January 24th, 2013

whats on the tee vee

American Idol: Season 12, Episode 3 – Charlotte Auditions

Tonight promises to be a volatile episode of American Idol, if that combination of words makes sense in the English language, because this is the infamous Nicki Minaj Meltdown audition. Yes, we’re stranded in Charlotte-town, North Kakalaka, home of the North American Car Racing Car Sports Car Association. You can tell, because they give Ryan Toothpaste a bunch of NASCAR-related catchphrases to say, so the hicks will know he’s a man of the people:  ”Kick it into overdrive! Start your engines! Fatal pile-up!” You are so gifted, Ryan. We get some B-roll of Ryan allegedly driving a pace car, after which he is declared the “RACE WINNER”, and gets a plastic toy to play with.

Anyway, those who have been paying attention to the big personnel changeover know that it was during the Charlotte auditions that Nicki Minaj threw a major hissy-fit, reading Mariah Carey the riot act and storming off the set. Idol swore they would not exploit this in order to drum up interest, and I admit that they didn’t, except when they did. After some ominous teasers, we get to see the judges in all their finery: Randy Jackson, resplendent in his cut-rate self-branded Big Man tees; Keith Urban, reminding us of his existence when we can hear him breathing; Mariah Carey, doing her finest Norma Desmond impersonation; and Nicki herself, in a rose-colored wig, decked out like a Japanese holographic newsreader.

The first Idol hopeful is Naomi “Omi” Morris, who spent all of her money on drugstore makeup and was thus forced to design her own clothing, including heels she can’t walk in and an armored Red Sonja bustier that looks like someone from Gallhammer should be wearing it. She sings the most off-key version of “Respect” ever attempted, as Aretha Franklin makes advance plans to turn over in her grave. Mariah gives her the “but you’re so pretty” brush-off, which hasn’t worked on anyone since the first time Paula Abdul tried it way back in season 1. As she runs off crying through the giant pillars filled with re-agent that decorate the set, the seeds of the great meltdown are planted as Mariah makes some dangerous remarks about Nicki’s breast size.

Next up is the beloved-by-Idol-producers “let’s make fun of someone who’s severely autistic” segment, this time around featuring one Joel Nemoyer, who resembles Kenneth from 30 Rock if he were kept in a dungeon for sixteen years. Joel, who is wearing a wooden cross around his neck in case of a vampire uprising, thinks it’s a special accomplishment to be able to sing better while lying on his back, instead of something that everyone can do. He tells Nicki she looks like cotton candy, then bellows out a tune, after which Randy hurts his feelings by staring at him as if he has just crawled up through the ground from the deepest pits of Hell. He then has a brain seizure like if you had put a paper grocery back over his head, and it’s off to the races with Speed Zoom Ryan.

Brian Rittenberry is a big fat hulk with a big fat kid and a wife who had a big fat tumor. He spiels his sob story about how he didn’t know how he’s explain to his five-year-old that mommy was going to Heaven, but then she short-circuits his chances when it turns out his wife didn’t die after all. Brian sings “Let It Be” by the obscure skiffle group the Beatles, with his vocal attack portending a guaranteed showdown with ROCKER GABE BROWN. Keith Urban says he “has a light about him”. He’s not Jesus, Keith, he’s just a fat guy on a singing competition. Brian’s wife gets rewarded for to being dead by getting to make out with Keith; Ryan Toothpaste goes into the-lady-doth-protest-too-much mode when Keith jokingly suggests that they make out as well. Keith then scolds Mariah for not keeping up, but she ignores him, probably because she is having a victorious showdown in her mind with all the critics who hated Glitter.

Jimmy Smith, a garbage-disposal version of Sammy Hagar, also likes Keith Urban. Doesn’t anybody on this show like Nicki Minaj? Hmmmmm. (For that matter, doesn’t anyone go “Man, you rocked the shit out of the bassline on ‘Girl Can’t Help It’” to Randy?) He sings a Rascal Flatts song that I don’t recognize because I don’t hang around in gas stations, but he does passably well. Mariah gives him a “yup”, further demonstrating her mastery of accents, and then, as they break for lunch (Keith gets almost as aggressive when he’s hungry as Randy does), Jimmy makes a very weird remark about how he didn’t think he’d be able to get Nicki “on board” with his average country crooning, and Keith makes a comment about “missing out” on Billie Holiday, and there’s just a whole weird racial thing going on.

There is some Scotty McCreery on this show, and some Scotty McCreery is too much Scotty McCreery. Next up is a cowboy-hatted monstrosity named Matthew Muse, who seems to be stricken with acromegaly. He, too, loves Keith Urban and wears a Jesus piece, but adds a seriously psychotic laugh to the mix. Matthew opens his spiel by saying “I’m honored to be sitting among you”, even though he is not sitting. He does that thing where you sort of physically act out the lyrics to the song, which Mariah finds boring but I think is the most interesting thing that has happened so far on this Dullsville episode. Since his singing sucks, Nicki decides to use him as some sort of sex mannequin, and he dances around while the Idol producers put a yugga-dugga banjo on the soundtrack to remind us of how he’s a dumb hillbilly.

Our next ‘Idol Small Town Tour’ segment takes us down south to meet Isabel Gonzalez, the pride of Alpharetta, Georgia. Randy hops on a school bus and says “That’s right, the Dawg is on a school bus”, which actually sounds kind of sad, like they sent him back to learn how to spell or something. Isabel looks like she’s about ten years old, but she’s cute and exuberant and has great pipes and knows Sam Cooke songs. She’s an obvious ringer and might even be a dark horse in this race; everyone loves her, and when she gets her golden ticket, her family attacks her with chemicals. Nicki says she looks like a young Phoebe Cates, prompting millions of Idol watchers to go “Who?”. Then we get Sarina-Joi Crowe, a sassy little whelp with long-ass melismatic runs; Na’chelle Fullins-Lavelle, who does a crazy Yma Sumac-style octave hop; and Haley Davis, who looks and sounds exactly like every other girl named Haley in North America.

Our first clue as to what the big Nicki outburst might have really been about comes in the form of Taisha Bethea, an African-American girl who’s in the unfortunately named band “Carson”. She is wearing jeggings, but it’s hard to hold that against her, because she’s a pretty sharp singer. Her thing, you see, is that she’s a “rock singer — let’s make that happen”, but she also happens to enjoy country music (her first song choice is “Folsom Prison Blues”) and soul. Now, of course, it is perfectly ordinary for a person to like more than one style of music. But Keith, Mariah, and Randy — all over 40 years old and not, in their own careers, marked by a particular diversity of style — are all like WHUUUUUUUT when a girl in an indie-style rock band sings a country song, and they pester her to cram herself in one box or another. Nicki, on the other hand, who is relatively young and whose own style is completely predicated on the blending and mixing of soul, pop, and hip-hop, finds absolutely nothing odd about a girl, even — gasp! — an African-American girl, who shows an interest in non-black music. This will become very important in the next segment.

The next contestant is a Summer Cunningham, a generic-looking blonde with a generic-sounding voice who does a generic version of “Stand By Me”. When the judges ask her what kind of singer she wants to be, she says that she’s “done the country thing” and wants to move on to a more soulful style; just as they did when a black girl wanted to sing rock and country, the whole panel save Nicki flips out when a white girl wants to sing soul music. Nicki busts out her English accent and throws Randy some shine, but to no avail; Keith, in particular, gets his knickers in a knot over the “country thing” remark and compares himself to a brain surgeon. Mariah and Randy both badger her into saying she wants to sing country, because they want her to sing country; this is where Nicki starts to get (appropriately, to me) pissy and ask them why they want to keep putting people in compartments that they may not be comfortable in. This makes Mariah all defensive, and she accuses Nicki of not caring about anything but fashion; Randy, in particular, won’t fuckin’ shut up about his “30 years of experience” in the biz, and how he’s just trying to help by making people sing in a way they don’t want to sing. It’s here that Nicki storms off, but it’s pretty hard to see her as the villain.

We then get a little montage of the press coverage over her shit-fit (although they leave out the TMZ clip where she’s cussing like she was in GoodFellas), and when we return, we get a montage of happy contestants to assure us that all is well in Idol-land. Fuck you, tabloids, this montage seems to say; we are allowed to be dicks, because we make dozens of people happy for a very short period before crushing their dreams. We are also treated to some footage of Nicki, who judging by her outfit has used the time off from the show to join the LSD Air Force, engaging in her favorite habit of giving all the guys funny nicknames and calling all the women “ladybug”. The first post-spat contestant is Brandy Alexandria Hamilton, whose name is such a minefield of references that Nicki calls her “honey pie” instead; she sings an Etta James song with a good voice and a ton of personality. Randy says she “is being true to herself”, which I don’t know how he knows that since he just met her three minutes ago, and Mariah says she was “pippity-pow A+”.

Ashley Smith is kind of like what Nicki Minaj might be like if she — well, I guess I can’t think of what chain of circumstance might have led to that outcome, but I promise you it happened in some alternate universe, maybe the one where Roxxon Oil got Nelson Rockefeller elected president with the Serpent Crown. She sings Carrie Underwood’s “Cowboy Casanova” and is actually pretty great; the whole panel completely forgets that yesterday they drove Nicki screaming from the room when another black girl sang a country song, and call her “effervescent”, a word they only seem to use to describe fat people. Janelle Arthur of Oliver Springs, Tennessee, who is a fitness instructor because that is a job now that adults can have, is pretty good, but there are so many girl country singers who sound like that. It’s become utterly generic, like all the girls who do the characterless Whitney runs. Still, Keith, who is wearing a deeply goofy-looking duck hunting t-shirt, loves her, so she gets through to Hollywood.

After a parade of shitty singers, the less said about which the better, is big ol’ bouncer Rodney Barber, a.k.a. “The Voice of Charlotte”. Rodney is a street busker who seems high as a kite, but I instantly love his funky soul-man voice, his attitude, and his potential; but there’s something else: I normally can’t stand sob stories. But Rodney helps the homeless, because he himself was homeless just a few years ago. The reason why this works for me is that he uses his misfortune to aid other people, to relate to them and help them deal with their circumstances, instead of to reflect on his own sorrow. I hate to get too heavy here, because it’s Idol, but learn a lesson, folks. Keith gets to leave early again because his movie star wife is winning an award, the fuckin’ punk.

Candice Glover was on season 11 — I remember her singing with the creepily super-talented Jessica Sanchez — but I guess there must have been some technicality that let her come back. It’s hard for me to give a shit, despite the fact that she’s got a sterling voice, because she’s already been on the show, and if she was that great, she would have won, right? But Nicki loves her: “I want to skin you and wear you”, she says, making this manage to sound adorable instead of horrifying. Ja’bria Barber is next and I don’t care about anything except the fact that she and her family like to go frog-giggin’. “Girl, you got a little spunk in you,” says Randy, and whoops, there’s the horrifying after all. Brad Harris has brain damage from smashing his head into things, and naturally the Idol producers think he’s hilarious. Finally, a woman with a pretty fucking cute kid named London gives Nicki, who she calls Dun Dun and says is her best friend, a stuffed pink bear. Nicki basks in this precious tot’s adoration while Mariah sulks, thus imparting this week’s lesson: throw a massive fit and you will be rewarded, as it should be.

Join me tomorrow night, won’t you, when these idiots gunk up New Orleans, one of my favorite cities in the world? It’s a date.


whats on the tee vee

American Idol: Season 12, Episode 4 – Baton Rouge Auditions

This evening poised quite a theological conundrum. On the one hand, American Idol is only an hour long, which seems to be evidence that God loves me and wants me to be happy. On the other hand, the reason American Idol is only an hour long is that Glee is back, which is an equally convincing argument that God hates me and wants me to suffer. I guess we’ll just have to split the difference and go with “there is no God”.

I originally thought that tonight’s episode was taking place in the wonderful city of New Orleans. Why did I think that? Because the internet is a liar and not to be trusted. It turns out that in fact, these auditions will be transpiring in Baton Rogue, which, it is pointed with a curiously boisterous pride, is where Randy Jackson was born — that is to say, it is “the home of the Dawg”. I am not down with this thing where we call Randy “Dawg” all the time, because the perfectly good word “buffoon” is just sitting there waiting for us. Randy’s makeup is done by self-professed “beauty school dropout” Mariah Carey, and wardrobe equips him with a shirt made out of a soiled Wonder Bread bag. Keith Urban is showing off his chest tattoo in a way that would get him called slutty if he were a woman, and Nicki Minaj has become the leader of a marching band comprised entirely of Oompa-Loompas.

Our first contestant is former Miss Red Stick Megan Miller, who sports a ’70s-style headband and a blue leg brace, which does not match her temple-prostitute clothes. She does have some vocal talent, though, and tons of charm; she puts plenty of sass into her performance, and even sings into her crutch as if it were a microphone, prompting Nicki to say that “you used it; it didn’t use you”. Okay then. Charlie Askew is next, and he is suffering from what his parents call “Charlie Askew Syndrome”, known to the rest of the world, at least for now, as Asperger’s. For some reason, Idol decides that he is charming and admirable and inspiring, which might come as news to the five hundred other obviously autistic people they have made cruel sport of this season alone. Initially, the panel is kind of mean to this bird-calling, Little-Rock based man-child, but then he sings the entirely too on-the-nose “Nature Boy” by ur-hobbit Eden Ahbez, and everyone loves him. Keith calls Charlie’s voice “not of a gender”, which he assures us is meant to be a compliment. The whole thing has a fun aura of ‘let’s see how uncomfortable everyone can be’, and the judges all call Charlie “mysterious”, which I think is like when you call a black guy “articulate”.

Maddie Assel is a nominated local who triggers an embarrassing montage of New Orleans’ shittiest tourist traps. She sings “Oh! Darling” by low-budget Liverpudlian trad combo ‘The Beatles’ in that jazzy, breathy, up-and-down sound that sometimes works on this show, but more importantly, she’s the kind of mousy girl who turns out to be super-hot in all your favorite Disney Family Channel shows. That means she will “improve”, or at least look different, which the judges always love. Keith pays another backhanded compliment by asking Maddie what her influences are and then saying she doesn’t sound like any of them.

After a commercial break in which a Russian woman claims America’s capitalist system made her fat but Weight Watchers gave her “the butt”, we see a cheap, shitty True Blood montage in which bad singers are compared to hog callers and which may be the crummiest, laziest thing Idol has ever done. Then Paul Jolley arrives. He is a handsome, slightly twinky fellow whose own personal idol, his grandfather, recently died. “I want to be half the man he was,” Paul says, betraying no false ambition; he then reveals the old man was an Army First Sergeant, meaning, I assume, that he wants to be a Half Sergeant. He sings a Rascal Flatts song. Stop happening, Rascal Flatts. Still, it’s a lock for this guy and his turquoise shirt, who are off to Hollywood.

Tonight’s high-larious comedy contestant is a tubby homosexual with dexedrine instead of blood named Chris Barthel. Nicki decides to call him “Mushroom”, after which he has a small heart attack. Calvin Peters, a doctor who deals in the muscular-skeletal issues of disabled people, is all “fuck you sick-ass bitches” and decides to be on a televised singing competition instead. He sings a Maxwell song and Mariah decides she wants to make the sex with him. Then we get a montage of successful auditions with slightly awkward names, including Breanna Steer and Danielle Hotard. Finally, Nicki gets her own chance to start riding some dick when coon-ass fireman hunk Dustin Watts arrives. He sings a Garth Brooks song that gives Nicki the feelings; Keith eyeballs him like he’s the competition. Dustin is boring, but at least he’s polite. He heads back to the fire station to announce to his buddies that he’s made it to Hollywood; they all high-five him, then they head off together on a firefighting call AND DUSTIN IS KILLED, oh no! That’s just a joke, folks, work with me here.

I’m a total chump for Katrina survivor stories, and Burnell Taylor’s is a heartbreaker. His family lost everything in the storm, and he’s never been able to get a job, and is unemployed and living with relatives at 19. It’s a story that hits pretty close to home; when Ryan Toothpaste asks him how he overcomes something like that, he says, bluntly, “It ain’t happenin’. You just have to live with it.” He even comes into the audition looking like he’s down to his last outfit, in a plain white tee and a truly unfortunate pair of mint green shorts, but once he opens his mouth, it’s all over. He’s got a simply gorgeous tone, beautiful control, and a thick gospel vibe that is far and away the best I’ve heard from any of the male contestants so far. Keith says his voice could convert an atheist; Mariah can’t stop crying; and he gets the most ringing endorsement of the season from the judges, to which he reacts with refreshing humility and gratitude instead of entitlement: “I’m speechless,” is all he can get out, “but I’m thankful.” If this kid doesn’t go deep, I just don’t know what.

Next week, Idol chronicles a trip to my home of San Antonio, for auditions I wanted to go to but was probably too drunk. Another thing I have in common with Paula Abdul. Join me, why don’t you?