"So," my coworker said, leaning across the conference table, "Ruben or Clay?"
"Neither," I replied, "I don't watch American Idol."
She sat back, stunned, "You're kidding."
But it was true. I might have seen a moment or two of the show, and of course I knew who the finalists were because you couldn't avoid them if you lived in America and owned a television or a computer; but I had never sat down and watched "American Idol." It's not like I am one of those people who claims not watch television (except for PBS, the news and presidential debates). Nor do I dismiss all reality shows, just the ones that have proven to be the most popular: Survivor, The Bachelor(ette), Fear Factor, Cops, and anything to do with makeovers for a person, a home, or a child-rearing strategy. I even chided my friends for their discussions about whom they would use as a lifeline on "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," although I secretly thought they would be foolish not to pick me.
Now, I will watch the incredibly stupid dating shows. "Blind Date" is the original and all-time best (I don't include older shows like "The Dating Game" and "Studs" because there was no video footage of the dates), but I have watched just about every spinoff and variation: EX-treme Dating, the Fifth Wheel, Dismissed, Elimidate, and more have all provided high comedy via my television set. I am also a fan of "Pimp My Ride" but don't watch "American Chopper." Go figure.
But "American Idol" just didn't do it for me. I have never claimed to have exquisite musical taste, but the brief clips I had seen gave me no reason to watch. Nor did I particularly care to hear what any of the judges had to say. Like most Americans, I had never heard of Randy Jackson or Simon Cowell, and before "Idol," my most recent thought of Paula Abdul was probably 12 years ago when I moved out of my parents' house and into my first apartment. Many weekday mornings, one of my roommates would engage in an odd ritual where he stood in front of the TV, flipping to MTV and VH1, chanting, "Come in Paula..." He would also settle for a Mariah Carey video, but he preferred Paula to set his karma straight for the workday ahead.
So, was my reply to my coworker a little smug, even scornful? Of course it was. My opinion of "American Idol" reflected my belief that if the contestants had any real talent, they would be performing somewhere other than on this television show. And if I wanted to hear live music, I would go to a concert or a club. The humiliation angle held no interest for me either. To me the people who watch to see contestants fall apart and get shredded by the judges are the same people who watch hockey for the fights and NASCAR for the crashes. I didn't care if Simon made someone cry and Paula punched him for doing it. And the less time Ryan Seacrest spent in my life, the better.
However, a little more than a year ago, I walked into our family room and found the Doc and the kids watching "Idol," and it was all over. Popular culture had found the weak point in my snobbish defenses, and blew them up real good. Like most parents, I will take an interest in my children's interests, and "Idol" had set the hook deep. Meals, homework, baths, all had to be scheduled around "Idol." We had to tape the shows that went past their 9:00 bedtime, and, in a major reversal of priorities, watch the tape the next morning before SportsCenter. As the season wore on, and their favorites fell by the wayside, they stuck with it right up to the grand finale. And of course, the American Idol CD is almost always one of the six in the car stereo.
This season, we have watched from the very beginning. I still don't care for the audition shows, partly because I find them less appropriate for the kids than the later stages. I honestly can't fault the judges for their occasionally caustic remarks because if I had to sit and watch and listen to the daylong parade of mediocrity that they do, I might also be less than constructive at times (yes, I know, you are shocked to hear this). So the current stage is when I actually begin to enjoy watching "Idol" with my kids.
People watching this show with their children is one reason "American Idol" is such a dominant force in the ratings. There is very little objectionable content (the commercials are worse than the show), and there is the positive message of working hard to pursue a dream. And, for me anyway, there is the lesson that not everyone can win, not like T-ball where every batter scores a run and gets a trophy, but that everyone can compete, improve, and keep moving forward even after the show is over. These are great messages that my kids would pay no attention to if I recited them over and over, but a little "American Idol" goes a long way.
Given all that, I still sometimes find it hard to embrace the part of me that has become associated with "Idol." These days, when someone asks me if I watch the show, I give what I like to call the Bill Clinton response: "Yeah, I watch it ... but I've never voted." And I still can't stand Ryan Seacrest.
So, if you have waded through all the above, what do I think about the final 12? As some have conjectured, Taylor Hicks is my favorite by a longshot. Not only can he sing, he can perform, and he always gives the impression that he is having a great time doing it. He has his own style and is confident enough that his songs never seem to be a stretch for him. This week's rendition of "Takin' it to the Streets" was an easy choice for him, and he knocked it out of the park. It's only a matter of time before he does a Joe Cocker number, and when you hear the familair piano riff of "Feelin' Alright," it will be game over. I don't know that he will win because the text-messaging demographic might not find him as appealling, but for me, the other contestants are not even close at this point.
Not surprisingly, at 29, Taylor is one of the older contestants. I also like Mandisa, who is also 29. Mandisa, despite her annoying one-nameness, has the stage presence of a polished performer and the pipes to match. She also won Simon over when she embarrassed him by forgiving him with grace and poise after he criticized her weight. Of the teenagers, I'll take Lisa Tucker and Kellie Picklar, but let's get Paris Bennett and Kevin Covais on the next bus out of town. Lisa has a lovely voice and good presence, but seems a little to fragile to make it to the end. Kellie has gotten better each week, and her hard-luck story and obvious resemblance to Carrie Underwood will take her far.
Paris is cute and can sing, but she has been living too long on her bloodlines and the obvious favoritism of the judges. She grinned and mugged her way through "Midnight Train to Georgia," and last week sang "The Wind Beneath My Wings," which along with "The Greatest Love of All" should be grounds for immediate disqualification. If America votes for Paris, it's time to move to Paris. Ditto for Kevin Covais. Nice voice, but every time he goes onstage, I expect to see Eddie Murphy jump out of the audience and start screaming, "Opie Cunningham! Opie Cunningham!" On the other hand, when he goes back home to Levittown, Long Island, I see a lot of ass-kickings in his immediate future.
Of the remaining guys, Elliott Yamin has the best voice, but his face is one only Lyle Lovett's mother could love, so don't count on seeing him in April. On the other end of the spectrum is Ace Young, whose name sounds like the fifth member of KISS, and whose looks will take him further than his voice. Ace is a favorite of the Doc's, and I have to admit, his rendition of George Michael's "Father Figure" a few shows back was very strong, but the last two songs haven't been as good, and he'll need another big hit to stay in. Bucky and Chris have cornered the country and rock vote of the guys who won't admit to watching and voting. Look for Chris to pick up Bucky's votes when Bucky misses the cut, as soon as next week.
That leaves Katharine and Melissa. Which one is which again? No, I know Katharine is the one who can actually sing, but she makes the funny faces, much like Kinnik and Will, who were eliminated this week. They are both tolerable, but when Paris and Kevin's bus comes back, they should have their bags packed.