Thursday, April 28, 2011

AI Results Show Recap: The Spell Has Been Broken...

Looking back on this week’s results show, I’m left with more questions than answers. Specifically,
  • Can we get a moratorium on “Walk This Way, Steven” signs? How about a little more creativity, folks?
  • What on Earth was the design on Randy’s denim shirt?
  • Did one of the Idols break Jimmy’s favorite vase or something? Because this man had a serious axe to grind tonight.
  • Is anyone else now giving credence to the order in which they introduced the contestants last night? (Scotty, Lauren, James, Jacob, Haley and Casey. Who was first out?) And finally…

I figured that when still-hyper Ryan promised that “a lot of fans are going to be disappointed by the results” that I would be more disappointed in who didn’t go home than who did. But we had an hour to kill, people, so there was lots and lots of mindless crap to do first.

J.Lo looked seriously hot again tonight, truly the Lady in Red. Steven, on the other hand, looked like Miss Jane from The Beverly Hillbillies, if she were a lesbian pirate. And as I mentioned earlier, Randy was wearing a denim shirt with some bizarre red object sewn on it. Adding to my confusion was the first “Marry Me, Randy?” sign I’ve ever seen.

Ryan highlighted Steven’s simultaneous appearance on the covers of Rolling Stone and People, which said he transitioned from “bad boy to America’s Sweetheart.” Steven paraphrased Mae West (as only a man wearing a woman’s blouse can), saying “I may be good, but when I’m bad, I’m better.” (Yeah, ok.)

The show went from surreal to snooze-worthy, with a segment on the contestants getting “a crash course in all things British” from an event at the British Consulate, the unimpressive Carole King medley and the Ford Music Video to Madness’ Our House. (Great song, though.)

Last year’s cannon fodder runner-up, Crystal Bowersox, performed her song Riding with the Radio. I couldn’t figure out if when Ryan ran alongside the contestants, he was prompting them to clap along with Crystal or just being the little jackrabbit he always is on results night.

We then endured the return of the AT&T-sponsored viewer questions. Casey befuddled the audience (all except his parents and Randy) when he said if he could duet with anyone, he’d choose jazz great Oscar Peterson. Jacob apparently discovered his “amazing range” when he was 6 or 7, and could sing the soprano, alto and tenor parts in church choir. (Yeah, I'm not going to touch that one.) The hardest thing for Lauren about being an Idol contestant is pretending she has no self-confidence missing her family and friends, especially with the barrage of tornadoes that hit the South this week. Scotty “The Body” (I wonder if Julianne Hough is starting to worry about Ryan’s new nickname for the 17-year-old) had a pre-Idol job working at a grocery store (ask him what the code is for a Granny Smith apple) and helping out at his mother’s tanning salon. James is always playing with a band, either as his main focus or a side project. And Haley, when asked who her favorite Idol contestant was, answered Adam Lambert, Kelly Clarkson and Siobhan Magnus, as well as Lee Dewyze and Crystal Bowersox. Ryan used that opportunity to take a pot shot at Season 5 winner Taylor Hicks. Good old Peaches. What a charmer…

In revealing this week’s results, each contestant got to relive snippets of their performance and the judges’ feedback (edited, of course, to manipulate the situation), and then heard Jimmy’s assessment. Haley was first, and Jimmy said he agreed with J.Lo that Haley has one of the best voices in the competition, but her problem is (get ready) she doesn’t know who she is as an artist, which is why the audience hasn’t warmed to her. Clearly Haley is getting tired of that little potshot, because she dropped a bleep-able phrase or two, and then tried not to show her frustration as she explained that she did know, and although she likes all kinds of music, she definitely likes the blues, you know? (Randy tried to make the drama all about him, nodding and saying “I know what kind of artist you are” during Haley’s defense of herself.) Ryan then revealed that Haley was safe.

According to Jimmy, Scotty is a great singer but the subtleties of his voice and performance might be overlooked by the Idol viewers. Lauren only hears the negative from the judges’ feedback, but “she has the poise to rival any singer.” (That hyperbole reminded me of when Barry Gibb called Jordin Sparks “one of our greatest female singers ever” late in Season 6.) Jimmy was disappointed in Casey, saying that he was “on, but he didn’t need to growl, because the family dog doesn’t have a vote.” James apparently “isn’t believable when he sings heavy metal” (really?), but “when he chooses the right songs, he could win the whole competition.” And Jacob, well, “Jacob is in banana peel status.” After leaving Wednesday night's show, Jimmy went to moonlight as a suicide prevention counselor. Clearly he has a knack for pep talks.

James was told he was safe, but the second most annoying thing is that after enduring the wrath of Jimmy, each of the remaining contestants (Scotty, Lauren, Casey and Jacob) were sent back to the couch to “hold tight” before their fate was announced. But then the group of them was called back to the center of the stage to find out (surprise!) Princess Lauren was safe.

Bruno Mars performed his new hit The Lazy Song. He’s already a huge star, and I think he has an amazing career still to come. I love him. But that being said, I fast-forwarded through his performance.

Ryan then said he would announce the results “in random order,” so there was no bottom three or two. First he announced that Jacob was safe (aargh), and then, as the hearts of millions of teen and tween girls fluttered nervously, he revealed that Scotty was safe and Casey was eliminated (again).

The judges were upset by this result, but Casey seemed to take his second elimination in stride. As Ryan saluted him, saying, “This is what talent looks like,” Casey revived I Put A Spell on You (his top 24 performance), and went around hugging and kissing the judges, audience members, his family and friends, and fellow contestants. Haley was genuinely emotional, and both she and J.Lo were in tears. To fuel the gossip of a relationship between him and Haley, Casey ended his song by singing the line "You're mine" to her. Little kidder.

This is the third year in a row that the recipient of the judges’ save didn’t make it to the top three. And it brings an end to the run of one of the most polarizing contestants, the one who I absolutely thought would win the whole shebang 8-10 weeks ago. He has tremendous talent but as I said a few weeks ago, his quirkiness outweighed the quality of his voice. I do believe that he can have a successful career as a jazz musician, and I hope he does.

And now we’re down to five. I want James to win very badly but know in my heart one of the country duo will win. I just hope Haley outlasts Jacob…

AI Top 6 Recap: So Good It Made My Scalp Itch...

When it was announced that this week’s theme was the music of Carole King, I was tremendously skeptical. I mean, I remember the “music of Gloria Estefan” hellishness from Season 3, “music by No Doubt or other people Gwen Stefani likes” in Season 6, and the Shania Twain-wreck from last season, and I wasn’t sure that King’s music—despite her prolific songwriting career—would lend itself to the vocal styling of some of this season’s contestants. Ironically enough, those contestants who chose to sing King’s own most familiar hits fared far better than the two who chose to sing King-written songs better known as hits by other artists.

The show started über-dramtically, with Ryan talking about how the search was down to the top 6 from 125,000 people. As he told us “you’ve chosen the best,” he named the contestants in this order: Scotty, Lauren, James, Jacob, Haley and Casey. (Subtle directions on how the season will wind up? While I think Jacob’s performance all but changed his place in the lineup, it was a bit strange, no?)

We were treated to shots of a shaggy Brad Garrett and an incognito Katey Sagal as the crowd cheered the judges. Steven looked like he was wearing a Wrigley’s gum wrapper (all in silver), J.Lo looked befitting of her World’s Most Beautiful Woman title (super hot), and Randy wore his letterman’s sweater from Randy High School, so he could stare lovingly at his most favorite letter (“R”) all night long. Ryan seemed like he was on speed (we certainly weren’t pressed for time), jumping around the stage, saying “We love that energy” about five times.

We were treated to a montage of Carole King’s career and then Ryan announced that Babyface would help Jimmy mentor the contestants this week. (Finally, someone with cred. And someone who knows his role on the show. I’m looking at you, And where was Carole King anyway?

First up was Jacob, who chose to sing Oh No, Not My Baby, “by Carole King.” (This was an affectation that plagued me all night long. Every contestant mentioned that their song was by Carole King. Wasn’t this Carole King week? WTF?) This song, written by King and Gerry Goffin, was a hit in the 1960s for Maxine Brown, and was also recorded by Dusty Springfield, Merry Clayton, Rod Stewart, Cher, Linda Ronstadt and King herself. (Never heard of it? Me neither.) Jimmy mentioned how the judges wanted Jacob to “riff and soar,” and from the rehearsal footage, it didn’t appear as if he was doing either of those. Several times, Babyface simply said, “umm, no.” Jimmy’s prediction: “he’s in the most jeopardy.”

If you’ve ever wondered what a human Easter egg would look like, your wondering is over. Jacob wore a blue and purple plaid blazer, a turquoise cardigan sweater, a yellow shirt and a purple and blue bow tie, along with yellow sneakers. (Seriously. The man looked like a Peeps display.) He had a lot of fun with his performance, dancing with himself, making faces and gesturing madly, but for me, I thought it was his worst vocal to date. Shrill, shrieky, simultaneously sharp and flat (is that possible), it was just a mess, despite Randy’s stupid nodding during the performance. None of the musical stuff mattered to Steven, who told Jacob, “We all knew you could sing, but we just wanted to see you shake your tail feathers,” because “when you strut, it’s magic.” (Maybe the outfit mesmerized him.) J.Lo wasn’t sure what to say, so she said it was a tricky song and there were “little spaces where it wasn’t perfect” (it was called the chorus—and the verses) but otherwise, it was perfect and he “killed it.” (How is that possible?) Randy spent most of the evening contradicting himself—this is a singing competition after all, but although “it was sharp in places,” Jacob “brought [himself] back.” Oh and, “this boy can sing.” Ryan fixed Jacob’s bow tie. Such a good valet.

The continuing saga of Lauren, the little princess who can but doesn’t believe she can but the judges do, was up next. She chose Where You Lead, forever immortalized for me as the theme song from Gilmore Girls, which, IMHO, was one of the best written and acted shows on television. (Until the last season. I digress.) We revisited the whole “Lauren is afraid to hit big notes” manufactured drama thing, and Babyface asked her if she had ever failed when trying to hit a high note. She admitted she hadn’t. (Thank you.) And then Jimmy brought in “a special guest to help Lauren.” None other than Miley Cyrus, who counseled Lauren to ignore the mean things people say about her. Two questions come up. Are there really hundreds of “I Hate Lauren” groups out there? I mean, who is saying mean things about her? And why the blatant favoritism for Lauren with Miley Cyrus showing up? Will Alfred E. Neumann or Randy Travis show up for Scotty next week? Seriously, producers, can we just stop this already?

As always, Lauren was perfectly pleasant. She has a beautiful, melodic lilt to her voice that shows itself in quieter moments, but she tends to overuse it at times, much like Haley’s growling. She shouted a bit, too, and her voice cracked a bit on one note. At some point a “random” guy sat on the foot of the stage, and Lauren sang to him. It felt, not at all genuine, big shock there. Apparently he’s a 19-year-old named Brett, and Ryan told him, “We have rules.” (Ha!) The judges told Lauren how proud they were of her because she tried (sheesh) to hit the big notes and even though they all didn’t work, she showed “extra swagger” because she was willing to “throw down the gauntlet every time,” but Randy thought the song was a little safe and boring. Stevefucius said that Lauren shined when her voice broke. She appeared on the verge of tears the whole time, and I’m starting to have trouble determining which part of Lauren is an act and which part is genuine. Backstage, Lauren said, “I screwed up and they still loved it!” (Yeah, Lauren, that’s the way these judges work.)

In order to fill 90 minutes with only six singers remaining, the contestants also sang a duet. Haley and Casey hoped to recapture the magic of their results show performance from a few weeks back, and planned to sing I Feel the Earth Move. It was good, not great. Casey needs to understand that growling and high-fiving the audience are not performance techniques. I felt that Haley easily outsang Casey but I didn’t feel as if their voices blended as well this time. (Maybe someone could tell Nigel that just because something works once doesn’t mean you need to keep forcing it down our throats.) Steven told them it was “nothing but good.” Ryan asked Casey, “So, how much do you love Haley?” Awkward avoidance ensued.

Headed into commercials, Ryan promised that “Scotty ‘The Body’” would be stepping “outside his comfort zone.” (“The Body?” No. A million times, no.)

Scotty told us how much he felt the judges’ comments last week (that he should push himself more, he keeps choosing safe songs) were on target. He decided to sing You’ve Got a Friend (I actually learned how to do the whole song in sign language for a class in my freshman year of college) and Jimmy and Babyface urged him to keep his country stylings out of it. We got the full “sensitive singer” treatment—soft guitar, strings section, single spotlight, Scotty sitting on the stairs—and I honestly thought he was really good. He pushed his voice to hit higher notes than he usually does, and although at times he slipped back into country territory, I can honestly say this might have been my favorite performance of his the whole season.

Randy praised him for “turning the other cheek” and taking the judges’ comments to heart, noting that what he loved best was the “tenor of his tone.” He did tell Scotty that he should be careful about falling off of his high notes, but overall, “Scotty’s in it to win it! Scotty wants to win it!” (Scotty is going to win it!) Steven, of course, had to quibble with the only tangible piece of Randy’s feedback, and told Scotty he liked the way he hit the high notes, because he “took the song somewhere else.” J.Lo patted herself on the back (or ordered Marc Anthony to do it behind her), saying “When we hear you sing a song like that, that’s why we didn’t let you get away with what you did last week.” She also praised his storytelling again. Ryan sat down on stage with Scotty and teased him about the look he gives when he sings into the camera.

James was next to perform, and had time for a chat with Ryan, which inexplicably started out with Ryan asking “How good was Scotty just now?” James explained that Scotty is so great, and it really pushes everyone else to the next level. I found this absolutely ridiculous. Scotty was very good, but to single him out when talking to a contestant yet to perform is really unfair. Just end the season and crown him already, Nigel. Jeez.

Anyway, James chose to sing Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? and said that someone on suggested he sing that. James promised a song “without flaming pianos, without drummers,” because “I can put on just as big of a performance by being myself.” During rehearsal, James sang the song completely softly and Babyface said it blew them away. Jimmy said that “Carole King and James Durbin were meant to come together on this song.” I thought James was absolutely fantastic. He started out the song almost a capella, but when the band kicked in it didn’t actually take away from the song. While I would have loved him to end the song as he began it, I still thought he was on point emotionally and vocally. I can honestly say that James is the one contestant I look forward to every week, because he creates some terrific performances. I’ve seen lots of chatter on other web sites about how he is an Adam Lambert wannabe, and while it may have started that way, I think he is his own performer.

Steven especially loved the beginning of the song, and then upped the nausea factor by letting us know that this song was the first one he made out with a girl to. (“It was at a bowling alley. And I didn’t strike out.”) J.Lo wrested control back and called James’ performance “magical from the beginning,” calling him again “the star of the night.” She also commented that James has had a strong performance every week, and that “consistency is gonna win it.” Randy went back to his “turning the other cheek” metaphor, but clearly was confused, because he told James he did so by proving “you’re not just a great rock singer, you’re a great singer.” (Can someone pull out The Bible for Randy and teach him about turning the other cheek?) He called James’ performance one of the strongest of the last few seasons and said “you might win the whole thing!” Even Ryan got into the act, telling James he’s becoming a superstar. Backstage, James was emotionally overwhelmed, and dedicated his performance to Heidi (his fiancée) , and said how much the judges’ feedback meant to him. To me, this kid is the real deal.

The next duet was (surprise!) Lauren and Scotty, singing Up on the Roof. (Yes, Nigel, we get it. You want them in the finals. Thanks.) Prior to the performance, Ryan tried to create some sexual tension between the two of them, asking, “What’s going on with you two?” Scotty kept saying they had a brother and sister relationship, and Lauren said anything that looked different was “just for the stage.” Lauren’s lilt was used to perfection here, but again, their voices didn’t blend at all, and Scotty even hit some wonky notes. J.Lo noticed, telling Lauren she “sang her brains off,” and basically saying to Scotty, “oh, you were good, too.”

Casey chose to sing a song called Hi-De-Ho (That Old Sweet Roll), which apparently was a hit for Blood Sweat and Tears, and, thanks to Google, Dusty Springfield as well. Jimmy called Casey a performer “who pushes the edge of creativity every time.” Casey came out wearing a suit and a fedora, and seemed very comfortable interacting with the band and performing. The first verse was cool in a jazzy, bluesy way, but as usual, Casey slipped back into his usual “antics” or “Casey-isms,” running around the stage, growling, snarling, etc. It also seemed like he spoke for more of the song that actually sang. Randy loves that Casey keeps the show different every week, and this week’s performance reminded him of his background in New Orleans. He felt like he “could be watching the Casey Show and Revue.” Steven told Casey he found his niche “nestled in this American Idol stuff,” and that he made Steven’s “scalp itch, it was so good.” (No, Steven, that means you’re coming down from whatever you take during the show.) J.Lo told Casey he was in his element but wished he’d loosen up a bit more in his body, particularly his legs. And then as the feedback was ending, Randy quietly said, “Less growl. Less growl.” But that was lost and gone forever.

Ryan spoke briefly to a sunglasses-wearing Penny Marshall (where has she been?) but guessed everyone knew who she was, and didn’t acknowledge Lorraine Bracco sitting next to her.

In the pimp spot this week was Haley. She picked Beautiful, which is a terrific song. Just before her performance she apparently was having trouble with her earpiece, and gave Ryan a tentative, “Yeah?” when he asked if she could hear herself. That odd start aside, I thought she did a really good job, and thought the ending was fantastic. But it’s a strange song, which goes from a strong, pumping chorus to soft, melodic verses. Steven, of course, called it “beautiful” and told Haley he could hear God in her voice. J.Lo finally came to the realization that Haley has “one of the best voices in the competition,” and also called it beautiful. Randy Randy Quite Contrary said he didn’t love the beginning, but thought the ending was fantastic.

The final duet (if you were following along) featured the unlikely pairing of James and Jacob. (In their pre-performance footage, they joked about how strange they found the pairing “when the producers told them” about it. And once again I call BS, because they paired Lauren and Scotty again as well as Casey and Haley, leaving James with his musical opposite in every way.) They chose I’m Into Something Good, and as bad as you might think it was, it was worse. I don’t know if they agreed they’d both try to outsing each other or it just happened that way, and at one point they turned J.Lo around in her chair and flirted with her musically. Oh, and they were wearing weird blazers that made them look like prep school students at sea. Steven said it best: “I wouldn’t call that the most award-winning performance. Where were you going with that?”

Ryan summed the night up by saying, “If you want to vote for Jennifer’s legs, here are the numbers.”

Who should be in the bottom three: Jacob, Lauren, Casey
Who will be in the bottom three: Jacob, Casey, Haley

I expect Jacob will go home, although it wouldn’t surprise me if Haley or Casey goes. Haley absolutely shouldn’t go this week. Jacob should.

Tonight…results with Bruno Mars and Crystal “I Was the Judges’ Favorite Until They Turned on Me in Favor of a Cute Boy” Bowersox!

Monday, April 25, 2011

Highway to the Danger Zone...

Ready to feel old?

Top Gun is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.

Yep, I said it. The movie came out 25 years ago, in 1986. Apparently, to mark this milestone, they'll be re-releasing the movie in theaters over the next few weeks.

While the movie was intended to harness Tom Cruise's star power, so many of the people in the cast—Val Kilmer, Kelly McGillis, Anthony Edwards, Tom Skerritt, Tim Robbins and, in her goofy little part, Meg Ryan—had successful career trajectories of some sort.

But as a friend mentioned when I posted about this milestone on Facebook earlier today, the biggest star of the movie was the soundtrack.

Of course, as I look over the album, other than Berlin's Oscar-winning song, Take My Breath Away and Kenny Loggins' Danger Zone, not many of these songs (if any) became hits.

No matter. I never listened to You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling the same way after Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards' duet in the movie. And every time I hear Berlin, I see the video for Take My Breath Away, with the sexy motorcycle ride and Tom Cruise running (like he does in all his movies) and everything.

Good times. I might have to feed my need for speed...and see this again when it comes to theaters.

Risk is Risky. Don't Assume You're Invincible.

Earlier this month a civil lawsuit was filed against the dating web site by an unidentified female Hollywood executive, who said she was assaulted by a man she met on the site.

According to attorney Mark L. Webb, who filed the suit on behalf of the woman, she met her alleged attacker at a cafe in West Hollywood about a year ago. After a second date, he reportedly followed her home and assaulted her.

After the alleged assault, the woman went online and found that the suspect had been convicted of several counts of sexual battery, Webb said.

"This horrific ordeal completely blindsided me because I had considered myself savvy about online dating safety," the woman said in a statement released through Webb last week. "Things quickly turned into a nightmare, beyond my control."

The suit demanded that screen its members for sexual predators, and Webb asked for a temporary restraining order requesting no more members be signed up for the dating site until there's a way to screen out sexual predators. He said that his client wants the site to check members' names against public sex offender registries.

While had resisted such screening in the past because of the unreliability of these databases and it didn't want to give members a false sense of security, last week the site announced the company will start screening both current and future subscribers against the national sex offender registry.

I believe this is an important step for to have taken. I am sorry the woman on whose behalf the lawsuit was filed was assaulted. No one "deserves" to be treated this way. No one deserves to be harmed or fear for their lives at the hands of an assailant.

I do believe, however, that when you make the decision to meet people through an online dating service you need to ensure you're taking responsibility for your own safety. While in this particular case, the woman's alleged assailant would not have been presented to her as a potential match if members were screened against the national sex offender registry, you just cannot assume that if a person doesn't show up on this list that you are safe.

Many of us have made decisions on a whim where dating or sex is concerned—letting a person into your house while you're alone or going to another person's house late at night, or sharing more personal information than you probably should. And even if we do so with a certain amount of invincibility in our minds, you should never put yourself at risk without being ready to assume the consequences should there be any. If your friend sets you up with someone who ends up assaulting you, would you sue your friend as well?

I met a number of people I dated using some sort of electronic means, whether it was personals from a newspaper (back in the oldend days), online dating or something similar. Whenever I went to meet a person I always made sure someone knew where I was and who I was with. It might not have protected me completely, but it made me feel a little bit more comfortable. After all, the people who just thought Andrew Cunanan was cute guy sadly paid the price for the whim of going somewhere with him.

Sadly, it's a scary world out there. No matter how much you know about a person, you may never know them. So be careful, be smart and be safe; but be willing to be an adult and accept the consequences of your actions if you're not.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Book Review: "Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef" by Gabrielle Hamilton

Gabrielle Hamilton is the chef/owner of Prune, a well-known restaurant in New York City. But unlike many successful chefs, she never set out to pursue this career path, nor did her training follow the typical course of culinary school, apprenticeships under some of the world's leading chefs and working her way up to owning her own restaurant. Instead, she lived a fiercely independent life starting at age 13, faced some tremendous challenges and wavered back and forth as to what role food should play in her life until she stumbled on the opportunity to create and own Prune.

Blood, Bones and Butter is more than a story about how Gabrielle Hamilton became a successful chef and created a renowned restaurant. It is a story about one woman's love of food and cooking and eating and providing others the pleasures she derived from food, but beyond that it is an unflinching account of being forced into adulthood too early, dealing with adversity, questioning what direction your life will take, struggling with your identity, handling the challenges of relationships, marriage and motherhood, and finding your place in the world. Hamilton doesn't whitewash anything and isn't always a likeable person, but that made this book more compelling, because I didn't feel as if her opinions or her reminiscences were sanitized for readers.

I'll admit this book wasn't what I expected. I thought it would be the story of a lifelong affection for food and an opportunity to follow a successful chef on the path she took to get to where she is. And while it is both of those things, this book is more the story of a life, one that just happens to be rooted in the food industry. Gabrielle Hamilton—and her story—are simultaneously fascinating, inspirational, irritating and surprising—and that's probably why I liked this book so much.

Love is All You Need...

This weekend we made a quick trip to Raleigh, NC to attend the wedding of our friends Deidre and Carter. I wouldn't have missed this for the world—I've known Deidre for 10 years now, and we've been through a lot together, both good and bad, so to share in this milestone in her life meant so much.

I worked with Deidre at one of my previous companies, and we got along very well right from the start. Of course, it didn't hurt that I volunteered to help her move into her new apartment just after meeting her. I'll never forget asking her how many stairs there were from the ground floor to her apartment, and she said "just one," but of course she meant one flight of stairs. I'm not sure if I've recovered yet from hauling her gigantic television up the stairs!

It was Deidre who convinced me after a bad breakup to try, which is where I met W. Deidre was there in Vermont when we had our civil union ceremony. We've been each other's sounding board, cheering section, even each other's reference. And when bad things have happened—and sadly, they have—we've been able to help pick each other up.

Deidre is one of those people who always takes care of others, so with Carter, it is so wonderful that she finally has found someone to take care of her. When we met him about 18 months ago, I could tell how happy Deidre was, because all of the stress that I used to notice in her had all melted away.

Their wedding ceremony was in a beautiful chapel in Raleigh, and they were surrounded by family and friends. I started tearing up before the ceremony really got going, so I give everyone else a lot of credit for holding it together.

Deidre and Carter, I wish you a lifetime of happiness, health, joy and laughter. As the song you walked up the aisle after being pronounced husband and wife goes, "All you need is love."

Yes, love is all you need.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

AI Results Show Recap: This Time It Means Goodbye...

After a few weeks of being the person standing next to the eliminated contestant, our self-proclaimed ladies' man, Stefano, was sent home this week. Along the way he turned in some memorable performances (particularly his amazing wild card performance, Smokie Norful's I Need You Now), hammered every song into the ground and single-handedly tried to bring suspenders back, all the while with a smile on his face and a better attitude than several of his fellow contestants. (You pick. I'll just play coy.)

Ryan described Wednesday's show in the best way possible: "A night of beards, drums, kisses and Steven-isms." While he touted an "incredible showing of support," he neglected to mention that the 52 million votes the contestants received this week was less than last week's total. After receiving a non-answer from Randy as to what he thought the end result of the show would be, J.Lo summed it up concisely, saying "I hope it's not a girl."

Our first musical number of the evening featured Stefano, Haley, Jacob and Lauren singing Train's Hey, Soul Sister. (It's not like the song wasn't permanently burned into my frontal lobe already.) Clearly I know I'm over the contestants when I hoped Ryan was going to announce that Darren Criss and the Warblers from Glee were going to sing. Sigh. As you might expect, the performance wasn't particularly impressive, and someone needs to tranquilize Jacob before group numbers. I've had more than enough jazz hands, thank you.

After another lackluster Ford Music Video (didn't care enough even to write down the song it was to), the trio of James, Casey and Scotty broke out Viva la Vida by Coldplay. (Easily one of my favorite songs, and another that requires a lobotomy to get out of my head.) I thought their voices blended extraordinarily well, and although I have truly had my fill of Casey's pouty, angry face all up in the camera, I really enjoyed this song. (Looking at my notes, I wrote "Good! Can I download?")

As usual, Ryan engaged in banter with a few of the male contestants about nothing worth repeating, but let the female contestants remain silent. And then Kieren dimmed the lights, and the duo of Casey and Jacob stood to receive their results. Ryan announced that America wanted more of Casey's soft lips (gross), and Jacob was off to the silver stools of shame in the bottom three.

Season 7 winner David Cook returned to the Idol-verse to perform his new single, Last Goodbye (which I like, but I would have loved it if it were a remake of Jeff Buckley's Last Goodbye). David remains one of my most favorite winners and he has such a great personality. Can't he and Kelly Clarkson run this show? He mentioned that his mother came with him because she wanted to meet Steven Tyler. Oh, and did I mention we're seeing David Cook in concert next Friday night? Hooray for us.

Lauren, James and Stefano were next to hear their results. To the surprise of no one (not even him), Stefano was again in the bottom three.

Next up, Haley and Scotty. Ryan tried a fakeout by saying "Scotty, wow. You are safe," but no one was fooled. Haley headed over to her favorite stool. And as she sat down, Ryan beckoned her back to the center of the stage and fake-whispered, "You're safe." Good.

Katy Perry's Cirque du Soleil-meets-Mission Impossible's-security-lights-inspired performance of her hit song E.T. was up next, and I'd wager this was one of the pre-taped performances, because when it ended, Ryan was standing backstage with Jacob and Stefano. (Now that we've gotten both halves of the Perry-Brand pairing on the show, can we be done with Russell Brand? Please?) Both Jacob and Stefano talked about how proud they were of their performances and how they knew that even if they were sent home, it wouldn't be the end.

Just before the results were revealed, Ryan asked Steven if Jacob and Stefano deserved to be in the bottom two. (Only Simon answered those questions honestly, Ryan.) In typical "everybody gets a gold star" fashion, Steven said, "No one deserves to be voted off. Everyone sung their butts off and they're all excellent. And the 50 million people watching you and voting know that." (Perhaps someone wants to explain to Dr. Love in an Elevator that 50 million votes probably means 100 young girls, tops. I kid.)

Ryan shared the bad news that it was the end of the road for Stefano. He seemed ready for that announcement, and was more interested in singing than anything else. He chose his disco version of Lately as his swan song, with the prophetic lyric "this time could mean goodbye." James seemed really overcome with emotion about Stefano's departure (the band is just down to him and Casey now) and at the end of Stefano's song, he ran over to give him a bear hug. And of course, we were treated to the dewy glow of the Most Beautiful Woman in the World's tears.

Next week: the music of Carole King. I'll be listening to my Tapestry CD the entire week to prepare.

AI Top 7 Recap: It's Getting Harder and Harder to Breathe (and Watch)...

American Idol this season reminds me a little bit of when I used to watch As the World Turns and Days of Our Lives during college. I enjoyed myself, felt a little guilty that I could be spending my time on something a little more useful, got frustrated occasionally at the machinations of some characters, and ultimately, I was ready to move on to something else. Wow, it actually reminds me completely of that time, except I'm not watching the show in my friend Helene's dorm room, eating Doritos and bean dip. (Good times.)

The theme of this week's show is "Music of the 21st Century," and some of the contestants actually sang current stuff. (And one contestant sang a song from 1983. But why quibble?)

The World's Most Beautiful Woman looked as if she was dressed for a workout at a gym on Rodeo Drive (or a lap dance), complete with sequined shirt and short-shorts. Steven and Randy wore their usual crap. (Seriously, with the amount of money Randy gets paid for this show, shouldn't he be able to afford a few more sweaters? I mean, I like my black-and-white striped Lacoste shirt, but I don't wear it everywhere.) Oh, wait, here's a "Steven, Walk this Way" sign. How original.

In an effort to fill the 90 minutes allotted for only seven singers reunite us with some of our favorite contestants who left us too early, the eliminated contestants were brought out to sing Pink's So What. Never before has a song title utterly summed up how I felt about a performance. Naima broke out her Wisconsin Jamaican accent and threw her jacket on the camera, Ashthon's microphone was louder than everyone else's, Karen looked like Shirley Temple meets the Pussycat Dolls and they even made Thia look a little trampy. And then Paul trotted out in one of his floral suits and was as manic and off-key as ever. Even Pia sounded bad. Oh wait, her microphone didn't work. WTF? But Mark Ballas and his dad were there to cheer her on, so who cares?

The judges slipped into their familiar non-criticism groove, telling the rejects how fantastic they were. Randy babbled something about Ashthon making a transformation (it's just a different wig, dawg) and then Steven said, "You just made America think twice about their decisions." Oh, yeah. Maybe I'm questioning my decision to rope myself into watching this fiasco week after week, but that's about it.

As an extra little bonus with the pre-performance footage, the contestants shared what they thought about each other. Scotty had the lead-off spot, and the contestants all made fun of the way he handles the microphone and wags his eyebrows. He chose to sing Swingin', which he attributed to LeAnn Rimes, despite the fact that John Anderson recorded the song in 1983(!). But of course, this is Idol-land, where Vehicle (a la Bo Bice) and Holding Out for a Hero (a la Fantasia) were considered disco songs, and The Beatles' Something could be considered a current Billboard hit in season 5 because it was on an album on the catalogue charts. So let's pretend that LeAnn Rimes originated this one, kay?

Jimmy tried to encourage him to put a little bit of a rock spin on the song, but I guess Scotty knows he'll probably win this season or at least finish second, so he doesn't have to listen to anyone like Jimmy Iovine. To me, Scotty's performances are becoming rote—he hits low notes, he hits slightly higher notes, he points to the girls in the audience, he tilts his head to the side, etc. The song did him no favors vocally, and I think he's becoming a bit cheesy. (It would have been fun to let Simon Cowell loose on this performance.) Steven praised Scotty for "doin' what he does," and told him that "people who don't love country music are voting for you." (The man doesn't even know what day it is, I doubt he knows that.) He did tell Scotty that he wished he "boot scooted a little more, like you did from your last girlfriend." J.Lo praised his storytelling ability, but told Scotty that she expected more from him, since we're down to the top seven, and she wanted him to push himself. Randy agreed, telling Scotty he thought it was safe and kind of boring. (I'd imagine the judges got a stiff talking to from Uncle Nigel during the commercials, reminding them of his plans for a Scotty-Lauren final.) Scotty seemed like he could care less what the judges had to say because he knows who is voting for him; in fact, in the post-performance camera time, Lauren told him, "Fifteen million little girls are putting their finger up at Randy right now."

Ryan talked to James about where the ideas come from for the spectacle of his performances, and he explained that they all start out in his head. (I understand, man. My head is a scary place, too.) The other contestants made fun of his bending backward when he hits high notes and they mocked his scarves. He chose to sing Muse's Uprising (one of my favorite songs), and Jimmy praised his choice, explaining that some of the songs James has sung have been "fluff"(!) and he needed to show he was more than the "clichéd metal guy."

Wow. What a performance. He entered offstage, accompanied by several drummers. While I thought the song was a little too low for him at the beginning, he hit some fantastically powerful high notes and really did a great job. J.Lo said she could predict that theatrically it would be the best performance of the night, and praised him for hitting the highest notes they'd ever heard him (or anyone) hit. Randy told us that Muse is one of his favorite bands (wow, he's musically diverse; last week he mentioned he thought Miley Cyrus' The Climb was a great song), and he told James he hoped that he will choose songs like Muse's when he records his album. Randy also called this performance the best of the night (which sort of put a damper on everything else, you know?) and then shared that apparently Muse's lead singer, Matt Bellamy, had emailed James when he heard he was singing Uprising, and he challenged James to sing the last verse one octave higher than it was written. James did, and "he slayed it, baby!" Steven once again admonished James to "stay of out [his] closet," calling his outfit "Mad Max meets Stormtroopers on Melrose." (I can't do better than that.) He also called James "crazy good," saying "you're out of your mind, and beautifully so."

Even though it appears none of her fellow contestants like her, their comments on Haley were fairly innocuous, except Stefano, who "joked" that they didn't get along and had sort of a brother-sister relationship. It seemed a little awkward to be staged, and I don't think these producers are that good. I was really excited when she chose Adele's Rolling in the Deep—I love this song and love both John Legend and David Cook's recent covers are fantastic. Jimmy cautioned Haley about needing to see more of an emotional connection from her when she sang this song, and said, somewhat ominously, “if she delivers short of perfect, the audience rejects her.” Nice pep talk, man.

Haley sang the beginning of the song perched on a stool behind the judges’ table, which had the judges clustered around either side. She looked very 1940s—she wore a red and white polka-dot dress and the hair was sophisticated. (I’m no fashionista, that’s for sure.) I thought there were some fantastic moments in this song for Haley, but it didn’t wow me, and that made me sad. I think she is (to use a Randy-ism) crazy mad talented, as witnessed by her results show duet with Casey last week, but I don’t know if she knows she’s fighting a losing battle or what. Randy went into his whole “at this point in the season we need to see who’s gonna win and what kind of record you’re going to make,” which I thought was a setup for a big slam, but he told Haley he was thrilled she chose Adele, and “that’s the vibe” she needs. Of course, there were some sharp notes (not that Scotty and James weren’t pitchy, but, hey) but overall, it’s the perfect direction for her and he thought it was great. (His voice said “great,” his mannerisms said “meh.”) J.Lo praised the “moments you brought Haley into the song,” saying it was difficult to sing a song so current by such a great singer, but at times she even “forgot about Adele, not that anyone could forget Adele, as we all love her.” (Catfight.) Even Steven’s praise was tepid (for Steven), saying he absolutely loved it, but it “started slow.” (Dude, that’s the song.)

Surprise! All of his fellow competitors think Jacob is a diva. (But a “cool diva,” apparently.) To paraphrase a line from Will and Grace, a blind and deaf man would know Jacob is a diva. Jacob chose a song by Luther Vandross (surprise!) because the judges have compared him to Luther. Oh, and it’s Luther’s birthday today (surprise!), so hopefully he is “smiling down” on Jacob.

For this week’s “Songs That Teach Us Something About Ourselves” portion of the show, Jacob is singing Dance with My Father, which is important to him because he lost his father at a young age. Apparently, so did Jimmy, so we had a tender, crying moment that set off every cynical synapse in my body. (I thought all of the “dead relative” cards got played during the auditions and Hollywood week. Now someone slap me.) Then Jacob dedicated his performance to his father, and everyone who has lost a father, and all of the fathers out there. (And I momentarily lost the ability to speak or write...Ok, better now.) At the start of the performance it appeared he was having trouble with his earpiece, and I actually thought he’d do a Brooke White from season 7 and start over, but after another grimace, he pulled the earpiece out and sang. Given what I expected from the lead-up to the song, it was fairly controlled (for Jacob) but not very emotional—or exciting.

Steven continued his inability to see anything wrong with Jacob’s performances, calling him “Luther Lusk” and (of course) telling him “Daddy was up there listening to you.” J.Lo sympathized with Jacob, saying she knew how difficult it must have been to sing a song that meant so much to him emotionally, and called it an “emotionally beautiful” performance, but wasn’t wowed by the singing. Randy agreed with J.Lo and then explained how important critique is to everyone (lies), so he told Jacob his performance was good but he “wasn’t jumping up and down out of his chair.” (This wouldn’t be the song to do it on anyway, would it?) He then gave Jacob the world’s worst advice, telling him he wanted the “old Jacob” back, that he should “go through the roof and not hold back,” because it seems like he is a racehorse that someone put restraints on. (Yes, dawg, the judges did, and it was one of the few smart things you did early on this season.) He said he missed the “church kid.” Ryan tried to get more sympathy votes for Jacob ask Jacob if it was, as J.Lo said, difficult singing a song that had such an emotional connection, and instead Jacob took that time to complain about other music coming in through his earpiece, so J.Lo actually got a little defensive. Never a dull moment.

Ryan spoke to Dancing with the Stars’ Mark Ballas, and asked him who he was pulling for. Mark said he was a big fan of Casey’s, and Ryan acted surprised, as if he expected him to praise a contestant who had left the show. (For those of you out of the Hollywood gossip circle, apparently Pia and Mark Ballas are dating, and in fact, Pia will be singing on that show next week, I think. See? This recap is educational as well.)

Casey was teased by his competitors as being a goofball and, of course, for his beard. A few of them wore a fake beard (unlike the one Ryan is dating—SNAP!) and Casey appeared to be jokingly (I think) offended by the teasing. He decided to sing Harder to Breathe by Maroon 5, and Jimmy promised something “totally different” from Casey on this song, because he was playing the guitar. (Yeah?) The start of the song was really cool and different vocally, but around the chorus, we had the return of Mr. McGrowly-Pants, who stomped around the stage, high-fiving the audience and making the rest of the song a complete karaoke fest. And then at the end of the song, in a “spontaneous” move (spontaneous like the girls rushing Scotty onstage), he kissed J.Lo on the cheek, and she pretended to be shocked. J.Lo teased him, saying “Casey isn’t playing fair” (but praised his soft lips), and then said he did a great job, that all the “Casey-isms” really worked. (Funny, but when she lectured Casey after the judges’ save, instead of "Casey-isms" she used the word “antics,” and cautioned him against them. How quickly the World’s Most Beautiful Woman forgets.) You know what Randy loves about Casey, man? He loves that Casey “takes chances every week,” and “is totally Casey.” Steven told Casey, “you already are a cult hero,” and said he has “already pissed millions of people off because you’re so f—king good.” (Yes, he used the “f” word, which caused a lot of flailing and faux shock from Randy. J.Lo at one point looked into the camera and mouthed, “What is happening here?”) Ryan tried to take charge, saying that “the wheels have fallen off this show,” but wearing the fake beard he looked like a twee extra from Witness rather than the media mogul he is.

Stefano was next up, and his fellow contestants said he thinks of himself as a total ladies’ man. As Jacob put it, “Stefano would flirt with a piece of paper. If he found out there was a trace of estrogen in it, he would totally flirt with a piece of paper.” (Brilliant line, Luther.) Strangely, Haley didn’t really appear in his segment. Weird. Anyway, Stefano decided to “get his swagger on” and sing Ne-Yo’s Closer. At one point, Jimmy got angry with the way he was singing it in rehearsal, ranting, “He’s a good looking guy, why is he standing on the stage pleading?”

The performance started out dramatic with Stefano’s best sexy face, which looked like Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining. (Probably not the effect he was going for.) I thought this was awful karaoke, nearly as bad as Jordan Dorsey’s top 24 take on OMG, only Jordan didn’t wear red suspenders. (Are suspenders back in again? Will my Mork and Mindy suspenders work? I loved them.) Stefano did more posing and dancing than actual singing, although, to use an Italian cooking reference, it seemed like he was just throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what in the performance would stick. The judges praised the performance, liking his swagger and dance moves, but not mentioning his vocals at all. J.Lo spoke “for all the girls and ladies in the audience,” and told him, “great job, baby.”

Ryan mentioned that members of the casts of Glee, Fringe and Breaking In were in the audience, but obviously none of the bigger stars, or he would have talked to them. We definitely had time.

Our courageous 16-year-old, Lauren had the pimp slot this week. Given all of the songs the contestants had to choose from, she decided to stay in her wheelhouse and sing Sara Evans’ Born to Fly. We had the opportunity to relive Jimmy’s declaring Lauren a better singer than Miley Cyrus last week, and he explained it was a way to give her confidence in herself. “She could win this whole thing” if she just believes she can, Jimmy told us. Lauren pretended said she didn’t have a lot of confidence in her ability to hit “crazy” notes like her fellow competitors, and that lack of self-confidence may be holding her back. (I get a lot of vibes from Lauren, but “lack of self-confidence” ain’t one of them.)

Her performance was perfectly fine. It was melodic, she hit a few runs, and it was enjoyable. But it wasn’t all that memorable, either. The judges all fell into their pre-assigned roles. Steven’s fortune cookie said, “Anyone who doesn’t know they could fail is bound to win,” and he told Lauren that he loves her, although he wishes she would sing some Alison Krauss, Faith Hill and/or Shania Twain. J.Lo lectured Lauren about her supposed fear of hitting big notes, encouraging her to try—“in your closet, in the shower”—and if she fails, “that’s fine and no one will know.” Randy once again drew the “tell everyone how much we loved Lauren during the auditions" card, and said that “when we saw you [during the auditions] we knew you were better than you thought you were, but you were riffing with Steven and singing all sorts of things.” I’m guessing we’re working up to some magical drama, where suddenly in the next week or two Lauren will suddenly regain her confidence and deliver a “moment” (genuine or not), which she will be able to ride all the way to the Nokia Theater. I think Lauren is talented—in fact, her rendition of Candle in the Wind remains one of my favorites from the season—but I think this whole story arc of her not having confidence is utter crap.

After the review of everyone’s performances, Ryan asked the judges how America will be able to vote, when every one of them is “so exceptional” and has really “turned it up.” J.Lo told us again, “It’s crazy, because every one of them can win it.” (Except Haley.) Steven told Casey, “All men are created equal, but some men are more equal than others.” (Casey looked embarrassed, or he learned how to act embarrassed at film camp.)

Much like every week, for me, the show was good, not great. James did have the performance of the show for me, although I liked Haley and Lauren, too.

Who should be in the bottom three: Scotty, Jacob, Stefano
Who will be in the bottom three: Haley, Stefano and Jacob or Casey

I believe unless his fan base was revved up by his icky performance, that Stefano will go home, although Haley could go home any week, sadly. Casey could wind up in the bottom three if the voters saw through the judges, and despite the sympathy angle, Jacob could as well. Or, if Nigel wants to manipulate, then Lauren might “appear” to be in the bottom three, all the better to build the path to the finals…

The suspense—and the dreams of another hopeful—ends tonight.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Book Review: "The Maze Runner" by James Dashner

Hunger Games fans, I have a new series for you. The Maze Runner is the first book in what I believe is a proposed young adult (YA) trilogy, and I thought it was really fantastic. If I didn't have a job and other life obligations, I would have easily read the entire book in one day. (And boy, I wanted to.)

Sixteen-year-old Thomas awakens one day to find himself in a strange elevator, which takes him to a place called the Glade, a large open field surrounded by stone walls. The Glade is populated only by other young people, and none of them remember their lives before they arrived at the Glade the same way Thomas did, one boy each month. As disorienting as his situation is, Thomas tries to figure out exactly what is going on in the Glade, and finds that it is surrounded by a giant stone maze. Each night the walls in the maze move, and there is a group of people, the runners, who explore the maze each day to try and find an escape route. But it's not as easy as it sounds—at night the maze is patrolled by a strange race of deadly creatures called Grievers. One day, a girl unexpectedly arrives in the Glade. And the message she brings with her completely rocks the community the boys have worked to create and causes them to question exactly what they are living for.

This is a tremendously creative, intriguing and affecting book. A little bit Lord of the Flies with some of the dystopian elements of the Hunger Games series thrown in, the story is a little confusing to grasp at the start (much as it is for Thomas) but as it unfolds you find yourself wondering what will happen next, and many of the details will surprise you. Some of the characters are a little two-dimensional, but I found myself totally immersed in their situation. Of course, I want to head directly to the second book in the series, The Scorch Trials, but I'll hold off for a while, since the third book in the series doesn't come out until October. All I know is, I'm so glad that the YA genre has become just as enjoyable and gripping for adults.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book Review: "Say Her Name" by Francisco Goldman

When novelist Francisco Goldman's young wife, the Mexican writer Aura Estrada, dies suddenly and unexpectedly in an accident on a beach in Mexico, just short of their second anniversary, he is left grieving, angry and directionless. Aura's mother, with whom she had a fractious, codependent relationship, blames Francisco for her death, and as he recreates the circumstances which surrounded the accident, he wonders if his "encouraging Aura to be Aura" was responsible.

Say Her Name is more than a story about a grieving husband trying to make sense of living without the woman with whom he had hoped to spend the rest of his life. It is the story of a man trying to understand who his wife truly was, and what drove her, using her diaries, the stories she told him and his own fictional license to fill in the answers he doesn't have. It is also the story of a man reliving the happiest times of his life but also questioning why he was chosen to have that happiness, and where his life would have led had Aura lived. The book examines Aura's relationship with her mother, Juanita, her drive to be a successfully published writer before her 30th birthday, and her sometimes erratic behavior. It also chronicles Goldman's grief and his need both to preserve every memory of his wife and their life together, as well as his need to move on.

This is an interesting book, a true story that Goldman incorporated fiction into as he imagined different circumstances in Aura's life. At times it is heartbreaking, at times it is funny, although the reality of Aura's death hangs over every chapter. It is a beautifully written yet sometimes difficult book to read, as Goldman tends to use 20 words where 5 will do, and sometimes the way the book jumps from present to past, fiction to truth, fantasy to reality was a bit confusing. But in the end, this is a love story, both as Aura and Francisco's relationship unfolds and after it ended. As he said at one point in the book, "Maybe memory is overrated. Maybe forgetting is better."

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Happy National Record Store Day!

Today is National Record Store Day, an annual celebration founded in 2007 as the one day that all of the independently owned record stores come together with artists to celebrate the art of music.

While independent record stores continue to flourish in big cities and college towns, most of the record stores I remember with great fondness no longer exist, falling victim to the big box stores, the popularity of music downloads, the internet, the economy and, of course, the millions of music buyers who don't know what a record even is!

I am, and have always been, an utter music junkie. Growing up, I spent countless hours at Sam Goody stores in various shopping malls in New Jersey, and during high school, I spent a great deal of time and money at Jack's Music Shoppe in Red Bank, NJ. I used to get my hair cut down the street from Jack's, and every time I'd get my hair cut, I go shopping at Jack's. I used to buy record albums and 45s (remember those) like they were going out of style.

One of the reasons I decided to go to college at GW was because there was a Tower Records store on campus. And although the "records" part increasingly was crowded out by cassettes and CDs, music was still king. Between Tower Records, Kemp Mill Records, Olsson's Books & Records, Serenade Records and Melody Records, Washington, DC was a fantastic place to be a music buyer. It makes me sad to think that other than Melody Records, all of these places have closed, making way for Panera, Potbelly, coffee shops and banks. (And of course, Tower became a CVS. They really did pave paradise and put up a parking lot.)

Of course, I'm guilty, too, because since I decided to go digital in 2005, the only CDs I've bought have been online, used CDs I can't get on iTunes or elsewhere. But much like bookstores, although I've wanted to support the independent stores, when you can't find the selection you want, you migrate online.

So today, let's honor our cherished record stores, play some of our favorite old songs, and remember the simpler times. For me, one of the greatest things was when the record album's liner notes had song lyrics.


Friday, April 15, 2011

Not All Are Tickled Pink by J.Crew...

When I was growing up, gender roles and behaviors were pretty clearly delineated for children. I played with die-cast cars and toy soldiers, traded baseball cards and was expected to play (or attempt to play) sports. It was just what was expected for boys in the early 1970s.

Of course, those behaviors and interests didn't quite fit with what I enjoyed. The thought of having to be the last kid picked for kickball or another sport, or massacred in dodgeball was utterly unappealing. I would have much rather (and did) hung out on the playground, mastering chinese jumprope or one of the variations of hopscotch called Colors.

While the gender expectations for children have remained somewhat the same over the years, many parents who grew up in the '60s, '70s and even the '80s have allowed their children to be the individuals they want to be. But there is still no shortage of "traditionalist" parents who believe boys play sports and girls play with dolls, and there is no blurring of those lines.

J. Crew waded straight into this battleground with their recent advertisement, which featured company president and creative director Jenna Lyons painting the toenails of her son Beckett. The caption says, "Lucky for me I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon."

Social conservatives were nearly apoplectic. Fox News' Dr. Keith Ablow published an opinion piece, saying that the ad could cause gender identity problems, while the conservative Media Research Center's Erin Brown called the ad "blatant propaganda celebrating transgendered children."

"Not only is Beckett likely to change his favorite color as early as tomorrow, Jenna's indulgence (or encouragement) could make life hard for the boy in the future," Brown wrote. J. Crew, known for its tasteful and modest clothing, apparently does not mind exploiting Beckett behind the facade of liberal, transgendered identity politics."

While some may question whether J. Crew ran the ad because it anticipated this type of controversy and welcomed the shot of publicity it would give the company, the debate it has generated is utterly ridiculous. Most research on gender identity and sexual orientation concludes that neither is a choice. Nor can they be shaped by a parent's wishes, said Dr. Jack Drescher, a New York City psychiatrist.

"I can say with 100 percent certainty that a mother painting her children's toe nails pink does not cause transgenderism or homosexuality or anything else that people who are social conservatives would worry about," he said.

And if Beckett turns out to be gay or transgendered later in life, who cares?

Jon Stewart should have the last word. He eviscerated media reaction to this ad with a segment he called "Toemageddon: This Little Piggy Went to Hell." At one point he says, "Taking your child to a face painting booth doesn't make them cats. Or cat lovers. Or Rum-Tum-Tugger."

Let children be children. And let Jon Stewart be Jon Stewart.

AI Results Show Recap: "Just Like a Man..."

The curse has finally been broken. After five consecutive eliminations of female contestants, the stranglehold of the preteen, tween and teen girls has been broken for at least a week voters finally sent a male contestant home, our "cool dude in a loose mood," toothpaste model Paul. And this after a "staggering" 53 million votes. (I'd love, of course, to know how many voters the show had, but there I go wanting facts with my entertainment again.)

The most beautiful woman in the world opted for a "Heidi the Dominatrix" look last night, with a menacing-looking gold dress, her hair in one long braid and bright red lipstick that matched Rihanna's hair. And Randy looked like he was just on his way home from the gym.

The contestants performed in groups again. I couldn't help but wonder when Lauren and Scotty performed together again—and led off the show again—whether this is Uncle Nigel's none-too-subtle signal that this is who he wants in the final two. (It may be inevitable but I sure hope not.) They sang (quite well) Lady Antebellum's American Honey, although Lauren looked a little uncomfortable with Scotty's point-and-cockeyed-flirting maneuver.

We then watched an overly-long segment on the making of the Ford Music Video (because the video isn't hellish enough, I'd imagine) and then more time was wasted watched the video itself, to Neon Trees' Animal. Something about zombies. And Jacob overacted.

Next up for the musical numbers was a duet between Casey and Haley, who sang Moanin', a jazz number made famous by Art Blakey and Charles Mingus, whom Randy name-dropped on Wednesday night. Other than Haley's hair, which I haven't seen since Miss Beadle stopped being the teacher on Little House on the Prairie, I was blown away by nearly everything about this performance. While I'm unsure whether Casey thinks clearing his throat is a jazz affectation or he actually has allergies, he clearly has an affinity for jazz music and scats fantastically. And Haley proved that she is more than just the awkwardly-leaning growler she seems to turn into nearly every Wednesday night, because she hit some amazing notes, scatted like crazy and showed off her bluesy phrasing. If you fast forwarded through it last night, watch it. Seriously.

While it didn't look like most of the contestants were paying attention, the judges gave the performance a standing ovation, and mostly turned it into a praise-fest for Haley, with Randy exclaiming, "Haley, baby, that's what we love!"

Ryan then brought the two duos—Lauren, Scotty, Casey and Haley—together so that Kieren could dim the lights. In unsubtle signal #2 from Uncle Nigel, Ryan told Scotty he was safe first, and then told Lauren to...take a seat...on the couch. Which, of course, left the talented jazz duo. And to no one's surprise (especially hers), Haley was in the bottom three again.

We then watched another overly-long segment where Rob Reiner apparently was helping the contestants understand music in the movies. (Rob Reiner hit all of the pre-approved notes in the script though, admitting he was "a huge fan of the show" and proclaiming that this season "has more talent than any other season.") I'll admit it; I fast-forwarded through his shtick.

Next to perform were country singer Jason Aldean and a little-known gal named Kelly Clarkson, who sang their hit Don't You Wanna Stay. (I've been hyping this song since November and it is the #1 most played song on my iPod. I am the cutting edge. Walk with me if you dare.) Aldean's hat was so far down over his face I feared that the show was going to somehow start out with Christian Slater or Russell Brand or someone stupid as another promotional shill, but thankfully it was just Jason.

I love the song. What I didn't love is that Ryan barely had any time to speak to Kelly (but we had plenty of time for Rob Reiner earlier), and in fact, when he told her he had a very tight results show and he just needed to "get to it," she smartly replied, "Just like a man." Can Kelly host the show?

The Benetton Chorus—umm, James, Stefano, Paul and Jacob—performed next, doing a medley of Sounds of Silence and Mrs. Robinson. They looked like one of the singing groups from the movie A Mighty Wind, and Jacob kept itching to get off his stool and take the songs to full-on histrionics, but he kept himself under control (barely). I thought Paul and James' voices blended well here.

Sidebar question: do young kids whose parents aren't Yankee fans even know who Joe DiMaggio is anymore? I just wonder if, when they hear Mrs. Robinson and the mention of Joltin' Joe's name, they think about anything, or just make up their own lyrics, like I used to with Billy Joel's We Didn't Start the Fire. (Ask me sometime about when the British had control of Romania.)

Anyway, the four amigos then heard the results. James was safe. Despite a performance labeled by Randy as his "best to date," Stefano was again sent to the silver stools of shame as a member of the bottom three. Then it was between Jacob and Paul. Ryan reminded everyone that Jacob was in the bottom three last week while Paul was safe, and then announced that this week, "the tables were turned," and Paul was in the bottom three.

Spotted in the audience (along with Mary Hart): AI power couple Pia Toscano and last year's contestant, Didi Benami, who gave two of my favorite performances last year before she melted down—her Hollywood week performance of Terrified and her top 24 performance of Ingrid Michaelson's The Way I Am.

Ryan introduced Chaka Khan and Anita Baker in the audience, which then led into guest performer Rihanna, who "sang" California King Bed on what looked like the set of a Victoria's Secret fashion show. And Ryan talked longer to her than Kelly Clarkson. Go figure.

Results time. Dim the lights.

Ryan reminded everyone that five female contestants in a row had been sent home. He then told Haley that she would "follow in the footsteps...of those on the couch," because she was safe. And once again, she got no love from her fellow contestants. Jealous haters.

Then Ryan announced Paul would be leaving. And then the audio dropped out again for about a minute. Either they're having serious problems this season with the audio or this group of contestants has the foulest mouths along with the most talent.

J.Lo was near tears, but Paul urged everyone not to be sad. She tearfully asked him to sing Maggie May as his swan song, and I thought, despite the spastic dancing, he did a really great job. Of course, that gives credence to those who called him simply a Rod Stewart wanna-be.

And with that, another week comes to a close...

Thursday, April 14, 2011

AI Top 8 Recap: Rated "F" for "Frustrating"...

This week's theme was "Songs of the Silver Screen." And much like the movies, tonight's show was a lot of smoke and mirrors. It was a world where just because a song appeared on a movie soundtrack it was considered "from" that movie, where every male contestant was once again beyond criticism, where the judges did their best to scuttle the chances of one of the two remaining women on the show, and where we all got to witness the triumvirate of “the good, the bad and the cuddly,” aka Hank Azaria, Rob Reiner and Elvira. (Sounds like a bad joke, doesn't it? "Rob Reiner, Hank Azaria and Elvira walk into a bar...")

The show opened with the self-promoting, faux-dramatic montage of last week's results show to try and encourage the preteen, tween and teenage girls to vote even harder this week more people to vote this week. Ryan poked fun at J.Lo for being named "the world's most beautiful woman" by People magazine. And I noticed that Steven is looking more like a cross between Patti Smith and Chrisse Hynde every week.

Peppy Paul opened the show, and we got our first glimpse that had returned for another week, because the inanity of the show clearly hasn't reached its fullest potential. Paul chose to sing Old Time Rock and Roll (from Risky Business), so of course, we were tantalized by the idea that Paul might pull a Tom Cruise and come onstage in his tighty whities. (Frenzied tween girls all over the country shrieked at the prospect.) But he kept his clothes on; in fact, he was dressed as a matador, or otherwise they had extra paso doble costumes on the DWTS set next door. Jimmy Iovine floated the idea of having some type of "beatbox" rhythm in the middle of the song, which Will ridiculed, saying, "The song is about old time rock and roll, and you want to put a beatbox in it?"

Paul's performance was utter karaoke. Not one note was memorable, IMHO. He had fun, sure, but I had just as much fun watching Wisconsin-born Naima speak Jamaican. The most exciting piece of his performance was his jam with a sexy sax player, which of course, lecherous Steven made a point of commenting on. But as always, the judges were in a different auditorium, listening to other singers. Steven told Paul he loved his "crazy, wild abandon," and that what he gets from the audience "says it all." J.Lo told him he goes further every time and gets wilder, that he's "like a diamond in the rough, and then suddenly you see it and say, 'it's a diamond.'" (Confucius is lucky J.Lo wasn't around in his time.) Randy said he felt like he watched the first number in a Paul McDonald concert, praised his "Porter Waggoner" look and said that he loves the fact that Paul isn't "a typical singer." I wished Simon would have walked in and just said, "Stop the madness already!" Even Peaches got in the act, encouraging people to vote if they enjoyed "sax with Paul."

Then it was time for "16-year-old Lauren to take on 18-year-old Miley Cyrus." That's right, she chose to trot out The Climb from the Hannah Montana movie. (I tell you, sometimes this s--t writes itself.) Jimmy told Lauren she was a better singer than Miley Cyrus, and she tried acting humble. Then Will and Jimmy went into a whole disgusting lesson about how Lauren could "steal" all of Pia's votes, which just got me angry again. She began the song singing directly into the camera, wearing a short black prom dress and cowboy boots. While she didn't fare as poorly as Haeley Vaughn did last season with this song, I was surprised she wasn't better. Most of the big notes she hit were drowned out by the background vocals (so it might have sounded better in the studio) and I felt like in other places she held back.

Again, it didn't matter where the judges were concerned. J.Lo liked hearing "the tear" in Lauren's voice (a comment she gave Paul a few weeks ago) and told her she didn’t “need to steal anyone’s votes because she’d get more than enough votes of her own.” Randy fulfilled the judges’ weekly obligation of reminding everyone told Lauren “the Lauren we saw in Nashville came roaring back,” and then tried to convince us that The Climb was a “great, great song.” (Not that he had any musical cred left to this point, but that takes the cake.) Sir Steven the Incoherent seemed to be reading his comments off cue cards, saying, “You were the first Idol we thought…of…when we chose people for the show.” He then told her “what you bring to the song, what the song brings to you, your spirit…it moves me beyond tears.” (Yeah, ok.) Lauren explained that she chose the song because “everything about it screams ‘Idol,’” and then Ryan pointed out that her mother’s hair was actually bigger than our pal DJ Tanner’s. (The bigger the hair, the closer to God.) In her post-performance “confession cam,” the real Lauren slipped out as she said, “The most beautiful woman in the world told me I did a good job. That’s all that matters.” (You’re not the only one she says that to, honey.)

Our pint-sized package of perseverance, Stefano, needed a confidence boost after nearly being sent home (again) last week. In order to take his performance “to the next level,” he chose to sing Boyz II Men’s End of the Road from the hysterically funny 90s movie, Boomerang. To quote Annie Barrett, who writes an AI recap for Entertainment Weekly, “It was the perfect song choice for someone who already looks and sounds like he's in a '90s boy band.” He kicked it up vocally, although his enunciation slipped a bit (one line he sang was “Eash time I cry”), but he definitely beat that song into submission or, as Steven put it, “he knows how to milk a song.” It was funny to watch Stefano's dad sing along, although he didn't know any of the words.

Randy mentioned that any minute now he’d be receiving a text from [Boyz II Men singer] Wanya Morris, “one of the greatest known singers in the known world,” telling him that “his man Stefano slayed the song!” He called this performance Stefano’s best to date (I believe that honor still belongs to his wild card performance.) Oh, and by the way, “Stefano is in it to win it! Stefano wants to win it!” (Apparently he didn’t until tonight.) Steven went for the obvious “this is so not the end of the road for you, because the Stefano they’re looking for is there.” J.Lo was ecstatic that Stefano took her advice to “stop singing to stay, start singing to win.”

I got very excited when I heard Scotty would be singing Everybody’s Talkin’ from Midnight Cowboy (somehow I doubt it’s the type of movie he thinks it is), and the snippet we heard of him in rehearsals sounded great. But then he told Jimmy (whom he called “dude”) that he needed to “be true to his country roots” and sing I Cross My Heart, a song from the George Strait movie (you read that right) Pure Country. (I can’t help but feel like Scotty’s song selection process each week revolves around finding the song with “country” or “cowboy” in the title if he can’t choose an out-and-out country song, but it’s all good.) I thought it was good, but not great, and like Lauren, his voice seemed drowned out a bit by the backup singers. He also hit one really wonky note toward the end. But that was the performance I saw, not the one the judges saw, because Steven told Scotty, “All of America will fall in love with you tonight, like you’ll see from the votes.” J.Lo said “All of you are just so great every week,” and explained that she didn’t like being expected to criticize any of the contestants and tell them they were doing anything wrong. (Umm, isn’t that what you’re getting paid mega-millions for?) Randy said that “a star is born on this stage tonight,” and explained the over-arching philosophy that he has acted on every week for 10 years running: “I believe if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Casey was another contestant whose song choice was questioned by Jimmy. He wanted to sing Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy, but Jimmy hated it, and encouraged him to sing In the Air Tonight by Phil Collins, because in Jimmy’s opinion, he needed to “sing a song to win the competition.” (And that, to me, is one of the biggest problems with this show in recent years. Instead of letting moments—Kelly Clarkson’s Stuff Like That There, Fantasia’s Summertime, Bo Bice’s Away in a Dream, David Cook’s Billie Jean, to name but just a few—happen, they try to manufacture them.)

Casey, looking like a dapper professor, broke out the upright bass and sang Nature Boy anyway. Pieces of it were jazzy-cool, pieces were somewhat off-key, Casey’s growly face showed up a few times, but overall, I got the sense that Casey was performing for the sake of performing, and didn’t care that he was on this show, didn’t care what the judges thought, he just wanted to play his music, you know? And that is what I liked more than one specific component of the performance. The judges went wild, giving him a standing ovation (although J.Lo was slow to stand). She confessed that she was a little worried at the beginning of the song, but realized she was watching something special, comparing him to Norah Jones (in her ability to transform jazz/blues and make it commercial). Randy said it felt like he was watching “a Grammy performance,” name-dropping Herbie Hancock and Charles Mingus, and said that performances on the show should be “half embracing who you are and half educational, showing the world about the music.” He then called the performance brilliant and declared, “The world cannot exist on pop stars alone. We need artists to maintain the Zen balance.” (He forgets, of course, that the show originated as Pop Idol.) Steven called Casey “an artist in every sense of the word” because he does “what’s in his heart,” and compared him to Sting. Casey was emotionally overwhelmed, both by (I’m guessing) the satisfaction with his performance and the judges’ feedback. He told Ryan he felt like he could cry, and later told the confession cam he “wanted to show Esperanza [Spalding, the jazz artist who won the Best New Artist Grammy this year] that this music was cool.” I will say I like that the contestants are being encouraged, subtly, to be different this year.

Next came Haley. Jimmy said he was pleased with where she was in the competition, although she was a “slow starter.” She picked Blondie’s Call Me from American Gigolo. The song choice seemed to please Jimmy and Will, although they wondered whether it would work. As with many of Haley’s performances, when she lets the bluesy side of her vocals come out and tries unique phrasing, she was great, but other parts of the song were pretty manic. (And it didn’t help that she either leaned to one side or was jumping around onstage.) Randy wasn’t thrilled, calling the performance “karaoke,” and said he didn’t think it was a showcase for her voice. Ever the lecher, Steven eyeing Haley’s multi-colored sequin mini-dress, said something about “looking up your old address.” (Gross.) He also proved fairly incapable of criticizing Haley. J.Lo agreed with Randy, saying “it wasn’t the best,” although she admitted she didn’t want to criticize Haley because she didn’t want another girl to go home. And then she urged the viewers to “vote for the girls.” Haley seemed almost resigned to embrace her almost-certain trip to the bottom three tonight and possible elimination, babbling a bit about song choice and promising to “bring it” next week.

Was Haley’s performance weak? It wasn’t great. Was it the worst performance of the night? Absolutely not. Does she deserve to be in the bottom three? Yes. Does she deserve to go home? Absolutely not. I find it interesting that the judges called her performance “karaoke” but didn’t make the same criticism of Paul’s totally unoriginal spin on Old Time Rock and Roll.

Jimmy called Jacob out on his lecturing the voters last week when he said, “If I make bottom three, it won’t be because I sang the song bad, or sang the song wrong. It’s because America isn’t ready to look themselves in the mirror.” As Jimmy put it, “don’t preach to 24 million people when you don’t have a record out.” Jacob didn’t look the slightest bit contrite. He then mentioned he had two song options--The Impossible Dream (from Man of La Mancha) and You’ll Never Walk Alone (from Carousel). (Far be it from me to point out these are Broadway songs that are eligible for this theme only because they happened to appear in the movie adaptations of their musicals.) I kind of envisioned Jacob’s song selection like a scene from Dirty Dancing, when Baby’s sister tells her father she’s not sure what to sing in the talent show, What Do the Simple Folk Do or I Feel Pretty. (I miss Kellerman's.) Jimmy didn’t like either of those song choices, and suggested Jacob sing Bridge Over Troubled Water, which the show claimed was “from” The Pursuit of Happyness. (Yeah, it’s not like the song was released 36 years before the movie came out or anything.)

The performance was vintage Jacob. The expressions, the phrasing, the overly dramatic gestures…and then the caterwauling began. The last few notes were a miasma of melisma (fancy, eh?) and tragically off key. Boy, did I long for Clay Aiken’s rendition. However, the judges were once again blown away by Jacob. Steven said he loved how much of Jacob he puts into every song, and praised his “crescendos and innuendos(!)” He closed his praise with “God bless you and your voice.” (Really?) J.Lo called him a gifted vocalist, and playfully scolded him for giving her the chills when she didn’t want to let him. Randy said it was “perfect, perfect, perfect” and said he “blew it up at the end.” (I’ll say.) Ryan then engaged Jacob in a conversation about why he chose the song (which, of course, he didn’t), and he talked about how he’s had a hard life and “we all need somebody to cover us, a greater power.” So does every song he sings need a message now?

James got the pimp spot again, and decided to shake things up by singing Sammy Hagar’s Heavy Metal from the movie of the same name. Jimmy was unhappy with this choice and told him to pick something else. James said, “With all due respect, I want to make the decisions, good or bad, and I want to sing this song.” (So refreshing when someone is willing to take responsibility for their own choices and not blame America’s inability to look themselves in the mirror.) James joked about wanting America to “give metal a chance.” I thought he did a fantastic job. Accompanied by former Ozzy guitarist Zakk Wylde, his performance may not have been perfect vocally, but James has such stage presence that he is really fun to watch. J.Lo said that “it felt really real,” and that all the contestants “killed it dead” tonight. Randy went with the tried-and-true “This was like watching the James Durbin concert,” and proclaimed, “Durbin rocks!” He then told James he could tour with Ozzy and Avenged Sevenfold at the next Ozzfest. Ryan asked Zakk Wylde what he thought of James’ performance, and he said, “He sung his ass off.” (Or that’s what I thought he said.)

I thought it was a good night, but I am becoming increasingly frustrated by the judges’ lack of, well, judging. For the second week in a row only one person—a female—has gotten any negative feedback. Other than that, the judges essentially told each contestant they were perfect. No tips for improvement. So why have this show? If they’re all perfect, why not sign them all right now and let them make their CDs, and I can have my Wednesday and Thursday nights back?

While it seems nearly inevitable that Haley is going home, I just can’t believe that the show will allow six female contestants in a row to get voted off. But maybe they don’t care.

Who should be in the bottom three—Paul, Haley, Jacob
Who will be in the bottom three—Paul, Haley, Jacob (although Stefano could get “punished” for Pia’s ouster, or if voters didn’t get Casey, he could be there, too)

I’ve lost any emotional investment in the show, so whatever happens, happens. Although don’t expect me not to rant about it tomorrow…

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

When There Are No Answers...

Sometimes you hear things on the news that just devastate you.

Last night, in Newburgh, NY, a woman drove her minivan off a boat ramp into the Hudson River, killing herself and three of her small children, ages 5, 2 and 11 months old. Just moments before, she let her 10-year-old son out of the minivan.

While details are still not being revealed—or are not truly known—at this time, apparently the woman was involved in a domestic dispute shortly before this incident, so she loaded her four children into the minivan and drove off.

At this point, I feel for all involved. I cannot imagine how the boy feels, and how this will impact his life.

If the woman was suffering from post-partum depression, this tragedy again underscores the need for more treatment and attention to this truly serious illness. More children should not be lost, like the children of Susan Smith, Andrea Yates and countless others.

And if the children were caught in the crossfire of a domestic dispute, perhaps this will be the straw that convinces conservatives that leaving children in abusive or neglectful situations, leaving them in foster care, is not preferable to adoption by a same-sex couple who can love and provide for them.

But this isn't about politics. This is about the children. This is about lives lost. Sometimes there are no answers.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Book Review: "Emily, Alone" by Stewart O'Nan

Stewart O'Nan is one of my favorite authors. He has written some absolutely phenomenal books, including Snow Angels, which is one of my favorite books of all time. He has an incredible ability to tell a story that stays with you, and creates vivid, multidimensional characters. His latest book, Emily, Alone is a perfect example of his literary talents, and I read the whole thing in one day.

Emily Maxwell is growing older, and she's not enjoying it entirely. She doesn't enjoy the changes her suburban Pittsburgh neighborhood is undergoing, she is still mourning the death of a close friend (and doesn't like the fact that other friends are getting ill and dying), and she wishes she had a better relationship with her grown children and grandchildren. Her closest companions are her sister-in-law, Arlene, and her aging dog, Rufus. When one morning Arlene faints while they are out to breakfast, Emily finds that becoming more independent and taking control of your future doesn't quite mean you have control—life is going to move forward no matter what. And growing older doesn't mean you can let go of your hopes and fears, past hurts and dreams, as Emily finds herself re-examining her relationships with her family and friends, and what motivated her toward certain actions in her life.

I thought this was an absolutely terrific book. Emily and Arlene are realistic and vivid characters I could see in my mind's eye, and their relationship is an amusing and heartfelt one. I worried this book, given its focus on growing older, would be a depressing read, but that wasn't the case. Yes, it certainly had sad moments, but O'Nan focused on relationships and possibilities much more than regrets. While this book has been labeled a sequel of sorts to Wish You Were Here, a previous book O'Nan wrote, you don't have to read that one before this one. (If you enjoy this book, however, I recommend that one, too.) We don't often think of elderly people having fulfilling lives in their later years, but this book takes us on a terrific journey into Emily's life, and I'm already wanting more.