Mervin Malone
This is a place — a BLOG, if you will — about music, film, culture, the arts and whatever else co-exists and generates popular culture. Enjoy!

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Sunday, February 18, 2007
American Idol: Aria's Perspective...

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingWell, another season of that star-making reality series, American Idol, is off to a full start. Yes, American Idol – that oft-contrved ad-space marketer disquised as "the greatest talent show in the history of television" – has returned for its sixth season. A great many things have happened since 'Idol's Stateside inception in 2002 (the show is a spin-off of Britain's Pop Idol): the show's first season winner – Kelly Clarkson – has since shed the show's cookie-cutter, safe-pop image to carve out a critically (and commercially) successful career for herself complete with two Grammys;  season 2 and 3 winners – Ruben Studdard and Fantasia Barrino respectively – have both had successful albums; season 4's winner – Carrie Underwood – has garnered a recent Grammy win and is second only to Clarkson in sales. More, runner-up contestants like Season 2's Clay Aiken and Season 5's Chris Daughtry have since went on to surpass their respective season's winners in sales and popularity.

If ratings are any indication, American Idol has only has only grown in popularity since its beginning. Indeed, rival networks often plan their programming around the AI juggernaut so as not to compete with it; rumor has it that CBS recently cancelled "Armed and Famous" – another so-called "reality show" that placed D-list celebrities in the roles of cops-in-training  – due to the show's inability (and the network's unwillingness) to compete with American Idol.

And what keeps bringing the viewing public back to American Idol season-after-season?

Well, the answer would seem to be multi-fold and involve more the television aspect than the actual talent show component. An overwhelming amount of the American Idol viewing public tunes in to hear Simon Cowell's (often) brutally honest criticisms of 'Idol hopefuls and/or finalists. This is given credence by the fact that fellow judge Paula Abdul's (mostly) positive critiques are often positioned to be counter to Cowell's denunciatory remarks – a sort of tug-of-war for the masses, if you will; judge Randy Jackson would seem to be a balancing point between the two of them. As far as the talent aspect goes, much of the viewing audience more often seems captivated by personality than outright musical aptitude; Taylor Hicks' win last season is proof of this, as many have argued that Hicks was the most popular from his season – not necessarily the most talented. Hicks' current slow music sales could be seen as an affirmation of this. [This is strangely analogous to the John Stevens phenomenon of a few seasons ago, wherein the then-teenage crooner outlasted a far better singer – Jennifer Hudson – and went on to secure a major recording deal with Maverick Recordings; his "popularity" didn't translate into sales, however, and he was eventually dropped.]  

This year, 'Idol's sixth season has been somewhat overshadowed by the successes of one of its more underappreciated alumni –  season 3's Jennifer Hudson. Hudson is currently the proverbial American sweetheart, with a successful musical big screen debut – Dreamgirls – and a record deal with none other than Clive Davis to boot. More, her beautiful visage is soon to grace the covers of Vogue and Life magazines. Jennifer Hudson originated from the same season as winner, Fantasia Barrino – a moderately talented singer (at best) with a commanding stage presence. Jennifer Hudson's time on the American Idol program was wrought with controversy. In the early stages of the competition, Hudson –   despite her obvious talents – was often relegated to the bottom 3 by the American voting public (?). More, she [Hudson] was a constant victim of judge Simon Cowell's vitriolic remarks, whom – oddly enough – seemed to favor raspy-voiced Fantasia Barrino's stage image to Jennifer's potent four-octave abilities. Also, Jennifer Hudson was one of the three "divas" relegated to bottom 3 status on the infamous April 21, 2004 results' show broadcast (the others being Barrino and Latoya London, another multi-octave singer who rivalled Hudson vocally). The April 21 episode ended with Hudson's ouster (London would follow on an equally controversial May 21, 2004 results show, which saw her receive fewer votes than the considerably less-talented Jasmine Trias).

There have been many theories put forth concerning Simon Cowell's downplaying of Jennifer Hudson's abilities during 'Idol's third season – all of which have – with the advent of Hudson's meteoric rise to multi-media star – again come to the forefront. Many have speculated that Simon Cowell found Jennifer Hudson's somewhat fuller figure less-than marketable. Cowell's all-too common assertion season-after-season that certain 'Idol contestants look "commercial" would seem to support this. Indeed, this is further substantiated by the successes of the negligibly talented Carrie Underwood from Season 5, whom the judges – especially Simon – complimented even in her most unspectacular performances (not to mention Cowell's selection of the very talentless Carmen Rasmussen as a so-called "Wild Card" in Season 2). I suspect something more sinister to have been in Cowell's dismissal of Jennifer Hudson, however; I believe he [Simon Cowell] already had his mind (and marketing machine) geared towards Fantasia Barrino and wanted no deviation from his goals of making her the American Idol. Jennifer Hudson – with her powerful 4-octave range – presented a threat to Cowell's plans, so he proceeded to sway public opinion of her [Jennifer] as often as he could by verbally undermining her performances.

In fairness, much the blame for missing the "It" factor inherent in 'Idol contestants like Jennifer Hudson and Chris Daughtry must be placed squarely on the voting public. Many of the problems in garnering support faced by Jennifer Hudson were also experienced by Kimberley Locke the season before; people often make the 'Idol voting process a popularity contest, giving little or no consideration to talent.

In its defense, American Idol – despite its obvious flaws – can serve as something of a generalized character study of the American viewing public. It has confirmed – time and again – that people do see things in terms of race, sex and attractiveness. I remember visiting the official AI message boards during Seasons 2 and 3; I was awestruck by some of the comments  posted on them by the show's fans about their favorites (and non-favorites). For instance, many of thes show's self-professed white viewers ascribed a "diva-like" personality to Jennifer Hudson (?) and categorized her vocal style (as well as those of Fantasia Barrino and Latoya London) as "too black."

"She [Hudson] screams too much," they would say (?) – the same criticisms dogged Kimberley Locke the year before. Of course, I was put off by such remarks – especially when I reflected on the probability that many of these selfsame white fans loved Clay Aiken, who sings in a rather non-subtle (loud) dramatic tenor, but isn't criticized as "screaming" (or "yelling").

When all is said and done, American Idol has its place. You aren't likely to have a singer/musician with a real edge emerge from the 'Idol series – winners like Kelly Clarkson, and finalists like Jennifer Hudson have since achieved their greatest successes divorced from the 'Idol machine – what 'Idol can (and does) provide is entertainment (not necessarily art).

Here's hoping for a less formulaic "search for a superstar" this season!

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Posted at 02:27 am by Mervin Malone
Thoughts (9)  

Wednesday, February 07, 2007
Review: Madonna - "The Confessions Tour"

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In 2006, Madonna released her first live CD recording, Im Going to Tell You a Secret, which was accompanied by a bonus DVD documentary of the same name. The CD – more of a live music sampler than an outright concert retrospective – boasted songs from Music, American Life and Confessions on a Dancefloor. While certainly entertaining, I'm Going to Tell You a Secret left a bit more to be desired in the way of consistency – namely a more complete rendering of Madonna's live-show prowess. More, the bonus DVD was obviously more directed at longtime Madonna-fans than casual admirers. Now – less than a year later – Madonna delivers a more complete live CD/DVD set highlighting one of her finest concerts to date.

The Confessions Tour is immaculately packaged (no pun intended) in a digi-pak and documents the singer's highly-successful show of the same name. The set is culled from her Augest 13, 15, and 16, 2006 concert performances at Wembley Arena in London and is the official DVD release of Madonna: The Confessions Tour Live From London, which originally aired Stateside on NBC on November 22, 2006 (and was re-broadcast on Bravo on December 29, 2006). The bonus CD boasts 13 live tracks and/or highlights (eight from her 2005 Confessions on a Dancefloor Album). Also, classic songs like "Like a Virgin", "Erotica" and "Lucky Star" get live makeovers. Indeed, "Like a Virgin" – with its contemporary electro re-rendering – never sounded so fresh. Another standout – "Music" – is given the campy mash-up treatment as it is re-spun with the Trammps' immortal "Disco Inferno". And, who could know that "Lucky Star" could be made to effortlessly segue into "Hung Up"? The true meat of this live collection resides not on the CD, however, but on the DVD.

The Confessions Tour is one of Madonna's best concerts. Sure, the woman's reputation for live performance is legendary, but the Confessions Tour Live From London is singularly exceptional based on the fact that Madonna's trademark penchant for controversy is here – more a product of public misunderstanding than the Maddy's intent. Indeed, the show's most poignant (and controversial) moment comes when she [Madonna] performs her seminal classic, "Live To Tell"; Madonna performs this sequence on a metallic, makeshift cross wearing a crown of thorns – an obvious reference to Jesus. Near the end of the performance, a background screen flashes passages from the book of Matthew wherein Christ encouraged philanthropy, love and kindness interspersed with images of suffering in Africa. This sequence has been massively misinterpreted by a segment of [religious] Americans. Madonna's conservative detractors – of which there are many – have totally misread this sequence to be an attempt at controversy, as well as a blaspheming of Jesus Christ, when in fact Madonna seems to be trying to convey a sense of urgency concerning the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Perhaps these conservative "Christians" would be more validated if they dedicated their time to pursuing an end to poverty, racism and war – not to mention ending their obssession with tax breaks for the wealthy – rather than badgering Madonna about her artistic choices.

When all is said and done, The Confessions Tour DVD/CD set is a must for diehards and casual admirers alike. Madonna-faithful will love the CD, but the DVD will most certainly bring in those less-familiar with the star and affirm once and for all why this woman's shows continue to break attendance records worldwide!

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Posted at 04:09 pm by Mervin Malone
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