Crosstalk: American Idol

It happens every spring: not love, not baseball, but another set of 12 American Idol finalists, vying for the nation's affection, votes and, frequently, collective mortification. Here, The A.V. Club's resident AI obsessives handicap the field, noting who we're looking forward to hearing week after week, and who we're counting on to flame out spectacularly.

Noel Murray: So we've already lost one finalist, Melissa, who probably should've been gone even earlier, at the end of the last round. Once the crew got out of Hollywood Week and into the round of 24, the contestants shook out into three groups: the "What the hell were the judges thinking?," the "What's their name again?," and the highly exclusive "Can't wait to hear them sing." Melissa was in the thick of that middling group. Okay voice. No personality. Not exactly someone you'd think of as one of the 12 most promising young singers in America.

On the whole though, this is one of the most potentially entertaining groups the show's ever produced, both for its originality and its potential for train wrecks. That's why I'm hoping that Bucky gets voted off next. He's a mediocre singer doing a one-note hick-shtick, but he's not so awful that he'll be deliciously painful to watch in future weeks.

How about you, Scott? Who would you oust?

Scott Tobias: I'll confess to only following the show closely over the last few weeks or so, once the lads and lasses were divided into groups of 12 after Hollywood Week, because I just couldn't take the audition shows any longer. I know these episodes are extremely popular—and hey, the William Hung phenomenon finally paid off on those glorious final episodes of Arrested Development when his Hung Jury performed on Mock Trial With J. Reinhold (alternate title: Judge Reinhold)—but, to me, they make the show seem like it's Step One of Fox's diabolical plan for world domination. A few of the golden voices make an appearance, but only for their image (polished, freshly scrubbed, All-American) to be contrasted with the outsiders and freaks (the fat, the deluded, the sexually ambiguous, the sexually unambiguous) who won't be allowed to reproduce in some dystopian future of Rupert Murdoch's imagining. (Like Gattaca, but with reruns of That '70s Show.)

And yet perhaps the freaks had their day this year, because once the groups had been whittled down to 12 and 12, the guys turned out to be the motliest collection of goobers since… well… the audition shows. And the freakiest ones of all are still alive in the competition: Taylor Hicks, the prematurely gray 29-year-old from Alabama; Bucky Covington, another Southerner who looks raggedy no matter how many extreme makeovers he gets; and last but definitely not least, Kevin Covais, the sort of bespectacled runt whose high voice might be explained by all the nad-crushing wedgies he must have gotten in grade school.

It never occurred to me to want to keep someone on for being "deliciously painful," so I can sympathize with your desire to see Bucky ousted. Like last week's loser, Melissa McGhee, he's far too bland to make much of a dent in the competition, occupying some uncomfortable space between the weird dynamism of Taylor and the Scott Stapp-like rock wailings of Chris Daughtry. And I expect him to go out the same way as Melissa, with the judges more or less praising him for an adequate performance and America being uninspired to text-message him through to the next round.

But who deserves to go? Unquestionably Mr. Covais, whose talents as a singer, a dancer, and a stage presence have escaped me entirely. And here's the thing that's most disturbing about him: Thanks to Paula Abdul, he's constantly referred to now as a "sex symbol." Okay, I'm confused: When you call this kid a sex symbol, are we still talking about the sex that involves fucking and whatnot? Or is there some other kind of sex that's possibly presaged by a choirboy singing "Starry Starry Night" in an angelic voice? For me, Covais' performance of Stevie Wonder's "Part-Time Lover" last week recalled Season Three "crooner" John Stevens' infamous attempt at Elton John's "Crocodile Rock," a song well outside his narrow comfort zone. The public kept Stevens around for weeks—nay, months—after he deserved to go (thank God they let this season's crooner loose before the Final 12), and I have a feeling they'll be charitable to Covais for the same reason. He seems like a nice boy and he's trying real hard and performing on American Idol is probably a nice break from his paperboy route. But he's obviously not built to last.

Any other chaff from this season's group?

NM: Kevin stands out for sure, though I think he's actually got a good voice underneath all that unearned swagger. Too bad he didn't wait a couple of years to enter. With a little training, he could've been more a Clay Aiken than a John Stevens. But unlike John, who seemed to shrink up week after week under the heat of Simon's criticism, Kevin looks like he's going to use his popularity as a weapon. Which, to me, means he deserves whatever lashings he receives.

What is it with the contestants' arrogance this year? She's long-gone now, but Brenna was on her way to being the poster girl for AI '06 for a while there, between her prematurely diva-ish behavior and her insistence that "America loves me." I know the show is more popular than ever, but when are these kids going to realize that only the top two or three are going to have any real chance to be pop stars? The rest can look forward to a summer on the state fair circuit and maybe a callback from the touring company of Rent.

Anyway, now that Brenna and the equally over-confident Gedeon are off the docket, things have mellowed considerably. But that doesn't mean there aren't still some characters. You've already mentioned Taylor, who's a total nutjob. He can really sing—or at the least, he can imitate Ray Charles and Michael McDonald—and he's undeniably exuberant, but he doesn't seem entirely aware of where he is or what he's doing. I can't imagine what it would be like to sit around and discuss foreign policy with him.

The same is true for Kellie, this season's pretty belle from BFE. I've just about had it with her "Yesterday I 'et me some goat cheese" routine. I'm sure she's genuinely wide-eyed and not just playing to the camera, but I don't think she sings well enough to excuse all the ditziness. Though I admit I laughed out loud when Simon called her a "minx" and she chirped, "I'm a mink!"

I'm not sure what to make of Ace, the smoldering hunk with the unnaturally high voice. He's had two passable performances in a row, but his voice just isn't that strong, and frankly his West Hollywood lover-boy bit looks kind of silly. I predict that before this is all over, Ace will deliver at least one legendarily awful performance.

Then of course there are a handful of contestants that I think are pretty good, but that I can't see winning for one reason or another. But I'll let you go first. Who's on your list?

ST: Just the name "Kellie Pickler" gives me the willies, and she's got a personality to match. Everyone praises her for being adorable and likable, but is it really possible to know that little about the world and still be able to stand upright? It's amazing to watch her process information whenever someone speaks to her: The period between when something is said and when it's actually processed is unusually long, as if her brain is still running on a 14.4 baud modem while everybody else has gone broadband. And like Kevin and many other Idols past, her appearance and demeanor is totally pre-sexual, which I guess is how you can throw around terms like "sex symbol" without them being particularly descriptive.

Ace is a fascinating case. He's a smoldering hunk, as you say, but I'm not sure any dads need to lock up their daughters, if you catch my drift. That high voice of his never quite matches the notes, yet I found his performance of Michael Jackson's "Butterflies" to be a disarming little high-wire act, one that was threatened at all times by the possibility of a Peter Brady croak. But against a pretty strong field, I don't think he's built to last. Other good-not-great candidates: Lisa Tucker and Paris Bennett have strong enough voices to make a dent, but I don't see either one of them going the distance. Tucker spent some time with a Lion King touring company and I wouldn't be surprised to hear Simon bring that up if she manages a lackluster performance. She's polished but not leading lady material, and her youth will eventually be her undoing. Ditto Bennett, who may have a bigger voice than Tucker's, but lacks maturity and presence. Perhaps she'll emerge later in the competition with a song that can give those pipes a workout, but compared to some of the stronger women, she withers a bit in my eyes.

To step back briefly from the competitors themselves, how do you feel about the rest of the show this year? Truth be told, American Idol has always been an odd obsession with me: I'm irritated by it 95% of the time, yet I can't turn away. TiVo has helped make it more palatable: I never watch the elimination shows in full (I fast-forward to the eliminations, basically) and I'll also zip by a lot of the material between performances and even through performances that are starting to bore me a little. What's more, I don't really like how these songs are sung much of the time; performers are required to stick the high notes, but often to the song's detriment, as if they're not really feeling the lyrics. I think the reason why people were so moved by Fantasia's rendition of "Summertime" is that she tailored her voice to the song, not the other way around. And Taylor sold "Living For The City" because he tapped into the spirit of the thing, not because he showcased the virtuosic voice he doesn't possess.

So why do I watch? I confess that the show's popularity is a draw. If American Idol was #100 in the Nielson's instead of #1, I don't know that I'd care about it that much. The fact that this cheesy karaoke show actually does change the face of popular music—and popular culture in general—makes it compelling. That so many people watch also raises the stakes and makes you nervous for the performers, who do occasionally wilt under the pressure. But the primary reason I watch remains Simon Cowell. The sadist in me wants him to put these kids in their place, but mostly, his criticism is just dead-on most of the time. What's more, I think the contestants and the audience, however often they vocalize their displeasure with his opinions, look to him as the real standard-bearer of excellence. Goodness knows, you're not going to get much from Randy or Paula other than catchphrases repeated ad nauseum. Randy strikes me as being as lazy and complacent as an overfed cat; just pull a string behind his back and out come one of about six or seven pre-recorded phrases ("you worked it out," "it was only all right for me," "we got a hot one," etc.). As for Paula, she's a constant irritation, the judging equivalent of Earl Dittman. To see her dancing around and clapping and giving ovations during performances bothers me in the same way as a Chicago movie critic who shows up at every James Bond screening wearing his promotional Goldeneye jacket. If you want to wave a banner, do it from the sidelines, please.

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NM: I wouldn't mind Randy and Paula being so vacuous and tin-eared if they'd just let Simon talk. I expect the audience to boo when Simon starts to be critical, but his fellow judges should at least let him finish his point, rather than acting shocked that he saw through the high-school-talent-show-level performance they all just watched. I'm especially annoyed at Ryan, who keeps urging Simon to "give constructive criticism," when in fact that's exactly what he does, most of the time—the exception being the time he falls back on his staple "karaoke" and "cabaret" jibes. Mostly he tells the contestants to look, act and sing like somebody who might interest potential record-buyers, and not like somebody barely good enough to be an understudy at a Branson stage spectacular.

You said you bailed on the audition rounds, but the general consensus was that Simon was being way too mean—an opinion that I pretty much shared. I wouldn't go so far as to call him homophobic or anti-fat, but he did generally act like the kind of guy who bullied nerds around in school. He's a front-runner, no doubt.

And yet, as you say, he's right most of the time. Which is why I find it interesting that so many of the contestants in the final 24 (though not so much in the top 12) were people that Simon nixed during the audition phase. Taylor is the keenest example. I don't think Taylor's popularity with the judges will persist all the way to the end. At a certain point, Simon's going to crack down on him, because Taylor's not really a marketable American Idol.

So who will win? If you'd asked me after the audition round, I'd have said that Paris was a lock, because she has the kind of naturally warm and original tone that I look forward to hearing. But she's pretty much tanked ever since, in my opinion. The tone's still there, but she's been over-singing and over-performing every song, all while dressed like a bank teller on casual Friday.

If you'd ask me to pick a winner after the round of 24, I'd say it was clearly Elliot, who again has a nice tone and the ability to sing all the notes of a song well, instead of mumbling to the chorus like so many Idol-wannabes. But Elliot ended the round of 24 with a lousy version of Bryan Adams' "Heaven," and he came out on Stevie Wonder night—a night practically designed for him—and gave a trembly, overdone performance of a really great song. So I'm worried about Elliot. Maybe he needs to dismiss that 40-piece rock band the show has stuffed in the wings, and just order up a grand piano.

As I see it, there are two clear front-runners, and they're both ladies, and neither of them is the über-bland Lisa. See if you can guess who I'm talking about.

ST: It's interesting to me how much the show is informed by Simon's pre-conceived ideas about what constitutes an American Idol. Taylor certainly doesn't fit with that conception—hence the "no" vote in the audition phase–and that smile that's been crossing his face after every Taylor performance is telling. He knows the guy is wrong for the part, but he has to concede that this train-wreck of a man keeps whistling down the rails. I expect him to pounce on Taylor the moment his weaknesses become readily apparent—and they will at some point or points along the different theme nights—but I think voters will need at least a couple of bad performances to cut Taylor loose.

Of course, Simon's words carry a lot of weight (though the occasions in which Paula shrugs are devastating for being so rare), and for that, Elliot should be thankful. Simon calling him the best male vocalist the show has ever had—better than Achin' for Akin, better than the Velvet Teddy Bear—should give him enough goodwill to carry him through more than a few flat performances, but I just don't see him showered in confetti at the end. He lacks presence and passion; if you can't rev it up for Bryan Adam's "Heaven," you don't have that much-ballyhooed "wow factor."

From the 12/12 phase, I've felt the women have been leagues ahead of the fellas (season after season, that seems to be the case) and so it follows that my front-runners are almost certainly yours as well: Katherine McPhee and Mandisa. I really don't see any weaknesses in Katherine: She's attractive, personable, and versatile, capable of adapting her voice to any genre of music while modulating it to many different registers, not just the big notes. She's also pacing herself nicely. She may not deliver the most talked about performance week after week, but what she does manage is always effortless, and I feel like she's going to break out a show-stopper once the chaff gets cut away and it's time to make a move.

Mandisa has been making moves week after week, and she may take this thing by the force of her voice alone, though I'm not yet convinced she can work her way through the quieter parts of the song. I wish the judges would emphasize even further the importance of making the low notes as compelling as the high ones: It's a little like a figure skater who can nail a triple axel, but can't do all those wussy little turns and spins that win you the gold. God knows that young singers are put through a rigorous processing phase throughout the competition and it's possible that Mandisa will benefit from a little coaching.

Seeing as how my NCAA tournament brackets are already shot to hell, my prognostications probably don't mean all that much, but here's how I see the rest of the competition breaking down. Going soon: Bucky, Ace, Kevin. Going later: Paris, Lisa, Kellie, Taylor. Going the distance: Mandisa, Katherine, Chris, Elliot.

What about you, Noel? Any final pre-diddly-ictions?

NM: Unless Lisa picks up the pace, I bet she'll go quicker than you think. She's exactly the sort of pleasant, competent performer that the judges love but that America shrugs off, leading to a shocked Randy and Paula urging America to vote for their favorites, and Simon giving one of his pissy "come to Jesus" speeches to the other contestants. ("You've got to raise your game, people!") And I'm already wishfully picturing Bucky's "glad to know ya" montage after he gets booted out, this week or the next.

Kevin might last longer than you're hoping, because he probably does have a fanbase of people who think he's cute as the dickens. And as he showed at the audition round, he's capable of giving a genuinely commanding performance. The rest are a little harder to handicap. You're right that I've pegged Mandisa as a final-three-caliber frontrunner, and you're also right that she's slightly overrated at the moment. It's not just that she's more comfortable screeching than singing, but that she's not doing anything America hasn't heard before, thousands of times. She's a knockout performer, but a lack or originality might sink her over the long haul, unless she delivers a show-stopper every week.

I don't know what to make of Chris. He's got a great voice and an authentic "rocker" vibe, and he probably could be fronting a band and on the charts right now. But I don't know how he's going to find a way to sing all the themes, unless Red Hot Chili Peppers puts out a really eclectic covers album soon. And, to quote Simon, "if I'm being honest," the kind of music Chris prefers is boring and shitty. It's that Fuel/Staind/Evanescence/Nickelback "new rock," which is neither new nor, ultimately, rock—just power ballads covered by jet engine roar.

So that leaves Katharine, a stunning beauty with confidence, presence, and an Elliot-like ability to sing all the parts of a song well. She doesn't have the most distinctive voice in the world, and her fashion choices seem to have been pulled from a Motherwear catalog, but the Katharine upside is too high not to imagine her singing a teary rendition of some crummy pre-fab pop anthem at the end. If all goes as I hope, she'll be giving Elliot a consolation hug before she does.

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