Tuesday, January 30, 2007

American Idol in New York City--C. Crumpet Swank Weighs In

You know the infomercial for the Ionic Breeze, the expensive but useless air purifier? Envision the moment when the perky middle-aged hostess, when shown the wonders of the machine for ostensibly the first time, exclaims, “I loooooooove the Ionic Breeze?” That’s how I felt about the New York Idol auditions, albeit sincerely. I looooooooved them! It was two hours of undiluted viewing pleasure. The producers/editors finally got it right—it was a perfect mix of talents & no-talents, elation & disappointment, eye-candy & the blinding, plus freaks, geeks and hot chicks from Jersey, all topped with that extravagant, frosted-tip crown of aquanetted glory known as Carole Bayer Sager’s hairdo. I honestly don’t know if there has ever been an audition episode so entertaining and so multi-faceted in terms of both talent and emotion. Like I said, I looooooooved New York!


Let’s begin with Miss Col—I mean Miss Sager. If I had a quarter for every person who said aloud, “Why is Joan Collins judging American Idol this week?” when the episode began I estimate my 2007 income would be hovering in the 1.25 million dollar range (pretty good since we’re not even through the first month of the year!). Here’s the math: 30 million viewers. Half are ignorant kids who don’t know who Joan is. Of the 15 million adults, surely one third were shocked by the resemblance; hence, 5 million quarters = 1.25 mil.

The thing is, I don’t know if Carole would appreciate the comparison, since Joan is after all 14 years older. Nevertheless, she looks more like Joan than Joan’s own sister, Jackie! Preliminary reports in Entertainment Weekly suggested that Carole was a weak presence at the auditions, and that it would be a struggle to find airable footage of her comments since they were so minimal and unenlightening. I don’t know why the producer quoted in the EW article said such a thing, because Carole, while not an out-on-a-limb type of judge, certainly contributed to the proceedings, and, moreover, seemed thoroughly attentive, which is more than can be said for Paula on those occasions when she looks bored (or is that drugged?). I was thrown for a loop, however, when during one clip Carole suddenly had morphed into Olivia Newton John. It was very disturbing.

Now, on to the contestants! This week I’ll take them chronologically—

Ian Benardo: scrawny NY jew fag diva. That may not be PC, but that is certainly the persona he is seeking to cultivate in his quest to embody superstardom. I guess he figures there is no one claiming that spot in the pantheon of media sensations currently (was there ever?), and when you think about it, he’s right. I just don’t know how marketable that is. Also, he thinks he’s far wittier than he actually is, which is off-putting, but I have to say I really did enjoy his rendition of "Gloria." It was funny. Even Laura Branigan, R.I.P., would have smiled, I’m sure.

Sarah Burgess: This girl looked like Katharine McPhee’s even younger, sweeter sister and had the small-town spunk, naivete, and emotional availability of Kellie Pickler. I liked her performance a great deal. While she doesn’t have a showy voice or incredible range, I liked the clear tone and admired her interpretive abilities. It was cool how she sang "Call Me" in a jazzy way—I was beguiled. Add to this her pluck and beauty and she definitely deserved to go to Hollywood. Will her nerves be a problem though in the long run?

Ashanti Johnson: This was difficult to watch. Here is Ashanti with an impressive voice (and a newly slimmed physique), but the judges had already sent her to Hollywood twice before and were not inclined to do so again unless she brought something extraordinary to the table. What she delivered was a sonically astute rendition of Minnie Ripperton’s dog whistle classic, "Loving You." But the performance was an uncomfortable mix of polished singing and faux emotion, the latter of which turned the judges off. They also said her song choice was old-fashioned, which I didn’t quite get, because "Loving You" is from 1970s and yet they love it when people sing classic Aretha from ten years before. Hell, the judges sent John “Red” Stevens and Kevin “Chicken Little” Covais to the Top 24 and those two are the epitome of old-fashioned in terms of both material and delivery.

All four judges seemed to agree that Ashanti had an excellent voice, but not the charisma needed to be the American Idol (as if Carrie Underwood has any charisma!). They thought her talents were more appropriate for Broadway, and did not consider it an offense to classify it as such. Let’s just say Ashanti did not feel the same way. American Idol was her destiny and she consequently launched into an articulate plea for another chance to make it to Hollywood. This girl was not only confident of her abilities, but was 100% convinced that “America would love me!” if only the judges would give us plebs the opportunity to admire her.

Her protracted implorations achieved nothing, however. Indeed, the judges looked not only unmoved but decidedly uncomfortable. Her pleas were hard to swallow; even Simon kept his trap shut for most of it. Indeed, it was perhaps the single most uncomfortable audition I’ve witnessed on Idol as it was such a bizarre mix of talent and not-to-be opportunity. I knew what the judges were going through--I didn’t know whether to root for Ashanti or be annoyed with her. Most everyone I’ve since talked to were annoyed with her, that’s for sure.

Certainly she seemed convinced that Idol was her only avenue to creative and commercial success. I’m not sure why she seemed opposed to any other vehicle by which to become an accomplished, remunerated singer. Carole tried in vain to assure her that Broadway was a good fit, but Ashanti would have none of it. It was like American Idol or perish, as far as she was concerned. I think this lack of perspective is partly what turned people off so much, the judges included.

Also, I would venture to guess that no one will ever get a third ticket to Hollywood during the run of this show. A second ticket means a chance for redemption and everyone loves giving someone a second chance when there’s promise and commitment in the recipient, but third chances…nah! Benefactors’ attitudes do an about-face—if you’ve gotten two chances, you’ve gotten your fair share. See also: baseball; CA penal code; etc. And so Ashanti Johnson was sent on her way, defeated and despondent. Thank God the producers did not linger on her after she left the audition room; it would have been painful to watch, I’m sure.

Antonella/Amanda, The Jersey Girls: I will love seeing footage of these two in Hollywood, to ascertain how their relationship will handle the competition. Amanda will be cut early on. She has a reasonably good voice, but her delivery is fully “cabaret,” in Simon’s sense of the word (and that is not a compliment). Also, she is attractive, but not in any exceptional way. Then we have Antonella, who while not as confident perhaps, has it all over her friend. Antonella is tall and drop-dead gorgeous in an unassuming way. She’s like the lesbian love-child of Eva Mendes and Cindy Crawford. Add to this a relaxed and nicely shaded voice with good range and interpretive skills and you’ve got a perfect candidate for the Top Ten. The only contestant more attractive in the history of Idol is Becky from Season 5, who was the first contestant eliminated in the semifinals, but she didn’t have the pipes that Antonella does.

Jenry Bejarano: Imagine if Henry and Antonella hit it off in Hollywood? Their lovechild might very well be the most attractive baby of the new millennium. Jenry is so perfect looking it’s almost unsettling. Even had he sucked, it was priceless watching the looks on Paula and Carole’s faces when her entered the room and after he sang. Their eyes grew ultra-keen with the confines of my 27 inch TV. Close-ups of Paula showed extreme lust, fully palpable. If desire were scented, surely she was stinking up the room.

And then of course, Jenry could sing. Could really sing. His voice, while not terribly distinctive, had tremendous power and control. It would be criminal if he didn’t end up in the Top Ten, given the combination of looks and talent. The fact that he is only 16 makes the combination all the more tantalizing. He’s the total package prematurely--like he jumped forth from the head of Zeus.
It will also be fun watching his short, Bolivian adoptive family root for him. They seem entirely supportive and stoked!

Sarah Goldberg: Surely this girl is crazy, certifiably so. Talent-less, deluded and brimming with hostility. I would love to know what her clinical diagnosis would be. Her quest was to become the first American Idol who couldn’t sing, to turn the show into something completely different—the vocal training odyssey of someone who is tone-deaf—was inspired but entirely hopeless. Post-audition she claimed to have made many friends in the holding room. It would have been nice to hear their opinion of her, because to me, her mental cracks seemed pretty obvious.

Porcelana Portino: Remember how much I loved the New York auditions in general? Well, I loooooooved Porcelana Portino. First of all, how can you not love a girl with a name like that? It’s better than Fantasia Barrino any day of the week. Also, I love the irony that it is the name of this rough and tough chick. Plus, it’s incredibly Italian and she’s very New York and the two just go together like Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorcese. I also admired the way she trained all year for this audition physically, mentally and vocally. I liked that she looked trashy and we expected a terrible audition, and then lo and behold, out came a confident performer and strong, unique voice. Rock on, Porcelana! The girl has charisma. I hope to see her go far in the competition. I have two concerns, though: 1.) Her voice struck me as an acquired taste. I really liked its throaty quality, but I can see others not warming to it. 2.) She seems really sexed up when she sings; she needs to be careful about overdoing it. She is the anti-Lisa Tucker. It is my sincere hope that Porcelana makes it to the Top 24, so I can vote for her!

Jory Steinberg: A girl from Canada who lives in Santa Monica but traveled to New York for auditions. Huh? And why all the footage devoted to her talking about her multiple meetings with royalty without the producers providing any kind of context? Is her father an ambassador? Then again, who cares? Her rendition of Tina Arena’s Chains started out kind of boring but then she really blew it out of the park. She can clearly sing, but just didn’t click with me on an overall level. Perhaps that will change, as it did last year with Ayla Brown, who I grew to like more and more each week. Also, this girl is Simon’s type—a long-haired brunette with a strong, unmannered voice.

Rachel Zevita: Dawn Weiner has been resurrected in the form of Rachel Zevita. I wanted to like her total conviction in her ability to sing, but just couldn’t because she was so annoying otherwise, flouncing around her in her rainbow rags and limp, long hair declaring her suitability as the next Idol. Someone who thinks she’s more sophisticated than she is—yuck. Someone who can turn smug on a dime—yuck. Someone who proudly studies opera, but is convinced she’s more versatile than being a mere opera singer—yuck.

However, I do have to give her points for a particular retort to Simon. The judges had asked her to sing three different styles of music to get a better sense of her voice.She complied and sang three snippets of reasonably accomplished vocals--wildly divergent not only in terms of genre, but also interpretation. Simon complained that the “true” Rachel never came through, that she was like a multiple personality and wasn’t defined enough to be right for the competition. Rachel immediately and firmly reminded him that the show demands the finalists sing in a different style every week, and that it wouldn’t be a problem because “I can sing anything.” And so Simon shut up. Nice chutzpah on Rachel’s part…but too much chutzpah over the course of the audition process could be grating. I don’t think she will make it to the Top 24.

Julie Isadora Furman: This girl, while not as off-her-rocker as Sarah Goldberg, was also not “all there.” Her yelping, pseudo-orgasmic, frequently unintelligible rendition of Lady Marmalade was totally bizarre. At first it seemed it was intended as a joke, but apparently not. The post-rejection footage showed Julie/Isadora to be genuinely upset at her dismissal. The semi-stupor of Isadora—I ask you, is that her baseline personality, the result of being trapped in a three-day audition process for naught, or purely from the rejection? Ryan couldn’t get a handle on it, nor could I.
I suspect this girl attends or attended my Alma Mater, Sarah Lawrence College.

In closing, it as been reported that Randy may be pulling in some favors to score a Mariah Carey-themed night. Given she has just come off a tremendous comeback, I’m sure she’ll be up for it, as she will not feel it stigmatizing in the let’s-trot-out-Barry-Manilow sort of way.

Here are some other ideas for artist-themed nights when the competition finally heats up:
The music of:
  • Cher (of course!)
  • Heart
  • Blondie
  • The Eagles
  • Linda Ronstadt

Each of these artists has a diverse enough sound and a wide and well-known repertoire, so there would be plenty of choices for the contestants when selecting songs. Recent mega-artists like Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, etc., have had a huge number of hits, but stylistically are very narrow, which makes them somewhat less appropriate.

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