Monday, June 11, 2007

American Idol - Season 6

Does anyone else watch American Idol? And did anyone else, apart from me, think Season 6, the latest season that was just wrapped up three weeks ago, sucked big time? From mediocre contestants to obvious rigging to Republican propaganda to feel-good 'we Americans are so great, we're still carrying the white man's burden' hogwash, this season was everything a reality show that's got too big for its boots shouldn't be, but was. Warning: those not interested in this show would probably get bored, and fans of Jordin Sparks very offended.

Season 6 started out in much the same manner - there was the always effervescent Ryan Seacrest, the three judges, true to type - Randy Jackson, whose vocabulary didn't seem to have improved in the slightest in the last one year, and who warned everyone that this time, he was 'going to keep it real'; Paula Abdul, as flaky as ever (seriously, what IS she on?); and Simon Cowell, as smug as they come, sarcastic British wit still firmly in place. Hollywood Week was the usual melodramatic event, and then you had the top 24, only to realise that there were just two people worthy of note - Melinda Dolittle, a shy, humble background singer whose stage presence and brilliant vocals just blew you away; and Lakisha Jones, a black single mother with a powerful voice reminiscent of Aretha Franklin's. And I had yet another personal favourite - a big, curly-haired, gravelly voiced guy called Chris Sligh, who was more intelligent than all the contestants, judges and producers put together, and whose one-liners kept everyone in splits throughout.

Surprisingly, most of the people among the top 24 - and these, apparently, were the 24 'best' singers in North America - were insipid, with weak vocals, and entirely forgettable. Not surprisingly, the judges reacted to the high-school level singing with a barrage of criticism, and pretty soon 12 had been eliminated, leaving behind the top 12, at least two of whom definitely did not belong there. Within a couple of weeks into the competition, though, it was clear - at least clear to anyone who had been watching this show for a few seasons - that the judges had their own agenda, in all likelihood spelt out for them by the producers, FOX network, and Sony - and so the winners had been chosen, and were now being sold ('pimped', in the words of angry AI watchers who haunted the message boards) to the audience. The winner had to be either the enormous Jordin Sparks, a 17-year-old who could undoubtedly sing, but who needed a lot more training before she could make it to the ranks of the better singers of the day, which included her fellow contestants Melinda and Lakisha. Plus, she had a lot more growing up to do - poise and maturity were qualities she sorely lacked. The other contestant marked out for the big prize was Blake Lewis, a goodlooking young man who had been born to sing in boy bands, whose idea of 'singing' was beat-boxing after every two lines, and who had tons of screaming girls falling all over him from week two.

So there was the giggly, incoherent Paula Abdul, who, as everyone knows cheers and dances to the songs that only the young, attractive boys sing, and marks out her special pretty boy every season, who then can do no wrong in her eyes - last year it was Ace Young, and the year before that Constantine Morales - getting up to dance to Blake's beat-boxing before Blake had even stepped on to the stage, thereby proving to all who cared to notice that no matter what Blake sounded like, he was getting her vote for sure, and telling him while there were still eight or nine contestants left - 'I'll see you at the finale!' Jordin was told after every rendition of yet another soulful love song, which clearly was her genre, that 'that was a bomb' (Randy), 'you're so adorable, you're 17 and you're so great' (Paula), and 'you're definitely in the same league as Melinda and Lakisha (Simon). In fact, Simon Cowell went a step further and did 'his thing' - abuse his position as supposedly neutral judge - and told her he thought 'she could win this competition' when there were at least seven people, some of them far better than her, left on the show.

It wasn't that this was the first time something like this was happening - the judges have their favourites every season, who they shamelessly peddle to the audience. Simon, who is only too aware of the fact that he's the judge with the most power to sway public opinion, doesn't hesitate to cash in on it. He's the one who helped Carrie Underwood win Season 4 with his 'predictions' ('you're going to win this competition, and you'll be the winner who sells the most records'); and last year he tried gamely to push Kelli Pickler before realising that (a) she was almost embarrassingly dumb; and (b) that she really couldn't sing too well, after which he transferred his attentions to Katherine McPhee and Taylor Hicks (who ultimately won). But the problem with this season is that the 'fixing', and the pimping, was incredibly blatant - it's almost as though they'd thrown all pretence of the show being a democratic one, where the audience gets to choose the winner, out the window, and were doing all they could to make sure their favourites won. And here's my take on the reason behind this desperation: last year's winner, Taylor Hicks, didn't do all that well, especially compared to Chris Daughtry, the most talented person on the show, who had been among the top four before being eliminated. Chris' album has sold almost 3 million copies, and he's been at the top of the charts for a very long time. Even Katherine McPhee, the runner-up, had her single debut at No. 2, right behind Daughtry - but Taylor Hicks, on the other hand, sold only 700,000 copies of his album, and wasn't anywhere near the top of the charts.

Quite a huge let-down for AI producers, who conspicuously left Taylor out of the show this year, despite the fact that the previous year's winner always makes an appearance the next year. They yelled themselves hoarse about how Carrie Underwood is a Grammy-award winner, how Chris Daughtry's done so well, how Elliot Yamin's album's just been released - but not a word about Taylor and his failure to leave a mark on the music world. And we all know that the winners don't get to make an album of their choice - rather, Clive Davis decides their sound, and what he thinks will sell most copies (his recent, much-publicised falling out with Kelly Clarkson because she decided to write all the songs on her new album and sing them her way provides ample testimony to what happens when AI winners decide to show some individuality). Stands to reason that after last year's debacle, FOX would take no chances - they'd deliberately plump for the ones they thought would be the most saleable, the most popular, and the most amenable to being moulded. Jordin Sparks, at 17, and not a very mature 17 at that, was the most likely choice, more so than Blake, who, though by far the most marketable and popular, had a rather distinct style of his own. So while the judges were busy telling the world that Jordin was the one to vote for, the studio did their own not-so-subtle version of hard-sell - the camera would focus more often on Jordin than anyone else - the audience was treated to an incessant display of Jordin giggling, pouting, beaming, preening, occasionally trying hard to squeeze out a tear when someone got eliminated; Randy Jackson, on a television interview that he gave while there were still 10 contestants left, stated that in his opinion, Jordin had it in her to win; Ryan Seacrest moved away from his duties as a host to state on his show that Jordin was the one to watch out for, that she had shown the most 'growth'; Simon began deriding every other contestant in his usual charming fashion while praising Blake and Jordin to the hilt; when interviewing people on the streets about their favourite contestants, studio executives, through careful editing, showed us how young people loved Jordin and were dancing to her songs on the streets, and how they only managed to find a lone barmy old geriatric when they went in search of Melinda's fans. The message was clear - she's the next American Idol. You'd be dumb to vote for anyone else.

I'd predicted victory for Jordin to anyone who'd care to listen weeks before the finale, but there still are a few niggling questions left. Why were so many of the top 24 so very mediocre? Surely, among the thousands who auditioned, there would have been some really good singers? Or did the judges deliberately select some weak singers who they began trashing from day one so as to make it easier for their chosen ones? I mean, take the example of Antonella Barba. When she came to audition with her best friend Amanda, she told the judges guilelessly - 'Amanda's the better singer, she's trained. I'm not.' Pretty Antonella muffed up her lyrics, a crime for which better singers had been eliminated, she was among the last two left before the final 24 were selected, and even a moron could tell that the other girl, Marisa, was a better singer - yet Antonella made it. And here's the twist - before she even appeared on the stage (where her singing was promptly trashed by the same judges who had chosen her for her, well, singing), controversy broke out. Semi-nude pictures of Antonella had been published on the Internet, supposedly by her best friend, whom she had beaten in the competition. The controversy made sure of one thing - AI was in the news. People were watching, visiting the official site, thronging the message boards. And people were voting. Would people be too far off the mark to suggest that maybe, just maybe, she had been taken in because the producers had got wind of the published pictures and wanted the controversy? After all, she wasn't a good singer - she'd never make it to the top 12. But this incident would attract a lot more people to their television sets.

Or take Sanjaya Malakar, who I'm furiously defending these days. Granted, he couldn't sing that well - but then he didn't sing all that well during Hollywood Week either. Why choose him in the first place? The judges are part of the music world, they've been on this show for the last six years - do you seriously mean to tell me they can't recognise good singing from mediocre? I suspect he was taken in because he was weak. Unfortunately, their plan backfired - Sanjaya might not have been a good singer, but he was far more endearing and charismatic than Jordin could ever hope to be. People loved him - and voted for him. While the judges watched in horror, he stayed safe - and no amount of howling about how 'this is a singing competition' (yeah, right!) could make a dent in Sanjaya's popularity. And all through the brickbats, that young teenager did not lose his cool - or his impish smile. Dragged into a controversy that he certainly had not anticipated, Sanjaya is still the butt of ridicule - and he takes it all in his stride, and laughs at himself along with the rest of the country. I admire that boy - especially given the fact that he's only 17.

Haley Scarnato, yet another popular contestant with little talent, was driven to tears when Simon, in his most disgusting avatar yet, told her it was clearly her strategy of 'wearing as little as possible' that was keeping her in the competition; Chris Richardson, a quiet guy who was giving Blake a good run for his money, was dismissed as being 'too nasally'; a bewildered Lakisha was told her 'dancing' was not good enough; and Melinda, about whom Simon had once petulantly complained 'We'll never be able to criticise you!' was faulted for her humility, and the fact that she had been a professional back-up singer. Blake, on the other hand, and told he was original, quirky, prone to taking risks, even when he was busy butchering songs or covering his lack of singing ability with generous dollops of beat-boxing and copying moves that every self-respecting boy band member had worked in at least one, if not all, their dance routines. And when Jordin sang so badly that the judges had no choice but to tell her so, they sugar-coated their criticism with remarks like 'But never mind, everyone had a bad week now and then'; 'You're still wonderful, and we still love you, and I'm sure America feels the same way'. Now why did Melinda not hear that the only time she was a tad less than perfect?

Why am I making a big deal out of a reality show? Because I used to love American Idol, that's why - and like every other Melinda fan, I'm disgusted with the outcome. And don't even get me started on the 'Idol Gives Back' propaganda, where they collected money for people affected by Hurricane Katrina and the 'poor, starving children in Africa'. What about the poor, starving, orphaned children in Iraq, one wanted to ask. The Republican propaganda reached its lowest ebb with a shot of George W. and Laura Bush, who thanked Americans for raising money 'for charities they themselves are too mean to support' as a reader put it. That, more than all the rigging in the world, is why I'm never watching this show again.

End of rant.