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Idol Tracker: Do You Hear the Drums Hernando?

March 13, 2008 |  1:50 am

Top12elimination

Talking with another reporter outside the Idoldome after the execution of David Hernandez, we shared the sense that capturing the life of the Idoldome this year already is much harder than it was last year – a year in which ironically the contestants were far less interesting.  The problem: Two shows into the Top 12 competition, the contestants almost to a man seem completely at home on Idol’s big stage.  They are almost entirely without the squirmy tensions that fuel the sort of hard-nosed reporting we Idol beat gumshoes live for.

Last year, we in the bleachers watched the spectacle of a dozen very, very young-seeming contestants (they were in fact, the same ages or older than this year’s group, but somehow they seemed much younger) awkwardly find their footing on the stage, fumble around, giggle and cry.  As the group bonded under the bright lights and began to cling together like kids on a high school field trip, we studied the aloofness of LaKisha, the maternal role played by Melinda Doolittle, the cool kids clique helmed by Blake Lewis, Chris Richardson and Gina Glocksen. I crafted an entire article studying the body language between Sanjaya and the others, positing that his antics had alienated him from the other contestants (an analysis later adamantly and convincingly denied by the contestants themselves). And each week this group seemed to go through an enormous emotional roller coaster with each failed performance and every elimination. Week after week, they crumbled before the judges’ critiques and their feelings spilled out over the stage like a tangled ball of exposed nerve endings.

Instead this year, we get a group of talented, confident, more with it quasi-professionals, who to all appearances from the bleachers, seem to get along fine with each other, sitting comfortably, chatting and apparently enjoying the moment while (for many) maintaining edges of cool detachment; bearing up under the elimination night torments as well as anyone could be expected to.  Charming to watch, but where, my colleague and I wondered would we get the drama to build our pieces around?

The mood on the second night of the Great Season, promised in Idol scriptures, remained remarkably buoyant, although for an elimination night it lacked the drama that these nights will have later in the season.  Among those I spoke with in the crowd, there was a broad consensus on whom would end up in the bottom three and that consensus was almost perfectly on the money. It will be a week or two before we begin truly cutting into bone.    Nonetheless, the crowd was as energized as ever, greeting arriving promotional vehicle Jim Carrey with an ovation normally reserved for visiting heads of states or returning Idol champions. The energy generated by the newly installed mosh pit showed itself during the group number. Stocked with teenagers at the front, it ensured a constant flow of screams for every glance of the favorites.   

And perhaps most significantly, tonight these fledging poppets got the chance to study close up the raw star power and magnetism exuded by the greatest contestant in American Idol history, Miss Katharine McPhee.  Those who took careful notes will be certain to benefit from this one more outbreak of McPheever across the Idoldome.

One stunning change in the format did however inject a bit of tension into the Dome: the end of the Goodbye Song tradition. It was replaced by the spectacle of each candidate singing as one by one they entered the bottom three.  The change produced some heightened moments as the singers, moments after learning that their lives now hang by a thread – but still in suspense about the outcome  - were thrown into the deep end, forced to perform and try not to think about the Angel of Death Seacrest standing feet away, clearing his throat and straightening his tie as his moment approached.  All three stumbled their way through the songs, fighting to maintain their focus with their minds very clearly elsewhere.

In the past I have written that that Goodbye Song is one of the noblest traditions in our culture – the moment when in defeat,  performers have a chance to rise above their dismal circumstances and transcend through song, showing at their worst moment why they had been given a place on this stage.  There is the built-in problem that the Goodbye Song forces singers to reprise the song that got them kicked off, but there have been many nights when in those final moments of life, the contestant rises up and turns that ill-fated number into one of their finest performances ever.  I recall Phil Stacey’s Goodbye version of Bon Jovi’s “Blaze of Glory” as one of the most energizing performances of Season Six.

Top 24 member Luke Menard, when I talked with him hours after his ouster at the Top 12 party, agreed that hard as it is in the first few moments, the Goodbye Song is strangely liberating.  It’s the first time on stage all season when you’re not nervous, he told me.  And for many, all the emotions that come with ouster come flooding out and are channeled into some highly dramatic performances.

Instead with the serial last chance songs, with fate still in the balance, the unresolved tension had a bit of the feeling of delinquent students in the principal’s office and being forced to recite the crimes that had got them sent there. But on the other hand, what could be better drama than that?
It may prove to inject some real drama into these nights. But for me, the noble tradition of the Goodbye Song will always be missed.

As the night came to its bitter close with the ouster of David Hernandez however, this season’s singers seemed determined to maintain their serious but friendly demeanors even in the face of tragedy.  Working the stage and talking with the judges who came up to wish him well, Hernandez seemed completely comfortable and at peace with the situation.  A little discussed piece of Idol tradition is that for the contestants the big goal is to make not the Top 12 but the Top 10, the cut off line for a place on the tour – and its accompanying paycheck.  But having missed that goal by  a mere two slots, David Hernandez, seemed alright.  Bullet dodgers Kristy Lee Cook and Syesha Mercado both received hugs from friends – slightly shaken but largely fine.  In this all-about-the-talent season, nothing yet has shaken the group from their game. On this night,  even Ramiele didn’t cry.

- Richard Rushfield

(photo courtesy of Fox)

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