American Idol

The contestants get religion, share pre-singing rituals, and say farewell to Haeley.

For a thing called Idol, this show demands that viewers take a lot on faith. We are asked to believe that the singers are who they say they are, that they really have lived out of their cars, really play melodica (who would make that up?), and are really platinum blond. Well, maybe not that last part. We believe that our votes count, or else we don’t but wear out our phones on Tuesdays anyway. We believe that Simon knows whereof he speaks, and in Randy’s sage wisdom—that truth is reality and Crystal is truth—and in Ryan’s hair, and we just believe and believe and believe. There’s a gospel choir sometimes, so that helps.

But even though faith can be a beautiful and powerful thing in our lives, a little goes a long way. This week we learned that Tim Urban, Michelle Delamor, and Didi Benami pray before they sing. Todrick announced plans to return to his church roots next week; Michelle sang Creed; Aaron Kelly spoke in tongues (or possibly Na’vi); poor, doomed Haeley entreated us to keep the faith on her “Climb”; and last night the Idols collectively declared their intentions, a la the (auto-tuned) Black Eyed Peas, to … crash a bar mitzvah, I think, and smash it like, oh my God, mazel tov, l’chaim. The Hebrew is kind of new for Idol—Elliott Yamin never even mentioned his faith on the show (Elliott! Even though it felt kind of selfish, I really worried about him this week!)—and I think Didi might be the first Jewish contestant to get religious on us. Of course, she also said she meows before going onstage, and I don’t remember that from Sunday school.

And here’s the thing, Jermaine (Jermaine, didn’t I just lecture you last week?): God might, in fact, have a plan, but it is almost certainly not AT&T with unlimited texting. While namechecking Gee Dash Dee in humbled gratitude is kosher when you win or when you lose, at other moments taking out the Lord’s name just seems vain—like repeating, “Well, I know God,” over and over when the judges do not approve of your song choice. I mean, I know William Hung, but you don’t see me using that connection as a defensive strategy when “She Bangs” goes badly at karaoke. OK, I don’t actually know him, but does anyone, really? My point, though, is that Idol is not so far from American electoral politics, in which you can swear the president in on a Bible, and he can say, “God bless the United States of America,” to close his speeches, but to many voters, a shoutout to the Big Guy is different from insisting that you and Hashem are like this. If you missed that conversation on Tuesday, Jermaine totally thought Simon was going to hell; Simon thought he might already be there. Anyway, the lesson is that just a hint of hubris is enough to take you down. (Speaking of presidential language, I, unlike Simon, have never “misunderestimated” Crystal and am pleased that she recovered in time to rock CCR’s “As Long As I See the Light” on Wednesday. A tough cookie, indeed.)

I did like Jermaine’s gospel style, though, and was sorry to see him take his drama (and dinosaur pajamas) and go, but he and Lilly Scott both lost me a little with their oddly timed civil rights anthems. Even if Kris Allen and Adam Lambert sang  “What’s Going On?” and “A Change Is Gonna Come” in Season 8, that was toward the dramatic end, and Adam actually appeared to have a personal investment in the message. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with the realization that these songs are becoming standard competition pieces. It feels somehow sacrilegious. But there’s been a lot of warhorse repertoire the past two weeks, with one of two things happening in each case—either the judges have said the song was too old-fashioned (John Park last week, Aaron Kelly this week) or praised the singer for having the maturity to handle the material (Mike Lynche with his terrific “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” on Tuesday). Old soul, it seems, requires an “old soul.”

In addition to the mess of contradictory song-choice advice from the panel, we got a peek into super-secret singer cult(ure) this week, a look at some tools of the trade. Michelle gave us “woo”-ing, Siobhan the lip trill—must’ve worked for her, with that stupendous B-flat—and Didi’s cat noises, plus we learned of 100 obsessive pre-show rituals, including pushups and throwing up, Smart Water and steam, bench-pressing Aaron Kelly, Stuart Smiley impressions, and coloring (inside the lines, Paige?). I guess I would be anxious, too, if Vera Wang were watching me, and Ryan kept pointing her out. I’m curious about why, in addition to this and to his established roles as host, protector of the meek, and glarer at Simon, Ryan seems to have taken on new duties as stewardess. “Thanks for choosing American Idol,” he says politely after the breaks now. As if we had a choice.

But we did make decisions this week, and the four we sent home were all good, all voices I’ll miss. On other Idol seasons, they might’ve been safe, but with the judges pushing the indie vibe the way they have been, there was no chance a Michelle Delamor or a John Park could make it. And there’s often only room for one 16-year-old in the top 12; Haeley was bound to go home so that Aaron could stay. No, her tearful smiling didn’t get to me. I just have something in my eye. (I think it might be the reflection off her gargantuan earrings.)

Next week, God willing, we’ll get to the end of this grueling three-day broadcast schedule, and I will break out the Manischewitz (and fill up my cup, mazel tov, l’chaim). Until then, keep the faith, because our best days are ahead of us!

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