Friday, January 28, 2011

Dream a Little Dream of Idol

Last week, I praised American Idol for keeping the awful auditions to a minimum. This week . . . sigh! It felt like we were seeing more hideousness than awesomeness in the three hours of Idol programming Fox presented. A part of me wondered if there had been a drastic re-edit by Fox after premiere week boasted the lowest ratings for the powerhouse in about eight years. It was interesting, though, to see the development of the judges between last week and this week. J. Lo is a little bolder about saying no, going against the consensus of the judging panel a couple times this week. Steven Tyler's thoughtful critiques continued. (When he told Randy last night that "you can't tell someone they're bad", I nearly swooned with joy. Friends, I think I am falling in love with Steven Tyler. Truth!)

The sad truth of the matter is that, despite some changes, Idol is still falling back on its tried-and-true formula for success -- a mixture of hideous, self-deluded singers and genuine talent with a sob story to tell, finish it all up with a story that's sure to make us cry and voila! Idol gold!

My cynicism, though, felt a bit overly cynical as I watched Wednesday night's episode. That is the night that Idol painted its masterpiece in terms of telling a story full of heartbreak, inspiration, and triumph. Wednesday night was the night the world met Chris Medina. Chris was engaged to marry a lovely young woman named Juliana (see the picture) and then, two months before their wedding day, Juliana was in a horrible accident that left her in a coma. When she emerged from the coma, she had suffered severe brain damage. Chris and Juliana's mother provide care for her as she is confined to a wheelchair and clearly struggling with communication and motor skills. Chris looked at the camera and said, "What kind of man would I be if I left her?" Cue the tears.

But it got better.

After Chris's lovely performance of the Script's "Break Even" (a current favorite of mine), the judges asked Chris to bring Juliana in. The kindness and compassion that the judges showed towards this young woman was absolutely inspiring. I lost it when Steven Tyler bent over, kissed her on the cheek, and said, "He sings so beautifully because he sings for you. You know that, right?" Who knew Steven Tyler could have a heart so huge? Zing went the strings of my heart!

An incredibly powerful moment that will probably live in Idol history, especially if Chris does well in the competition. I'm not going to lie, though, that the inner cynic went to work pretty quickly. I mean, suddenly Danny Gokey's dead wife didn't seem so bad, right? How many times will the producers cue up footage of this young woman to remind us of the stakes involved for Chris? How sick will we get of seeing her in the audience should he advance to the top 10?

I'm a bad person.

Chris Medina was definitely the most memorable audition this week, though. Looking back through the auditions, there were a couple that seemed to have potential. The judges loved last night's closer, a 15-year-old named Lauren Alaina. (Seriously, that chick is 15? Okay, and I'm 21.) I thought she was pretty good, and I'm sure she'll go pretty far if only because she's got that Idol glow about her, but I wasn't nearly as floored as the promos seemed to promise I would be. I far preferred Adrienne Beasley (the black girl with the white parents) and Jackie Wilson (the chick with the really old boyfriend). I also really liked the divorced couple, Rob Bolin and Chelsee Oakes. Who else foresees it coming down to a choice between Rob and Chelsee to create ultimate drama?

Outside of Chris Medina, the Milwaukee auditions didn't seem to have a ton to offer, although I have to admit I found tremendous joy in seeing a Packer fan look like a total idiot in front of the judges. (Yeah, I can't always be gracious in defeat. Stand strong, Bear Nation!) Actually, the problem with Milwaukee is that Chris Medina kind of made us forget everyone else. Looking back through the auditioners who appeared, there were several I did like, especially Naima Adepapo (the one who works maintenance at SummerFest) who presented a really awesome, marketable look and a tremendous voice. Molly DeWolf Swensen (the White House Intern) and Jerome Bell (the wedding singer) also showed promise, but I am not sure we'll see much of them beyond Hollywood. I was not a fan of the two fifteen-year-olds Milwaukee showcased. I kind of hated the affectation in Thia Megia's voice on "Chasing Pavement", and Emma Henry's "True Colors" was really kind of weak. Putting Emma through was probably a disservice, but the panel was clearly swayed by her crying and pleading and imploring them that this was the most important thing in her life. (Seriously, you're 15...get over it!) You have to wonder about the parenting skills of Steven, J.Lo, and Randy that they would cave so quickly in the face of a couple tears. WEAK!

It's time to put my teacher hat on here for a second and really question the choice to lower the eligibility age to 15 this year. I work every day with 15 year olds. They are immature, uncertain, and in constant need of guidance and attention. They need time to grow and figure out who they are. Yes, I know that Justin Bieber has worked it out, but he's also missing a huge chunk of life that he will never be able to get back. These kids need to be going to football games and sitting in class and trying out for school plays and getting busted for texting in class, not packing onto a bus to tour the country and sell records. Let the kids be kids, Idol. If they're good, they'll be back and be even easier to market at 18 because you can sex them up without it being criminal.

I've spoken my peace . . . everyone have a good weekend.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Idol Expectations

American Idol returned this week, and I'm sure that the two of you who actually read my blog were waiting with baited breath for me to comment on the show's return. (I know I have more than two readers . . . . more like four!)

Longtime readers know of my ongoing love affair with Idol, an affair that can be downright dysfunctional at times. I've given up the show for nearly an entire season only to come crawling back at the mere mention of a Paula Abdul breakdown. I've been there for the highs (Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia); I've been there for the lows (the too-soon ouster of too many talented singers). I weathered the mediocrity of last year and even managed to come to terms with Crystal Bowersox losing to Lee Dewyze despite her stunning finale performance of "Up to the Mountain." While I was excited for the return of Idol this year, it was a much more reserved excitement (and sadly, an excitement that stemmed mostly from the fact that it would give me blog fodder for the next five months!).

The problem for me was the judging changes. I've never made a secret of the fact that I was a fan of Simon Cowell. I thought that, while he could frequently be quite nasty and mean, there was a solid kernel of truth at the center of every single barb he threw out there. He was saying what these people needed to hear. While he often did get caught up in the image factor, I also knew that a lot of that stemmed from him approaching the show as someone in the business of selling records. In today's music world, image counts just as much as vocal talent, and it would be futile to throw money at someone who wasn't going to bring it back to you. Look at the more successful Idols in terms of record sales -- Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Daughtry, David Cook. While those people have tremendous vocal talent, they are also pretty easy on the eyes. If Carrie Underwood were a fat, pimply girl with buck teeth, would people have flocked to buy her albums and see her in concert? Sadly, probably not. Luckily for Idol, Carrie is gorgeous.

I mourned Simon's decision to walk away from Idol although I totally understand his choice and look forward to watching The X-Factor. What frustrated me was the seeming chaos that followed in the wake of Simon's departure as the producers sought to create a new judging panel. The loss of Ellen Degeneres was a welcome relief. I love Ellen. She is one of the funniest stand-ups ever, and while I'm not a huge fan of her talk show, the love I have for her as an artist is strong. She was not, though, a good fit for Idol. She had no music experience outside of being a fan of music and never seemed to want to deliver the hard truths that needed to be delivered. By the end of the season, her discomfort was palpable.

The loss of Kara Dioguardi was a bit more disappointing. While I often mocked Kara, I thought that by the end of last season, she had really started to blossom into a fine judge. She gave some really thoughtful critiques last season, and she deserved a little more respect than she received. The panel, too, benefitted from the presence of a songwriter who was able to talk about performances in terms of the song and lyrics and how they were treated.

I was hugely disappointed that Randy Jackson was sticking around. As the past couple seasons have unfolded, Randy has proved himself to be more and more useless. He tends to rely on the same couple critiques that became increasingly ridiculous. Rarely did Randy seem to offer anything even remotely constructive in terms of helping these kids grow and develop, and his ignorance where modern music was concerned seemed troublesome to me. (He didn't know "Falling Slowly" and somehow that became the fault of Kris Allen rather than Randy's refusal to recognize that people made music AFTER the heyday of Whitney and Mariah.) The fact that he was the last "veteran" left meant he would become the de facto "lead" judge. It was like handing over the coaching of the football team to the equipment guy.

Even more troubling was the announcement of who would be joining him at the table -- Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez. Don't get me wrong. I am a huge Aerosmith fan (top priority of the summer!) and think Steven Tyler is damn sexy. I love Jennifer Lopez, although I'm more a fan of J-Lo the actress than J-Lo the singer. After all the names that were batted around as potential judges (Harry Connick? Jamie Foxx? Elton John?), these two names were kind of a letdown. I mean, let's be frank here. Had American Idol existed when Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez were breaking into the business, would either of them made it to Hollywood let alone to the top 12? The distinction of Tyler's voice can be an acquired taste, and Idol isn't always easy on the rockers. They like their rockers more mellow, and there is nothing mellow about Steven Tyler. As for J-Lo, she's clearly a beautiful woman and that may have gotten her a golden ticket if Simon was feeling particularly randy that day, but her voice is a touch thin and clearly helped in the studio. Would Steven and Jennifer be able to give the sort of tough and honest critiques needed, or would it become the Steven and Jennifer Show where we watched to see Steven be a trainwreck and Jennifer be a diva while Randy just sat in the corner rocking back and forth and talking about dogs and phone books?

After the first two audition episodes of the season, you know what? I think they're going to be okay. I like what I saw Wednesday and Thursday night. There seemed to be a concerted effort from all three judges to be thoughtful and constructive in their criticism, even when they were having to crush the dreams of a delusional wannabe warbler. I appreciated the fact that the producers seemed to have decided to focus on talent during the auditions and kept the really horrible auditions to a minimum. Never once did we see anyone in a ridiculous costume. (Okay, there was Tiffany Rios who auditioned with cut-out stars taped to her boobs, but she actually could sing ... and was smart enough to cover the stars up when she tackled Celine Dion's "Power of Love" -- one of my ultimate guilty pleasure songs.) Yes, we got a lot of sob stories (the kid who used to be in a wheelchair, the Kosovo refuge, the homeless kid), but there was a lot of talent and the judges handled it all with tremendous skill. No nastiness. No cruelty. Yes, there were still sobbing contestants, but at least they were let down with a remarkable amount of kindness and sensitivity.

The tenor of the judging gave Idol something I'd been yearning for recently -- an emphasis on thoughtful, constructive advice that's more about the performers receiving the critique than the judges giving them. After watching The Sing-Off this winter (featuring the world's coolest nerd, Ben Folds) and seeing how that it was possible to be entertaining without the nastiness (and seeing a similar feel on Paula Abdul's Live to Dance -- which I found a bit dull mostly because I just don't enjoy dance competitions all that much), I wished for Idol to follow that path and seek to build up rather than tear down. Clearly, the producers were thinking the same thing. Yes, there is the promise that season-long mentor Jimmy Iovine will be harder on the kids, but by that point, he'll be dealing with the finalists where someone should be tough on them as they begin the process of building a career that is sure to have its brutal moments. I think this new Idol could be a good Idol, an improved Idol, and I hope that people get on board despite the fact that Simon is gone. Honestly, I haven't missed him.

One last thing before I put this marathon blog to bed and that's to comment on the fact that we have seen a tremendous amount of talent so far, and I hope that this will make for a legendary season in terms of the final 12 (or 10 -- producers are vague as to how many will make that final cut). The past couple seasons have been fun but have really lacked a lot in terms of drama. You knew for months that the final would boil down to David versus David or that Adam Lambert and Crystal Bowersox would make it to the finale. Yes, the fact that neither Adam nor Crystal won was a little bit of a shock not if you really paid attention to Idol's voting demographic and knew that teen girls and middle America would never vote for a gay Idol or a hippie mama when there was a squeaky clean cute boy to vote for instead. (And yes, I rooted for Kris Allen over Adam Lambert. I'm not ashamed to admit that.)

So the talent . . . . I have seen a lot of people I really like and maybe I have already seen the future American Idol in action. I really liked Caleb Hawley (the second auditioner we saw in Jersey who did a really funky version of "Hallelujah I Love Her So"), Devyn Rush (the singing waitress who looked just fine in her jeans and plain t-shirt, thank you very much), Sarah Sellers (the girl with glasses in New Orleans with the Tyler-esque lips who sang "Make You Feel My Love"), and Brett Lowenstern (the guy with the curly hair that sang "Bohemian Rhapsody" that I was SURE was going to be the episode's trainwreck audition but actually was one of the best we saw last night). I also was completely charmed by Victoria Huggins, but I suspect her aw-shucks naivete will wear thin if I have to see it on display every single week. (I'm looking at you, Kellie Pickler.) Who knows if we'll see any of them again, but that's where my affections lie right now. Stay tuned to see if I've picked a winner in this group.

Friday, January 14, 2011

You've Been Schooled

This week has been finals week at the high school where I teach. For the past several days, kids have been stressed over papers, exams, speeches, and projects. Teachers have been stressed about grading papers, exams, speeches, and projects. It's a time full of tension where none of us really seems to like each other all that much as a result of our stress. Kids are angry at teachers for having the audacity to expect them to complete work. Teachers are angry at kids for seemingly not retaining a damn thing over the course of 18 weeks. It's not pretty.

To help relieve that tension and celebrate the end of first semester, our Latin Club sponsored a game night last night. Our gym was transformed into the sort of magnificent Aladdin's Castle we could only dream of in our youth. Gaming systems ranging from PS3's to old school Nintendos were set up on giant screens. You could walk through our gym at any point last night and see Just Dance, NBA2K11, Mario Kart, Guitar Hero, and even classic Zelda being played by students and adults alike.

See, our Latin Club sponsor sent out a call for help chaperoning about a week or so ago. Several teachers (including myself) jumped at the chance to hang out for a couple hours and play video games under the guise of supervising students. As the night went on, I found myself over in a corner of the gym going head-to-head against kids in Guitar Hero. (I should mention here that I got versions of Rock Band as both birthday and Christmas gifts this year and have become addicted to that game!) Another teacher spent hours playing old school Nintendo with a freshman boy. My sis (who is in her 30's) discovered an addiction to Just Dance, as did several other teachers. There was something really tremendous about seeing students and teachers side by side engaging in this sort of fun and friendly competition.

Our faculty is a relatively young one. I'm pushing 40 and am likely on the older end of the age spectrum. We have a lot of teachers in their 20's and 30's, and that helps us, I think, build good relationships with a lot of our students. We can identify with our kids and understand them at many different levels. Does the fact that I can play Guitar Hero make me a better teacher or make my students better students? No, I'm not so naive that I can even entertain that thought for a second. What it can do, though, is help me find ways to reach my students and create working relationships that have a different level of trust and respect attached to them. I think back to the teachers I had in high school and how much older and more foreign they seemed to me (even though I realize now that many were younger than I am now). I can't imagine many of them taking on Just Dance or challenging me to Guitar Hero (had either of those existed in the 1980's). It kind of makes you think a little about how our culture has changed and old just isn't so old anymore. We don't look our ages; we don't act our ages ... and maybe that's not such a bad thing.

PS -- I actually wrote this last Friday, but my ability to post from work now is rather spotty now to the addition of hardcore filters that have deemed blogspot worthy of being blocked. I've found a way around this, but it is not always 100% reliable.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Blame Game

Saturday morning, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords held a constituent rally/meeting in Tucson, Arizona. It was a chance for her to chat with those who elected her, get a feel for their views as she begins her next term in office, and continue the process of building a loyal base in her home district that would enable her to keep her job. What happened instead was that a clearly troubled young man arrived on the scene with a gun, shot Giffords in the head and killed six people, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl. It was a horrific tragedy.

Many immediately began pointing fingers and assigning blame. Giffords, after all, was a relatively controversial member of Congress. In March, her district office was vandalized after Giffords' vote proved a pivotal one in the passage of the health care bill. During the midterm election, she was a frequent target of the GOP and Tea Party. Sarah Palin's PAC featured a map which included crosshairs over Giffords' district as one ripe for the picking. This imagery, which was most definitely tacky, has pundits accusing Palin of inciting violence. The attempt to assign blame for what happened in Tucson seems to center on that imagery.

Caveat time: I am not a fan of Sarah Palin. I disagree with her on some pretty profound levels, and I think she represents an emotional tenor in this country that concerns me. I do not, however, think she is to blame for what happened in Tucson. A very sick, troubled young man made a choice. How much political rhetoric factored into his choice is honestly irrelevant and does nothing but turn the lives (and deaths) of six innocent people into political pawns. Those people deserve better, and so do we.

There is, though, something in the reaction to the Giffords attack that does merit attention. There is no denying that we have allowed our political climate to become mired in hostility, resentment, and now violence. It seems as if respect has been stripped from our culture. We don't just disagree with the other side -- we hate them and wish them ill. George W. Bush is the devil, Barack Obama is a foreign scam artist who sympathizes with terrorists, and the only salvation for our very souls is....the guy we like. The leadership on both sides has allowed the lunatic fringe to become the face of their movements, which only serves to shroud the real message of the ideology to be lost behind misspelled signs and ridiculous rhetoric the defies logic let alone truth. We allow people to be whipped into frenzies over Obama's birth certificate or Sarah Palin's children because it's easier than engaging in real, thoughtful, and often difficult conversations over what needs to be done to repair the troubles that plague this country financially, socially, and diplomatically.

While I disagree with them at a fundamental, ideological level, I recognize that there are good, decent people at the center of the Tea Party who are motivated not by greed or evil but by an honest desire to help the country they love. The same is true of my own party. I believe in the people for whom I vote, and I trust that their motivations are good. I believe in the inherent decency of the people who seek office, and I refuse to vilify even the ones with whom I passionately disagree. I may not like the agenda they promote, but I believe that their agenda is steeped in a desire to better the lives of this country's citizens.

The lesson I think our politicians need to take from Tucson is not about blame. It's not about deepening the division between us. It is, though, about taking responsibility and having the courage to stand up to the lunatic fringe and saying "Enough is enough." It's about encouraging respect rather than anger. It's about creating bridges rather than canyons. On Saturday, one of the victims was a nine-year-old girl who was passionate about politics and for whom seeing her congresswoman live and in person was akin to seeing Hannah Montana. We owe it to her and the others who died with her to promote a system that is as beautiful and admirable as that little girl saw it. The time has come to return civility to the governing of our civilization.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Winter Ennui

I have sort of a love/hate relationship with winter.

On the one hand, there is something really amazing about looking out the window and seeing this sparkling blanket of white. It's a moment where the beauty of nature really can be a little overwhelming. I love the clothing of winter. I'm at my most comfy in a turtleneck or at least rocking some layers. I love the feeling of sleeping all snuggled up under the blankets with flannel sheets. I love hot chocolate and nice hearty soups that just don't seem to pack the same punch during warmer months. Add to that the fact that winter is speech season, basketball, and football playoffs, and there is a lot to love about winter.

And yet.....

I hate driving in the winter. I hate that perpetual feeling of NEVER being quite warm enough. I hate constantly planning everything around the weather and its lack of consistency and predictability. I hate looking out the window and seeing grey slush everywhere. I miss grilling out. There is quite a lot to hate about winter.

Being a teacher during the winter carries a lot of added bummers. As soon as a single flake of snow falls, all my students can seem to talk about is snow days -- theorizing whether we'll have one, predicting early dismissals. Heaven forbid the snow should actually accumulate and school NOT be canceled, for then the teacher's life becomes this barrage of "This school sucks" that all seem to be leveled right at you despite the fact that you have absolutely zero control over whether or not school is canceled and, truthfully, were probably hoping for a snow day just as much as the kids were.

Being the brunt of student frustration, though, is a fact of life for a teacher. I sometimes envy elementary school teachers who seem to have days filled with coloring and hugs and adoration. (I recognize the job of an elementary school teacher is probably just as frustrating as mine, but you know... the grass is always greener and all that jazz.) There are days where I feel completely futile after having students vent and argue and challenge hour after hour. When you are passionate about what you teach, it can be downright heartbreaking to not even get a modicum of faked enthusiasm from students. It can be hard to have your attempts to help students better themselves be met with sarcasm and hostility. Some days, you just want to go home and cry. Believe me; I have. I have cried because huge numbers of students have failed a test or slept rather than complete an assignment or looked at me with this creepy mixture of hatred and disdain for assigning homework. I have cried because my speech class has absolutely no desire to actually give a speech. I have cried because I've been called a bitch -- both to my face and behind my back. I have cried enough tears in this job to flood a small village.

So what keeps the teacher in the job other than the paycheck? Well, there is that passion. I love the fact that I get to spend my days reading Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Moliere, Bradbury, and more. When you get that lone kid or two who gets just as involved in the text as you are, well, that's just golden. I love the time I get to spend with a lot of my students, although I still am a bit amazed that some of these kids not only like me but consider me "wise." I love Speech Saturdays and hearing the absolute rush of excitement of kids on the way to competition and on the way home after a successful day. I love rehearsals and performances. I appreciate the trust that students place in me, and I value their respect more than they can know.

And then there are the moments when you really feel like you've made a difference. Sometimes, you figure it out right away -- a kid who "gets it" after a lesson, a student who sticks around after class to talk to you about a problem or just to talk a little more about the day's reading. Other times, it takes a little longer. One of the nice things about winter is that, along with snow and ice, it also brings recent graduates home from college. Their freshman year, especially, those kids often make the high school a stop on their home tour. Suddenly, you are face to face with these adults who have been out in the world a little, adults who find themselves feeling the effects of your teaching in their ability to discuss a novel in class, identify the kinds of theatrical stages, or put together a coherent essay or speech. Even if your role in their current success is a tiny fragment, there is still a chance for you to kind of sit back with a sigh and think, "I have not failed that child."

That alone is enough to beat the winter ennui....for now.