American Idol Week One: Sucking So Far


Nightmare material

If this season of American Idol has an official theme, it’s that the twenty-four men and women competing this year are the most talented set of contestants in the show’s history. I’m not quite sure how they’ve measured that, but Ryan Seacrest tells us over and over again that that’s what’s up. If this week’s shows, the first live broadcasts of the season, were any indication, Seacrest is leading us astray. American Idol is a fucking mess this year, and thus far I’ve only seen maybe three or four contestants who have any potential to do anything interesting once the season wraps up. And it didn’t have to be this way. I’m still sort of reeling from the premature ejection of Josiah Leming, the uber-earnest emo kid who sang in a British accent, cried all the time, and lived in his car. Leming is one of the show’s biggest stories this season. During the grisly and endless audition shows that led up to these live broadcasts, we got to see a ton of Leming, whose garbled heart-on-sleeve moan was messy and craggy and weirdly absorbing. I would’ve loved to see what this kid could’ve done with, like, a Bee Gees song once the theme-shows got rolling. The show’s producers dedicated a ton of screen-time to the kid, somehow lending pathos to the backstory they probably mostly invented. And so it’s just weird that he didn’t make the final twelve dudes while a near-endless procession of grinning simps did. I’m not going to say that Leming would’ve been the best A.I. contestant ever or anything, but he would’ve added a layer of unpredictability that the show really needs right now.

American Idol is having problems lately. The show is still the highest-rated show on TV by a comfortable margin, and even its lowest-rated episode still draws ten times more viewers than last year’s biggest-selling CD drew buyers, but those ratings are down a ton from previous seasons. And other than Leming’s mystifying dismissal, the thing about this season that’s drawn the most attention is the presence of industry-vet ringers like tatted-up cheeseface Carly Smithson, who nearly bankrupted the major label that tried to make her a star a few years back when her album bricked in spectacular fashion. The show is just now getting around to acknowledging the pro pedigrees of some of its contestants, but there’s still something discomfiting about seeing the awkward first-round performances interspersed with blandly professional snoozefests from the likes of Aussie fake-rock huckster Michael Johns. Watching this week’s shows, though, even the ringers weren’t the biggest problems. Neither was the mesmerizingly awful new Paula Abdul video that filled screen-time during last night’s results show or the increasingly ridiculous presence of “rocker” candidates who sound like Seven Mary Three rejects or the sweeping blandness of the backing-band arrangements. The biggest problem this year is all the fucking smiling. Especially for the male singers, there seems to be some weird directive floating around that you should grin spastically through whatever song you’re singing, even if it’s about fear or paranoia or heartache. It’s like all the singers painstakingly study the songs’ melodies without ever bothering to figure out what emotion they should be conveying. The show got rid of its worst offender this week when drama-club freakshow Colton Berry, whose take on “Suspicious Minds” was some disturbing Up With People shit; on the way out, he even had to endure a particularly vicious shot from Simon Cowell, who pretty much told him to first find a day job and second not quit it. Still, this is going to be a hard show to watch unless they find a way to get that shit under control.

There were a few bright spots here and there. On the male side, the only singer I really liked was dreadhead hippie Jason Castro, more for his hilariously stoned reactions to Simon-praise than for his perfectly respectable take on “What a Day for a Daydream.” The female side was a whole lot brighter, despite the insane number of interchangeable blonde chicks. Ramiele Malubay, Syesha Mercado, and especially Asia’h Epperson absolutely burned through their songs, and I can see any one of them turning into a compelling pop star, given the chance. Epperson especially has a heart-wrenching backstory, a fierce stage presence, and a voice that recalls a time when R&B singers were allowed to actually sing. If she wasn’t around, I’d have a much harder time convincing myself to get through another couple of months of lameass shows like the one I endured this week. American Idol is always a fascinating experience because it shows this sort of alternate pop universe that props up an image of pop music that shares virtually nothing with my own concept of pop. But season seven might just be the year when those differences become irreconcilable.