I’m a big American Idol fan, and also a fairly decent-size Dodger fan, and so, at the moment, I am one very fucking happy American girl. I’m telling you: After a deeply awful season last year for the Dodgers and a pretty lame one for Idol, the pride is back — on both counts. I just feel it. Idol is kicking major pop-cultural ass, and I feel this bodes well for the boys in blue. (You will recall that at the peak of the ’04 season, Eric Gagné and Fantasia were both on an incredible roll. Fantasia was rocking Queen, Willie Nelson and Gershwin; and after every Dodger victory — usually saved to the tune of Gagné’s theme song, “Welcome to the Jungle” — the team would celebrate in the locker room by playing Idol reject William Hung’s CD, Inspiration. Can’t you just picture Gagné and Shawn Green singing along to his Ricky Martin cover?: “She bangs! She moves!” Yes, you can.)
You see, American Idol and Dodger baseball are my two primary modes of connecting with American popular culture. Because a girl needs that. You can’t spend your whole life in some incestuous, narrow-casted, overpriced mini-subcultural niche. You need to find ways to feel a part of your own country, which just happens to be really fucking big.
So I choose Vin Scully, and Brit/de facto American Simon Cowell, and I enjoy sharing their pithy doses of common sense with about 10 bajillion other people, live, at the exact same moment. Then I talk about it with my Idol/baseball buddies. That’s the best part.
But last year was so bad for Idol and Dodger fans, sometimes I think it may have actually been the fever dream of some dark child-mystic in an M. Night Shamalama movie called The Sucking. The Dodgers lost, without style, and Reese Witherspoon won on Idol, and then had to surrender her title after she got the Oscar, and now nobody even remembers who won. In fact, she has already been supplanted in the American imagination by Idol ’06’s Kellie Pickler, who offers a much more authentic glass of country-time lemonade. Likewise, ex-Dodger GM Paul DePodesta has been banished from the kingdom of Those to Be Taken Seriously and is currently living in a hut in the forest, failing miserably at the most basic Sudoku.
(A word on the Dodgers: Granted, it’ll take longer than a single season to recover from the devastation of DePodesta/Tracy, but I feel that they are off to a good start: Unlike last season, when we won far too often far too early and then blew for the rest of the year, this season we’re starting off at a modest, just-under-500 pace. And I think that new manager guy, Grady O’Little or whatever his name is, is a pretty quick study — which suggests that if we suck again this year, at least we’ll suck in new and novel ways. And, as mentioned, the success of Idol this season obviously bodes well. )
Now, as a fan, one of the things you learn at Dodger Stadium is that watching a game in person feels both more and less real than watching it on TV. Strangest damn thing, and I know you know what I mean. The same goes for Idol. I found this out when I went to fucking see Idol get fucking taped, dude! (During Queen Week, no less.)
It’s weird — you never think about American Idol being taped here in L.A. I mean, yeah, whenever anyone passes the first audition in Vegas or Chicago or wherever, Randy shouts, “You’re goin’ to Hollywood, baby!” and then the kid runs out of the room screaming, “I’m goin’ to Hollywood, baby!” And you’re like, “They’re goin’ to Hollywood, baby!”
But then you look away from the TV screen and kind of think to yourself, “You know?.?.?.?I think I may actually be in Hollywood right now.”
There’s just a cognitive disconnect from the actual, hard fact that they tape America’s most popular TV show every Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon at the CBS lot next to Farmers Market, on Stage 36, across the street from Pan Pacific Park, where they shot some of Xanadu. (And speaking of Xanadu, when are they going to have superproducer Jeff Lynne of ELO on the show? Is he even on the wish list?)
In fact, I never knew with certainty that American Idol actually existed in space-time before seeing it live. The funny thing is, I’m still not sure. It’s possible that, like Hollywood itself, American Idol primarily exists in people’s imaginations. That’s a very real place, you know.
Like meeting Henry Winkler, the first thing you notice when you enter the Idol studio is that it’s much, much smaller than you expected. On TV it appears to be some sort of carpeted, chrome-lined airport lounge/spaceship containing row after row of fans, fading endlessly to the horizon. In real life it’s crappy plastic chairs duct-taped to one another, on crappy risers on a crappy hard floor. And that glittering set? In real life, it’s a sort of cheap-looking plasticky Johnny Rockets/space-jukebox scenario. Kinda cool, actually — in a junky ’70s way. It’s only the lighting and the cameras that make it look so sleek and ’90s on TV.
(Oddly, I saw Ryan Seacrest up close, and he looks exactly the same in person. He looks like a completely prefabricated person. I think he may actually exist in some bizarre threshold between real life and the digital realm. This is, no doubt, why he is perfect for this job.)
There is much to be said about what happens in the room around the taping of American Idol — the culture of hugging, for one thing (all the judges and their friends and lovers and family and the contestants and everyone are constantly hugging like some freaky, Christian hippie sect). It’s fun to watch a live-TV pro like Seacrest do his cheesy thing, note perfect every time, reading precisely from a Teleprompter. It’s also notable that next to the contestants, the hardest-working people on Idol are actually the audience members — no kidding. The producers absolutely rely upon the audience to perform a constant ballet of clapping, standing up, sitting down, being very quiet, clapping loudly for just a moment and going “Awww?.?.?.?” in unison, on cue. It’s quite amazing to me that people don’t mess up more often out of sheer perverse reflex.
But the salient issue here is the singers, and the question I needed answered: How does television distort their actual performances? (How many times, for example, has a kid appeared to sing completely flat, only to have the judges compliment him — and vice versa?)
What I discovered is that TV absolutely distorts their performances — but does so inconsistently, on a case-by-case basis.
The most glaring example was the group medley of Queen songs performed on Day Two: Live, their young voices blended around those triumphant harmonic hooks with beauty and truth and charm, and it was by far the best group vocal I’d ever seen on Idol. (Including “Bennie and the Jets” on Season Three!) But on TV that night, it just looked like this incredibly pathetic, barely in-tune mess.
Likewise, Pickler’s rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” was way, way better live; her voice is infinitely more powerful and thick than it sounds on TV. Conversely, Elliott Yamin (known affectionately in my house as “Jazzmonkey”) comes across better on TV, where the sophisticated nuances of his pitch and phrasing are magnified and the shortcomings of his physical presence are diminished.
Which brings us to Paris. Are my boyfriend and I the only people in the world who understand what a frightful talent she is? I know the judges love her, but they just don’t love her enough. Did anyone else get the glam-rock majesty and pathos of her performance of “The Show Must Go On”? Does anyone understand what a burden a talent like that must be to a 17-year-old girl? Katharine McPhee has a powerful presence, it’s true, but Paris is far and away the most interesting performer up there, and every time she’s in the bottom three, part of me is actually relieved. If she ever gets the kind of recognition she actually deserves, it could really screw her up but good. The best thing I can wish upon her from a psychological and emotional perspective is a mild, steady career trajectory — which is, obviously, not the goal of a show like this. I’m torn.
As a music lover, I’m supposed to say that Idol is a guilty pleasure, but that would be a lie. There is no guilt. There is some pride. I’m proud that America’s favorite TV show is a show about music, and songwriting, and the history of American pop, and the systematic exploration of beloved song catalogs.
Likewise, I know that with a war, global warming and overpriced toner cartridges being sold every day, certain snobs see this show as offensively escapist. Isn’t it sad, people always say. More people vote for American Idol than for the president.
Fuck no, it’s not sad. People need an escape. More people also probably do crosswords, or read books, or surf the Internet, or rent videos, or even go to church than vote for the president. What’s sad is that voting for president isn’t even half as accessible for everyday working Americans as voting for an American Idol.
And anyway, we’re good at this.