Thursday, August 09, 2007

Uncensored Idol!

So one of my worst traits as a newspaper writer is that I can never seem to write within the size constraints of our paper. This especially sucks when you're writing entertainment articles to run during the week. You see, quite often the available amount of space for non-news stuff fluctuates wildly from day to day and is dictated by the news of the day, the ads that are sold, etc. In other words, if you're writing a fluff piece, you're the first thing to go if something needs to get munched.

I spent most of today in a total American Idol whirlwind. Not only did I get to review the show tonight at the Mark (and hey, it's my blog, I can call the venue whatever I want. I can call it the Doug of the Quad Cities if I want,) but I also got to spend the afternoon interviewing several of the finalists, which was pretty sweet.

As a result, I got two articles in the paper today, which is pretty sweet. Sadly, though -- because every time they send me out to do a story, I return with a non-abridged version of "War and Peace" -- my articles (especially my review of the show itself) got munched pretty hard by our over-worked and incredibly awesome copy editors. Hence, this being my blog, I thought I'd share with you the articles in their full glory as they were intended:

What's in a name?

Well, if that name is American Idol, your answer is: one of the largest commercial juggernauts in the history of pop culture.

If that name is the newly christened i wireless center, the answer Wednesday night was: an almost capacity crowd for the Moline stop of the Idols Live tour. Frankly, I don't care what they call the venue. All I know is that the building's commitment to drawing top talent will forever be a mark of the Quad Cities.

If that name is Sanjaya Malakar, your answer is: one of my favorite anti-heroes of all time. The oft-criticized Idol finalist of the sixth season was welcomed by the crowd as heartily as the rest of the ensemble.

This was my second trip to Idols Live; I also had the pleasure of reviewing the tour the year Fantasia rolled through town. And, once again, I find myself in a bit of a professional conundrum.

As a music critic, I am pre-disposed to applaud originality, creativity, and performers that reach to great lengths to propel their art to new and exciting levels.

Idols Live does none of that, nor does it pretend to. This is pre-fabricated, wholly commercial pop-by-numbers at its finest. At its core, this is -- by its definition -- the greatest karaoke night in the nation.

By all points, I should sincerely hate this show. Then why do I love it so stinkin' much? Easy -- because American Idol knows how to throw a party.

I've got to give them kudos for the intro alone. With house lights still raised and the crowd distracted by giant walking Pop-Tarts (don't ask,) one of the random roadies onstage ripped off his fake beard and wig to reveal himself as Blake Lewis, Idol runner-up and fan favorite. With one scream, the place erupted as the idols stormed the stage to a roaring version of "Let's Get It Started."

Cover versions were definitely the name of the game, but the idols did their best to put their unique stamp on the 30+ songs chosen for the tour. Thanks to the Idol TV show itself, Lewis' version of "You Give Love a Bad Name" is probably more recognizable to the teen crowd than the Bon Jovi original.

Some of the performances literally had the hairs on the back of my neck standing. Idol winner Jordin Sparks could sing the alphabet and have the crowd in a rapture, and Melinda Doolittle's take on "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" was my highlight of the night.

"I Will Always Love You," a song I thought I'd already heard about 2,304 times too many in my lifetime, was given new life by Lakisha Jones and brought the crowd to its feet.

As for Malakar, the kid held his own. When the opening bars of "Thriller" struck, there was no one else I wanted to see rise from the stage floor than Sanjaya, and hey, he rocked it out, moonwalk and all. In fact, I'd say his live vocal chops overall were better than those of his fellow finalists Chris Sligh or Haley Scarnato.

Gina Glockson, the closest thing we've got to a hometown Idol hero (she's from Naperville), was greeted warmly by the crowd, some of whom had obviously made the trek from Chicago-land. Glockson, who hours earlier had gotten engaged live on stage at the tour's Chicago stop, had a natural ease onstage that harkened back to her appearances over the past few years at RIBCO with her old group Catfight.

And, you know what? I take back what I said earlier about a lack of creativity. Lewis' beatboxing skills aren't just a novelty -- he's honestly one of the best in the business at rockin' the box, as he proved time and again throughout the night. If he's a one-trick pony as some might suspect, I don't care -- it's a great trick.

At the end of the day, it's amazing how quickly the American Idol machine can turn a motley crew of talented kids into bona fide world class entertainers. Whether this season's crop of finalsts are destined for the charts or destined for obscurity is up to time and perseverence, but Wednesday night definitely proved one thing: they've got talent on their side.

And my interview piece also got edited a little bit, here's the original version of THAT:

You're in a large window-less room. You've only been awake for a few hours, but you find yourself being shuffled from one table of strangers to the next. At each table, someone points cameras and microphones at your face and asks you 10 different versions of essentially the same question. It is your job to be charming. For me, that would be the definition of impossible. For the finalists of the sixth season of "American Idol," it's just another Wednesday afternoon.

"It's pretty crazy," admitted Idol finalist Phil Stacey prior to last night's show at the i wireless center, "Being on the road, you're really, really tired all the time. But at the same time that it's putting stress onto your physical body and everything, we're having THE absolute time of our lives."

"The tour is a blast," echoed finalist Melinda Doolittle, "A sleepy blast."

The Idols tour is the culmination of a whirlwind year of auditions, TV shows, and a struggle to parlay sudden fame into a professional career. It's a challenge the finalists say they're up for.

"Here's the thing," explained Stacey. "We're living out our dreams right now. I'm not foolish. I know where this leads. Maybe two of us will come back to venues this size ever again. This may be the last chance I've got to step out in an auditorium and sing, and I'm taking advantage of it. I'm having a blast."

"This whole thing is fantastic," said finalist Chris Sligh, "Every day it just kind of reiterates to me why I got into this in the first place."

Sligh came into Idol with a background in Christian music, and took some heat from conservatives for performing secular music on the show.

"Anybody who knows me for more than fifteen minutes knows that I'm a Christ follower," he explained. "But American Idol's not the place to get up and preach. If you're a Christian plumber, you're not going to preach while you're cleaning a toilet. If you're a Christian lawyer, your opening argument isn't going to start with 'So let me tell you about Jesus.' There's a professionalism to it that gets lost."

One person taking full advantage of the tour is Season 6 winner Jordin Sparks, who, at 17 years of age, still requires a guardian to accompany her on the road.

"It's fun to have family with," Sparks said with a huge smile, "because I get to have a little piece of home with me. It sounds horrible, but I'm not homesick. People ask me all the time, 'Can't you wait to get home?' And I say, actually I CAN wait -- I love travelling and I love what I'm doing right now."

Sparks is one of the busiest of all, as her off time is spent laying down tracks for her debut record.

"I got to go in the studio and hear what she's done so far," gushed Doolittle of her friend. "And oh my gosh. Normally in a studio, it's hard to convey your feelings through a song. But this chick? She's like a seasoned pro!"

Arguably the star of the show is a most unlikely fellow -- Sanjaya Malakar. Normally someone who ends up in 7th place on American Idol isn't exactly a mega-star, but unless you live under a rock, you know all about Sanjaya. Whether it was the constant berating of judge Simon Cowell or the constant support from Idol saboteurs like and Howard Stern, Malakar found his name in the press nearly every day -- and not for the best of reasons.

"It's awkward," said Malakar with a grin that was, well, awkward. "People can think what they want to think. I'm just going out there every day and having fun."

All of the finalists are eager to talk about their plans following the tour. On the busses, they've been writing for each other's records. Stacey is prepping a country disc, while Sligh hopes to release an album to appeal to both mainstream and Christian audiences. Idol finalist Gina Glockson is preparing for more than an album - during this week's show in Chicago, she was proposed to onstage by her boyfriend -- and accepted. When I brought up the surprise engagement, Sparks and Doolittle exploded.

"Did you see the ring?" they asked in unison.

"Red with black diamonds! It's really shiny!" added Sparks.

"It's really GINA," Doolittle clarified with a grin.

Like the other finalists, Sanjaya, too, is already looking ahead to the post-Idol future.

"I'm definitely doing an album," he said. "My message is that music is music, regardless of genre. I want to fuse jazz emotion and rock energy with a world music vibe and make it work."

For now, though, first thing's first.

"When this tour is done," said Doolittle, "my immediate plans are to take a nap."


Socialist Christian Hippie said...

The fact that it only takes a few months shows you the relative ease of doing this sort of thing when you have all of this technology, stylists, fashion, etc. behind you.

It is a shallow commercial art.

It makes people happy. So I am not against it, I just bristle when people call them "talented" or "singers".

Most are neither. Put alone in a room with a piano and no mic and with music that has a depth to it, and see how long most can last.

Unknown said...

To socialist christian hippie bristler,

He was writing about refining their stage skills and their ability to communicate to their target audience.

My training is classical, and I do know there is talent there and that most are singers, whether or not you like to think they're neither talented nor singers.

There is also depth in some pop music and shallowness in both pop and classical. To me, it's sad to just categorize as you do and miss so much that is Music and just plain fun. They call it entertainment. It may be cornball, but the phrase "my heart sings" is no accident, and I get the sense of that with their show.

Shane, I enjoyed your write up of the show and the interviews. It was also nice to see the generosity of spirit that allowed you to see or hear beyond the media's Sanjaya mantra.

Socialist Christian Hippie said...

I would never say that pop music has no depth. Some of it rises to the level of great art itself.

I have not heard much of it on that show, though.

I mean, Sinatra did "pop" and did it excellently.

I considere Bob Dylan one of the greatest American singers.

Some "art" music is garbage.

Having watched American Idol, I still think that if you strip away the tech you'd be left with little to admire.

Would Dylan make it out of round 1? What about John Lennon? David Byrne? David Bowie? Leonard Cohen? Woody Guthrie?

Unknown said...

No, nor would Sting. That's not what it's for. And many would argue about what is 'art' though you and I will tend to agree on the ones you named except that with only a piano and no mic as you stipulated, they'd not make a big impression.

Dylan's no great singer, but he's a great songwriter, with fantastic lyrics, that survived his raw asthmatic-sounding renditions.

Apples and oranges. And Bennett, who phrases nearly as well as Sinatra and does much more with little actual voice, said out loud that Sanjaya "sings very well."

I also get a feel you're stuck in the same timewarp I am/was :-)

Winwood certainly wouldn't be for that show. Nor JJ Cale. But Winwood's a guy who overdubbed himself so that an entire album was him, multipled. Now, Blake might do that but I'm no fan of Blake, whose outrageously sharp of center singing was overlooked by the judges. But some like that beatboxing stuff and if one likes that kind of energy, and a lot of people do, he'll sell tickets. So, he gets room. Just as long as I can enjoy others.

Sales. It matters even in classical, where you have only 'safe' artists most of the time, playing 'safe' music.

People are funny. In high school, I was dancing with someone who asked me who my favorite singer was. I said I couldn't decide between Sinatra and Elvis (even if he might sang flat). He said "You have to be a hypocrite to put those two names together."

I do enjoy music in many forms.
And find both those guys "talented"... and "singers" - that's my main point.

Socialist Christian Hippie said...

I like your style, BTW.

BUT, Dylan was a great singer.

His vocal style is an affectation of a southern style. A style that had evolved, somewhat from Shape Note Singing. Which, probably had earlier forms. I'm not the greatest musicologist around.

Listen to his phrasing. "Don't Think Twice". Although often covered, I've hardly heard anyone get the inflection right.

"The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" is perfect in timing. Written out, it is repetitive and boring, sung, it is life itself. Listen to how he lands on the Names. It is stunning.

"Like a Rolling Stone" is another one. Great timing. The phrases remind me of opera. Puccini. The phrases breathe. Recit flowing into aria.

As Wagner escorted us out of the the epoch of Functional Tonality, and redefined art itself in the 20th century, so does Dylan guide us into the 21st.

Has anyone ever done a Dylan song on Idol?

-shane- said...

Ooh, I hadn't checked the comments on here for a while and just caught you guys going back & forth.

I guess it all just comes down to your concept of the word "art."

I mean, is your definition of "art" simply a song sung well? Or is the full creation of a song?

Certainly, Dylan's a genius. But he's no Pavarotti when it comes to the vocal chops. Yet, he will FOREVER be more respected by the sands of time than Melinda Doolittle, who's a freaking FANTASTIC singer.

Me, I kinda take Idol for what it is - a talent contest for singers. At the end of the day, every one of those kids -- Sanjaya included -- can do things with their larynx that I couldn't ever dream of... and hell, I'll respect that just as I respected the kids from my high school choir.

I'm a fan of pop music, period. It brings you up, and -- if it's good enough -- can even make you think. Some of my favorite bands -- Of Montreal, Camera Obscura, Belle & Sebastian, The Polyphonic Spree, The Boo Radleys -- write pop music, albeit pop music that's a little too challenging for the masses. Or at least not packaged for the MTV 15-second attention spans of today's youth.

I appreciate MOST music if it's done right... and the Idol gig was surprisingly fun.

The neatest thing for me about the whole week was listening to these kids talk about their future -- they're all SO career-driven right now that it bends your mind. Every single kid on the tour has a portable studio on their tour bus. As they travel from town to town, they work on songs for each other, they record vocals... and, while Idol prevents any of the finalists from signing to any record deals until AFTER the tour, it was pretty obvious that they ALL have deals of some kind waiting for them.

The bottom line for me is that they're all pretty talented kids, and they were ALL genuinely nice people to interview, and you really get a sense (other than Sanjaya, who seemed pretty distant) that they're all each other's best friends. And to get a sense of genuine ANYTHING from a show SO profit-driven as Idol was truly refreshing.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Nope. Still lame.