Idolatry

This season of American Idol is closing with Jessica Sanchez, the girl from Chula Vista whom the judges marked early on as the finalist, in position to win. It’s true she’s talented, but so are the others. What makes Sanchez a favorite with the judges is not that she’s the best singer, but rather that she presents the most complete commercial package: talented, technically excellent, glamorously sophisticated, and still super young. But. Six or seven weeks ago, the audience wanted to send Jessica home. This is interesting on many counts and I want take a moment to celebrate “America’s” rare antinomian mood and to think about what voters were saying.

What makes American Idol unusual and modern is its dependence on audience participation: the voters, not the judges and experts have the final say over who goes home. But this democratic-style selection is tempered by the judges weekly opportunity to shape the final results and when their attempts to manipulate the voting became too obvious, “America,” as the show calls its voters, rebelled.

I voted for the first time ever-this is the first season I watched regularly– for Elise Testone’s performance of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven. She had everything that night: the voice, the edge, the energy, and the sparkling pants. She should wear those pants again. She should wear fun pants more often.

Elise Testone’s biggest problem was the judges. They were impatient to get on with the show and did their best to influence voters with comments that put her where they wanted her, in the bottom three. That she remained in the show despite landing bottom most weeks speaks to her voice, it’s raw emotion, its credibility. She is a singer-songwriter and musician more exciting and perhaps as talented as Philip Phillips–Her voice and onstage vulnerability moved me in ways Phillips never could. Though he is rather cute, I am not among the thousands of teen-age girls in love with him.

Elise didn’t get the credit Phillips does perhaps because she did not project a polished image, was not always put together in ways that made her shine, did not come blessed with the perfect body and perfect legs; she is not the complete commercial package that Sanchez is. Of interest in this discussion is big-voiced Skylar whose performances were confidently energetic, yes, but not heartbreaking the way Elise’s were. Skylar too is not a polished package, but she didn’t give the judges a chance to get to her: with her brash self confidence she stepped out boldly every time, sang her ass off, and the judges couldn’t help but hand it to her. Elise’s raw tenderness, which makes her so attractive as an artist, also makes her vulnerable to criticism and the judges comments week after week broke her. She became less sure in her choices, more half-hearted, as she finally admitted onstage, and this finally did her in.

The judges got their way, Jessica performed in this week’s finale against Phillip Phillips but there was no energy in this near final episode because there was really no contest: Comparing Jessica and Phillip, as Jennifer Lopez said, made no sense, while a finale of Joshua Ledet and Jessica Sanchez would have sizzled. In some ways this problem emerged weeks ago. The seven or so finalists on the stage these last weeks are all talented in different ways, and what the judges and audience were comparing were really apples and oranges, male and female, country and rock, soul and r&b. In other words, it doesn’t finally make much sense to choose one idol, but the show must go on to the end. For the sake of American Idol, for Freemantle Media, the corporation. For the judges. Before the season’s over, you might then ask who is the real idol worshipper? Not “America”, it would seem.

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