Tuesday, January 13, 2009

American Idol, episode 8-1 (Jan. 13): Phoenix cattle-call

One new time-consuming job (teaching middle-school band!) and one DVR epic fail later, here I finally go. (This is written on Jan. 25, but I'm backdating the post to fit better chronologically.) Despite Fox's claims in the press over the last few months that there would less of a freak-fest than in past years, there is indeed a freak-fest in full effect in this first week, so my work is cut out for me.

As I've written in my initial posting, I'm approaching my critique of American Idol from a musical and performance perspective. It's especially hard to remain objective (and sane) in the cattle-call round, where the unprepared and self-delusional go to die. I will do my best to keep the Television-Without-Pity-esque snarkiness to a minimum, although my snark will certainly raise its head when it comes to questioning the choices of the unprepared and self-delusional. It'll likely die out as we enter the Hollywood round where people are 100% selected for their talent, as opposed to the television round of the cattle-calls where 50% are there for talent and 50% for weirdness.

[Fox TV's recap here.]

A faux-philosophical quote from David Foster opens the season. "In life, the microphone passes your lips but once... you had better be ready to sing." Seriously? Although this is obviously pop philosophy meant to make an analogy between performing and general chances in life, doesn't using music in the analogy in such a public setting run counter to what arts teachers try to impart: that it's okay to fail, as long as you're trying hard to improve? One chance? To be ready? Seriously? If that's advice to live by, it would certainly explain the endless train of auditionees who show up unprepared and then break down inconsolably because Simon didn't like them. Wahhhhhhhh.

Curtain up on Simon pep-talking a crowd during the first season, followed by a brilliantly-edited montage of past seasons' hits and misses, to the tune of Louis Armstrong's "What A Wonderful World". There are clips of the original auditions of eventual finalists-- Kelly Pickler, Chris Daughtry, Katherine McPhee, et al.-- as well as of less successful auditions and miscellaneous footage from the likes of William Hung, the "bush baby" guy, and the woman who flailed her middle fingers about and cryptically screamed at Simon to "take it, take it, take it!" No wonder she's so pissed: David Foster told her the microphone passes her lips but once!

A brief word on William Hung. I heard pieces of his debut album Inspiration when I was in the Virgin Megastore in Times Square shortly after the album's release in 2004. I happened upon a listening station, and just had to hear it. Was he a bad singer, even under the gloss of well-funded studio production? Oh yes. Were his inspirational messages treacly? Oh Lord yes. But is he self-deluded? Hard to say. You could say no, as he in fact got a record contract with Koch, which confirms, novelty or not, that he has a talent that's worth spending money on. But then again, not everyone defines success as a major-label record contract, and prefer the more old-fashioned standard of, say, being good at what you do. So in that sense, he remains quite self-deluded, albeit self-deluded on a large pile of money.

The season 7 finale reveal (from May 21) is replayed, and Ryan Seacrest intones in the voiceover: "At that moment, 55 million Americans held their breath." If your DVR is like mine, you held your breath a long time, because the episode ended at exactly 11 PM, so Ryan says "David...", immediately followed by my DVR asking "Would you like to delete this episode?" Is it really that hard to keep a show like this on schedule? With all of the awful wooden group performances that start the post-Hollywood shows, couldn't they do without one or two (or sixteen) of them for the sake of keeping 19 Entertainment's end-credit logo with the time frame of the show?

I called David Cook from his intial audition, by the way. Just sayin'.

Seacrest later intones "But this show is not about the destination; the beauty of Idol is the journey itself." Ironically, what keeps the hordes of the self-deluded and inexperienced coming to the auditions is that they see nothing but the destination-- fame, wealth, validation-- without considering any of the journey that precedes it. Like, I dunno, learning to sing before showing for a singing audition. God bless television.

20-year-old cashier and afro-cultivator Tuan Nguyen incorporates "tap-incorporated" ROTC-drill-inspired movement into his performances to make it "unique" and "more marketable". Hey, one out of two ain't bad. I admit I was quite intrigued by the movement in the clips leading up the audition, even though I know already that judges aren't going to care about it, and in fact anyone who pays attention to the show knows that dancing has never been a part of the show at all, making this train-wreck-in-the-making all the more compelling. His light tenor isn't awful, but his breath control is (probably compounded by nervousness, as demonstrated in the water-guzzling clip), and he changes keys twice before hitting the chorus of "The Way You Make Me Feel". And then the "dancing" ensues.

Let's forget for a moment that dancing is irrelevant in this competition. Whatever focus he exhibited in earlier clips completely disappears when he starts with the tap dancing, which of course looks nothing like the JROTC stuff he was talking about earlier, and in fact morphs into a second-rate imitation of Michael Jackson. What are two general lessons about auditioning can we take from this debacle?

1) Focus on what you're there to do, and don't distract yourself with stupid crap.

2) Audition with what the auditioners are looking for. Season after season, the judges reiterate that the show is at heart about singing, and yet people keep trying to incorporate gimmicks-- dance, costuming, etc.-- despite the overwhelming empirical evidence that it does you no good. Or does it? More on that later.

"Are you surprised?" asks Simon. "I mean, honestly, yeah, I am," a crestfallen Tuan replies (as Idol's genius producers fade up "Careless Whisper" underneath). Outside, he says "I'm really hurt right now. It meant the world to me... It seemed like they were with me at first, you know? I felt like I had it in the bag for a second." (It was, in fact, literally a second, two at the most.) "But then, I don't know, they just didn't like it."

Alright, this is the reason we need more arts in the schools. Not being to assess yourself is one problem; another problem is the inability to recognize criticism when it's negative and work with it to improve. He will no doubt take absolutely nothing from this experience other than disappointment, as he's just not equipped to handle anything outside of himself. If you live in Tuan's neighborhood, please kick his elementary-school general music teacher in the butt for me.

Tuan ends the interview saying "I don't know what they're looking for, honestly, but it's not me." See No. 2 above. You'd think that watching the show would help fill that gap in his knowledge, right?

21-year-old semi-pro singer Emily Wynne-Hughes, inexplicably wearing a scarf in the desert heat, does a decent job on "Barracuda". She starts out with quite a vibrato, but nails the higher notes in chest voice, which sounds like she's at the top her range.

This lesson, which she apparently already learned and demonstrated well, is lost on not just on many self-deluded Idol auditionees but on countless people everywhere in any audition situation-- including the students and adults I've auditioned for various programs and productions throughout the years. That is:

3) Choose a song that is good for you. During one single day of auditioning prospective vocal students for Talent Unlimited H.S. in Manhattan in 2005 (I was the band & orchestra teacher at the time), I heard Alicia Keys' "Falling" an amazing 15 times out of 30 auditionees. But did the song work for all 15 of them? Of course not. Two obvious reasons why this happened: a) the song was popular at the time, and b) the less successful auditionees simply weren't preparing themselves propertly for an audition. I don't know if it's a chorus teacher issue (if they were fortunate enough to have a chorus in middle school in New York City, that is) or a guidance issue, but these young ladies were approaching the audition the completely wrong way, and it frustrated me as the auditioner to not be able to gauge so many of them properly because they were either wrong for the song, or they were doing their best Alicia Keys impression and not singing in their own voice. It also, of course, made me wonder if this was the only song they could sing, and if so, how long have they been singing? Since elementary school, or since they found out about the audition? It's about the journey, not a single moment of truth, dammit.

28-year-old sales rep Randy Madden does have raw talent. He likely could muster up some better singing if he practiced and got more objective feedback on a regular basis, but it's not there now to justify going to Hollywood. He does appear to be genuine, sane, and take himself seriously.

Alright, maybe too seriously. "I just want someone to tell me that I'm great. That's all." "Where I'm standing, this is the moment where I can shine, or i can just go out like a comet, where you see me-- bright shining star-- and crash to the ground."

Yikes. Yet another reason we need arts in the schools. Is there no in-between for some people? Are people that afraid to fail? Are we as teachers not giving students the intellectual tools they need to not only self-evaluate, but to practice their craft productively to begin with, and to give them perspective they need, before auditions become earth-shattering events that will destroy them emotionally? And these are adults we're watching here! Like with politics and classroom management, you have to find the center. Everything in moderation, folks; everything in moderation.

After a weak rendition of "Livin' on a Prayer", Simon rightfully tells Randy M. that you can't just dress up in a rock star getup and declare yourself talented. When Randy tried to use his lack of training or collaboration as a selling point, Paula (impressively demonstrating a more lucid demeanor this season) gave great advice regarding the need for hard work and "comradery" with a band to get your skills up. "Going solo" isn't a badge of honor if it's not working.

(Anyone know if he was basing his performance on a popular recording other than Bon Jovi's? The unfamliar pauses and liberties with the melody sounded too well-planned to be on-the-spot mistakes. And did he really say "blue-collar guy working in a cubicle"?)

16-year-old high-schooler J.B. Ahfua is shockingly confident, with a powerful (albeit wavy) R&B tenor and great facility with the chromatic passages. He was a no-brainer to get the ticket to Hollywood; isn't it interesting how the best auditions usually end up being the shortest? His breathing was all over the place though (three times in three seconds at one point), which could kill him in future rounds as nerves creep in, as Simon alluded to when he said he wished J.B would "loosen up". The lesson he may end up learning the hard way is that better breathing begets better breathing; otherwise you're literally fighting yourself.

As I'm writing this, I'm laughing out loud at the Michael Gurr introduction sequence. And this is before he sings. (Doesn't Kara look eerily like a ringer for Idina Menzel in Wicked when they freeze her with gritted teeth and green skin?)

And when the 17-year-old high-schooler Gurr does sing, this is not a matter of being an unskilled singer thinking he was born talented. He sounds like he trying very, very hard, and has worked very, very hard to get this point. Oh, the inability to physically handle the audition process might be a factor. But this is definitely a specific technique he's worked on, and I'll imagine that friends at school can't get enough of it. I'd venture to say that there might be a market for this kind of singing... perhaps if Days of the New was looking for a new lead singer. I don't think he's self-deluded at all, and knows exactly how he sounds; he just doesn't recognize that he has no place in this kind of competition. Forget music teachers; this is a job for a guidance counselor.

The good news is that we'll only see these kinds of auditions for another.,. seven episodes? If Fox really has toned down the disasters, then we're still in for a loooooong four weeks.

There's a "murdering the classics" sequence which I won't go into, other than expressing my gratitude to Idol's licensing department for including my musical heroes Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith on their ongoing royalty gravy train.

20-year-old singer-songwriter Aundre "X-Ray" Caraway busts into the audition room like it's his job-- energy off the charts, and seeming genuinely happy to be there. (Did he say his grandmother "had the first mariachi"? Do mariachi players have groupies like that?) He then asks where he can put his guitar, and then I realize he's brought his guitar in with him. At least if he'd actually played the damn thing, he might have salvaged his audition, partly to impart some professional consistency (i.e. "this was not a prop"), but mostly so he wouldn't be able to dance, which he proceeds to do with frightening, loose-limbed abandon. Talk about extremes and keeping your eyes off the prize: where Gurr is in a shell, Caraway is on his own planet. Has anyone ever gotten to Hollywood by being on his or her own planet? (Alright, maybe Kelly Pickler. But she's ridiculously pretty, so that's almost a good excuse.)

16-year-old high-schooler Arianna Afsar is disturbingly chipper, but not in an off-the-deep-end way. She is an excellent singer to be sure, with a rich R&B mezzo; my main reservation is with the almost dead-on imitation of Corinne Bailey Rae in singing "Put Your Records On", down to the cracks, snarls and quirky vowels. Paula noted "That song was right for you... I'm glad you sang that"-- a dead-on positive critique which I'm sure will be ignored by tens of thousands of future auditionees. That said, it does make me wonder if she'll be good singer in her own right, or if she just found a lucky song that she's was particularly good at imitating.

We're treated to an "every note in the book" sequence, focusing on past male auditionees singing in falsetto. One is flat-out awful (i.e. he probably wasn't even aware that he was singing high), while two are actually quite skilled but inappropriate for a mainstream singing show. And here's where I go off the deep end: You know whose audition I really loved, back in his original showing last season, and was thrilled to see again tonight? The pasty-faced kid singing "I climbed the frosty mountains." He is a counter-tenor of stunning proportions. It's a skill that has no marketability in the pop world; however-- and this is going to sound pejorative, given the types of people often involved-- I think this guy would make a killing at renaissance faires. I'm dead serious. I don't know his name or how to find him (I supposed I could do a Google search for "American Idol" and "frosty mountains"), but if he put himself out there, early-music ensembles and Societies for Creative Anachronism would be beating down his door to book him. In music history classes in college, we would listen to historically-accurate recordings of pre-Baroque French motets, and a classmate said he couldn't believe that men could successfully woo women using such extreme, flourishy, "girly" falsettoes. I say we drop off the "frosty mountain" guy in Tuxedo, N.Y. on Labor Day weekend and see if he doesn't end up with both a fat wallet and his pick of the lusty wenches.

As a bass singer who's usually the lowest talker in the room, I'm torn between awe and pity concerning 22-year-old(!) cashier Elijah Scarlett. He's been blessed with a rich, Michael-Duncan-Clarke-like speaking voice, but sounds like some sort of cartoon dog when he sings. He chose a song-- "My First, My Last, My Everything"-- that theoretically should have played to his unique talent, but it backfired when it turned out that he, er, couldn't carry a tune. Oh, the scooping, and the mysterious false accent he sings with. (Simon asks the magic questions: "Have you seen the show before? You've heard it? And you are aware what the purpose of the show is?" Like that's going to give people second thoughts about auditioning.) A gift like Elijah's deserves to be honed better; I hope he works on it and comes back to kick some sonic ass next year. (When he began singing, my wife Samantha turned to me and said "Well, at least he could do voiceovers." Randy agreed!)

When you start an audition with the words "I'm your biggest fan", that's frightening. 16-year-old Kara-stalker Lea Marie Golde-- dressed in a pink shirt and matching cowboy hat which I'm sure is right in style in her Connecticut hometown-- makes the odd choice of "Every Time We Touch", which actually appears to work in her favor during the verse, where she has a twangy High School Musical kind of sound (in a good way). And the chorus kicks in, and what was cute and twangy in a lower register becomes shrill and nasal in the higher part of her voice. I appreciate that she's belting like mad, which takes a lot of self-confidence; she needs to find a way to tone down the "character" when she goes high. It's hard to tell if she's at the top of her range, because she's pushing so hard that it sounds like a struggle, even if it's easy for her. (Simon said "Really annoying", and Randy even referred to High School Musical as an example, albeit negatively.)

16-year-old high-schooler Stevie Wright has uncanny control over all parts of her alto voice. "At Last" may be overrated (in my opinion), but she did more with the word "clover" than X-Ray did with... well, whatever the hell words he was singing on his low notes. She's easily in, and will probably kick ass in Hollywood as well, despite not being, oh, a drama queen, raving lunatic or social recluse. See what happens when you audition with appropriate material and treat the auditioners with respect? Amazing how that works.

27-year-old oil-rig worker Michael Sarver has chops. Wow. Lyric flubs on "Thank You" (Boyz II Men version) aside, there wasn't a weak spot in his audition. Is he the strongest we've seen? No, but that's serious raw talent, and hopefully-- if he's already made it to the live rounds in February-- he's used the five months since to get his vocal act more together. His main weakness was singing on pure grit instead of support, which is impressive, but he needs to hone his power, which seems to be lurking just out of sight.

(Note to Randy M.: That man is a blue-collar worker. A cubicle-dweller disingenuously singing "Livin' on a Prayer" while an oil-rig worker earnestly sings "Thank You" is the ironic feel-good story of the night, I think.)

And now a freak-show sequence. These folks are presumably not moving on to Hollywood...

...but the next freak-show will, to my surprise. Gimmicks rarely get anyone anywhere on this show, but 20-year-old model Katrina Darrell, a/k/a Bikini Girl, apparently didn't get the memo. "I've gotten attention for wearing it." Noooooooo. Interestingly, when she walks into the audition room, Randy asks "Do you go to all auditions like this?", and she responds "No, just this one." If I had children, I'd avert their eyes-- not because of the bikini specifically, but because she's a terrible role model for any students (or impressionable adults) for whom Idol may be their only experience with auditions, and will think that gimmicks (half-naked or fully-clothed) work in the real world. Mind you, this is all my impression before hearing her sing at all. Turns out she wasn't that great of a singer either; decent and occasionally powerful, but with no control at all on "Vision of Love"'s notorious melismas (the multiple-note runs that Mariah Carey built her career on), where her voice would go from clear to unbelievably nasal on a dime. I suspect the producers had some sway on this one, as the usually more picky Simon and Randy were in the tank for her from the start, leaving Kara and Paula to stew in disbelief. She's on to Hollywood on a 2-2 decision, but she's going to get destroyed once they hear her with some goddamn clothes on.

17-year-old Eric "Sexual Chocolate" Thomas regales us with a tattoo on his back and an earnest but flawed attempt at "Ribbon in the Sky". He has personality to spare, but then upon singing reveals that he suffers from a combination of Elijah's mysterious singing accent and Lea Marie's overeager nasality. Stevie Wonder showed more soul at the pre-inaguration concert simply playing the intro to "Higher Ground" than Thomas does in a verse and chorus.

Following this is a montage of failed auditionees throwing hissy-fits. My favorites is the woman rushing off, snarling "What a nightmare; this show is a joke." Yes, that's why you showed up. See you next year!

"Oh my gosh!" 22-year-old college student Brianna Quijada has some serious low notes. Of course, the fact she successfully made the modulation into the chorus at all probably made her better than most people who walked into that room that day, but she does have chops. I rarely disagree with Simon, who initially said she got to that point by personality and not a good voice, but I think she has a great voice with a great combination of focused tone and control in the low notes (again, remember X-Ray). She got through 2-2 when Simon changed his mind, but I think there's enough raw talent to get her further if she can supress the giggles.

Another sequence, this time focusing on the enablers. Er, I mean, the families.

25-year-old bartender Deanna Brown also gets her Corinne Lee Bailey on, by way of Amanda Overmeyer, as she gets through "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay". Randy likes the snarl, and eventually all four give emphatic yesses, but because her performance seemed so derivative, I wonder if she'll be able to hack it in the Hollywood rounds. Granted, Overmeyer, who was essentially channelling a more sober Janis Joplin, made it shockingly far in season 7, but really she kind of flew under the radar (and looked miserable and alone too). I'll root for Deanna, but I don't see it happening. [Insert future backpedaling here.]

17-year-old high-schooler (and homemade horror-film director) Cody Sheldon does an okay job with "Wonderful World" (James Morrison). As Kara says, his emo look doesn't match the very Disney sound of his voice, which wouldn't be a problem if his singing was particularly good. If there was another off-camera song that went better, I wish we could've seen it, because I don't think the one we saw was particular exceptional and deserving of advancement. (It's possible it was a split decision, of course.) While Cody doesn't have a bad, it's far too thin to get him very far when he's being compared to today's advancers alone.

19-year-old enigma Alex Wagner-Trugman is set up to be a self-conscious brainiac, but then takes me by surprise (damn you, editors!) with "Baby, Come To Me" (one of my favorite songs from the '80s, too), which is sung quite powerfully. His eyes had a tendency to bug out in the verse and channel, but he loosened up a bit when Randy started singing along, which would have had the opposite effect on most people, but something tells me Alex is living on a different plane than the rest of us anyway. (Perhaps it's the Bizarro world to Kelly Pickler's.) I agree with the decision to advance him based on sound alone, but I also agree with Simon comment that Alex "can't do well in this competition." I'm trying to imagine insular Alex even able to socialize with likes of Deanna, Brianna, Stevie or Arianna in Hollywood. Nah, not happening.

Finally, my favorite kinds of montage, where they show a series of people singing the same song (in this case "Wanted Dead or Alive"), including some people we've already seen, and usually sung badly. Now, in fairness to many of those included, according to friends who have attended the cattle-call auditions in New Jersey, the televised judges' round is actually the second or third round, before which everyone must learn a song from a list of songs licensed for use on the show. Some people may know a lot of them, and some may not know them at all, so many people end up on the televised round with a double disadvantage: they were chosen for that round specifically because they're mediocre to bad singers, and they're singing a song they don't know well. I used to yell at the screen "Learn your freakin' lyrics before you audition!", but now I'm more forgiving. Not that it's any less painful, of course. Watching Elijah give it a shot eased the pain a bit; now I know how Bon Jovi would be sung by Lenny from Of Mice and Men. Oh, snap.

For the feel-good story of the night, 23-year-old pianist Scott Macintyre (who is legally blind) gives a smooth, just-breathy-enough performance of "And So It Goes". I could have lived without the liberties he took on "and this is why my eyes are closed," but his clear light baritone and skillful use of falsetto is worthy of advancement. The catch, of course, is that the show has always ended up being about power; even David Archuleta, for all of his nice-guy vibe, still had a strength in his voice that carried him even through bad choices. I'll root for Scott too, but I don't see him going far (and yes, I recognize that it sounds like an awful thing to say about a visually-impaired performer who'll have a obvious disadvantage in performance, but a stronger voice would carry him further). [Insert future backpedaling here.]

Kansas City next. Yay, another screaming freak-fest! Can't wait.

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