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'American Idol' Tracker: Elegy for Carly Smithson

April 24, 2008 |  2:50 am

Carlysmithson Shock, grief, anger, betrayal.  These were the feelings that swept through the Idoldome after the stunning dismissal of Carly Smithson, the contestant this column has called the most electrifying in "Idol" history. But the tidal wave of horrified feelings was entirely in the audience. On stage, Carly Smithson herself, always the most spirited and nurturing of this year’s contestants, stayed upbeat and even cheery as she said her good-byes and took a last look around from the "Idol" stage, knowing perhaps that for a talent such as hers, now that it has been loosed to the world, the journey is only beginning.

It is a funny thing about mortality –- we never ever have enough time. Although there is only a month left in this marathon, and although the spots on the Nokia stage are in all likelihood locked up by David Cook and David Archuleta, meaning that all the others will meet their ends very soon, Carly’s departure brings floods of anger and sadness.  While there was still a hope, while there were still lesser candidates in the field, it seems impossible to let go of every moment we might have spent with Carly on the "Idol" stage. After the show, the crowd shook with resentment toward perceived undeserving survivors, akin the impotent frustration of people on the losing end of a stolen election. But such is why "American Idol" remains so compelling in its seventh season -- this ability to summon such emotion from its various partisans, even when they are miserable, only fuels its strength.

From the beginning, there was an odd, jittery feeling in the Idoldome, presaging strange things to come. This deep into the season, the stakes for each elimination are all the higher, driving the collective nerves to new heights. Before the top of the show each week, the judges play a game with how late they can come in before airtime, striding in generally with only a minute or two to spare.  Wednesday night, two of the judges (Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell) missed the cold open entirely, and had to sneak in while the opening credits sequence rolled, causing stage manager Debbie Williams, for whom getting the judges in their seats is the bane of her existence, to warn the crowd not to cheer for them as they slipped across the room.

Simon’s high jinks continued during the group number.  As they sang, one of the vocal coaches came into the audience and stood next to the judges' desk so that he might conduct the contestants through the number. However, ever the mischief maker, Simon grabbed a makeshift baton and offered his own rival conducting along a different beat. At the next break, Debbie admonished “Simon was a bad boy.  He conducted the children wrong.”

The high jinks however, took a more dramatic turn after Brooke White and Syesha Mercado took their turns on the stage. Once Angel of Death Ryan Seacrest gave Brooke the all-clear, she rushed to collapse on the couch, lying face down once the show went to commercial and openly weeping, a spectacle that summoned Paula to the stage to comfort her and raised many an eyebrow about her seeming bottomless well of neediness. Meanwhile, across the stage, Syesha, alone on her death stool, turned her back to the audience to let her tears flow, clearly thinking, I gave it my greatest performance and I’m still here on this damn stool. What more can I do for you people?

Throughout the season, Carly has very much played the den mother on elimination night, being the first to comfort the eliminated or the merely rattled, joking around, keeping the atmosphere light even as Angel of Death Seacrest flapped his wings nearby. So when her turn at last came, had she demanded her share of comforting, especially considering the outpouring of affection for her, she would have been within her rights. But all class to the end, she stayed smiling, cheery and grateful in her last minutes, seeming to comfort Syesha and Brooke rather than receiving reassurance herself.

So what are we to take away from this?  Right now, in the hours after Angel Seacrest wrapped Carly in his icy embrace, it still seems much too soon to say good-bye, and the reality that she will not be with us for Neil Diamond week seems too harsh to accept. It will take years for historians to have the time and perspective to sort through the meaning of what happened tonight, but in an attempt to write a first draft of history, let us consider that the winds, for all her talent, were blowing against Carly from the start:

• The Youth Vote.  If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times in this column, the children cannot be ignored. One 11-year-old supporter is worth literally several hundred grown-up supporters given that is how many times the child will call. Carly’s was the maturest of talents in this group; she and Michael Johns both offered in their singing and personas very grown-up styles and appeal. We can hope this will serve the both of them well in their post-"Idol" careers.

• Pastel tones. The finalists on "American Idol" are almost without exception those whose auras radiate in bright, soft, warm colors. Jordin Sparks was pure pink. Blake Lewis shone in azure. Taylor Hicks was green teal. Katharine McPhee -- a light red.  Carly’s aura is a deep, complex magenta (when she performs at least, unlike her chatty aura, which is very sunny).

• Female rockers. Seven seasons in, we can affirmatively say, they don’t seem to fare well on "Idol."  From Nikki McKibben to Gina Glocksen to Amanda Overmyer to Carly (who was only half-rocker) it’s a tough road.

• Definition. Without a clear, easily describable in two words or less outline of what kind of singer you are, it makes it hard to gather a consistent reliable demographic group and a singer is forced to ride the waves of fortune week to week.

• The judges. This season, Simon in particular seems to have an outsized effect on the results, writing the story of how every performance is seen. He was, ironically, favorable on Carly's final performance night, but that came after weeks of very grudging compliments at best. 

We will be debating what happened for ages to come, but whatever the reason for her elimination, let us rejoice in the hours we spent together. Critics threw stones at the fact that Carly had a recording career prior to "Idol," but it always seemed to me, that as a result of her past, she brought to the stage a richer, more complex and fascinating history then any other contestant.

The narrative I constructed for myself of Carly’s story, based on her comments and what we know of her history, went something like this: Carly stepped foot on the stage professionally very, very young, touring with Les Miz as early as age 8. After devoting much of her youth to music and performing, she finally, at the end of her teens, lands the big one –- a record deal with a major label. She moves all the way to Hollywood from Ireland thinking she is on the cusp of her dreams coming true. However, for whatever reason –- poor marketing, youth, etc. –- the record does not take off. In the wreckage after the deal falls apart, Carly flees Los Angeles for San Diego, where she waitresses at a bar through what must have been very dark times, wondering after a life spent wanting to break into music, and no doubt feeling cast aside by the industry, what does she do next?  The only hint of her dreams, the weekly show she performs at her bar.

Years pass.  Taking a crazy chance, she tries out for "American Idol," and is picked from the auditions to move forward. But because of problems with her immigration status, she is unable to be on the show. It must have seemed that fate was irredeemably against her.

More time passes. She marries. She keeps singing in her bar. And finally she auditions again. And makes it through.

Every night she went up on the "Idol" stage, Carly projected both the sure hand of someone who had spent her life working for this moment, and the gratitude of one who has learned that life doesn’t owe her anything. Hers was the joy, not of a dream that she felt the world had an obligation to fulfill, but of a dream that had been forced to hide away until its flame was so tiny, it was this close to being blown out. And finally, when it seemed just about to disappear forever, to be allowed to shine once again!  No other contestant’s story could match depth and poignancy to Carly’s euphoria at being given this chance once again, to paraphrase her countryman, W.B. Yeats, a lonely impulse of delight drove her to this tumult among the clouds, which is why I called her the most electrifying performer ever to take the "Idol" stage.

No one could match that intensity, but we take comfort in knowing that that flame now burning so, so brightly can no longer be extinguished, and like many before her who came to this stage, even if they did not make it to the final rung of this competition, her career will undoubtedly continue and we will see its fire again and again in the years ahead.

And so I close tonight with the words of the poet C.P. Cavafy. His poem, “The God Abandons Antony,” reminds us, difficult as it may be, to not be filled with recrimination for what now passes, not to second-guess the way things have gone, but to draw on the strength that brought us to these heights to get us through and cherish the sublime moment we have known. And in Carly’s case, we can close this chapter knowing this ending will be the beginning of a new journey greater than anything that has come before it.

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don't mourn your luck that's failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive -- don't mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don't fool yourself, don't say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don't degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
And listen with deep emotion, but not
with whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen -- your final delectation -- to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.


-- Richard Rushfield

Photo courtesy of Fox

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