show of Season 6, and I've caught every single one since -- except for the audition rounds from last year. I can't believe they pimp these brutal freak shows out for three entire weeks, six episodes of glass-shattering screeching and fruit loops in bunny suits. Can this really be most "Idol" fans' favorite part of the season?

I watched all the audition shows this year for the first time. Couple of reasons: My girlfriend is interested in the show now after watching me watch it last season, and it's a lot more fun to try and predict what's going to happen with the various hopefuls when there's someone else there with whom to debate and disagree. Kara DioGuardi, the new fourth judge added in the hope of counterbalancing Paula Abdul's pill-crazed ramblings and Randy Jackson's limited range of expressions, is an unknown quantity who could factor into changing the strategy for the real singers once we get into the competition proper. So it's worth tuning in early to try and get a good bead on her. It doesn't hurt that she's easy on the eyes, dresses like Paris Hilton, and can sing better than nearly anyone who's ever been on the show, guest celebrities included. And then a third reason I suppose is that I don't have anything much else to do with my time.

Some cursory research reveals that there is in fact another audition show on tonight. I'll probably watch it, but I'm not going to feel too bad about wrapping up a single post about the three audition weeks all at once right now. The trouble with these episodes, and the reason I've spurned them in past years, is because they have little to no relation to everything that comes afterwards. The two principal types of sequence that run during the "American Idol" audition shows are the meltdowns, the people that are so unspeakably, unself-consciously bad that it makes your skin crawl, and the pity parties. The first are the show's signature hook, even if in the eighth season there's hardly anything any auditioner can do to surprise. Maybe take a dump in front of the judges. That would definitely get you on TV. I'm too old to audition now, but if any of you kids out there decide to use it, please give me credit.

The producers, to their credit, have moved around the ratio of freaks to gems this season. And there's been a concerted effort to keep the lame self-promoters out of the picture; more of the brutal singers this year have been Chauncey Gardener types with absolutely no self-awareness. This makes the show less painful to watch although a little less interesting; a lot of the blue-note brigade have wandered through, done their thing, then exited with no tears and no friction.

It's goofy, and it shows how far my perceptions of "Idol" differ from the producers' ideas of what the viewers most want to see, how we can get all the way to the first semifinal show without having heard several of those semifinalists sing a note. Often at the end of the hour overmoussed paperweight Ryan Seacrest will announce that 15 people got a ticket to Hollywood, and we'll have seen four of them. If they're cutting out the mutants, and they're not increasing the number of contenders, what's taking up all that time? Well, it's treacle, of course! And a lot of it! If you could halfway carry a tune and suffered from some hardship like being blind, homeless, or Donny Osmond's nephew, your pass through to the next round was a done deal.

This is not only annoying and manipulative, it's also likely to decrease the quality of the competition. From the few people I've spoken to who've actually done the whole audition thing, the handlers outside and the pre-screeners who listen to a few bars from each person in line before sending a select few to the TV judges cut off sending people who can actually sing after a certain point. They only need a handful of really good singers from each city anyway. Then they focus in on the folks who are telegenic and/or tragically unfortunate in some way or another. This process, obviously, keeps the very best 150 singers available from reaching Hollywood. But at the very least picking goofy people to get face time with Simon and company doesn't further dilute the pool by taking away very limited opportunities from potential winners and giving them to poorer singers who happen to have critically ill mothers.

It's no secret that I'm a weird Luddite crank who only listens to vinyl records and thinks music peaked sometime around 1978 (two years before I was born, alas). Since I usually start tuning into "Idol" right when the singers begin performing with accompanists, I was surprised by my thoughts listening to all of these a capella renderings of tunes from all over the past 50 years. Whatever happened to melody? Hip-hop's overtaking of R&B has led to all these rhythm-heavy tracks where the vocalist sing-speaks on a single note, occasionally venturing out for a tritone. This has even bled over into rock. Is "American Idol" secretly saving rock music by introducing guys like David Cook and Chris Daughtry who can actually sing a little? Not to mention reviving all of these great melodies from years past. And, my goodness, instrumental support by live musicians! The other guys in my band think it's kind of ludicrous that I watch and enjoy "American Idol," but unless they're more full of themselves than the average "Idol" crooner, I think most musicians would enjoy the show. The balance that the contestants have to find -- between pushing their technical talents to the limit and exploring their artistic and creative identities -- is on a smaller scale the same yin and yang with which we garage rockers must contend.

In a roundabout way, I just pinned down exactly what it is I hate about the audition shows. The balance between chops and style, years of hard work and a moment's inspiration, all that stuff that keeps me playing until my fingers are sore, is completely absent. The question in the auditions is: Are you a real musician? I'm not super interested in that question because I already know how I would answer. But then put 24 (36 this year!) real talented, committed vocalists in a pool and ask: Who's the best musician? That's interesting.


  1. Is it just me or is the talent pool severely lacking this year? There have been a handful of head-turners they've shown, but overall it seems that half of the ones they've said yes to were borderline at best.

    Plus, the pseudo-drama is out of control this year. They seem to have something bad to say about everyone they let through and they milk that one comment to make you think they might not make it. Just show us more freak shows and stop stretching out the few good ones that come through.

  2. There's yet another reason to ignore the audition rounds. They don't even SHOW the really good singers unless they have a good backstory or inspire the judges to do something silly. Kelly Clarkson, I believe, was not shown at any point during the first season's audition shows.

  3. Mark, I always enjoy your Idol recaps, as you have a more critical ear than I for picking up both good and bad elements. Glad to hear you plan to continue doing them.

  4. I watched the New York/Puerto Rico compound train wreck. After that I watched the original Japanese "Pulse," and the former was the one I had to pause more often because I was too terrified to continue.

    After seven entire episodes, I can't think of a single contestant who stood out to the degree that I bothered to make a note of their names. I can think of a few people we're likely to see crumble and burn in Hollywood (that whiny guy with the Havana hat seems a good candidate for this year's Jonathan Leming), but not many I expect to see soar.

    Last year people were allowed to audition initially with instruments; this year they have to sing unaccompanied at the outset but then can use instruments in the Hollywood round. So it's possible we haven't really seen the true personalities of a big chunk of the forming cast. All indicators are they want more David Cooks and fewer Taylor Hickses (meaning musicians who appeal to the age group that actually buys records, as opposed to 60-year-old women) and that means we're going to see a good number of guitar and piano players in the semifinal field.

  5. I thought they were only allowed to use instruments once they got to Hollywood last year - am I remembering incorrectly?

    I'm looking forward to whatever camera time they give the flamboyant performance artist type guy, he's a crack-up.

  6. Well, I forgot Josiah Leming's name, so I guess I could have misremembered that too.