Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Voting Rights

In recent conversations with Internet-savvy friends who watch "American Idol," I was surprised to find that they were not familiar with I do not endorse this site or its mission, but I do find it to be a curious outgrowth of the AI phenomenon and digital technology. For the blissfully ignorant, VFTW, as the name states, is a website that encourages people to vote for the worst American Idol contestants rather than the best. In past seasons, VFTW has taken credit for the unexpected survival of John Stevens and Scott Savol. At first this effort struck me as amusing, but the more I looked into it, the more I came back to, "Why bother?"

The official American Idol response to VFTW is indifference. You won't find any reference to VFTW on the Fox network websites, but VFTW claims to get feedback from AI fans that accuse them of being "hateful" and "mean-spirited." VFTW's somewhat convoluted response is that Idol producers bring this on themselves when they exploit the worst of the auditions in the early episodes of the season to boost the ratings but then expect people to disregard this car-crash aspect of entertainment when they vote. I am sure there are far more detailed arguments, but anyone who can wade through the shrill name-calling and conspiracy-laden exchanges to be found on various online forums (not to mention the bewildering acronyms and what passes for spelling and grammar in the digital world) has a lot more time on their hands than I do (and that's saying a great deal).

So, VFTWs want to see more of the "so bad it's good" entertainment and are doing their best to keep those contestants on the show. But what also comes through on the website is a certain amount of chest-thumping and glee about "sticking it to the man!" So now who's being self-righteous and hypocritical? I mean, yeah, I guess its subversive, but you're subverting "American Idol." Whoop-de-do. Not exactly Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand in Mexico City.

The other problem they have is that in such a pool of mediocrity, it's not so easy to identify which contestant is the worst. This year, VFTW picked Kevin Covais and Kellie Pickler before the boys and girls were brought to compete against each other. Now, I am not a big fan of either of those two, but when VFTW congratulates itself for keeping those two out of the bottom three, I think they have misjudged the quality of the performances and the taste of the people who vote. There are plenty of people who will vote for Kellie and Kevin because they actually like them, especially Kellie; if she is the worst, then she has fooled the judges, who regularly praise her performances.

So, enough cyber-controversy already, what about last night's show? In order of my rankings:

Taylor slipped up last night but remains at the top of my list. He always puts on a show, but his "Price is Right" enthusiasm could wear thin if he doesn't start cranking out better performances. I like that he has survived the Final 12 makeover better than some and resisted being cleaned up too much. "Not Fade Away" was the wrong song in the right genre; he is born for rockabilly, but I kept waiting for the song to take off and it never did. "Not Fade Away" strikes me as more of a showcase for the band to jam, not the best choice in a singing competition. My top five choices for songs Taylor should sing are: Joe Jackson's "Is She Really Going Out With Him," Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic," John Hiatt's "Drive South," Randy Newman's "I Love LA," and Bob Seger's "Night Moves."

Chris is hot on Taylor's heels. In the last two shows, he has done compelling twists on well-known songs, but they are not completely his own, as he acknowledged when he did the Red Hot Chili Peppers version of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" last week. His "I Walk the Line" last night was a cover of the cover done by Live, but a lot of people watching, including me, did not know it. It reminded me of Social Distortion singing "Ring of Fire," which I first listened to courtesy of a college roommate whose album collection consisted of artists I had never heard of. Next week, I predict that Chris will come full circle and cover Johnny Cash's Grammy-nominated cover of Trent Reznor's "Hurt."

Mandisa belted out a leadoff home run with Dinah Washington's "I Don't Hurt Anymore." In the last two weeks, she has been one of the few contestants who can handle the big stage and large audience. She may not win this competition, but I can see her leading a national tour and Broadway revival of "Dreamgirls" in the near future.

That's the end of the list of Idol contestants I would pay money to see (if you don't count the extortion that is our monthly cable bill). Elliott did a nice job and is getting the most out of the Hollywood stylists, but he still seems nervous onstage. His teary embrace of Stevie Wonder last week was touching because he seems to be a kindred spirit musically, but if Barry Manilow makes you misty-eyed, now you're just a crybaby. Elliott's vocal talent and style go a long way but he strikes me as more of a very good lounge singer than a pop star.

Speaking of Manilow, the only thing more disturbing than his plastic surgery (more in the Bruce Jenner than the Joan Rivers range) is his professed lack of knowledge about Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight." Not that I had a lot of respect for him before, but, come on, if you're in the music business and you admit to this particular ignorance, you make sure they edit that out of the final cut. Kellie's rendition won't hurt her, but the original is a haunting, plaintive wail, far beyond her abilities. To see it done right, rent "Sweet Dreams" and watch Jessica Lange lip-synch.

Plastic surgery non sequitur: The best comment I have heard about plastic surgery came from Dolly Parton, who explained her attitude to the E! Network as follows, "Honey, if I see something that's saggin', baggin' or draggin', I'm gonna have it nipped, tucked, sucked or whatever I need to do." I couldn't find this exact audio, but this clip says about the same thing.

I guess Katharine would be next. She has gotten rid of the funny faces she used to make while singing and might actually be better than Elliott. Nothing about her performance jumps out, although her dress barely contained her, apparently thanks to some judiciously placed double-stick tape. I don't love her, I don't hate her, and I won't miss her when she goes.

I bet most Idol fans have Paris higher on their list than I do, but she had some real work to do in my book, so her last two performances have gotten her off the hotseat. She stopped mugging and goofing around, but "Fever" is a song for a woman, not a girl dressed up like a woman. Paris needs to go see if Barney the Purple Dinosaur is still hiring cloying kiddies.

Kevin on the other hand, has embraced his inner geek, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. I mean what are we going to get next week, "Corner of the Sky?" "Rainbow Connection?" "It's not Easy Being Green?" Final hint: if you have a lisp, try to avoid songs that have the letter S in them.

Ace is the anti-Kevin, all looks with no voice. His drop to the bottom three last week was a reality check, but he doesn't have the talent to change that reality. Last night's song was a decent bounceback, but I still think he peaked a few weeks ago. The Doc once compared his looks to a young John Travolta, and unfortunately for Ace, he has passed through Vinnie Barbarino and Tony Manero territory, but Vincent Vega land is still a few years away.

Lisa might be the best singer in the whole thing, but last night she looked like her close brush with elimination the previous week shattered her confidence. Don't be surprised to see Ryan hand her the microphone tonight.

If this were the Oscars, Bucky would be my "Should win" pick to hedge Lisa as my "Will win" pick. When I heard he would sing, "Oh Boy!" I thought it would be pretty good. It wasn't. He has either lost his nerve or wasn't that good to begin with. Either way, he won't make it out of March.

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