I was a latecomer to the American Idol frenzy. A die-hard reality television hater, I held out for the entire first season, even when everyone around me was gossiping about it over the water cooler. The more people loved it, the more I was determined to stay completely in the dark. I’m too cool to like American Idol, dammit!
The premiere of Season Two found me in a boutique hotel in Beverly Hills, holed up in my hotel room with a co-worker who is a diehard AI fan. The hotel was too small to offer room service, and we were too lazy to get menus from the concierge, so we consumed the entire contents of my mini bar while she initiated me into the American Idol family. I was hooked from the first, terrible audition. By the final 10, I was regularly voting for last-year’s third place loser, Kimberly Locke. Along with millions of other viewers, I spent every Tuesday night on the couch, nerves all a-twitter, praying that my favorites would live to see another week.
On March 30, I donned a hot pink t-shirt with the simple message “George” across the chest – George Huff is my early Season Three favorite – and I took a seat in the studio audience to see a live taping of the show.
My first impression was pretty blasé. Like the live taping of anything, the studio audience spends a lot of time standing in line waiting to get inside. There are several different lines for different kinds of tickets, and then there are the people who don’t have tickets at all. These are the folks who will fill in the holes in the crowd when the corporate sponsors don’t show up. If you want to go stand in this line, you probably want to be there early (they tape live for the East Coast). I’d estimate that there were about 50 empty seats after all the ticket-holders showed up. The cool thing is that the studio audience is actually smaller than it looks on TV. There isn’t a bad seat in the entire place.
My seat was in the bleachers, behind the floor seats. I’d say there were about 30 rows on the floor. These seats go primarily to family and friends of the contestants. I was sitting close behind Jon Peter Lewis’s mom and dad, and Amy Adams’ family was near them. Fantasia Barino’s mom was in front of me to my left. Also sitting on the floor were Tamyra Gray from Season One, Julia DeMato from Season Two (she was flashing an enormous diamond engagement ring) and last week’s loser, Matt Rogers.
All live shows have a comedian on hand to warm up the crowd. Our guy was an odd, scruffy, hipster-type, and I’m pretty sure he was the same guy from when I went to a taping of Best Damn Sports Show Period. The comedian told jokes, encouraged the crowd to get rowdy, and made fun of people sitting close to the stage. During the commercial breaks he went out into the crowd and took questions from small children for the judges. This got boring when child after child asked Simon for a hug.
Ten minutes before the show went live, executive producer Nigel Lithgow came on the stage to welcome us to the show, and to ask for our help. Diana DeGarmo was going to be singing “Do You Love Me?” by The Contours in honor of the Motown-themed episode. (I best remember this song from a pivotal scene in Dirty Dancing.) Nigel wanted us to sing along with her during her performance. He led us in a very non-rousing rendition of the song: I can mash potato, I can do the twist, tell me baby, do you like it like this?
As soon as he got off stage, they paraded out the final 10 contestants so they could take the opening shot of the episode. The crowd goes wild. You can tell which performers are comfortable with the situation, and which ones aren’t. LaToya London and Jasmine Trias blew kisses at their fans. Camile Velasco smiled tightly and looked like she might vomit. Then the contestants were instructed to look serious, as it was time to take the shot where the camera pans from one side of the line to the other, and the booming voiceover tells America that the competition is heating up and the pressure is on. The camera did its thing, and the kids were herded off the stage by a producer.
The judges were introduced one by one. Randy was exactly what I expected. He burst through the doors directly to my right with a “Yo, yo, yo! What’s up, dawg?” He accepted handshakes and half-hugs from the audience as he ran to his seat at the front. Paula is a tiny little person, which I knew, but I was astounded by how pretty she was. It might have just been a good night for her – her outfit was totally cute, which you couldn’t tell on TV – and she was wonderfully gracious to everyone who spoke to her on her way through the crowd. Then there was Simon. The crowd just loves him, and he loves the love they give him. He has the oddest body shape I have ever seen. His upper body is enormous and, as you can tell by the tight shirts, rock hard. But he’s got little hips and thin legs, so he looks kind of like a cartoon superhero.
Once all the judges were in place, they introduced Ryan Seacrest. He’s another tiny person, yet his enormous personality makes him seem much bigger. I’m not sure I believe it’s true, but something about him feels really genuine. Little girls were flinging themselves at him for hugs (I mean little girls, like six-year-olds, not hoochie girls trying to cop a feel) and he gladly gave up each one until the producer started counting down from 10 and the show started.
Ryan kicked off the show in the bleachers to my left. The energy in the studio was just amazing. Not even I, who is generally curmudgeonly in situations like this, could resist jumping to my feet to hoot and clap. (Similarly, I found myself frequently booing the judges, even though I hate that when I watch on TV.) Ryan got us through the introduction of the special live band, Motown legends The Funk Brothers, and then they brought out the guest judges, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, who wrote Motown greats like “I’m Every Woman” and “Solid.” All that stuff is just gravy, because what the crowd really wants is for the contestants to start singing. In short order, they did.
The shocking truth about American Idol is that everyone sounds better live. Seriously! Except for that red-haired kid who totally sucks.
First up was Camile, singing “For Once In My Life” by Stevie Wonder. This is the girl who always looks so nervous that it’s a miracle she hasn’t passed out on stage. On TV her voice has always sounded weak and breathy, which I have attributed to nerves. Live, she sounds like a pro. Her body movements are still kind of jerky, and her smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes. But she can sing, and she’s a pretty girl. When I watched this episode on my TiVo at home, her voice was totally lost behind the band and any personality she managed to convey in the studio was leached in the translation.
Fan favorite Jon Peter Lewis was next, and he performed “This Old Heart of Mine” by The Isley Brothers. I have always appreciated the cuteness of Jon. I like his messy hair and the gap between his front teeth. I’m a little burned out on his spazzy dancing, but I appreciate any boy who knows he doesn’t have game, and still continues to move. I have never been a fan of his voice. It’s just too nasally for me. Live? I was totally blown away. When his performance was over, I found myself surging to my feet. On TiVo? He was once again slightly whiny and off-key.
LaToya London was the third one in the saddle. She sang Smokey Robinson’s “Ooh, Baby, Baby” and she was terrific. The first note of the song sent chills up the backs of my arms. Her performance was one of maybe three that had the audience cheering before she was done. I should probably also note that she was absolutely drop-dead gorgeous. The power of her voice, and the control she has over it, was completely lost in the televised version of the show. She was in the bottom three on the following night’s result show, and she should not have been there.
The thing about Amy Adams is that she’s a sort of cute girl, with a sort of cute personality, and a sort of good voice. She sang “Dancin’ in the Streets,” which is a song that I loathe. Her outfit was not very flattering, as it served only to accentuate the fact that she has no waist and almost no ass. Her last note was the kind that should be accompanied by howling dogs. On TV it was somewhat muted, but hearing it live was a painful experience. Also, the thing Simon said about Amy resembling Jay Leno? So true. The fact that Amy was the one to get kicked off this week is somewhat shocking. Not because I think she shouldn’t have gone early in the season, but because there was at least one other contestant who was much, much worse.
His name is John Stevens, and he was up next. Prior to the show, I had hypothesized that George might sing “My Girl,” by the Temptations. It’s the perfect tone for his rich baritone. I never in a million years imagined that John Stevens would pick it instead. He’s a 16-year-old kid with the exact opposite of Motown soul – he thinks he’s Frank Sinatra. I recognize that John is a mild, innocent kid who will appeal to people who like no danger in their pop stars. I also recognize that, as Sinatra impersonators go, he has a startling voice for someone so young. But when he sang “My Girl,” he was absolutely terrible. He had no charisma, barely moved from one spot on the stage, and his voice was completely ill-suited to his song choice. It was just bad, bad, bad. He didn’t make the bottom three on the Wednesday show, and he should have. This should have been his last performance.
The crappiness of John Stevens was actually good for Jennifer Hudson, who sang “Heatwave.” After “My Girl” anything would have sounded good. And she did. Sound good, I mean. Her voice is big, but she’s going to have to learn to control it at some point. She’ll also have to master or give up on the lower register, as sometimes her mouth moved, but no actual sound came out. It would appear that Jennifer has gotten the Kimberly Locke makeover. They’ve straightened her hair, gotten rid of some of the scary eye makeup, and introduced her to the wonders of a well-fitted blazer in covering up a bumpy midsection. The thing I don’t like about Jennifer is the way she moves. She gyrates and wiggles suggestively, and it’s very off-putting. On TV, the camera mostly shows you Jennifer from the waist up. Live, you get to see all the hip-rolling action. It’s not pretty, people. Jennifer made it to the bottom three this week, and I’m hoping she’s gone within the next couple of weeks. She’s just not one of my favorites.
Something you might not know about Jasmine is that the audience loves her. The studio was filled to the brim with Jasmine fans holding up signs and wearing flowers behind their ears. She also has an enormous voice and a stage presence to match, something that doesn’t quite come through on TV. She was prettier than I was expecting – for some reason I was thinking she would be plainer – and she has a surprising sex appeal. Of course, that might have been her stiletto heels, which must have been approaching five inches. I loved Jasmine. Unless she seriously flubs up, she’ll be in the top five with no problem.
Diana is another one that I just cannot like, no matter how good her performance. During the opening of the song “Do You Love Me?”, if you remember, there is a horrible speaking part: “You broke my heart, ’cause I couldn’t dance, you didn’t even want me around. But now I’m back, to let you know, I can really shake it down.” The only thing that kept me from covering my face with my hands was the fact that a camera could have caught me at any moment. I was so embarrassed for her. She’s just too young and cheesy to be a serious contender in this contest. I know people like her, and that she has an enormous fan base. For the record, though, half of the studio audience remained seated and did not sing along with her.
This brings us to the final two performers, and two of my favorite contestants: Fantasia and George.
Fantasia hobbled out on stage in her stiletto thigh-high boots to perform Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” The shoes were a total problem for me, as they hampered her ability to groove to her song. She tottered around the stage, often putting her back to the audience while she moved toward members of the band. Where I come from, turning your back to the audience is a no-no. When I watched the performance on TiVo, I noticed that they only showed a flash of her doing this, so the show was obviously edited in her favor. She sounded great, but not as great as I was expecting. In fact, I was kind of disappointed in her. I wanted her to be larger than life, but she was pretty much just people-sized.
But George. Oh, George. People have asked me if his reaction to the crowd and the judges is genuine, and it absolutely is. When the crowd screamed for him during non-performance moments, the size of his smile doubled, and he would throw his hands in the air as if to say, “Me? You really like me!” Not only is his reaction adorable, but he’s quite the handsome guy. And he can sing. Boy, can he sing. I’m so smitten with George. The entire audience was standing two notes into his version of The Temptations “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” and they danced and clapped through the entire thing. The producer had to signal us to stop so that the judges could say their piece. (And, if you were looking closely, there is a clear shot of me right after Randy tells George that Motown night was made for him.)
When it was all over, the lights came up and the producers gave instructions. Everyone had to sit while the judges and Ryan left. Then they took out the “important” people like Tamyra, Matt and Julie. In an odd moment, we were instructed to sing “Happy Birthday” to a random makeup artist, and then we were sent out into the night. People on the floor exit stage right, people in the bleachers exit out the back, people with blue wristbands exit stage left, blah blah.
Overall, my experience left me uneasy about American Idol as a competition. There were such discrepancies in how the contestants sounded in the studio versus how it was translated to TV, that it made me extremely nervous for my favorites. What if George gives the performance of his life, but it sounds like poo on TV? What if he ends up getting voted off because of it? Also, as a person who appreciates live music, it makes me sad that this entire group of top 10 will be touring, but America might have already voted off the best performers because they didn’t sound as great on TV. This is just another way in which reality TV isn’t quite so real. But at least now I know.