Adieu, you two

"American Idol" wraps up an odd, unsatisfying season tonight while "Dancing With the Stars" waltzes offstage on a high note.

Posted: May 22, 2007

Let's go deep, shall we?

After all, to quote a character in Jonathan Lethem's new novel about a fledgling plagiaristic rock band, you can't be deep without a surface.

And we American Idol surfers have been happily skimming along that surface of planet Guarini-Clarkson and their heirs for a long time.

Yes, we can break down the Blake-Jordin matchup in all its superficial splendor and multilayeredness.

Blake Lewis: white shirt, under white hoodie, under white blazer, with white sneakers under gray pants, weird dad vibe, somebody help us with that, makes you feel for him a bit. Dad seems so needy. Is he giving luh-luh-lul-love a bad name?

Jordin Sparks: flouncy dress over blue jeans the sig look, dissolved in tears after seeing best friend, and, for the first time in a while, looked like the 17-year-old she is. Nice moment, J-Spar. Makes you (who may have everything) and your poise and humor on the show seem rather impressive.

The departed Melinda Doolittle, already a distant memory, had no business being on the show, having already broken into the business as a backup singer. Everyone knows that the show's backup singers are better than the contestants.

They're supposed to be knowingly smug about that, not try to cross over from the shadows. Her ouster was sad in that way, as she serenaded her parting bouquet over to one of the actual backup singers. It's embarrassing, like trying to move into the freshman dorms when you're an upperclassman. Might look like fun, but that moment has passed. You don't belong. You don't get to punch that ticket, woman.

In any case, here's the thing about American Idol as it hits middle age, as this season's weirdness (and the Sanjaya debacle kept that audition vibe going for weeks) yields another dubious champ (adieu forever to Phil, Haley, Chris, Antonella, and Gina):

This show used to ride on its embrace of withering criticism, contestants bracing themselves for Simon's lash (and, in an earlier age, Randy's and Paula's). In that sense, it was the opposite of a beauty pageant, an institution that pretends to love all its contestants but then eliminates them brutally and in fell swoops, without ever having to explain or wipe that smile off its collective face.

American Idol laid it all out there, made the contestants have to face their foibles, made their public fortunes seem contingent on actually being judged by presumed experts in the field who could make or break them. Not quite as cruel as Survivor, but still, a bracing reality check each week. In the old days, the ousted contestant really did have a bad day, as the song said. Bring back Daniel Powter's jaunty dirge.

Now, it's a show where contestants triumph by just ignoring the critiques, by standing up to Simon, by existing in their own Sanjayan universes, their self-esteem impervious.

Now, now . . . well, an exchange between Simon and Paula last week summed it up:

Paula (commenting on Melinda): "We love you and what else can we say?"

Simon, sarcastically: "That's why we hired you for the show, Paula."

His point was, as most of his critiques have been, spot on.

At a certain point, the judges got meek, the contestants got bold, the host downright control-freakish. They stopped listening or caring about what Simon said, when he was even allowed the time to say it. The show's original premise - that criticism mattered, that good was distinguishable from dreadful, that performances could be parsed by knowing people, that ability, or lack thereof, could be summed up in a fanciful and cutting metaphor, and that your public face, if not your ultimate finish, depended upon your being judged - evaporated. Even Simon lost interest.

How quickly we forget that American Idol is where we learned what being pitchy was.

Now, we know that the people who get eliminated sometimes go on to bigger careers than the ones who are crowned champions. We're jaded in that way. The worst among the contestants get a goofy pass week after week. It's all a game.

We know the contestants have steeled themselves against the words of Simon Cowell, their self-esteem no longer wavering on his every zinger. Some weeks, they're like a classroom of smug middling achievers who know they're going to get promoted to the next grade anyway.

Should we be cheering their good cheer no matter what the judges say? Has American Idol in the end produced a tougher though less talented brand of contestant who simply won't wilt? Is that a worthy goal in life? No, dawg, you get stronger when you're willing to listen to criticism, when that matters to you enough to make yourself better, not just persuade a nation of knuckleheads to vote for you.

And even if you do get the knucklehead vote, where does that get you? For proof that the whole winning thing has been devalued, look no further than last year's champ, Taylor Hicks, who when last seen was shilling for Phase 2 of a housing development in Alabama.


Blake or Jordin? Take our survey: http://www.philly.com/philly/entertainment/

American_Idol_survey.html


Contact staff writer Amy S. Rosenberg at 215-854-2681 or arosenberg@phillynews.com.

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