Thursday, May 25, 2006

Soul search: thoughts on the American Idol finale.

Yes, you can put "thoughts" and "American Idol" in the same sentence (or fragment). I think you have to, to make sense of the following surprise: I was abundantly entertained by tonight's finale, despite the fact that I knew its inevitable conclusion. Who didn't? Taylor Hicks outperformed Kat on the critical night, and I think Kat's supporters -- of which I was one, from the start -- soured on her prissy displays of self-entitlement, fits of indelicacy oddly intensified by her indisputable beauty (show some class, princess!). In years past -- I've been watching since season two, the year of the Clay-Ruben match-up -- the preening shlock fests that led to the final disclosure, whether expected (Fantasia) or uncertain (Ruben), were stultifying tests of the audience's patience -- an insult to viewers who had invested so much time, so many phone calls, so many text messages.

Tonight? Crikey, where to start? Paris Bennett scatting with Al Jarreau? Elliot Yamin playing Bono Vox to R & B queen Mary J. Blige? Toni Braxton? Dionne Warwick? PRINCE???!!! (I can't help myself, I gotta say it: yowza!).

As I realized how thoroughly I was enjoying myself, I began to wonder what guided these particular programming choices and whether they might undermine the inevitable conclusion and Taylor Hicks' claim to the crown. No doubt Hicks is immensely likable: that dude loves to sing, and audiences love to reward that kind of commitment. But the kind of intensity Taylor Hicks displays, through his Joe Cocker spasms and quad-burning squats, is not going to lead to CD sales. That is, let's be exact here: people may have wanted to watch Taylor perform his spastic minstrel act -- but will they want only to listen to him? I doubt it.

But the producers of the finale did Hicks no favors by sending out the first string of America's "Soul Patrol," in performers such as Mary J. Blige and Prince (hot!). The effect would have been the same had Kat been destined to win and they had programmed Christina Aguilera, Mariah Carey, or even Kelly Clarkson (if she would've shown up). Indeed the (delightful) wonder was how spectacularly the other finalists performed with the genuine articles with whom they were blessed to sing -- that Paris scat with Jarreau? The hottest! But the "wow, is she the real deal or what" kind of performance that undercut the eventual winner.

Every season of American Idol has sent home some prizes who deserved to win, Chris Daughtry being this year's most startling exit. And American Idol is, most fundamentally, a TV show (duh) -- such abrupt departures add to the tension and drama, and keep us tuned in. What I find most interesting about this year's finale, though, is the sudden full court press with performers of color. The first show of the final twelve blessed us with the brilliance of Stevie Wonder, whose Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life are sheer sonic genius, and whose degree of difficulty immediately sorted out the wheat from the chaff among this season's performers. Since season one, though, contestants have been trying (painfully) to summon the trills and melisma of Mariah Carey, while the program itself was pretty white bread, showing itself most out of step when it would assign its winners the kinds of songs that only play well in elevators. The singles they assigned Taylor and Kat this year fall squarely into that category (and no doubt Kat lost when she went so sharp on hers: did you see when the camera panned on her mother, who knew? Ouch).

But why consign finalists such hokey schlock, and program such dynamic jazz, soul, and R & B performers for the finale? Remember, we endured whole weeks dedicated to Kenny Rogers and Barry Manilow (although I admit the latter scored brilliant arrangements for the performers). We might give the producers credit for tuning in, finally, to the dominant chord in contemporary music and (again, finally) getting some soul; I certainly give them high props for the entertainment value of the finale itself, so good as to render its conclusion irrelevant.

Overall, the peculiarity of the programming this year makes the goofy song-fest worthy of thought, for whatever funhouse mirror the show holds up to race, commerce, and popular music in our culture. I admit I feel out of my element in this (and, as in most things, I am probably overthinking the whole thing). So I dropped a note on the show to the TV critic at Slate, Troy Patterson, who is dynamite: such snappy prose, such astute observations. I hope he, or Jody Rosen, a sound music critic, writes on what I have observed -- but if you have a theory or related observation, I'd love to see it here.

A Post-Script: I have heard back from the talented Troy, who informs me that he will not be writing on the show (and dreads such an assignment in the future; I can't blame him). But many of you are here because of Slate, which featured me today in their edition of "Today's Blogs." I noticed the formatting didn't always translate in the link, in which case, go to the home page of the site (by clicking on "Jardinière" above). Regardless, welcome, and thanks for coming.


Jillien said...

hmm interesting to see how much thought you put into the finale. If someone would have asked me i would have probably been a little less informative. Your post was a great read though.

Euonymous said...

Ha, yeah, that's me: TMI. . . too much information! And too much thought . . . What can I say) Thanks for posting, Jillien. Don't be a stranger.

Euonymous said...

Another pressing question (!): what is UP (or down?) with Clay Aiken's hair?!

Anonymous said...

I have to admit I enjoyed the show too- something I don't share with many seeing that I am almost at the 40 mark. I was disappointed when Chris Daughtry was voted out- this even when I had cast my first vote with my Cingular phone (big mistake- I still get text messages to speak live with old contestants) I guess there still is no place for Daughtry's "Live" riffs. I don't know how he would have pulled off the "hokey schlock" finale song anyway.