Given that "American Idol" is the biggest mass culture phenomenon going right now, I've been remiss -- Sanjaya conspiracy theories aside -- in not paying the show the attention it deserves. So with the contest down to its final nine performers, you can expect more frequent "Idol" observations coming from Audiofile. Here's my first one: Last night's show was some boring-ass shit. That's not a statement coming from an "Idol" hater, either. I generally like the show and even get a slight kick out of its cornball humor and star-is-born drama. But every year, in that dead space between the humiliation bonanza of the early episodes and the palpable finish-line excitement of the final installments, "American Idol" grinds to a halt, with too much time spent spotlighting marginal talents at the expense of singers we actually want to hear. The truth is, even down to nine contestants, we have to sit through too many middling performances and engage with too many mediocre personalities.
Last night's show was but the most recent example of what I'm talking about. Phil Stacey's rendition of "Night and Day" was notable more for the impressive amount of sweat that managed to accumulate on his bald head than for his funerary stage presence. "Rocker chick" Gina Glocksen sang Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" with all the sonic gusto of a silent film. Is-he-or-isn't-he in on the joke Sanjaya resorted to his usual ham-fisted mugging in an effort to make up for his lack of talent. Simon Cowell was typically mean but right when he told Haley Scarnato the best part of her performance was her legs. Even the über-positive special guest Tony Bennett had to remind multiple contestants that (zounds!) it helps the performance when you understand the song's lyrics. Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul aren't much help at this point in the season either, relegated as they are to commenters rather than deciders -- and their comments are frequently useless. "Idol" producer Nigel Lythgoe pointed out as much in an MTV news interview when he said, "If I was a contestant listening to everything that's been said over the last six seasons, I wouldn't know what to do," he said. "They tell you one week you're playing it safe and then the next week they tell you it's dangerous." Once they no longer have the power to give people the boot, Randy, Paula and Simon are there pretty much for shtick -- a task only Simon seems to have any knack for.
Last night's show wasn't a complete dud, though. LaKisha Jones, Jordin Sparks and Melinda Doolittle all sang with personality and skill, making for a cumulative four minutes and 30 seconds of honest-to-goodness entertainment during the hourlong show. It wasn't enough. I want to be entertained, and watching some well-meaning schnooks deliver songs with the panache of a piece of wonder bread doesn't cut it. Here's my solution: Cut the field down to a final four or six earlier on. But rather than shortening the season, give us more time with the contestants who deserve more than 90 seconds to showcase their skills. I'd love to watch Melinda sing for, egads, 10, maybe even 15 minutes. As it currently stands, the show's good performances feel like drops of water in a drought; the current string of episodes feels absolutely interminable. You know something's gone wrong when the biggest story lines so far this season are about how a crappy singer (Sanjaya) is still in the running and whether the since-departed Antonella Barba posed in dirty pictures. Maybe I'm missing something. Is it possible that even at this stage of the game, the skill and talent are still less of a draw than the drama of watching nice, not-very-talented people wave bye-bye to their pop star dreams? In any case, I feel safe in saying, gams be damned, Haley Scarnato's getting axed next.
-- David Marchese