Thursday, May 22, 2008

American Idol 2008

Here during the morning after come down, I shall make my one American Idol post for the season. A season in which a rocker finally broke through and a season in which the show is revealing signs of fatigue with declining ratings.

We shall start with the conclusion that aired last evening. The thought of a 2 hour results show usually warrants a sigh and a groan from yours truly as these lengthy programs that could air in 10 seconds are typically painful and slow. Last night, however, I didn't look at my watch every thirty seconds. The producers have done well in making the finale a carnival of variety - in essence the Super Bowl of singing. This night is an event, less about the overall winner and first runner up and more about patting the music industry on its back with new talent mixed in with old favorites being exposed to a whole new audience. The program remembers that in the last five minutes it has to announce a winner, but as we've seen from the commercial successes of fourth place finishers, the victory is the exposure the final contestants have received and the chance to market not just their music but a personality and a face to accompany it.

With that said, for the first time in nearly two years, I gave a damn about the outcome. When Daughtry was erroneously booted to become a fourth place finisher in 2006, I quit caring. I still watched the show, but the hollow feeling following a season that saw soon to be appearing on the "where are they now" segment on Entertainment Tonight winner Taylor Hicks was too much to overcome knowing that the best talent didn't even medal. Last year was fine, but I wasn't crazy about any of the contestants. Even this year with a rocker back in the mix of things, I still preferred Daughtry, but hey, that David Cook guy is pretty good, too.

American Idol has three phases a contestant must master in order to win the show, and David Cook won deservedly having conquered all three. The first phase is the audition round in which a singer must persevere through long lines, weary producers, and attention-needy losers. Simply, you must have some level of singing talent. The second phase is the Hollywood round in which a singer must stand out against a slew of other capable singers. Whereas phase one is sifting creme from crap, phase two is trickier as now you must graduate in the top 10% of the lawyer class at Harvard.

David Cook had no trouble with either of these first two phases. Clearly he can sing, though he did have to overcome not even wanting to tryout as his brother was the one who wanted to go to the audition. The second phase wasn't overly grueling either as rockers tend to be in short supply on the show, and a guy singing anything other than Stevie Wonder is bound to sound different. Through two rounds, though, Cook was not a dominant force or a favorite. He was cruising without screwing up as so many do in these early stages. Cool and consistent.

Phase three catapulted Cook from guy in the background to the 2008 American Idol. This phase is the top-12 round. This phase is the most intensive and well rounded of three. No longer can artists get by on simply singing. Instead, they must have a likable personality, songwriting ability, and this season an ability to play a music instrument. The contestant's overall well roundedness propels him/her forward. In this phase, a charming chap like Taylor Hicks can make it further than he probably should, a musical instrument can hide vocal shortcomings such as the crutch the piano and guitar provided for Brooke White and Jason Castro, or reworking songs to sound original like Blake Lewis. Combining all three into a single person creates the 2008 American Idol.

David Cook has the "everyman" likeability factor. He's got the common man rises to fame and fortune story surging strongly for him. His cool demeanor and self confidence stood out against a befuddled David Archuleta, apathetic Castro, or constantly crying White. Cook could play the guitar which made it easy to picture him as the lead singer of tomorrow's hot rock band, but he didn't need the guitar to excel. The area in which Cook most definitely stood out was his songwriting ability. Whereas many of these contestant love to sing and can very well, American Idol has become a show in which originality lacks and those artists who have the ability to cover a song stand out. Cook had lots of help covering covers, which may or may not be as original as the audience may take it for, but when Idol fans remember stand out performances for originality, "Hello" and "Billy Jean" are at the top of that list. In short, Cook had a personality, played an instrument, and could cover a song like no other singer. No one would have said at the end of round one or two that Cook was the guy to beat, but the dominating way in which he handled phase three is the reason why his face graces the top of this blog post and countless other less prestigious media outlets this morning.

With that said, first runner up David Archuleta was probably the better singer. The kid had an uncanny ability to turn it on when he took the stage. When not singing he was a pip squeak of a kid awkwardly standing in the front of the class, but with a band and a microphone, he was damn good. He outperformed Cook in the finale and had the backing of the judges to win it all. He's a prodigy of a talent, and I fully believe that if he were on the show last year, he would have left Lewis and Jordin Sparks in his wake. It's been replayed quite a bit, but "Imagine" was one helluva performance.

The rest of the field also returned for the final show, which was a nice reminder of what was a very strong top 12. David Hernandez busted out a few moves that made us remember his origins. Amanda Overmyer being forced to dance in line with the top 6 females was a reminder of her very non-traditional techniques. Kristy Lee Cook who actually improved as she went on before ultimately being exposed as being over her head got in her few lines, sounding and looking great in the process. Syesha Mercado who just missed out on making the finale as an active contestant had a self-confidence about her that made her a capable partner for Seal and Donna Summer.

Of the returning group, I am of the opinion that the Michael Johns and Carly Smithson duet and walk down the stage stairs was most memorable. At the start of the process, these two would have been my pick for the finale. Both having had record deals before, they were more polished than the other contestants with distinct voices and strong stage presence. Johns suffered from never finding his niche and probably contributed to Cook winning the whole show when a similar fan base likely flocked from one rocker to another. Smithson was the dominant female voice on the show but had trouble in a variety of categories from wardrobe, to over singing, to caring too much what the judges said, to a rash that appeared to be overtaking her right arm. Overall, these two couldn't quite get it together and instead of a sing-off were instead relegated to a couple lyrics and then the fade into the background.

Despite greatly enjoying this season and the two part finale, I did have a few gripes with the season that I would be unfairly glossing over if I didn't comment on them.

For starters, the quality of judging is deteriorating rapidly. Much has been made of Paula Abdul's snafu in judging a song that has never been song. While the reasons for the boo-boo were later made public (last second changes, dress rehearsal viewing, etc.), it still was baffling that she couldn't tell what was live television and what wasn't. Be that as it may, no one expects anything from her and usually we get nothing in return. Yay for mediocrity. If she didn't follow Randy Jackson and have his comments to gently rework, I don't know if she is capable of an independent, original thought.

And Randy Jackson isn't necessarily a great judge to be echoing. The yo-yo-yo-yo-yo dawg shtick is really tiring on me. Sometimes he has something worthwhile to say which is fine, but the blithering start to his comments is frustratingly irrelevant. Then in the grandest moment of the season, Jackson used the "you could sing the phone book" cliche that if I hear one more time I will claw off my ears. Not only is that cliche stupid, it has been used countless times this season to describe Archuleta. Why not come up with something, ANYTHING different in the way of unique thought or descriptive adjective. Sorry dawg, not feeling it.

Mercifully, producers have said that next season the weekly result show will be scaled back from one hour to two. Those results shows are painfully long. Bring out the contestants, parade them around, remind everyone for the umpteenth time what they sang, take commercials, and have a couple mentors sing. All I need to know is who survived and who is out. Fortunately, we have 30 fewer minutes next year to do just that.

Overall, I loved this season as the diverse talent and optimal outcome contributed to what I thought was the best round of American Idol that I have seen. The minor flaws would appear in any show, especially after seven seasons of a predictable, yet undeniably successful formula. David Cook is a worthy champion who we'll see in a 3 minute performance at next year's finale. I just hope that's not the first or last we see of him in the meantime.

Photo from

1 comment:

Jan said...

I think its the best season of American Idol so far. Good critique.