Thursday, March 26, 2009

American Idol is dead, and I'm feeling a little Taylor Hicks myself

In case you're wondering when SSTOL's traditional breakdown of the year's American Idol contestants is coming...

...don't hold your breath.

Seriously, this year's Idol class is far and away the weakest in the show's history. That's saying a lot for a series that has foisted such dubious talents as Kevin "Chicken Little" Covais, Carmen "Can't Buy a Tune" Rasmusen, Kellie "Dumb as Two Bags of Silicone" Pickler, and the infamous Sanjaya "Fauxhawk" Malakar on the American public.

Not only is there not a single performer (and I'm using that word loosely) in the AI '09 field whose CD I'd want to hear — never mind buy — but there isn't even one about whom I care enough to write an entire paragraph.

So I'm not gonna.

You're on your own, America.

SwanShadow... out!

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Time for your singout, America

Now that David Archuleta's father Jeff has been booted from the American Idol set due to his obsessive stage-motherish antics (not to mention his rearranging of one of the songs his son performed on the show, resulting in hefty royalties payouts by Idol's producers)...'s Uncle Swan's Top Five Additional People Who Need to Be Voted Off Idol, and Soon:

5. Randy "Not Michael's Little Brother" Jackson. I love Journey as much as the next '70s holdover, but seriously, it's time for Randy to hit the bricks. Even though "The Dawg" is the only Idol judge with legitimate musical credentials (you're not still clinging to the illusion that Paula actually sang "Straight Up" and "Cold Hearted Snake," are you?), his inane repetitions of the same tired clichés every week wore out their welcome at least three seasons ago. It ain't workin' for me any more, Dawg.

4. Ryan "I'm Too Sexy for My" Seacrest. Two words: Seacrest? Out. Get over yourself, Gel Boy.

3. The instigator of the weekly Ford Motor Company "pimpmercials." Look, I understand economics. I know that Ford blows a ginormous chunk of change every week to have the surviving Idols lip-synch and grimace to some stale pop tune. I realize that those funds are, in large measure, responsible for keeping the show on the air. But if I wanted to watch abysmal musical theater, I'd buy a ticket to a local high school production, or the nearest theme park. I don't need these camp comedies beamed into my living room. Oh, and Ford? Try making some cars you don't have to pimp.

2. Every celebrity mentor who hasn't had a Top Ten pop hit this millennium, or who can recall the Kennedy administration firsthand. Is it any wonder that young viewers are deserting Idol in droves, when the producers' idea of hip, happening musical guests includes Dolly Parton, Neil Diamond, and Andrew Lloyd Webber? How did the show turn into AARP Idol all of a sudden?

1. Paula "Putting the Coca Back in Cola" Abdul. Enough already with the insipid, rambling, pharmaceutically fueled commentary, already. If I have to endure one more outburst of Paula's torturous Amy Winehouse imitation — or another cellophane-sheer denial by Seacrest of what every American with a television set or Internet connection can see and hear with his or her own God-installed sensory apparatus — I'm going to fly to Hollywood and sniff Paula's Coke tumbler myself.

Get to stepping, the lot of you.

And take Little Archie and his dad with you.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Bring me the head of Brian Dunkleman

Has this been the most tedious American Idol season in history, or what?

When this year's Top Twelve were announced — what seems like a geological epoch ago — I commented that this field seemed like the least interesting in the show's seven-year history.

Things haven't improved since.

But at least we're down to the final three, and that's something. No more false starts by Brooke White, no more dead-fish stares from Kristy Lee Cook, and as of last night, no more agonizingly soporific performances by Jason "I'm Too Sexy for My Dreadlocks" Castro.

Not that what we're left with is all that much better.

Syesha Mercado is the surprise pick in the remaining trio. I didn't expect Syesha, who's been in the bottom tier more consistently than almost anyone else this season, to survive anywhere close to this late in the contest. For my money, she's the most listenable of the three singers left, and she's not hard to look at, either. But she's never shaken her penchant for selecting ill-fitting material to perform, nor has she developed much of an engaging stage personality. As I sit here typing, I can't recall the title of a single song Syesha has sung. That's not a good sign. She'll probably be the next to depart.

David Archuleta — "Archie," as I like to call him — was everyone's early-season favorite to be anointed American Idol #7. The kid does zip for me personally. He sings pretty well, in a high school musical sort of way, but I can't say much else in his favor. He's awkward, uncomfortable to watch, and indefinably creepy in a manner that makes me fear for his household pets. If there's a market for Archie's recordings, I can't imagine of whom that market would consist. He doesn't have boy-band sex appeal, rock star charisma, or Broadway vocal power. As I said at the beginning, though, in this tepid field, I would still not be surprised if he won.

David Cook is, to my mind, the least of the three evils left. Alt-rocker Cook, who has outlasted the other Cook and one of the two other Davids in the Top Twelve, could best be described as Chris Daughtry-lite. I'm not sure why anyone would want Daughtry-lite when the real Daughtry is alive and well and appears to be doing just fine with his career, but there you go. Cook is the most talented of the Big Three, both in vocal skill and in ability to adapt effectively to a variety of material. Were I among the teeming millions who vote each week — and I can assure you that I am not — Cook would be the one whose digits I'd dial.

Looking at and listening to Syesha and the two Davids, I'm stunned that Idol — still the most popular show on television, despite a ratings slump this season — couldn't come up with a more potent final trio. Where's the Kelly Clarkson in this group? The Fantasia Barrino? The Taylor Hicks, for that matter? (Speaking of Taylor, I believe the last time I saw his face on Idol, it was backstage, on the side of a milk carton.)

In most of the show's previous seasons, even the second- and third-place contestants would have performed dervish-like circles around any of these three. Just imagine such Idol also-rans as Clay Aiken, Kimberley Locke, Katharine McPhee, or the aforementioned Daughtry competing against this motley crew.

This snooze-inducing contest would already be over.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: Your Idol Top Twelve, America

Yeah, yeah, I know... I've usually weighed in on the season's American Idol contestants long before we get down to the Deadly Dozen.

But I've gotta be honest here.

As much as Seacrest and the Gang of Three keep pounding us every week with the proposition that this year's cast is "the most talented ever," I'm just not seeing it. Oh, there's some talent in the bunch, as we'll discuss in a moment, but seriously, this is the most charisma-challenged collection of wannabe Idols since... well... last season, when a freaky kid who couldn't sing a lick ran far deeper into the competition than he ever should have, simply because he was mildly interesting amid a tepid field.

This season, we don't even have Sanjaya to kick around any more.

In Idol's best cycles, it's had drama. Sometimes, that drama derived from a clash of similar styles — as in Season Three, when a trio of massive-voiced R&B divas (LaToya London, eventual winner Fantasia Barrino, and 2007 Academy Award honoree Jennifer Hudson) vied for the crown. At other times, the drama surrounded a coterie of equally likable contestants with disparate, but roughly equal, talents — the triumvirate of Kimberley Locke, Clay Aiken, and ultimate victor Ruben Studdard in Season Two; the four-headed popularity contest between Chris Daughtry, Elliott Yamin, Katharine McPhee, and winner Taylor Hicks in Season Five.

Alas, no drama tonight.

So far this season, it's tough to build much enthusiasm about any of the hopefuls, each of whom is bland and vanilla in her or his own bland, vanilla way. I can't imagine wanting to download a single, much less an entire album's worth of material, by any performer in the Class of '08.

But since we here at SSTOL never permit overwhelming ennui to stand in the way of blogging, we press ahead. Wiping the sleep gunk from our crusty eyelids, let's review the Top Twelve for Idol Season Seven. We'll take 'em in — oh, what the heck — reverse alphabetical order, so as not to impose upon the (yawn) suspense.

Brooke White. As exciting as her name. A perky blonde Mormon kid from Arizona — with all the thrill potential that impliezzzzz... — Brooke is one of the contestants leveraging the new-for-'08 rule permitting performers to play their own instruments onstage. We've seen her tickle the ivories during Hollywood Week, and strum her way through a downbeat cover of Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield" on guitar. What we haven't seen is even a modicum of personality. Brooke can sing just fine, but man, is she boring. Her skills and the Rocky Mountain LDS voting block should keep her in contention for the top five.

Carly Smithson. Irish-born chanteuse Carly is one of several "ringers" in this year's field — contestants who've previously signed recording contracts, and, in Carly's case, recorded at least one major-label album (2001's MCA Records release Ultimate High, recorded under her maiden name Carly Hennessey). (I know — this seems antithetical to Idol's entire "discovering unknown talent" concept. But I just report the facts.) Carly, in fact, passed the Idol audition phase back in Season Five, but was unable to continue in the competition due to visa problems. Not surprisingly, Carly is the most polished performer of the finalists. She'll steamroll her way at least into the top three.

Amanda Overmyer. Perhaps the only real surprise in the Top Twelve, Amanda's a raspy-voiced rocker chick — think Janis Joplin without the heart or nuance, and with a hideous faux-Goth makeover. She really can't sing very well — her rendition of one of my favorite '70s classics, Kansas's "Carry On, Wayward Son," made my eardrums scream for mercy — and her stony-faced demeanor is off-putting, to say the least. Amanda found her niche last week, however, with an acceptable cover of Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself for Loving You." I'll be shocked if she lasts long enough to make the Idol summer tour, which traditionally features the top ten finalists.

Syesha Mercado.
In most seasons, Idol serves up a plethora of female hopefuls who appear to believe they're the next Whitney Houston. This year, there's only one diva: Syesha (it's pronounced Cy-EE-sha). She's got a decent enough voice, but has a penchant for abominable song selection — she growled a hideous version of "Tobacco Road" a couple of weeks back, and delivered an oddly gender-flipped rearrangement of Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones." Purely from an aesthetic perspective, I hope Syesha sticks around a while — she's the most attractive of the female contestants, in a year when attractiveness is in short supply — but she'll have to pick more effective material. She's a mid-round elimination at best.

Ramiele Malubay. This year's edition of Season Three's Jasmine Trias, Ramiele is a petite Asian-American girl who'll pick up a lot of what I call the "stuffed animal" vote — she's the cutest and cuddliest member of the cast, and ratchets up her adorability factor by bawling uncontrollably whenever a fellow contestant is eliminated. In her defense, however, Ramiele can also sing, with a startlingly powerful voice encased in so diminutive a package. I wouldn't be at all shocked to see her in the top half of the draw.

Michael Johns. Like Carly, Michael's another of the ringers — he was twice signed to Madonna's record label, albeit without actually releasing an album — and also like Carly, a candidate to be American Idol's first non-American-born Idol (he's an Aussie from Perth, and even bears some slight resemblance to his late homeboy, Heath Ledger). He is, if I'm not mistaken, the oldest-ever Idol finalist at age 29, and he could easily pass for a decade older. He's a talent, but after the Taylor Hicks fiasco of two seasons ago, I suspect that Idol's producers will undermine his chances at every turn. Middle of the pack, most likely.

David Hernandez. One of three Davids in the Top Twelve, David H. is this year's sex-scandal Idol. Prior to his moment in the television spotlight, he worked as a stripper and lap-dance provider at a gay bar in Phoenix — an establishment bearing the none-too-subtle moniker "Dick's Cabaret." Unlike the fabled Frenchie Davis of Season Two, who was booted from the show when news came to light that she had posed nude for a pornographic Web site, David H. has been given a free pass by Idol's producers. He won't last more than a couple of weeks, though — he's not much of a singer, and — surprisingly, given his background — he's not a very captivating performer, either.

Chikezie Eze. The only male soul singer in this season's cast, Chikezie (who, in the manner of Fantasia and Mandisa before him, appears to have deep-sixed his surname somewhere on the way to the finals) seems like a nice fellow. Unfortunately, that affability is all that he has going for him here. His vocal style approximates that of the late Luther Vandross in the later years of that legend's life, but Chikezie doesn't have Luther's ability or charisma. He'll be a candidate for the exit every week until he's gone, which will probably be soon.

Kristy Lee Cook. Yet another ringer: Kristy was signed by BMI Records in 2001. No less a celebrity than the now-notorious Britney Spears showed up for a cameo in Kristy's first music video — a video that earned the country singer from Oregon the nickname "KKKristy" in online forums, as she performs a portion of her number standing in front of a Confederate flag. The second coming of Kellie Pickler — only with even less talent, if you can imagine that's possible — Ms. Cook will likely draw some niche votes from country fans, but not enough to propel her higher than eighth or ninth.

David Cook. The field's most identity-challenged contestant, in that he shares his surname with one of his competitors and his given name with two others. I'll confess that I didn't think much of David C. the first couple of weeks of competition — to me, he sounds pretty much like a dozen other grunge rockers I could name, and a zillion more no one could name — but he impressed me last week with an arrestingly good alt-rock remake of Lionel Richie's "Hello." (I would not have thought it possible to do a listenable alt-rock cover of a Lionel Richie song, but I learn new things all the time.) If David C. can keep pulling that kind of rabbit out of his musical hat, he'll stick around for a few weeks.

Jason Castro. Dreadlocked Jason vaulted from obscurity last week with a gorgeous, sensitive rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," the most familiar cover of which was recorded by Jeff Buckley (literally hundreds of other singers have recorded the song also). As with David Cook before him, Jason needs this level of artistry to break loose every week, because before this, I was sneaking a bathroom break every time he stepped on stage.

David Archuleta. Young David A. is problematic — he's an unquestionably talented kid (he also competed, and won, on the revival of Star Search a few years back) who wouldn't appear to have much, if indeed any, potential as a popular recording artist. His is the sort of musical performance ability that would have, in an earlier generation, made him an ideal candidate for The Mickey Mouse Club alongside Britney, Justin, and the rest. But unless he's hiding some serious Timberlake in his hip pocket, he'll spend his career singing in cruise ship lounges and theme parks. (Not that that's a bad thing.) I would not be surprised if David A. survived until the final round. I would not even be shocked if he won. I just can't imagine him selling many CDs.

So there you have it, America. Vote early, and vote often. We'll check back in a few weeks to see who's still standing.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Thursday's blog has far to go

Autumn has finally arrived here in Wine Country. As the rain pitter-patters on the roof overhead and a William Friedkin-directed episode of CSI blares from the idiot box, let's check out the happenings in the rest of the pop culture world.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Why do they call it Hump Day, when most people make love on the weekends?

So I'm rifling through the news on this sultry Wednesday morning, and here's what leaped off the screen at me...
  • Speaking of sultry, Raquel Welch is 67 today. You gentlemen of a certain age will understand what that means. You gentlemen younger than a certain age... well, you should have been there, is all I'm saying.

  • Again speaking of sultry, Halle Berry is expecting her first child at age 41. I might be going out on a limb here, but I'll bet that's going to be one good-looking baby.

  • Former FOX and MSNBC anchor Rita Cosby's new book, Blonde Ambition: The Untold Story Behind Anna Nicole Smith's Death, alleges that Anna Nicole's baby-daddy Larry Birkhead and her attorney-slash-boyfriend Howard K. Stern were gay lovers. Lawsuits will ensue. Bill Cosby — no relation to Rita — recommended that all parties involved enjoy a Jell-O Pudding Pop and have a Coke and a smile.

  • Speaking of allegedly gay fellows named Larry, the distinguished gentleman from Idaho has decided that he may want to keep his Senate seat after all. That thud you just heard was the Republican National Committee fainting en masse.

  • Speaking of way-past-allegedly gay fellows named Larry, the Wachowski brother formerly known as Larry (as in the Wachowski Brothers of The Matrix fame) is now also formerly a Wachowski brother. He's now officially a Wachowski sister named Lana. I believe Matrix star Keanu Reeves said it best: Whoa.

  • Good to hear that Paula Cole is touring and recording again (with Mandy Moore, no less), after nearly a decade away from the music business. She's a terrific talent, and I hope her comeback brings her much success. That said, if I never had to hear "I Don't Want to Wait" again in this lifetime, that would be just dandy with me. It's tough being the father of a Dawson's Creek fanatic.

  • Not so good to hear that Kelly Clarkson is attempting to jump-start her aborted tour, previously canceled due to overwhelming ennui on the part of ticket-buying America, by playing smaller halls. You are so over, Miss Thing. Maybe you and Justin can still hang out.

  • They still love him in France: Jerry Lewis took another stumble down the long, dark road toward oblivion during his annual Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, when he dropped the f-pejorative in a joke about a cameraman's gay family member on live TV. This is the same Jerry who, in a televised interview following the death of entertainment icon Merv Griffin, opined that Merv "deserved to die" from prostate cancer, because he didn't seek earlier and more aggressive treatment. Can you arrange to let him keep the change for his kids?

  • A friend gave the following report about Mary-Kate Olsen's recent adventures at a trendy New York nightclub: "Mary-Kate was wearing a see-through green dress. She was completely wasted, she was humping and grinding against a column with another girl. Then she was flailing all over the dance floor. Later, Mary-Kate made out with various questionable men while friends took pictures. She then fell over onto a table and proceeded to break every glass on the table before toppling over onto everyone sitting behind her." See what happens when you don't eat properly, kids? Your brain turns into Cream of Wheat.

  • This couldn't possibly be a worse casting decision: Nicolas Cage as Magnum, P.I.?

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Uncle Swan rips and regurgitates

It's Monday, boys and girls. Let's crack open the pop culture news reader and see what belches out, shall we?
  • All it takes is a little girl power: Kudos to Rags to Riches for becoming the first filly in 103 years to win the Belmont Stakes. My daughter the horsewoman was overjoyed. Now if we could just get a Triple Crown winner...

  • Paris Hilton — AKA Miss L.A. County Jail 2007 — offered this revelation to Barbara Walters in a weekend interview:
    I used to act dumb. It was an act. I am 26 years old, and that act is no longer cute.
    If that's an act, the girl ought to receive an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony, and a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild.

  • Speaking of SAG, what were the people who founded the women's clothing brand Sag Harbor thinking when they chose that name? Women generally avoid anything to do with the word "sag." (Might be a good handle for a brassiere manufacturer, though. Hmm...)

  • And speaking of Barbara Walters, it appears that Babwa Wawa and her View-mates will soon be joined by Whoopi Goldberg, replacing the recently departed Rosie O'Donnell. The Whoopster's a good choice for this gig, I think. She'll bring some of the same edge that Rosie lent to the program (with less of Miz Ro's propensity for controversial ballistics), while adding a little flavor to the otherwise vanilla proceedings. You go, Whoop.

  • Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather claims that his successor Katie Couric's approach to journalism amounts to "dumbing it down and tarting it up." Go back to sleep, Dan. By the way, what's the frequency, Kenneth?

  • Apparently, President Bush is extremely popular in Albania. Can they keep him?

  • Ryan Seacrest blames overexposure of Simon Cowell for American Idol's dip in the ratings this season. I take it that Ryan wasn't referring to Simon's chest hair. Or perhaps he was.

  • Speaking of Idol, Katharine McPhee is dating a 42-year-old guy? Maybe Kitty McPheever needs to delete some of those downloads of George Michael's "Father Figure" from her iPod.

  • My take on the Sopranos finale furor: I must be the only HBO subscriber in the Western world who's never watched an entire episode of The Sopranos. Give me Big Love any day.

  • Always bet on black: Action star Wesley Snipes says the feds are busting his chops over unpaid income taxes because he's African American. Hey, Wes: Maybe they just saw you stealing a paycheck in your last several movies.

  • The Giants suck. That's all I have to say about that.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

And the American Idol is...

...Jordin Sparks!

Good choice, America.

Jordin was our family favorite from the beginning of the competition, in part because she was familiar to us from her appearances on America's Most Talented Kids a few years back, and in part because her family is the one that looks the most like ours. (Although I'm pretty sure Phillippi Sparks would kick my butt in the father-on-father physical challenges.)

Jordin might not have been the best singer in this year's Idol cast — Melinda Doolittle held that distinction — but Jordin has that ineffable je ne sais quoi that none of her competitors possesses: star quality. Your eye immediately tracks to her whenever she appears on camera. Her personality lights up the screen.

Vocal coaches will help Jordin refine her monumental, but often poorly controlled, singing talents. (As everyone associated with the show kept reminding us ad nauseum, she's only 17. That powerful voice will only get bigger and richer in the years to come.) But no coach can teach charisma — you're born with it, or you aren't.

Jordin exudes it. She'll be a superstar long after Idol has run its course.

It couldn't happen to a nicer kid.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Idol Gives Black... and Ellen too

Throughout last night's American Idol charity extravaganza, "Idol Gives Back," two thoughts kept circling the porcelain bowl of my mind:
  1. They're not going to be able to boot a contestant off after all this feel-good, group-hug folderol.
  2. This reminds me of that dreadful 1970s movie Americathon, in which the President of the United States (played by John Ritter, of all people) hosts a telethon to raise money to bail the country out of bankruptcy,
I was right, on both counts.

A few highlights from two hours of Idol pimping and groveling:
  • Loved: Earth, Wind & Fire. You can bet your last money that any show on which Verdine White and the boys blow out "Boogie Wonderland" is gonna be a stone gas, honey.
  • Hated: Rascal Flatts. Here's a tip for convincing me to dig into my pocket for a donation: Don't make me listen to country music. Ever.

  • Loved: Jack Black. Jack usually thinks he's funnier than I think he is, but his hilarious rendition of Seal's "Kiss from a Rose" (complete with actual Seal) was the comedic highlight of the evening.
  • Hated: Celine and Dead Elvis. Can we knock it off already with the digital resurrections of deceased celebrities? Just because we have the technology, doesn't mean we ought to use it. (Celine is still alive, though, am I right?)

  • Loved: The African Children's Choir. I'm no softie, but have you ever seen a cuter collection of kids anywhere?
  • Hated: Josh Groban. Shut up, Josh, you poseur, and let the cute kids sing. We can hear boring, overwrought lounge acts (***cough*** Bolton ***cough***) anytime.

  • Loved: Ellen DeGeneres tossing 100 large into the poverty pot. If only Idol's producers had taken the dough they wasted digitizing Mr. Graceland and put it into the pot as well.
  • Hated: Way too much exploitation of poor, sick people. When you're starving or dying from AIDS in 100-degree heat, the last thing you need is Simon Cowell and a camera crew in your face. If you really want to help, Simon, whack a chunk off your five-million-dollar-per-week haul and get some construction crews, bottled water, and pharmaceuticals up in here.

  • Loved: Annie Lennox. One of my favorite voices of all time. And is it just me, or does Annie keep getting hotter ever year? She was rocking that cleavage like it was the San Andreas Fault.
  • Hated: Carrie Underwear and her two pounds of makeup, fawning over hungry black children. Go scrape your face, honey child, and maybe listen to an Annie Lennox CD or three while you're at it.

  • Loved: Seeing Micky Dolenz getting his groove on in the celebrity lip-synch montage. You go, Monkee man. Take the last train to Clarkson, and I'll meet you at the station.
  • Hated: Seeing Teri Hatcher's Joan Riverseque plastic surgery face in that same bit of footage. You go, Desperate Housewife — go home, before you terrify the poor kids. And take that infernal windbag Dr. Phil with you.

  • Loved: Jeff Beck. One of my guitar heroes from way back.
  • Hated: Having to listen to Kelly Clarkson sing while the Beckmeister kicked out the jams.

  • Loved: Being right about no one getting kicked off this week.
  • Hated: Being right about no one getting kicked off this week.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Good news, for a change

Our long national nightmare is over:

Sanjaya Malakar has been eliminated on American Idol.

Our long basketball nightmare is over:

The Golden State Warriors have landed in the NBA playoffs for the first time since 1994. That's 13 seasons, people. Thirteen endless, agonizing seasons.

That rumble you feel in the earth beneath your feet is not seismic activity. It's me doing my "Goodbye Sanjaya; hello playoffs" happy dance.

And oh, yes...

Barry Bonds
: 738 career home runs, and climbing. Just 17 behind Henry Aaron.

Your T-shirt is correct, Sanjaya: Life is beautiful.

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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

American Idol '07: Top Ten

Now that we know who will comprise the cast of this summer's American Idol Tour — you've already bought your tickets, right? — it's time to review the final decad of hopefuls and see how they stack up. It's truly anyone's guess as to the order in which some of the lesser lights will depart the big stage — let's be frank; we didn't expect some of these karaoke kings and queens to still be in the running at this juncture — but if I ruled the FOX front office, here's how it might go down.
  • Sanjaya. Every season, there's one no-talent male pretender who makes it far deeper into the contest than he has any right. This year's Kevin Covais (or Jon Peter Lewis, if you prefer) is this kid who's channeling Leif Garrett's '70s hair, Michael Jackson's whispery androgeny, and the goofy adolescent grin of practically every member of Menudo.

  • Haley. I'd have bet krugerrands against Krispy Kremes that Pageant Girl would have bitten the proscenium dust weeks ago. It's a wonder what a backless, braless top and a pair of Daisy Dukes can accomplish for one's vote totals.

  • Chris Richardson. Man, I hate listening to this guy sing. His voice is dull to the point of atonality, and that biting nasal timbre sets my molars on edge. And frankly, I don't see much in the way of performance skills, either. His ship has sailed.

  • Phil. That Phil is still in the hunt — and deservedly so, given the competition — offers condemning testimony against the quality of this year's Idol field. He's a good but thoroughly unremarkable vocalist, with no realistic hope of selling a CD.

  • Gina. She'd be doing much better without the sloppy pierced-tongue enunciation, the faux-goth crankiness, and the schizophrenic performance style. Enough with the special effects — just sing, girlfriend. That histrionic Rolling Stones cover last week was six kinds of wretched.

  • Blake. I dig the vocal percussion when he breaks that out, but what we've observed in recent weeks is that Blake's singing voice just isn't all that interesting. He's still second-best among the guys, but in this crop, that's really a backhanded compliment.

  • Chris Sligh. I like your voice, Chris, and more often than not, I find you an appealing performer in your own shaggy, shambling way. But the attitude is wearing on me, dawg. Just so you know. You could show a little warmth and genuineness once in a while. But you'll probably be the last male standing.

  • Lakisha. She has a powerful voice, and uses it well. Among the top three ladies, though, she's the least winsome onstage — she doesn't offer a real alternative to Jordin's youthful sweetness or Melinda's aw-shucks appeal. That, I think, will mean the difference.

  • Jordin. From a technical perspective, I think it's fair to say that Jordin is the Idol who has grown the most rapidly throughout the competition cycle to date. Melinda and Lakisha came into the field about as good as they can be — given their respective talents, that's nothing to sneeze at — whereas Jordin keeps improving round after round (sometimes dramatically, as last week's bravura performance showed). She'll give the front-runner a worthy chase.

  • Melinda. How can you not love Melinda? Not only does she have the most developed vocal and performance skills in this field — when she delivers a lyric, you believe every word — but she has staked her claim as one of the most likable contestants in Idol history. Her only risk factor at this point is Jordin picking up the majority of the youth vote when such people as Sanjaya and the two Chrises take their leave.
My forecasting savvy seems to be holding up fairly well — I correctly predicted 10 of this season's Top 12. But amid the insanity that is American Idol, weird things sometimes happen. (And no, I don't just mean Simon Cowell.) We'll know in ten weeks how I fared the rest of the way.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

What's Up With That? #45: Baby, we were born to run

Sometimes, it's the little asides in a news story that catch my attention.

If you're a fan of American Idol — and perhaps even if you aren't — you've heard about the firestorm of controversy swirling around Idol contestant Antonella Barba (or "Barbarella," as I like to call her). As the Associated Press story goes, photographs of Ms. Barba can presently be viewed at various sites around this here Internet, showing the wannabe superstar topless on the beach, seated on the toilet, and — in some pictures whose veracity is apparently in dispute — engaged in activities that one does not discuss on a for-public-consumption blog like yours truly.

Personally, I couldn't care less about seeing Barbarella in flagrante delicto. It's bad enough that I have to listen to her uninspired attempts at vocal magic on Idol every week, until she gets voted off. I was, however, intrigued by this comment from Mark Dillon, a 17-year-old resident of Antonella's home town, Point Pleasant, New Jersey:
It's the way this town is: Everybody knows everything about their friends. At least half the people in this town have pictures of their friends on the toilet. I've personally seen at least 20. It's only because she’s on TV that they’re online.
Did I understand that correctly?

More than half the residents of Point Pleasant, New Jersey own pictures of their friends sitting on the toilet?

What the Jersey devil kind of town is this?

According to the city's official Web site, Point Pleasant has a population of 18,177. If young Mark Dillon speaks the truth, at least 9,088 of these folks are in possession of photographic evidence of their friends' excretory habits. If one extrapolates logically, it's fair to say that most, if not indeed all, of Point Pleasant's residents can therefore be observed with their trousers around their ankles, if one knows the right computers to search.

To which I can only say: Ewwww.

How did this peculiar local habit get started? Do Point Pleasanters take their own toilet photos, and then circulate them to their pals? Do they take toilet snapshots of each other? Is there a trading system? Do some folks' potty pics garner higher trade value than others? Do people in Point Pleasant emblazon their Christmas cards with images of themselves on the porcelain throne, instead of the family portraits common elsewhere in the U.S.?

Perhaps this isn't just a local phenomenon. Is this practice common where you live, gentle reader? Do you own pictures of your friends on the toilet? And, more importantly, do they have such pictures of you?

Your Uncle Swan wants to know.

He prefers, however, not to see.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

American Idol '07: It's Ladies' Night, and the feeling's right

What a difference a night makes.

Tuesday on American Idol, we were treated to a veritable parade of the overmatched and talent-deficient, when the top 12 male contestants took the stage. Wednesday, the top 12 female hopefuls took that stage back, and collectively blew the roof off the sucker.

My faith in humanity is restored.

Let's meet the ladies, in performance order:
  • Stephanie Edwards. It's never a gift to be first on stage in this sort of thing, but Stephanie came out with sixguns blazing. She'll get branded by some as another diva-style singer — and this year's class is filled with those — but in fact she has a rich, flexible voice that can do a good deal more than just belt. Her voice has personality, which is a difficult quality to achieve. She set the bar high.

  • Amy Krebs. And then Amy came out, and yanked that bar back down to earth. She's everything Stephanie isn't — bland, colorless, and a relentlessly average singer. Amy sang "I Can't Make You Love Me," and seemed determined to prove the lyrics accurate. She will, however, make a speedy exit.

  • Leslie Hunt. Leslie was okay, but just okay. She struggled to hold her own against a song ("You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman") requiring a much more dynamic voice than she possesses. On top of that, her awkward, ungainly stage presence — she moves like a marionette — detracted from what little excitement her vocals produced. Seems like a nice kid, but in over her head.

  • Sabrina Sloan. She's a spitfire, this Sabrina, plus she can really sing. She knows how to handle the mic and work the stage. She definitely came to perform, and did it with flair. She's also the prettiest of this year's contestant class, which has nothing to do with singing, but certainly doesn't hurt.

  • Antonella Barba. Another contestant who picked a bigger song than she was able to sing effectively. She wasn't horrific, but she wasn't memorable either. There's also something undefinably irritating about her stage manner. Hopefully, she won't be around long enough for me to figure out what it is.

  • Jordin Sparks. Jordin's been a favorite in our house since she appeared on America's Most Talented Kids a few years ago. Her father is former NFL star Philippi Sparks, and Jordin has inherited her dad's imposing physique. She started a bit rough and low in her range, but holy cats, did she ever bring it home at the end. Jordin probably has as much natural talent as anyone in the field, and is a sweetheart to boot, but at 17, she's awfully young.

  • Nicole Tranquillo. What was that? Nicole's all attitude and spastic facial mannerisms, without much polish to back it up. She sings with a strident, choppy delivery, and makes faces as though she's either angry or constipated or both. I think there's a voice in there somewhere, but all of the naked aggression makes it hard to tell.

  • Haley Scarnato. Two words: Pageant girl. Haley performs with the obvious, mechanical stagecraft of someone who's been overpraised and overcoached. She's excessively theatrical, and sings with that stereotypical Broadway-style delivery that high school talent shows are riddled with. Also, kid, if you're going to sing a Jim Steinman power ballad, you'd better have a voice like Meat Loaf. And you don't.

  • Melinda Doolittle. Perhaps the most surprising competitor in this Idol class, Melinda's a soft-spoken, self-deprecating little woman with powerhouse pipes behind that mousy exterior. She'll go as far in this field as her personality will allow.

  • Alaina Alexander. Ugh. Just... ugh. Doesn't belong here. Doesn't belong singing, anywhere. Enough said.

  • Gina Glocksen. Gina is this year's edition of Season 3's Amy Adams — the quirky girl with the oddly colored hair and tons of brass. Whereas Amy seemed fun and endearing, however, Gina appears arrogant and a bit nasty. I like her voice (despite the ten-cents-flat climax note) and her stage presence, and I give her credit for choosing a song no one would have expected from her ("All By Myself"). But lose the 'tude, Miss Thing.

  • Lakisha Jones. If Gina is the new Amy Adams, Lakisha is the new Mandisa, with a dollop of Fantasia tossed in for good measure. She's got a titanic voice and knows how to use it. If volume alone counts for anything, she'll hold her own with anyone here. She brought passion and thunder to the stage in a wheelbarrow. It'll be interesting to see her sing something requiring more nuance and less bluster.
Early prediction: This year's American Idol will be female. All six of the women who make the Top 12 will be better than even the best of their male counterparts. I'd say the primary challenge for the ladies could be finding a distinction among several essentially similar talents. Someone who's a bit different from the pack could run away with it all.

Some tough calls here, but I think the top six from the distaff side will include, alphabetically:
  • Gina.
  • Jordin.
  • Lakisha.
  • Melinda.
  • Sabrina.
  • Stephanie.
We'll check back in a few weeks to see how I fared.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

American Idol '07: Bring on the boys

Or don't, because with a couple of exceptions, they're not very good.

But I'll get to that.

It's another season of American Idol, and that means more Randy ("Yo, dawg, it was pitchy, but you worked it out"), more Paula ("Gotta have a bottle of J.D. if you wanna be with me"), more Simon ("That was as dreadful as the hair on my concave chest"), and more Seacrest ("My parents had three children — one boy, one girl, one metro").

Mostly, though, it means more fodder for the 19Entertainment cannon. And from the looks of the top 12 male contestants, that cannon's going to get fired early and often. This could well be the weakest field in Idol history — no Taylor Hicks or Ruben Studdard in this crew, but an awful lot of Justin Guarini wannabes.

Let's run 'em down anyway, just for kicks and giggles. In order of appearance on last night's funfest:
  • Rudy Cardenas. Rudy's one of two Idol hopefuls whom I've actually seen perform live. He sings in a terrific vocal group called M-Pact. Unfortunately for Rudy, that means I know he can do better than the unremarkable cover of "Free Ride" he served up last night. I liked his performance energy, but there wasn't much fire in the vocal delivery.

  • Brandon Rogers. Based on what we've seen of him prior to last night, I think Brandon is one of the top two or three male contenders, not that that's saying much in this group. Last night, though, he chose a song not well suited to his voice, and came in with a so-so performance.

  • Sundance Head. Love the name. The singer? Not so much. I was stunned when Sundance survived Hollywood Week; I'll be even more stunned if he's not one of the first two guys eliminated, in the wake of his oddly Meat Loafesque cover of "Nights in White Satin." I can't stand singers who deliver a song as though they've never taken the time to decipher the lyrics.

  • Paul Kim. Idol loves a contestant with a shtick. Paul's is that he always performs in his bare feet. He needs some kind of hook, though, because his vocals are seriously lacking. Paul's tepid rendition of "Careless Whisper" featured weak singing at both the upper and lower ends of his tessitura. His falsetto is worse than mine, and mine stinks.

  • Chris Richardson. Well, he's no Chris Daughtry. Heck, he's not even a Chris Sligh, whom we'll discuss momentarily. Mostly, he's a good-looking kid with boy-band style and a whiny, nasal voice that wore out its welcome quickly. He'll probably stick around a while, though, because teenage girls will dig him. And they vote.

  • Nick Pedro. Seriously in need of a last name, and voice lessons. Aside from his dull onstage demeanor, he struck far too many flat notes with his breathy, atonal delivery. Nick ought to take up a new hobby, and the sooner the better.

  • Blake Lewis. The other contestant I've seen before — he used to sing in an a cappella group called Kickshaw, which also spawned the career of Dan Schumacher of The Bobs. Blake's a terrific vocal percussionist, and as he proved last night, a pretty decent singer as well. I liked both his performance energy and the resonant tone of his voice. He's a keeper, even if his hairdo makes him look like a soft-serve cone from Dairy Queen.

  • Sanjaya Malakar. This kid gets my "Why is he here?" vote this year. He can't sing a lick, his stage presence is dishwater-dull, and his '70s Teen Beat mop of hair gives me Leif Garrett flashbacks. I'm sure he's a great kid, but he needs to start prepping for another career. And a haircut.

  • Chris Sligh. Idol's tradition of having one contestant each season who looks like a clerk at a comic book shop continues. (I love the staff at my local comic book shop, by the way. But you know what I mean.) This year's edition of Elliott Yamin is Chris Sligh, a Jack Osbourne lookalike who actually appears to have some serious talent. He's already demonstrated some versatility — he auditioned with Seal's ballad "Kiss From a Rose," then hit the stage last night with an uptempo rocker.

  • Jared Cotter. A pleasant-looking young man, and probably the most forgettable vocalist among the guys. Decent enough voice — although he doesn't use it to its fullest potential — but there's nothing distinctive enough about Jared to make either him fan-worthy or sympathetic. Will likely survive the first cut, but not much further unless he busts out some big-league skills soon.

  • AJ Tabaldo. Every now and again on each Idol season, Simon will describe a contestant's performance as "bad karaoke." He didn't say that about AJ's first shot, so I will. A weak, unimpressive singer who's trying way too hard, and is way over his head in this competition.

  • Phil Stacey. Phil got off to an uncertain start, but by the end of the song, he owned it. He's obviously better suited to rock anthems than sensitive ballads, but when it comes together for him, he can bring it. Plus, the guy missed the birth of his baby to audition for Idol — you've got to give it to him for commitment.
No real standouts here, and a sort of general thread of mediocrity throughout. But I've gotta select six of these dudes to move on to the Top 12, so here are the likely suspects, alphabetically:
  • Blake.
  • Brandon.
  • Chris Richardson.
  • Chris Sligh.
  • Phil.
  • Rudy.
Tomorrow night, the ladies. Man, I hope it gets better from here.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Sign of the Apocalypse: Pickler TV

20th Century Fox has signed former American Idol contestant and trailer-park diva Kellie Pickler to a development deal for her own TV sitcom.

Even as this mind-bending news is breaking, the Pickler's debut CD, Small Town Girl, lands at Number One on the Billboard country chart.

I expect official word of the death of Western civilization any second now.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Idol chatter: Taylor blows up, Kat throws up

Just when you thought it was safe to return to your television set, American Idol is back in your face today with two big news stories:
  1. This year's Idol winner, Taylor Hicks, landed his first single, "Do I Make You Proud," at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart published today.

  2. This year's Idol runner-up, Katharine McPhee, announced publicly that she has battled bulemia for years.
So far as we can determine, these two stories are otherwise unrelated.

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Thursday, May 25, 2006

American Idol '06: Does Taylor make you proud?

America voted... and Taylor Hicks, the spastic, gray-haired, blue-eyed-soul singer from Birmingham, Alabama is the new American Idol.

Don't you just know that the 19 Entertainment brain trust is sweating bullets this morning, trying to figure out how they're going to milk a hit CD out of a spastic, gray-haired, blue-eyed-soul singer from Birmingham, Alabama?

There was no surprise here, of course. As I noted earlier in the season, Taylor was far and away the most accomplished performer — if not necessarily the most talented vocalist — of this year's male competitors. And when the rubber hit the road, Taylor's cofinalist Katharine McPhee simply wasn't his equal when it came to making the leap from singer to sensation. Of her three songs in the last round, Kat sang two poorly, while Taylor continued to be as consistent as he'd been all season. He led the voting every week during the season, and he deserved to win.

The interminable two-hour season finale, stuffed to the gills with embarrassingly lame filler though it was, managed to spark a few observations:
  • The highlights of the evening for me were the guest appearances by two of my all-time favorite musical performers, Prince and Meat Loaf. The Loaf sang a duet with Kat that, as Idol judge Randy Jackson might put it, was just a'ight for me, dog. But the Purple One flat-out rocked the Kodak Theater with a sizzling two-song set that reminded the world why he's regarded as an unparalleled pop music genius despite his numerous eccentricities.

  • The Burt Bacharach medley, with this year's Idol cast members each contributing a snippet from Burt's legendary catalog, had its charms. Those charms did not include the cameo by the cadaverous Dionne Warwick, who couldn't get up to half her notes and needs to retire from the stage immediately.

  • Elliott Yamin's duet with Mary J. Blige was hot. If Elliott had won the title, it would have been hard to complain. It was often painful to watch him sing, but if you closed your eyes and listened, you knew he had the best voice in this year's cast.

  • Paris Bennett;s duet with Al Jarreau was likewise hot. That little lady has a stellar career ahead of her. Maybe even bigger than Taylor Hicks.

  • Taylor and Kat's duet on "The Time of My Life" was not hot — in any way, shape, or form. But then, that song sucks all kinds of swamp water.

  • Seeing Toni Braxton and Taylor Hicks singing together cracked me up, It would crack you up too, if you knew anything about obstetrics. Speaking of obstetrics, at certain points I wondered whether Toni was going to throw Taylor to the floor and impregnate herself by him right there on national television.

  • Taylor's single reeks. But not as badly as Kat's does. The hacks who wrote both of those songs are stealing money.

  • Clay Aiken, the ghost of John Lennon called. He wants his hair back.

  • Man, I had totally forgotten about the Brokenote Cowboys. And my mental health had been improving as a result.

  • I remembered why I was ecstatic when Kevin Covais and Kellie Pickler got booted from the lineup.

  • I remembered why I was disappointed when Mandisa was sent packing.
As Ryan the Wonder Clothes Horse used to say... SwanShadow out.


Thursday, May 04, 2006

Bogart was wrong...

...we won't always have Paris.

Paris Bennett, that is. The brassy little belter with the helium-inflated speaking voice hit the highway last night, as American Idol zeroed in on its Final Four. From here on out, it's anyone's game.

So, who's still on the glory train?

Chris Daughtry. When the Top Ten were announced, I predicted a high finish for Chris. He's still one of the front-runners to win — and I believe he's the surviving contestant whom the show's producers would most like to have as the next Idol — but his scraping-the-vocal-cords alt-rock singing style is really taking a toll on his voice. He may be whispering his songs in another week or two if he isn't careful.

Elliott Yamin. That Elliott is still in the competition amazes me. He has a fine voice, but plenty of negatives to go with it: nervous stage presence; lack of vocal control, which produces an inordinate amount of vibrato; consistently baffling song selection; a face only the mother of Frodo Baggins could love. He should be the next contestant to cash out, but stranger things have happened.

Katharine McPhee. I've said all along that Katharine's main challenge is consistency. Now that the Idol contestants are performing two songs each week, that challenge is even more apparent — Katharine's first song on Tuesday night was all over the map, but her second was a great improvement. As the most Kelly Clarksonesque of the Final Four, I'm sure 19 Entertainment wouldn't mind having her as runner-up to Chris. There's nothing wrong with her singing that a good producer couldn't fix in the studio.

Taylor Hicks. I thought Taylor would last until the top three, but he's developed such a following that he could easily win the prize. That would be a nightmare for 19E, who would have zero clue how to market a spastic, 30-ish white guy who sings like Ray Charles's Caucasian cousin. Over the past several weeks, though, Taylor has thrown out some fairly lackluster performances on occasion. At this stage of the game, one really awful number could be all it takes to send him home.

The interesting dilemma for 19E is that none of the Final Four seem especially marketable as hitmaking talent. Chris's strong suit is the kind of grunge rock that ran its course half a decade ago. Elliott's best niche would probably be somewhere along the lines of Michael Bublé or Harry Connick Jr., but the pop charts won't accommodate more than one of those guys at a time. Katharine's talents may be better suited to musical theater than to a pop recording career. As for Taylor... well, like I said.

By the time sweeps are over, we'll know who the next American Idol will be. I know you're waiting with bated breath. Of course, that could be the sashimi you had for lunch.

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

American Idol '06: Top Ten

Last night, American Idol made its cut to 10 contestants — a significant milestone in the series each season, because the top 10 are the performers who participate in such potentially lucrative Idol spinoffs as the live summer tour and the compilation CD. (By "potentially lucrative," I mean for the folks at 19 Entertainment, the producers of the show, not for the singers themselves.)

For the record, I was dead on in predicting the final six female contestants. I didn't do quite so well guessing which of the guys would move on. So let's see how I do with who's left. In alphabetical order (by first name, 'cause we're all friends on this bus)...

Ace Young. When we first reviewed this season's cast a month ago, I thought Ace was the class of the male field, based upon what we had seen to that point. In subsequent weeks, he's revealed himself to be little more than a pretender — a good-looking guy with a dazzling smile who loves to make goo-goo eyes at the camera, but whose voice is average at best and whose stage presence lacks boldness. That Ace has already landed in the weekly "bottom three" once during the final round indicates that the voters are onto his fraud. Predicted finish: In the bottom half of the top ten.

Bucky Covington. I'm not surprised that Bucky has survived this far despite his underwhelming singing and performance abilities. Idol is big with the mobile home and smokeless tobacco crowd, and Bucky is really the only one of the guys who's playing to that audience. But he's the weakest singer left in the field, and his complete lack of charisma means he's not long for the show. Predicted finish: Gone in the next two weeks.

Chris Daughtry. Every week, the Idol judges praise Chris for his dogged determination to stick to his gravelly alt-rock wheelhouse. No doubt the kid can wail, but he sings everything with exactly the same stylistic inflection. When you make Stevie Wonder and Johnny Cash songs sound identical on successive weeks, that's not a good thing. Still, Chris has the vocal chops to keep things going for a while. Predicted finish: Definitely top five, maybe top three.

Elliott Yamin. I've liked Elliott's voice from the beginning, and his homely, trollish charm is growing on me. Elliott still isn't the most compelling performer in the cast, and he has the self-defeating tendency to choose the least familiar song every week — not realizing, apparently, that voters tend to favor the singers who choose songs the audience knows and likes. Predicted finish: Below the middle of the pack.

Katharine McPhee. America's got the McPheever. I like her voice very much, and there's no question but that she's one of the easier contestants on the eyes. But Katharine can blow hot and cold: a strong performance followed by one that just lacks a certain something. If she can upgrade her consistency, she has the looks and talent to win it all. Predicted finish: Easily in the upper half of the class; should be around close to the end.

Kellie Pickler. The future welfare mother becomes increasingly annoying every show. I understand that a lot of people — Simon Cowell among them — find her dumb blonde cornpone act cute. Me? She grates on my nerves. Worst of all, she's the poorest vocalist (by quite a stretch) among the remaining women. It's the trailer park vote that's keeping her alive. Predicted finish: Hopefully America will kick Pickler to the curb in the next three weeks.

Lisa Tucker. The youngest remaining competitor at 16, Lisa has all the voice anyone could ask for. Unfortunately, repeated competition has exposed her weaknesses: stiff, pageant-like stage presence; low energy; non-existent electricity on camera; a knack for selecting songs that don't suit her personality. She's as cute as a button, but she doesn't give anyone a motivating reason to vote for her. Predicted finish: Next to go home, if "next" isn't Bucky.

Mandisa. Still my personal favorite among the women, Mandisa keeps bringing the fire week after week. She's the strongest performer with the most powerful voice, plus she looks like a million bucks. I was enthralled the week she did her song barefoot — how many in the cast would have had the moxie to do that if their shoes started to pinch? Predicted finish: Would win if there were any justice, but should easily make the final four.

Paris Bennett. She's a female Jim Nabors — a dorky speaking voice coupled with a cannon of a singing pipe. The whole perky business irritates me, but she's a much better singer than I first believed. If she can avoid a major blowup, she should be around a while yet. Predicted finish: Top five.

Taylor Hicks. I love the Soul Patrol — spastic antics, geeky dance steps, and all. But Taylor has developed an annoying habit of choosing simplistic numbers that don't show his vocal range very well. Easily the most accomplished performer among the men, I'd like to see Taylor get back to the kind of bluesy singing that got him into the final round. Predicted finish: Top three.

Oh, and while we're talking Idol, how about the Us Weekly story that contends the producers of the show considered firing Paula Abdul earlier this season, and wanted to lure Jessica Simpson or Britney Spears to take her place? Given the way Paula looked and sounded on this week's performance show — I'm not saying she was pharmaceutically impaired, mind you, but no one would have been surprised if she were — I'm thinking her exit will arrive before next season.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

American Idol '06: Sizing up the boys

Previously on SSTOL, we got in touch with the feminine side of this season's American Idol contestant pool. Today, it's the guys' turn under the microscope.

In appearance order from last night's episode, the 2006 edition of Ryan's Raiders includes the following personnel.

Patrick Hall. Patrick's like an older, scruffier, straighter Clay Aiken — a tall, gangly Southerner with a pleasant voice who seems a tiny bit flummoxed onstage. He's one of the better singers in this year's cast, but not the most scintillating performer. Like Clay before him, he may grow into the role as the season progresses.

David Radford. This year's Sinatra wannabe. For demographic reasons, the Idol producers love having one guy each year who thinks he's channeling the Chairman of the Board. David even has the look — he's a ringer for a young Harry Connick Jr. David can sing all right, though his Rat Pack-styled take on Queen's "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" was ill-advised at best and ludicrous at worst.

Bucky Covington. Red meat for the redneck contingent. As difficult as it is to take seriously a grown man who calls himself "Bucky," the Buckster might actually be hiding a fairly decent voice in there somewhere if he didn't insist on overdoing the cowboy twang. Nah, probably not. Memorable mostly for mangling the lyrics to the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself" during Hollywood Week. Needs to get back in the General Lee and haul tail for home.

Will Makar. Will's a nice kid from all indications, but he's in over his head here. He might have a future as a wedding singer, but not as a pop star.

José "Sway" Penala. I have no idea why "Sway" is still on the show. His selection to the Top 24 was, for me, the biggest surprise of the season thus far. He can't sing, and the gangsta-cool persona he's fronting (what was with the pimp hat he wore onstage this week?) just makes him look silly. When the votes are in tonight, Sway should be the first of the guys to go.

Chris Daughtry. Staking out the hard rocker territory in this crew, Chris is this season's Constantine Maroulis. He's got the voice, with a truckload of gravel and grit stuffed into it, but his onstage presence is less than compelling. Has the tools to advance to the final round.

Kevin Covais. Every year, the Idol field includes a palefaced teenage boy with minimal talent, whose sole raison d'etre on the show is to give little old ladies at retirement homes across America a reason to tune in. This year, Kevin is that kid. I'm sure he's a sweetheart, but I'll be glad when we aren't being subjected to his wimpy singing any longer.

Gedeon McKinney. One of the better male performers, Gedeon seems much older than the 17 years he owns up to. Although he didn't impress me last night with his lame Jackie Wilson-inspired cover of "Shout," we know he's got the pipes and the energy. His speaking voice reminds me of Dallas Mavericks head coach Avery Johnson.

Elliott Yamin. This guy continues to surprise me. He's not much to look at — I keep getting him and Chris Daughtry confused — and he's extremely raw, with no real concept of how to use his voice properly. But with some quality vocal coaching, Elliott could develop into a terrific singer. I didn't like him that much when we saw his audition, but he's growing on me.

Bobby Bennett. A large kid with a larger-than-life personality, it's too bad Bobby doesn't have a large voice to match. But he doesn't. He's entertaining, and he has fun doing his thing, but this is a singing competition, and Bobby can't sing. Will probably be the one of the first contestants dismissed, along with Sway Penala.

Ace Young. Unlike the female contingent, whose top seven or eight members are more or less evenly matched, the guys have one standout player this year, and that man is Ace Young. Ace is the total deal — he has the voice, he has the smoking hot looks, and most of all, he oozes charisma. Unless he has a meltdown (or an as-yet-undisclosed skeleton in his closet) somewhere along the way, Ace will contend for the crown at season's end.

Taylor Hicks. I know, I know. He's working the shtick a little hard. And yeah, he's goofy, spastic, and crazy weird. But I've gotta admit, he's the one contestant I look forward to seeing every week. And I'm convinced that all the goofball stuff isn't just an act — this guy just loves to perform, and he's dancing to the beat of his own quirky drummer. I don't know whether he'll survive the cut to 12, but I sure hope he does.

All that said, here (in alphabetical order) are the six guys I'd hope to see still standing when the final cast is assembled:
  • Ace.
  • Chris.
  • Elliott.
  • Gedeon.
  • Patrick.
  • Taylor.
We'll see what happens.

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

American Idol '06: Sizing up the girls

I don't usually pay much attention to American Idol until the field been narrowed to the final 12 contestants. As a singer and performer myself, I dread the early weeks of the show each season, during which the point is to see how bad many of the unselected auditionees were. Listening to people singing poorly is not my idea of entertainment. (This in contrast to my daughter, for whom the wretched audition shows are the best part of the series.)

This year, however, with a particularly strong and diverse group in the top 24, I wanted to take an early look at the competitors.

First, the girls, in appearance order from last night's episode.

Mandisa. My personal rooting interest on the distaff side of the competition, Mandisa's first song out of the box was Heart's "Never," and she flat tore it up. I like Mandisa's engaging style. I like her powerful voice. And I like the fact that she's a big woman who seems to be comfortable in her own body. If she continues to perform well, and the audience embraces her abundant physicality, she has the skills to go deep into the competition.

Kellie Pickler. I find her cute little Southern girl persona a mite too precious, and I really don't think she's all that much of a singer. (See: Kelly Clarkson.) On the other hand, she's fresh and seems genuinely charming, and those are pretty rare qualities on this show. Her baby-faced blonde looks will get her a long way when the voting starts.

Becky O'Donohue. There's something sinister and offputting about her. I don't care at all for the quality of her voice, and she has this sort of dark, ex-stripper vibe that's very unappealing. I have no fear that she'll make the cut.

Ayla Brown. A towering, willowy basketball player from Boston College, with a pretty voice and a gangly, awkward physical presence. I'm not sure exactly why, but I see a lot of potential in her. She isn't as technically polished as some of the other girls right now, but I believe that with the right coaching, she could actually develop into a solid talent. She has a really creepy smile, though.

Paris Bennett. Man, I hate perky. Paris is an effervescent little thing with a cartoonish speaking voice that sounds as though she's been sucking helium for hours. She tries to do too much with a limited vocal instrument, and her stage presence strikes me as immature and goofy. But she's likeably energetic, and the judges seem to enjoy her far more than do I.

Stephanie "Stevie" Scott. Another tall, skinny kid like Ayla Brown (Idol could field a decent women's basketball team this year), Stevie is a trained opera singer trying to cross over to pop music. So far, it isn't working. Boy howdy, is it not working. I suspect Stevie will be one of the first two girls eliminated.

Brenna Gethers. Over-the-top, overbearing, and misguidedly overconfident, given the fact that she's irritating and can't sing a lick. Her abundance of New York attitude and paucity of actual ability deserves a speedy exit.

Heather Cox. A attractive blonde who, to put it bluntly, doesn't belong here. She suffers from pageant mannerisms and a thoroughly unremarkable voice. She never shows even an inkling of genuine emotion when she sings. She'll get some votes just on looks, but I can't believe she'll survive another week.

Melissa McGhee. If the name of the show was Truck Stop Idol, Melissa would be the runaway winner. A mediocre voice and rough-hewn stage presence should send her packing quickly. But, like Kellie Pickler and last year's winner Carrie Underwood, she's got a bit of Kelly Clarkson's trailer-trash appeal in her, and that seems to count for a ton of votes on this show.

Lisa Tucker. My early favorite. She's the baby of the group at 16, but she possesses a mature talent that far outstrips her tender years. Lisa is the whole package — an incredible voice, compelling stage presence, youthful cuteness, and a sweet disposition. If her age doesn't catch up to her over the long haul, she should be one of the final four.

Kinnik Sky. Armed with a cannon of a voice and an unstudied elegance, Kinnik is one of the oldest female contestants at 28 (Mandisa is 29). She's one of the better singers in the group, but she isn't terribly electric. I could easily see her as the featured singer in a Las Vegas variety show, but not as the next American Idol.

Katharine McPhee. Her mother is a vocal coach, so it's no surprise that Katharine shows the most technical skill among the women. As good as she is, though — and she is very good — there's something indescribably eerie about her. She also tries much too hard to impress with unnecessarily flashy technique, rather than just performing the song. But she'll be around late in the season, no question.

If I were cutting the feminine field to six on the basis of the actual talent in evidence thus far, I'd choose (in alphabetical order):
  • Ayla.
  • Katharine.
  • Kellie.
  • Kinnik.
  • Lisa.
  • Mandisa.
If I had to bet whom the viewing public will vote into the final group, I'd stake my money on:
  • Katharine.
  • Kellie.
  • Lisa.
  • Mandisa.
  • Melissa.
  • Paris.
We'll pick apart the guys tomorrow.

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