What happens during their 'Idol' time?
Thur., Mar. 15
Watching Wednesday night's elimination show live in the Idoldome, one of the most instantly apparent things was the true camaraderie between the members of the extended "Idol" family. I've been to plenty of TV tapings in my time, and tons where the moment the camera stops rolling, the smiles vanish and the stars retreat to separate corners. That is not what happens here, at all. At breaks, the judges act like they are at recess, joshing around with each other and producer Nigel Lythgoe. They joke with their many friends who have come to see the show. Even Ryan Seacrest comes off the stage and lolls on the judging table, laughing with his sparring partner Simon. More touching perhaps is the seeming affection between the contestants (most of them), who during breaks, lean on each other, joke, whisper, wrap arms, dance together and generally behave like a college spirit team out on a weekend road trip. The bond between them is unmistakable. And then one of them must die.
It is a beautifully brutal and poignant process each week -- as this little family, each plucked from obscurity and cast together onto the world stage, draws naturally closer -- their shared experience taking them that much farther together. But at the price that each week, they must sacrifice one of their own. A fuller metaphor for the paradox of man's experience as a social but mortal creature I cannot think of.
In the studio, the extremes of the paradox seem, if anything, starker. Notable Wednesday was the awkward division suddenly carved onto the double-tiered couch, as by the end of the first segment all but Brandon, Phil, Sanjaya and Hayley knew they were safe. Some, in particular Chris Sligh and Stephanie Edwards, started the evening looking extrememly nervous and uncomfortable on stage; even during the breaks remaining very stiff. After they received their week's pass, they became giddy and playful once again, gigantic smiles lighting their faces.
During the Diana Ross segments and commercial breaks there was a heightened sense of playtime and horsing around among the survivors, combined with hugs and reassurances to those who hung in the balance. To an observer from 70 feet away, Melinda seems to play a big sister role, doing a lot of hugging and reassuring. Blake and Gina seem the most extroverted of the group -- constantly on their feet dancing and gabbing, a bigness of personality that may work for them or against them as the competition progresses. LaKisha, for her part, seemed to hold herself back ten degrees from the gang -- not quite aloof but clearly not one of the kids either. (Does this augur well or poorly for her in the long run? Rumor has it that being one of the gang has not always been a priority to some "Idol" finalists.)
However, perhaps the cruelest fate of all belonged to Haley Scarnato who had to sit in her upper corner of the couch, while for 15 minutes the others celebrated and worse still, right next to her, fellow torturee Sanjaya talked her ear off with a string of grinning banter that seemed to wear badly on her understandably decaying nerves. It was a telling moment when Hayley learned she was safe: She burst in emotion but forgot the requisite hug to Sanjaya, and he shuffled off to the bottom three.
We see the character of a person by how they handle moments like these, and it must be said, when my day comes I hope I can stand up with the dignity and aplomb of Brandon Rogers. Never for a moment, during the breaks or otherwise, did he let a shadow of bitterness or remorse darken his smile. The audience, thrilled to be present in the Idoldome, seemed shocked to witness his execution and the standing ovation they gave his goodbye song -- which, alas, didn’t make it to the air -- was long and sustained.
After the cameras shut down, the contestants embraced their lost comrade in a final hug -- although for those who had survived this first test this time there was more giddiness than tears. Then, surprising to see, the judges came to the stage and each wished Brandon well. In particular, Simon lingered and chatted with him for a respectable number of minutes. Death be not proud, though some have called thee mighty and dreadful, for, thou are not so… One singer may have fallen but there is still a champion waiting to rise.
--Richard Rushfield The Dawn of the Big Stage
Wed., Mar. 14
To the extent that a phenomenon as rich and complex as "American Idol" can be boiled down to a simple metaphor, the show's appeal can only be compared to gladiatorial combat. Each week, every contestant's entire life boils down to 90 seconds in which—alone on a hostile stage—they either soar or implode. Then at the conclusion of each song, their fate is handed to them and neither all their piety nor all their tears can take it back again.
Watching on television, those moments can seem unbelievably strained and painful. Watching them live in the "Idol" studio, I discovered, the tension is much, much worse. Almost too real, if you will.
On Tuesday night, I was honored to bear witness in the Idoldome at CBS' Television City studios -- to sit before the stage where Clarkson and Aiken, Daughtry and Underwood had begun their public lives. And my major impression was of what a cold place that stage was for these contestants, so small and so vulnerable in the flesh.
While the Big Stage is actually not that huge (as is always the case, smaller than it appears on television; the audience area, seating about 300 seems about as large as a medium-ish Junior High School auditorium), but it is incredibly full and busy. Giant rotating neon columns flank the stage, a video screen circled by Martian antennas looms behind, spotlights everywhere, fog machines, a 20-some piece band blaring and seated just five feet away -- three judges gazing on blank and pitiless as the sun (and chatting through a shocking amount of the performances).
Standing alone on this stage, those contestants who "don't have it," as Simon Cowell put it, are swallowed whole by the apparatus. While the band gets the crowd on its feet and dancing, middling vocals drown underneath the giant effect, as was the case in Brandon Rogers' and Chris Sligh's performances. Also worth noting that while the crowd does play the good sport and get up and dance when called to, standing o's are by no means de rigeur , and all ovations are certainly not made equal, even here.
The camera also plays capricious games, handing out its favors indiscriminately. Haley Scarnato's and Phil Stacey's performances seemed much weaker on TV than they had in person; Blake Lewis and Chris Richardson seemed stronger. Melinda's proportions which are unremarkable in person, seem truncated on television; Chris Richardson's features deeper, less callow than in the flesh.
On television the spectacle of watching the inadequate contestants ripped to shreds provides the satisfaction of meritocratic justice unflinchingly administered. In person, the pain these very young people endure as they absorb their fate is truly visceral -- from a hundred feet away, one could feel Chris Sligh and Blake Lewis go cold, and it was much harder not to pity them. Haley Scarnato's breakdown was so intense it was a bit embarrassing to be in the room with her.
On the other hand, one could sense more clearly Sanjaya Malakar's complete indifference to the judges' opinions as he shifted back and forth on his feet, like a schoolboy enduring a teacher's lecture about playground safety before he's allowed to go out for recess.
But for raw entertainment and excitement, there is little to match the thrill of the crowd awaiting their pop gladiators. From the pre-show entry of the judges like prize fighters striding through the crowd to the strains of "Got to be Real" to the expectation hanging on each contestants performance, the audience hangs at a fever-pitch throughout the three-plus hours they sit in the studio. And every single person present (and no doubt most of the viewers) arrive with formed relationships (for better or worse) with and opinions about each of twelve contestants? In the risers, debate on the great topics of our day raged -- Melinda vs. LaKisha, which, if any, of the boys could break out of the pack. And was Haley Scarnato's dress too revealing?
My personal focus group, the extremely wise Kiki Hertel, aged nine from Fort Worth, Texas, arrived for the show bearing two signs -- for Melinda Doolittle and Gina Glocksen. She also confided that Blake Lewis is a major favorite in her class, an opinion shared by several others of the pre-teen set in the risers. Sanjaya's charisma, however, was completely lost on her. By the end of the night, however, it seemed Gina Glocksen had not done much to help her dark-horse standing with Kiki, and LaKisha had entered her top tier. "She has a really powerful voice," Kiki confided.
The season has begun in earnest now. From here on in, history rides on every step.