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.