Thursday, December 22, 2011

Merry X-Mas

And so we've reached the end of the X-Factor season. I've been a bit lax in my pithy commentary on the show. Part of it stems from being a bit overbooked at work. Part of it stems from a slip in passion after the eliminations of Drew and Rachel Crow. With the season just an hour away from being over, though, I feel the need to weigh in a little on the show and how this first season has progressed.

For the most part, yes, I do find X-Factor entertaining. The added production value, the mentor-performer relationship, and the seeming realization that this show is supposed to produce viable, contemporary artists has kept me pretty engaged. It's no American Idol, but what show could ever really assume the mantle of that behemoth beauty? It's a good place filler while we wait for Idol to launch in the winter, and it's nice to get a weekly visitation with Simon who is as acidic and prescient as ever. The show has been populated by seemingly likable personalities on the stage and has kept the drama high with the rules that seem to change every week and the elimination of acts that seemed destined for greatness.

And that brings me to some areas where I've found X-Factor lacking. Yes, I know that part of the bread and butter of shows like this is the shocking elimination. It's how they manipulate us to vote and keep us watching, keep us invested. I also, though, think that the way that X-Factor has set up its elimination process is part of the problem. It's hard to have the incentive to vote, for example, when you feel like your voice is muted a little by the ability of the judges to overrule your vote...or when the judges are so stupid in how they decide who to send home. Initially, I did like the idea of the judges ultimately deciding who stays and goes. It seemed like a good safeguard against American stupidity. After all, such a set-up may have given us Melinda Doolittle: American Idol instead of Melinda Doolittle: Who's That Again? Midway through the season, though, the rules seemed to change and double eliminations were foisted upon us. (I suspect it came about the time that Fox executives realized that, if the show eliminated acts one week at a time, they would extend past Christmas and veer dangerously close to the launch of Idol, and no one at Fox wants to piss off Simon Fuller.) All of a sudden, our votes DID count, and artists were picked off heartlessly with little to no fanfare because they garnered the smallest number of votes. And then we had the other two in the bottom three sing for their proverbial lives -- which led to a couple of the more memorable moments in the show's history, but moments that seem more mired in shame than triumph.

First, we had the vote to eliminate Drew over Marcus Canty. I will admit that the judges were right in wanting Drew to mix things up a bit. While I loved her Sarah McLachlan/Kate Bush/Tori Amos sort of vibe, yes, in retrospect, it would have been interesting to see her try something a little more upbeat. And if she had been allowed to stay one more week, we would have seen just that since the next week found the acts have "Dance Week" foisted upon them. The decision to eliminate Drew fell on Paula and Nicole, and the decision they made to keep Marcus just sort of left me flummoxed and made me question the decision to give such power to the judges.

And then came Rachel's ouster. Once again, we had a face off against Marcus. Rachel sang her guts out on her elimination song. She had "star potential" written all over her. And then Nicole made the decision to essentially NOT make a decision, prompting a deadlock which ended with a 14 year old girl collapsing to the floor and sobbing. It was one of the most uncomfortable things I think I've ever witnessed on live television. What made it even more frustrating were the post-show interviews where basically Nicole admitted that her "decision" to go to deadlock was a way to allow Marcus Canty to be eliminated "gracefully." She, like all of us, assumed Marcus was the lowest vote-getter. She, like all of us, assumed wrong. Had Nicole "done the right thing" and voted with her conscience the way every other judge did, Rachel MIGHT have been performing last night alongside those creepy Michael Jackson robots.

And yeah, let's talk now about last night...

Somehow, having a threesome in the finale (tee hee) cuts down on the drama a bit, or is that just me? There's something just more exciting about the big head-to-heads -- Kelly vs. Justin, Clay vs. Ruben, Carrie vs. Bo, Adam vs. Kris. When there are three involved, it just feels muted. Add to it the odd choice to make their first songs duets with actual singers, famous ones, and it felt like X-Factor just had kind of given up a little. While it was exciting to see Alanis, Avril, and R. Kelly singing alongside the X-ers (I really miss calling them Idols, man), it also proved to point out all of the shortcomings in Josh, Chris, and Melanie. Josh is not a rock star, no matter how much Nicole wants to position him to be. He's a bluesman, and a bluesman's voice is not a good match for Alanis's music. (Am I the only one who thinks that they lined up Alanis early in the season when Drew seemed like a lock for the finale??) Chris is an entertaining kid, but again, "Complicated" was really out of his range (and seemingly out of Avril's, too. There's a big difference between what you can sing at 17 and what you can sing at almost 30, isn't there, kiddo?). I liked the insertion of the rap mid-song, but the first verse where he was straining to reach notes was just painful. (What do you think -- was Avril lined up to be Rachel's duet buddy?) Melanie probably held it together the best, but it was on a song that has always made my teeth ache with hatred, so..... there's that.

Mid-show, we got perhaps one of the most bizarre displays and yet one of the most unintentionally metaphoric performances that has ever been on one of these shows. We get these faceless Robotos with money signs dancing while the finalists sang Michael Jackson's "They Don't Care." Faceless robots only concerned with money singing, "All I really know is that they don't really care about us." On a reality talent show. It was kind of spooky in its perfection, and yet I would suspect that not a single person involved with putting that spectacle together ever stopped for a second to say, "Hey, guys, does anyone else find this sort of have a bunch of previously unknown kids singing about how we don't care about them with the dancing implication being that all we DO care about is money? No? Just me? Okay, cool."

I did find it rather brilliant to have the finalists, for their "$5 million song", sing their initial audition songs. Once it dawned on me, though, that this was happening, I knew that Josh and Chris were screwed. Josh's performance of "At Last" was okay, but it lacked that shock and awe of his audition performance. "Young Homey" was charming as always, but I kind of feel like we've seen that song enough times over the course of the past couple months, that there was nothing particularly revelatory about it. It's a great song, but is it the kind of song you win a $5 million talent show contest with? Probably not. And then came Melanie. We were assured by Stevecrest that the performance order had been drawn at random, but come on! You don't waste "Listen" on first or second. It can only go in the pimp spot, and we all knew Melanie was going to tear that joint down. She's grown as a performer over these weeks, with assurance and poise that she didn't have seven months ago. "Listen" is a barnburner, and I'll frankly be kind of stunned if Melanie doesn't win based on the sheer perfection of that performance being our last performance of the night.

Of course, I've been wrong before. I will say that I think the final two comes down to Melanie and Chris. While I love Josh, I don't think he's been given a chance to really establish his personality and story the way that Mel and Chris have these past several weeks. I also think that he has been held back significantly by his mentor. Baby Nicole's insistence on turning him into a rock star has put Josh in repeated situations where he's seemed downright miserable. The guy has gotten some exposure, will probably land a record deal, and will have a nice career playing larger clubs and opening for Ray LaMontagne for the next couple years. There's no shame in that. Melanie and Chris, however, have been given far better treatment. They were with mentors who seemed to understand the niche that their artists were filling, who understand how to actually make kids into stars, and have hustled on behalf of their artists. They've given us character and backstory galore. They've grown as artists. Chris is probably the more viable contemporary artist, truth be told, but since when did the more viable contemporary artist win one of these things? Melanie is the kind of artist who wins these things. (Is it a coincidence that every time I look at her, I have to squint to make sure I'm not looking at Jordin Sparks or Leona Lewis?) The people who vote for these things are not sitting on the cutting edge of music...or even on the blade of the cutting edge....or the handle....or even in the same drawer. They like their winners filled with big voices and who cares if they can't make it work on the charts. We're stuck in 1992 as voters, and there is nothing 1992 about Chris Rene. Here's hoping LA Reid sticks with Chris after tonight and ushers him to a recording contract that will allow him to build a career. Melanie will be able to coast off her win, perhaps, for a good-selling single or two, maybe even a top ten album debut, and then fade into the same obscurity that awaits Javier Colon (from The Voice) and that has already welcomed Kris Allen and Lee Dewyze.

Again, let me say that I have enjoyed the show as a great filler for Idol. I look forward to next season, a season that I do hope does NOT include Nicole Scherzinger, who has to be the worst judge since Ellen Degeneres. I hope the show examines its formula just a bit and addresses some of those issues that have proved so frustrating -- primarily the inconsistency in terms of voting and elimination. Okay, yeah, a host with slightly more personality might be nice, too, although Stevecrest did kind of grow on me in his awkward sort of way. But I'm not going to lie when I say that I will let out a huge sigh of relief when Ryan, Randy, JLo, and Steve are making their weekly visits to my living room and I can complain about something I have known and loved for so many years rather than the new formula who just isn't quite the same.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Season of Love and Joy and All That Jazz

Except when it pertains to pickles, Nascar racing, and the music of Justin Bieber, I'm a pretty tolerant person. It's like Depeche Mode said, "People are people." One thing, though, that leaves me feeling pretty darn intolerant is, well, intolerance. And is it just me, or does it seem like intolerance is running pretty rampant this holiday season?

Facebook has been littered with people ranting about "Happy Holidays" becoming a more preferred/recommended greeting this time of year rather than "Merry Christmas." I've been a "Happy Holidays" person for a long time, decades really, much of that stemming from the fact that I have several Jewish friends. My parents always taught me to be considerate of others and not to go out of my way to make them feel bad or left out. I always invited every kid in my class to my birthday parties (even if I didn't like them all), and I wanted to make sure that my friends who were not Christian understood that I wanted their December to be happy, even if their December didn't involve Christmas trees. I love, too, the all-encompassing feel of "Happy Holidays," the fact that it recognizes that this time of year is meaningful for everyone, not just Christians. As I've gotten older, December has become not just about Christmas, but it's about the end of one year and the beginning of a new one, of love and remembrance. And to me, it's important that I include all the people who mean something to me (and even those who don't) in that spirit of celebration -- be they Jewish, Atheist, Muslim, Buddhist, or what have you.

And yet there are people out there becoming downright militant about this "Merry Christmas" thing. Sunday afternoon, my sis was at work. (She's the receptionist at a hair salon.) She was ringing out a woman who had been in getting her hair done, and this woman's friend looked at my sis and said, "Tell her 'Merry Christmas,'" and then proceeded to go on a rant about people who say "Happy Holidays" and how much she hates that. My sis, who told me she typically doesn't offer any holiday greeting at work -- sticking with the tried and true "Thank you and have a nice day" -- gritted her teeth and gave in, wishing the woman a forced "Merry Christmas" even though she told me that she DESPERATELY wanted to say, "Happy Hannukah, bitch. I'm Jewish." (I told her that I probably would have said that. I'm 40. I don't care anymore!!)

I find it kind of ironic that many people are becoming so militant and downright hateful about this. I mean, isn't Christianity supposed to be about peace and love? Wouldn't Jesus be understanding of the idea that there are people out there who believe differently? Um, wasn't Jesus Jewish? So he totally wouldn't even celebrate Christmas outside of the whole "It's my birthday" kind of thing....and doesn't Jesus seem like the kind of guy who wouldn't want to make a big deal out of his birthday?

Listen, I think it's great that Christians are so devoted to their faith and want to celebrate this holiday that is such a meaningful part of their faith. I love me some Christmas, too, but I also think that, during this time of year when faith becomes such a center of many lives, it's a time to really think about what that faith preaches and remember that our world is virtual mulligatawny of faiths. That carrot swimming next to you is a part of that soup even if he is dripping in curry ... or super kosher. Together, we make a great soup, so let's work together rather than spending this season writhing with the indigestion of intolerance.

Happy December, everyone!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Rock Out With Your X Out

So last night was "Rock Week." I've never made a secret of the fact that I'm not particularly fond of Idol's adherence to "theme weeks." I get that it allows for a pool of music, narrowing the choices of a performer, but it also can prove deadly to performers who've found a market and then are asked to fit into a style that's wildly different. (Think Josh Gracin on "Disco Night.") While "Rock Week" is a relatively broad category, it was a bit frustrating last night to see judges ding performers for picking songs closer to their personal styles, songs that could technically be considered "rock" but which weren't, you know, Bon Jovi or something ridiculous like that. To me, rock embraces so much more than heavy guitar riffs and thrashing heads. Rock is just as much about soul and attitude and passion. And so yes, Simon, Bob Marley is a rock artist. And yes, L.A., "Everybody Hurts" is a rock song. So get off your damn high horses, stop griping at each other over petty stuff, and judge these kids on their merits rather than nitpicking over whether they've "cheated" by finding a song that allows them to maintain their artistic identity.

It's becoming clear that there is a definite dividing line emerging amongst the performers with a handful of them pulling away from the pack and another group of them falling further and further behind. Once mighty powerhouses are now seeming weak and desperate as dark horses begin to find their mojo. There's still a tiny (and shrinking) group in the middle trying to decide which part of the race it wants to land in, although my gut tells me that as this "lead pack" gets stronger and stronger (and the weak ones are picked off by America and the judges), those middle performers will start to fade, too.

So how do they stack up? Wait no more, friends.

1. Drew -- U2 is one of my all-time favorite bands. I sat through Rattle and Hum THREE TIMES in the theatre in the course of one week. So I get a little dubious when someone tries to tackle U2 because for me, there is only one Bono and duplicating the power of his voice is nearly impossible. And yet Drew's performance last night was mesmerizing. It gave me chills. "With or Without You" became so haunting. Yes, I, too, was waiting for her to kick in a little there at the end, but I admire Drew for sticking to her guns, for knowing the artist that she is and finding ways to bring that to the stage every week. I can't imagine her voice going uptempo. There are certainly plenty of artists who have stuck within their niche. (There are frequent comparisons online between Drew and Sarah McLachlan. I would encourage Drew fans to also take a listen to Tori Amos and Kate Bush...artists who've worked with the same sort of canvas beautifully for decades without compromising.)
2. Astro -- As soon as they announced it was "Rock Week," my sis and I both were like, "Crap. Astro is screwed." There was no way Astro was going to come out and do Bon Jovi. My prediction was he would go with "Walk This Way" which was that first real mash up of hip hop and rock, but his choice of Puff Daddy's "I'll Be Missing You" was terrific. Turning the lyrics into an ode to old school hip hop was shockingly moving (I teared up. Seriously.) Add to it that last night, for the first time, Astro seemed genuine and even downright humble. The fact that he calls LA and Simon "Sir"...that kid kind of touches my heart. He is smart, he knows who he is, and he could have a future in the business.
3. Rachel Crow -- It's kind of unfortunate that Rachel went so early in the show. Her "Satisfaction" was pretty killer. She was able to play up the bluesyness of that song and still turn out a pretty rocking performance. The problem was that a lot of good stuff came after she did, so it was easy to kind of forget how good she had been by the time some of the others rolled around. Her growth, though, is pretty spectacular, and she maybe puts on one of the best shows of anyone else up there (with the exception of Astro). Plus, it was just nice to see her actually MOVE last night.
4. Josh Krajcik -- Josh was probably the truest rocker out there last night. He chose a current, legit rock band (Foo Fighters) and picked one of their hardest rocking songs ("The Pretender"). I think if I had liked the actual song a little better (I was hoping for "Everlong"), I would have ranked him higher on this list, but Josh is clearly in that lead pack that is jostling for supremacy. Honestly, this top four could be in any order and I'd be fine, and I can't imagine the finale not involving two of these four. The sad thing is that it will only get to be TWO of these FOUR. (PS -- Baby Nicole probably bugged me more here than any other time last night with her ridiculous head banging and rock posturing. Get over yourself, B.N.)
5. Melanie Amaro -- For me, Melanie falls in that middle pack, that pack that has to decide pretty quickly whether it wants to surge and join the lead pack or whether it's content to finish in the middle. There was nothing particularly WRONG with her "Everybody Hurts." It was actually quite lovely. REM is not really a "singer's band". Michael Stipe knew what his voice could and could not do and wrote pretty vocally simple stuff to meet the abilities of that voice. Melanie was able to find some nuance and add some gymnastics that felt organic to the sound and made it her own. The problem is that, while it did have that soaring passage toward the end, it was largely relatively dull. Melanie is a gorgeous TECHNICAL singer, but she lacks that spark that makes Drew, Astro, Rachel, and Josh so unforgettable. At this point, though, I'm having a hard time imagining Melanie finishing better than fifth.
6. Marcus Canty -- The same is true of Marcus. Truthfully, outside of the general showmanship, his performance of Janis Joplin's "Piece of My Heart" (one of my all-time favorite songs) was kind of lackluster. Yeah, he crawled under girls' skirts and shook what his mama gave him, but vocally? Yeah, not so much. The rawness and the passion of that song were completely lost, and it became just a touch Kids, Incorporated for me. That being said, I really like Marcus and think he has the potential to surge up into that lead pack, but he has to find a way to make his vocal energy match his physical energy. Otherwise, he's just a really good back-up dancer who somehow got stuck singing lead because the "real" singer was sick.
7. LeRoy Bell -- If they're going to call out Drew for giving the same performance every week, it's time to call out LeRoy, too. Again, there was nothing technically WRONG with his "We've Got Tonight," but it was dull and just more of the same. I like the guy, but when he's onstage, he just seems a bit lazy. There's a passion missing, and I would not be surprised to see LeRoy in the bottom tonight even though I've got him in the safety zone. (It doesn't help that he had to go first and was completely forgotten by the end of the show. That first slot is a killer at this stage in the game.)
8. Chris Rene -- I am still completely defending Bob Marley as a rock star, and I think it was perfectly acceptable for Rene to pick Marley's "No Woman No Cry" last night. The problem is that it just wasn't all that interesting. The limitations of his voice are becoming more and more apparent as the show goes on, and at this point, his tearjerker story may not be enough to keep him going much longer, especially when there are so many really great performers taking the stage every week. He slips further and further behind every week. The clock is ticking, Chris. Make up your mind. Are you in this to win it, or are you just banking on it to open some doors?
9. Lakoda Rayne -- Even though I am not ranking them last, I would not be surprised to see Lakoda Rayne voted off this week. Their mashup of the Outfield's "Your Love" and Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way" was shrill and just a mess. Add to it that the attempt to give the girls personality in their introduction video really just made them seem kind of bitchy, and I can't imagine America voting for them. The only way Lakoda Rayne is not in the bottom is if people feel a tremendous surge of loyalty to Paula and vote for them to keep Paula from having a complete nervous breakdown. And it helps that there was one performer significantly worse last night, one performer who absolutely deserves to go home, and that would be ....
10. Stacy Francis -- Holy shit! Talk about a hot mess! I'm not sure I've ever sat through a performance quite so painful. It was like the train crash scene in Super 8 ... only ten times worse. It was shrill and screechy and completely out of her zone. Add to it the fact that my sis and I were completely frustrated that NO ONE called her out on the fact that, essentially, she was doing a Celine Dion song. (Yes, Meatloaf covered "It's All Coming Back to Me" ... AFTER Celine. Yes, the song was maybe technically written FOR Meat. But come on, that's a freakin' Celine Dion song. If they're going to ding Chris Rene for Bob Marley and Melanie Amaro for REM, they need to call Stacy out on freakin' Celine!) In all seriousness, if Stacy is not sent home, America needs to have its ears examined. I was literally cringing watching the whole performance as she hit rotten note after rotten note. It was self-indulgent and out of control. And Stacy had to know that. Thank God the judges last night were willing to be honest with these performers on more than one occasion and tell them that they had made giant mis-steps. (Why LA was so gentle with Stacy, I don't know....she does seem like the kind of chick who would get voted off and then go backstage and blow her brains out, so maybe LA doesn't want that on his conscience. Simon and Paula clearly don't give a shit. Bravo to them.)

Another judge is going to have to be on the chopping block tonight now that Paula is down to one act left. If there's any justice, it'll be Stacy and Lakoda Rayne standing up there (and my fear is that the judges will save Stacy even though her last several performances -- ever since the show went live -- have been mediocre at best, excrutiating at worst), but again, I wouldn't be surprised to see LeRoy there instead of Stacy. (And I could imagine the judges cutting LeRoy loose to spare Paula's psyche for one more week.) But we also know I'm kinda lousy at this whole prognosticating thing, so.......

Thursday, November 10, 2011

X-Tremely Busy

I've been swamped with post-show, post-student teacher, total exhaustion blues, so no time to write a full X Factor blog tonight. After last week, it's clear I'm a little off in my game, but I did think last night's strongest performers were Rachel and Josh with Drew and Astro nipping at their heels. Who do I think will be in the bottom two? My money is on Stereo Hoggz (I thought their "Ain't No Other Man" was abyssmal!) and Stacy Francis (whose "Queen of the Night" was painful to watch...and listen to!).

I'll write more tomorrow since I have an entire day (and weekend!) off.


Friday, November 4, 2011

It's Alive!

It's another journey today in the Way Back Machine, friends, only this time, let's just journey back to late March of 2011. I had just finished directing our high school's production of Grease, a show that will probably be one of those "legendary" shows to which every show we do for the next couple years will be compared. It had a big cast, huge audiences, and was just a really good experience for everyone involved, especially the kids. My seniors sadly wandered off into the last quarter of their high school careers, finding themselves a bit adrift now that their primary extracurricular activities (speech and drama) were over for the year. My younger students, within a day or so of Grease closing, began appearing in my classroom with one question: "What's the fall show going to be?" We have a year-end banquet to recognize drama and speech kids, so I promised them I would have a decision made by then, giving myself about a month to read some scripts and make some decisions.

I assessed the talent I had remaining once graduation wiped me out of some major players. I did some searches, dug through my script library, and came across an old favorite of mine that I thought just might work for us -- Woody Allen's Don't Drink the Water. It had been several years since I'd read the script, so I curled up one night and read it again, immediately hearing the voices of many Drama Club kids. The script had a flexibility that would work well for me, with several of the parts being open to either a male or female in the role. It was funny, and I had several upcoming seniors who were natural comedians. There were some issues with the humor being a bit dated (it's set in the American embassy in an Iron Curtain communist nation in the mid-1960's), but I realized with a little tweaking and suspension of disbelief (like conveniently "forgetting" there isn't really an Iron Curtain anymore), we could have a pretty timely and funny show. I made the announcement and began circulating the script amongst Drama Club kids, building early excitement for the show before school was even out.

Over the course of the summer, I re-read the script many times (typically about once a week) and began working on a set design (one that changed many times over the course of that three month period), figuring out what dialogue updates needed to take place, picking audition cuttings, and generally getting ready to hit the ground running when school started at the end of August.

We held auditions right after Labor Day, and let me tell you, auditions are just as stressful for directors as they are for actors -- maybe even more so. I sat in the auditorium over the course of two nights knowing that I was going to have to break some hearts, especially when over thirty kids showed up to audition for roughly thirteen speaking roles. There were some loyal Drama Club kids who just wouldn't be able to be cast. Once I'd kind of settled on WHO I wanted/had to cast, I needed to start thinking about HOW to cast them. For me, I typically work my way through multiple cast lists before a final one is posted on my classroom door the morning after auditions. I might leave auditions with one concept for the cast list in my head, but then I go home and re-read the script (or at least portions of the script), "listening" for voices I've heard in auditions. I spend some time at the gym, thinking things through on the elliptical machine. Sometimes, I have to strike some deals with myself -- "Okay, Mel, you can cast that freshman girl, but you can't cast her as the lead." Sometimes, an epiphany strikes me through one of my readings and someone I hadn't really planned on casting emerges as the ONLY person who could possibly play that part. I type up a cast list right before I go to bed, and then I sleep on it -- sometimes waking up in the morning to make a slight tweak here or there.

There's maybe nothing worse than the day the cast list is posted. For every giddy face walking down the hall clutching a newly received script, there are at least two more sad, dejected faces that can't make eye contact with me. In years past, there has been anger over cast lists, Facebook campaigns challenging decisions that were made. (Oh, the heat my music director and I took over our Grease list!) Ultimately, though, things kind of settle into a groove and we're able to start those first rehearsals.

I love the first read through of a script. It's usually relatively informal. We meet in my classroom, circle up desks, and just sit and read the script aloud for the first time. There's something really incredible about hearing the characters that I've lived with in my head for so many months finally have a real voice and real life. Every now and then, you have an "Oh, crap!" moment where that person who auditioned so beautifully suddenly seems devoid of any expression, but those moments are few and far between. (And that person usually gets it together over the course of rehearsals.) The sense of company that builds in that first read thru is also pretty darn exhilarating. I take the idea of a "company" very seriously as a director, and seeing it all come together can be a little emotional for me.

As much as I love the first read thru, I also really hate the first week or so of rehearsals. This is when I'm little more than a traffic cop, telling people where to move and when. There isn't necessarily a lot of acting going on at this point so much as just getting the basic choreography of the show down. Actors are tethered to their scripts, so their physical engagement and development of character is borderline non-existent. It's a slog getting through that first week or so, but slowly, eventually, we get to a place where characters begin to emerge, where I can become a guide through that process and help students develop stronger and more realistic characters, where I can actually teach the kids rather than boss them around.

While this is going on, I'm also working on creating the physical existence of the show. That set design that's resided on paper for the past months begins to take shape. Walls come up, paint is applied, details are added that turn our little stage into whatever we need it to be -- a posh English sitting room, a parfumerie, a hat shop, a jury room, a high school cafeteria, or the reception area of the US Embassy. Lights get designed and focused. Sound effects are created. Posters go up. Costumes are pulled or found after hours scouring the local thrift shops. You get to a point where you find yourself sitting in a darkened auditorium and this thing you've lived with theoretically for eight months (almost the same amount of time it takes to birth a child -- how odd is that?) is suddenly a living, breathing organism that is ready to share with the world. I often cry on opening night from happiness, from exhaustion, from relief, from the sadness as I realize this could be the last time I work with some of those kids on stage, but largely from the sheer overwhelming fact that this huge thing has somehow come to life despite actors who struggle to learn lines, kids who drop out at the last minute because tech week conflicts with basketball practice (yup -- that happened), cues that just don't want to work the way you wanted them to, and all the petty little issues that come up no matter how hard you try to keep them away. You've laughed, you've cried, you've pleaded and cajoled. Sometimes, you've even yelled. Whether because of or in spite of your best efforts, it's alive...and it will all be over in a matter of days, and the walls will come tumbling down, the costumes will be packed up in a closet, and the kids will wander off down the hall. Peace will return to the land, and you'll be resentful and long for those crazy nights after school where you could feel your hair turning grey because Michael just can't seem to enter through the right door!

I've said it before, and I'll say it again -- I have the best job in the world. No matter how stressful this process may be, I wouldn't dream of doing anything else. I only hope that my students get that lucky when they go out into the world -- to build a life, a career that has more good days than bad and that makes every day a new adventure.

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Last night, I cheated on my longtime love. I actually found myself saying OUT LOUD, "Here's why I love X-Factor more than American Idol..." and I immediately went white in the face and felt as if I had commited a tremendous sin. After all, what in the world could I possibly love more than Idol? Okay, I actually love LOTS of things more than Idol, but in terms of reality singing competitions, no one has ever stolen my heart the way Idol did back in the old days, before we settled into a routine, broke up once or twice, and got to a place where we could live together in a sometimes passionless co-existence. And yet last night, I found myself more engaged with X-Factor than I have since maybe season three of Idol. The judging (outside of just about any of the nonsense erupting from Baby Nicole's mouth) was relatively spot on and largely constructive (at times). The performances were pretty incredible in most cases. They actually sing relevant, CONTEMPORARY music. (And don't get me started on how much I love the mashups!) The production value of this show is out of control. Before Baby Nicole said it about 100 times to Marcus (I think it was), I commented to my sis that it felt like a legit concert with choreography, effects, and really good vocals.

It's going to be interesting to see who goes home tonight (and I'll offer some thoughts on that in a bit) because the performances last night were largely insanely good. Think of Top 12 week of Idol. By this point on Idol, there's already a clear frontrunner (and usually, you're able to spot who will come in second), there's a handful of decent, promising performances, and there are usually four or five absolute wrecks. You know by week 12 who is not going to last long on Idol. Can you really say that after last night's X-Factor? There may be a couple artists that may not have a shot at the $5million and the "iconic" Pepsi ad, but the fact that there are at least half of them that have a really clear shot at victory is completely stunning to me. I'm not sure how X-Factor has been able to assemble such an amazing lineup of "undiscovered" talent while Idol has been able to only muster up a couple every year (and left us with piles of discarded wannabes like Michael Sarver and Haley Scarnato). While I'm not necessarily a fan of all twelve finalists here, I can see merit in each and every one of them and can understand WHY people may vote for them -- something that's not always true of many Idols at this point in the season.

With that being said, someone has to go home tonight. It's in the rules, and X-Factor wisely eschews the judge's save that could keep an eliminated contestant in the game for at least one more week. Someone's heart will be broken tonight.

Like I do with Idol, here are my rankings of last night's performances as well as some thoughts on who will be ending their Ido-, er X-Factor journey tonight.

1. Drew ("Just a Dream") I'm torn right now between Josh and Drew for my favorites. They're the two artists here that I can imagine downloading their cd's. Ultimately, I liked Drew's performance just a touch better last night if only because I had never heard this Nelly song that she covered and was impressed with the fact that she stepped just a touch out of her usual comfort zone but still managed to deliver an upbeat song with that fragility I love in her voice. This kid is incredible. The competition here is tough, but I'm rooting for Drew to go all the way.
2. Josh Krajcik ("Jar of Hearts") Like Simon, "Jar of Hearts" is one of my favorite songs of the past year or so. I was a little uncertain when Josh started off, but the song was a good match for that soulful gravel that inhabits his voice. Josh will likely never be a "pop" star, but he will reside in the iPod playlists of many over 30 music fans -- and there are a ton of us out there! We made Ray LaMontagne a star; we can do it for you, too, Burrito Man!
3. Stereo Hogzz ("Rhythm Nation") Stereo Hogzz was saddled with the dreaded first spot on the show last night, a spot that is okay as the numbers dwindle, but when you're followed by eleven pretty hot performances...YIKES! To be honest, I'd kind of forgotten they'd even performed until the recap at the end when I thought, "Wow. Yeah. Stereo Hogzz killed tonight!" I hope America has a better memory than I do and this group sticks around longer because they really were one of the top performances last night.
4. Melanie Amaro ("Desperado") I think Melanie is going to be the divisive contestant this year Chez Mel. My sis is not a fan, calling her dated and overblown. I like her (and not just because Simon called her "Mel" once. Really!) I loved her performance of "Desperado," a song that gains a whole new and more powerful meaning in the hands of a woman. America isn't necessarily fans, it seems, of the soul divas, especially old-school ones like Melanie seems to be striving for. She may fall prey to the same thing Pia Toscano fell victim to last year -- relying too heavily on ballads and being just too note perfect in those performances. Melanie, though, seems to have at least a little more character than Pia, so maybe she'll be the soul diva left standing as the season progresses.
5. Marcus Canty ("Nothin' on You"/"Every Little Step") I've been a Marcus fan since day one, and I think that he is likely LA's best chance at claiming victory this season over Simon or Baby Nicole (who lucked out getting the Over 30's and Josh!). Chris seems to be flaming out a little, and I just don't know how America is going to handle a hip hop artist like Astro. (More on those two in a bit.) Marcus, though, seems like the kind of guy who might attract a healthy following. He's crazy talented, cute, and seems like a genuinely nice kid -- sure to appeal to tweens and moms alike!
6. Rachel Crow ("Walking on Sunshine") Rachel is America's Sweetheart. She is sassy and spunky and full of fire. I wasn't super crazy about this particular performance (and agree with Baby Nicole -- GASP! -- that the lyrics really didn't need to be changed), but this kid has a definite following (I suspect) that will keep her going for much longer than maybe she should. Her voice isn't as interesting as Drew's or as strong as Melanie's but her character is the more memorable of those three. I do applaud Simon for not pushing her to sing songs that are way too adult for her (like, I'm sorry, "If I Were a Boy"), but that soulful quality to her voice is wasted on kitschy pop like "Walking on Sunshine." If Simon can find that middle ground, Rachel could have longer legs than I think.
7. Stacy Francis ("Up to the Mountain") It is almost staggering how quickly sentiment turned against Stacy at my house. Both my sis and I wept openly during Stacy's moving audition and fell (in the moment) for that whole "I don't wanna die with the music inside me" thing. Within a week or two, though, we were both SO over Stacy and her messy mascara tears. I do think Baby Nicole was wise to listen to Simon and give Stacy a more soulful (or "church") song over the pop stuff she saddled her with last week. (I love me some George Michael, but "One More Try" was a bad choice for Stacy!) Unfortunately, for me, this song kind of belongs to Crystal Bowersox and Stacy's take last night just seemed overwrought and overworked. Sometimes, less is more.
8. Chris Rene ("Superstar") Chris is approaching that flame out territory, or maybe I'm just being influenced by LA's choice to surround the kid in fire last night (which was a really cool effect and was the moment that prompted me to declare my love for X-Factor over Idol). "Superstar" worked better for him than "Love Don't Live Here Anymore" did last week, but there's still something that's just not quite clicking here. Yes, I know Chris would prefer to do his own stuff (and why does Astro get to write whole rap verses but Chris has to be a cover artist?), but if he can't find a way to make these songs more than just nicely song tunes, he's in trouble.
9. Intensity ("Kids in America"/"Party Rock Anthem") They're cute. They're talented. They're starting to grate on my nerves just the tiniest bit. My sis calls them InTWEENsity (she's so clever!), and maybe that's part of it -- that youthful energy of theirs seems so forced but it just might be my cynical old age at play. It's only a matter of time before Fox parades these kids onto Glee to be a rival show choir for New Directions, but with ten of them, there's also no chance for them to establish enough of an identity to make us invest in them. I can't imagine them making it too much longer.
10. Astro ("Hip Hop Hooray"/"Get Ur Freak On") Astro is the big test case here. How will middle America respond to a full-on hip hop artist surrounded by pop wannabes? Is there a big portion of the X-Factor audience that's really into hip hop? Is there a big portion of the hip hop fanbase tuning into X-Factor? Who knows? I've seen numerous critics online railing against Astro's arrogance, but that's part of the hip hop culture. You don't get to be Kanye or Jay-Z without a little ego. You never see an MC called "shy" or "self-effacing." Astro is playing the part pretty perfectly, but will the audience GET that? Tonight is the test. If Astro is the name called to go home, I won't be surprised, but I kind of hope the kid sticks around if only to allow X-Factor to continue diversifying the music it offers each week.
11. LeRoy Bell ("I'm Already There") I worry for LeRoy. I honestly kind of forgot about him this morning as I was running through the performances from last night. I love the guy (and I'm not ashamed to say I think he's totally hot, whether he's 60 or not!). I wasn't a huge fan of the song choice for him, and while I thought the emotional connection he had to the lyrics was fine, I think he needs a stronger blues tune to really show off what he's packing.
12. Lakoda Rayne ("Landslide") This won't surprise you -- Simon was right. Lakoda Rayne's styling last night was horrible. How do you hand a Stevie Nicks song to these girls and then dress them like Miss America contestants circa 1978? (I seriously think I remember at least one of those dresses appearing in the dining room on The Love Boat once.) Yes, their voices have come together to blend more successfully than they did originally, but the pain and grit of that song was completely lost and sanitized. Do they GET what that song is even about? It sure didn't sound like it. (Confession: "Landslide" is one of my all-time favorite songs. I'm a little protective of it!) Add to it that the girls still seem kind of bitchy to me, and I would not be at all surprised if the four are sent packing tonight.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Crazy Little Thing Called English

This week, my little study group has grown to include two Hispanic girls (one from Mexico, one from Cuba) and a quiet young Mexican boy. We've started a short story unit. The short stories in our text are written for students who, ideally, read at at least a ninth grade level. My study group is maybe lucky to read at a fourth grade level due to their language issues. My initial plan had been to scout out some third and fourth grade level literature books and select stories at their level. The first such book I read was rather old, the stories were really bland, and the whole idea ended up feeling almost insulting -- asking these kids to read stories about boring birthday parties rather than the exciting sorts of things covered in the literature book their peers are using. I also knew that I wanted to still try to teach them key literary concepts like conflict, protagonist, antagonist. Heck, I might even get bold and try something like irony. Those concepts were impossible with most of the stories I was finding in these elementary-level texts.

Our counselor, wh0 works closely with our ELL kids, told me how she had used summaries when working on novels with the kids last year. I thought there might be something there. Our first short story in the English I curriculum is Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game." (It's a story I bet many of you read your freshman year of high school, too -- it's the one about the guy on the island that hunts people. Ring any bells?) It's a pretty long story with some complicated vocabulary for newbie English speakers. There's a reason, though, that it's taught in pretty much every freshman-level English course in the country, and that's because it's a pretty engaging story that crosses gender lines in terms of appeal and it's also a great way to teach some fundamental literary concepts to kids -- conflict, resolution, protagonist, antagonist, foreshadowing, mood, et cetera. The basic plot is something my kids could handle; it's just the vocabulary that would overwhelm them. So what I did was find a rather lengthy summary of the story online that I then went through and simplified the language a little more and added some more details from the story that would give them a deeper sense of the plot. I ended up with a five-page version of a story that's roughly 15 pages in our text. I then decided to take a similar approach with the other short stories in our book -- including Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" and the classic "The Lady or the Tiger?" (Both of which have incredibly challenging vocabulary even for high school freshmen!)

As I've worked with my students during the short story unit, it remains amazing to me what they do and do not know in terms of language. Slang presents particular challenges. There's a line in "The Most Dangerous Game" where the villainous General Zaroff informs our hero, Rainsford, that there's no need to argue about the sanctity of human life because he hunts "the scum of the earth." My Spanish-speaking girls looked the word "scum" up in the Spanish-English dictionary and grew more confused when the definition for "scum" showed them a word that meant "lather." It led to a discussion of bathtub scum and what it might mean to call people that same word. The girls were rather stunned and insulted, particularly when Zaroff goes on to clarify that by "scum" he means black people, Chinese people, et cetera. Yup, the dude's a straight-up racist.

Sometimes, though, slang becomes a different sort of challenge. One of the great, classic lines comes at the end of the story when Rainsford and Zaroff finally meet face to face. Zaroff tells Rainsford he's won the hunt and tells him he will put him on a boat for home. Rainsford refuses this concession, declaring his intention to let this fight be a fight to the death by telling the general, "I am still a beast at bay." I knew "beast" was a word the kids might not know, but it's such a classic line in that story that I wanted to keep it and use it as a discussion of how Rainsford has lost touch with his humanity during this hunt. So I asked the kids, "Do you know what a beast is?"

Without missing a beat, one of my students (let's call her Angelica) says, "It means really good at something."

For those of you who don't spend twelve hours a day with teenagers, let me fill you in here. "Beast" has become a slang term for just what Angelica said. An example of "beast" in action: "I'm really beast at football" or "I beasted that game of Words with Friends." So for poor Angelica, she had that moment where she THOUGHT she knew the word, was excited to know the answer, and ended up being wrong because slang had let her down. Once she found out what "beast" really meant, of course, her understanding of its usage as slang became a bit muddier, too.

And it got me thinking about how we use language, how we take words and twist their meanings so far away from what was originally intended that kids like Angelica and my other ELL kids are fighting an uphill battle just trying to become proficient in speaking this language. When I was walking through the parking lot of Wal-Mart this weekend, I saw a bumper sticker that said, "Welcome to America. Now speak the language." It sounds like a great idea in theory -- the idea that people who move to a country (any country) should be proficient in that country's language. If I moved to France, I'd better brush up on that high school/college French and be able to function. This notion, though, is so much easier said than done, particularly when you're talking about English itself, a language that seems to break more rules than it follows. There's no consistency in phonetics. There are all these crazy idioms that make no sense when considered at a literal level. There's all this slang that seems to exist solely to twist the meaning of words around in such a way that they make no real sense. Here are these kids, none of whom necessarily CHOSE to move here, thrown into this environment where they are trying to learn this horribly difficult language, and they are faced with this sort of taunting intolerance. How many of us can say that our ancestors came to this country with a proficient grasp of English? Okay, yeah, the majority of my ancestors came from England and Ireland, so all they had to contend with was the accents, but a chunk of my mother's family came from Sweden. I'm thinking that they likely had not mastered English before stepping off that boat and heading across the country to Illinois. Somewhere in our family tree is someone who struggled to learn this language, so maybe a little compassion is in order since somewhere in our genetic past, a little compassion was thrown our way. Rather than slapping a bumper sticker on our cars that chastises those who are trying to learn our massive language (and ignoring the irony that they probably can't READ that bumper sticker if their language is that poor), how about volunteering to help with local agencies that reach out to non-native populations? How about taking the time in a store to help someone who's struggling to figure out what's what? The time I've spent this year with kids like Mya and Angelica have given me a stronger appreciation for how hard this is for them and how desperately they want to be successful. They know language is the key to that success. It's just a matter of finding the right lock and getting that door open. It takes a village, guys, not a firing squad.

Post script: I gave my kids a quiz over the story Friday afternoon. As soon as she turned it in, Angelica asked me to grade hers. She got an A-. (She got two vocabulary words mixed up.) Based on her reaction to that A-, I would guess that Angelica had never gotten an A on anything in her life. She jumped up and down and squealed with joy. It was perhaps one of the most moving moments in my teaching career. I almost cried to see how happy this little twenty point quiz had made this girl.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

That's So Gay-ven

I'm an English teacher. That role in my life brings with it a passion for language. I love words. I love speaking and writing and reading and thinking about the way words come together to communicate ideas. I love profanity. Sometimes, one good exclamation of the f-word really makes things better. I love the creative ways in which we create language and the inventive ways that slang enters our vocabulary. What I don't like, though, is when we use language as a weapon of intolerance and as a way to marginalize people.

I very rarely write referrals to students for using profane language in my presence. I'm one of those teachers when I hear a student swear, I'm more likely to say, "Hey, language!" and usually they sheepishly apologize for letting the f-bomb drop in front of me. There have only been a few times when I've actually sent a student to the office for offensive language. All but one of those instances have been times when profane, abusive language has been directed at me. I know I'm a bitch; I don't need a student calling me that to my face. (Do it behind my back the way God intended it, people!)

Then there was that other time. Students were working in small groups on some project I had given them. All of a sudden, I hear a student exclaim loudly, "This assignment is so gay!"

Of course, I'm sure you're all thinking, "What's the problem? Mel clearly had her students doing an assignment on homosexuality. She's so cool and progressive."


What this student MEANT to say was that the assignment was any number of negative terms -- stupid, difficult, bad, sucky, shitty, et cetera. Instead of using one of those terms, though, the student chose to use "gay."

When did this become acceptable? When did we as a society decide to turn a blind eye to people using "gay" as a negative term synonymous with stupid? Before you roll your eyes and call me a prude, think about it. What if that student had said, "This assignment is so black!" (Or used an even more offensive term than "black.") "This assignment is so female!" "This assignment is so basketball player!" Do any of those make any amount of sense? Wouldn't we find those statements inappropriate on a variety of levels?

Somewhere along the line, though, we've decided that it's okay to let "that's so gay" happen. The same is true of the use of the word "retarded." That word flies around like bumblebees at a honey convention, and yet we continue to allow it to happen despite the tremendous amount of insensitivity it displays. At some point, we as a society have to make choices about how we use language and the subliminal messages we are sending to each other (and our kids) when we allow certain groups to become synonyms for bad, stupid, or downright undesirable. At some point, we have to choose acceptance over ignorance. At some point, we have to choose understanding over persecution. At some point, we have to realize there's nothing wrong with being gay. When that happens, "That's so gay" makes as little sense as saying "That's so delivery truck driver." It's just a fact of life and nothing more.