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'American Idol' Banter: The Brooke White era begins

April 24, 2008 |  2:36 am

Brookewhite What we learned from this week’s results show isn’t pretty. The performances of any given week don’t matter on this season’s “Idol.” This is not, at this juncture, a singing competition. Nor does this season reward the virtues usually associated with champions -- courage, determination, a strong sense of self.

Carly Smithson’s booting is not simply unjust; it threatens to undermine the very premise of “American Idol.” If this show is now officially about well-marketed personalities rather than vocal charisma or even dynamic performance skills, then why not make it a chronicle of the packaging of a pop star, more like MTV’s “Making the Band” or even (though I dread it) “The Search for the Next Doll”?

It’s hardly unusual, in the pop game, for image to trump musical talent –- who can forget the scandal when plus-size Martha Wash was replaced by svelte models in the marketing campaigns for a string of 1990s dance club hits? Tonight proved that we can no longer dream that “Idol” rises above such gimmicks. At least Syesha Mercado survived, by a thread. But the loss of Carly not only robs this season of its best pure singer –- it wipes unbridled passion and humanity from the stage.

Seriously, what is the “American Idol” constituency seeking?  Another pop moppet prepped to fill the pages of gossip magazines and make adorable viral videos? Simpering Brooke White and half-baked Jason Castro (I like him, but come on, it’s a shtick) are sailing through because their images are cute; they’re more like sitcom stars than musical powerhouses.

Brooke’s particularly puzzling success, given her repeated flops in the spotlight, may be attributable to the 8-year-old girl market. For tween voters too young to fully crush out on the Davids, she plays the princess role, her deluxe locks and befuddled manner recall Amy Adams’ turn as Giselle in “Enchanted,”  last year’s Disney hit.  Brooke’s obvious discomfort at the end of tonight’s episode suggests that she knows she’s living on borrowed time. But heck, if I were to sponge a few extra weeks off anybody, I’d take it from pre-teens too. They have a lot to spare.

I can feel the hate mail coming already. But Brooke fans, don’t give me that line about how “human” and “vulnerable” she is. Messing up this far into the “Idol” competition does not make you more real. It makes you lame. If there were a good reason for flubbing her rendition of “You Must Love Me” on Tuesday –- if she’d experienced a personal tragedy, or was really disturbed by the results in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary -- I could forgive her. But Brooke simply hadn’t fully absorbed the song. She was unable to clear a space within herself to let the music move through her.

She couldn’t even fake it, as both Carly and David Archueleta managed to do when they forgot lyrics the same night. Faking it is a skill all memorable vocalists learn, because stuff happens when you’re onstage, and you have to master the skills to get through those sweaty passages. Unless you’re this year’s official ingenue, apparently –- then you just flash your pretty eyes and apologize.

I can hardly even bear to mention that the song Brooke so mistreated once belonged to Madonna, the woman who defined self-determination and personal power for a generation of women artists and fans.

I expect my drubbing of Brooke in the face of Carly’s departure will get some hate mail. But I have to stand up for the woman who showed the most passion, the strongest need to sing, of any contestant this season. I’ll confess, now that it doesn’t matter any more, that the very qualities others hate in Carly make her admirable to me.

Carly understands psychic darkness. She shows her humanity, but never apologizes for it. She has a sexual side.  She loves to rock and to push her voice to the limit. Her ruling emotion is fury, not bashfulness. Carly Smithson is not a princess. She is a queen. I hope the pop world still allows her some corner in which to rule.

-- Ann Powers

Photo courtesy of Fox

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