He hopes you like jammin’ too
I’m going to miss Jason Castro. I’m not going to miss him because he was a particularly great American Idol contestant or anything; in retrospect, he was a pretty terrible fit for the show’s ballad-hawking chops-intensive blueprint. In terms of pure vocal skill, Castro couldn’t come anywhere near any of the other serious contenders this season. He had no particular range, cooing everything in a near-whisper and never letting loose with the big crashing song-ending notes that have long been the show’s money-shot moments. As a performer, he rarely ventured out from behind his guitar, awkwardly bobbing across the stage whenever he wasn’t parked on a stool. And he showed no real acumen for the show’s PR-hustle element, famously telling Entertainment Weekly that he didn’t especially care how long he lasted on the show. But that last point is actually what made Castro a fascinating figure in an otherwise near-unwatchable season. I can’t think of a single other contestant in American Idol history who so visibly disdained the whole structure of the show.
Last year, Blake Lewis would occasionally chafe at the show’s formal constraints, but he was still transparently trying to win the damn thing. There’s been speculation that Castro was actually self-consciously trying to torpedo his own chances on Tuesday night. (Apparently he mouthed “don’t call” at the camera when Seacrest read off his call-in number? I missed it.) Throughout the season, he’s kept the same blunted, bemused smile, happily shrugging off whatever feedback he got from the judges, good or bad. He never once seriously attempted to adjust his style for the different theme-weeks, always the biggest litmus test for Idol hopefuls (though the same charge could be leveled at most of the contestants in this niche-heavy bottom-dwelling season). And he never pulled any of the riotously cynical vote-grubbing tricks that his fellow contenders relied on so heavily, never grabbed blindly at heartstrings or belted out a patriotic chest-thumper just because. In his absolute lack of respect for the dictates of the show, Castro actually jerked the curtain back hard, revealing the manipulative thrashing of the enterprise for what it was. Next to his beatific grin, the test-marketed stage-kid trickery of the other candidates couldn’t help but seem soulless. As long as Castro was on the show, it somehow felt like one of us had made it through, like someone as deeply suspicious of the unstoppable ratings-machine had snuck past the gatekeepers and was working to bring it down from the inside. No wonder the judges were so eager to see him celebrated home.
Castro certainly has a career waiting for him once he extricates himself from American Idol; jammy dorm-room stoner-folk is, after all, one of the few remaining music-business strongholds where there’s still money to be made. But I can just as easily imagine him saying fuck it and shrugging off all the effort that would doubtless be involved. Either way, I don’t have a whole lot of further use for the guy, and I can’t imagine him making an album that I’d actually pay money to hear. Despite a few magical moments on the show (obligatory “Hallelujah” reference goes here), he faded firmly into the background most of the time, coasting by on pleasant but lifeless performances week after week. For all the bile he heard from the judging table, Tuesday night’s show was actually fairly typical for Castro in that respect. The exceedingly goofy version of “I Shot the Sheriff” that he mugged his way through certainly wasn’t anything I’ll ever need to hear again, but it was no less defensible than David Cook’s yowly “Hungry Like the Wolf.” And even if the lyric-flub in his take on “Mr. Tambourine Man” was pretty glaring (how hard is it to remember “jingle jangle morning”?), his pared-down version was, I thought, one of the night’s stronger moments. The judges and producers might be breathing easier now that he’s gone (their anti-Castro campaign over the past couple of weeks was some serious Bay of Pigs shit, Paula gaffe and all), the show is going to be a whole lot less interesting now that we’re left with three effortfully bland paragons of naked careerism. At this point, I really can’t root for anyone.
That said, Tuesday night actually might’ve been my favorite of the season. The show’s concept, a run-through of some of the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Changed the Universe Forever or whatever, was a canon-enforcing boomer-pander on the level of those two endless Beatles tribute shows, but everyone picked at least one great song and actually did it justice. Cook might’ve shanked “Hungry Like the Wolf,” but I liked his smoothed-out “Baba O’Reilly.” I missed the synth-arpeggios, and Cook is no Daltry, but the big moments from that song never fail to thrill in any context. Syesha Mercado’s take on “Proud Mary” was competently obvious, and I flinched hard whenever she tried to equate the civil-rights movement with her own struggle to become a famous singer, but her “A Change is Gonna Come” actually did move me. Surprisingly enough, though, I thought the strongest performer of the night was the demonically grinning lizard-child David Archuleta, even if I do generally hate the kid. He sang two elegant, simple renditions of two elegant, simple old songs, and he never got lost in his own vocal calisthenics the way he can on the Richard Marxist Jesus-jams he usually favors. For once, he looked something like a confident, nuanced performer instead of the steamrolling engine of pander that his creepy stage-dad has turned him into. I even liked the nod toward “Beautiful Girls” on “Stand By Me.” I’m still dreading his near-inevitable win, but I have to hand it to the kid; he made his thing work this week.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 8, 2008