Wednesday, March 23, 2011

American Idol 2.0

Is it time for another Fantastic Four movie? Nope, but it is time for another round of American Idol where love don't cost a thing except for in an elevator.

Simon Cowell and his V neck framed scowl had been the trademark of American Idol, the focal point of America's attention even more than the contestants. Cowell's biting sarcasm, high standards and opinionated pontifications took America's PC glad handling "You can do anything if you dare to dream" coddling and flushed it down a toilet of off key warblers and flamboyant hot messes. He was someone who could get up in public and speak his truth with total disregard for others feelings, including teenagers. And we were Ok with it because, well, he's not American, he's British. Not from here, didn't know you can't say negative things about people even when they're making a fool of themselves. This led to a lot of work for British judges on other talent shows flooding American tv but that's another topic.

So when Cowell packed up his bags and left for the X Factor following last year's AI many predicted that was it for the ratings megagiant. American Idol would suck. And why wouldn't it, the last 3 rounds or so hadn't created as many stars as years past and the recent winners have had middling careers at best. The Ellen Degeneres experiment had failed as she seemed lost doling out empty compliments to anyone within earshot. American Idol has been on like 10 years or something, they seemed to have strip mined all the talent the U.S. had to offer.

This year when I tuned in to American Idol it was initially out of curiosity. I love music, liked the show generally and can often find at least one contestant to enjoy (last year was runner up Crystal Bowersox). Plus everyone knows the early auditions are where you find the trainwrecks! And there were crash and burn performances, but also there was a re-emphasis on people with actual singing ability and their human interest sob stories. Then the new judging panel caused a commotion by giving a Hollywood plane ticket to anyone half decent, creating a talent pool large enough to run a small city. Speaking of judges, Randy Jackson woke up from a decade long slumber to say something other than "Dawg", "It was OK for me" or "Pitchy". He still says these things, but now he says other words to which is great. Being the only original judge, Jackson actually serves a purpose now as elder statesmen guiding the new crew through the steps of the AI process.

Tonight's Motown episode was the best American Idol full ep in a really long stretch. Strong performances by more than half the contestants made for a great show. It seems the new approach is paying off. The singers are responding to the new judges kid gloves approach, even if Steven Tyler's rambling wackiness is slowly devolving to "That was beautiful and you're beautiful" comments after every performance. J.Lo is either really emotionally invested or a better actress than I thought she was and comes across well - fighting back tears as she delicately eliminates contestants while alternately doing the Paula Abdul cheerleading thing sans nuttiness. And in a crucial move they're using big name producers to help mold the singers resulting in more consistent song quality. Jimmy Iovine? Rodney Jerkins? Don Was? Damn!

Even though I'm not seeing a break out star yet that can sell millions of Cds-er, downloads, this is shaping up to be the best group since season 5. The wide ranging casting call has resulted in early favorites like the funky Casey Abrams, gospelish Jacob Lusk and the diva balladeer Pia Toscano. American Idol has temporarily succeeded in reinventing itself into a more genial yet still engaging talent show. It'll never be as great as it once was, but like a classic New York Yankees team they've bought and drafted enough people to make it to the playoffs. Congrats American Idol, you don't suck...yet.

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