American idle

I had nothing better to do than watch the taping of Simon Cowell's amateur-hour schlockfest. Here's my shocking story.


Lee Soult
May 14, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)

The stage doors have shut and it's too late to leave. Wolf howls and simian screams ring out in response to the warm-up guy's plea for noise. Now he wants us to do the wave.

The audience waiting for the live West Coast broadcast of "American Idol" is all too eager to comply. CBS's Television City Stage 36, the annual home of Jerry Lewis' Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, is packed with a crowd reminiscent of "Let's Make a Deal," the World Wrestling Federation and Disney's Country Bear Jamboree. At least I'm not Phil, the fully consenting elder guy hauled up onstage to shake his booty.

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I wouldn't be here at all if it weren't for my helpless addiction to "American Idol." The show revives all the deluded fantasies of instant discovery and overnight stardom that sustained me through a miserable suburban American adolescence. An older and wiser me finds watching others' hopes and dreams spectacularly dashed in front of a live national audience an opiate for middle age. But give me a contestant who can really sing, and I'm a gushing basket case, prostrating myself before "that most tragic of all instruments; the hopeful human voice," as novelist Kathryn Davis has dubbed it, "singing, trying to hold a note forever."

So when I scored two tickets to "American Idol's" big-band sing-off in early May with the Final Five -- Diana Degarmo, Jasmine Trias, Fantasia Barrino, George Huff and La Toya London (the last two have since been voted off) -- I had to go. I wanted to see how the contestants' live performances compared to the slickness of TV. I wanted to experience, as well, the revival meeting that was the studio audience. (I write this under a pseudonym lest my ticket source suffer for aiding an unauthorized journalist's inside report.)

Now, sitting in the midst of the before-broadcast hubbub, I long for the isolated comfort of my living room, where I can idolize in private. It doesn't help that Los Angeles is having a heat wave in this 16th week of the competition and practically everyone in the audience is wearing tank tops and shorts, their bare skin threatening to bump mine, creeping me out. If a guard hadn't told them to remove their gum, they'd be a wild, masticating throng. And what's with the cretin in the shirt printed with the picture of a depraved killer holding a smoking gun? Could someone remove him?

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"This is nothing," says an L.A. mom whose child is waving a "Diana Is My Princess" sign. "You should see the finale!" Not for the performances, but for the after party. "They do dinner and give away fistfuls of Old Navy gift certificates. It's amazing."

The set is as gaudy as any Las Vegas show room, only smaller. It looks like the rear end of a '58 Chevy embedded with video screens. Swooping, swinging cameras on boom arms are stationed throughout the space to create the illusion of vast acres of raging enthusiasm from the audience of approximately 500.

Applause signs aren't needed for this crowd. "Cool It!" signs might help.

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Four plump, middle-aged blond women sitting in front of us make like a whack-a-rat game, constantly raising their double-sided signs endorsing both La Toya London and Fantasia Barrino. The rows behind grumble, "Put the signs down."

A fresh roar rises as petite judge Paula Abdul sashays out in a sparkly white strapless dress, a floppy flower plastered to her head like a purloined tide-pool creature. Her patent-leather red lips part in a dazzling smile as she waves a well-toned arm at the crowd.

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Next comes judge Randy Jackson, newly slim physique in loose-fitting clothes. Then out marches Simon Cowell, back as rigid as a Queen's guard, chest straining against a tight gray T-shirt. Despite a towering sense of self-importance, he isn't much taller than the diminutive Abdul.

A dancing audience sign begs "Judge Me, Simon. I Won't Let You Down," while another proclaims "Simon Speaks the Truth." His hard-line stand against mediocrity can be cruel, but it has its following.

I don't anticipate much cringing at Cowell's comments tonight. Big-band music is imminently singable, so even the weaker contestants will be safe. It won't be like Gloria Estefan night, when nearly all were impaled on the impossible Latin beat, or Elton John night, when every song was as unsingable as the "Star Spangled Banner."

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Suddenly we're on-air as the stage lights break into a blinding frenzy and emcee Ryan Seacrest, our next Dick Clark if we want one, takes the center mark. An introductory film clip explains big-band music for the culturally illiterate, then a group of dark-suited and tie-wearing musicians with authentic brass, string and percussive instruments is welcomed at the side of the stage.

Diana Degarmo is up first, singing "Someone to Watch Over Me," which she dedicates to her grandpa and the troops who are "watching over us," and Judy Garland's "Get Happy." Her performance is fine, lovely even, though her lavender satin dress is not. The crowd is giddy with love, erupting with spontaneous applause at her first sustained note. But with the sound system's reverb, the frenetic lights and motion-sickness-inducing graphics from the backdrop of video screens, it's hard to hear what she really sounds like.

Paula and Randy adore her. "You're 16 and you sound like 50!" Simon sputters, as if maturity were a crime. This gripe is less surprising when you consider that it comes from the man who helped further the career of Teletubbies and the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. "You're an old soul!" he whines.

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"I'll take that," an unsinkable Degarmo says, catching his bullet in her perky smile. I see a national tour of "Annie Get Your Gun" in her future.

"They'll all be forgotten in six months," L.A. mom opines during the break. "It's so sad."

Some in less time than that. I haven't a clue who the "We Miss Amy" sign someone's holding up is talking about. I later learn it's Amy Adams, the pink-haired girl from Bakersfield, Calif., one of the season's final 12 already immortalized on the recently released album "American Idol: Season 3 -- Greatest Soul Classics." But crossing the parking lot on my way to the taping I did recognize John Peter Lewis, who, apparently reluctant to head back home to Rexburg, Idaho, after being voted off the show weeks ago, has been showing up regularly to watch it from the audience.

Warm-up Guy takes a question for Simon from audience member Molly, 10, of Santa Monica. "Were you born mean?" she wants to know.

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"No, all British are born evil," he says coolly. It's a subpar quip, but then his reputation is based less on wit than his cutting honesty in the face of Abdul's unfailing pleasantries.

Warm-up Guy finds another young girl in the audience. This one would rather dance than ask questions. "Thank you," he says after a brief terpsichorean interlude. "Yeah, now go take your Ritalin," the beefy guy behind me grouses.

The stagehands stop yawning and the break ends before the crowd slips into sleep mode. An impish George Huff pops out from behind the big screen to sing "Dancing Cheek to Cheek." "I'm in heaven," he croons. The video screen visuals are more like a vision of hell, with great swoops of what looks like glowing orange lava. The strain of the competition is beginning to show. Huff is smiling too hard and his eyes are popping more desperately than usual. He's crossed that fine line between a winning performance and a parody of a lounge singer.

But the forgiving crowd emits an audible sigh when he announces his next number, from Louis Armstrong's late schmaltz period, "What a Wonderful World." These people love sentimental. The visuals now are of clouds, as if Huff is stretched between the two extremes of heaven and hell.

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Pandemonium follows his final note. Randy wasn't wowed. Paula is dreamily enthusiastic but unfortunately inaudible due to a microphone glitch. Simon leaps to the attack. "You could go on any medium cruise liner and you could hear what you heard tonight." Boos and shouts from the crowd. "It's true!" He insists over the drowning din.

Meanwhile, Huff isn't paying Simon much mind. He's popping his eyes at the audience and bouncing on his heels, connecting directly with his multitude of fans. The balance of power seems to have shifted. As part of the final 12 he's guaranteed a tour and already has a cut on the group album.

In that sense, the Final Five are like the skeleton crew left at a downsized corporation. They're stuck doing the work of those let go, exploited and sliced thin, providing Fox this week with three nights of programming -- the previous night having been their opportunity to practice celebrity blather in a talk show format with Seacrest -- while also starring in commercials for the show's sponsors and providing two songs each for big-band night. The under-18-year-olds, Degarmo and Jasmine Trias, have school work on top of that. It's amazing they don't collapse.

Another break. Warm-up Guy takes more childish questions. "What is this show about?" Summer, 10, from Santa Monica, asks Simon. I sincerely hope she means this in the existential sense. A kindly Simon explains that the show is about singing and competition.

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Dressed in a sparkly orange cocktail dress appropriate for a Broadway review, La Toya London gets the audience swaying with "Too Close for Comfort." After a high-energy performance, her fatigue shows as she stumbles in the between-song chat, unable to get out Natalie Cole's name. She's back in full force for a second number, "Don't Rain on My Parade."

For African-American women on "American Idol 3" it seems that singing well is the best revenge -- or at least it did until Wednesday night. Everyone save Simon gives her a standing ovation. (Maybe he's just shy about showing how short he is on camera.) After Randy and Paula gush, Simon says, "I'll give you 10 out of 10 for a very fine Broadway performance," managing to make it not sound like a compliment. The audience doesn't care. Their enthusiasm swells and crests as Ryan Seacrest sidles up to announce her voting number.

Cut to break, and Warm-up Guy announces celebrities in the audience: talk-show host Wayne Brady and Henry Simmons of "NYPD Blue."

Next up: Jasmine Trias. Sitting on the edge of the stage in tight jeans, a low-cut top with belly chains and strappy heels, she looks more karaoke than big band as she dives into "The Way You Look Tonight" and "Almost Like Being in Love," from "Brigadoon." She's worn thin and a tad raspy on the last note, and though she keeps smiling, she looks homesick, exhausted, as Randy and Paula fish around for something nice to say. Then Simon the Brutal sneers, "You haven't grown ... Very pleasant isn't good enough!"

The phrase "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" comes to mind.

Break time. A bored Simon looks around at the audience before mocking the contestants' habits of dedicating songs to family values and "the troops."

Back on air, Fantasia Barrino bolts from behind the video screen. She is coltish, a bundle of awkward, barely contained energy, the least plastic and polished of any of the contestants. Singing her first number -- "Crazy Little Thing Called Love," by Queen, not a big-band song in the conventional sense, but she makes it one -- she appears to be woman possessed. Her next song, "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?," which she dedicates to her daughter, leaves Paula wiping away tears and Randy ecstatic.

Even Simon is weary, grateful. "You and La Toya are just in a different league," he declares.

Show over, lights up. The audience is suddenly quiet, denatured, as we exit in an orderly fashion. Orange wristband wearers get to go through a special door; the rest of us head for the exits.

Outside, we're slapped with the discombobulating light of a still-bright day, a harsh reminder that none among us is an American idol. I make it home in time to watch the West Coast broadcast from the lone comfort of my favorite chair -- and hope I never have to do the wave again.


Lee Soult

"Lee Soult" is a Los Angeles-based writer.

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