Thursday, September 27, 2012

American Idol: Real Wins the Night

American Idol had its finale last night and Steven Tyler won. The actual winner, Phil Phillips, came in a close second, dragging a tentative John Fogerty (Annie laughed and called him "John Fogey") with him.
Tyler's brief set with an ecstatically reunited Aerosmith blew all the other big name guest stars away,  including Jennifer Lopez, whose two underwhelming auto-tuned performance pieces seemed to epitomize everything fake and awful in today's pop music. Aerosmith took the stage and it didn't matter. Their songs seemed sloppy and un-rehearsed, but the music was all the more vibrant for that. I thought of Mick Jagger bounding across the stage during his Super Bowl half-time show. But there's a studied quality to the Rolling Stones, the sense they put out just enough energy to get the job done. Mick Jagger has a personal trainer.
Steven Tyler has a sloth.
Which seems more Rock and Roll to you?
You can tell that Fogerty dyes his hair, while Aerosmith goes defiantly grey and still seems decades younger the the CCR frontman. Listening to this classic, road-tested, battered, battling bad-ass band, I thought -- "Oh, this is what REAL rock and roll sounds like! I had almost forgotten." But in those few high octane, prancing and prowling moments, the numbing mediocrity of so much of American Idol (both its characterless song-bot contestants and its flavor of the split-second guest stars) fell away, the Hummel figurines Steven Tyler brushed off a table with his arm so he could jump up on it and dance.
I'm so glad American Idol chose Tyler to be a judge. I was never a fan of Aerosmith and I had only the vaguest idea of who he was before he started this new gig.  Now I know. He's the real deal, a wild man with a big heart and every bad habit you can pick up in forty years on the road. Sometimes I don't agree with him, sometimes I have no idea what he's even talking about ("You're picking cherries with your back to the tree!"), but his erratic, spontaneous  gentle spirit has kept the show alive for the last two years. The other judges sat by the fancy reflecting pool and gave their verdict to the contestants -- Tyler jumped in and took a swim. I love him for that. He's alive on the planet, kissing the pretty girls, singling along with the talented kids, while his colleagues just seem to be going through the motions.
But Tyler wasn't the only real, live human being on the show last night, and he wasn't the only original talent, either. In Phil Phillips, Idol's 132,000,000 voters finally picked a deserving standard-bearer. He never seemed fiully engaged with the process, despite his easy charm  and Steve McQueen good looks. He refused to dress up and play the pop-star part, even after being chided for his casual attire by Jimmy Iovine. He wore his t-shirts and played his guitar and you could tell that the crack studio musicians on the show had found a kindred spirit and a fellow musician. He was always the most interesting performer on the program, with his rough voice and odd intonations refreshing old songs and making new ones urgent.
His first single as an Idol tells you so much about him. It's nothing like the usual machine made pablum about reaching your dreams and not giving up. It's a love song called "Home", that sounds like it was co-0written by Woody Guthrie and Paul Simon. I wonder if Phil had a hand in it -- it's impossible to find a song-writing credit on-line. It's a beautiful song, disarmingly simple and authentic, a perfect opal in a drawer full of costume jewelery and cubic zirconium. It's interesting to me that Phil couldn't finish singing it last night, as the applause washed over him and the confetti stuck to his lips. He let the band finish up  as he embraced his family. It wasn't the full throated victorious performance Idol expected and I got they feeling the show was going off the rails a little in those final moments. But Phil never really played by the rules.
He was always a reluctant contestant and now he's become a reluctant winner. You can almost imagine him chucking it all and going back to work in his family's pawn shop, but I hope he doesn't. Stick it out, Phil! Go on the road with Aerosmith, pick jup some bad habits and learn to have fun.
I want to see you still rocking the house at sixty.

No comments: