Once upon a time, after Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken had fought their epic battle of the ballads, American Idol was deemed so family-friendly it won an award. In the intervening years, it’s become a funny kind of family fare. A viewer once told me that Idol helped him teach his kids how and how not to behave, and every season we do get lots of values-laden stories that advertise the overcoming of adversity. But we’ve also become intimately familiar (maybe too intimately) with the floating, bleeping icon that censors contestants who curse the judges and America as they stomp about in frustration, or who are dragged screaming out of the audition room by security. Last night, the logo was on the other side of the (appropriately, blushing pink) table, lodged over Steven Tyler’s much discussed mouth.
His quips are a special brand of genius, I think, dirt for dirt’s sake—”You know what they say about little hats: they’re good for little [Idol logos]” —or contextually inappropriate, as when he asked Randy’s high school football coach: “Did you ever paddle his ass?” (At least, I think he said “ass.” I guess behind the logo he could have been saying “canoe.”) Producers must have known what they were getting into when they hired him. To balance the younger contestants, I wonder if they want the show to also skew more adult as their viewers get older? (that’s a surprise; I know I’m 10 years younger than when the show started.)
Speaking of language, I’ve been wondering whether the presence of “most influential Hispanic entertainer” Jennifer Lopez might broaden some Idol horizons that we’ve just glimpsed over the past nine seasons. Could/would Idol actively help singers court the kind of bilingual crossover market J. Lo has achieved? On Thursday we got a hint of possibility, when shipbuilder Jovany Barreto offered an intense, Luis Miguel/ Xtina-tinged update of the Cuban warhorse “Contigo en la Distancia.” He did make me think, though, that the Season 10 portrait of Latino/Latina auditionees so far seems very angled toward bodies, even if maybe there’s a challenging mix of disappointing objectification (Jovany whipping off his shirt) and the potentially positive (Tiffany Rios, inspired by J. Lo’s anti-stick figure to love her own shape).
“Learning to love yourself” was the theme of teenager Brett Loewenstern’s segment, and I loved Idol a little more for it. Brett had the kind of young, high-pitched, Chris Colfer speech that used to set Simon’s macho teeth on edge, but he turned out to have a powerful voice, in every way—he sang like a star, gave Jennifer “goose pimples,” made Steven shout (and cluck like a chicken), and delivered a timely anti-bullying message that would never have flown in previous seasons. Was Idol showing remorse for its past Tiger Mother tactics? Was it just hypocritically catering to the recent zeitgeist? Either way, I was glad we met Brett. Plus, my hair totally identifies with his, and plans to vote for him.
He wasn’t the only one to demonstrate deep commitment last night; the singing was strong in general, from musician and teacher Jordan Dorsey, Jacquelyn Dupree, sweet-faced, Bieber-voiced 15-year-old Jacee Badeaux, and especially Paris Tassin, whose story of young motherhood and rendition of Carrie Underwood’s “Temporary Home” made J. Lo (and me) cry. Even the doomed were impressively dedicated to their performances, including Blake Patterson sob-singing “Smile” to mourn his failed audition, and Gabriel Franks, who was clearly only there because of his resemblance to a certain Aerosmith frontman—and was J. Lo projecting a growing squickiness about her co-panelist when she shouted “I’ll go first! It’s a no!” the instant Franks finished singing?
But her response and the boys’ gentle hazing—antics like baring their assets to her along with Jovany—actually feel like a good sign to me. They’re symbolic of the thing that Simon, Randy, and Paula used to have, a dynamic that never quite clicked with Ellen and Kara: They’re already becoming a little on-screen family. Just like where we all come from, they act affectionate and crazy and really [Idol-logo] judgmental—and that’s what makes this a family show.