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'American Idol': More conversation with Mr. Cowell

April 25, 2007 |  9:25 am

“The competition starts properly tonight” declared Simon Cowell, and in some strange way, with that shouldn’t-work-but-for-some-reason-does alchemy that fuels much of the Idol complex, the addition of a charity event into the Idol potion magically had the effect of refocusing the competition.

Lakishaj After four-fifths of a season that has veered wildly between breathtaking and pathetic, with ratings a-flutter and even the judges publicly commenting that there is a major contestant quality control issue, after accusations of unreasonable cruelty in the pre-season, after the Sanjaya/Howard Stern/votefortheworst hysteria -- after all that, Night One of the Idol Gives Back event broke through as the kick-off of a final stretch likely to be filled with as much drama and unpredictability as any season yet.

“I think at this stage it’s as open as I’ve ever seen it on any season,” said Cowell in an exclusive Show Tracker interview last week. “To me now it’s about having the wow factor.”  He went on to reveal (as reported in Martin Miller’s excellent exegesis on the role of race in Idol voting) that the shifting sands of fortune all season long seem at this moment to slightly favor Jordin to win the competition.

And after uncertain steps into the Latin and Country songbooks, the theme a night of no-holds-barred earnestness was perfectly timed to return the singers to their home turf. “On a night like this, it’s going to be about how you emote the song,” Cowell foretold. Anticipating that, charitable event or no, the work of Idol must go on –- and someone’s journey will end on Night Two of IGB -- he said, “It’s not going to be a great week to leave on because it’s going to be such a big show. So I think the stakes are arguably higher than they would normally be. If you’re a contestant and you’ve experienced a night like this, you’re going to want to be in the show the following week.”

Clearly, the task of emoting came easier to some than others.  Watching in the Idoldome, Phil Stacey and Chris Richardson came off as sincere and pleasant but neither overwhelmed the crowd.  LaKisha, much more so in person than on TV, was a locomotive engine of emotion, barreling over the audience with unstoppable, but slightly alarming force.Blake245_3

Blake made the (fatal?) mistake of singing the most hackneyed telethon and high school assembly song on Earth –- his emoting reading hollow while he marched through the Lennon paces.  Many audience members reported chills during both Melinda and Jordin’s numbers.

But in the end, one wonders if Melinda’s skills are so flawless and prodigy-like and supernatural that they come off as almost impersonal. Whereas Jordin’s bubblieness bursts through her every song.  (Cowell on the Melinda topic, comparing her to Idol’s giants says, “What I haven’t seen from Melinda is, I haven’t yet had that ‘Oh my God!’ moment from her which I had a couple of times with Kelly.”)

On to other topics with Simon. Asked what he told Sanjaya when he came on stage after last week’s elimination, Cowell said, “I said, because I could tell he was quite emotional, ‘You can leave this show with your head held high because as a human being, particularly for your age, you have handled yourself incredibly well and I have a lot of respect for you because you haven’t whined, you haven’t complained, you have taken the criticism like a man. You’re definitely not the best singer in this group, but you’re now one of the most famous people in this country, so you can walk away with your head held high.’ I have respect for him as a person.”

On what he considers the biggest injustice thus far in Idol history: “Well, the one I missed more than anybody else because I really wanted that person in the final was a girl called Tamyra Gray from Season One. And I think that her and Kelly battling it out in a final would have been as good as you’re ever going to get because they were as good as each other, those two. And it was so one sided when she went in with Justin. So I was very, very disappointed about that.”

Cowell also had some interesting thoughts about what makes the show work so well. He said, “I think it is a proper reality show. I mean, it is what it is. You know, this is a show full of controversy. It has been ever since we’ve made it. I think it doesn’t take itself too seriously.”

Pressed further he continued, “it works because the beginning works so well. I mean, if I had just plucked these twelve people from obscurity and said to America, ‘I’ve discovered these twelve singers. Can you invest in them?’ it wouldn’t work. It starts because the audition shows drawing 37, 38 million people. And it takes you on a kind of a journey, this show. But if you take out the audition shows at the beginning, you have no American Idol. It wouldn’t work. So the auditions are rather like the secret formula of Coca Cola. Without that, the show doesn’t exist.”

Indeed by this point, it is a long road we have traveled with these contestants –- from the first moments we found them back in their home towns (or wherever they showed up to audition) through Hollywood week, the Top 24, the final twelve and now, after IGB -– only five will remain to stride into that last month of battle.

Seldom referred to is the second half of the show’s complete proper name, which is “American Idol: The Search for a Superstar.” As it was for Odysseus, for Aeneis, for Moses, for Ahab -– a hero sets out for a clear destination, but ultimately the search shapes the searcher as much as he it.

The final port of call is in sight -– five more will fall, one will cross the river–- but these six are very different people today then the ones we met a few months back –- and for having traveled with them, so are we all.

(Photos courtesy Fox)