American Idol 4:
Another season, another singing "sensation"…
After three years and three Idols in the making, the team that brought you Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, and Fantasia Barrino - 19E and FOX Broadcasting, both equally shameless in their own ways - have teamed up for a fourth season of the hackneyed "American Idol" franchise. This move comes as no surprise, since "American Idol" is FOX's biggest show, and will probably remain so well after the fledging network decides to cancel and renew "The Family Guy" yet once again. This season brings us the usual: an erratic Randy Jackson, who hangs onto his youth (and 1999) by addressing everyone as "dawg"; a psychotic Paul Abdul, who began this season on a fine line between ditzy and eclectic, and then drunkenly stumbled over to Michael Jackson territory; and Simon Cowell, the Meanest Man in the World, whose analogies (usually pointing to bad karaoke impersonations, cruise ships, and ghastly parties) are as tiresome as his bad tan, Paula jokes, lack of wardrobe diversity, eye rolls, refusal to clap for anyone until they make him money, and so on. You get the gist of it.
Your American Idol Gatekeepers: (from left to right) Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, Ryan Seacrest, and Paula Abdul.
The people over at 19E obviously feel the wheels aren't turning as smoothly as they once did back in 2002; this is probably due to some mechanical malfunction I like to call triteness. So, the selection process got longer. Because they want to be equal opportunity, it has to be six men and six women in the top twelve. (Let's just ignore for a second all the rampant rumours about the producers' push for a male winner this year.) And, thankfully, the car commercials (whose manufacturer slips my mind at the moment - go subliminal advertising!) have gotten a heck of a lot better. For instance, they no longer look like they've been shot in my backyard with a handheld camera. Even Ryan Seacrest is better. Remember Brian Dunkleman? He was a creepy little man. You can see that the years of working at Idol, not to mention a cancellation of a certain talk show, have weathered pretty Ryan. He's a veteran of the Idol massacre they simple call the "results show." Week in and week out, Ryan is the one man that holds their fate in his cue cards. To the contestants, he's the messenger of a higher being (that being the general public), but more than that, he's the key to their self-esteem, self-worth, and aspirations. He's also the first human contact they will have as they learn the crushing outcome, so it always helps to have someone who has gone through it before - someone who, unlike the judges, might actually give a damn about you.
So Ryan is tired of it all, but he needs to pay his mortgage and the possible habit he may have. And so he will drudge on, eventually relinquishing his role as impartial host in favour of a one-man cheerleading squad for these contestants, all the while giving Simon a big middle finger behind his back. One day he may very well jump onto the judges' table to throttle Simon, with his man boobs and fake tan. (Unless Simon has somehow developed scurvy. Then I take that comment back.) But for now, Ryan is content in just ignoring him, and playing his hosting duties with a firm grasp on the show's red herrings. Sometimes he will actually ask contestants about things that are relevant and legitimate, like "What do you think of Simon's comment?" Which makes sense in the real world, but not in Idol world, because in this dimension Simon rarely imparts any judgment that isn't biased, unconstructive, and immaterial to the performance. Sometimes Ryan will let us know, immediately following a performance, that someone is getting over a cold or has had tracheotomy surgery in the last twenty years. This is, of course, just filler banter so the tech guys have time to cue up the ubiquitous 1-866 number. But it's also a way for Ryan to let us know that these are people, and sometimes people have bad days and it does not (and should not) reflect their singing ability as a whole. Unfortunately, my people-and-bad-days theory is incorrect, if the current cast-offs of this season are any indication.
The contestants have gotten better with experience as well. Being "Idol" fans, they have no doubt followed the first three seasons without any sense of bitterness or disgust. This is good. If there were any traces of any of the two, there would hardly seem a reason for them to try out in the first place. Some contestants like to waltz into the auditions, all "Look at me! I've never heard of American Idol because I have been exiled in Papa New Guinea for the past three years, but as soon as I came back my friend told me I should try out for some reality show, which, again, I have never heard of, and I said, sure, what the hell, the movie doesn't start until seven anyway. And here I am." These people are usually from small towns and have never seen a car before. Of course, they always end up having a kick-ass voice, so it all works out in the end. Other contestants like to share with us the fact that they've been trying out for every single "Idol" audition since they were two years old. These people are often reserved for the clip shows that start off the season. They are delusional and probably have more than one personality disorder at a time, and apparently, they're comic gold. Or so we are led to believe, with the overconfident confessional, excruciatingly long audition clip where the contestant sounds like Jennifer Lopez, and the scripted judge eye rolls that usually accompany a snide remark from Simon and a snicker from Randy. If this were 1980, they'd be those guys back in high school, the ones in the popular clique who were really uninteresting without their letter jackets. And you know Paula would be the girl who slept with every football player that looked her way because she wanted validation. Either that, or the stoner who spent her lunch hour giggling in the corner by herself.
But these people aren't funny. They're painful to watch, for much the same reason that those dreams where you're suddenly naked and standing at the podium, getting ready to make a speech are painful to have.
After the artificial hilarity of the clip shows, we're transported to the Hollywood semi-finals, where about two hundred contestants are cut down to one hundred. And then the group sings, which are truly an exercise in tolerance and perseverance. And where people, some still stuck in that phase, and some who should have grown past it decades ago, regress to their belligerent high school tendencies. Without fail, there is always that one group who truly hates one of its members. We don't know why they hate this person or why they treat this person the way that they do. It's one of those things that we're just supposed to agree with because it's obvious that the other two members are so far above that one person that ignoring them, belittling them, and lying to them is truly the one resort (or consequence) that he or she deserves. This becomes the focus of the Hollywood group performance episode, as we watch the group self-destruct with passive-aggressive nastiness, and then bite our nails as they descend the stage for their performance. It's all very bittersweet when no one from the group makes it. And I'm glad, because as much as this is a signing competition, it is also a reality show, and the audience is always ready to judge personality as much as vibrato.
After months of cuts, we suddenly fast-forward to the top twelve. This year's group was an evident choice - so evident, in fact, that it makes the preceding hoopla seem redundant. With the exception of Nikko Smith, who was an eleventh-hour replacement for Mario Vasquez, everyone else cruised by on his or her persona, screen presence, and ingrained Idol-pop qualities. I mean, Nikko possesses all of these himself, but with little Mario still in the competition, it wasn't nearly enough to ensure him a spot in the top twelve (or, more literally, the top six for men). But for whatever reason Mario left, and frankly, we do not really care, Nikko is back. And the judges, ever the fair bunch that they are, will not let us forget that Nikko is a great contestant, although they would just as surely lavish this praise on Mario if he had stayed on the show. But this year's top twelve are wise on the game, and how to play. An eye roll back at Simon for one of his asinine comments? Of course. A "whatever" face for Randy's "it was just all right for me, dawg"? Why not? Several years ago, these kinds of reactions from the contestants would have branded them arrogant hacks that couldn't take criticism. Now, they're just reacting as much as the audience would, if the cameras would pan out to the crowd during the judges' comments. Frankly, if it were up to me, I would have the contestants compete in a debate with the judges immediately after their performance, call on the bullshit that sometimes is wont to come out of their mouths. (With the exception of Janay Castine, who made it into the top twenty-four and then got cut from the top twelve - she possessed a lack of self-awareness that, unchallenged, would only lead to greater delusions of grandeur.) The judging is based as much on Idol propaganda as it is on singing ability. If you don't stay on Simon's good side, or give him what he wants, he will cut you off at the knees. Which is unfortunate, but it's also how the game is played. ¤ C.Ho.
[ Yeah, but who's gonna win? Part II of the phenomenon. ]