Neither as industrious as Adam "The Beav" Vary nor as good at staking out the back door to get quotes as Shirley Halperin, your friendly Aunt Whittlz mostly attends Idol because she thinks it’s nice to pitch in. Remember, I’m the daughter of symphony musicians and a rock ‘n’ roll fan; I don’t much care for blatant fame-grabbery and cannot stand exhibitions of style over substance. So while I’m more than happy to watch this show on the television — where I am protected from any overwhelming irksomeness by my DVR — attending in person tends to be a bit much. Also, four days ago I was at SXSW, watching My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James put on the loveliest solo show you’ll ever see, with nary a strobe light or misspelled posterboard sign to be found. From the biggest indie music festival on the planet to Section E of a Beatles karaoke jam? Seems about right.
Anyway, I don’t know about you, but I kinda thought my first Idol performance show of 2008 was, what’s the right word, um… lamesticks? But at least from inside CBS Television Studios, I could be diverted by the funny people. After the jump, I cynically break down all the action, with the exception of Carly Smithson’s performance, because I love her and her taciturn, face-tatted husband. Take those broken wings and learn to fly! Learn to live so free!
Rolled up to the Grove, unloaded every piece of forbidden electronic gadgetry from my bag, hid it in the car, walked down the block to the CBS lot, stood in line behind a pack of very excited people carrying an "Archuleta is an ANGEL" sign, wondered why middle-aged, upper-middle-class people look the same in every region of the United States, made it through the gate, walked to the studio, and ambled right in. No one came at me with a metal detector. Last year, I was forced to abandon my tape recorder, my cell phone, and my chewing gum at the door. Today, my ticket was barely glanced at. I have a couple theories as to why this is, but my favorite has to do with a suspicion that all non-essential security personnel have been diverted towards making sure the newly erected Idol Thunderdome does not come tumbling down.
Seriously, ABV wasn’t kidding when he said the set is almost post-apocalyptically gigantic this year, like they’re using it on dark nights to double as a Starship Enterprise dinner theater. My fellow journalists and I are seated in the back row as usual — can’t imagine they’d want us mucking up their shiny-haired-teenage-girl-wearing-a-sassy-tank-top-and-too-much-mascara-for-her-age demographic down in the "mosh pit," a cultural misappropriation that would surely have Ian MacKaye rolling in his grave, were he dead. My immediate companions for the afternoon are Laura, an Access Hollywood reporter who Fox will be glad to know was taking notes in an Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? notebook, and LA Times editor/Idolizer Richard Rushfield. Both Richard and Laura have been to Idol many, many more times than I have, and I sort of feel like a poser. Then it occurs to me that I want to feel like a poser in this scenario.
ABV has really cornered the market on Corey the Warm-Up Comedian discussion, so I will keep mentions of him to a minimum except to note that there were entire minutes that went by tonight without him running his mouth, and those minutes I will forever cherish, Hollywood. Aw yeah. Somebody scream. And anyway, during his opening schtick I am far more engaged in watching a head-setted individual demonstrate to the "mosh pit" the proper ways of swaying their hands and clapping in a Paula-like seal fashion, and trying to figure out how, if the band is now located 30 feet above the stage and waaaaay to the back, the contestants are able to communicate with them at all. This unsettles me — what if it never occurs to the singers to communicate with the band in the first place?? — until I realize that Ricky Minor stands on a stage left column so he’s at least in the singers’ peripheral vision, and I feel better. I also take a little time to write down the celebs in the audience, because I understand people care about such things: Willie Garson from Sex and the City; Joely Fisher from Til Death; Rumer Willis, accompanied by a boy wearing both a skull cap and a hood; Ricki Lake; Heidi and Spencer, who I was under the impression had broken up, but I wonder if even they know anymore. There are two secret-service-lookin’ bodyguards milling about. Most everyone hopes it is because John McCain is in the hizzouse.
It’s time to introduce Randy, Ryan, the contestants — who seem unclear whether they should come out, sparking a bit of a Von Trapp Family moment before Debbie, our always-vigilant stage manager, gets their butts in gear — Paula, and finally, Simon. We notice the secret-service-lookin’ dudes on the move and realize that Posh Spice is using the Simon-sparked pandemonium to sneak in, accompanied by her three sons. Two of her sons are wearing Yankees caps with the size stickers still on (gangsta!); her littlest child is wearing a full Buzz Lightyear suit, complete with wings. How it must pain Mrs. Beckham to not have sartorial control over such a thing, but damn was that kid cute. And then we count down, the lights come on, Seacrest says something about the Beatles, the screaming starts, and I immediately lose vision in my left eye. Apparently, the show has started. A camera on a boom goes swooping over my head, and I duck, even though it’s got at least six feet of clearance. It’s like an evil bird. I don’t know what it wants. And every time it swoops for the next two hours, I duck. Whatever. It’s like a war zone in that room, PopWatchers. I don’t know if you can fully understand unless you’ve been there.
Ryan says this is the first time they’ve ever expanded on a theme — bringing back the Beatles after the success of Lennon/McCartney week — and as they’re showing the Helpful Historical Montage for Clueless Youngsters (TM), Richard Rushfield tries to get me to accept a wager that Archuleta will do "Hey Jude." I won’t take that, but I bet him a dollar that Michael Johns does "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." [Note: Richard, I'll pay up tomorrow.] And almost before we know it, we’re watching Amanda Overmyer attack "Back in the U.S.S.R." I scramble for my earplugs, and jam them in just in time. Then we’re standing to applaud for Amanda — Idol in person is a lot like church, with the up-down — and I have to pull my earplugs out to hear what anybody is saying. This pattern will continue for most of the taping: Earplugs in, sit down, stand up, earplugs out, stand, sit, earplugs. For the record, I like Amanda much better in person than I do on TV.
Our first commercial break, and Seacrest is sitting on stage with Kristy Lee Cook, making her laugh and looking through her photo books. I suspect KLK is also much cooler in person than she seems on TV, though there is little evidence of this during "Hide Your Love Away." I briefly hoped she’d do the Pearl Jam version, but no such luck. Meanwhile, the "mosh pit" is swaying like plastic seaweed in the tacky tropical fish tank at the all-you-can-eat filet mignon joint by the feeder road. Posh Spice is not swaying, nor are her children. When KLK concludes, the man in front of me gives her a standing ovation. He will continue to do so for virtually every single contestant, thereby registering his standing ovation completely meaningless. Best part of KLK: Ryan Seacrest’s absolutely inscrutable pose and facial expression throughout the judges’ critical comments. The dude is a cipher. I am completely obsessed with him.
During the Archuleta clip reel — which was prefaced by KLK’s unfortunate "blow you out of your socks" comment — Nigel Lythgoe stops by the judging platform to say something to Simon that makes him raise his hands and say, "It’s okay!" No telling what went on there, but I can tell you that Nigel was merrily singing along with Lil’ Archie during "Long and Winding Road," and even at a distance you could see the dollar signs light up in his eyes during the ovation Archie received for overcoming all that "adversity." Archie gets two thumbs up and a back slap from the tech who comes out to take the microphone after every song.
Posh and her children use the commercial for a pee break, while Debbie et al set up Seacrest’s iPhone plug with a "mosh pit" resident — bonus points to Ryan for his obvious iPhone-plug annoyance — and Michael Johns comes out to cost me $1. I have since seen this performance on television, and it doesn’t even compare to the horrendousness live on stage. It was like watching the world’s shortest one-man musical, as interpreted by a Jim Morrison impersonator of middling talent. The pit was confused by the varying tempo — do we clap? do we sway? — and Simon wasn’t even looking at the stage by the end. MJ gets nary a thumb nor a back pat from Mic Tech Guy, though he does make us all feel bad for hating the song he sung for his dead friend. Sigh.
Corey makes an unfortunate attempt at speaking to Posh Spice’s Buzz Lightyear child during the next commercial break; when we come back and it’s announced that Brooke will be singing "Here Comes the Sun," she gets an awwww from the crowd. They will soon be disappointed, although they don’t really seem to notice at the time that they should be disappointed. David Cook has a big ol’ guitar stack setup during the next commercial, practices using his vocoder (Pop quiz, hotshots: Who has worse hair, Richie Sambora or David Cook?), and Ryan goes to stand in the "pit" for his next bumper but almost immediately gets the hell out of there to go hang out with the judges — probably he did not wish to be hyperventilated on by the shiny girls until the last possible moment. My girl Carly has emerged to stand with Nigel for D.Cook’s number, which Rushfield finds inappropriate; D.Cook also elicits an audible groan of concern from Journalist Row when he announces he’ll be doing the Whitesnake version of "Day Tripper." I didn’t so much mind the cover, but — here I go again — I must take issue with my "moshing" friends, who were down there clapping on the downbeat during Cook’s song. Something about the Idol environment clearly has the power to brainwash every person in the room and make them forget that they have ever been cool, ever in their lives. I mean, we’ve all heard music before, right? We all have at least a basic understanding of how to behave at a rock show, right? Does it involve CLAPPING on EVERY single DOWNbeat? People. Please. I’m not asking for much, and I know you’ve been told by the producers that being in the "mosh pit" makes you a "star," but just — no.
I really enjoy Ryan’s little clown lazzi with D.Cook’s vocoder stand, but not as much as I enjoy the screamingly painful moment during the next commercial break, when a girl who is a member of the drill team we’ve since learned is occupying most of the "pit," tells Corey the Warm-Up Comedian that their whole drill team is there except for Kelsey, who is in the hospital with cancer. Corey the Warm-Up Comedian’s mortal enemy is Kelsey, the poor drill team member with cancer, because there is nothing funny about this, and he has absolutely no idea how to react. Thank god they come back from break, the judges talk nonsense about blackbirds and cream cheese until Debbie waves her paper frantically to cut them off, and Carly’s reel begins. At this point, Nigel returns to the judging platform, and I wonder if he’s telling them not to be so inside baseball with their banter. But then I forget to care because Carly is singing, and it’s great, and the audience is screaming on like every single note, and she’s actually starting to look like Ann Wilson now, and Paula calls her a "gift" and Richard Rushfield agrees. "She IS a gift," he says. I love her utterly, despite questioning her decision to go all Night of the Hunter on us with the fist tat.
After Carly, it’s pretty much all downhill. Posh leaves, saying good night to Simon Fuller on the way. Heidi and Spencer have also vanished. Willie Garson, thankfully, remains. In my notebook, I have written down here that I am bored. It pains me to mention that Jason Castro kind of sucked, so let’s move on. I needed my earplugs more for Syesha’s high notes than anything else in the show, but I loved the moment when her brother or whoever it was in her family entourage leaped to his feet and pumped his fist after she finished. At this point, I become fascinated by a tiny man standing next to Nigel, wearing a long, bedazzled overcoat that doesn’t hide the fact that he is, honestly, pocket-sized. Richard Rushfield helpfully points out that this is Mike "Alien Autopsy" Darnell, president of alternative programming for Fox — and that his parents are sitting to our right, so I should not keep talking about how alarmingly small their son is.
The tech guys come to move a bunch of people out of my row for the big boom shot of Seacrest on the stairs. Debbie spots Rushfield and says, "What are you, writing a book?" Ryan appears, making me a little nervous — kind of like when mascots get too close to me at ballgames — and right before we come back from break, an older man toddles down the stairs, trying to find his seat. Seacrest is unfazed — instead of hustling grandpa out of the shot, he just incorporates him, and tells him to download stuff on iTunes. It’s brilliant. Then Ryan and Debbie sort of mill around on the stairs for a bit during Chikeze’s reel until Debbie looks at her paper and barks, "OH SHIT! GET DOWN! GET DOWN!" in front of at least a dozen underaged children and she and Seacrest sprint to the judges’ table, where the next shot is slated to take place. So much for the family environment. But again, that Seacrest — what a damn pro.
This has gotten torrentially long, hasn’t it. Urg! Well, Chikeze was weird (um, he chose the country arrangement because it went so well for KLK last week?), Simon popped something that was either gum or Advil during Not Easy’s performance, Ramiele’s outfit looked even worse in person, if that’s possible. In the next commercial, Corey — who I had largely tuned out at this point — yells "…AND FACIALS!" at the drill team, and I have no idea why. The audience totally eats up Ramiele’s "Don’t Send Me Home Or I Shall Be So Alone" reel, but during her bizarre impression of someone using a singing machine in the Sharper Image circa 1988 (seriously, just sing "Surrey with the Fringe On Top" and get it over with), Simon visibly sighs, puffing out his cheeks and encapsulating how I feel, and then… we’re done. FINALLY.
They start showing the "remember this song that just happened two hours ago?" clips, and it’s a good thing, too, because it feels like Amanda Overmyer’s number happened last Saturday. Probably my favorite part of the night was watching the contestants lined up on stage to watch the clips with each other: Carly holding Jason’s hand; Amanda jumping up and down like a teeny-bopper and faux-screaming at Archuleta’s clip; Brooke rubbing MJ’s back encouragingly during his disaster, then making a big silly sun gesture over her head during her own; Syesha and Jason doing a hoedown step in honor of Chikeze. And then it’s time for our final standing ovation, and we get to leave! Sort of! After we’ve walked clockwise all the way around the massive studio, despite the fact that our cars are in the Grove, which is to the left! I eventually make it back to the Whittlzmobile and my initial instinct is to call someone to pick me up, because I still can’t see out of my left eye. But then I put a Sugarcubes tape in the deck to cleanse my palate, roll down the windows, and pull out into the sunset, secure in the knowledge that tomorrow, I get a free Kellie Pickler concert. Umm… vote Carly!