Idol Live in Chicago, August 19, 2006
After the first song of the Idol concert in Chicago, Mandisa proclaimed herself blessed to have been on "the greatest television show in the world." The audience approved this line with its cheers and applause. I had to think about it for a second; I haven't watched every television show in the world, but upon brief reflection I was prepared to agree with Mandisa. Whether or not we are right that Idol is better even than House and The Sopranos and 24 and Veronica Mars and Battlestar Galactica and Lost and The Daily Show and the other contenders for the title of World's Greatest, it is undeniable that no other show sells out arena concerts all summer long across the USA. If one important function of TV is to offer a communal experience, Idol maximizes this appeal. The tour is an opportunity for people to commune with thousands of others who watched along with them, to collapse the distance and mediation of the regular broadcast and to come together in a single space.
The crowd was full of kids but also of older viewers, mostly white but not 100%, and very effusive for its favorites. The first real rush of enthusiasm came when Ace took off his jacket and made love to himself, caressing his chest like a gay porn star as he sang "Father Figure." And they were even more charged up for the biggest stars of the show, Chris and Taylor. Only these two have the talent and presence to command the full rock and roll fervor of a huge arena crowd, but the others give it a good shot. (Some, like Elliott, would be better suited to a smaller venue.) One of the biggest roars of the night came during Taylor's set, when the jumbo video screens cut from the live camera feed to a clip package of Taylor's ascent from nobody to star. Just as rock and roll fans cheer for tunes they recognize and love, the Idol crowd went nuts for the familiar images of the television season just past.
American Idol's appeal is straightforward: it combines singing, dancing, comedy, judging, competition, the pursuit of fame, and a ritualized pattern of seasonal and weekly television consumption. That the audience gets a say in who gets to become a star is an added appeal but I think it would be almost as good television without it. The audience votes first by tuning in. The telephone calls are an added element of participation but lots of viewers don't call and their experience hardly seems diminished.
For the hardcore of fans, though, the devotion to their favorite is so intense that they could never miss out on voting. One thing that made the concert unusual, then, was that the audience was there not only to see their heroes, to see them put on a show, to be part of a collective experience, but also to celebrate the kids they made into stars, to exult in their triumph along with them. This was overwhelmingly the case when Taylor, the unlikely grey-haired winner, appeared from a section in the crowd singing "Jailhouse Rock" escorted by a scrum of black-clad security dudes and jogged through the aisles (just a few feet from where we were sitting in the 28th row of the floor!) to the stage. The fans don't just love Taylor; they're proud of him.
There were iffy bits and off notes, bad song choices and lackluster performances, just like on TV. Some of them were hot ones, some just weren't doing it for me; that's the nature of a concert with ten performers. Reality TV has to be raw, has to show us people with flaws, blemishes, quirks, sad stories, funny smiles and odd features. Even if it's scripted and polished like Idol, its payoff still comes from exploiting the realness of the people. Thus even in a contest drawing on the best of as big a country as America, much of the talent is in some way undeveloped. It seems that on Idol they have some contestants with looks, some with personality, some with natural musical ability (pipes), and even some with the ability to perform a song like they really feel the emotions conveyed by its music and words. Few if any ever can claim all of these talents, though, which is what one should do to be a great pop singer. (Kelly Clarkson comes closest of all of the Idols over five seasons.) Katharine, the curvy California girl with a huge voice, never seems like she has a clue what her song is about. She sang "Over the Rainbow" like it's a Hollywood closing-credits ballad rather than a yearning. Even Taylor, who looks nothing like a rock star but has the charisma and the voice to work a room of any size, sings Stevie Wonder's "Living For the City" like it's a good-times anthem (the lyrics are actually quite bleak). Of the 2006 crop of Idols, none has the total package. But that's what makes it good television: Taylor wasn't a likely candidate to become a star, but the people made him one.
The show had two sets; the second one showcased the real talent. There weren't many of the cheesy group numbers we were hoping for. There were a few duets, including Bucky and Kellie singing "You're the One That I Want." Chris, Elliott, Bucky, and Ace sang Guns N' Roses's "Patience." For encores the group (save Taylor) did "We Are the Champions," ironic considering that none of them was the champion, and "Living in America" as a finale. This was preferable to "God Bless the USA," the final number of the concert the Ruben-Clay year, the last time we saw the Idols.
Some parts were earnest but the best parts were just fun. One of my favorite moments in any Idol episode is when Simon criticizes a performance using a negative comparison: too karaoke, Las Vegas, Broadway, theme park, wedding band, hotel lounge, or worst of all, cabaret. How amusing to think there is something he is looking for that's better than these things. What I like about Idol is precisely its cheesiness, but there is good and bad cheese. Bucky singing "Drift Away," encouraging the audience to sing his chorus, "Give me the beat boys and free my soul/I want to get lost in your rock and roll..." was a bad cheese. Chris singing "Wanted Dead or Alive," getting the audience to sing his chorus, "I'm a cowboy/On a steel horse I ride..." was a fine, ripe cheese.
For the most part the performances were the same as on television, only with slightly less bloated arrangements. (The band on tour is smaller.) One welcome difference was that some of the Idols played instruments. Chris, Bucky, and Taylor played guitar, and Lisa played piano. But none of them played well except Chris. Lisa hammered away like a kid in her basement and skipped all the interesting chords in her Elton John numbers. Bucky and Taylor's guitars sounded like they weren't plugged in. Taylor played harmonica during "Takin' it to the Streets." Everyone smiled a lot. Many of the performers referred to the crowd as "Chi-Town" as in "How you doin' tonight, Chi-Town!" I don't think I have ever heard anyone say "Chi-Town" who wasn't onstage at an American Idol concert.
(This set list is mostly from my memory, but I got a bit of help from the American Idol blog.)
Mandisa: "I'm Every Woman," "If I Was Your Woman" (dedicated to all the fellas), and w/Ace (dedicated to God) "I'm Your Angel."
Ace: "Father Figure" (with removal of jacket), "Harder to Breathe." Ace tossed his hat into the crowd at one point, the first of many such tossings.
Lisa: "Signed Sealed Delivered," "Your Song," "Someone Saved My Life Tonight," "Waterfalls" w/Paris. Lisa appeared to be wearing a shirt with Michael Jackson's image on it. Or it might have been a naked woman, hard to tell from as far back as we were.
Paris: "Crazy in Love," "Midnight Train to Georgia." Paris had on the headset mike to free her hands for her dance moves. Her jeans were monogrammed PB on the butt.
Bucky: "Superstition," "Drift Away," "You're The One That I Want" w/Kellie. Bucky's diction is atrocious.
Kellie: "I'm The Only One," "Walking After Midnight/Something to Talk About."
Intermission. The lines at the women's bathrooms were so long that dads were taking their daughters into the men's. These poor girls, they were so mortified they covered their faces in their hands.
Chris: "Whole Lotta Love," "Wanted Dead or Alive," "Renegade", w/Elliott "Savin Me" (I think that's what it's called).
Elliott: "All My Love," "Moody's Mood For Love," "Trouble" (I should note here E's strong feelings for Elliott.)
The boys (except Taylor): "Patience" with Ace taking the lead for the "I've been walkin' these streets at night..." portion and Bucky and Chris on acoustic guitar.
Katherine: "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree," "Over the Rainbow." Katherine looked like she had been mixing Vicodin and booze and she wore a long black dress to conceal the cast on her broken foot. The fans dubbed her Ill Diva after she missed the first three weeks of the tour due to whatever was supposedly wrong with her.
Taylor: "Jailhouse Rock," something soulful I can't remember, "Living for the City" "Don't Get Me Down," and dedicated to the troops, "Do I Make You Proud?"
Encore: Taylor, "Takin' it to the Streets" and group: "We Are the Champions," "Living in America."
[For more pictures see my American Idol photoset on Flickr.]