Sunday, March 06, 2011

American Idol: The Danger of Nice

It’s great for Robbie Rosen and Thia Megia and Stefano Langone and most of the other top 24 contestants on American Idol this season that the judges are so cuddly and generous and nice. It’s good for their parents, who must be so proud! It’s good for their home towns and their high schools and their friends and their teachers. It maybe even be good for ratings. But it’s not good for me, and it’s not good for any discerning viewer over the age of twelve. It may not be the show’s fault directly that so little real originality was on view this week – maybe America has just drained its talent pool. Or perhaps a whole generation of kids has grown up watching the show and groomed themselves –without even knowing it – to sound like the songbots of pervious years. I watched all the good looking., bland banal girls hitting their duly appointed high notes last night, and making their approved performance gestures (throw head back, arms up in the air, reach out to the judges), and started to nod off. The mental dissonance began when Tyler and Lopez lavished praise on these competent but mediocre singers. They reminded me of an indulgent aunt Minnie and uncle Max after a high school production of “Hello Dolly”. “You were wonderful, darling. You remembered all the words!” My own hometown high school ‘stars’ occasionally make the trek to New York and get the caustic wake-up call when they go to their first audition and everyone there was the star of their own high school’s drama club or glee club and everyone is more talented and better looking than they are. The hometown bubble of praise pops pretty fast.

Now for some reason, Lopez and Tyler are trying to create that same delusional sealed chamber where no germ of reality can invade and infect the young egos on parade. Well, here’s what a New York casting director – or the much missed Simon Cowell – would say: “That was dreadful. I could have heard that level of singing at karaoke bar in America. That wads cruise ship performance.” Or, my favorite Cowell-ism, ever: “If it was a thousand years ago, they would have stoned you to death.”

It’s all very dispiriting. That Randy Jackson has become the critical hard-ass of the panel tells the whole story. I understand that the stars remember their own struggles and want to ease the path for the kids. But that doesn’t work and good intentions backfire when they run headfirst into the cinder block wall of reality. No matter how nice J-Lo is to these hapless children, half of them are going home tonight, and it’s for the best.

But Randy’s constant theme, that the singer lack originality, leads me back to the few glints of hope that showed through the cracks of poor song choices and abrasive band music this week. There actually are some original talents on view this year – enough for a top five or six. Part of what made them look good was the music they worked with. Most of the kids picked tuneless, cliché ridden songs that could have been produced on the Versificator – the Ministry of Truth song writing machine in George Orwell’s 1984 that recombines musical and lyrical boilerplate to churn out popular songs for the proles.

So without further ado, here are the paltry few authentic talents to watch this year, if you have the grit to endure all the over-hyped tedium.

Jacob Lusk – bald, black, overweight, with a fabulous voice and bizarre speech impediment and enough soul for the whole season. He may be this year’s Ruben Studdard.

Scotty McCreery – He may look like Alfred E, Newman, but he sings like Johnny Cash. His compelling bass voice is charged with something rare on Idol: he seems to actually understand the lyrics.

That’s it for the guys, so far, though my jury is still out on a couple of them (Paul McDonald, Casey Abrams, Clint Gun Jamboa).

Three girls made my cut:

Lauren Alaina – she’s sixteen and looks forty, which is bizrarre. But she’s alive on stage and she’s fun to watch – a high priority in the sleepwalking arena presided over by an increasingly desperate and chirtpy Ryan Seacrest.

Lauren Turner – she’s the only girl on the show not picked at least in part for her looks. But she teaches the same lesson we’ve learned from singers as diverse as Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin and Idol’s own Fantasia Barrino: the voice – and the personality behind it – are all that matters.

Finally my favorite –

Haley Reinhart: She has a real singer’s voice with a seductive growl in the lower registers, she can move on stage without resembling a marionette, and she has heart. She feels the song and manages to put that connection across so you feel it, too. She could win it all – this year’s Crystal Bowersox. Or she could be eliminated tonight. That happens on American Idol all the time – the most talented kids get voted off in favor of someone who appeals to twelve year olds in Kansas.

Oh well – at least there’s a few people to root for this year. The show lives and dies by the talent it manages to unearth. That they discovered five good singers this year is an accomplishment all by itself.

Last year they only found one.


Illuminated Manuscripts: The Survival of Print

I dreamed I was reading a book last night.

I mean, an actual book, with creamy linen pages and some gorgeous type-face (not a font!) -- Century Schoolbook? Garamond? -- inked deeply into the grain. The cracked leather cover and the silk endpapers made me think of some other lifetime, some other world, but the smell of the hand-stitched binding was straight out of my childhood: old summer houses on rainy August afternoons. The book was Huckleberry Finn. After reading an essay discussing Twain’s masterpiece on the Numero Cinq website the day before, I had downloaded a copy to my Nook, to refresh my memory. Just ninety nine cents! But in my dream it was an actual tome I was reading. I liked the weight of it on my chest, I liked the rough edges (I had to cut them myself). I liked the act of turning each page, the rustle of the paper in the quiet room. It was like dreaming about a lost lover. I woke up with intense feelings of nostalgia and loss.

I’ve definitely been reading e-books for too long. And it’s only been six months.

Perhaps my dream had another source: my daughter Caity called me yesterday. I gave her a Nook for Christmas, loaded with Admission, by Jean Hanff Korelitz, among other books. I had bought the novel -- about a Princeton admission officer whose child, given up for adoption, is applying to the school – and gave it away to one of my mother’s friends, who was on-island for Mom’s 90th birthday celebration. I downloaded the book onto my Kindle and kept reading: a win-win … for me, for my Mom’s friend, and – most importantly -- for Ms. Korelitz and her publisher. Caity is reading the book now, and wants to share it with one of her friends. She’s frustrated. You can share a book on an e-reader, if your friend happens to have a compatible e-reader (not a Kobo or a Sony, in this case) … but it’s not the same. I’ve read articles recently mourning the death of the book, stalwart of western culture since Guttenberg, imagining worst-case scenarios where whole libraries could be deleted from internet servers, never to be seen again. Those paranoid fantasies seemed a little far-fetched, but I wasn’t sure why.

Now I understand.

Publishing has always been sustained by people who love books, That seems obvious, but there’s a whole population of book consumers who care only for story, for the what-happens-next, chomp-chomp, pac-man consumption of plot. I read the books written for that audience – okay, fine, I am that audience. But I don’t need the novels of Michael Connelly, Lee Child, and Stephen Hunter (to name the elite), physical slabs of paper and glue and cardboard, cluttering up my house. Their books are fun, but let’s face it -- ultimately, they’re disposable. The Kindle and Nook, the Kobo and iPad will save many trees, as thriller consumers switch to digital reading machines.

But there are other books, novels written for people who love sentences and paragraphs, characters and settings, every bit as much as the enjoy the comfortable machinery of plot. Books like Huckleberry Finn, and books like Admission. I wasn’t sure what to tell Caity about her e-book lending problem, but thinking about a similar moment in my own life clarified things for me. I loaned out my hardcover copy of The Short History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier to my sister-in-law on the same day that I downloaded Brockmeier’s new novel The Illumination onto my Nook. It was a seemingly trivial coincidence, and it sparked a minor epiphany. I realized that I would probably love The Illumination as much as I had loved the last novel, as much as I loved Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics (Which I just finished reading on my Kindle), and because I loved those books I would always want to possess them physically, as I had possessed Twain’s book in my dream, and watch their pages oxydize over time, and stare at them on my shelves, and pull them down to look up some line for an essay or an argument, and lend them out to my friends, without permission from anyone, including

Book lovers love the precious objects, the hand-made artifacts themselves. That’s what will rescue and preserve realm of print. I will buy copies of the books I love just to hold them in my hand, and so will my daughter and so will all the millions of people just like us who have kept the sublime fetish of the physical book alive since Celtic monks created the first illuminated a manuscript, twelve hundred years ago.

The best part? It’s a capitalist dream of avarice – people buying more books, not less, enriching writers and publishers and flooding the world with text, with images and characters and situations evoked by unique sensibilities, in every format imaginable, forever.

It sounds like Utopia, to me (And I just downloaded it for free on my Kindle: Utopia, by Saint Thomas More). The best of all possible worlds! (I just downloaded Candide, also – 99 cents!).

Volaire might say I sound a little too much like Pangloss, but time will tell.

Joe Turner, Nigger Jim And the "N" Word

This morning in The New York Times, I read that a Connecticut high school's production of August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone may be cncelled because the characters use the "N" word. This comes directly on the heels of a new edition of Huckleberry Finn, which changes the word to "slave" Of course, Jim isn't a slave. That's the whole point. But in the headlong rush to offend no one, minor issuies like sense and style don't matter.

I had my own run-in with this absurd form of cultural dementia several years ago. The Theater Workshopof Nantucket was putting on an 'armchair theater' version of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes, another drama in which the word 'nigger' appears often -- this time spoken by white racists as a hateful epithet, rather than by African Americans as a term of endearment, as in the Wilson play. I refused to go along with the proposed revisions. A farcical bit of cultural warfare ensued, and a mousy young woman who watched the whole fracas went home and wrote an outraged letter to the local paper, calling me a racist.

My reply:

To the Editors:

I have to respond to Martina Morrow’s letter in your February 10th issue, in which she refers to “A man fighting with an African American woman because she felt uncomfortable with him using racially derogatory words.”

The man was me. The comment is totally out of con text and deceptive. It’s worth discussing because Ms. Morrow’s response represents so much of what is wrong in America today – the liberal guilt and “politically correct” thinking that allowed – among other outrages -- the elevation of Clarence Thomas to the position of Supreme Court Justice nine years ago.

The incident in question took place during a rehearsal for an arm-chair theatre reading of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. This play takes place in the deep south one hundred years ago. The characters – almost without exception hateful, selfish and venal – use the terminology common to their time and place. This includes the “N” word that Ms. Morrow refers to. In the midst of the reading, an African American woman in the cast informed the director and everyone else that she would not tolerate such language “in this day and age”. The fact that the language she objected to actually defined despicable characters as evil did not register with her. She sat for a few minutes allowing various cast members to suggest alternatives which ranged from “negroes” to “workers”. I finally asked her what her suggestion might be. “Black would be acceptable,” she said. I mentioned that the word was not even in use in 1900, and indeed would have been considered insulting at that point in time. “Then we should do a different play,” she answered.

The incipient fascism of this comment startled me, but I said nothing. I didn’t ask what plays she would find acceptable, or what punishments she would favor for those who violated her ideas of proper expression. Clearly everyone else in the room – including Ms. Morrow – was intimidated. They did not want to seem racist. When Clarence Thomas called the confirmation hearings a “lynching”, the white Senators had much the same reaction, and refused to call the other women who were more than willing to verify Anita Hill’s accusations.

“We’ll use the term black,” the director told us, and so the reading began.

Half way into the third act I had a speech, which included the “N” word. So I said it. I didn’t say it because I’m racist. I said it because I respect the text. As actors, that is our first obligation. But I also said it because Lillian Hellman once declared, “I will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions” and I knew she would be appalled by our capitulation to this bully.

The lady was furious. Despite the fact that the director assured her that her revision of the play would stand, she stalked out in self-righteous fury. She did not leave that room because there were racists present. She left because someone disagreed with her.

In a small New England town we have reached the point where it is forbidden to argue with an African American woman. That’s unfortunate, because in this case the African American woman was wrong.

But the fault doesn’t lie with her. The fault lies with our educational system, which allows and even fosters such ignorance. One can’t help thinking of Huckleberry Finn and the efforts to ban that book from public schools all across America. Why? Because Huck’s friend was referred to as “Nigger Jim”. So the first full-blooded and complex black character in our whole literature was banished from our school libraries because of an offensive word.

That is the true racism.

I was fighting it that night, and I will continue to do so.

Ms. Morrow – despite her good intentions -- cannot make the same statement. She’s part of the problem and she has no idea why, any more than Senators Joseph Biden and Arlen Specter did in the Clarence Thomas hearings.

And that’s the real tragedy of this incident.

Nothing has changed since I wrote that letter. While school boards twist themselves into knots about performing a classic American play, "Birthers" who hate Obama for the color of his skin (not the content of his character) continue their crussade, and the anniversary of the the South's treasonous attempt at seccession is celebrated like the Fourth Of July, south of the Mason Dixon line.

I say perform August Wilson and Lillian Hellman, use the word niggerand over-use it, until we sueeze the poison out of it and we can stop posturing and treat each other as the flawed hapless striving primates that we are. That process begins by looking at the things we've done and the words we use, and not looking away.

Then, if possible, let's try to act as Huck does , even though he's been told that helping a nigger will ensure his eternal damnation:

I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
"All right, then, I'll GO to hell."

I hope I'd have the guts to follow you, Huck.

I don't think your new editor would, and I doubt the members of the Waterbury Connecticut Board of Education would, either.

As Huck says, "It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race."

American Idol, Ten Years Later

I’ve spent the better part of a decade defending American Idol. At first, I described it as a ‘guilty pleasure’, but I soon realized there was nothing to be guilty about. With the tenth season about to begin, it struck me as a good moment to explain just what has kept me watching it, all these years.

There were only six kids left in the competition when I discovered American Idol in the summer of 2002, towards the end of the first season. I happened on the show by chance, clicking through the channels on a sluggish Tuesday night. There wasn’t much else to watch and the show – a charmingly modest, almost amateurish effort, by comparison with the current version – had certain obvious assets. The judges, affable insider Randy Jackson, drugged out, effusive nutcase Paula Abdul, and brutally honest Simon Cowell, were fun to watch. I carry their voices in my head and amuse myself to this day with the tribunal’s critique of my daily life.

This post for instance:

Randy: Yo, Dawg. How you doin? You stepped out of your comfort zone here, but It wasn’t the right subject matter for you. It got a little grammar-y at the end. So I dunno, it was just a’ight for me.

Paula: First of all I love your font! It’s just gorgeous. And your spelling is perfect as always. I don’t care what Randy syyays, I loved it. So witty and articulate! You have star quality! I love what you do. Just go on, be strong be yourself! You could win this whole competition. The post of the night! (throws a kiss)

Simon: Well. That was effusive. I’m not taking any psychotropic drugs so this will be rather more honest. Do you have a writing teacher? Fire him. I could see a screed like this in any tatty blog on the internet. It reminded me of that awful toast at your cousin’s wedding when the fat uncle refuses to shut up. If this was a thousand years ago, we’d have stoned you to death. You don’t have a chance in this competition. Sorry.

There’s a lot of what initially drew me to the show in that imaginary exchange – Randy’s stolid honesty, Simon’s snide flirtation with Paula and his ongoing merciless attack on the mediocre, his comments always capped with the most insincere apologies ever uttered on network television; Paula’s loose canon craziness that no one could have scripted.

Beyond the judges, the kids were talented. Kelly Clarkson won that year, but Tamyra Gray, eliminated in the round of four, was just as good, if not better. It struck me that summer, and I still feel this way, that American Idol, far more than Survivor, say or Undercover Boss or The Bachelor, is an authentic example of reality TV: real kids, singing real songs to an audience of millions of other kids, who vote on what they like: that’s it.

My son once dismissed the show as ‘rigged’—I said, yeah, by the human genome. And a healthy collective dose of raging hormones. Generally speaking the talented kids do better than the untalented ones, and the audience notices. During seasons three and four, you could tell the ultimate winners -- Fantasia Barrino and Carrie Underwood, respectively -- after just a few weeks.

Nor was I alone in that perception, the voting was so massively skewed for Underwood that the show would have lost all suspense if the actual numbers (always top secret) had leaked out. Unlike the bizarre contrivances of other such programs – (random weird contests in deserted places, a dozen women chasing one rich guy, or a boss going undercover at his own business … no one noticed the camera crew, I guess) American Idol has a simplicity that dates back to Ted Mack’s Amateur hour, not much different from the open mike night at a local club, or the high school talent shows kids have enjoyed, or sat through with gritted teeth, for generations.

This simplicity is the show’s strength. You get to meet a group of young talented strangers and have the pleasure of matching wits, sophistication and taste with a trio of judges on the merits of their performances. That’s it; except for the suspense of seeing the final verdict delivered by a massive, anonymous audience of shrieking kids, most of them fourteen year old girls. The video that went viral a few years ago of audience members responding to David Archuleta’s loss to the more sedate and mature David Cook gives you some idea of what the show has to deal with every week. I can't embed it, but check this link:

That audience has made some bizarre choices and some good ones, but I have never crossed over to the dark side and voted myself.

I just watch.

And what I’ve seen over the years has taught me a few things: you can be delusional about something as seemingly objective as music. The better you are, the less you need to do. And the worse you are, the more arrogant you sound. It’s interesting, this last point. You could string the sound bites together – the most atrocious singers swearing they were going to have huge careers and promising to snub Simon when they succeed; the winners all quietly humble and self-effacing. David Cook just showed up to keep his brother company. Crystal Bowersox, last year’s runner-up, had been busking a few months before, and wouldn’t have been surprised – or even that disappointed -- to be back singing in the subway again, with her guitar case open on the platform.

Judges come and go – we’ll all miss Simon Cowell, but the heart of the show remains watching talented kids develop over the course of a season, and to see the best of them succeed. The show stays fresh because there are always new kids trying out, chasing the dream. Some are brilliant, some are mediocre; some are charming some are annoying. But all of them are hard working and ambitious and strangely innocent in a cynical world, as is the show itself despite all its self-hype and product placement.

Every year I stumble out of the football season (that ultimate reality TV show), and ease into the gentler competition of American Idol, with the same spark of interest, the same renewed hope: this year I’ll discover someone extraordinary – another Jennifer Hudson, another Adam Lambert—and more often than not, it actually happens.

Will some spectacular new talent emerge this year? Like 24 million other people, of all ages and backgrounds, I’ll be tuned into this cheesy but compelling American institution, I’ll be watching and cringing, occasionally cheering, always hoping, always looking for the real thrill you get from a real talent coming into its own.

That’s reality. And that’s TV. And that combination still draws me back, no longer apologizing, ten years later.