Okay, I’ll come clean. American Idol has been a guilty pleasure in the Jackson household for the past couple of years. Didn’t see a minute of season one with Justin and Kelly, though I did watch their beach movie musical on cable—pretty bad, and what’s with Kelly being fully clothed at the beach at all times? What’s she hidin’? Decent singer, though. But my kids got me hooked the following year. The first few weeks of shows, where the hideously bad singers are mixed in with the decent ones at cattle call auditions around the country, are genuinely entertaining. That first year we watched, we followed the fortunes of Ruben and Clay and that Marine who sang really bad country songs. Last year we tuned in for a while (yes, we howled at William Hung, though that joke got old real fast), but we ended up losing interest when the Great American Voting Public kept putting through singers who were not that good and eliminated folks like our Oakland homegirl Latoya London. Ultimate winner of Season 3, Fantasia, was cool. And the album she made last year was surprisingly good.
But I have a major problem with American Idol. No, it’s not the judges—I actually like them, even the fawning Paula and snide Simon. (Randy, of course, is “my dawg”!) Most of the singers seem like nice enough folks, even though there are occasional ones I want to strangle: this year it’s Mikalah Gordon, a truly obnoxious Streisand wannabe. No, what I can’t stand about American Idol is the unending parade of bland pop and soul songs the singers choose week after week, season after season. It’s a music show and I hate the music! Every week I descend into my own personal hell as singers routinely mangle songs that I never liked when they were popular and frankly hoped I would never hear again. And then there’s that other category: hits, mostly from the ’80s and ’90s by singers I never paid any attention to—people like Brandy, Whitney, Celine, etc.; all fine singers, I suppose, but emblematic of many of the worst tendencies of mainstream pop.
Yet this show revels in that sort of bland, sentimental mush. All you have to know about American Idol is that they have devoted entire programs to celebrations of Barry Manilow, Neil Sedaka and Diane Warren. They gave a week to disco. They always devote a week to Motown, too; not a bad thing except that every week on American Idol feels like a salute to Motown. If I hear “Build Me Up Buttercup” one more time…well, it isn’t going to be pretty. Even my kids, 11 and 14, who haven’t suffered through the decades of over-exposure to Motown classics that I have, are sick of hearing the same ten or 15 songs over and over again on AI. Any time a singer ventures past 1970 for a Motown song—say, with “Let’s Get It On” or “What’s Goin’ On”—it feels like a bold, possibly reckless act. Can American Idiots handle it?
At least Simon Cowell is upfront about it: It’s really American Pop Idol. The judges get squirrely if, during the audition rounds, somebody sounds like they’re more comfortable singing show tunes instead of pop songs. And rockers need not apply. This isn’t the competition for them, either—they should stick to Battle of the Bands.
Except this year, there are two long-haired “rockers” (as they keep being billed by the judges) who have miraculously made it into the Top 12, Bo and Constantine. In the elaborate backstory shown during one of the first weeks, we saw Constantine informing his hard rock band that he’d secretly applied to be on American Idol and had actually made it through the auditions and was going to Hollywood to try to go further in the competition. His drummer was not happy about this turn of events and sort of skulked off. Hey, that’s what drummers do; no big deal. Subsequently, Constantine assured us that his band was cool with his being on the show. And Constantine has done pretty well, too. He’s got a decent voice, a kind of slinky, lizardy stage presence, and he’s shown his rockin’ side by periodically adding little David Lee Roth screams in wildly inappropriate places in the songs he sings. Bo, who looks like a refugee from a Southern Rock cover band, didn’t grab me at first, but I’ve come to like him a lot. What sealed it for me was when he chose to sing a two-and-a-half minute version of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post”! Can you imagine such a thing? “Whipping Post” without a guitar solo? Yikes! But he nailed it—he did Greg Allman proud with his lead vocal and even the judges were wowed. At the very least it was one of the cooler song choices in the four years the show has been on.
So I tuned in to AI on Tuesday night (3/15) and got very excited when the show’s oleaginous host, Ryan Seacrest, revealed the theme for this first show featuring the Final 12: The ’60s! Yeah, that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Visions of Lindsey Cardinale tackling The Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” Bo Bice strutting the stage singing the Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” and my main man, Anwar Robinson, digging into some vintage Sly, filled my head. Would Ruski heartthrob Anthony Federov have the courage to sing “The Wind Cries Mary” by Jimi Hendrix? Maybe Constantine Maroulis would really get down, and pull out “Willie the Pimp” by Frank Zappa. All right, I got a little carried away.
My elation quickly turned to disappointment, however, when the first singer of the evening, the eminently forgettable Jessica Sierra, chose to sing “Shop Around.” “I’m sick of this song!” said my son, who’s only heard it on American Idol (again and again and again!) “Oh crap,” I thought. “I forgot that Motown was in the ‘60s. We’re doomed!” I pictured an entire evening of Motown songs, but was relieved when only two more popped up near the end: Zaftig white soulster Scott Sabol was pretty good on “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” and Nikko Smith served up a passable version of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”—not an easy song to sing if you’re not a sexually ambiguous 11 year-old. Unfortunately, most of what popped up in between was much worse than I was expecting.
Let’s start with our two “rockers”: Each of them chose a song from the same album! Ten seconds into Constantine’s version of Blood Sweat & Tears’ “You Made Me So Very Happy” I was groaning. “Not this song,” and I explained to my son that no, it’s not a terrible song, and actually there was about ten minutes there in the late ’60s when BS&T felt fresh and new (though the truly hip agreed that the first BS&T album, with Al Kooper leading, instead David Clayton-Thomas, was much cooler), but everyone, and I mean everyone, got totally sick of them. Constantine’s version didn’t sound like BS&T’s; it was wimpier! And three lashes with a wet noodle to him for describing the song as a “Motown classic.” Not. Then a few songs later, Bo Bice let me down by choosing “Spinning Wheel,” which I think I last heard played by the University of California band during a football halftime show—which is where it belongs. Definitely not what I was in the mood for, but Bo did a nice job with it. It was, in the inimitable dawgese patois of Randy Jackson, “aaiight.”
The odious Micalah Gordon did another AI standard, Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man”—I swear I’ve heard that song on this show ten times in the past three years. And it sucks! That whole school of ersatz gospel-pop is so offensive. I wish Roebuck “Pops” Staples was still alive so he could come down and slap some of these singers upside the head ands show ’em the real thing! Lindsey Cardinale gets points for trying Eddie Floyd’s “Knock on Wood,” a song that’s definitely on the hipper end of the spectrum of commercial ’60s music. Carrie Underwood, who looks a little like Britney Spears but seems to only like country music, chose the Everly Brothers’ “When Will I Be Loved” from 1960. However, the arrangement was straight out of Linda Ronstadt’s 1974 version; scorekeeper, please deduct 5 points. Anthony Federov really put his all into the song he selected: unfortunately that song was the trite and despicable “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.” Vonzell Solomon was better on Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had A Heart,” but come on—Dionne Warwick? Even dreadlocked Anwar Robinson sang a Dionne Warwick song, “House Is Not A Home.” What gives? This is what we’re taking away from the ’60s? Burt Bacharach, but not Bob Dylan? However, props to Nadia Turner, my favorite singer in this year’s group, for a great version of Dusty Springfield’s “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” Not a great choice, mind you, but delivered with personality and passion.
After the show I was completely depressed. That sure as hell wasn’t MY 1960s. Yet this is the tame, completely non-threatening view that mainstream America got, courtesy of American Idol. Oh well, I guess it could’ve been worse. Someone could’ve warbled Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey.” Or “McArthur Park.” Or “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” This will all just seem like a bad dream once I’m sitting on my couch a few weeks from now watching “Disco Night” for the third year in a row. “Burn, baby burrrrnnn….”