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'American Idol' Tracker: Rock 'n' Roll night live from the mosh pit

May 7, 2008 |  1:58 am

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In the course of  chronicling the full immensity of the most important show in entertainment history, this column has strived to take its readers deep inside the machine and the psyches that produce it.  From the editing bays to the makeup room to the Idoldome bleachers,  I have tried to provide fleeting glimpses into a few of the many mansions that make up house of "Idol."

Ultimately, however, if one truly wishes to get to the essential nature of a beast, one must take a long and lonely walk through a dark snowy wood in that beast’s footsteps. On Rock and Roll Hall of Fame night, this columnist ventured deeper into the core of "Idol" than any have dared penetrate before.  On Tuesday night, I became, provisionally, the first journalist in entertainment history to watch "American Idol" live from the mosh pit.

Although many of my colleagues in the "Idol" press bleachers chortled at my desire to leave the comfort of my seat and dive into the teen masses crushed before the stage, and as much as my faltering back and flat feet advised that this mosh pit truly was no country for old men, I knew that the only path to understanding the breathing, pulsing heart of "American Idol" lay through that pit. 

For months I have sat 10 rows high in the Idoldome stands and looked down on the bobbing blond heads lining the front of the stage, shrieking The Chosen One, David Archuleta, along his path to greatness.  Of all the tweaks to the "Idol" format this season, the addition of the mosh pit has seemed to have the most far-reaching effect.  Replacing the front wings of seats –- often reserved for celeb visitors –- with a standing room crushed against the stage seemingly reserved for the most young and jubilant has guaranteed that even the most tepid performances would have a bit of rock concert air, with screaming fans leaning into every word. The success this year of the instrument-bound contestants undoubtedly was made possible by their legions in the pit.

And so Tuesday, I crossed the floor and went down into the mosh pit, a place where no reporter had gone before.

First impression: The stage looks very different from its foot, looming above the Idoldome it looks fit for gladiator warfare.   I watched the faces of the young people as they entered and 10 at a time were "loaded” into the pit.  As they shuffled forward almost to a person, their jaws dropped and they gaped upon entering the room and looking up at that stage of legend.  As they came forward, I could not tell whether it was by natural selection or some coordinated effort, but I soon noticed most of the young and telegenic had somehow found their way to the front while in the mid-pit, I huddled with a mixed crowd of some youths and a few others of advanced ages like myself.

Loaded in to stage left, about 8 feet away from where Randy Jackson’s right arm would soon dangle, I learned my neighbors were a high school girls water polo team from Agoura Hills that had been gifted with tickets after participating in another TV-related event, the exact nature of which I wasn’t quite able to discern before the warm-up began.

As they entered the Idoldome, wading through the crowd to their desktop perch, the judges glimpsed over the heads of my pit-mates were at once clearly giants striding through the masses who parted before them, like royalty distributing alms amongst the peasants, and unnervingly near.  Seeing this troika take its place and ultimately deliver its judgments at a mere arm's length away gave one the bizarre feeling of having been teleported inside a television set; in a way that one could never feel from a distance of 10 rows up, I was inside this iconic scene –- like showing up suddenly alongside the table where Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock are lining up to take their quills to the Declaration of Independence.  This remarkable sense goes a long way toward accounting for the state of perpetual giddiness I found my neighbors in.

As the show started and the Idols took the stage, the rock concert feeling became all the clearer as the contestants loomed above us -- tantalizingly real and tantalizingly near, but by virtue of the fact that we gazed up at them from their feet, necessarily imposing, awe-inspiring figures.

Some other observations from the mosh pit:

  • The acoustics are significantly worse in the pit than they are in the seats.  However, the stagecraft and presence of each contestant is significantly clearer.  What star power they generate radiates a thousand times more.  Likewise, the smaller sighs and grimaces are crystal clear.
  • Archuleta Time.  They say that when you are near the center of a hurricane it sounds like a locomotive roaring straight toward you.  Well, when you are in the mosh pit during a David Archuleta performance it sounds like a hurricane about to level you to your foundations, break through your levee, flood your basements and render your neighborhood uninhabitable for generations.  The shrieking starts at the first mention of his name.  It increases when his face appears projected on the screen and explodes when The Chosen One steps onto the stage.  Girls jump up and down, bubble over in tears and scream, “I love you!” throughout his time on stage.  At the breaks, he waves to the screamers with his trademark “Aww, cut it out, you guys!" impossible-not-to-love embarrassed grin.  Being in the center of this whirlwind of ecstasy is not an experience a grownup should dive into unprepared, although many ladies of a certain age in the pit seemed to get pretty well carried away by it.
  • The kids vote.  Monitoring this critical demographic, it must be said that more than a few of the children in the Idoldome are now carrying signs for David Cook.
  • David Cook.  Even more so than in the stands, the rocker candidate appears by far the most comfortable and at home on the stage.  Most impressive is the effortless way he runs his hands along the pleading outstretched fingertips of my pit-mates while he sings, and the way he casually saunters offstage, giving only the briefest wave back.  However, up close he also seemed fairly exhausted, his energy between songs appearing not just low-key but at a very low ebb.  After months locked in the "Idol" bubble preparing for show after show, one can hardly blame him, but hope he manages to get some rest before next week’s crucial show.
  • Jason Castro.  Whether this was the first time this side came out, or was only visible from the pit, the hippy crooner clearly lost his mellow  for a moment after his first judging and showed signs that his previously unruffled demeanor had actually been shaken by the poor notices. Watching from feet away as a contestant is fed to the lions is hard to see and not feel compassion for.
  • Syesha Mercado.  Her version of "Proud Mary" provided the biggest bounce in the pit, where the stagecraft speaks loudest.  However, her tears after the second song seemed to provoke more confusion -- whether they were tears of joy or sorrow -- than pure empathy.

Jason-Castro As the show ended, my back and feet said it was time to go but my heart was not ready to walk away. Being so close to these titans of our culture, stepping forth into this arena after so many weeks of battle and risking everything on one song, it was hard to not feel the immensity of the challenge they face, the grueling struggle this becomes this late in the competition and not be exhilarated by how each in their own way, with the best that they have in them, rise to face that challenge.  Seen at arm’s length, these flesh-and-blood mortals are fighting in an arena built for the gods, whatever strengths and faults are visible.

-Richard Rushfield
(photo courtesy of Fox)

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