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.