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American Idolatry

Last week, American Idol delivered a devastating blow. I would even say that somehow last week, the terrorists won. And that’s not just because it was Barry Manilow week.

I have been an Idol devotee for months now — even at its most profane — but last week, everything that is just plain wrong about this show was crystallized. The dark side of the Idol took over, and suddenly the show became its Worst Self, the Golem run wild, dumbly trampling all that I hold dear. Now I’m scared to even watch the show. But watch it I will, to the bitter, rotten end. I can’t not.

What happened was that — well, see, maybe I should back up a little bit. Okay, you all know about the Idol, right? (You have to call it “the Idol” whenever possible.) The great American corporate talent-show swindle? Yeah, you know it. Anyway, it’s in its third season — and, like great love and bad ’70s pop, it seems to get ever so much better with age. I kid you not, kiddo. I’ve seen The Swan and The Apprentice and The Extreme Midget Makeover Reunion Challenge in Hawaii, and none of them have an ounce of the charm and razzle-dazzle of the Idol.

This season is the best by far. Both the judges and fans like me have been happy because, for the first time, the competition has been fully stocked with talent and genuine eccentricity — sometimes embodied in one person. Awesome.

So anyway, there I was back in mid-April, floating gaily along the American Idol slipstream, lulled into affectionate tolerance of the show’s brutality and commercialism. None of that mattered — even the Triumph of the Will–style opening seemed intentionally wry because the contestants were so odd and pure and naive. Even glad-handing host Ryan Seacrest seemed to have his place. (Though let’s face it: You can’t trust a man who can talk while grinning like that.) Best, the voting audience knew whom to kill. It was perfect. We got rid of the fake-punk hairdresser from Bakersfield; we lost the tragic Hawaiian IHOP girl; we chucked the Bulgarian teen queen and the footballer. I didn’t hate to see them go because none of them were smart. You just knew it by looking.

Losing the waitress even offered an interesting lesson. (Idol is full of lessons.) Her rusty-virginal rendition of “Son of a Preacher Man” way back convinced me she had the best voice of the lot — which I still believe. It wasn’t enough, though — not by half. She was too young to understand her own specialness, much less believe in it, and she rode herself through the wannabe-pop-star mire worse than any record-label Svengali might have done. She chose all the wrong songs, forced herself to dance, and wore the most atrocious faux-’80s camel-toe getups you ever saw. She wasn’t just a victim of fashion, she was a victim of herself. One lesson you learn with age — a lesson American Idol purports to teach — is that if you wanna be a star, you’ve got to grapple with the diamond at your core and make it shine, shine, shine.

In recent weeks the remaining hopefuls began to absorb that lesson. And good work, since one of the show’s darkest paradoxes is the way it seems to encourage individuality while forcing its contestants to shovel shit for the network — taping music-video ads for its sponsors and performing humiliating sing-alongs complete with high-school choreography. (Let us forget Barry Manilow last week herding the kids through a patriotic shit field like some lobotomized, jingo pig farmer.)

Elton John week, though, was a chaotic triumph. Wild card George Huff dominated with the lesser-known “Take Me to the Pilot,” and it was a beautiful thing to see. Huff, who still doesn’t know how good he is, embodies the best of the Idol spirit. He wants desperately to be loved — not in a narcissistic way but in an honest, human way — and he’s incapable of hiding it. He gets me crying in an instant. Even the group rendition of “Benny and the Jets” that night made me blubber. The kids could have been singing about themselves — oh, but they’re weird and they’re wonderful.

And that’s what you want from them. In a show so expertly manufactured by the scariest network, you want to see freaky humanity in its raw form, blossoming ridiculously inside the machine. That’s why the past few weeks have been devastating. Everything started going wrong when John Peter Lewis, a.k.a. “JPL,” a.k.a. “the Pencil Salesman,” got chucked. I wasn’t a big JPL fan, but I need this guy on the show a little longer. I can find a decent singer in any karaoke bar. I need JPL’s spastic dancing, which the judges tried in vain to kill. I need his deer-in-headlights look. I need his fat dad doing the twist.

One of my true faves was Jennifer Hudson — a full-bodied Earth goddess from the ghetto, never been to a concert, born with gospel in her DNA and a voice too husky for KIIS-FM. After a couple goofs, she began to figure out who she was: the gospel version of an opera diva, with the kind of river-deep soul Langston Hughes wrote poems about. Once she got it, singing Elton John’s Africa-inspired “Circle of Life” (and making it sound good to me for the first time), she was unstoppable. Maybe too unstoppable. After winning the highest number of votes two weeks ago (I’m pretty sure), she got the boot last week. Fuck.

Worse, it turned out the second- lowest scorer was Fantasia Barrino, or “Team Fantasia” in my household. Remember that name. This girl’s a superstar. An unmarried teen mother with something wired screwy up top — in a good way — she favors men’s songs and, as my Idol buddy Debbie pointed out, Fantasia uses her voice exactly like a great jazz saxophonist. Wow. Good luck, ladybug.

I’m not sure it’s significant that last week’s bottom three vote-getters were the black girls — and also the best girls. Idol isn’t always that simple. Maybe people didn’t think the divas three needed any help. Maybe people want to defend the underdog. Or maybe we’re a nation of tone-deaf, racist, sexist player-haters.

All I know is that last week American Idol let me down. I watch the show for the creative cracks in the gloss — a sista singing Willie Nelson; Quentin Tarantino’s un-ironic appearance as a guest judge; Simon Cowell’s nic-fit impatience with the idiot audience. I long for the day Neil Diamond appears, and the great Jeff Barry, and Brian Wilson. Those moments, when we get to dive into the heart of our collective songbook, and feel how good it is to love a sentimental pop song, and notice how strange the best songs, and performers, are — that’s the sweetest part of being American, for my money.

The thing is, the Idol is such a crafty beast, next week it could totally turn around and renew my faith in everything. There’s a ghost in this machine that its British creators couldn’t have foreseen. Like I said, it’s the Golem, a man-made monster with a life force way beyond its maker, capable of beauty or violence when least expected.

Anyway, against all odds, there are still a couple true freaks in the running. To them I say tenderly: Hang on to your egos. Stay gold. Go down dancing, babies.

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