Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I admit it. Like much of the rest of the country, I am hopelessly addicted to American Idol. I find it so compelling to watch people get plucked from their ordinary lives in order to chase their wildest creative dreams. Needless to say, I was very excited when we were given the opportunity to see American Idol in person. We attended the final sing-off between Taylor Hicks and Katherine McPhee at the Kodak Theater last night.

Our seats were in the corner of the very last back row of the highest balcony in the ginormous auditorium (or "chamber" as the signs called it. "No food or drink in the chamber", we were warned before we entered the doors. I half-expected to see instruments of torture as we walked inside. I suppose some people might consider American Idol an instrument of torture in itself, but I won't go there.) Even though the people on stage looked small as salamanders, it was a real treat to be there. There was such a buzz in the crowd--I think we all knew we were bearing witness to a real cultural phenomenon. I loved being able to see the voted-out finalists walk to their seats before the taping--the crowd went especially wild for Chris Daughtry and Elliott Yamin when they appeared. All the finalists and judges were so tiny from our perch, but all their movements, not to mention their hair or lack of it, were unmistakable. During commercial breaks, when the finalists got up to hug the judges and mill around, etc., it was like seeing zoo animals in their natural habitat (not that the Kodak theater is that natural an environment). It was cool to watch the behind the scenes scramblings, the producers saying "20 seconds to air." "20 seconds--really?", "15 seconds", etc., tension and excitement mounting, the crowd, told to be silent, holding our breath.

Viewing the performances in person, even from a distance, was very different from watching them on tv. It became clear to me that Katherine McPhee is much better on screen--she really plays to the camera. As a result, I think she doesn't give a whole lot to the audience. She is beautiful, and her voice is beautiful, but somehow that beauty felt contained inside her, or between her and her eyelock with the camera. Her energy didn't reach to the back row. Taylor, on the other hand, really plays to the audience. He works every inch of the room. There was a noticeable physical difference in the crowd when he was performing--more excitement, more of a rush. His last song gave me chills and made me tear up even though it was a totally cheesy pop number. I doubt that would have happened if I had been watching it on tv (although maybe it would have--it doesn't take a whole lot to make me cry). In person, his performance reached right into my rib cage. Our whole balcony jumped to our feet, screaming, when he was done. When Katherine sang her final song (which was a horrible song to begin with, and she made it kind of screechy on top of that), only a couple of people in our balcony gave her a standing ovation. The judges kept talking about how Taylor knows who he is as a performer, and I think that makes a huge difference. I don't think Katherine knows who she is as a performer yet, and her performances have a real self-consciousness because of that. Taylor is more free to play with his performances because he's fully grounded in who he is. Plus he wore a purple velvet jacket! I tired my fingers out hitting redial, trying to vote for him after we got home. I only got through twice. I look forward to watching the finale tonight.

A couple of years ago, I was in Denver on my paperback book tour for The Book of Dead Birds. The lovely Donna Gershten, author of Kissing the Virgin's Mouth (winner of the very first Bellwether Prize) introduced me at the Tattered Cover book store. I asked her if she wanted to join me and some friends for dinner after the reading, but she said she had other plans. It turned out that she wanted to go home to watch the American Idol finale (which I could relate to--I was bummed I was going to miss it. I got back to my hotel room just in time to see Fantasia coronated). I'm glad to know I'm not the only Bellwether author addicted to the show!

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