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TV Review: American Idol – Triumph of the Hicks

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As we left for work this morning, I kissed my wife and said, “Bye dear, whooo!” She first ignored me then shook her head at my bright purple blazer as I raised my fist and chanted “Soul Patrol, Soul Patrol.”

“Dear, what are you doing?”

“America and American pop music are forever changed because Taylor Hicks beat the Simon-declared odds and became America’s fifth Idol. I felt it was important that we observe the moment appropriately.” My wife, who still hasn’t forgiven the show for letting Chris Daughtry get voted off by Elvis, began to back out into the street. At that precise moment, sixteen blue-robed zombies joined me in the driveway to sing that certain ground-breaking chart topper “Are You Proud of Me?”

At least this was better than the alternative, which would have consisted of Toni Braxton popping out of our garage in white lingerie, to duet with me on “In the Ghetto”. I know the concept wasn’t Taylor Hicks’s fault, but could somebody have paid attention to the words a little before unleashing Toni Braxton as fembot prancing around Idol V?

If I combine that visual with the lyrics, I get this: white southern male does the vertical limbo with hot black woman dressed as hoochie mama, she gets pregnant, he abandons her, she raises child in the ghetto, child has to attend a school that got left behind too, and grows up to run Enron unless someone can teach the angry young man to be soulful and play the harmonica like his dad.

This is Civil Rights in 2006 – white boys and girls can now have sexual fantasies about Toni Braxton and Taye Diggs in public and black boys and girls get to have sexual fantasies about Taylor Hicks and Kellie Pickler. Think about another southern male, Strom Thurmond, who in 1960 would never have done this duet on TV. Of course, by the time he died, Strom not only had his segregationist cause honored by Trent Lott, America found out a bit more about Strom’s private perspectives on race. I suppose, too, that “In the Ghetto” was better than having Ryan make bawdy innuendo about Elliott Yamin’s mother and her Idol statue, which I’m convinced never did happen. By the way, Toni Braxton is a very attractive woman with a great voice, but it didn’t help that they lit her and made her sound like someone Eddie Murphy might pick up hitchhiking at three in the morning.

Okay, obviously I wasn’t one of the millions of Americans who voted in greater numbers for Taylor than for George W. Did Ryan really say that American Idol was the biggest election in the world without even a hint of irony? Unlike real elections, I know that American Idol voters still often seriously believe that their own votes actually affect the outcome. Some of them buy special cell phones just so they can get in mass text messages and not have to worry about busy signals and Dial Idol making like the NSA. Maybe the key to revitalizing our democracy might be to let everyone vote as many times as he or she wants by cell phone and eliminate all campaign contributions except from Ford and Coca Cola?

One idiosyncrasy of Idol’s last week is that after a season when the Tuesday show is the interesting one, the reverse is true once it grinds to the finals. All through the season, the producers pad Wednesdays with Ford commercials, group sings, less than probing interviews by Ryan, and sadistic variations on the week’s inevitable game of un-musical chairs. The coronation show, though, is two hours of tasteless TV genius in which “Can you top this?” alternates with “What were they thinking?”

This was especially true this year. It didn’t help that both singers reprised numbers that they’d had some success with earlier in the season followed by two Idol “exclusive” songs that must have been rejects from the “Up With People” libretto. Yes, Katharine should still have done a better job staying in key and maybe enunciating better, but shouldn’t the contestants at least get to sing music? Taylor did do a better job with the coal he found in the Idol “Here’s your single, Sucker!” stocking, but that was a just a brutal way to end the competition phase.

At 9:00 PM Tuesday, I could have gotten better odds of Ryan reconciling with Teri Hatcher than Katharine McPhee winning idol especially after Daniel Powter came on stage at the end of the Tuesday show to announce that he would sing his McHit. The actual singing in the finals may have been less a factor than people think. Taylor also won because he had the better narrative. First, they cast him as the underdog while simultaneously giving him more time on screen than the promos of a new NBC Thursday night sitcom. Second, late in the game I noticed that the narrative of Taylor as musical journeyman who had spent the last ten years singing in dive bars and at events like the Mullet Festival seemed to be all over the Internet. “Had my brother not talked me into going to Las Vegas to audition after I got flooded out of New Orleans, I was going to take a day job,” kept replaying.

Compare that to “My TV producer dad cries a lot”, “Mom was in Showboat with Donald O’Connor, and even taught Marianne Willamson how to sing cabaret (perhaps someone wants to turn “A Course in Miracles” into a Broadway musical), and I’ve spent the last year auditioning for pilots and plays where I pretend to be a whale with good cleavage.” Given that America loves to come to the rescue, faced with this choice, who were millions of Americans going to rescue with their cellphones?

As a second matter, I suspect Katharine McPhee shouldn’t have taken Advanced Smoldering Look during her short time at the Boston Conservatory in lieu of Talk Show 101. If you want to be a celebrity, you have to learn to do the five minutes on the couch next to Leno or Letterman. They ask you vapid questions, you give them enough to make you seem loveable, inoffensive, and sincere before they cut to commercial. Whenever she had to be mediated by Ryan, Katharine was mostly giggles, thank yous, and maybe a bit too much honest reaction. She came off as a late model Valley Girl with a voice, which is like, you know, totally, like who she happened to be.

As I was watching the two-hour coronation show, it occurred to me that whoever put the thing together must have the blueprint of Idol’s TV genome sequence. This year’s kitsch-fest homaged all the show’s myriad influences. Obviously, the show is a direct descendant of Ted Mack and Star Search, but it tapdances on the naïvely sentimental essence of its direct TV ancestors by dosing it with an edge of mean spiritedness. The Gong Show aspect of the show mostly comes into play during the audition episodes, but Simon is Idol’s magic ingredient, the jalapeno on the bologna and cheese sandwich, because he gives Idol enough to keep it from slipping into Amateur Hour blandness.

I’ve long maintained that when the music is bad, the judges deftly step up the sideshow and the center of that is inescapably Simon, who is the direct TV descendant of Charles Nelson Reilly and Paul Lynde, two individuals who extended the game show genre with sarcasm-covered honesty as subtext for the idiocy of the goings on around them.

Similarly Paula Abdul carries on the chaotic non-sequitur tradition of Charo crossed with her very weird take on the Delphic Oracle. I tend to think of Randy Jackson as an uncool version of the Fonz, but it would likely take me too much space to explain that one other than to mention the longstanding TV technique of creating catch phrases, Dawg.

On Wednesday night, Idol’s provocative balance between sentimental and mean took the form of Kevin Covais and Michael Sandecki aka Clay Faiken. Early this year, the show created a niche for Covais as its stud manqué. Whether he was singing “Part Time Lover”, or being called “Chicken Little” by Paris, Idol only avoided looking like the high school bully because the show constantly reminded us that Kevin was in on the joke and having fun, too. By the time he was soloing to “What’s New Pussycat”, I was starting to wonder, “If I were mom and dad, would I want my son turned into Pee Wee Herman just for the sake of fifteen minutes?”

As one of the hundreds of Idol bloggers out there, I’m well aware of Idol’s latent TV ancestors. Reality TV’s roots are in events like Miss America and the Academy Awards . By the late sixties, much earlier if you happen to be gay, roughly half the TV audience for both events watched less because they were interested in the competition than because they loved to snark. Miss America and Oscars viewing parties became a regular social event where people would get together to see who could supply the best subtitles about the absurdity of the outfits and other goings on. This, of course, is why Miss America died with Bert Parks, Ryan’s TV great-uncle. The producers never quite got the camp factor, which in a TV version of Heisenberg only works if the makers of the show pretend to be oblivious to it.

For millions of people, the Idol technology triathlon is to Tivo the show, vote with cell phone, then post on the Internet in a post-Y2K Oscars viewing party. It’s even evolved to a point where many of the participants don’t even bother to watch the show. In any case, Idol is rooted in the great winking gay cultural tradition that runs through television that starts at least as early as Liberace, moves through Robert Reed and Felix Unger, came out through Ellen, and culminated in Will and Grace. Of all the semi-stars who have emerged from the Idol machine, the one who couldn’t have gotten America’s attention without Idol is Clay Aiken. Aiken also happens to be the most sexually ambiguous of all Idol finalists.

I don’t think the show or Clay’s management have ever known how to deal with it. Sandecki, who was audition round fodder, just happened to be a parody of all that the producers feared most about Clay Aiken winning the show. I don’t presume to know Sandecki’s personal life, but now that he’s had his fifteen minutes, I doubt that his MySpace page is being mobbed with female fans wanting to date him.

In any case, the producers managed one of these perfectly constructed TV moments. Sandecki got to act out the homage to Idol’s awards show roots, we watched his Clay Faiken audition in all its bladder-tightening glory, then Ryan made us wonder if the show had jumped the line to full-on mean by asking Sandecki to sing again. As he screeched while scrunching up his face for a few painful bars, suddenly from behind door number three, Idol 2A version of Clay Aiken popped out.

Of course, the show can’t directly reference the fact that Aiken disappeared for several months in the wake of tabloid stories about his sex life, but this version of Aiken almost seems like the brochure model from one of those “Help Me Choose to be Straight” seminars. He’s tan, a bit more muscular, has lost the hand gestures, and has been sprayed with extra testosterone. Even more dramatic, the full-on makeover was standing next to the exaggerated version of the old-model nerd Aiken. As a bonus, Aiken sounded better on Elton John (wow, interesting choice there) than any of this year’s contestants ever managed. Yes, I’m looking at you, Levon lite.

I don’t know how the Idol version 2 Clay Aiken, molded from the pale ball of Clay 1, will ultimately do now that he has k.d. lang’s hair, but this was breathtakingly good reality TV. It played out on more levels than any Robert Altman movie. In the meantime, network TV continues our bizarre cultural dance between its attraction to American pop culture’s inner-homo and its need to act terrified of openly acknowledging it. No show makes the tension of this ambivalence more palpable than Idol.

The only thing that didn’t quite go perfectly was that the seemingly shocked Sandecki kept singing after the punch line. I suspect the producers allowed this so that Meatloaf could feel better about his performance. (I did hear that he’s been sick, so in that sense he did the trooper thing.) A few others have noted that Katharine McPhee seemed notably more relaxed on Wednesday and sang better. I suspect it had something to do with the format of the coronation show which is much closer to ‘jump into production number and do your role’ than ‘sing while everyone stares at just you and talks about your dress being too tight.’

I’m pretty sure, too, that Bucky was tapping on his mike during “Raindrops” because they built experimental technology into it that allows anyone to sing without an accent. “The Raindrops on Idol fall mainly on the plain, I think he’s got it.” He actually sounded pretty good, as did Mandisa. It was also definitely heartwarming to see Chris Daughtry sing a live duet with his hero and role model Captain Picard.

Stardate May 2006, our band has landed on the stage of an alien planet. The Enterprise is being tracked by a wannabe who appears to be a Borg clone, the chain hanging from his belt being the only clue. We walk a careful line with this situation. I order evasive maneuvers by going out of his range. I go really really high. It seems to work, but seconds later he’s still there. We go into hyperdrive.

Whoops, something’s wrong, there’s Burt Bacharach, Prince, and is that Scott Bakula from Quantum Leap piloting my ship? The singularity must have taken us into a time warp. It can’t be later than 1986. I’m pretty sure the one who calls himself Ryan is a poorly disguised Ferenghi.

The pilot for the Kellie Pickler sitcom worked less well. How does one say “More obvious than Hee Haw” in French? If I may be so bold Chef Puck, to get someone like Kellie to eat anything, all you have to do is deep fry it. Had you done that, she might have even been willing to try your line of frozen pizzas, say the one topped with kiwi fruit and fiddlehead clams.

Speaking of stupid trends, what is this whole bit with the chefs as TV celebrities ? Except on Star Trek, you can’t taste food even through an HD high plasma screen. I know they use food shows to sell lifestyle accoutrements, but they might as well make bloggers into TV stars.

For some reason, I actually rather liked the Burt Bacharach medley. First, it made me feel like I’d stepped into the first Austin Powers movie and I’ve always liked watching Elizabeth Hurley. (Jay Roach also used to live down the hall from me.) Second, it came bundled with a free ad for Psychic Friends Network.

If someone could tell me they paid their 50 cents a minute back in 1984 and Dionne Warwick told them she’d be on TV singing with Kevin Covais and Melissa McGhee while promoting one more tour, I’d buy a block of a thousand psychic friends minutes right now to ask about “Peak Oil”, global warming, and Karl Rove’s possible indictment. In the meantime Elliott as a Furby singing “House is Not a Home” sounded very good; maybe it was the producers’ way of making up for letting Mary J. Blige yell him off the stage. If only the Idol producers could have matched that great scene in My Best Friend’s Wedding, this tribute to the guy who kept pop alive during the Woodstock era would have been perfect.

After three hours of Idol this week, my mind is frazzled to the point of being reduced to random bits about other parts of the show. Carrie Underwood (I was never a fan) actually looked and sounded good. Now that she gets to sing in her zone, she struck me as a deserving winner in this sea of the season five final dozen. After a season of telling Lisa Tucker that she kept choosing material that was both too old for her and too big for her voice, what was “Alfie” all about?

I thought the musical highlight of the evening was Paris Bennett and Al Jarreau. She doesn’t have his rubbery inflections, but she matched him surprisingly well with the vocalese. Also, it was one of the few duets that night where the participants actually seemed to be listening to one another. The song from Dirty Dancing with Katharine in a bridesmaid’s gown (talk about your not-so-subtle hints) and Taylor in a tux felt like it was lifted from a bizarro episode of Donnie and Marie.

One last comment on the Idol genome – the show has one other hidden ancestor. In a time of extraordinarily divisive politics and constant talk of bleak prospects for the environment and our children, Idol almost pointedly ignores the truly topical. Except for Josh Gracin, the war in Iraq doesn’t exist in the Idol universe, Katrina never happened, and the only reference to global warming is Kermit the Frog in a hybrid Ford Focus.

Idol’s popularity owes much to the fact that it’s the equivalent of cultural comfort food. Does anyone remember that the most popular show on television at the height of the sixties revolution was Laugh In, an electrified version of vaudeville with little touches like paisley, stickers of flowers, and Goldie Hawn in a bikini? Idol, ostensibly the revival of Amateur Hour, is this generation’s Laugh In.

I remember thinking that none of the jokes on Laugh In were actually funny, especially “Sock it to Me” and “Here Comes the Judge”, but I laughed and kept watching, maybe because I needed to laugh in those times. Some of the music on Idol is genuinely wonderful, but mostly it’s not. I suspect I watch the show because I want to believe in music, any shared music, in a time where discord or even apocalypse is always just below the surface in America. I know that no second coming of Paul Robeson will ever sing “We Shall Overcome” on the show. I even know that I’ll probably never hear a voice as good as Johnny Hartman’s or Sarah Vaughan’s on AI. Still, I keep watching because in all its tastelessness, manipulation, and silliness, Idol seems to catch some warming echo of TV culture that resonates for me.

In 1987, I was on a bike trip with a group and we were camping in the Mojave desert after being told that the area was filled with roving bands of death worshipping Satanists. For some reason, in the spirit of scary campfire stories, it got us just scared enough. By one in the morning a couple riders were crying that they weren’t ready to have their hearts ripped from their bodies for some sick ceremony as if they really believed it, a fellow biker whipped out a guitar and started playing and singing “American Pie” (a song that was a hit when most of the group was in pre-school). Here inthe hottest, most bug infested, waterless spot in California, suddenly everyone started singing along with him and the whole group was feeling safe again just because of the shared comfort of pop music.

Idol is a British show that’s been made deeply American. This year’s finale caught all that’s weird and yet endearing about our own popular culture in its marraige of convenience between the rhetoric of cell phone driven democracy and amateur singers with back stories. Somehow too, it reminds me of that night with Don McLean after midnight in the Mojave.

What can I say but, “Soul Patrol, Soul Patrol.”

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About Chancelucky

  • Bliffle

    You might be happier if you watch the “Live From Lincoln Center” 30th anniversary program on PBS. Two hours of great music by great performers. Nothing obscure and no unknowns: songs like “Bring in the clowns” and “St’ James Infirmary” and performers you can count on, like Pavarotti, Wynton Marsalis, etc.

    Try it. You’ll like it.

  • Rita C

    Clay disappeared from public view 5 months ago, with periodic teases to his fanclub that we should “open our minds” and that “big things were coming”. The fanclub wondered about an AI appearance, but it seemed unlikely because would they have the best selling runner-up sing on a show where they frequently tout that winning is everything? When the news came that he would appear, the rumors were rampant about a duet — with one of the contestants, with another famous singer — not a duet with a Clay Aiken impersonator.

    It was potentially a cringe-worthy appearance on international television, this young man who likely played up a resemblance to Clay to get himself on TV. It was so astonishing that this young man so loved the real thing, that he allowed his emotion to be shown on TV. Not scripted, not planned, not contrived. A real moment on reality TV. What a lucky stroke for AI. I have a feeling they’ll submit this episode for an Emmy.

    Clay’s bearing on stage comes from 6 tours in 3 years, where he also invites the public to participate in his concerts. He’s quite adept at handling all sorts of people in all sorts of impromptu situations. He was also a special needs worker who would not be put-off by anyone who doesn’t look/act Hollywood, unlike say Ryan Seacrest. His fans have seen the confident savvy performer for quite awhile; the television audience got its first glimpse on Wednesday. He’s worn those clothes before, he’s behaved/sang that way before; the hair was different, but consider that everyone in the media always referred to him as a spiky-haired crooner and dismissed him without taking a closer look. Funny that his hair seemed to define him; funny that his hair now has stolen the spotlight away from the winner and even Prince.

  • http:///www.chancelucky.blogspot.com chancelucky

    Bliffle,
    thanks for letting me know about the Lincoln Center Show. To be clear, I very much enjoy watching Idol, though not always for the music. I’m also very fond of watching unkown performers and off the beaten path songs.

    Rita, thanks for the Clay Aiken details. I thought he sounded very good (what I could hear over Michael Sandecki) and I also thought Clay was both gracious and showed an ability to laugh at himself.
    It was really good Reality Tv.

  • Elaine McCracken

    I’ve been to a Clay Aiken concert. He is a very talented young man. I will go again if I get a chance.

  • VALERIE

    I PERSONALLY LOVE TAYLOR HICKS!!! I AM FROM BIRMINGHAM AND I’VE SEEN HIM PERFORM BEFORE. WHAT AMERICA DID NOT SEE WAS “HOW TALENTED” HE REALLY IS. HE RELATES TO EVERYONE. HE HAS SHOWMANSHIP. HE IS ENTERTAINING! ISNT THAT WHAT ENTERTAINERS SUPPOSED TO DO?????? ENTERTAIN? MY 5 YEAR OLD CAN STAND UP AND SING, BUT TAYLOR GIVES YOU A REASON TO WANT TO SEE HIM BECAUSE YOU NEVER KNOW WHAT YOURE GONNA GET, BUT YOU WILL BE ENTERTAINED!!! I LOVE HIM BECAUSE HE DOESNT HAVE TO SHOW HIS CHEST AND HAVE SEXUAL MOVEMENTS (I LIKE HIS MOVES…THEY JUST MAKE YOU WANT TO GRAB HIM & HOLD HIM CLOSE, THAT IS IF YOU CAN CATCH HIM!)

    WHAT’S ALL THE SMACK ABOUT THE PURPLE JACKET??? IT LOOKED GOOD!! NOBODY ELSE COULD PULL THAT OFF BUT TAYLOR. WHATS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TAYLOR’S PURPLE JACKET AND ELVIS’ BLUE SUEDE SHOES???

    LETS NOT FORGET THAT GRAY HAIR!! IT JUST BRINGS OUT HIS DEEP EYES. BESIDES THAT, PEOPLE SPEND SO MUCH TIME AND MONEY TRYING TO LOOK YOUNG AND TAYLOR PROVED THAT YOU CAN HAVE GRAY HAIR AND IT DOESNT MAKE YOU “OLD” IT MAKES YOU NOTICABLE. (I WONDER HOW MANY MORE MEN ARE GONNA KEEP INVESTING IN THAT “JUST FOR MEN” HAIR COLORING???) AT 49 YEARS OLD, I WISH MY GRAY HAIR WAS AS PRETTY AS HIS!!

    I CANT WAIT TO SEE HIM WHEN HE GETS BACK HOME BECAUSE TAYLOR IS….. JUST TAYLOR! AND HE IS MY “WHITE SOUL BROTHER”.

  • kfc

    Of all the semi-stars who have emerged from the Idol machine, the one who couldn’t have gotten America’s attention without Idol is Clay Aiken. Aiken also happens to be the most sexually ambiguous of all Idol finalists.

    Thank you, Chancelucky, for a very well-written article; it was handled fairly, intelligently, facetiously and with a positive frame of reference. You covered all the important musical eras, and ,of course, I was able to remember most of them…lol

    In all honesty, American Idol is just a few steps away from being the modern-day version of the Ed Sullivan Show or the Andy Williams Hour etc. etc…via which, the up-and-comming and sexually-ambiguous stars of the day, got to display their talent to the huge audiences of that time.As no blogs were available at that time, no negative or hurtful innuendoes received as widespread attention as they do today. Thank goodness.

    Elvis was definitely considered an oddity when he first appeared on the scene; but,in spite of the rumours about him, he made it..and made it big. If Clay told the public today, that a fourteen year old girl in his back bedroom was intended as his future wife once she grew up..and, that nothing was going on,now…who would believe him? Elvis didn’t s…around. He was faithful to his ‘intended’. I mean..here was a guy who was so blatantly sexual in his performances…and hot looks….and everyone believed his story.

    Clay writes a book completely baring his soul about his dysfunctional upbringing..his almost ‘total dependance’ on the main women in his life, his daily interaction with bullies, his love for disabled children…he rises to fame with little time for a personal life….(no wife-to-be- in the picture..as he’s still only 24 years old) and..all of a sudden, some ‘bully’ from his own home town decides he’s going to assasinate Clay’s character and get even with him for all the hurt, he, himself, has suffered. All of a sudden, Clay becomes ‘sexually ambiguous’…and smeared all over the headlines.

    The difference between Elvis and Clay??? It’s called ‘Anonymous’ and it blogs all over the universe. It spreads hate and destroys everything it touches. Truth has become a thing of the past.

    I suspect I watch the show because I want to believe in music, any shared music, in a time where discord or even apocalypse is always just below the surface in America–chancelucky

    Yes, we had the cold war going on then; music was a way to forget our worries. Then we had the Vietnam War and now the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. We still have our music; we still have our Taylor Hicks to give our lives the appearance of normalcy; and we still have our wonderful Clay Aiken to give our world that jolt of excitement and joie de vivre that enables us to accept the current condition of the world.

    I hope American Idol never changes; I hope the Taylor Hicks, Kellie Picklers, Katherine McPhees and Kevin Corvais et all never stop trying to change the world or to lighten it with song. And I certainly hope that Clay Aiken never allows the naysayers of the world to stop his joy and beauty and good works from turning our world into a better and more exciting place to live. Clay is the only singer today who can connect the dots between the long list of wonderful singers we’ve enjoyed in the past with the hope of more beautiful music to come. Thank you, Clay Aiken.

    Red Deer Alberta Canada

  • http:///www.chancelucky.blogspot.com chancelucky

    Red Deer,
    thanks for the long-thoughtful comment. One of my earlier reviews compared the cultural impact of Idol to Ed Sullivan, so yes I agree. People often forget how “unuusual” a lot of musical icons personal lives were Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc. I’m not sure what would have happened to any of them were they to try to make it in the post-blog mp3 entertainment world.

    I do want to say quite clearly that I have no idea what Clay’s private life is like. I was commenting mostly about the way the producers appeared to b handling the whole image thing.

    I hope he continues to be a success musically.

  • TJ Allen

    You should have kept your article very short.

  • http://chancelucky.blogspot.com/ chancelucky

    IfTJ, if it’s too long for you, don’t read it.

  • bkmc

    I’m running behind…loved the article. Also adore Clay and Taylor and hope for their continued success.

  • http://www.chancelucky.blogspot.com chancelucky

    bkmc,
    thanks for your kind comment. That’s the great thing about the internet, at least so far. You find things when you’re ready to find them unless of course you’re desperate to find something then it simply becomes unfindable.