Monday, December 28, 2009

#5 - American Idol

It was the decade when...

An Idol was no longer a golden calf.

American Idol - A series of memories

I remember Kelly Clarkson, voice sand-papery as Tom Waits after a bender and as teary as a newly crowned beauty queen, squawking her way through the First Season's climatic ballad A Moment Like This for what felt like the 20th time. Indeed, American Idol became a new kind of Miss (or Mr.) America for the 21st century. Only bigger. Kelly Clarkson couldn't have known it when she became Idol's first reigning champ but, the show was about to change (and dominate) the music industry in the aughts, the winner all but guaranteed a one-way ticket to super-stardom. And the runner-up, in the case of the Justin Guarini (he of Sideshow Bob coiffure), a one-way ticket to total irrelevance.

I remember Clay Aiken, eliminated during prelims, getting the chance to redeem himself as a wild card selection by singing Elton John's Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me, nailing every note and giving Idol one of its greatest, and cheesiest, performances ever. Somewhere Barry Manilow was smiling. Clay would go on to win America's heart but lose the competition. Ruben Studdard, a performer whose repertoire of gestures while performing consisted of a numerous ONE. (Smile earestly, Place hand to heart, then reach out. Keep smiling) took the top spot. Clay, you were robbed. But it's OK because now you're a big happy gay daddy.

I remember Fantasia (easily the best name for a pop star since Madonna), acting like she had already won the competition, sitting down stage center, delivering George Gershwin's Summertime with more soul than any American Idol contestant had ever before or would ever again. When the single mother took the prize later on in the season, it all just felt like a bygone conclusion. Fantasia remains, despite her lack of mega-selling records, at once the rawest and most polished talent Idol has discovered.

I remember Dunkleman. Sorta. Do you?

I remember William Hung, a man who did the impossible. From an ocean of horrible auditions - a veritable smorgasbord of delusional losers, attention hungry pranksters, ostentatiously costumed narcissists, and mentally unstable psychos - one man sunk so low he reached new heights. William Hung, performing the now definitive rendition of Ricky Martin's She Bangs at his American Idol audition, was so atrociously awful, so deliciously inappropriate, so the opposite of talented, that the "singer" became nothing short of a celebrity in his own right. Public appearances followed, as did a record deal. Some of Idol's top 10 contestants can't boast that. Was Hung a performance artist whose act demonstrated a deconstructionist critique on the concept of "talent" and "fame?" Or maybe he was just the kid in the class who didn't know that he was being made fun of. Probably the latter. Hung, alas, dropped out of UCBerkeley to pursue his music career. The Grammys have not been forthcoming. Hung's fame brings to the fore one of Idol's most troubling elements: its cruel, (admittedly) hilarious, and ethically dubious audition process. Sure, many of the show's more over-the-top wanna-bes are cognizant enough to realize the nature of the dog and pony show that they are about to put themselves through. Many court the shame. But a great swath of the contestants appear truly convinced of their own aptitude for Pop stardom, only to be laughed out of the room by the judge's panel (and, through extension, by America). These individuals, often decidedly void of social skills and marginally disturbed, are paraded in front of a snide and salivating public who, eager to gawk at the freaks, live vicariously through the judge's caustic and dismissive remarks. William Hung was a success story of a sort I suppose. To call it a triumph of mediocrity would give Hung too much credit. Perhaps his narrative is more a revenge of the un-gifted. And, like most revenge, it's ultimately unsatisfying. And so we are left with question: Who was this joke on anyway? Hung? Or us?

I remember "nice judge" Paula Abdul promoting Idol on Seattle local news, sounding like she had spent the morning doing body shots to help the Quaaludes go down easier. She was rarely more coherent on the show.

I remember Melinda Doolittle singing like a superstar week after week and then, maddeningly, acting as demure as some virginal giesha during her interactions with the judges. Having misplaced her neck week after week, Doolittle nonetheless consistently displayed utter showmanship with her full-throttle, highly focused and vocally controlled performances. To make My Funny Valentine tolerable to hear yet again is an achievement. To make it one of the best performances in Idol history? That's a miracle. Her Achilles's heel: the girl couldn't take a compliment. It's hard for America to put you on a pedestal if you act like a doormat. She was voted off before the finals.

I remember Simon and Ryan, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g. Just kidding. I mean, that's silly. I mean, it's not like they are making homophobic gay innuendos at each other all the time or anything. I mean, not on a show that only featured an (kinda) openly gay contestant in its most recent season. I mean, nah, they would never kiss, in a tree or elsewhere. I mean, that would just be gay.

I remember Sanjaya's hair. We must all worship Sanjaya's hair. A pompadour of endless mutability, the skinny Indian boy's one-of-a-kind coiffure gave a far better performance on Idol than the singer did, Sanjaya himself being Idol's worst top-10 contestant in the show's history. But the hair, that was a thing of beauty. A piece of modern art to be displayed in a museum and pondered over. Or perhaps vacuum sealed and dissected in a lab. Or maybe pickled and left in the catacombs of a church the way they do the rotting appendages of Saints. The locks of Mr. Malakar are a national treasure and must be preserved!

I remember some blond boy bursting out into strange popping noises in the middle of his song. Trying to bring a unique spin to his performances Blake Lewis utilized his mad skillz as a beat boxer on America Idol in the biggest effort yet to turn the art form into a mainstream trend. And the boy was good. Since Blake's second-place finish, the results have not been promising; Beat Boxing remains a fringe music style. Were all of Blake's efforts for naught? Not really. There are some consolations to be had. For example, everyone knows who you're talking about when you reference "that beat-box guy."

And finally, I remember Adam Glambert, who, employing the magic of eye liner, black hair dye and vocal cords of indestructible carbon microfiber (well, one assumes) gave artistically limping American Idol (Lambert would have eaten the previous season's runner up, Bop! magazine ready David Archuleta, for breakfast) a shot of pure Ziggy Stardust-quality. Deeply anachronistic, Lambert's theatrical, glam-rock persona was a throwback to a musical era of high artifice, ambiguous sexuality, and musical experimentation. Perhaps this is the reason that, despite the consistently brilliant performances delivered by the leather lunged rock n' roller, the more palatable, "good 'ol Southern boy," Kris Allen ended up snatching the prize away from Glambert's black fingernailed hands. America's tastes remain guarded. David Cook, that's edgy. Adam Lambert, that's full on Studio 54 territory. But Kris Allen's victory was Pyrrhic; since the finale the media coverage has been focused not on the apple-cheeked winner but on his flamboyant runner-up.

You AUGHT to remember.


  1. How do you write an article about American Idol's influence on popular culture and not mention Jennifer Hudson? She won a damn OSCAR.

  2. I was just listing the prominent memories of the show that popped into my head. Very subjective I know. But I do love me some Jennifer Hudson.