American Idol Crib Notes

If, unlike me, you don’t have a partner who forces you to watch the Fox karaoke competition “American Idol,” you may be living in a state of blissful ignorance, utterly unaware of what’s happening on America’s most-watched television program. You may not know that after weeks of schmaltzy build-up the shrinking talent pool questing to be America’s choice for pop record stardom has been pared to six men and six women. You may not know that the 12 remaining finalists (out of 92,000 hopefuls that auditioned) hardly represent the best singers America has to offer, or that the producers of the program manipulate the results with transparent show business chicanery, or that the “judges” — a panel of three inarticulate nincompoops — usually have nothing constructive or enlightening to say, or that the results are controlled by phone and text-message voting — which means the winner is determined largely by the whims of teenaged girls.

All you probably know is that the show is wildly popular and that way too many people take it seriously, as though it were the Van Cliburn competition and not a prefabricated entertainment spectacle that appeals to the most inglorious aspects of our popular culture.

Since I have a wee interest in music, allow me to introduce you to the dozen singers America has “elected” to this point. I will list them in ascending order, from most noxious to best. Please note, this ranking is no guarantee that the contestants will be eliminated in the suggested order; indeed, it’s a mortal lock that American voters (again, mostly teenagers) will prefer someone who stinks. But at least now you can fake your way through a water cooler conversation about the race for stardom. You can also mention authoritatively that the re-cap clips shown at the end of each show are NOT from the evening’s performance but from an earlier dress rehearsal, which, along with the non-random ordering of performances — as in poker, acting last is a big advantage — proves that not everything is kosher about this show.

12: Kevin Covais: His presence causes indignation among people who incorrectly believe that “AI” is a singing competition. His only attribute is that he sings in tune, with a passably warm tone. Teenaged girls may have preferred him to better singers because they want to mother him. (He’s 16 and appears to be about 5’4′ and 105 pounds, with glasses and a bowl haircut.) His speech impediment — he has a slight lisp — has gone unmentioned, as has his complete lack of genuine emotion and comical stiffness.

11: Bucky Covington: A country-rock singer in the Garth Brooks vein, he’s earned the NASCAR vote. His level of vocal acumen could land him a job fronting a honky-tonk band at any roadhouse in the Carolinas.

10: Kellie Pickler: She’s cute, cute, cute. Blond, vivacious, and in possession of a fetching southern accent, this child of an incarcerated felon — we know this thanks to a tender feature package — is cut from the same mold as last year’s undeserving winner, Carrie Underwood. The big difference is Pickler can’t belt very well, and she sings out of tune. America and the judges seem to love her; I wouldn’t pay a nickel to hear her ululations.

9: Paris Bennett: Her televised audition was electrifying. Since the show moved to Hollywood, she’s delivered one insincere, showbizzy, annoying performance after another. This is a kid with enormous singing talent who has quickly been subsumed by adults who think they know how to groom her. Radiating fakeness, she’s almost become unwatchable. A real shame.

8: Ace Young: Total eye candy, which should take him far — unless the predominately female audience discovers he’s gay. Although he’s blessed with teen idol looks, the weakness of his singing will eventually expose the charlatan behind the long hair and sensuous lips. Very weak.

7: Lisa Tucker: A beautiful 16-year-old with a beautiful voice and a beautiful demeanor — all of which add up to a 16-year-old artist, which is to say someone who can only pretend to know of what she sings. One hopes it will occur to her that furling the bridge of her nose into a fierce triangle does not replace genuine emotion or passion. She has a great future, in the future.

6: Mandisa: The strongest belter of the women, she sings in tune and with a big tone befitting her big size (she’s morbidly obese, which will test America’s sexist double standard) and exuberant spirit. Like Chaka Khan, whose style she emulates, Mandisa is a very strong vocalist who can only be tolerated for 30-seconds at a time before ear fatigue sets in. Great power, not great communicating. I’m hoping to hear her sing a ballad straight. If I get goose flesh, I’ll take back everything I’ve written.

5: Melissa McGhee: The most interesting voice of the females, she’s got a husky smokiness that one associates with a mature singer. But singing, alas, is not the same as vocalizing, and none of her performances suggest she has any genuine connection with the lyrics she’s proclaiming. It’s all just pleasant noise.

4: Katherine McPhee: The most trained singer in the field, she has exquisite control over her instrument, which works three ways: as a chesty belter, a “legit” head voice, and a gorgeous “mixed” voice. She’s the best of the females. I’m still waiting to see if she has anything to say with that great voice, if there’s anything musically compelling in her. Right now I don’t care about what she does next; it’s all perfectly acceptable and nice, but not enthralling. Let’s see if she can mesmerize.

3: Elliot Yamin: The most vocally advanced singer in the competition — the guy handled the exceptionally difficult “Moody’s Mood for Love” with tremendous grace and confidence — Elliot has a gorgeous voice and a wide range. If he had Ace’s looks (or if Ace had Elliot’s low- and mid-range) he’d be unbeatable. Unfortunately, he’s unattractive. Singing that moves listeners with its sincerity could conquer this handicap, but he seems capable of only skimming along the surface of a song’s meaning, not diving in deep.

2: Taylor Hicks: Real soul, real joy, and a real sense of swing pervade his vocal performances. He’s a delightful breath of authenticity on a show that celebrates fakeness. He’s one of the few people I’m interested in seeing week after week. Should he choose to sing to his strengths — doing, for example, a Ray Charles song — he has a chance to distinguish himself even further from the rest of the field, most of whom are imitators, not originals.

1: Chris Daughtry: The biggest compliment I can give him is that should he be voted off the show next week, it won’t matter. He’s already proven he doesn’t need “American Idol” any more; he’s better than the show. A pop-rock singer in the Bon Jovi mold, Chris is a finished product, not someone looking to be developed. He has an amazingly expressive instrument, a thrilling range, and the most impassioned and intense connection to his material of any of the contestants. He’s riveting.

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