Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 22, 2009
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Idol This Year So Far
American Idol is back, with some interesting changes this year.
The most welcome change was that the auditions did not give anywhere near
as much emphasis as in past years to the "how-sad" auditioners who clearly
needed therapy -- or honest friends.
This has always been the part I hated about Idol -- the train-wreck auditions of
people who were obviously deluded or, in extreme cases, mentally ill. It seemed
to me that the producers were, in many cases, quite cruel -- when they weren't
simply rewarding people for flamboyantly bad behavior.
Even with the improvement this year, they were not without sin. There was,
for instance, the video of the man who, after being rejected, awkwardly said
some convoluted version of "take care." Because he also looked a little scary,
his words were taken as a threat. The guy seemed to me to be trying to be
classy, but got his words all twisted. That was cheap TV.
With less time wasted on catastrophe, we got to see a lot more people with
talent than in past years. But the fundamental contradiction of the show
remains: The judges are looking for singers they can record and make money
from; the show's producers are looking for "good television," which means
"whatever will get viewers to tune in," which means train wrecks take
precedence over good singing.
As usual, after the audition rounds we end up with some contestants who have
had a lot of attention from the cameras, and some whom we are seeing for the
first time. This is patently unfair, and the "new" contestants labor under a
Except when what we saw of more-featured contestants made us hate them.
Another change this year was taking thirty-six people out of the Hollywood
round. They have broken them into four shows: Three groups of twelve, from
which three contestants -- top boy, top girl, and second-highest vote-getter of
either sex -- are chosen by audience vote, and a fourth group of twelve "wild
cards" who were not winners in the first groups.
In effect, this is a final audition round -- especially for the contestants we're
seeing for the first time.
What we learned was that in previous years, they have done us a favor by
starting with the top twenty-four instead of the top thirty-six. Nine of this
year's first group of twelve were rejected -- and I only regretted losing one of
Perhaps they gave less help to each contestant, since there were so many.
But it's more likely that there simply aren't thirty-six people in America in any
given year who (a) have the talent, (b) ambition, ( c) intelligence, and (d) skill to
do well in the competition, while also having the (e) weirdly delusional
personality that would lead them to go through the grueling and frustrating
After seeing the first group-of-twelve show, I can say that the judges are doing
a better job than usual. Even Paula was candid with the singers who did an
awful job. And Simon was honest enough to question why the show's
producers had allowed one contestant to choose a particularly useless song.
The judges talk about "song choice" as the main problem of most contestants,
but that is just shorthand for the real problem: lack of self-knowledge. Usually
there is nothing wrong with the song itself; what's wrong is that this particular
person should not be singing it!
You can have a great singing career with a very small voice (no list need be
provided; you can probably write your own). But such singers did well because
they did not choose their songs from the same list as, say, Aretha Franklin or
"Song choice" can also be a problem when singers with good voices choose
songs without regard for the actual music. "I love that song" is no reason at all
to sing it for what is likely to be your one chance to get American viewers to
vote for you!
The song needs to have more than three notes in it. Whatever you do well as a
singer must be displayed in the song you choose. Whatever you are not good at
should be avoided.
If you have a weak low voice (i.e., you don't sing from the Karen Carpenter
songbook), then don't sing a song with low notes in it! This seems so obvious
that it shouldn't need saying -- yet week after week, women singers kill
themselves by showing how much range they don't have.
If you don't have the break-the-back-wall power of, say, Fantasia, then don't
take on the big shouty songs -- you'll just embarrass yourself.
If you're a man and you haven't mastered your falsetto, so that it doesn't
integrate at all with your regular voice, don't sing those high notes. It makes us
look for the chipmunk who is apparently singing backup.
The one dishonest thing about the judging is that I don't believe for one
moment that any of these judges thought that the two most obnoxious
contestants from the auditions actually deserved to be placed in contention.
Tatiana, whose utter narcissism is not inconsistent with a career in music but
is inconsistent with getting votes from regular people, had no business making
it to Hollywood -- except that I'm sure the judges were told, "She makes great
television and she's not completely unbelievable as a singer."
And the clown guy who keeps doing a "comic" character (not for one instant did
I find him anything but excruciatingly needy and sad) might have won the
genuine liking of the judges -- probably because of interactions offscreen which
we never saw -- but as my daughter points out, "He belongs on America's Got
Talent, not Idol."
Naturally, I already have my favorites. But I don't have any expectation or even
desire that my current favorites turn out to win.
Last year, David Cook was one of my least favorite contestants during the early
rounds -- it was only in the third show that I started to see that he might have
By the end, it was obvious that nobody else on that stage was in his league.
But at the beginning even he wasn't in that league! He grew on the show, and I
expect that to happen again this year with some but not all of the contestants,
so that I'll end up voting for singers I didn't care for very much at the start.
Danny Gokey and Alexis Grace were both very good at the kind of song they
sing -- because they actually chose to sing the kind of song they should sing!
Michael Sarver was not better than Ricky Braddy -- but he was not worse.
Braddy simply couldn't overcome his utter lack of exposure in the previous
We had high hopes for Anoop Desai and Stephen Fowler, whose song choices
were incredibly bad; I hope we'll see them on the wild card show.
Jackie Tohn knew she didn't have a strong voice, but she chose a song that
could be sold by performance alone, and she sold it. The judges treated her
with disdain because of this -- but it's the same thing they did to Constantine.
It's as if being good on the stage is some kind of crime, to these recording-centered judges. And, when you come to think of it, it makes sense.
Ultimately, this show exists to sell records, not to sell out small theaters where
the audience is sitting close enough to be wowed by personal performances.
When you go to a big rock concert, you're not going to make a connection with
the performer, period. In fact, you're most likely to make a connection with the
drunk woman who stands up directly in front of you through the entire concert
and loudly sings along with all the songs.
And the kind of performance that clicks on television -- close camera, audience
sitting on soft chairs -- doesn't really work even in small theaters. I think of a
brilliant performer like Janis Ian, whose shows are breathtakingly personal and
She's simply too "hot" for the TV screen, because the amount of personality
projection that works across thirty or fifty feet in a theater feels overpowering
and unpleasant in your family room. (Janis understands this, by the way, and
on camera gives a completely different performance, much more intimate.)
Idol really is the wrong place to launch a live-performance-centered career. If
you're "good in the room" you won't be good on the show, and vice-versa. So
when the judges punish singers for relying on their personality and charm over
actual singing ability (i.e., being on pitch more often than not), they are
Here's a sign of how things are going: Though all the performances from the
first show are available for download on iTunes, there is not one of them I
wished to own and hear again.
Because even though Alexis and Danny chose songs that were good for their
voices, they also happened to be songs that I don't like.
And nobody else gave a truly recordable performance. The only one I might
break down and buy is Ricky Braddy's "A Song for You," because I know I'll
never hear him again.
But then, I already have two brilliant performances of that song: Karen
Carpenter's and Leon Russell's. Will I ever really listen to Braddy's?
And Ann Marie Boskovich's how-sad performance of "Natural Woman" made
me pull up Carole King's timeless and perfect recording and listen to that.
That's another thing about American Idol. If there's anything rarer than really
good singers, it's really good singer-songwriters.
Carole King singing "Natural Woman" and Leon Russell singing "A Song for
You" are performing songs they wrote themselves. They have their songs down
to the bone.
But singer-songwriters are the antithesis of what American Idol is looking for.
They seek out package-able singers who can be shaped and controlled by
producers and turned into predictable money-making machines.
It was inevitable that a folk-singer like Brooke White would be overproduced
and destroyed by producers like that. But David Cook, who specializes in
finding cool and quirky twists on songs and applying his magnificent
instrument to them -- he's just what they dream of.
But for me, it's the singer-songwriter who really creates and grows the music
scene. American Idol will never find one of those, because such artists have to
be nurtured over time and build a following.
They have to have the time and space in which to write almost-good songs, or
keep improving good songs that still have lingering problems. They have to be
able to write and sing the ten songs that don't really succeed in order to get the
one that thrills the listeners.
In all of Dan Fogelberg's career, maybe one out of ten of his songs really
worked. The same is true of Billy Joel, and Paul Simon's average is only a little
higher. Carole King had a whole career of songwriting to draw from when she
turned singer, but still only got a couple of solid albums before she ran out of
American Idol will never be the show that creates American music. It always
lags behind. It rewards performance talent only, and has very little
encouragement for real creativity.
And think about it. Can you imagine a young Paul Simon or Billy Joel or
Karen Carpenter standing in line to try out for American Idol?
OK, well, yes, I can too. But can you imagine any of them getting past the
I can just hear Simon Cowell saying to Karen Carpenter: "These Burt
Bacharach/Hal David songs, over and over, they aren't working for you, show
us some variety! ... and you need to lose a little weight."
And if Billy Joel had performed "Piano Man" or "Say Goodbye to Hollywood" or
even "We Didn't Start the Fire," sans piano, in some tryout city, I can already
hear Simon Cowell saying, "Next!" while Paula pats his hand and says, "You're
really very talented, dear."
Or maybe not. Maybe the star quality would already have been visible in those
impossibly cold rooms where you stand alone in front of three or four judges.
Or, worse, the screening rooms, where you sing at the same time as three other
contestants in front of judges nobody heard of and no one will ever see, who
are looking, not for voices that might grow into something, but rather for
people who will be "good television."
I'm betting Paula and Randy and Kara and Simon would never have seen Billy
Joel or Paul Simon or Karen Carpenter, because they would never have been
passed through the first screening round.
But Barbra Streisand would have made it through! So would Bette Midler!
Because their in-your-face performing style would have made the screeners
happy as clams.
We just have to accept the kind of show American Idol is, and either enjoy it or
not. No use complaining because it isn't a hotbed of musical innovation, or a
discoverer of brilliant creative talent.
It's a contest for a certain kind of recordable singer, singing a certain kind of
song, and David Cook -- who is very, very good -- marks the outward edge of
the creativity possible on this show.