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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 14, 2013

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


American Idol 2013

Question: Was Michelle Obama's embarrassing appearance at the Oscars -- which demeaned both the presidency and the art of film -- the first step in launching the never-proud-of-America First Lady on her own run for the White House in 2016?

Then we could have 16 years of Puritan Leftist government-by-decree to punish anyone who dares to oppose "Fairness."

Here are the signs. She'll start by wearing only dresses with sleeves, to show she's serious. Then she'll get even more serious by wearing business suits. When she starts being given actual government projects to oversee, we'll know she's almost ready ...

But it's Lurleen Wallace all over again. We know who'd really be running things, and feminists will keep their mouths shut about it because it's the Beloved Leader who'll still be in power. Like Putin -- boss no matter who wears the hat.

*

American Idol -- is it still on?

Yes, and still top-rated, too, though it has slipped since the glory days. Still, we have to conclude by now that Idol was no flash-in-the-pan, like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, which dominated for -- what, a year, maybe two? -- and then plummeted to syndicated television.

As judges, Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez are gone, and they'll be missed; Randy Jackson remains, and his judging gets clearer and stronger every year.

Three new judges bring the total to four: Randy, Keith Urban, Mariah Carey, and Nicki Minaj.

I had never heard of Nicki Minaj; I don't listen to her kind of music, apparently. I only knew of Mariah Carey because of tabloid fame and a few songs early in her career.

What matters here is that the producers seem to encourage the two ladies to show a little resentment toward each other. Is it manufactured, like the supposed quarreling of Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell? Or is Nicki Minaj really the rude, prickly twit she seems to be?

I'm not sure it matters -- not when I have a fast-forward button.

When it comes to the actual judging, Nicki Minaj is Simon Cowell, but better. She's the one who says the outrageously candid things, only she never seems to say it out of meanness, the way Cowell sometimes did. She's not always right, but she's always sincere in what she says about the singing, and most of the time what she says is smart.

Mariah Carey, though much sweeter and less obviously temperamental, seems to float above everything. She isn't trying to be Paula Abdul's replacement, bestowing sweet encouragement. It's more like she listens to the singers and says to herself, How can I talk about myself while pretending to say something about their performances?

But the prize of this year's judging -- sensible, widely educated in music, aware of the actual techniques for producing different vocal effects, with a deep understanding of the many ways to approach a song -- is Keith Urban.

Australian, and therefore "country" by adoption, Urban is unfailingly kind, always helpful, clear, and smart. There has never been a judge better than he is.

So it's especially amusing when Nicki Minaj makes faces or nasty comments about his judging. Most of the time, it's not only obvious that Urban is right -- Minaj herself goes on to say pretty much what he said, only in different words.

Of course, nobody is right all the time (gosh, not even me), which makes the judging more interesting than it has ever been before. Except that we've learned to fast-forward through Mariah Carey's comments, not because she's annoying, but because she's pretty much an empty balloon.

Or pair of balloons, judging from some of the outfits she wears.

They've made some changes this year. For instance, on group night in Hollywood, they didn't let the contestants form their own groups. The staff divided everyone into groups, announced them -- and allowed no changes from their decisions.

They should have started doing this long ago, since some contestants every other year have spent the first few precious hours of that crazy night begging some group to take them in.

However, the staff were extraordinarily cruel when they put the two most flamboyantly effeminate singers with the two most downhome country boys. Everybody tried to be tolerant, more or less. But how could they possibly have found any song that would suit all their voices, let alone their styles of performance? Not possible.

It was, in a word, mean. The country boys were doomed and they knew it. And I think the flamboyantly effeminate singers may have guessed they were being exploited in order to make "good television."

To their credit, American Idol has finally stopped showing us the train-wreck auditions. Those were always about mean-spirited staff work -- after all, they could weed out obviously delusional "singers" and send only the best to the judges. They exploited people who, often, were only marginally sane.

Now, we get almost none of those. Instead, the staff created their own train wrecks.

The most painful to watch was the transgender girl who began life with a Y chromosome. Everyone dutifully went along, using the feminine pronoun and putting her with the women who had been born female. The trouble is that nothing about her voice had changed. She tried to act female, but she still had male hips; she tried to sing as well as she could, but her voice was not in the normal female range.

Nobody should be weeded out because of their sexual preference. I mean, who cares, if they can sing? k.d. lang's voice is gorgeous; who cares whom she sleeps with or how she cuts her hair? And American Idol is right not to weed out people who make no effort to disguise -- or who openly flaunt -- their gender placement.

But the transgender contestant is a different matter. It's worth remembering that there are absolutely fabulous female-impersonator singers. Some of them have had various operations to take them this or that distance along the road to physical transgenderdom.

However, is American Idol really the place for a contestant who has not mastered the technique of singing as a woman though born a male?

So I began to suspect that this kid, too, was being exploited for "good television." The American Idol producers were saying, She really can't sing all that well, but see how tolerant we are? And isn't it amusing to watch the other girls try to work with this very ungirly girl? Isn't it good television?

Not really. It was more like a sideshow. In the name of tolerance, they were anything but kind. And the result was, as expected, a train wreck.

Then we come to their handling of the top forty -- twenty girls and twenty boys ("girl" and "boy" are the words they use; it's a long industry tradition). For the semifinals, narrowing down the list to ten girls and ten boys, they did something weird and deceptive.

They dealt with all the boys in the two shows of one week, all the girls in two shows of the next. But they divided each group in half, ten a night, and then at the end of each night, they announced their decision about which five would go on to the finals.

So let's see. You're the producers and/or the judges. Do you just randomly divide the twenty boys into two groups of ten, and then take the best five of each group?

Of course not. What if the eight of the ten best are on one night, and eight of the ten worst on the next. If you take the best five from each group, you'll end up with only seven of the overall best, and three from the weaker half.

So instead, you fake it. You very carefully select whom you want for the top ten, and put five of them on one night and five on the other. Then you have each night's "contest," but you'll still end up with the ones you think are best.

In other words, it was no contest at all. The judges had decided their top ten boys and top ten girls before they heard anybody sing.

The result was as you might guess: On every night, there were some people who didn't make it through who had sung better, that night, than some who were chosen.

That's because their performances didn't actually matter. The decisions had already been made.

When the finals came around, however, for the first time the audience got to vote. We were grateful that lazy, self-indulgent scene-stealer Zoanette Johnson was left behind by the voters; but the mediocre singing of Lazaro Arbos was apparently trumped by his slick Latin looks, because he stayed.

By and large, though, we have as good a field of contestants as ever. And let's keep in mind that at this stage of the contest we don't know whom they're going to become.

At this stage in the contest, David Cook and Adam Lambert were still weird-looking; we hadn't had a chance yet to see their musicality and fall in love with their talent. Adam Lambert came ready-made, but David Cook went through an even more astonishing look-and-sound transformation than Clay Aiken did back in the second year.

We have a few voices with the standard flaws -- singers who are very weak outside their "sweet spot," the few notes they can punch to the back wall. This is especially obvious in women who pick songs that start low, so they can build to their perfect high notes.

When you can't hear those lower notes, when you can't make out the words, what you're hearing are very, very limited voices. The real singers develop their whole range.

Alas, though, some singers think, when they get that exhilarating feeling of punching out a note that reverberates off the back wall of the biggest room, that they must be really really good.

No. Not yet. Just really really loud. Sometimes.

Think of the truly great singers. Alto Karen Carpenter. Soprano Barbra Streisand.

Karen Carpenter's low notes were so strong that you just weren't ready for the way she soared when she needed to. But oh, those low notes ... she didn't need high notes to make her songs work.

Streisand, on the other hand, had such perfect control that you didn't even know whether she had a break. If a song needed to be belted, she had a belting voice; if it needed to be silly, she could do all the silly voices in every register. If it needed to be gorgeous, well, kid, Streisand really was gorgeous.

I say "was" because age affects us all. But hearing Streisand sing recently, in her 70s, we're not talking Rosemary Clooney, who in her waning years had a six-note range and adapted everything to fit it. Clooney was still wonderful -- she knew the phrasing and she could sell the song.

But Streisand's exquisite singing voice, even with the ends of her range clipped off, is still better than all but a handful of voices working today. And even they aren't masters of interpretation the way Streisand always was and remains today.

It's not irrelevant to bring up older singers -- or even dead ones. These American Idol contestants are entering a world of pop music where you really are competing with old recordings for the music audience's ears. Even young listeners are often aware of singers from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s -- and even earlier ones.

So when we hear the weaker voices fade on the low notes, it's not just old coots like me who think of Karen Carpenter or Barbra Streisand or Joni Mitchell or Linda Ronstadt in their prime. They're still there, just as downloadable as the new singers.

Who are my picks as the best voices in this year's top ten? Angela Miller -- the one who sings at the piano sometimes -- is quite remarkable when singing a certain kind of song. Singing while you play the piano is actually very hard -- your diaphragm is out of position when you make a lap.

But you'll notice how at climactic moments, when Miller needs more support, she arches her back and rises up to get that big-voice support. Even when she's not doing that, though, she's very good at a very hard thing.

She's got a good voice. But it's not a big voice. There's nothing wrong with that -- arguably Joni Mitchell and Karen Carpenter didn't have big voices in the way Barbara Streisand and Whitney Houston did. The trouble is, everybody wants to sing the big-voice songs, and if your voice doesn't work that way, you end up falling flat.

So Angela Miller's chances depend on how well she manages to sing the kind of song her voice is so excellent at.

The only really big voice in this contest -- the genuine article, an instrument so huge and yet so perfectly controlled that you never see her strain -- is that of Candice Glover. Because her voice is so big she doesn't feel any need to push it to the limit all the time. She just sings from the heart, and her voice goes everywhere she asks it to.

If I were picking a winner, right now, today, it would be Candice Glover. I'll go farther -- I think she's possibly the only singer in the history of American Idol to start out the contest with a voice as wide-ranging and brilliantly controlled as Adam Lambert's.

Alas, Curtis Finch, Jr., thinks he has that kind of voice, but he's faking it. He does a trick with opening the back of his throat -- which is not wrong in itself, except that it gives a weird tone to many of his notes, and he often slips from that vocal framing into his natural voice, rather like someone trying to fake an accent. The passion that is real in Candice Glover therefore feels manufactured in Curtis Finch, because we hear his vocal tricks as a kind of fakery.

Devin Velez is a superb singer, even though his voice is not big. He also has the passion when he sings. He gets praised for singing passages in Spanish (sometimes revealing that the Spanish lyrics have absolutely nothing to do with the English ones, as in "It's Impossible"), but who cares? That's a stunt and he doesn't need it. He's an excellent stylist and should be in contention to the end.

Burnell Taylor has a way of conducting himself with his hands, rather the way that gospel singers do -- sometimes gesturing with the words, but usually just playing some invisible musical instrument. Not quite like Joe Cocker, but definitely Taylor's own style. It doesn't feel choreographed, the way several other singers' hand gestures did. Taylor is sweet and real: His voice is good, but there's so much more to him than just his voice.

I think he's a keeper, too -- unless their song concepts kill him by forcing him to sing something totally wrong for him.

Kree Harrison isn't fashion-model-sized, but you don't care when she starts singing. Yeah, she's country -- the real thing, too, not plastic country -- but when you hear those pipes, you realize she could sing anything. She's Candice Glover's only rival for big-voice singing, but they come from such different traditions that it'll be hard to pick between them.

Janelle Arthur is the other country singer -- the blond one. She has a smaller voice than Kree Harrison's, and she sings a different style of country. There's room for both of them.

These are my favorites, as singers. I'm predicting nothing -- you never know what the voters are going to do. Some of the contestants seem to be on the list for sheer prettiness (and I'm not talking about the girls). One thing is certain: This is the year when the girls should dominate. The two best voices are women -- Candice and Kree.

And all the ones on my list -- Angela, Candice, Devin, Burnell, Kree, Janelle -- seem to be real, when they sing and when they talk. Our voting comes not just from approval but enthusiasm.

When we realize somebody's only pretending to be humble and sweet, we might still enjoy their voices, but do we hang onto the phone and push redial several hundred times?

Personality matters, and why not? When we enjoy a singer's work, we want to know more about them as people; there's more to the singer than the song.

For all their missteps over the years, the American Idol producers do a good job of adapting to changing circumstances. Yes, there's fakery, as in all "reality" TV. But the voices are real, and the performers show who they really are, to one degree or another.

We're not voters -- we record the shows and watch later, precisely so we can fast-forward through all the fluff. It's not that we don't care. We simply know that the really good ones will have recording careers whether they win or lose.

Sometimes our favorites blow their careers -- did Fantasia really think her fans voted for that lovely voice because we wanted hip-hop albums afterward? And sometimes people for whom we had no enthusiasm end up doing wonderful things later (who knew what Jennifer Hudson would become!).

American Idol remains the only singing competition that I've ever thought was worth watching, year in and year out. Its only competition, for me, isn't a singing show at all -- it's So You Think You Can Dance, with some of the same producers calling the shots.

The only reason So You Think You Can Dance is better than Idol is that with dance, either you can do it or you can't. There's no faking it, even if you really mean it -- Curtis Finch style. Most people can sing, sort of. But only a few who've really trained themselves can do the things that the So You Think choreographers demand of them.

Different arts; different ways of judging. The point is, they're both really good television -- and both shows have the power to launch careers.


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