By Justin Guarini
Fancast American Idol Correspondent
Host of Idol Wrap and Idol Tonight, TV Guide Channel
(Editorial note: American Idol season one star Justin Guarini will be blogging exclusively for Fancast about Idol. Look for his posts following each show through the season.)
Hi, I’m Justin Guarini, and I hate reality television.
There. I said it.
But I love American Idol. I sincerely do.
You have no idea how much I love it, though you’ll find out. Over the course of this new season of American Idol, its seventh – and some are saying its most crucial – I’m going to blog my thoughts, observations, and experiences on the show, the kind you can only get from someone who has been through it from start to finale.
Let me start by acknowledging that last week was a tough one for former Idol Katherine McPhee, who was let go by her record label, thus joining Taylor Hicks and Ruben Studdard, who were also dropped by their labels. My thoughts?
Katherine could have been — and still can be — an amazing Broadway star! My album was much like hers — the opposite of everything I sang on the show, good, but out of sync with what I should have done.
Taylor’s album was a blue eyed soul work of art, but obviously not mainstream enough for the label to keep him
Ruben he’s got to fill in for the vacancy left by Luther. I don’t think anyone is buying into the hip hop. Ruben is an amazing vocalist but is almost going against the grain. I like him, a lot and wish him all the best.
But I really know how they’re feeling right now.
Being dropped from a label is painful, no matter who you are. I was publicly dropped after suffering a movie that did almost as bad as Gigli (note: I purposely said almost…miracles do happen), and an album that for all the wonderful songwriters and producers…never saw the light of day. It was my own personal hell, which I’ll expand on at a later date, but I will say this much now:
Imagine working for 22 weeks on an amazing and beautiful piece of art. All the while people are praising you and putting you on magazine covers for it. You sweat, you cry, you memorize every detail of your contribution. You build friendships you think will last a lifetime and you know that this is your destiny, and that you will go on to build bigger and better things to show all the world. Now imagine all that joy, hard work, and learning ripped down before your very eyes. All the while people are spitting on you, and kicking you while you’re down on your knees in shock and breathless from the sheer absurdity of how quickly it all fell apart.
Nearby, almost on top of the work you created, is a new one being erected, a bigger better one, that has more glamour, and more hands to build it. The only thing you think you can do is avert your eyes and sit in it’s shadow.
Well, it’s a small piece of how I felt at the time but…screw that! The idols that got dropped have a great opportunity to use the millions of dollars that were thrust behind them to move on and create new avenues of entertainment. They might not be on the covers of magazines, or on ‘Extra’ every night, but they can entertain tens
of thousands of people all over the world. I haven’t had nearly as much commercial success as they have, yet my work keeps me well-paid, traveling all over the world, and gearing up for my third album. They have it better than most people realize.
Okay, to business. As tens of millions of people know, last night it started again. Idol returned to the air, and for the opening episode the good ship docked in Philadelphia, where, as we saw, 30,000 people gathered to scream, sing or try to sing. They became BFFs for no reason other than they were slammed together like cattle heading for slaughter. What do you do when you’re waiting like that for hours? What’s it like? People sweat, they talk endlessly and nervously, they urinate in empty water bottles so they don’t lose their place in line, and they pray to whatever God they believe might help them make it to the judges. I’m talking just to the judges. For most, that’s victory enough.
The big question is whether the familiarity of seeing this will play with viewers. All the critics are wondering if Idol has still got the combination of muscle and magic to continue its domination of the ratings and viewers’ emotions. I know the ratings for last night’s opener were lower than the past couple years. It still mauled the competition. I for one have faith that the show is going to continue its run at the top of the ratings. Sure, we’re all wise to the format of the show, and we now know what to expect. Even worse, the contestants know what to expect, and how to throw up a wall of political correctness faster than you can say the words.
I can tell when their smiles are fake and what they really want to do is crawl into a hole and sleep for a few days.
Can you? So how will they make it fresh? How will they turn us on our heads once again?
I was thinking about this as I watched from my couch, and you know what? The answer is simple. It lies in the show’s past – before there were gazillion-dollar product placement deals, before everyone and their grandmother wanted a piece of Idol, before they brought on mentors and so on. The answer is right in the heart and soul of Idol, and that’s its contestants.
Idol needs to go back to the basics of the first season when the only things selling the show. Just by being ourselves. It wasn’t snarky, except for Simon (a good thing). It was fun and distinctly human.
Therein lies the salvation, not that it needs that Idol needs saving. Let’s be real. Shows with a fraction of its ratings are called hits. But getting back to the real stories of the contestants will make all the difference in terms of excitement and emotion. There’s no need for huge pop stars to come on every week and use the show as one huge advertisement for their albums. Actually picking good vocalists, some of whom can actually play instruments, and maybe (gasp) read music will pay huge dividends down the stretch when one of these contestants has to follow up the charmed Idol life with an actual album of substance in the real world.
If I had known then what I know now… well, I wouldn’t have had to wait 5 years for the good chance at my first hit album.
Not so long ago, back in the heady days of 2002, well before Britney’s meltdown, the Iraq debacle, and the steroid scandal that rocked the foundation of baseball, always a reflection of America, stood a young man of 23, wondering why the hell he was standing in line on a New York street freezing his rump off at five in the morning.
I was, in fact, the 125th person in line. The line itself was maybe 500 to 600 strong. My, my how things have changed. Nowadays you could storm and ransack an over-50 only housing community, holding the elders for ransom of course, with just one city’s crop of auditioners. In my year, we couldn’t have taken over a nursing home without running the risk of being out-flanked by the shuffleboard club. So small was the advertising budget that only seven thousand people nation-wide even knew to show up in 2002.
Watching the herds last night swarm the stadium in Philly, my hometown, really took me back to my experience in that line…
It was 5 am, cold, and I was really tired.
I’ve sometimes wondered- not often, but wondered nonetheless-what it would be like to poke my eyes out with sowing needles. I think I came very close to experiencing that very sensation in line that fateful morning. No stranger to auditions, I waited patiently in the cold for what I thought would be an hour or so wait till the powers that be opened the doors and let us file, sleepily, into the building. In hindsight I see that the cheery optimistic part of my brain was just trying to steel me against the onslaught of what was going to be one of the greatest, yet weirdest, and trying days of my life.
Nobody likes a whistler…mostly because the rest of us can’t seem to figure out what song it is, or we can’t hear the rest of the band that’s playing inside the whistlers head. The same is true for a musician who has to hear ‘singers’ singing a capella for three hours…non-stop.
Now, before you get bent out of shape, let me be clear. I am not taking a “holier-than-thou” stance here; everyone has a talent; and at the end of the day we are all human beings, not one better than the other…but for a musician, it hurts to listen to poorly performed music. Ask any one of them you can find. All around me were people hollering at the top of their lungs, singing lousy versions of top 10 pop songs…Alicia Keys “Fallin” was a gut-wrenching favorite that year…except of course for when Alicia sang it. They made gospel tunes out of anything that came to mind, and those that didn’t really know what gospel was just decided to cram complex vocal runs into otherwise perfect melodies, in the vain attempt to keep up. I sat and wondered if by chance there was a yarn store nearby…they’d be sure to have sowing needles, right? Thank God for J.K. Rowling. I buried my face in the first installment of Harry Potter and tried to drown out the cacophony around me.
You can always tell who the real vocalists in line are, chiefly by the fact that they aren’t singing. Any Sprinter will tell you that it’s unwise to run a marathon just before you have to run the 100-meter dash, so too will a vocalist intone that it is foolhardy to sing for hours on end right before an audition. Those who know…know, and those who don’t…lead group choruses of “Before He Cheats” about 3 keys higher than Carrie Underwood sings it. The effect sounds like live cats being shot from a potato gun.
In 2002, no one in line had a clue what he or she was really standing in line for. A thought that is hard to grasp now with how big the show has become, yet there I stood. For three hours, a joke by today’s standards, however I’d been on a lot of auditions and a three-hour wait was never a part of them. For Stevie Wonder tickets, for a chance to sit on Cindy Crawford’s lap and tell her that all I wanted was her for Christmas (and her totally agreeing), or for the chance to just get the hell away from the 30th rendition of N*Sync’s “Bye-Bye-Bye”…
I could see waiting three hours (I did it, and all I got was a brief rest from the N*Sync, as you’ll see later)…but there I was two hours and some odd minutes into the mind-numbing wait, thinking about leaving. Actually thinking about getting out of line and going home, back to the life of bar mitzvahs, living at home, and being a small-town somebody.
My life at the time was wonderful. The family, friends, job, and town were and still are my hearts greatest contentment. However, had I left the line, I would have thrown away an opportunity that to this day has taken me all over the world, uplifted me to financial/social/career heights undreamed of, shattered my bones on the craggy rocks of expectations unfulfilled, given me the keys to every dream I’ve ever wanted to satisfy, and shown me more about myself and the true path to that which is my deepest joy. I don’t know if it was the hand of fate that kept me there, or the strong pimp-hand of perseverance that backhanded me across the face and back into line, but I stayed. I can’t imagine what would have happened if I had given up.
The second part of my audition experience to come tomorrow…
I would be foolish not to at least touch on some of the highlights of the first show of Season 7…so here goes.
It makes me cringe to watch nice, seemingly normal people, with good hearts….make complete asses out of themselves (or often be made asses out of) in front of 30 million people. Call me crazy, but haven’t they learned by now? Come on people…why have we not gotten in touch with our inner Simons’. Why can’t we look our fellow man or woman in the eye and say “ You know what, you’re a great person, and you’ve got a gift…it’s just not that gift, and out of the care I have for you, I want you to NOT let these people turn you into a joke of the month…I don’t want to see you on the national or even local channel having your bones picked clean by the news agencies who are all too quick to swoop down upon you as you limp out of the judges arena, bruised, broken and in search of the nearest bar”.
You know what? I don’t blame them. I really don’t. I blame the well-intentioned bastards that tell these people that they sound great, and that they should totally try out for the show. Yes, you might be one of these people, and I say shame on you sir or madam, shame on you…and I totally don’t take the bastard thing back either.
Example: poor, innocent, James Lewis: the bass-heavy tour guide from Philly. He told us his co-workers gave him the inspiration to throw his tri-cornered hat into the ring (dirty baaaastards!). They knew he was going to get picked and they totally threw him under the bus. On top of that, the judges laughed in his face-while James tried to comprehend why-and then had the audacity to apologize for it. During the audition, James looked like he had a morphine drip in his arm, yet outside that room, he’s was an intelligent well-spoken man.
Lets be honest, it was great TV — spiritually withering, but great TV. As you saw, there are even better people to gossip about… seemingly crazy/depressed/weird/hairless/glitter laden people who made their marks (for better or worse) on the first show. I refuse to embarrass them any more then they’ve already been by the show (they did ask for it, though), and there are plenty of other writers that will pick up the slack.
I would be lying to say that I didn’t laugh sometimes, especially at the people who weren’t genuinely trying to be good. But most of my laughter was tinged with sadness. When I watch these first shows I feel like I’ve gone back in time and I’m watching Dale Earnhard’s last lap, or the Hindenburg coming in for it’s landing. I know the outcome while the people around me think it’s just another day, and I know that the repercussions will extend far beyond the horrific spectacle we witness before us. So too with the show…
I know what’s going to happen, I see the carefully set up story line, the feigned interest in the daily struggles that the unwitting buffoon goes through, then from the rafters (for all the country and the world to see) Boom! A pie to the face. The cycle is complete and they are fodder for the water cooler. A dish that sours quickly when the real talent steps up in Hollywood.
That’s show business…
Alas “the beast” must have its fill, and I would be a hypocrite to say that I wasn’t a part of that machine. I, Kimberly Caldwell (A.I. Season 2), and Rosanna Tavarez ( aka ‘Chana’, and Pop Stars Winner) host two shows on the TVGuide Network devoted to everything Idol. This Friday I’ll be dissecting and poking fun of all those poor unfortunate souls who strayed into the judges’ warpath. After all, it is what these first shows are all about.
I, for one, am looking forward to what American Idol truly brings out in most of us.
Even when we disagree on who’s going to win, we can agree that it’s one of the greatest shows in television history. In my opinion it’s the greatest reality show ever. At the end of the day, it’s about talent, and being a pert of something that has the potential to positively affect the world (like Idol Gives Back). It is one of the only shows on television that an entire family can sit down together and watch (everyone gaining an equal amount of pleasure). It allows us to be a part of taking someone who is just like us- walking around living life day to day, with bills, and worries, and simple comforts- from normality to superstardom (if only for even a little while). We feel the euphoric highs with the contestants and we sense the unspoken burn of their lows. All the while we come together as a family, a town, and as a nation to support a common goal:
The utter annihilation of all other shows in the Neilsens ratings.
Ah, God Bless America.