American Idol appears to be growing up: downplaying image in favor of (at least perceived) singing talent. This week’s finalists were the refrigerator-sized Reuben Studdard, the not-lean Kimberley Locke, and thrid place went to skinny white geek Clay Aiken: not an “image contestant” in the bunch.
Reuben has a sweet, soulful tenor and ironically performed “Superstar,” originally made famous by the Carpenters in ’71, but Reuben’s version was much closer to Luther Vandross’ ’84 version (more on that shortly). I didn’t think he was quite on, but the judges creamed (they love that Vandrossian smooth soul, cram-a-shitload-of-notes into every phrase style), and Reuben is a lovable lump who has real talent – his vocal gymnastics seem to genuninely derive from his emotional attachment to the song rather than from a look-at-me egocentrism.
Kimberley is a pretty-if-chunky, serious young woman with imposing jazz/standards pipes – not really a “pop” singer but an imposing talent and one who seemed to intimidate the judges (even dick-knob Simon, who nonetheless couldn’t resist mumbling something snotty about her personality) with sheer talent. She was a little stiff but whipped out a soaring, slightly showy “Over the Rainbow.”
Third place and a spot on the wildcard eligibility roster (I can’t find anything on the show’s site the rules or how the wildcard works) went to Clay, who looks like a young “my favorite martian” but skinnier, one of those uncomfortable in his skin people who all of a sudden come into focus when they begin to perform. After playing Journey’s “Open Arms” for countless school dances and weddings and all in the ’80s, I flinch involuntarily when it begins and feel the bile rising up my gastrointestinal system, but Clay gave it a worthy ride and wowed the pophound-judges, even Randy who let us know he played with Journey at some point – wow. Journey blows chunks but that’s neither here nor there – Clay is a Mr. Peepers who can croon.
That both the judges and America voted for these three is a testament to their talent, but also to the maturation of the audience and the show itself, allowing deviation from the cookie-cutter young, charismatic and cute image that the first version adhered to. Though I can appreciate and enjoy talent, I am still waiting for someone to sing a song I actually like – may not happen.
As to Reuben’s tune “Superstar”: I wonder if anyone realized what a wry commentary on the very star system the show is celebrating the song is? Leon Russell and Bonnie Bramlett wrote it in the late 60s and Rita Coolidge sang it on Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen live album, then Richard Carpenter heard Bette Midler do it on the Tonight Show in ’71 and rearranged it for Karen. Luther recorded it in ’84.
Here are the lyrics:
- Long ago, and, oh, so far away
I fell in love with you before the second show.
Your guitar, it sounds so sweet and clear, but you’re not really here.
It’s just the radio.
Don’t you remember you told me you loved me baby?
You said you’d be coming back this way again baby.
Baby, baby, baby, baby, oh, baby.
I love you, I really do.
Loneliness is such a sad affair, and I can hardly wait to be with you again.
What to say, to make you come again?
Come back to me again, and play your sad guitar.
It’s a groupie’s lament and a commentary on the weirdness of fame and mass media: “I hear your voice!! But it’s just the radio and it’s not for me but for everyone. Not only doesn’t the “groupie” own the singer, but the singer doesn’t even own the singer anymore, yet a this projection of a persona into the public sphere is what the show celebrates and traffics in. i wonder if Reuben thought about any of this or if he just likes the song.
I was beginning to wonder about all of this “maturity” and even “sophistication” – is this the direction Idol wants to head in? In the nick of time the show’s tawdry image was saved: the single contestant with the most talent, Frenchie Davis, the woman with the Aretha Franklin girth and voice, was booted off the show – no trace of her on the website – for posing nude (argh) for a kiddie-porn site to fund her return to Howard University. She was 18 at the time (23 now) so nothing was illegal, but Fox apparently didn’t like the connotations and said hasta la vista missy:
- From the moment the larger-than-life singer and her set of serious pipes appeared on Idol Davis had been a critical and fan favorite.
Entertainment Weekly already had Davis pegged as one of their picks, saying, “Davis is an Idol worth our worship.” The magazine noted that from the second that “bodacious beauties” Davis and costar Kimberly Locke “strutted their stuff on stage, all those navel-baring lightweights should have headed home.”
The women also attracted the attention of plus-size clothing manufacturer Just My Size, which offered to create outfits just for them, according to the New York Post.
Despite her dismissal and judge Simon Cowell’s cracks about her weight, 19 Entertainment, Simon’s management company that coproduces the show, told USA Today it would “endeavor to do all in its power to help Frenchie further her music career.”
That’s nice of them – at least they know talent when they hear it. She absolutely smokes. Good luck Frenchie.