Last night's episode of Americans for Change: The Ryan Seacrest Story sent us back in time and over to Detroit. Yes, it was that most dreaded of theme weeks, "Motown Week," when all the contestants, some of whose parents weren't even born during the Motown boom, bop around the stage singing some of karaoke's finest.
To be fair to one of America's most iconic and defining music labels (which, like Kleenex, has come to define something bigger than its particular brand), there are many great Motown songs! The problem isn't with the music, usually. It's actually that the music is so good that causes all the problems on Idol. How do you sing "Heard It Through the Grapevine" in 2011 in any new or exciting way? You don't, typically. You just don't! So it was kind of a pleasant surprise last night that people seemed to do so well. Not like well well, this is still season 10 of American Groan Factory, but well for them. They did well for them.
Strange then, or telling, that one of the judges, our old withered sand-witch there on the left, seemed so bored! Didn't she?? Oh sure she sent some halfhearted wails through the mic and made a few of her strange allusions to mysterious things (bits of incantations? fragments of hexes? who knows...), but whenever the camera caught her not speaking, she was just kind of slumped over, looking off into the distance. I wonder maybe if she is starting to get the Idol Creep, that feeling that oh god, this thing isn't going to end anytime soon. May is a long way away, and we have miles of pitchiness and throat-warbling to go before this thing is blessedly six feet under fresh dirt. Of course the witch could use her witchy ways and speed up time or put herself under a spell of interest, but she seems too weary even for that. I guess maybe she's just old, as witches tend to be. J.Lo and Randy will have to make up for her exhaustion somehow. And when the witch does occasionally perk up, does screech into the microphone and say something like "ham tomorrow, ham yesterday, now smack my bottom and call me Ray!!", we should all praise her for trying. That's the best we can do for our old witchy friend. Anyway, speaking of the best...
Jacob Lusk! Finally climbing out of the scream ghetto this week, Mr. Lusk toned it all down and thus turned the quality up. (R. Lawson: wordsmith.) He sang that "You're all... I need... to get by..." song and did it with a cool, collected swish that would bring the house down at Birdland. Which, of course, is where he should be. Hoofing it in some Broadway chorus, doing a cabaret here or there on Sunday nights, singing strong backup for Shosanna Bean. He'd have a long and worthy career in midtown. Here, though, on this show, in this mass-market world, I just don't see where his niche is. We just don't seem to currently live in a world where a big fabulous Slimer ghost sells all the top records and has the big arena concerts. I just don't think we live there! But yes, Jacob did a lovely job last night, as centered and focused and not bothering Winston and Egon as we've ever seen him. After his performance we saw his apparent number one fan, Kirsten Dunst, jumping up and down and clapping in the audience, which was cute, and then a weirdly sour-sounding Ryan invited the front row to come up and hug Jacob, because the old Tyler witch had run up and hugged him right after the performance, so everyone did that and Jacob stood there giggling, so full of joy he could disappear.
Lauren Alaina did a competent "You Keep Me Hangin' On" that reminded us, or me at least, that she is quite a powerful singer, maybe the best in the competish, and that we shouldn't discount her plump Georgian shininess. It's too bad she doesn't have an ounce of personality to fill those big notes with meaning, it's all just big blonde brightness with no explosion afterward, and I fear that may be her undoing. People will say "Oh, yeah, didn't someone sing well last night? I feel like someone sang well..." and their friend or lover or suddenly interested psychiatrist will say "Oh, yeah! Who was it... I remember, like, the word 'brassy' for some reason. Was it a big band number?" And their patient will answer "I don't know... Dammit. Ah well. Anyway, where was I? Oh, yeah. So there I am holding the knife and she's screaming and screaming and screaming..."
Was Willy Whispers good? I feel like maybe Willy Whispers was good, but I also feel like maybe I feel that (feeeeeelings) simply because he was holding a guitar this week and thus couldn't do any of his terrifying, limp-boned lurching around the stage. When he's not doing that and making me think he wants to eat my eyelids, he's not half bad! Sure he's got the one note of Rod Stewartness and then there's nothing else but a shallow pit, but that's OK, right? I mean certain famous and popular singers only sound one particular way. Whole albums of song after song after song of the same murmur or growl or rasp or whatever. Willy Whispers could do it. Though, one suspicious thing is that Whispers chose to sing "Tracks of My Tears" last night, which... hmmm... "Take a good look at my face," huh, Willy? And by "face" do you mean "eyes"? Was Willy Whispers commanding us to look into those little swirling beads last night? Oh god. Thank god I didn't! But some of you might have! Some of you might have heeded his beard-siren call and are now under his thrall! If you start to feel the urge to cut off pieces of skin and mail it to "Willy Whispers, c/o American Idol, Hollywood, CA" Do not indulge that urge! Don't do it! He just wants to eat your skin and you are making it so easy for him. Take a good look at his face indeed! That thin wriggling rattle demon! That black magic murderer. "Momma, what's that sound in the basement?" a scared child will ask, hearing some furnace rustle or water heater hiss. And the momma, if she's mean, will say "Oh, that's old Willy Whispers. And he's going to come up from the basement and hiss all over you and eat your skin if you don't go to bed and keep being a good boy." (If she were a nice momma shey'd say "Oh, that's just Slimer the ghost, come to gobble cheeseburgers and other foods," and the kid would yell "Yay!! Uncle Jacob!!")
Pia Toscano. Are you asleep yet? Is that all it took? Yeah, that's what worries me. Lady's got a great voice, no duh, but does she have It? No, not leprosy. For once I'm not talking about leprosy. I mean, does she have IT, that indefinable star quality that only the greats like Jennifer Paige, Donna Lewis, and Nicki French have? I just don't know that she does. She sang a song I wasn't familiar with, which is never good. You must sing a song people know on this show, at least this early on in the competition. It might sound unfair, but it's just how it works. That said, she did sing well and does consistently sing well so I am putting her in the good category this week. (Which of course makes her goodness official and will be communicated to her in some way, I'm sure.) Go Pia! No, no, no! No. I was saying "go PIA." If you have to use the bathroom, be a civilized adult and go to the bathroom.
First off, if someone on staff can't figure out what to do with this Idol crasher situation, then I think they need to swallow their pride and hire outside help. Because it's been a few weeks now that this girl who is not in the competition, Haley or something, has been allowed to run up on stage and sing a song! Weeks! That is just unacceptable. Not only is it a waste of our time, but it's endangering the safety of the other contestants and everyone else in the room. So please, I beg of someone, calmly escort her out of the building and wait with her until the police arrive. Let's use our heads here, people.
Speaking of heads, let's talk about Fozzie Bear's big old head and the crazy, horrible facial expressions it makes. I know, I know, he's everyone's dumpy-do nerd friend who's finally making it big and isn't that quaint and charming. But it's increasingly not that! The past two weeks the Fozz has been making really frightening "Ima kill you" demon expressions and I do not like it one bit. Last night he did "Grape Vine" and at the beginning his head was down but his eyes were up and his eyes are small and close together and just two tiny black dots in the vast sea of his gourd-like head and it was so scary! Is he a dark agent working in cahoots with Willy Whispers? Or is he just completely unaware of how terrifying he looks when he sneers and growls with that pale skin and terrible hear and weird strap-beard? He's gotten so intense recently and I don't care for it. I miss the lighthearted version of Fozzie Bear, the one who plinky plunked on stand-up basses and surprised everyone with his chops. Maybe now that we know he has chops we're focusing on other things and realizing that he's an awkward performer, a kid with a surprising amount of swagger for who he seems to be, but a grievously low amount of swagger for who he, and this show, want him to be. Nome sayin'? I like the guy, but the bloom is falling off the rose.
Thia Megia. I don't know, man. What is this girl ever doing? Sure she's got that low clarinet alto kind of voice thing that's pleasing. She's a good singer! But she has no idea who she is or what she wants to be. She needs to look into the mirror and say "I am Thia Megia. Thia. Megia. Jesus, I don't even know what that means." She's just Thia and Megia and no one really knows who or what that is. I wish she was doing this show in like five years. Then she'd be a force to be reckoned with. Now she's just a Me in search of a gia. That's all.
Scottyyyyyyyyyyy. Baby Lockthemdoors is such a silly little cookie monster, isn't he? Just such an oddly confident little leprechaun creature. Of course everyone knew that this week was going to be a doozy for him. Scotty sings low-croon serious country music — music about trucks and evenings and people driving home from war in their truck one evening — and that has very little, if anything, to do with Motown. So what on earth was Scottman going to sing? Stevie Wonder, naturally. Yuppp. He sang that "for once in my life..." song with a weird little country toot on it and it was hilariously not right. I mean, right? It was honky tonky muck tonked out by some honky trying to woo the ladies. Well, at one point it looked like he was singing romance words to the harmonica player that had been sitting at the base of the stage, but I'm pretty sure he wasn't? I mean, I don't think so? If he was, good for him. But yeah. I'm a fan of Baby Lockthemdoors, you know this, if only because if he wins the world will never stop laughing. But this was not his week. That said, given that everyone knew he was inevitably going to whiff it, he didn't do that badly. He didn't mortify himself. He embarrassed himself, but that's all. Nothing further than that. Scotty's world continues to spin forward.
As, unfortunately, does the world of Jimmy Durbin, our screech owl who came jiggling out last night to sing Stevie's "Livin' for the City" and he started it by saying "Let's put those hands in the air, c'mon!" and that kind of nonsense, and it's like... no... you have not earned that yet! It's like when Thia or someone (it wasn't Thia, maybe) did a hand grab with an audience member. No, kids! No one is swooning to touch you. You've been in the public consciousness for all of a month. Calm down. Calm down always, James Durbin, who was wearing his patented Poopcloth again last night and who did a funky little backstep dance on the ramp that was really unpleasant. He also pretended to know who the original bassist for the Funk Brothers is, which is silly, because no he does not know who that is. But really I don't dislike Jim Durbin for those annoying details. I really don't like him because the quality of his voice is irksome and I can't imagine having to listen to more of that, a whole album of that. Like, unfortunately we don't live in 1985 anymore and that kind of voice is not what people want to hear. It's over. Plus, we already have an Idol person with that same voice, and he is a big glimmering gay Frankenstein, and Jimbo Durbin cannot compete with that. Durbin's a lurcher himself, but nowhere near as lurching as Victor's terrible creation from two seasons ago. There's just no topping that. (Well, heh, maybe there is.)
How Do You Solve a Problem Like Naima?
Oof. I like that Naima does different things and really gets into it all, but her African dancebreak last night was just so... not cognizant of what this show is? Like, I appreciate her varied cultural inspirations and that she wants to incorporate that, however possible, into the warmed over theatrics of American Idol, but I don't really appreciate her being naive about the warmed-over theatrics of this show and just how popular they really are. Like, I'm disappointed that America is gross and dumb and scared of new things and all that, but I'm also weirdly annoyed, in the water dripping dank recesses of my basement-dwelling heart, that Naima doesn't seem to get that. That she's one of those willful optimists who thinks that doing flailing dances and saying strange words and wearing triangle pants is somehow going to work for her on this television program. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe I'm being tragically cynical, and her bright flourishes of personality will endear her to America. But I don't know. Wild hearts can't be broken, but they can be voted off of cheesy singing competition shows. And I hope her spirit doesn't diminish because of that. Like, isn't this a great way to lose faith in your individuality, subjecting it to the general goo-spewing public and begging them to clap for it? I don't know. Am I making any sense here? Does anyone understand what I'm trying to say?
Stefano My Stefano
Ohhh! What was all this business last night! With Stefano and Ryan and... Randy? Yeah! After Stefano sang — a gurgly and weirdly enunciated "Hello" — J.Lo was trying to impart some wisdom to him, saying that he needs to really feel the words, like relate to the love and pain in the song. "I mean, you've been in relationships, right? You know how it is," and people kind of laughed because I guess it's ooOOOooo teacher just embarrassed the 22-year-old by asking if he's dated anyone before? Right. But yeah, picking up on that and trying to make the joke his own, as he so often fumblingly and embarrassingly does on this show, Randy was like "Yeah! Yeah! You've been there before, with who, with who, I mean, with Ryan, whoever." !!! Randy!! What do you know??? What do you know??? Has he been reading these here recapratrons? Something's up! Someone knows something about something here. Ryan was like "What??? What??? Randy. What??? We're cutting off your mic," while Stefano shifted awkwardly. This was a truly wonderful moment.
But not more wonderful, honestly, than the moment that happened before Stefano sang, when Ryan was doing one of his stool bits (no, no, not like the poop shows at the underground cabarets he used to go to, like while sitting on stools) with Stefano, talking about his mom's home cooking, and was given some leftovers and tried it and was like "Wow, garlic!" and Stefano said "Yeah, your breath's gonna smell!" and then he instinctively touched Ryan on the shoulder! Left a strange lingering hand on his shoulder and brushed his fingers down his arm. As if he was saying "But I'll kiss you anyway. But I'll keep barreling down this dark and thrilling hallway toward that door I believe is marked 'Love.' I'll keep doing all of it." And Ryan, so uncomfortable these days, so itchy, feeling so unclean and fly-buzzed, sort of shivered a bit under Stefano's touch. And then when Randy made that joke, Ryan felt so sick and brown inside. Is this what he wants? Those brief, furtive, stolen moments of calm and surrender that always give way to these bright public pangs of nastiness, these million-mouthed piranha nibbles of guilt and sorrow?
After the show, once everyone else had gone whooping and cheering off to the mansion for some food and drinks, Stefano lingered, pretended to be going over the music for the next day's group number, but really, of course, really, he was waiting for Ryan. Stefano stood waiting by Ryan's office door, and when he walked out and saw Stefano standing there all expectant, Ryan said "Oh, hi." Stefano leaned in to give him a peck but Ryan pulled back, "There are still people here, what are you doing?" Stefano looked down, embarrassed. "That was pretty funny today, huh?" he asked timidly. "What Randy said?" Ryan shook his head, sighed. "Yeah, really fucking hilarious. Look, Stefano, I..." Stefano raised his eyes to Ryan's, looking scared. "What is it? Are we... over?" Ryan put his hand on Stefano's shoulder, returning the gesture, and said "No. Yes. What are we, even? I just need to think. I just need to go home tonight, OK? You should do the same. Go have fun with the rest of the kids." Stefano looked disappointed, but he took a deep breath and nodded his head. "OK. Yeah. Sure. That makes sense. We'll all feel better tomorrow. So, uh... goodnight." He turned and walked quickly down the hallway, a sad Charlie Brown lump in his step, and Ryan called after him "Goodnight, Stefano."
On the drive home Ryan turned the music up loud, kept the windows open, felt the air on his face. He wound up through the hills, the twinkle of city and highway sprawled out below him. As he pulled up to the house he could see a light on in his bedroom. Tim. His Timmy. Back living in the main house again? Fallen asleep while watching the show? Who knows. What he did know, however, was that he had to fiddle with the key in the lock three times before he could open the front door, his hands as shaky as they were. But was he scared or excited? And was there, just then, a difference?