Thursday, March 31, 2011

AI Top 11 Recap: Hold Me Closer, Tony Danza...

So, according to Ryan (whose usual hair stylist must be on vacay, because the new 'do isn't too flattering), "everyone is still buzzing" about last week's results show. Maybe 'cause Nigel Lythgoe won't stop Tweeting about it?

It's Elton John Week, a theme that hasn't occurred since Season 3. However, Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me has been sung at least once every season, so I'll bet someone will break out that seldom-heard chestnut, don't you?

Anyway, our judges were all smartly attired this evening, with J.Lo resplendent in a purple one-shouldered sparkly number that made her look pretty darn hot. And rock stars like Steven don't have to follow the "no white pants before Memorial Day" rule, I guess. The fancier duds are all because we spent the evening focusing on the makeover each contestant had in preparation for Entertainment Weekly's photo shoot.

First up is our little country boy, Scotty. He talked about how it was cool to get dressed up but of course, he's just a country boy at heart. Apparently he found the one country song Elton John ever wrote, Country Comfort. How...convenient. Jimmy Iovine encouraged him to sing a different verse of the song instead of the one with "I saw my grandma down at the store," but Scotty mentioned that his grandmother would be in the audience.

So, accompanied by Scarlet (his guitar), Scotty's performance was, well, Scotty-ish. He made a point of hitting the low note at the end (you know, the one that "gets" J.Lo), but it wasn't as impressive as it's been previously. Oh, and when he got to the "grandma" part of the song, he even gave her a shout-out, "Love you, Grandma!" I find it interesting that he can turn everything into a slow country song and that's ok, but Pia's singing ballads isn't. The judges, of course, kept his fan base in mind loved it. Randy said it felt like he was watching a performance at "Scotty's Place Bar & Restaurant, brought to you by American Idol," and that he is in the zone. J.Lo praised his "amazing instincts" and was encouraged that he keeps himself grounded. Steven told Scotty "there's nothing I could say that an old-fashioned pair of cowboy boots couldn't solve," and praised him because he loved his grandma. We're one step away from proclaiming a vote for Scotty is a vote for America, folks. Seriously, though, he's a polished performer with a great voice, but I'm just not wowed by him anymore. He, too, needs to break out of his comfort zone a bit. Not that the judges will tell him so.

Naima was next up, and chose to sing I'm Still Standing, because she said it was reflective of how she felt about still being in the competition. She decided to change it up a bit, and give it a reggae twist. Jimmy encouraged her to start with a dramatic introduction that served as a message of support for those struggling in the world right now. (Really? We're scripting the contestants?) Naima apparently remembered she has a Jamaican accent, because she sang the entire song that way. And the lighting even matched the colors of the Jamaican flag. It was irie, mon. As always, Naima is entertaining but she chose another song that did her no favors vocally, as the song includes numerous refrains of "I'm still standing." J.Lo liked Naima's reggae swag, but questioned whether this was the song "to make a 360-degree, umm, 180-degree, whatever" shift. Randy tried to pretend he was one of the cool kids, saying, "I love reggae, booya, whatever," but for him, "it was kinda corny," although Naima has "mad flavor." (Way to be real, dawg.) Steven's useful critique included "Boom shaka laka laka, baby," and he praised Naima for picking a song that fit her. In Naima's reggaeton universe, it's ok Randy didn't like her performance, because she did.

After a pointless shilling with Taio Cruz (something about viewers writing lyrics for a song), it was Paul's turn. Rocket Man was the song he chose, and Jimmy encouraged him to sing it as if it were an encore, after his band rocked out for more than 20,000 people. If that performance came with a ticket to Paul's concert, I'd ask for my money back. He pulled out the white floral suit again (an homage to Elton John, apparently) and although he played the guitar again, it was just boring. In an effort to be tender toward the end, he whispered the last few lines, but it came off as Jack-Nicholson-in-The-Shining-creepy rather than tender. I believe Paul has a great voice (another plug for his band, The Grand Magnolias, available on iTunes) but he just doesn't seem all that interested in adapting for the competition. There's knowing who you are as an artist and then there's just doing your thing no matter what, and I think Paul falls into the latter group. Randy said it was pitchy, but again praised when Paul's tender vocals came out. J.Lo asked whether Paul was holding back, and encouraged him to push himself. (Thank you, J.Lo.) Steven asked if Paul was watering the suit because there seemed to be more flowers than the last time, and then told Paul that his performances are like an album—not everyone will like every song, and in fact, Steven likes the type of singer who doesn't hit every note. (Then why, pray tell, is he judging a singing competition?)

The next big question of the night: will Pia sing another ballad? Yes. She hit the Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me jackpot, in fact. Jimmy didn't seem concerned she was singing another ballad, but encouraged Pia to "crush it." She hit the stage to smoke, red lights and then a sunset backdrop (the sun going down, so poetic), and surpassed probably every version of the song we've heard on the show—Justin Guarini's, Jasmine Trias', even Jorge Nunez's. (Clay Aiken, Bo Bice and David Archuleta also sang the song, but I just didn't have the patience to find all the YouTube clips.) Steven told Pia she was "as good as it gets" and said "it proves someone was wrong about her singing another ballad." J.Lo said it's "crazy" what Pia does with her voice, that she "slays it every time," and she sensed more of an emotional connection this time, but encouraged Pia to "stomp all over it" next time. Randy got a little defensive, saying that the issue isn't that Pia can't sing ballads, he just wants her to push herself, you know? But she can SING. He even heard Whitney! And Mariah! He "heard all of Pia and she was great," but he encouraged her to go to "the next color, the next elevator of love." When Steven Tyler looks at you like you're crazy, it's time to go back on your meds, dawg.

Just before Stefano's performance, we were treated to his father, Ernie, and Ernie's doppelganger, Howie Mandel, who said he was "kvelling" over Stefano but didn't think Ernie would know what that was. After that awkward moment, we discovered Howie was actually there to plug some Fox show about flash mobs. I won't say bring back Gordon Ramsay, but this pimping sucks. And so does Ryan's hair.

Stefano had a rough week last week, and hopes his singing Tiny Dancer will help redeem him. Stefano is like a cute, soul-patched Muppet, earnest as all get-out. But for someone who speaks English normally, his singing diction (quick, music experts, I'm sure there's a word for this) is bad. What, pray tell, is a "ballerinam"? (Because you must have seen her, dancing in the sand.) Stefano tried hard to show us how much he felt the song. He reached out his hand (for the line he interpreted as "tiny dancer, in my hands") and tried to keep his eyes open. But much like Casey (more on that later), old habits (and over-singing) die hard. The judges strained their arms patting themselves on the back and praised Stefano for "really listening to our notes" from last week about emotional connection. Steven said his voice sometimes sounded "a little Broadway" (oh, no, the dreaded Broadway). And then Stefano babbled about how much the judges' feedback meant to him, and how he tried so hard to take it to heart, and I wondered how a contestant I wanted to win a few weeks ago now is annoying me. Break, heart.

Lauren chose to sing Candle in the Wind because she really relates to the song. Really? Which part? Frightening commentary notwithstanding, I thought she gave her best performance of the season, sounding very much like Natalie Maines from The Dixie Chicks. She had a beautiful tone, with just a little twang and despite the prom dress, really was fantastic. Randy called it her "greatest Lauren Alaina performance of the season," which I agreed with despite the ridiculous yardstick of comparison. Steven told her, "I've loved you from the first moment you laid eyes on me," and said if she kept singing like that, "you can afford the whole dress," which somehow embarassed her. J.Lo said that "this was the first time everyone in America saw what we fell in love with," and I'd have to agree. But then Lauren chose that moment to kiss up to the judges, calling J.Lo "wonderful," etc. If I could completely turn off her personality and just listen to her voice, I'd be happy.

James talked about how much fun he had last week, particularly with the surprise visit from Hulk Hogan. This week, he chose to sing Saturday Night's Alright (for Fighting), and as with all of his performances, he tore into it with a tremendous amount of gusto, racing through the crowd and carousing with the musicians. The piano even caught on fire (purposely). At times, I thought his voice sounded a bit like Poison or Twisted Sister. He is a much more polished performer than you'd expect for someone with as little experience as he has. The judges really liked his performance, although Steven cautioned him not to "wear out his welcome." (Whatever that meant.) The king of unscripted moments, James said that his biggest fear was having a "Pepsi moment" when the piano caught fire, since he was wearing so much hairspray. When Ryan's sponsor plug warning light went off and he reminded James that the show is sponsored by Coca-Cola, James replied, "Coke = good moments!"

Thia has a brother who moved away, and she was very sad, which is why she identifies with the song Daniel. (Hopefully her brother isn't blind, as Daniel is in the song.) Looking like Carrie-Ann Inaba, Thia took the stage under a red light (maybe they thought she was singing Roxanne?) and sang a very spare arrangement of the song. The truth is, she has a beautiful, beautiful voice, but she hasn't quite grasped the concept of performance yet. I almost wish she had waited a few years before auditioning, because I think she'll be a force to be reckoned with someday. J.Lo called the performance a "beautiful moment," and said Thia seemed very relaxed so "people can hear your wonderful voice." Randy has already written Thia off, telling her "she sang a great Elton John song well," but it was a safe choice, adding "I don't know how that will help you with the voting." Steven said that "when you pick the right song, the voice appears." (I think that's what the Blue Fairy told Pinocchio before she made him a real boy.) Short of another "shocker," I think Thia is going home this week.

Did you know that Casey was saved last week by the judges? Just in case you were away from your television, we got to see the dramatic footage again. During the photo shoot, Casey said he wanted to show the world that "big dudes with beards can model." He chose to take it down a few notches this week and sing Your Song. The producers suggested the best way to "shock the world" is if he shaved off his beard, so we were treated to an over-long segment of Casey getting the Cowardly Lion's makeover. And then we saw the newly groomed Casey, sitting on a sensitive stool, with the "Starry, Starry Night" backdrop. His version of the song was somewhat muted but showed off his voice for the first time in several weeks, however, at times you could tell he was struggling to keep his growling in check. I don't imagine the new and improved Casey Jekyll is going to be able to overcome his Mr. Hyde personality in the end. (Maybe more like Dr. Heckle and Mr. Jive.) As you'd expect, the judges fell over themselves for choosing to use the save on Casey, with Randy calling it "one of the greatest saves ever." (Dude, this was the third save. You saved Matt Giraud in season 8 and Michael Lynche in season 9. You didn't save him from drowning.) The judges called his performance "absolutely brilliant" and "very Casey." Ryan then had Casey explain his reaction to the save last week so everyone realized this was the sensitive Casey. "I wish I was happier," he said, "but I was just so blown away, so surprised, because I didn't think they'd use the save." Personality resurrected.

Leading into the commercials before his performance, we were promised a "softer, gentler Jacob." (No truth in advertising laws, huh?) He chose to sing Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word, tackled earlier this season by Robbie Rosen in his unfairly denied bid for a wild card. After some unnecessary fawning over Mary J. Blige (unnecessary meaning irrelevant, not meaning undeserving), Jimmy mentioned that Jacob gets in trouble when he "overdramatizes." (That's why the man is a pillar of the music business.) Coming out to a fog machine and Clay Aiken's Solitaire lighting, Jacob started out softer, and then went off the rails again. Badly. Pitchy notes, histrionics, the whole megillah. Not that the judges noticed. Steven nearly criticized him, but then said, "the first half was amazing, the second half...its equal." J.Lo, always the mistress of understatement, called the last note "one you don't see every day." (Every week, though, it seems.) Randy praised the performance but told Jacob he wished he would give him one "moment" per song, like Pia does. (I'd prefer a moment when he doesn't look like he's giving birth, but that's just me, I guess.)

Surprisingly, Haley got the pimp spot this week. Jimmy told her "every week some part of you is missing, so make sure the whole you drives to the show this week." (Mm-kay.) Haley chose to sing Bennie and the Jets, and Jimmy encouraged the piano player to "bang" the keyboard hard during the song. She started the song like Michelle Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys (well, sort of), perched on top of the piano. While there was a second it appeared she wasn't sure if she should get down, she ultimately did. I love Haley's voice, and thought the jazzy-bluesy styling worked so well for this song. She definitely deserves to outlast some of the other contestants and I hope she does. J.Lo was so excited, exclaiming "That was it, Haley! It all came together! It was a great way to end the show!" Formerly critical Randy told Haley it was the best performance of the night, and Steven showed off his sibilancy (SAT word), telling Haley "she sings sexy."

All in all, I thought it was a really good night, without any of the trainwrecks I've come to expect from theme nights. I'd imagine one guy and one girl will go home tonight, although I've been surprised before.

Who should be in the bottom three: Thia, Naima and Scotty (sorry)
Who will be in the bottom three: Thia, Naima and Stefano, or Paul. I suppose Thia and Naima could go home, but that would leave three girls and six guys and that seems nearly impossible.

Until tonight, when we'll be entertained by Fantasia (I know she's talented but she frightens me) and (ugh) Jamie Foxx. (I had hoped I'd never have to see him again after he won the Oscar.)

Remember: good moments = Coke!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Quite a Deal with the Devil...

I don't normally post pictures of my celebrity crushes, but when I saw this picture of Rob Lowe on the cover of May's Vanity Fair, I couldn't resist. There's little doubt that Lowe made a deal with the devil years ago, given how good the 47-year-old actor looks.

As they joked about on last week's Modern Family, I think Lowe's looks have held his acting career back a bit as he's aged, although he starred in some of my favorite 80s movies, including About Last Night and The Outsiders. But he's had quite a life, so depite his "Proud Mary" dance with Snow White at the Oscars, no one should feel sorry for him.

They Talk and Talk (But Why Listen?)

One of the reasons I like having a blog is it gives me the opportunity to harangue about the things—and people—that drive me crazy. And the way I look at it, even if no one reads my rants, at least I've gotten this stuff off my chest, no?

Our 24-7 media cycle has turned ordinary people into talking heads. At the same time, the overwhelming need for content has caused the media to turn to uninformed blowhards, paid shills and, even worse, ignorant celebrities (and pseudo-celebrities) who have nothing better to do than to blow hot air and rant, over and over again. The media has made stars out of so many people with so little to say, from the political (Palin, Bachmann) to the entertainment field (any one of the Kardashians, Paris Hilton, Chuck Norris).

But why do we keep giving these people platforms?

Case in point, the nearly-ubiquitous Donald Trump. Maybe a number of years ago he was at the top of his game. But now many of his businesses have declared bankruptcy, and his Celebrity Apprentice (featuring nearly as many so-called celebrities as Dancing with the Stars) is a ratings trainwreck.

So in an effort to feed his always-massive ego, he's toying with the idea of running for president in 2012. He believes, as he told the cast of The View, "If I got the nomination[...]I definitely think I could beat Obama." While one would expect that swagger from any potential candidate, his embrace of the "birther" mantle is starting to border on the ridiculous.

After his appearance on The View, he's taken his birther shtick to several other television and radio programs (including the tremendously friendly Fox News), where he has practically foamed at the mouth in his demands that the president produce his birth certificate and also claimed that the Certificate of Live Birth that the president has produced is a sham. (Trump, as he boasted on The View, went to "the best schools," so he knows documents can be forged.)

The fact is, if President Obama really wasn't a US citizen, this would have been proven long before he was elected. Everyone knows this question of citizenship would never have been raised if we weren't talking about an African-American in the White House. But since at least 27 percent of Republicans don't believe President Obama was born in the US, we have to continue pandering to this small-yet-crazily-vocal minority. And now they have a pompous blowhard of a mouthpiece.

Once again, the media chooses simply to allow Donald Trump to ignite a frenzy. No one questions him, no one challenges him, no one gives voice to the opinion that this is all a campaign to keep Sir Hairpiece in the public eye.

Maybe one day our media will actually challenge politicians, aspiring politicians and celebrities who voice their opinions. Maybe one day the public will realize that the world is in far more serious trouble and perhaps worrying about President Obama's birth certificate or a gay kiss on Glee isn't really worth the outrage that people are feeling.

Oh well. Maybe tomorrow.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Book Review: "The Tiger's Wife" by Tea Obreht

Sometimes I just have to read a book that's completely being hyped as the next great thing, just to see how much my opinions differ from the literary world's. After reading 25-year-old Téa Obreht's highly praised debut novel, The Tiger's Wife, I can most assuredly say this one is worth the hype. This book weaves together the literal and the mythical, it makes you think and it tugs a bit at your heartstrings.

War is raging in an unknown Balkan country. Natalia is a doctor, traveling with her childhood friend to another war-torn Balkan country, to immunize and treat children in a local orphanage. During the trip, Natalia learns that her beloved grandfather, in whose footsteps she followed by becoming a doctor, died unexpectedly, in a strange city. As she tries to figure out exactly what happened and why he was there to begin with, she begins remembering many of the stories he told her through her life, stories of people in the town where he grew up, including the tiger's wife, as well as the story of the deathless man. At the same time, people in the town where she is working are obsessed with another story, the idea that until a body is recovered from where it was buried, it will make all of his family members ill.

Obreht has created some phenomenally complex and vivid characters. Natalia's grandfather reminded me a little of my grandfather, for reasons I can't quite explain, and I found myself completely captivated by the different stories her grandfather shared. The book flows back and forth between present and past, and both narratives work very well. While not knowing exactly where or when the actual story takes place (or her grandfather's stories) is a little disconcerting, it doesn't take away from the appeal of the book. I really am glad I chose to read this, as it's a book that will stay in my head for some time to come.

Friday, March 25, 2011

AI Results Show Recap: The F-Bombs Bursting in Air...

Every season, our own little huckster Ryan Seacrest promises a "shocker" of a results show. Favorites Justin Guarini, Ruben Studdard and Adam Lambert ending up in the bottom two once during their seasons (back then, these were shocking); season 3's bottom three of Fantasia, Latoya London and Jennifer Hudson; the shockingly premature ousters of too many talented people to name (cough, Daughtry, cough); even the judges' decision to use the save the first time to prevent Matt Giraud's elimination were among the surprises delivered during the "shocking" results shows.

Yet all of that frightening useless information aside, last night's results show was a mixed brew of melodrama, bleeped-out cursing, tremendously astute advice and pro wrestling. So dim the lights and let's get to your results show recap!

After a dramatic opening ("A new sound...they conquered the classics and captivated a nation...but no one is safe, based on your vote...the dream ends tonight for one person") the judges came out bedecked in their results show finery. Steven Tyler rocked another animal print shirt with a pink scarf in a different animal print, and from several different angles he's starting to resemble a thinner Steven Cojocaru.

In our weekly required J.Lo plug, we watched a segment with Marc Anthony ("as you know, he is the husband of our own Jennifer Lopez") teaching the contestants how to use their in-ear headphones to hear themselves over the music. We even got a completely spontaneous(!) clip of Marc disagreeing with J.Lo's criticism that Pia needs to connect more with her songs. (No one disagrees with J.Lo. Just ask Cris Judd.)

Guess who opened our Motown group number, Ain't No Mountain High Enough. Why yes, our very own "Baby Luther," Jacob. The number wasn't bad, although Jacob went into his wonky off-pitch caterwauling at the end, and for some reason, it appeared that Scotty and Stefano were muted through the performance. And then Stevie Wonder came rolling out, to give a fairly uninspired performance that culminated in everyone singing "Happy Birthday" to Sir Tyler.

Ford Music Video...does anyone care?

Then we started to get to the results. First up, Lauren, Pia and Scotty. And Ryan pulled one of his annoying trademark fakeouts: "I'm sorry to say, you'll all be packing your bags...for the summer tour in a few months!" This surprise announcement led to the first bleeped-out curses of the evening, and while I think they came from Scotty, wouldn't it be fun to think Pia dropped the f-bomb instead? (She's from Howard Beach, after all.)

Sugarland performed Stuck Like Glue. Cute. I love Jennifer Nettles.

Next came a taped segment about how James is obsessed with pro-wrestling, and showed how he and Paul "fight" all the time. It was actually a cute (though overlong) segment in which Pia showed personality tried to beat up the guys. It ended with James saying "I'm Crazy James and I'm awesome."

So, naturally, James and Paul were next to hear their results. Ryan told them, "You're both not safe. You're both really not safe." And then Hulk Hogan came onstage, to James' absolute shock and awe. (Seriously. The kid was knocked out.) Hulk told Paul and James they both were safe, and then he proceeded to fake-punch Ryan, which sent the little sprite ass-over-teakettle into the audience. (Ryan, ask your girlfriend Julianne to show you how to move convincingly, ok?) Hulk then tore off his shirt (I could have skipped that part) and we went to commercial.

(As an aside, in the summer of 1985, Hulk Hogan broke out color war at my camp. The Hulk Hogan we met and took pictures with then barely resembles the Hulk Hogan on stage last night.)

Next up, Jacob, Thia and Stefano. To no one's surprise, Jacob was safe, and then it was revealed that Thia and Stefano were in the bottom three. Off to the stools of shame.

Naima, Haley and Casey were the last three to find out their fate. Ryan revealed that Naima was safe first (she softly said "I can buy a house now." Love.) and then said that the final person in the bottom three was...Casey. Haley was so excited but couldn't really show it.

The triumphant return of seventh-place finisher Jennifer Hudson came next. (Ryan introduced her as "the only Idol winner to have an Academy Award.") In a tremendous twist of irony, George Huff, who beat Jennifer during her season, was one of her backup singers.

So, on to the shock and awe. Ryan sent Thia back to safety. And then it was Casey and Stefano. The person at risk of going home was...Casey.

Cue a tremendous stream of bleeping. You couldn't see either Casey or Stefano's mouths, so it was hard to determine who was doing the cursing.

At one point, the camera cut over to Jacob, who sat there in such shock, it reminded me once again of Kristi Glakas' reaction to being crowned Miss Virginia 2005. (And who says my knowledge of pageants isn't useful?)

A shaky Casey chose to sing I Don't Need No Doctor, and started out really well. Then all kinds of craziness broke loose. Steven and Randy stopped the song, and they told Casey that they thought the results were ridiculous and they were absolutely using the save on him.

Casey truly looked like he was going to pass out or have a heart attack. (Remember, this is a kid who has been in the hospital twice in the last four or so weeks.) A gigantic stream of censor-endorsed silence endured. He walked over to the judges and asked, "Why would you do that? It's Top 11." (He explained that since they were told only the Top 10 finalists would be going on tour, he didn't think the judges would be allowed to use their save.)

Finally, the judges gave Casey some constructive advice. "No more antics," J.Lo lectured. "Let people feel your soul." Randy contradicted his Wednesday night feedback and told Casey, "You don't need to growl. No more growling. Just sing."

At the show's close, Ryan shared the good and the bad news. The Top 11 would go on tour this year instead of the Top 10, but next week two contestants will be eliminated.

I wasn't utterly surprised by the bottom three, although I was disappointed to see Stefano there. I hope this gives Casey the kick in the pants he needs to drop the ego and go back to the excellent performances he gave during Hollywood week, before he started believing that snarling and mugging for the camera were the keys to success. And hopefully the wrong people won't go home next week.

Well, that took less time than the actual show, so enjoy!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

AI Top 11 Recap: Make Us Beg for Those Notes...

So, let's say there's this restaurant in your neighborhood. You've been going there for years. It's always crowded, people say they like it, and everything is really familiar to you. You pretty much know what you're going to get when you're there, even when they change up some of the chefs or wait staff. And there comes a time when you start to get frustrated with the restaurant, the food is just the same every time, and perhaps the wait staff is starting to grate on you, so you decide you might stop eating there.

But suddenly, the restaurant is under new ownership. Some people tell you it's now better than ever, so you go again and you're impressed. The food does seem better, so does the experience. The first few times. Then you start feeling underwhelmed again. But everyone keeps insisting this is the best food, the best experience ever. So is it you?

As you probably figured out early on in this lengthy analogy, this season of American Idol is like that restaurant for me. Everyone is saying the judges and the talent are better than ever, and for a while I believed it, but now I'm feeling generally less impressed, even though people still keep telling me how great the show, the judges and the contestants are. Oh well. (Now why am I hungry?)

And...welcome to Motown Week! J.Lo is wearing one of Pretty Princess Julie Zorrilla's sparkly ballerina tops and enough blush and eye shadow to give coulrophobics (those afraid of clowns) nightmares. Seriously, Mattel, here's your inspiration for "Sparkly Ballerina Clown Barbie." And Steven is wearing animal prints. (Why is he robbing my Grandma Anne's closet?)

While the audience signs included the obvious "Walk This Way, Steven," the one that baffled me (unless it's a reference to an audition show) is "Steven Tyler, You're My Mother's Hall Pass." Huh?

So what is Motown? Randy gave the same answer he gives every season during Motown Week, while Steven explained it was "music that inspired him to make out with girls." And more than make out, Ryan naughtily explained, as he pointed out Liv Tyler in the audience. Blushes and giggles all around.

First up, Casey, singing Heard it Through the Grapevine. (I know this is a classic song, but I cannot get the California Raisins out of my head when I hear this.) The producers encouraged Casey to hold back a little and not scream his lungs out. His performance was...good, not great. His mugging into the camera is starting to remind me of a Zach Galifianakis character (I may write this, but you know you're thinking it) and I'm starting to worry he's becoming the bearded version of Taylor Hicks. Where did the guy who sang Why Don't You Do Right and Georgia On My Mind go? Steven mentioned Casey's "crazy out of control ego" (ok, so I'm not the only one who noticed) and J.Lo wondered, "Is there anybody out there right now like you. You could be the guy!" And Randy gave the ultimate Mr. Rogers-in-a-fortune-cookie statement, "You can only do you, and that you is great!"

Our newly-turned 16-year-old Thia heeded the judges' call for a non-boring song this week, choosing to sing the perennial Motown Week fave, Heat Wave, which has been trotted out since Kimberley Locke sang it in season 2. (And I think nearly every person who has performed it has wound up in the bottom three.) Jimmy Iovine and the producers tried to rev us up into thinking Thia would have some amazing breakout moment. Not so much. Basically, this song consists mostly of randomly screaming "HEAT WAVE," which doesn't give a vocalist a great deal of opportunity. (Plus, she forgot some of her lyrics, which surprisingly the judges didn't call her out on, but she admitted in the post-performance confession cam.) The judges praised her for taking on something more upbeat, and J.Lo said "I didn't even know you had this in you." Randy, of course, snarkily admitted he thought Thia had it in her. But given an inch, the judges want a mile, saying that she scratched the surface and now they want more from her next time. (Not necessarily sure there will be a next time. I'm just sayin'.)

According to Jimmy Iovine, "Jacob is the most natural person to sing Motown." (Not touching that one with a 10-foot pole.) He chose to sing You're All I Need to Get By by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and was warned by the producers not to go hog-wild, but to have some control over the big notes. At first glance, his backup singers seemed frightened about what he was going to do with this song. Giggle. This certainly was a much more throttled-down Jacob than the last few weeks, but I just cannot get on the Jacob-Hot-Tamale Train. (Sorry, Mary Murphy.) His facial expressions and certain notes are still far, far more over the top than I think they should be, but then again, I'm just blogging about the show. In my house. For free. I do not believe this performance was worthy of:
  • a standing ovation from all three judges
  • Steven's coming on stage to hug Jacob and call him "Baby Luther"
  • Randy's declaration that this was Jacob's "other best performance ever in the history of the show," and
  • Ryan's allowing all of the people in the front row to come up and individually hug Jacob (which, of course, allowed the opportunity to make a big deal of stopping before (egads!) a guy hugged him).
Oh, and J.Lo told Jacob she "loved it that he made [her] beg for the notes."

In this week's installment of "Why You Should Feel Sorry for Lauren," we learned that people say mean things about her on the internet. (Oh. Oops.) So to send a message to those people, she'll be singing You Keep Me Hanging On, also known as the song that sent Vanessa Olivarez and Leah Labelle home first in seasons 2 and 3, respectively. Jimmy confessed that "two weeks ago" he was "worried" about Lauren, because she's young and stubborn, but he feels like she's in it for the long haul. I thought she looked better than ever, and again, pieces of the song were quite good. (What was not good, however, was her practically feeling Randy up as she danced around the judges.) She just hasn't found her groove yet, and I worry that if the judges keep praising her for tepid performances she'll never be motivated to do better. The judges kept telling her that the girl they fell in love with is back.

Random celebrities called out by Ryan: Jennifer Beals, original Temptation Otis Williams and Gordon Ramsey (more on that a-hole later)

Random, unnamed celebrities in the audience: Kirsten Dunst, Julianne Hough and Adam Shankman. (How would you feel if you were a celebrity and Ryan didn't point you out to the audience?)

Stefano and Ryan had a cute chat on the stools, where it was revealed that Stefano's mother cooked dinner for the contestants. And Ryan had some leftovers, which he proceeded to eat while talking to Stefano, despite his warnings he'd get garlic breath. (Not gonna touch that one.) Stefano said that he heard Motown music all the time while growing up, yet for some inexplicable reason he chose to sing Lionel Richie's Hello, which he claims to have never heard before. I was surprised by two things—first, that the song wasn't recorded on a different label other than Motown (I just associate them with songs of the 60s and 70s, mostly), and second, that Stefano never even heard David Cook's amazing version of the song during season 7. That being said, the producers tried to warn Stefano of oversinging and encouraged him to try and keep his eyes open a little more. All in all, it didn't go that well. While I thought he was spot-on vocally through most of the song, he pushed way, way too hard, so it almost seemed like he was performing in "Dancing on the Ceiling: The Lionel Richie Musical." J.Lo told Stefano that his vocals were perfect but that there was no emotional connection. She said, "I don't want the intensity to come from you wanting to do well. I want it to come from because your heart is breaking." She also encouraged him to connect with the lyrics as if he were telling a story or writing a letter. (Do people even write letters anymore? I miss real letters.) Randy agreed with J.Lo, but couldn't stop himself from slipping into Stupid Dawg-ville, when he said to Stefano, "You've been in relationships. Ryan and you, you know." (Julianne Hough leaned forward in her chair.)

Perennial bottom three dweller Haley has as her objective staying out of the cellar this week. She chose to sing The Miracles' You Really Got a Hold on Me, and her version really showed off her husky, growly vocal styling to its best advantage. She's still not comfortable performing onstage, however, as she still tends to lean forward to one side and leer at the audience awkwardly. The judges were pleased with her performance, welcoming back the "Janis Joplin bluesy girl we fell in love with." J.Lo told Haley she had the most soulful voice in the competition, correcting herself to add, "...of the girls, and Jacob for the boys." Truthfully, I think Haley has been portrayed as fairly unlikeable, and I can't quite figure out why, but I don't anticipate she's going to last much longer.

So Ryan comes back from commercial to chat up Gordon Ramsay, who is now holding the container of Stefano's mother's leftovers. When Ryan asks Gordon what he thinks of the food, he replied, "Well, at least he can sing" and then he made some crack about there being too much garlic. J.Lo warned, "the mother is getting unhappy," so it was time to see what Scotty would do with Motown. (Does every British man need to be, or pretend to be, a giant asshat?)

Before his pre-performance footage, Scotty demonstrated his basketball prowess, shooting a 9-footer from the balcony of the mansion. He chose to sing a countrified version of For Once in My Life by Stevie Wonder, explaining that it was important to be respectful of the song but to give it a "Scotty vibe." (You gotta love when people refer to themselves in the third person, especially when they're 17.) The song was interesting, and Scotty is definitely pushing himself vocally a bit more, but he borrowed his staging from Haley, as he leaned in the other direction. And pointed. And smiled. And leaned. And pointed. The judges praised him as usual for doing his thing, and in fact, J.Lo said, "I didn't know what to expect from you." Really? No offense, but he's not done anything but sing country music except for the Beatles song, so what was J.Lo expecting? She also said that Scotty "got" her when he hit his low notes, which Randy dubbed "the ladykiller notes." Steven said Scotty "tweaked" him. Ok...

Pia chose to sing All in Love is Fair by Stevie Wonder. Is it me, or were the songs men recorded on Motown much stronger than those recorded by women? Pia talked about how this song "gets her," meaning she really felt connected to the lyrics and the emotion of the song. I thought she sounded terrific, as always. I just love her voice. Some of my friends have said she brings nothing "special" to the competition, because she only sings ballads, but I have no quarrel with that. Why is it not okay for Pia to sing ballads each time but it's okay for Lauren to sing upbeat country-ish songs every time? The judges praised her vocals, with J.Lo calling them "perfect," and she told Pia she could have a career like Celine Dion right now. But J.Lo pushed Pia to go outside her comfort zone, and show some more emotional connection to what she's singing, as well as to the audience. Randy asked for at least a mid-tempo number (anyone want to bet he'll then wonder why she isn't singing a ballad) next time, while Steven disagreed with the other judges. "You are the brightest star in the American Idol galaxy," he told her, "but if you need to put on a pair of sneakers and kick some ass just to please these guys, you can do it."

Time for our "cool dude of the loose mood," Paul. Finally, he brought out his guitar, to sing The Tracks of My Tears, with which Adam Lambert had an amazing moment in season 8. With his guitar in hand, Paul gave a much less trippy and disjointed performance; in fact, there were times during the song, particularly when he sang quietly, that he was fantastic. I think if he sang the entire song acoustically, he could have hit it out of the park. J.Lo told him he "had a tear in his voice" (that's a line I wish I could have written) and that he's already the complete package, all he needs is a good producer and he's ready to go. (I could see Paul thinking, "Really? So why am I here then?") Randy said, "Dude, when you sing tender at the very end, oh my God, dude. Definitely got the husky thing going on." (I like quoting word for word.)

Naima talked about what a privilege it was to sing Motown and how grateful she was for those who paved the way. She chose to sing Martha and The Vandellas' Dancing in the Street, and among her accompanists were two beautifully dressed African drummers. While I don't believe the song offered her any real opportunity to showcase her voice (although she definitely was on key more than the last few weeks), she threw in some African dancing toward the end of the song. All I could think of is how Simon would have reacted, as he called Tim Urban's slide across the stage last season during Crazy Little Thing Called Love indulgent. The judges praised her originality and her ability to stay on pitch, although Randy acknowledged the song wasn't a vocal challenge. And Steven said "It was E to the Z, ooh, tweedle-dee-dee." (WTF? I realize he's perceptive sometimes, but what kind of feedback is that?) IMHO, Naima is tremendously entertaining, and I know she has a better voice than she's shown thus far. However, herein lies one of my fundamental challenges with this show—should a less talented but more entertaining performer outlast more talented but less colorful performers? Is that why Taylor Hicks stuck around? (Ok, I'll admit, I liked Taylor, but more for what I kept hoping he'd do than what he did.)

James got the beloved pimp spot, singing (speaking of Taylor) Living for the City by Stevie Wonder. (I'd imagine that Stevie, Mariah, Whitney and Celine love when this show is on the air.) While I've heard from other recappers that he started out pitchy, the sound on our television cut out briefly, so when it cut back in about 5-7 seconds later, he had hit his groove. James is a very confident performer and singer (which is amazing, considering his Asperger's and Tourette's) and I think he did a really good job. I feel like he harnesses the shrieking much more than he did at first, and really knows how to work the crowd without being a total ham. The crowd cheered for a long while, and J.Lo (nicely) allowed James to soak up the moment. She told him, "you are serious business up there." Randy said that the start was "pitchy, dawg" (this after Ryan had commented how Randy hadn't used the p-word the entire show) but said that he "did his thing." And Steven said, "Sometimes it takes a little bit of crazy to make a difference in this world." (Who knows better than Uncle Stevie?)

I really was underwhelmed by this week's episode. While there were no out-and-out disasters, only a few people's performances really grabbed me. It should be interesting to see who winds up in the bottom three tonight.

Who Should Be in the Bottom Three: Casey, Thia, Naima
Who Will Be in the Bottom Three: Thia, Haley, Naima (although Casey and/or Stefano could surprise)

I'd expect Haley or possibly Thia to go home tonight. But if three women are again in the bottom three, the show is really going to need to reevaluate things, because not one guy has been at risk.

Until tonight's filler-laden results show...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

RIP, Elizabeth Taylor...

The stars in the Hollywood firmament dulled a little this morning with the death of screen legend Elizabeth Taylor. She had been suffering from various health problems for many years, and finally succumbed to congestive heart failure at the age of 79, surrounded by her four children.

Elizabeth Taylor was many things.

A true beauty, particularly in her younger years.

A dazzling actress, who turned in legendary performances from childhood through adulthood, in everything from National Velvet to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer and A Place in the Sun, among many others.

A larger-than-life celebrity, whose ups and downs in her personal life truly captivated a nation, and who was a steadfast friend to many who seemed to need it.

One of Elizabeth Taylor's greatest roles, however, was that of activist. Following the AIDS-related death of close friend Rock Hudson, she helped start the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) and created her own AIDS foundation, the Elizabeth Taylor HIV/AIDS Foundation. She convinced many celebrities and charitable organizations to give money to support research, treatment and prevention. But more than that, she convinced people that those suffering from HIV and AIDS should not be shunned, but embraced as human beings.

amfAR posted a powerful tribute to Taylor on its web site following her death.

They also released the following statement:

"The board of trustees and staff of amfAR mourn the passing of our beloved Founding International Chairman, Dame Elizabeth Taylor. Dame Elizabeth was without doubt one of the most inspirational figures in the fight against AIDS. She was among the first to speak out on behalf of people living with HIV when others reacted with fear and often outright hostility. For 25 years, Dame Elizabeth has been a passionate advocate of AIDS research, treatment and care. She has testified eloquently on Capitol Hill, while raising millions of dollars for amfAR. Dame Elizabeth’s compassion, radiance, and generosity of spirit will be greatly missed by us all. She leaves a monumental legacy that has improved and extended millions of lives and will enrich countless more for generations to come."

It is not often that people use the opportunities they have been given in their lives to make the world a better place, but Elizabeth Taylor certainly did. A woman of her stature and celebrity could easily have pretended people with AIDS don't exist, but instead, she gave them endless love and support.

RIP, Dame Taylor. You truly touched the world with your heart and your generosity, as well as your beauty and talent.

Book Review: "One of Our Thursdays is Missing" by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde is a ffreakin' genius. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) If you've never read any of his novels featuring literary detective Thursday Next, or even his "Nursery Crimes" series featuring Detective Jack Spratt, you are missing some of the funniest, literature-loving books you'll probably ever see. And One of Our Thursdays is Missing, the sixth Thursday Next novel (and the first in several years), has Fforde at the top of his game.

There's chaos in the BookWorld—the result of a border war between Racy Novel and Women's Fiction, pure metaphor is being smuggled out of books and sold on the black market, and the question of what effect e-books will have is causing some panic. Literary detective Thursday Next has gone missing just before planning to lead peace talks between Racy Novel and Women's Fiction, so it becomes the responsibility of the "written" Thursday to investigate what's behind all of the trouble, while she's trying to ensure that her fellow characters perform as they're supposed to in order to keep the occasional readers of the series occupied. And while she's trying to figure out who she can trust, she finds herself being chased and threatened with death (aka erasure) by the Men in Plaid. (Trust me, while this may sound completely outlandish, it's truly amazing once you start reading Fforde's books.)

I have been a big Jasper Fforde fan since his first book, The Eyre Affair, in 2001. The whole idea of the BookWorld and the Outland (aka the "Real World") is so tremendously unique and multi-layered, and I've found myself re-reading passages because I have been so busy marveling at his use of language, puns and literary references. Thursday Next and her compatriots are such dynamic characters that live on in your mind long after you've finished reading. And when Fforde introduces a concept, such as the Emergency Snooze Button (when a book's characters can cause all of its readers to suddenly fall asleep in case of an in-book emergency), you snap your fingers and think, "Of course!" If you love literature and sly humor, you'll love Fforde's books. Truly one-of-a-kind.

Monday, March 21, 2011

There's An App for That: Hate, That Is...

As Apple continues its campaign for world domination, its less-humanitarian side is showing again. The company has been criticized previously for its refusal to allow gay-friendly applications to be sold in its App Store, yet it has endorsed anti-gay applications. While in the past, several of those have been removed after protests, a new one cropped up a few weeks ago.

Exodus International, the organization that claims to bring "healing to homosexuals," has released a free iPhone application. According to its description in the App Store, "Exodus International is the world’s largest ministry to individuals and families impacted by homosexuality. With over 35 years of ministry experience, Exodus is committed to encouraging, educating and equipping the Body of Christ to address the issue of homosexuality with grace and truth. This app is free and provides access to current news, information and resources from Exodus International."

Exodus International is an "ex-gay" group, or one that purports to "heal" people of their homosexuality, mostly through prayer and scare tactics. According to Truth Wins Out, Once Exodus has attracted new clients, prayer and denial are the tools they use to supposedly "change" GLBT people into heterosexuals. This process can involve mind control that alters behavior, but not sexual orientation.

There is no evidence to support the efficacy of the techniques or therapies employed by Exodus, but there are mounting examples of people who claim to have been harmed by the organization. Attempts to change sexual orientation are also deemed to be ineffective and potentially dangerous by mainstream mental health professionals. In fact, the American Psychological Association, after extensive study, determined that "ex-gay" therapy is unsuccessful and harmful.

To date, a petition started by has more than 118,000 signatures calling for Apple to remove Exodus International's application, but Apple has yet to respond.

How many more teenagers need to take their own lives, how many more people must die in hate-related violence because organizations like Exodus International push the lie that gay people can "pray it away"? Apple needs to realize that while it makes a great deal of money from the gay community, it cannot do so at the expense of that community.

I hope that Steve Jobs and his company come to their senses soon. Sexual orientation is not a choice and cannot legitimately be changed, but ownership of personal electronics can be.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Whether 'Tis Nobler to Pursue a Dream or Accept Reality...

I have long dreamt of becoming famous. Throughout my life, I have imagined writing the Great American Novel (or even a Good one), hosting a cooking show, even somehow magically being discovered in a community theater production and getting a career on Broadway (despite the fact that I don't participate in community theater).

But since I was young, I've most imagined having a singing career. I've been singing pretty much nonstop since I was eight years old, after I landed a part in my elementary school production of HMS Pinafore. (I was the Monarch of the Sea.) My dreams of singing usually involved using a hairbrush or pencil as a microphone, singing my heart out in my bedroom (it was in the back of our house), blasting pop music, show tunes, classic rock or whatever I knew the words to. (My siblings particularly enjoyed bursting open the bedroom door when I was in mid-song to scare the crap out of me.)

I sang in school and summer camp talent shows, high school and camp musicals, Chamber Choir and All-Shore Choir. At that time, I was too young to audition for the original Star Search, and there weren't really other options out there. And while people complimented my voice (those who weren't making fun of me for being into theater and music instead of sports), no one ever encouraged me to pursue a career in music.

But while I put the actual pursuit of a musical career away, I never put away my dreams. However, I never found an outlet other than singing in the car (which I do pretty much constantly) or periodic bouts of karaoke. I tried out for one community theater production years ago but the old lack of dancing ability foiled that. Then it suddenly seemed I was too old for things—too old to audition for the touring company of Rent, too old to audition for the revamp of Star Search with Arsenio Hall, and of course, too old to audition for American Idol. Plus, I'm fortunate enough not to have any real "sob story," which seems to be the hook on many of these reality shows.

Now, Simon Cowell is bringing his hit show X-Factor to America. There is no upper age limit for singers, so this may very well be the only opportunity I have to pursue a childhood dream. Yet at the same time, I can't help but wonder if I'm really talented enough to make it happen, or whether taking two days off to head to New York and follow a pipe dream is more a waste of time than anything else.

Should you always try and pursue your dreams, even if you know they might not come true, simply for the sake of trying? And if the dream you've had since forever doesn't come true, what then? Just chalk it up to life experience?

I have a few weeks to decide, but I just don't know what to do.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Book Review: "Witches on the Road Tonight" by Sheri Holman

Sheri Holman's Witches on the Road Tonight is an interesting and well-written book about the ties of family and heritage, and how the past affects our future. In rural Virginia during the Depression, young Eddie Alley and his mother live a tremendously humble existence, hunting for ginseng and other roots, while his father works in the Civilian Conservation Corps. One day, he encounters a writer and photographer who are profiling rural life for the WPA, and this visit awakens Eddie's ability to dream of a life away from his poor existence and his mother, who is rumored to be some sort of witch.

Years later, Eddie is the host of a campy late-night horror show on television, living with his wife, Ann, and 12-year-old daughter, Wallis. When Ann and Eddie open their home to Jasper, a homeless teenager who has been living at the station, Jasper's presence awakens feelings in Eddie he had long kept hidden, and in Wallis, who wonders if she could use her grandmother's powers of witchcraft to make someone love her.

I'll admit that this book wasn't quite what I expected, as reviews I had read intimated that the ghost story-angle would figure more prominently. But even without that, the story is a very interesting one, and I found myself wanting to keep reading to see what happened. The sections of the book that told of young Eddie and his mother I actually found the most interesting, because I felt a few of the other characters weren't quite as complex, and their actions and motivations were fairly confusing from time to time. But all in all, this a thought-provoking and intriguing book, with characters that you'll remember after you've finished reading.

AI Results Show Recap: Love Will Lead You...Out

It looks like Taylor Dayne's Love Will Lead You Back is now another song to avoid singing, because in addition to Season 4's Mikalah Gordon, the song has now ended the run of our bilingual songbird, Karen Rodriguez. But more on that later.

The show opened with a montage of the contestants sharing what their childhood dreams were. (My fave: Scotty's admission that he wanted to be an astronaut, but his brains were not astronaut material.) And then the dramatic words crawled across the screen:

Last night they fought for the same dream
Their fate is in your hands
America has spoken

Umm, ok.

The judges were introduced and Steven Tyler literally was wearing an outfit stolen from KISS, minus the makeup. Who dresses this guy? J.Lo may need to pull out her Grammys dress in order to get noticed.

The contestants broke into their Glee-inspired mashup of Born To Be Wild and Born This Way (which sounds more like Madonna's Express Yourself every time I hear it). And it was live. Not all that good, but live. Jacob was his usual dramatic self. He's starting to remind me of Geoffrey Holder. Anyone else?

Blah blah blah...

Uninspiring Ford music video to Bowling for Soup's Val Kilmer (I'll admit it: I looked that up)

Blah blah blah...

Product placement for American Idol's 10th anniversary CD (somehow the studio audience didn't get as excited about finding the CD under their chairs as they would if they were on Oprah)

Blah blah blah...

Pre-recorded segment on "What Defines Our Idols," aka Stupid Contestant Tricks. The highlight was Pia's getting bleeped when she explained that she has a singing shih-tzu. (What did they really think she'd say?)

And then we got down to the results, after a brief St. Patrick's Day interlude. First up were Jacob, Lauren and Casey. Ryan asked Randy for a lesson on what causes pitch problems ("it's when you are just under or just over the correct pitch...") and J.Lo tried to excuse it away by explaining the contestants have trouble hearing themselves over the music.

My recap to the contestants would have been very different than Ryan's was. I would have said, "Jacob, once again you destroyed an amazing song with your vocal histrionics, yet for some reason the judges, despite wincing during your performance, have chosen to ignore the problems. Lauren, you're a talented singer, but your attitude is tremendously irritating. Casey, you have so much potential, but STOP SCREAMING!" (Ahem.)

All were safe. Next up: Haley and Paul. Haley was once again asked if she knew what kind of artist she was, to which she replied, "Well, I'd like to sing rock and funk and blues, all together, you know?" (In other words, no.) Paul admitted he took vitamins. (Is that what the kids are calling it these days?)

Paul was safe. Haley, once again, was in the bottom three, so she headed off to her stool of shame.

Upon returning from commercials, because there has to be at least one J.Lo-related plug in every episode, Ryan greeted Pitbull, with whom she collaborates on her new single, saying "congratulations on everything." Pitbull looked like he had never seen Ryan before in his life.

Last year's winner, Lee DeWyze, performed one of his new songs. It was perfectly unobjectionable, much like Lee himself. When asked to give the contestants advice, he said, "Always remember why you tried out. Whether you win or lose, you still love music, and you need to remember that." Such a nice boy; in fact, according to Ryan, Lee is "one of the nicest contestants we've ever had on the show."

Scotty, Pia and James came up next. Didn't take a rocket scientist to know all three were safe.

Next came Stefano and Naima. Naima mentioned she has "a passionate hate for the word 'pitchy.' I am in love with the word 'pitch,' and I promise we will be in perfect harmony if I get to come back." Stefano was safe and Naima joined Haley in the bottom three.

Karen and Thia were last to learn their fate. Thia talked about herself as an artist and said she could do so much better if given the chance next week. And then Karen was sent to the stools of shame.

The Black-Eyed Peas performed. For the longest time, I thought there was a stand-in for Fergie. It was weird, so I fast-forwarded through the performance. (C'mon, it's March Madness!)

Just before Ryan sent Naima back to the couch, it was amazing that she, Haley and Karen didn't even touch each other. Then, when he announced that Haley was safe and Karen was at risk of being sent home, none of the other finalists seemed excited for Haley or tried to hug her. Maybe Jimmy Iovine was right?

Karen chose to sing Hero in order to convince the judges to save her. It was a little stronger than her Top 24 performance, but still off-key. While the judges made small talk deliberated, she explained, "I know it's about the votes, but I'm so proud of what I've done. I know I could do so much better if I'm given the chance, but I want to thank my fans. My mother is proud of me."

To save J.Lo another emotional breakdown, Randy delivered the news: the judges had decided to not use the save, although he explained the decision was not anonymous. So we watched Karen's journey to the sounds of David Cook, and then saw the judges up on stage, comforting the contestants. Randy hugged Sad Jacob, whose best friend is leaving the competition.

And we're out. An hour that felt like a day.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

AI Top 12 Recap: "We Got Ourselves a Hot Competition!"

Welcome to American Idol, "the show where you call the shots the producers manipulate you toward!" The theme was "Birth Year Songs" (perhaps Simon Cowell owned the copyright for "Songs from the Year You Were Born") and in addition to getting insights on why the contestants chose their songs, we got to see what they were like as babies and small children. And they had one-on-one counseling sessions with Jimmy Iovine.

J.Lo sported her biggest hair yet of the competition and an outfit from the "Endangered Species" collection, while Steven wore a glittery, frilly, colorful shirt he must have gotten from the Mrs. Doubtfire set as payment for Aerosmith's granting the rights to use "Dude Looks Like a Lady" in the movie.

Our "exotic flower," Naima kicked things off. She was born in 1984, and music was a part of her life from an early age, and she's teaching her daughters to love music as well. Naima cried during her meeting with Jimmy, as the hardest thing about competing is missing her daughters. (Sadly, she may not have to miss them much longer.) She chose to sing Tina Turner's What's Love Got to Do with It, and her producer said the challenge was making a song from 1984 relevant in 2011. For Naima, the challenge was keeping on pitch. The performance was entertaining, and at times, she showed off her voice, but it wasn't exceptional in any way. But Steven, who has appointed himself president of Naima's fan club, didn't get the memo, as he told her she has a "sorcerer's grasp of melody." (Anyone see the original Disney version of Fantasia? The sorcerer didn't always succeed.) J.Lo said last week she gave Naima a "pass on pitchiness," but this week she noticed she was consistently pitchy. But she loves her anyway because her "flavor is crazy." Randy mentioned the vocals were a mess and the pitch was all over the place. Naima took the criticism in stride but said it's all about "the feeling" for her, and she felt good. So there.

George Orwell's favorite year (1984, you English class slackers) also saw the birth of Paul, the contestant who most makes me need Dramamine. Paul, who was suffering from a cold, took on Elton John's I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues. It was a typical Paul performance—trippy, mellow, not particularly exciting, despite his “what’s up, y’all” greeting to the audience. I can’t quite figure out if Paul is one of those singers who might be more comfortable in front of a band than singing solo. J.Lo was caught on camera singing along, one of a number of J.Lo closeups this episode, although many of them were more dramatic. The judges refused to give Paul a pass because he had a cold (they’re reserving that for a certain flu-stricken contestant later in the show). Randy began his campaign for musical relevancy by comparing Paul to Ray Lamontagne (whom he referred to as a “musical ingénue”) in that both have very distinctive sounds, although he did tell Paul that his vocals were pitchy. Steven said he “defined a cool dude in a loose mood.” Yeah, ok.

Thia was born in 1995(!). She apparently wrote her first song at age 6, called I Will Always Love You. She chose to sing Colors of the Wind from Disney’s Pocahontas (free will can be a dangerous thing). To use a Paula Abdulism, she looked beautiful, although the beige gown pretty much summed up her performance—blah. Thia has a beautiful voice with a rich tone, but at times she slurred her words, and the song was just so boring. (What on earth is a blue corn moon, anyway?) Randy called the performance boring and pageanty. (He clearly hasn’t been to a pageant recently. No one sings that song. Orange-Colored Sky, maybe, but not this one.) J.Lo compared Thia’s voice to Adele’s (really?) but also questioned whether her vibrato was caused by nerves or if it was something that needed fixing. Steven asked if this song was one that defined Thia. She explained, “I chose this song because the lyrics really meant something with all that is going on in the world, all the, you know. It was from 1995, and it was the best of the songs I had to choose from.” (If that’s true, I shudder to think what else was on that list.) Thia was encouraged to take a song, “push it out of the box and kill it.”

Awkward moment: Ryan asked James , “Are you a Kate Hudson fan?” James: “Huh?” (Kate Hudson tried to hide her face behind two Cheetos bags.) James was an adorable baby who, according to his mother, could sing the alphabet in perfect pitch. Much was made of the fact that he played with dolls (oh, sorry, one doll). Born in 1989, he selected Bon Jovi’s I’ll Be There For You. While it wasn’t as strong as last week’s performance, I thought he did a really good job, and really is proving he has more depth and talent than I initially thought when he just kept screaming all the time. Steven warned him “don’t get too poppy on me,” and James suggested saving Aerosmith for the finale. Steven agreed to that (at least I think so, because about a minute and a half of Steven’s comments were censored). J.Lo said that a great performance makes you want to sing along, and she found herself “acting the fool” while James was singing. Randy name-dropped “Jon Bon and the Bon Jovi Boys”(?) and said that he did a great job. When pressed about his promise to James, Steven said “this kid has a rich vein of inner crazy.” That makes two, no? James also mentioned that he, Casey, Paul and Stefano were in a band. That might be pretty cool.

Last week’s near ly-ousted Haley was up next. She was born in 1990, and chose to sing Whitney Houston’s I’m Your Baby Tonight. (I really cannot believe with all the songs that came out in 1990, this is the one she chose to sing. Are their choices really that limited?) In her meeting with Jimmy Iovine, he told her there were a lot of talented people in the competition and it didn’t really matter if she won or lost, but that “work ethic” was most important. (I couldn’t figure out if that was a reprimand or a lecture, but I quickly forgot about it.) Haley clearly doesn’t feel comfortable moving onstage, although I thought she did some really interesting things vocally with the song, especially some cool jazz riffing near the end that had the judges bobbing their heads. To top it off, her red lipstick smeared all over her face while she was singing (I guess from putting the microphone too close to her lips) so that was so distracting that Ryan came over to try and help clean her face up during the judges’ feedback. (Props to Haley for her confession that this was her “first red lipstick massacre.”) J.Lo damned her with the “you look beautiful” card but said her movement was really forced. Randy once again beat the “I don’t know who you are as an artist” drum, even though he appeared to be enjoying her performance, and criticized her for singing Alicia Keys, LeAnn Rimes and Whitney Houston in succession. Steven called her “sweet and tough,” but hoped she’d sing more blues music, which adds just another confusing genre to the list of things they’ve told Haley to sing. (Last week Randy said she should sing Stevie Nicks.) I just wish the judges could try and be consistent with these kids.

(As an aside, at what point in an actor’s career do they decide that appearing in a movie alongside an animated or computer-generated character isn’t selling out? Yes, James Marsden and Kaley Cuoco, I’m talking to you. Hop looks like another Alvin and the Chimpmunks, but with the Easter Bunny.)

Stefano’s pre-performance segment showed what an adorable family he comes from, and also illustrated that he and his father have very similar mini-soul patches. (I kid you not. Check it out.) He was born in 1989, and after poking fun at some of the hits from that year (Girl You Know It’s True, Hanging Tough and Funky Cold Medina), he mentioned he’d be singing Simply Red’s version of If You Don’t Know Me By Now. I thought he was fantastic. I love his phrasing and the emotion he puts into every song he sings. We were treated to a dramatic closeup of J.Lo during the song, which reminded me of the way the camera used to focus on Paula when Adam Lambert used to sing. Randy said that Stefano gave the best performance of the night so far and praised his “hot vocals,” saying he “slayed it.” (He also couldn’t pass up the opportunity to mention that Stefano’s song was originally sung by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.) J.Lo told him “you can take this competition,” calling him perfect, but encouraged him to “sing to [her] a little more and look into [her] eyes,” which she quickly amended to say he needed to look in the audience’s eyes. She then encouraged him to go hug his mother. Cuteness to the nth degree.

In Pia’s pre-performance segment, there was video of her getting her little diva self on, singing I Will Always Love You. (Whitney’s version, not Thia’s.) She also talked about how her grandfather loved to hear her sing, and how, sadly, he died shortly before his 86th birthday. Born in 1988, Pia clearly has been listening to those calling for her to sing a non-ballad, so she chose Whitney Houston’s Where Do Broken Hearts Go. I hated the synth-heavy arrangement of the song, but loved Pia’s vocals. (Hated the Kim Kardashian by way of I Dream of Jeannie jumpsuit, however.) I also like that she’s starting to show some personality, because I worried she’d eventually get crowded out over the more personable, less talented contestants. Steven told her “You are why the show is called American Idol,” J.Lo said she’s perfect every time and said her grandfather was an angel on her shoulder, and Randy said “Pia is in it to win it! Yeah!”

Elvis-loving Scotty was the chubbiest little baby. His parents are adorable, too. He was born in 1993, and chose to sing Travis Tritt’s Can I Trust You with My Heart. He told Jimmy Iovine that while he knew people expected him to change the song up a bit, “his fan base” wanted him to respect the song’s integrity. I thought his voice sounded really good, as he pushed himself a bit vocally, even hitting a higher note than he usually does. (J.Lo mentioned he held it longer during rehearsal.) That being said, I thought the song was kind of boring and it didn’t allow him to pull in the audience as much as his last performance did. The judges didn’t say much about his vocals although they liked that he knows who he is, and encouraged him to keep growing and pushing himself. Randy, of course, couldn’t resist mentioning that he worked with Travis Tritt.

Karen sat down to chat with Ryan looking like a flight attendant from outer space with hair snatched straight off of one of the B-52s. Her mother, who featured prominently in Karen’s pre-performance footage, was clearly a proud mama, although the producers found it necessary to subtitle her remarks, simply because English doesn’t appear to be her first language. Karen is another 1989 baby, and were you expecting her to sing Gloria Estefan? I was. But she chose to sang Taylor Dayne’s Love Will Lead You Back, which was Mikalah Gordon’s swan song in season 4. And after telling Jimmy that she didn’t want to be known as the Spanish singer all the time, she sang a verse in Spanish anyway. I thought she was good, not great. Randy said it was better than last week’s performance, although he wasn’t “jumping out of his chair.” (What does it take to do that, anyway?) Steven said he loved Karen’s “ethnic what-it-isness” (?), and J.Lo encouraged Karen to attack her nerves and not expose her weaknesses. “If a note gives you trouble, just don’t hit it,” she counseled.

Returning from commercials before Casey’s segment, Ryan was sitting in the audience with the beloved Tamyra Gray and So You Think You Can Dance’s Mary Murphy . (She’s back! Yea!) Inexplicably, however, Ryan ignored Carly Smithson, who was sitting next to Mary. Weird.

Casey has the coolest parents. No wonder he is the way he is. That’s probably why they let him be a film camp counselor instead of pressuring him to get a “real” job. Casey was born in 1991, and chose to sing Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Much was made about what a big risk this was, and that no one had ever dared sing Nirvana on the show before. (Casey may be starting to believe his own hype, because he petulantly said, “Is this a big risk? I don’t care.”) He got the cool green lights and shadowy lighting effects, and his performance was part-karaoke, part-screamfest. Although J.Lo told Casey she loved him, she called him out on his “screamy, screechy” performance, noting that Kurt Cobain pulled back from all-out screaming when he recorded the song. Steven called Casey “the goop the great stuff is made up of,” and Randy explained that his “being a musician, performing with Journey, and being a producer,” he appreciated Casey’s “putting art first, before commerce.” (Meaning, you weren’t good, but it’s ok because you’re different.) I really was disappointed in Casey’s performance. When I heard he might be singing this song, I envisioned a hybrid between Nirvana’s version and Tori Amos’. He needs to stop screaming, stat, and do something different.

Leading into the commercials before Lauren’s performance, Ryan teased “Last week was tough for this contestant. Will she come back?” (FOR THE ELEVENTEENTH TIME, NO IT WASN’T!!)

This week, Lauren has the flu. She put on a mask and shared one with Ryan, and spent most of their pre-perfomance chat giggling at his mask. (You’re 17, not 7, Lauren.) Watching Lauren’s segment, I realized that although I could be the father of almost every single one of these contestants(!), Lauren’s parents look really young. Lauren was born in 1994, and some photos showed her already getting into mini-diva mode. She chose to sing Melissa Etheridge’s I’m The Only One. She was better than last week and, despite her flu, I thought her vocals were really good in certain places. But it didn’t really excite me that much. The judges told her the same things they tell her every week told Lauren what a great singer and performer she is, and praised her making the song her own. (I guess she made it her own if you consider calling to the audience “Let me hear someone scream,” and smiling while singing the lyric “I’m the only one who’ll drown in my desire for you” making it your own.) Randy told her “you’re back!” When Lauren got off stage, she told the confession cam “I’m back! Randy said so!” (I almost expected her to stick out her tongue.)

Jacob closed the show, and I’ll admit, a shudder ran up my spine when I figured that out. Most of the pre-performance video was his mother claiming he inherited his vocal talent from her, which Jacob denied. He was born in 1987, and decided to sing Alone by Heart, which has been sung to death on the show. Carrie Underwood, Allison Iraheta, Gina Glocksen, and even Ramiele Malubay (remember her?) have performed the song, so I don’t quite understand why he would choose this song. He promised to put a “Lusky stank” on the song. He got the dramatic lighting, and then, much like every other Jacob song, went so horrendously over the top it was flat and sharp and screechy and screamy all at the same time. The camera even caught J.Lo wincing at one particular note. However, the judges thought he was fantastic. J.Lo said the “end product was so great, so tender.” Steven said “gospel had a baby and its name was Jason, err, Jacob” (giggle) and Randy, while admitting he was sharp for “just a few notes” before pulling it back together, said “Jacob is in it to win it!” (Even Jacob looked slightly surprised through the judges’ praise.)

Randy reminded everyone, “We’ve got a hot competition, baby!” Steven said that this show was the best one since the top 40 sang Beatles songs in Las Vegas. (That made me sad because I thought of Kendra Shontelle, Tim Halperin, Robbie Rosen and even pretty princess Julie Zorrilla.) I know the judges can’t say that the show sucked, but I found it fairly lackluster. I definitely don’t agree that this season has the best talent ever.

If I had to pick who I think the bottom three should be, I’d say Naima, Haley and Jacob. However, I think it will be Naima, Haley and Karen, although Thia or Paul could wind up there, too.

Tonight’s results show features last year’s fairly unsuccessful winner, Lee DeWyze, plus the Black-Eyed Peas, who will sing another song I’ll never be able to get out of my head. Oh, and there will be filler. I promise you that…

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Weathering the Ides of March...

Yesterday was March 15, or the Ides of March for you Roman fans out there. While the Ides of March proved particularly cruel for Julius Caesar, it never passes without reminding me of a day that enacted a tremendously sad toll on my family.

As I've discussed before, I went to summer camp in upstate New York from 1980-1989. In the summer of 1983, my family came up for visiting day like any other year, but they had a bit of a surprise for my sister and me: when my mother got out of the car, you could see that she was pregnant. This was completely unexpected for us—I was nearly 14, my sister was almost 10 and my brother was 6, so we had never thought that my parents would have another baby. But the whole idea of a new baby was really exciting, especially since my parents built a new bedroom and bathroom onto the side of our house for me, so I used to joke I had my own wing.

My brother Garrett was born on January 30, 1984. It had been a while since an infant had been in our house for any prolonged period of time, but apart from some sleepless nights (moreso for those with bedrooms upstairs), it was a pretty great experience.

The morning of March 15, 1984, I was getting ready to go to school when I heard screaming from upstairs. Apparently the baby nurse had fed Garrett, changed him and put him to sleep, and then went to take a quick shower, and when she came back into the room, he was no longer breathing. We called the first aid squad, but they were unable to revive the baby. At six weeks old, he fell victim to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

I had barely even heard of SIDS at that point. I couldn't understand how something like this could happen without warning—it wasn't an accident or a disease he suffered from, it just took his life. And as hard as it was for me to understand, I know that comprehending this loss was quite difficult for my younger siblings, and of course, the loss of the baby was utterly incomprehensible for my parents. Although this isn't something you ever can completely move beyond, we were lucky to have the support of our family and friends, who helped make this tragedy slightly easier to handle on a daily basis.

A little less than a year later came a new surprise: one evening in early February my mother told us that she and my father were going to adopt a baby that had just been born in Vermont. This news was a huge shock for us and something we had to keep secret for a few days, until my parents came home with the baby that weekend. And this new baby, who became my brother Justin, was absolutely funny and happy, so his personality helped alleviate some of the anxiety we all felt about having another baby in the house given what had happened to Garrett.

Twenty-seven years later, I can't help but wonder what kind of a person Garrett might have been, and in what direction his life might have taken him. But without that tragedy we might never have had Justin, and I can't imagine life without him. This is truly an example of one door closing and another one opening.

March 15 doesn't pass by without reflecting on what happened. For a few moments, I'm 14 again, caught in an unfathomable moment.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Chris Medina: "What Are Words"

In the early weeks of this season of American Idol, I blogged about Chris Medina, a barista from Chicago who, during his audition, shared one of the show's sadder sob stories. Two weeks before he and his fiancée were scheduled to be married, she sustained a very serious traumatic brain injury in a car accident. While they were never married, Chris has remained her caregiver, and he brought Juliana to his audition.

Many critics and viewers (myself included) questioned whether the judges' decision to bring Juliana into the audition room following Chris' performance was emotional exploitation for ratings' sake or whether it seemed appropriate. Many also wondered whether Chris was being judged on his talent or simly the strong character he has shown in caring for Juliana when she might not always know he is there. Chris' performances during the show weren't exceptional, and some worried that he might take the spot of a more deserving singer because of his story.

Chris was cut just before the top 24 was named, and Jennifer Lopez had a near-emotional breakdown when she told him. So of course, given that the audition shows were filmed prior to the season's live beginning, one would have to wonder why it was so important to make hay of Chris and Juliana's tragedy.

Interestingly enough, 19 Entertainment, the record company that produces the winner and runner-up's albums, and has an option on all contestants, released Chris' first single, What Are Words, this week. While the lyrics and the "official" music video (which you can find on YouTube) are clearly tied to Chris and Juliana's story, what impresses me is his voice. Granted, this is a produced single, but the quality of Chris' voice is quite good here, and I wish that I had seen glimpses of this talent during the audition weeks.

Take a listen. Maybe he will have a successful career after all. I know I'll be listening, and rooting for him and Juliana.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Book Review: "Lethal People" by John Locke

I've found a new crime anti-hero to worship—Donovan Creed, the protagonist in a series written by John Locke. I absolutely flew through the first book, Lethal People, in little more than a day, and found the characters to be interesting yet quirky, and the action virtually nonstop. As I've said after I've read other tremendously satisfying crime novels, I don't know why Hollywood keeps making movie adaptations of television shows, comic books and fairytales, or remaking classic movies, when there are some tremendous books that would make great films. Like this one, for example.

Donovan Creed is an ex-CIA assassin who still works as a hit man. He spends his days straddling both sides of the law—he's employed by several different Mob figures (sometimes playing one against another), and in his spare time, he tests weapons for the federal government. On himself. But Creed is sensitive, too; when he finds out his ex-wife is engaged to a man who brutally abused his previous wife, he uses his brains (and a little brawn) to protect her without running the man out of town. When he visits a children's burn ward and finds himself drawn to a severely burned young girl, his investigation into the fire that killed her family nets him a lady friend and a whole lot of danger. And then throw in bombs, hijacked spy satellites, a dreadlocked paraplegic who is a criminal mastermind, a social murder experiment and circus midgets (seriously), and you have a book that is both gripping and entertaining.

I read a lot of crime novels and mysteries, so I look for books that compel me to turn the pages with action, plot and character development. Lethal People has no shortage of all three—Creed is an appealing anti-hero (similar in some respects to TV's Dexter) and many of the other characters were far more than one-dimensional stereotypes. While some of the plot may be a little far-fetched (although do we really know what goes on behind the government's closed doors), I never felt like I had to utterly suspend my disbelief while reading. I'm definitely going to get further into Locke's series, and I recommend this to anyone who likes a good action-packed crime novel. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Equal or Additional?

A marriage equality bill was brought before the Maryland House today. It had already passed the Senate by a 25-21 vote, and Governor Martin O'Malley was prepared to sign it into law. After emotional debate on both sides, it was decided to send the bill back to the Judiciary Committee, essentially killing the bill for the year.

Needless to say, this is a great disappointment. The rights of people should never be put to a vote among anyone, but simply granted. As I've said before, if I'm expected to pay taxes, register for the draft and go to jury duty like everyone else, I shouldn't have less rights for half of the burden.

Earlier today, on a friend's Facebook thread, I posted a comment in that same vein. I also expressed dismay that quite often the most vociferous opponents of same-sex marriage and other equality-related issues turn out to be hypocrites when they are caught in gay scandals of their own. (NY Democratic State Senator Carl Kruger, who cast votes against same-sex marriage in that state last year, was essentially exposed as a hypocrite and a criminal when he surrendered to federal authorities on corruption charges yesterday.) I then said that if you have issues with your own sexuality, you shouldn't take away my rights.

A friend of this friend replied to my comment by asking "What 'right' of yours has been taken away?" He then said, "No rights have been denied here. This is very different from race based discrimination. What same-sex couples are asking for is additional rights. They have the exact same rights that I do currently."

I then asked whether he had the right to marry a woman he loved. I asked whether he had the right to be at her bedside should she be hospitalized, to be empowered to make decisions relative to her medical care. I also asked whether he had the right to be named a beneficiary for any insurance or pension plans she might have. I explained that if he had those rights, I did not. So at the current time, I do not have the same rights as he did.

His reply infuriated me: "As far as 'rights' go, none of those are rights. You have a right to marry someone. Currently, you have the right to marry...any woman of your choosing. You're asking for the additional right to be able to marry any man of your choosing." He does not understand that in most states, same-sex partners are not recognized by hospitals or health care facilities as the decision maker regarding their partner/spouse's care.

I think I am correct in this debate—I'm not asking for additional rights, I'm asking for the same rights everyone else has.

But am I correct, or simply too close to the situation to see clearly?

Are these additional rights or just basic unalienable rights that should be granted to everyone, not voted on by lawmakers or those who don't feel gay people are worthy of equality?

If I'm wrong, I'll admit it...but I just don't think so.