Friday, January 19, 2007

Idol Day One:The Search for a Sniglet

C. Crumpet Swank weighs in...

As much as I typically enjoy the audition segments of American Idol, something seemed not quite right with the first installment of this year's edition. At the start of the episode I wasn't sure if the producers were setting up the "makeover artist"--the young girl who makes suburban Midwestern gals "look like supermodels" (her words not mine, and not entirely accurate, by the way)--for a tremendous crash and burn or to launch the show on a positive note if she were to reveal a truly lovely voice and get her ticket to Hollywood. This girl was painfully earnest, genuinely sweet, and perhaps not very bright. She was like Kellie Pickler's less shapely, and less attractive cousin by marriage. This girl had genuine belief (if not killer ambition) regarding her singing, and the situation was made all the more poignant by her avowed love of Jewel, the guest judge. Indeed, the song she prepped was You Were Meant for Me, Jewel's biggest hit.

And so I braced myself…and the sweet-hearted mall make-up artist sang. What came out wasn't terrible, but it wasn't terribly good either. Her singing was very mannered, somewhat aping the vocal quirks Jewel employs, but without the natural skill or ease. Indeed, she tried very hard, but instead of succeeding, came across as an overly self-conscious singer, even though she wasn't the least bit self-conscious as a person. It was a cruel irony.

The judges tried to let her down easy, but you could tell this girl's dream was crushed. Not only crushed, but crushed ten feet in front of her favorite singer no less (and, of course, in front of thirty million Americans). But wait, it gets even better (or worse) depending on your point of view. When this young lady came out of the audition room and broke the bad news to her family, it was as if the cameras were literally itching for a nervous breakdown. There were even stretches of silence--virtually unheard of in our hyper-edited prime-time world--because the producers clearly wanted to wrench every bit of disappointment, disbelief, and desolation from this girl's whirl through the Idol machine. It certainly didn't make me feel good watching this reverse-coronation and I question why the producers, with over 10,000 Minneapolis contestants, felt obliged to showcase this girl's battered dreams as not only the first audition of the evening, but of the entire season, and to spend an inordinate amount of time focused on every element of it. It struck me as cynical and slightly vicious. I daresay even Simon would object to the way it was used to frame the episode and season. I must give props to the young lady, however, as she eventually composed herself and graciously added some final comments which demonstrated inner strength and a laudable poise which I hadn't expected.

Alas, Minneapolis coughed up few notable performers. Despite my tremendous excitement about the return of Idol, I have to admit the two hours of auditions dragged on a bit. Halfway through I thought, why aren't they showing us more good performers instead of all these crappy ones? But when at the end of the episode they revealed that only 17 people were sent on to Hollywood, out of 10,000, I had my answer--there just weren't enough to go around. In reality we probably saw 8 or 9 of the Hollywood-bound, which is actually more than half who got golden tickets. The powers-that-be didn’t (and probably wisely so) show us clips of all those going forth, because they want to keep some surprises among the ranks duiring Hollywood Week next month.

Now, regarding some of those with whom we shared time last night--remember sniglets? Sure you do, sniglets were a series of "new" words coined in the late 80s to name things previously unnamed but universally understood. The season premiere of Idol has convinced me, more than ever, that the show has begat the need for a sniglet, one to classify those auditioners who:

  1. have no discernible talent (none!) for singing/dancing/performing,
  2. but who are convinced otherwise
  3. and are furious--you can see the rage flickering in their eyes--with the judges for suggesting otherwise
  4. and express this rage post-audition with poor grammar, flustered faces, and liberal slashes of profanity

Four qualifications to fall under that sniglet, but oh how so many contestants do. Like the mumbly teenager who said, with the utmost conviction (albeit almost unintelligibly), that his vocal range was comparable to Mariah Carey, and then proceeded forth in a tuneless dirge; suddenly left the room for some water to refresh himself; and returned and resumed the dirge. And attempted two or three other tunes in the same flat, tuneless, horrible, mess. He easily fulfilled all four qualifications in my yet-to-be coined sniglet. So too the 16-year-old boy who purported to be an excellent singer, dancer and juggler and quickly showed us that he was none of the above; indeed, not remotely competent as a singer or dancer and possessed of juggling skills not quite the envy of a fourth-grade, first-year juggling student. When he charged out of the room, I honestly feared he was going to harm someone. He then burst into tears and his dumpy. big-banged female relative quietly assured him to disregard the judges,that he would still be famous, as was his wont. It was really pathetic, but an experience somehow so very different from the girl with marginal talent who opened the show. This boy was so awkward and socially inept, in addition to his total lack of performing skill, that I wasn't moved by his plight at all. I didn't even feel pity. More like scorn, scorn for the combination of his complete self-delusion, social irredeemability and misplaced anger. Does this make me a meanie? I'm not sure, but my feeling toward such a sniglet-type feels nothing like the discomfort and self-questioning I experienced at the beginning of the show witnessing Miss Makeover's deracination.

And Big Brenna! That was a frightful affair. I wanted to like her, truly, I did. I hoped she was going to sing wonderfully, although I hardly suspected so. It was hard not to root for someone who was so clearly an Idol devotee (watcher of not only American Idol, but also of Pop Idol [UK], Canadian Idol and Moldavian Idol! She also seemed to have a good sense of humor in her chit-chat with Ryan, but whenever she opened her mouth in front of the judges...goodness gracious! She absolutely trashed Under Pressure, and I thought, surely this is stunt--she's a huge fan and is acting wacky so that she can actually be on the show (I think Jewel suspected the same), but post-audition it seemed as if her effort was serious in intention. As Whitney Houston would say, that's whack! I literally gasped when, as a means of defending her performance, she maintained that she had a degree in vocal performance. That can only mean one thing--who cares who the next Idol is going to be? I want to know what college pimped Brenna and for how much? Because if that was the best singing she could offer after completing a four-year degree in vocal performance, someone's tenure needs to be revoked.

Where was the sunshine in Minneapolis? Well, there was cutie Matt Sato who had the best male voice-- lush, warm, genuinely emotive--on display during the premiere. And he seems to know how to control it, which is always important, of course. He’s also handsome aside from the spots on his face. I could not tell if it was acne or unfortunately placed moles. If the former, he needs to get some Proactiv pronto; if the latter he needs to get himself to the cosmetic surgeon. Cindy Crawford, Madonna and Marilyn Monroe have shown that there’s nothing wrong with a strategic facial mole, but one smack dab on the tips of their noses wouldn’t have flown, I’m sure.

Denise Jackson had a warm, gracious personality and a strong, impressive voice. She will be of course helped by her crack-baby backstory, but even without pity points for that, her voice seemed impressive enough for her to justly earn a berth in the competition. The performance we saw was a bit overemphatic vocally, and it will remain to be seen whether she can ratchet down the intensity a bit, which she will need to do to excel across genres.

Sarah Krueger, who sang Over the Rainbow was effortlessly impressive, but it all seemed a tad polished and she was a little too reserved personality-wise for my tastes. She seems like a McPhee type, but not as pretty. No doubt about it, she earned her ticket to Hollywood, but I’m wondering if she’s a little too slick for her own good.

The military girl—I liked the tone of her voice better than anybody else, but I’m not convinced she has adequate control over her instrument, as they say. I was in total agreement with the judges—she started off amazingly, and then faltered. I would love to see her get it together since there’s no vanity there, and she seems very nice in the best sense of the word. A woman of honor, in more ways than one. I’m definitely rooting for her. And besides, there should always be at least one smokey-voiced gal in the finals (like Camille Velasco or Lindsay Cardinale in past seasons). What’s interesting too, is that the smokey voice usually goes with a seductive type, and this girl is anything but that, and I fancy the irony.

And who did I like the best—well, call me a typical male, but I really liked the South American girl who fled to America at 15 and is chasing her dream. She’s a real charmer. Clearly, she’s not going to have the strongest voice on the show and her accent is going to get in the way, but she had a real genuine exuberance, was entirely comfortable in front of the camera (eat that Carrie Underwood!), and had a clear, charming voice quite up to snuff. Add to this great looks, a killer body and a by-the-bootstraps back-story and you’ve got quite a candidate. I liked her rendition of Call Me, and her Hips Don’t Lie was literally as good as Shakira’s With the right material and some accent control she could have some staying power, a la Vonzell Solomon. And the underdog champion in me always likes to root for the person who doesn’t have the technically best voice, but compensates in a plethora of other ways. This is where we all acknowledge that our beloved Paula Abdul and Taylor Hicks are themselves beneficiaries of such all-around trooperism in any frank assessment of their own success as singers.

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