I confess. I watch American Idol. At the end of a long Tuesday or Wednesday at The Nation, I don’t reach for Le Monde Diplomatique or New Left Review. I reach for my remote. And I enjoy the critical powers of American Idol Judge Simon Cowell.
(In the latest issue of The New Republic, newly anointed editor Franklin Foer has a terrific and snarkily insightful analysis of Simon’s judicial “pistol-whippings”–replete with comparisons to the power of other arbiters of American critical taste such as Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, and Clement Greenberg.)
Since early Spring, I’ve had a running bet with one of America’s leading religious thinkers as to who will be America’s next Idol. In late March, she bet on Elliott Yamin. But after last night’s performances–and I’ve been trying to reach her this evening without success–I’ll bet she’s changed her bet. It’s now a showdown between the two other finalists–Alabama’s Taylor Hicks and Los Angeles’ Katharine McPhee. Yes, Alabama vs. Los Angeles. (The show’s red-blue dynamic was brought alive tonight with highlights of Alabama’s Bob Riley celebrating Hicks and LA’s (Mayor) Antonio Villaraigosa welcoming McPhee.)
Taylor is your sort of blowsy, don’t worry/be happy, cut-above-the-average wedding singer. He reminds me of an apolitical, young Clinton. (I keep waiting for him to bite his lip in that semi-rueful way.) No question that Taylor did well in tonight’s make-it-or-break-it round–singing Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and Joe Cocker… and closing out with the inimitable Otis Reding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” But McPhee, who’s been ragged on for her lack of soul by that arbiter of soul, taste and culture, The New York Post, blew people away with her rendition of “Over the Rainbow.” (Even Snarky Simon, who selected the song for her, said it was the performance of the entire program.)
So where’s this leave us Idol addicts? Well, first, wishing Idol wasn’t heading into its final rounds. But, putting that aside, I really want to see Simon’s smirky certainties tested. After all, as TNR’s Foer points out, “for the past three seasons, [Simon] has championed the contest’s eventual winner…” And he’s sealed quite a few fates by proving how right he was.
Monday night, Simon told Jay Leno that Taylor was “the favorite” to be the next Idol. But after last night’s round, the delightfully mean-spirited Simon has to recognize he made a mistake. It’s time he understand that even his conventional wisdom is almost always wrong, and that these are times which cry out for a woman Idol. After all, with a latter day Wizard of Oz running this country, we need a savvy, sharp LA woman belting out “Over the Rainbow” at every possible opportunity.