Thursday, May 24, 2012

American Idol

And the winner of American Idol Season 11 is...Phillip Phillips!

Anyone really surprised? For one thing, his victory marks the 5th straight year that a guitar-playing male has won the competition. Furthermore, like all 5 of the previous winners, their personalities were a driving force of their popularity. Sure, they are all talented and certainly deserved to be considered for the prize. In this case, Phillip outshown Jessica and connected far better with the audience. Of course, he had to in order to defeat the far more vocally blessed runner-up.

While I expected Phillip Phillips to make it to the finals, I didn't start considering Jessica Sanchez until the night she was saved by the judges during the Top 7 elimination. Even after that - and with the knowledge that the three judges were clearly favoring her - I still thought the other final's contestant would be either Colton Dixon or Joshua Ledet. Colton's early exit, one week after Jessica's save (and I wonder if Jessica wasn't saved, or if someone else would have been out and not saved, would the judges have used the save on Colton? Certainly possible), was a complete surprise. Granted, he did not have his best week that week, but he was a far more entertaining, and accomplished, artist than Elise Testone or Holly Cavanaugh - both who were safe that week.

But after the nationwide vote, as Ryan Seacrest would say, it's Phillip Philips. Looking back of the 10 other seasons of Idol, this season's finals were not the worst the show has had (I'd give that dishonor to Jordin Sparks vs. Blake Lewis in Season 6). Nor is it the best (Adam Lambert vs. Chris Allen in Season 8). But while the talent on the past two seasons has been better, the show lost a lot of luster since the Lambert/Allen finals. Part of that, maybe a bigger part than the show's producer would care to admit, was due to the departure of Simon Cowell. The loss of Paula Abdul wasn't as painful to the show because the people who watched the show because of her, only stayed tune to see whether or not she came to work drunk. But the numbers don't lie. Last night's finals drew the lowest audience in the 11 year history of the show.

These past two seasons have been judged by Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. Randy, who long ago become just loud slogan machine, without any purpose other than a show of continuity, was supposed to fill the position of serious judge. Unfortunately, he has become a caricature who often acts as if he's the show. He seems like a genuinely nice person. But his name dropping and catch phrases have got to stop.

Jennifer impressed me last year. I thought she did a far more consistent and capable job then Paula or Kara DioGuardi - who was simply too full of herself to be liked (although she was a most capable judge whose critiques were often spot-on). But this season has not been as good for Jennifer. She often became too much of a cheerleader instead of a judge. In addition, she also has become more full of herself. Yes, we all know she's talented and very pretty. But perhaps due to feeling more comfortable in her second season, she has taken all the compliments she's received (and also the amount of crushes many of the male contestants have on her - Heejan, anybody?) and let them go to her head. Rumor has it she will be leaving the show and I look at that as a positive development. Frankly, I've grown tired of her "goosies" and her cheerleading. I especially found her behavior, when they saved Jessica, terribly unprofessional. As with Randy, she acted as if it was all about her.

Ah, Steven Tyler time. I'm not sure what can be said about the Aerosmith front man. He was chosen because he is somewhat controversial a character. Plus, he brings a perspective that's different from Jennifer (who is a solo artist) and Randy (who is a session artist). Steven's appeal is his outrageous behavior, which doesn't always play well on commercial television. Over the past two years, Steven's contributions to the show has been either his "rock star" persona, his "unique" taste in clothes and his uncomfortable (to everyone watching) physical attraction to Jessica, who is 48 years her junior. I can only recall one time that Steven gave any competent advice and that was when he called out Heejun Han for not taking the competition seriously. He was absolutely correct and Steven's comments motivated Heejun to have his best performance the next week. That's exactly what the judges should be doing, but sadly really aren't.


2 -- Jessica Sanchez

Unfortunately, Jessica picked the worst possible time to have her worst week. Certainly, much of the blame should be given to the show's producer, Simon Fuller, for saddling her with her first song. Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing" is indeed a beautiful song. But it is also an exceptionally difficult song to sing. In addition, being that this was the third Whitney song Jessica has performed.I warned that she ran the risk of being a one-trick pony - meaning that while she can sign every note perfectly and even sound like Whitney - the lack of diversity and her inability to make a song her own will end up costing her. Apparently, it did. Again, I can not fault her for her first song and the song she chose to redo (song two was a song they felt was their best from the entire season) was an okay choice. For her final performance, she chose a pop ballad (song three was the song they would release as a single - they were given 6 different original compositions of which to choose from). That was a big mistake for her. She had already sang two ballads and this song strayed from her style too much. Frankly, it was a weak tune and definitely not memorable.

From my vantage point, singing that song at that time was the nail in Jessica's coffin. It not only underwhelmed everyone, but it also showed her youth. Jessica has a wonderful voice and sings way beyond her years. There is no denying her talent. But 16 year olds do not often make the right decisions  and in this case, her age really came to light. To her credit, she was extremely magnanimous when Phil was announced the winner. She looked genuinely happy for Phil. Perhaps she did not like she would win, so she wasn't surprised. Regardless, she should be extremely proud for going as far as she did in this competition. Plus, it isn't as if she won't get a record deal anyway.

1 -- Phillip Phillips

What more can be said about Phil. Again, he was certainly not the best singer, nor was he the best performer. What Phillip did excel at was staying true to who is is as an artist. I was most impressed by him when he refused to be molded by Tommy Hilfiger. There were times during the season that seemed as if Phil had plateaued. Perhaps it was due to his kidney ailment (for which he had surgery today). But when it mattered the most, he came through in a big way. He was certainly the most consistent of the group (although Jessica was also very consistent week to week).

Every season someone steps up to challenge and reinterprets the songs they choose to perform. David Cook was the best at changing songs to fit his style. Others who were great at that were Chris Daughtry, Blake Lewis, Adam Lambert and James Durbin. Aside from David Cook, none of the others won the title. So why did Phillip? Again, like David Cook, his personality put him over the top. The emotion he showed when he won - from not being able to complete his coronation song to the family hug right after - Phillip showed us his vulnerability and the reason he connected so well with the audience.


As for last night's show, I thought is was rather boring. In years past, it was far more entertaining. While Jessica and Phillip had the opportunity to perform with own idols (Phillip with John Fogerty and Jessica with Jennifer Holiday), only two other contestants was given that opportunity - Skyler Laine (with Reba McEntire) Joshua Ledet (with Fantasia Barrino). Speaking of Fantasia, what the hell? A few years ago, she came back to the Idol stage for the first time after winning and performed "Bore Me." The song and the performance were utterly shocking. The look on Simon Cowell's face after that absolute mess was perfect. Fantasia was a clear cut winner on Season 3 and deservedly so. But since then, she has become a absolute joke. In her duet with Joshua, someone who didn't know better would swear Joshua was the American Idol champion and Fantasia was one of the early season rejects. It was that bad.

During last night's show, the girls sang a medley of songs by Chaka Khan, and then stood aside as she took over the stage. Now understand, I like Chaka Khan at times. Her song "Through The Fire" (which they did) is one of my all-time favorites. But I was totally turned off by her performance and they way she relegated the contestants to the back. I felt the show did not feature the top 13 anywhere near enough and this was just one example. I do understand why Jessica was featured more tonight than Phil (the same reason why Phillip had surgery today).

The other group performances were a Neil Diamond medley, which was okay. I especially liked some of the comments I read on a live blogging feed I followed. The most common one was why were they singing a Smash Mouth song, or a "Shrek song", when it was otherwise Neil Diamond's songs? Of course, Diamond wrote the song "I'm A Believer" for the Monkees, and later recorded for the movie by Smash Mouth. What I found fascinating was that so many people who are Idol fans were far too young to know the song was a big hit back in the 60s, nor have no idea who the Monkees are, or perhaps even who Neil Diamond is. If that is the case, why invite him to the show?

The other artist who was honored with a medley was the late Robin Gibb, who passed away last week.  I had two issues with this. For one thing, the top 6 males are totally incapable of singing the Bee Gees. Only one of them, Deandre Brackensick has the ability to sing falsetto, which was a Bee Gees trademark. But his voice is way too weak to take on the Gibb brothers. However, Joshua stole the segment by taking over the last song of the medley ("To Love Somebody"), in the same outstanding way he did just a few weeks ago.

The other issue I had with the medley is that the songs they performed were tunes where the lead singer was not Robin Gibb, but instead were songs where Barry Gibb sang lead. Since they were did this segment in order to pay respect to Robin, the least they could have done was include just one song where he sang lead.

I did enjoy watching Ace Young (season 5 - top 7) propose to girlfriend Diana DeGarmo (season 3 runner-up). Aside from a weird shout out to his jeweler, the scene was beautiful and judging by Diana's reaction (and she looks terrific after all these years), it was a total shock. Well done!

The only other performance of note was the reunion of Aerosmith. It felt a little strange seeing this band perform on a pop-singing show. I mean, rock and roll is all about rebelling and purity. There are a number of heavy metal bands who wouldn't step foot on an Idol stage. They'd consider it selling out. It was this that the hiring of Steven Tyler was such a surprise. But I suppose we ended up accepting the idea because he was so much older and much more mellow after all these years. But seeing them on the Idol stage just seemed so wrong to me. I sort f felt that way a few years ago when ZZ Top did it.

So another year is done and the questions begin. How will Idol reinvent itself again? What will they do to try and stem the tide of falling ratings? If Jennifer does in fact leave, who will be hired to replace her? I am one who believes the show needs a major rehauling. The format has grown stale and I actually think the judges are as much at fault as are the producers. I think we are all tired of Randy's bombastic personality and are craving someone with the audacity of a Simon Cowell. Because of his position within Innerscope Records, I d not think they will move Jimmy Iovine to the judges table. But his experience and honesty are really what's needed most. There are also certain format changes that need to be made. I think that they need to reevaluate who serves as mentors, as well as look for new ideas for themes. But most importantly, they need judges who will judge and not cheerlead.

I did enjoy the season and I felt the overall talent of the top 13 was perhaps the best the show ever had. It appeared as if all the contestants truly cared about one another and were all very likable. It's always hard at the beginning to form any favorites, but by the top 12/13 are finalized, we always find the one we like the most. I can't count how many times I've threatened to never watch again, after my favorite was voted off. But when the entire group is so cohesive and sweet, it's easy to find another favorite. There will always be someone who gets voted off early and someone who should never have lasted as long as they did (this season, the two were Colton Dixon and Holly Cavanaugh). But that's what makes American Idol so captivating. Yes, it is just a reality show. But these are real people and real dreams.

So, congratulations to Phillip Phillips and to Jessica Sanchez. You guys were formidable opponent and a lot of fun to watch.

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