It’s time to come clean. Though ostensibly a reasonably serious, intelligent, educated nonconformist with an eclectic musical taste that only flirts with that of the mainstream, I nonetheless am one of the millions swirling in the pop-culture vortex that is American Idol. No pride or shame are involved here; I’m just telling you the truth, because truth is at the heart of the matter.
From the television talent show’s inception, I mocked it – and rightfully so: The ravenous greed of its producers, the callouness and cunning exhibited by music-industry sharks (including one named Cowell) in coaching and judging contestants, the glorification – again! – of flash over substance… All merited derision and ridicule. And still do.
As seasons passed, however, something happened. My feelings about the greedy, corporate, conformist parts of AI did not lessen – quite the opposite. I loathe the workings of the show and the product placements and Cingular Wireless and the endless marketing. But at some point, despite all that, I bought into the idea of a person’s dream coming true. I started noticing contestants who touched my heart and soul through their authenticity, their personal art and their tangible love for the music. In time, I found myself caring – a lot – about their dreams and seriously wishing for them to become reality.
When did this softening take place? I’m not sure, but it had to be one hell of a day. Perhaps it was the night in season one when stellar Tamyra Gray was ousted – that rankled more than I thought possible. In any event, from the next year on, I noticed that news about the successes of certain Idols gave me real glee: Ruben and Clay, Fantasia Barrino, Frenchie Davis. I’ve grown to love Kelly Clarkson – she’s simply an amazing young vocalist, and who knew she could write such powerful pop music? How cool it is to see her hit so big, even in lands where Idol doesn’t air. And frankly, with Bo Bice it was love at first song. (Just wait ’til the next CD, where hopefully he will get to ditch Clive Davis’ choices and play Bo’s music.) What do these people have in common? They share a rare ability to connect with others on a musical and emotional plane.
My season five connection came early and as a total surprise: The first time I saw and heard a tall, sloppily dressed, gray-haired guy take on Elton John’s “Levon,” I found myself entranced. Checked out his backstory: The silver eminence is premature; he’s only 29. For years, he’s rocked clubs and events and electrified crowds large and small in the southeast with his unique brand of rock ‘n soul. He plays guitar and blues harmonica and writes his own songs. He’s put out a couple of CDs; I checked out his 2004 album, Under the Radar, and experienced a “whoa” moment. This guy was the real deal. A lifelong fan of music by Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and other giants, he had soul, passion, heart, whatever you want to call that combination of emotion and empathy and expression that allows the experiencing of shared humanity. Only very special and rare artists have this… I’ll call it soul. This disheveled, happy-go-lucky dude has a real affinity for soul-music classics, but his rare gift is that he has soul and radiates soul – quite a different thing.
After that initial, spirit-lifting audition, market-focused Simon Cowell didn’t want to send Soul Man, as I called him then, on to the next competition round in Hollywood, but I knew. Win or lose, this was my guy. If there is any reason to thank Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, it’s that they overruled the attitudinal Brit and gave my guy his golden ticket.
All these weeks later, my guy, Birmingham, AL’s Taylor Hicks, is in the finals. His competition – and beating her will be no slam-dunk – is Los Angeles’ Katharine McPhee, a stunningly pretty 21-year-old with a pretty, well-coached voice. The woman has true ability and lots of fans, but over the season, she has given inconsistent performances dotted with ridiculously oversung diva songs and her unfortunate tendency to sing while kneeling (which the little boys no doubt love and for which many certainly will reward her with votes).
Yes, Katharine McPhee can sing well, but I feel no connection with her. She suffers from a sad malady: Even during songs that perfectly showcase her voice, I get no sense that she feels anything she sings. Which, to me, is practically a sin: Without emotion, music can’t communicate or entertain and has no point. I see McPhee headlining a Broadway musical someday, which is a fine and admirable artisitc pursuit, but not the area of American Idol. An Idol should be able to generate heat, and sadly, the so-called “McPheever” leaves me ice-cold.
Hicks, however, is hot. He croons, growls, purrs and wails with grit and feeling, lighting soul fires in his wake. He infuses every song he sings with heart and unvarnished emotion and performs accordingly. He dances with honest abandon during an uptempo, joyful piece – and when he takes on a tender ballad, every word from his mouth resonates with meaning that pierces the mind and feeds the spirit.
Many people can’t or don’t appreciate Taylor Hicks. Well, to get him, you have to understand: It’s a soul thing. And that is one of the primary reasons why he should be the American Idol.
What’s real? What’s true? What really counts? Who knows these days? Reporters make it up as they go along, government intelligence is untrustworthy, people value what’s trendy and superficial, and lying and cheating are damnably accepted parts of modern life in far too many circles. When Taylor Hicks sings, there is no confusion, no question. That’s because he sings what he feels. He sings truth.
It’s almost unimaginable that Hicks is perceived by many as the frontrunner in the race for the AI crown, but try to picture it: Wouldn’t it be wild to see a big-time American TV show select someone who isn’t a cookie-cutter pop-star type, someone who is the genuine article and offers something real and raw, someone who has worked hard to realize a for-most-of-us-impossible dream, someone with actual artistic vision?
Taylor Hicks is the choice of the independent, the rebels, the true-blue and unafraid. For this misfit to see someone like him win… it’s almost too much to contemplate. For me, something that is such a small deal – seeing a guy I don’t know win a silly reality show, for crissake – will symbolize so much more.
There are other reasons to support Hicks, of course, many of them based on pure opinion and personal taste. But that’s why I’m writing this, to express mine: His combination of talent, experience, artistic sensibility and ability, star quality, personality, heart and soul makes Taylor Hicks the best pick to be the American Idol – one who can bring a breath of fresh air to the popular-music scene.
So I encourage you to vote May 23 for Taylor Hicks. Word has it that it may be a good idea to invest in a Cingular account and text-message votes, as it is much more reliable than traditional landline dialing if you actually want to cast a registered vote or a few.
Oh lord, just realized that this aging hippie nonconformist love-and-peace type plugged a cellphone company (one I don’t use and can’t afford to have; sorry Taylor). Ah well, gotta do what must be done to fuel the train and help make this worthy artist’s dream come true. For Hicks and the majority of his true supporters, this is not about glorifying corporate greed, it’s about a whole lot more: It’s a soul thing.