April 21, 2004

First, a word or two about American Idol... and then I'm going to approach the reticulated Cuban iguana I was too tired to talk about last night.

I've never liked Barry Manilow's music, but I've seen him on talk shows and think he is a really nice person. That meant he'd be a bad addition to the already-too-nice panel of judges and he was. It was like two Paulas, except one of them had a lot of opportunities to murmur about his own greatness, in the Neil-Sedaka-you-did-my-song-proud mode. And Barry Manilow seized every opportunity. My favorite thing about Barry Manilow was how all the contestants performed as instructed and enthused about how great he was, and the phoniness of this fawning became obvious when Diana DeGarma accidently called him "Mr. Barry" twice. (As if he was her hairdresser.)

Though I don't like the Manilow type of music, it is powerfully melodic, so it offered the contestants a chance to show that they can put over a melody. Unfortunately, the American Idol selection process leaves us with people who try to avoid the melody (and not just by going off key). They trill and do melismas and cover the melody up, like it was an embarrassing family secret. Poor Mr. Barry!

Only one contestant is melody-focused: John Stevens. But like Diana DeGarma, he's been branded "too young" to stand up to the powerful three women who last night were branded "The Divas." Stevens's performance made me remember how unsweet the narrative voice is in "Mandy": you just know Stevens would never have sent Mandy away in the first place. (That song has an infectious melody, but I've always hated the words, because the "I" is so damned self-involved: good for Mandy for staying away from that shaking, curable-by-kissing loser. He needs her again to solve his problem? Tough! Develop some inner resources for a change! I'd like to hear a nice bitchy song called "Mandy's Side of the Story": So you think you sent me away?)

The branding mentioned above is being done by Simon Cowell, who tries so hard to influence voting and whose favorite test of the contestants is "Do you think you can win this?" For a pissy old bastard like Cowell to embrace the philosophy You're a Winner If You Only Believe is just part of the mixed up world of American Idol. Cowell likes to create drama too: not only are Jennifer Hudson, LaToya London, and Fantasia Barrino The Divas who deserve to be the final three--they can make if they only believe--but they just hate each other now, don't they? C'mon Jennifer, admit it--you hate them: that was Cowell's attitude last night.

This attitude seems to reflect a theory that the voting process will tend to produce a race and sex balance (as if the telephone dialers were a University Admissions Committee). But ask Jon Peter Lewis if that's true. And if John Stevens leaves tonight, maybe the Ruben-Can't-Win racial theories of American Idol voting ought to be retired. And quit pushing Jennifer, LaToya, and Fantasia to hate each other. Those three are completely different and not special rivals just because they are all black women. LaToya is much cooler, maybe too cold to win, and she sings the songs in cleaner style. Fantasia has a strange, distinctive tone to her voice, a very manic personality, and a strong happiness and energy (even though she made herself cry singing "Summertime" last week). Jennifer is very warm and emotional, sometimes to the point of corniness. But she was great last night. The best of the group. The idea that the voters will be mixing these three up is really insulting to everyone involved. I understand Cowell wants to produce a drama, but must part of the drama be: how can the three best performers survive when they are all black women?

But I think he wants them to be the final three, and I give Cowell and the rest credit for not even seeming to have an idea like: for the sake of the ratings we need to keep some white performers. The white performers have been slammed, and it's quite likely that the final four will all be black: George and The Divas.

UPDATE: Meanwhile, Tonya's young son likes John Stevens the best, because he thinks he looks like a Weasley. He calls him "that red-headed guy." (But he doesn't remember last year's red-headed guy. Imagine how Clay Aiken would have thrilled us if he'd had the chance to sing "Mandy.") Prof. Yin thinks the bottom three will be John Stevens, Diana DeGarmo, and Jasmine Trias, and that Jasmine will lose. Jasmine hit a horrendous note at the end, and though Kelly Clarkson got away with hitting the single worst note in the history of American Idol (singing "Natural Woman"), I think Jasmine might be punished. Also, she discarded her magic flower. But I predict Diana will be the one to go. I think Stevens will survive, because he sang "Mandy," which stood out as the best song, and he sang it so we could hear it and understand it, and I think enough people appreciated that.

FURTHER UPDATE: After the results show, which I discuss here, by my own standard ("if John Stevens leaves tonight"), it's not yet retirement time for racial theories of American Idol voting.

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