Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Atrocity This Week

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

Maybe the worst "American Idol" live show in history, after two weeks that were strong contenders for the same title. Can we get an apology somewhere? Can one of the eight guys named "Nigel" who are strong silent profit-sharers in this venture come out and say they totally went overboard trying to "fix" the format? Last season might have seen the ratings dip a little bit, but it's an eight-year-old show and it still utterly crushes all other programming this time of year. How could "Idol" offer us the tease of so many interesting singer/musicians (as opposed to witless divas) and then not allow them to play an instrument in their stage debuts?

The judges' comments last night to Scott MacIntyre more or less made it clear that instruments were not allowed in the semifinals, not that that ever was explained to the viewing audience. That could have made a huge difference in the voting, as voters might have reacted to poor performances by Stephen Fowler or Nathaniel Marshall without their instruments by recalling their bits in the Hollywood auditions and giving them a sympathy boost. "Idol" loves to change the rules without disclosing what's really going on -- look at last-minute semifinalist Felicia Barton. Her intro clip and the judges were effervescent describing her miracle re-entry into the semifinals after being sent home from Hollywood. Trouble is, they were each trying clumsily to hide the real story, which is that Joanna Pacitti was sent packing for having too many insider connections for comfort. Why not just say so? Why give annoying, tried-and-found-wanting Joanna a shot in the first place?

The producers want Kelly Clarkson, every year. They want someone who's a winner in both the "Idol" popularity contest and on the pop charts. Yet, they also want to get the maximum number of eyes tuned to every "Idol" telecast. So there's all the storyline stuff, blind guy, homeless girl, dead wife, teen mom. And then there's still Lil Rounds and Adam Lambert, upon whom the marketing people have zeroed in as potential crossover smashes, getting the best slots and frothing adoration from the crooked judges. As for all the people in the middle, modestly talented singers with their own lives and stories and personalities, the show just doesn't care. And that's why it's so bad this year -- no one is making any effort to make every contestant the best they can be.

The producers aren't even trying with the gigantic light cues and audience reaction shots. The judges are hammering away at all the people we haven't seen much of even though there's absolutely nothing any of them could have done to control the editing of the early shows. And the effort level from the band has been the worst inconsistency -- when it counts, when the pressure's on from upstairs, they still rock like few else in the land, but for the Alex Wegner-Trugmans of the world, it seems like they're mailing it in more blatantly than Paula's short-term memory.

But the wild card show could be potentially redeeming, with big personalities like Tatiana and Norman Gentle possibly on tap and real talent like Anoop Desai and Jesse Langseth deserving of a second shot. And then this stupid misbegotten semifinal round will be over and perhaps we can move into a Final 12 season that will be borderline watchable. Well, we're probably all going to get really sick of Adam and Lil. But at least when the finals begin we'll have people who presumably aren't total simpering morons making the song choices, and that'll be a massive improvement.

Tuesday's show was pretty devastatingly bad, almost as bad as Brooke White's original lyrics, so we're going to move quickly this week so I don't have to think about it any longer than I have to. Song choice wasn't the issue this time out -- simply put, there wasn't enough talent to fill out a field of 36, and most of the dregs winded up in this 12. There was no right song for most of this group.

Von Smith His pointy hair makes him look like a "Dragonball Z" character, or a vampire with a soul. He's charming and self-possessed but his voice is reedy and thin and in picking "All I Need to Get By" he elected to go the course of lame karaoke Stevie impersonation. The band managed to take that monster hook, sampled about a billion times, and sand off the edges until it sounded like elevator music. And this was an above-average performance by the standards of the semifinals thus far. 6

Taylor Vaifanua Hmm, Samoan name, hails from Utah... what are the odds she has a brother or cousin who played offensive line for BYU, like one in one? Every year they put through a brace of pretty, ethnic teen girls and while there's an exception (Jordin Sparks) to every rule they're nearly always useless under the bright lights. Taylor picked "If I Ain't Got You," another one of those songs that should be retired from "Idol" usage for the sake of any of us ever enjoying the original recordings again. I was steadying myself for a complete train wreck when she got to the challenging, higher-octave chorus section but Taylor simplified things for herself by just not going up. She showed a bit of feeling for the song and sounded okay in places but boy there were a lot of flubs for a song subjected to such a difficulty-compromising arrangement. 5

Alex Wegner-Trugman Alex seems like old news, a big nerd with a little bit of a voice who takes bad turns graciously and would be a riot to take to tea with your grandmother. "Idol" kind of worked its way through the possibilities of this archetype in its early seasons and having determined that they don't win the big prize or sell lots of albums, we've seen its kind less recently. Simon seemed bored with Alex to the degree of rudeness Tuesday, but you can sort of feel where he's coming from. Wegner-Trugman's interpretation of "I Guess That's What It Means to Fall in Love" was part ghastly Elton impersonation and part whale call. I feel a little tiny bit bad for him because I think during the grind of the auditions and the long wait for the third week of the semis he was completely adrift as to what was expected of him. Isn't it the duty of the judges and the producers to feed these kids a hook they can use? 3

Arianna Afsar See what I mean about these ethnic teens? Arianna is a better singer than Taylor but she displayed an equal lack of intelligence about how best to display her gifts. She picked ABBA's "Winner Takes All," and selecting a 30-year-old song succeeded in making her sound at least 40. She had an unfortunate tendency to get to a peak and let loose with a whole scale of notes one after the other, save the one root she was actually supposed to be hitting. Sometimes her showy instincts paid off, because she's got range and some chops, but she was also terribly out of touch with the melody or simply out of key a good bit of the time as well. I think she's another very good example of a singer who might have grown into her talent a bit more under the old format. 7

Ju'Not Joyner This wasn't the song-choice apocalypse that the last two weeks were, but there was still space in the evening's program for a doozy or two. Likable Ju'Not immediately blew any chances he had of being remembered beyond this week with a slow-jam re-imagining of a sucktastic emo ballad. That's just dumb. I guess you give him credit for the imagination, but if you take brain-dead lyrics and a facile melody and give them an urban feel... they're still what they were. Lipstick on a pig, as they say. Besides, by picking a song with a melody a tracheotomy patient could sing, he didn't give himself a rich enough field for his numerous improvisations. When he left the written melody, he lost pitch more often than not. He picked a song that was too simple, and then he compounded his mistake by taking an unrestrained approach to showing off all of the many, many notes in his range that were not related to the melody of the song. 6

Kristen McNamara The misbegotten decision to go back to a field of 36 semifinalists hides its real malice in proportions. If there were 24 this year, and specifically one group of 12 girls, how many of them would be highly sexually attractive with absolutely no musical ability whatsoever? Maybe two or three. But there's got to be like nine in this field of 36, and it's obnoxious. Save us from the package artists! Kristen did Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason," which is a great song but as a straightforward blues doesn't offer a lot of range challenges to the aspiring "Idol" diva. McNamara let the band speed the song up to the degree that she and the audience lost all feeling for it, mumbled until the last thirty seconds or so, and then just started slaughtering notes left and right in an attempt to build to a climax. A brutal and random technical performance. Mostly when "Idol" semifinalists go bad it's one persistent problem that does them in, whether it's being a touch flat, being unable to hold the microphone at a consistent distance, or having no luck negotiating sudden jumps in pitch. Kristen kind of went around the world in musical errors and let's leave it to the numerical score to represent that. 2

Nathaniel Marshall Wow, that was unexpected. We've seen great stuff and terrible stuff from the camera-friendly Nathaniel, who has theatrical instincts that grate and an uncommon, opposing touch as a guitar-strumming folkie that he should really be emphasizing. Nathaniel did "I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)," by Meat Loaf, and it was one of the more awkward performances of the young season. "Idol" has always had an tortured relationship with camp -- it's a big part of the show's appeal, but the judges don't know how to discuss it comfortably. There's always at least one semifinalist who's a clearly gay teenage male, but we're not allowed to acknowledge it or discuss it. Which is weird, since the judges don't have any problem telling young contestants to sing younger songs or black contestants to sing blacker songs. It would have helped the judges if this unofficial gag rule on any discussion of homosexuality didn't exist, because any discussions of Nate's "Anything for Love" has to begin with the wildly context-inappropriate subtext. Gay-seeming teen sings "I Would Do Anything for Love" on national TV, in a broadly campy style? Yikes, I thought the big voting bloc was older women, not dirty old men. I don't know for sure that Marshall is gay, but making a Meat Loaf song into a Eurodisco Richard Simmons exercise number is a pretty loud indicator. Coming back around to my point, it's not quite fair that other contestants can receive helpful criticism when it comes to measuring out the elements of their personalities that go a long way in small doses. The judges should be able to tell somebody like Marshall to dial the camp back while affirming that his unaffected personality, with its camp elements, is the secret to his appeal in the first place. Instead they just stammer and equivocate and it's bad television. Marshall's performance, finally, was not good. Most of the major notes were flat. Too many of the "Idol" hopefuls with a background in high school theater think that being really loud is the same thing as being in key, which it isn't. 4

Felicia Barton Last-minute sub Barton was clearly the most desperate singer on the stage, which didn't hurt. Three weeks of lounging around being in photo shoots and having stylists dress you and do your hair can lead to complacency, as way too many semifinal also-rans have found. Barton and the band didn't quite synch up, but we don't know how much (or how little) practice they had beforehand. In any event the technical hitches, which were few, didn't mask the fact that Felicia is talented and was singing her guts out. On an evening where most of her peers seemed bemused or shell-shocked, that stood out brightly. 8

Scott MacIntyre Give the poor guy his piano back, you jerks! I am growing fonder and fonder of sightless Scott, who seemed like a gimmick in his first appearance. He has an imperfect voice, but rare passion, and there's a quality to his vocals that sucks you in and makes you want to hear more. He had pitch issues on his "Mandolin Road" and I wondered if part of that wasn't due to his being preoccupied with not falling off the smallish "Idol" stage. How are you going to make a blind guy stand up and dance around, "Idol" producers? Have you no shame? MacIntyre profiles as a 70's throwback pop folksinger, not really in the pocket for "American Idol," but if he gets back to his keyboard, watch out. 7

Kendall Beard Kendall's marketability is obvious. She's got the figure, and she's got a sound (Radio Disney meets country) like cash registers ringing. Too bad she sucks. Her falsetto was scratchy and atonal and the big finish was cringe-inducing. I don't have anything else to say about Beard, except that if there's really a wave of overproduced Nashville pop marketed to tweens coming, we have to do everything in our power to stop it. 3

Jorge Nuñez Stealing Anoop's role as the all vocals, no fuss thinking person's candidate, Jorge's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" was huge. His performance didn't imitate at all, but he didn't try and rewrite the melody either. He has a very robust voice for a little, unassuming guy. He picked his spots to embellish very well. He also has very lovable eyebrows. It seemed completely obvious to me that he was the class of a deeply crappy show and I wonder whether the voting will reflect it. If it does we could see six guys, three girls as finalists going into the wild card next week. That's bad news for the original Anoop. 9

Lil Rounds I wasn't feeling it from Lil, who needs to be held to a much higher standard since the producers have done everything short of sewing and presenting to her a little "Our Favorite" sampler. On this night she was a giant among pygmies in terms of pure talent, but her "Be Without You" was too much coloring within Mary J.'s lines and too little O.G. Lil. For someone who carries herself with such confidence, you'd think Rounds would have developed a vocal style that wasn't cloned from Blige's swoops, rhythmic idiosyncrasies, and heavy breathing. Mary J. Blige is hard to imitate too, since her style draws upon rap in the way her vocals are often heavily syncopated and distinctively phrased. It's hard to match her style, and it's pretty much impossible to match it well without just sounding like a tribute act. During the early section, the one with the most "hip-hop soul," Lil had a lot of pitch problems. She also had noise problems on the mic the whole way through. She's 100% safe but it would be nice if anybody would challenge her ascendency in the very least. 7

Lil, Jorge, and Scott are my predictions for the leading vote-getters. Felicia as a wild card, absolutely -- she was miles better than Lil last night, not that the producers want you to realize that. Crazy stuff could happen with the wild card show if it's really 2:1 guys going in there.


  1. How you like me now: Lil, Jorge, and Scott were the leading vote-getters. Wild cards announced Wednesday: Jesse Langseth, Megan Corkrey, Matt Giraud, Tatiana, Anoop, Jasmine, Ricky, and Von. Couple of richly deserved choices there (Ricky, Anoop, Jesse, thank you), a few talentless babes (Jasmine, Megan), and the made-for-television resurrection of the combustible Tatiana. Matt Giraud doesn't deserve a second chance after his hopelessly stupid Coldplay dance and Von Smith is dullsville. I hope just for the sake of the wild card show the judges put Nick Mitchell back in for an over-the-top Norman Gentle swan song. Felicia seems like an obvious choice and I'm also continuing to wave the flag for Stephen. The field is male-dominated already but the other person I would really like to see sing again is Nathaniel, this time with a guitar and not a headband.

  2. I think it's only the eight from last night who make the wild card which has to mean Tatiana got the 4th highest votes from week 1, I don't know from week 2, and Von Smith from Week 3 (he was the only week 3 wildcard). I don't believe for a moment that the judges selected Tatiana. Great call on Jesse Langseth btw.

  3. And it is a shame that it seems like Felicia Barton gets the short stick again. I don't see why the wild card couldn't also be 12 people competing.