Bring on the Freak Show

Blogging the new season of American Idol.

Season 6 of American Idol began on a triumphalist note, with a montage of past winners and images of a nation gone Idol-mad. “Together, we’ve created a phenomenon,” said Ryan Seacrest, trying hard to sound stentorian, like the voiceover guy from NFL Films. “You caught McPheever, and turned Katharine into America’s Sweetheart,” he intoned. Did we really? I’m not so sure. Still, as the new season kicks off, Idol’s pop-culture preeminence is undeniable, as is its music-biz clout. (Among the astonishing statistics reeled off by Seacrest is the fact that Idol contestants have produced “over 100 No. 1 CDs.”) The industry held its nose for the first couple of seasons, but now superstars vie to appear as guests on the show, and last year’s finale, with performances by Prince and Mary J. Blige among others, felt like as much of an event as the Grammys. This year, producers are promising more A-list guest stars— Mariah? Macca? —and big midseason twists. And while highbrows continue to sniff at Idol, the show’s track record of anointing worthy new talent is very solid indeed. Exhibit A in 2006 was Season 4 winner Carrie Underwood, whose debut, Some Hearts, was an excellent country-pop record, not to mention the year’s best-selling CD by a solo artist. Did I mention that an American Idol runner-up is about to win an Oscar?

None of which has much to do with Red. Red is the nearly toothless, flame-haired giant who croaked a pitiful version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” on last night’s broadcast, a two-hour-long compendium of clips from Idol’s Seattle auditions. (Tuesday’s show focused on the Minneapolis tryouts.) Red was mesmerizing—in a creepy, hillbilly Charles Manson kind of way—but in general I find the audition phase boring. Six years in, the formula is familiar: a parade of the freakish, the tone-deaf, and the delusional, interrupted, roughly every half-hour, by a talented singer who gets a ticket to Hollywood. Occasionally, the bad singers are funny and revealing. On Tuesday night, a lesson in the larynx-shredding aesthetics of post-grunge vocal style was supplied by a pimply young “rocker,” whom Simon sent off to learn an Abba song. I laughed at (with?) the big girl who mumbled her way through the Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha”—and was excited beyond reason to learn that she’d co-authored an Idol-inspired “novella” with her mother. (Hello, publishing world? Where’s Judith Regan when you need her?)

Overall, though, the freak show preliminaries are tiresome, and I find myself itching for the beginning of the competition proper. It’s the post-William Hung effect: For every genuine would-be superstar, there’s a would-be über-geek anti-star. Watching the first two episodes, you couldn’t help but suspect that most of the “bad” singers were actually savvy performance artists, angling for a few minutes of airtime. Thus the Jewel super-fan (quite possibly the last one on earth), who sang a wounded water buffalo version of “You Were Meant for Me” to a panel that included guest judge Jewel herself; the dude dressed up as Uncle Sam; the fellow in the Apollo Creed outfit; the “cowboy” who mauled “Folsom Prison Blues”; the tiny Justin Timberlake wannabe, whom Simon cruelly (but accurately) likened to “one of those creatures that live in the woods with those massive eyes”; the “urban Amish” guy; the juggler; the girl with the pink arms; etc.

Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell of American Idol

These acts mostly ring false, and when they don’t, Idol veers into the icky, exploitative territory of lesser reality shows. (Last night, the program lingered for several uncomfortable minutes on a fat kid who was clearly developmentally disabled.) Really, how many more bug-eyed Simon Cowell reaction shots can we see before the joke ceases to be funny? On the other hand, I am enjoying the leitmotif of rejected contestants trying to exit through the wrong, locked door—a priceless bit of old-school slapstick punctuated, each time, by Simon’s drawling, “Other door, sweetheart.”

One of the big questions heading into Season 6 is: Will Idol get with 21st-century innovations in pop repertoire and vocal style? Back in Season 2, I wrote an article complaining about Idol’s domination by Mariah Carey wannabes, and the overuse of flamboyant Careyesque melisma in pop and R&B singing generally. What I didn’t take into account was the groundbreaking new singing style—speedy and tensile, weirdly syncopated, clearly influenced by rap—that was being pioneered right then by R. Kelly, Usher, and, especially, Beyoncé. In the years since, Idol has seen its share of country and rock singers, and even some old-fashioned crooners. But circa-1992 Mariah- and Whitney-style belting remains the most prevalent—this despite the fact that Carey herself has moved on to channeling Beyoncé. Will Season 6 bring a post-hip-hop R&B vocalist, a singer representing the definitive contemporary style? When is someone going to step forward, braving the wrath of Cowell, to do a version of “Ignition (Remix)” or “Ring the Alarm“?

We’ll keep an eye on that and other intriguing musical and sociological questions in this space, in addition to the more pressing issues—Paula Abdul’s fragile emotional state (she’s been disappointingly sane and sober thus far), the smoldering sexual tension between Simon and Ryan, Randy Jackson’s gratuitous mentions of his own session work with Journey and Mariah Carey. (The tally so far: 1.) In the meantime, my early votes go to the absolutely adorable Malakar siblings, Shyamali and Sanjaya (who killed “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” in his audition); to 16-year-old Denise Jackson, who, we were informed in a heart-jerking interlude, was a “crack baby”; and to the extravagantly moussed beatboxer Blake Lewis, who, despite his hair, came across as genuinely charismatic and talented. (You can sample his vocal stylings on his MySpace page.) Then there’s the developing singers-in-arms subplot, with two members of the military already advancing to the next round. Rachel Jenkins, an Army reservist from Minnetonka, Minn., whose husband is currently in Baghdad, might be the stronger vocalist of the two. But the smart early money is on Jarrod Walker, a Naval intelligence specialist with a pleasant Andy Griffith air about him, who won the USS Ronald Reagan’s “Reagan Idol” competition, and sailed through to Hollywood, singing the Rascal Flatts weepie, “Bless the Broken Road.” Might Americans purge their guilt about souring on the Iraq war by “supporting the troops” in the Idol competition?

Until next week: other door, sweetheart.