Turn Ye Not Unto Idols

If you can't find something nice to say about my singing, I'm going to hang you up from a meathook like this

Since the genesis of the neo-soul movement, scores of deluded hopefuls have tried to be the next Stevie Wonder. Remember that guy from Jamiroquai, whose ubiquitous hats were furrier than a '70s Playboy centerfold? Or for a recent example, how about the insufferably pompous Adam Levine from Maroon 5? That kid snogs so many celebutantes it's a wonder his golden larynx hasn't been corroded by Hilton saliva.

Lately it seems like every Joe Buzzworthy with a strong upper register has tried to mimic Wonder's inimitable delivery. It's bad enough that professionals commit these sins of hubris, but imagine the sight of a bloated farm kid wailing "Sir Duke" with piano accompaniment reminiscent of Whose Line Is It Anyway? If this sonic thumbnail has sent chills down your spine and summoned your forearm hairs to their full upright position, you'd do best to avoid this season of American Idol.

Wonder's distinctive delivery has been aped by many an Idol contestant, but never before this season have we been subjected to so many songs in the key of Suck. From "My Cherie Amour" to "I Was Born to Love Her," none of Wonder's timeless compositions have gone untrammeled by this reeking collective of newsboy-cap-wearing hopefuls. Like carrion birds, these contestants travel not in a flock, but a murder. They're determined to wring every last drop of joy from the Stevie Wonder catalog, leaving us with only a memorable Cosby Show episode to remember him by. ("Jammin' on the one!")

Because of Idol, I will now associate "Isn't She Lovely" not with the Sean Penn film of the same name, but with a tone-deaf single father determined to make little Ashlyn proud of him again. Because of Idol, I weep into my Diet Cherry Vanilla Dr. Pepper (now with melatonin!). And yet, ratings are predictably afire for this death march of the untalented. Why, Jesus?

American Idol is the same as it ever was, so it certainly ain't novelty that's attracting hordes of viewers. Host Ryan Seacrest (Dunkleman-free since 2002) is still cracking homophobic jokes, though he's toned down his foil highlights considerably. Simon Cowell, the blue ribbon swine of the judges' panel, is still a stoic asshole, though revulsion looks good on him. Paula Abdul still possesses the exhausted fragility of a former bulimic and dresses like a party favor at a harem-themed Sweet Sixteen bash. (Speaking of which, has anyone watched that My Super Sweet Sixteen series on MTV? Retch! Vomit! Vom-dot-com! I love it.)

As for Randy Jackson, the neglected stepchild of the Idol bunch, he's still repeating the same tired sound bites: "Good job, Dog"; "I wasn't feeling it"; "You went for it, man." I swear, that guy has a tape loop embedded in his stomach like Teddy Ruxpin. Also, Randy has lost gobs of weight due to ever-popular gastric bypass surgery, and he's one of three celebrities I can think of who look better chubby. (The other two are Brian Wilson and Renée "Rigid Bones' Diary" Zellweger.)

All three judges seem even more choleric and irritable than in seasons past, which I can almost understand, given the paucity of talent on parade. And what a gaping void there is: After watching every audition aired during the first round, and a portion of the second round, my ears need rape counseling. I'm not even referring to the bored pranksters who will wait in line for hours for the opportunity to shriek, "My Heart Will Go On" at a frequency that prompts my cat to seek refuge beneath the futon. (As is the case in most arenas of life, the screamers are obviously faking it.)

No, I'm referring to the delusional souls who truly believe that they can be groomed for superstardom, despite crepe-thin voices, pugilist's noses, or limited range. (Wait, I just described Ashlee Simpson and the brown-haired Duff sister. Never mind.) As Randy often reminds the image-conscious Simon, however, American Idol is a singing contest at its core. Because of this emphasis on actual vocal skillz, even haters must grudgingly admit that last season's winner, Fantasia Barrino, can blow. Too bad her debut album has been a commercial disappointment. (Curiously, original Idol champ Kelly Clarkson has reimagined herself as a Hot Topic girl complete with songs co-written by Avril Lavigne, and her sophomore release is selling briskly. Perhaps the show needs Ashlee's faux-punk aesthetic more than it realizes.)

So why are we still watching? Specifically, American Idol is a potent cocktail of schadenfreude and wish fulfillment, enabling viewers to envision themselves as both scowling judge and earnest performer. And lest I sound too cynical, a handful of this season's contestants are legitimately talented, and several practically coruscate with what Cowell calls "the X factor."

Constantine, a tousled rock singer who quit his metal band and successfully auditioned for Idol, has caused quite a commotion among squealing fangirls. And there's the usual intimidating herd of giant-lunged R&B divas peacocking around backstage and finger-combing their weaves. Personally, I was rooting for the quivering, azure-haired Goth chick nicknamed "Opera Girl" by the judges, but she was cut after a dismal second audition. Poor girl. Call me!

Ratings have been strong as usual this time out, and I suspect America will be watching and dialing feverishly for at least two more seasons' worth of Idol pleasures. And fear not, music purists: For every contestant permitted to butcher a soul classic on live TV, at least 20 will be unceremoniously kicked to the curb, left to dab at hot tears of shame and return to Altoona in disgrace. As a wise man once said, isn't it lovely?

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