Termite Television: 5 Months of Idol Chatter. Speechless? Hardly.
My love for American Idol began late. It was Season 2. That was the year when I began watching regularly. It was the late episodes, and the defeat of Clay Aiken by Rubin Studdard on Finale night that the tears started to well up. Rubin was the favorite that year, all the celebs were rooting for him. The audience resounded with a deep hollering "Ruuuuuuubin" when he'd appear. Quentin Tarantino was in the audience, I remember, punching the air and whoopin it up when Rubin waddled to the mike. Clay was just gay. Or latently so. But I liked him. He was the kind of guy I would have fallen for in middle school. Real sweet, but with a trendy edge. A momma's boy for sure. He wasn't threatening, and in retrospect, maybe that's what lost him the title. I watched the Season 2 Finale at my parents' home in Colorado while I drank from my green bottle of Heineken. It wasn't the right setting, my 80-something grandmother and fifty-something mother sat in the chairs opposite me, while Dad was enclaved in the upstairs room away from the "noise" and "garbage" Guy Smiley-Seacrest introduced. The tenor wasn't right that night. I watched with guarded emotion, insecure with my display of affection for Clay, Ryan Seacrest, and the sheer spectacle of the roaring audience. For chrissake I was sitting with my granny.
Down south in Tennessee was Camille Knox, my friend and fellow American Idol lover. Our conversations on the show mostly happened via email, thus making it too difficult to refer to American Idol as "American Idol," and we scripted our own shorthand: "AmIdol." Camille was in a different time zone, central time. I was in Mountain. This posed problems because she saw the show and final outcome while I was waiting with baited breath in the middle of the Rockies, pissed on beer, on the verge of tears and an emotional break-down while she held the secret that was to define the mood for the rest of the calendar year post-Season 2. As you can see, between the time zone discrepancies and my elderly audience in the living room, things were awry. I knew then I needed to watch with a Soul Sister, a person who understood the sheer hilarity and devastation of Simon Cowell's one word performance summaries: "Horrible." I needed to be among one who could get rabidly mad at judge Randy Jackson's pretentious paroxysm named "pitchy" when the contestants would conclude their performances. I needed someone to understand the gravity of Paula Abdul's cakey makeup and gaudy beaded necklaces that weighed more than she. I needed someone to understand the horror of her cakey makeup. For the love of god, her makeup.
At the start of Season 3 we had our calendars marked. Camille and I were roommates, finally together on opening night with heaping handfuls of chocolate in our mouths. Auditions! The center of gravity of AmIdol. This is what the show is about, seeing the vast crowds of contestants who think they have talent, seeing them line up for hours on end, hungry and tired and talentless, only to be, with all inevitability, capital D-denied access to the Hollywood rounds. But a lucky few make it. They burst from the judges' console with a yellow paper in hand, tumbling over Ryan and their loved ones while they scream into the camera. They've made it! They've made it. Oh, but the season is long...
Hollywood is another beast, my friends. Contestants swagger onto the stage confident and boastful and Simon is not amused. Once the Hollywood rounds are screened you have a good idea who's going to make the final cut. It's not just the actual talent of the finalists, but also the hammer-over-the-head backstories of the kids they find pre-air date to profile. Fast-forward to Season 5. Kelly Pickler the famous blonde southerner who as it turns out never heard of Calamari. "Pick Pickler!" She was cute and the producers knew it. Her dad is also a dead-beat, so that helps pull the heartstrings. We want the poor twangy girl without a father figure to triumph, and so, hello Top 12. And yet! Hollywood auditions endure. How about the evil Brittenum brothers, Terrell and Derell? I hate them. Hate is a strong word? Let me clarify: I hate them. The twins are, however, in all their despicability, a prime example of why auditions, Hollywood or preliminary, maintain the form and integrity of AmIdol. Those boys lost out. They were unsavory and cocky, but...they could sing. This is the conundrum: Can a character so loathsome possibly make it on to the Top 24? The Top 12? Could they take the whole show? Surely not, surely not. But you never know. It's the element of surprise, the time shared with each contestant regardless if you prefer their voice to Bo Bice's or Fantasia Barrino's that keeps the show nuanced. It's the long audition season that lets you live and breathe with these personalities, and justifies your own final pick for the Top 3.
The season does wear on. Scheduling conflicts arise. Three straight week-nights of AmIdol means good-bye social life and hello Diet Coke and Ford commercials. Unless of course your social life is AmIdol. Then, in that case, Hello social life! I admit, the middle of the season can be hard to sit through, especially if it is anything like this past season, Season 5, where there was no contestant to clearly love or hate. Kevin Covais, the pre-pubescent from Long Island was the worst, but he was gone and off the radar too quick to keep us infuriated enough to find the knit-beanie-wearing L.A. resident Ace Young exciting. The Great Mandisa was gone in a snap. Taylor was always one of my favorites, but his presence wanned as weeks passed. No one stood out. At least not yet.
In Season 3 we knew Fantasia was Top 3 material. In Season 4 we saw Bo Bice soar to the top, beating the ever-stagy and self-important Constantine. There were always clear heroes and villains. In early seasons when this was the case it was easier to tune in to make sure gag-inducing Anthony Federov was denied further hip gyrating privileges on national TV, and see through that Carrie Underwood and Bo prevailed.
When Season 4 began Camille and I were still roommates so of course we had Idol night blocked off in our planners together. Yes, it was the momentum and antagonism of contestants like Vonzell and Scott Savol that brought us diligently back to the couch Tuesday nights, but it was more than our personal hatred for these sorry singers that delighted us to watch. It was the fact that we could both check out of the mundane daily routine for one, two, sometimes three hours, and get excited about the details of someone else's problems. The ever-present problem for contestants was whether or not they'd make it on to the next week. Was this their last night? The problems posed for the judges, or at least Paula, was whether or not their physical appearance would be scrutinized that evening. Looking at some of Paula's outfits was like staring at a copy of Us Weekly where we (GASP) at celeb fashion offenders. Paula's apparent drunkeness that was at its height in Season 4 made her clothing escapades all the more exciting.
This year was an underwhelming season. Camille was in L.A., I in New York City. We couldn't be physically together on the couch, but we were one in spirit. Before the Finale Camille advised, "Here's one way to look at tonight: only two more episodes to go, then our long, national nightmare will be over and we can start living for next January again." We would be true to our roots, nevertheless, and find the Idol Spirit. As the Season 5 Finale approached our enthusiasm built. There really was a spark in the air, you could feel the energy. Grown men and children alike united to indulge in the glitter of the last night. By Wednesday, May 24th, the mood had changed. I wrote her my observations: "The Idol Fever is building, Camille. The hour is almost here . . . [a] girl I always have tension with [at work] even talked me up and smiled and waved and wished me happy watching as she left---this does not happen, Camille. Do you see what this show does! America! In solidarity!"
We had done it. We had triumphed. Taylor Hicks won (Soul Patrol!), the Top 12 gang came back for stunning group sings, Mary J. Blige showed up, Live performed with Chris Daughtry, David Hasselhoff teared-up in the crowd. Then, just when we thought it was over: Prince. Season 5 with all of its lulls had redeemed itself. It took Camille and I a few days to decompress and return to the regular pace of life, to realize that it was seven months until Idol shows its face on TV again. AmIdol was the buzz for the first 5 months of the year, and though we're in the off-season there is plenty to remember and a lot to look forward to. I'll sleep soundly knowing that on this hot summer night, someone, somewhere is auditioning for next January's show. AmIdol is alive.
Labels: Termite Television