The more I see of the homogenized American Idol entertainment aesthetic, the more I believe that James Durbin totally dodged a bullet by his premature elimination. The bloated spectacle of the AI finale was a lesson in showbiz cheez-o-nomics: if they have an album, a video, a movie, or a comeback tour to flog, give 'em a guest star spot on the show. It was two-plus hours of fluff and foolery before the big revelation that Scotty McCreery's fans had out-voted Lauren Alaina's for the top prize.
Seriously, name two previous AI season winners who have gone on to have real music careers. Okay, now name two not counting Carrie Underwood. The point is, winning the AI crown is just as likely to be the kiss of death as a launching pad for future success. By far, the more interesting performers are the ones who don't make it all the way to the top. The only reason most of us disappointed fans of James, Haley Reinhart, Casey Abrams, or Pia Toscana, tuned in at all was to see our faves perform one more time.
Not that AI had a clue what to do with them. First it was everybody in the Top 13 onstage in spangly white outfits for the openining production number, Lady Gaga's "Born This Way". The seven lady finalists were later paired up with Beyonce (who quickly turned them into her backup chorus), and rappers TLC. The guys sang the greatest hits of Tom Jones (who later joined them onstage). But only the top seven finalists got to sing solos (or at last duets with selected guest stars); the rest only got to sing snippets of medleys. Maybe if they'd had a few less guest stars, there would have been time for Pia to sing a whole song.
Sure, there were moments. In the Jones segment, Casey was an entertaining frontman for a boisterously melodramatic group rendition of "Delilah." But James' solo was, um ... "What's New Pussycat?" Okay, he hit all those "Whoa-a-whoa-a-whoas..." but it wasn't much of a showcase for his singing or showmanship.
James was more in his element when he got to sing two songs onstage with his metal heroes, Judas Priest. It wasn't the most effective material he's had all season, but he proved once again that he knows how to command the stage, hit a few chill-inducing high notes, and looked like he was having the time of his life.
Casey's showcase song was "Fat-Bottomed Girls," sadly, not sung with Queen, but with Jack Black. (Followed by—surprise!— a commercial for Kung Fu Panda 2.) Yes, it was sort of a weird choice, but it reminded us what was always so fun about Casey—we never knew what we were going to get! Haley was paired with the venerable Tony Bennett for a nice, jazzy duet on the chestnut "Steppin' Out (With My Baby)."
In between there were yet more celebrity guest spots—Bono and Edge from U2, backing Reeve Carney in a production number from the Spider Man musical, and another nutty appearance by Lady Gaga to premiere a new single, perched high atop a giant climbing wall, in a leather bikini and a headdress that resembled a window shade, surrounded by dancers and explosive effects. (Could this show just please get over Lady Gaga?) This is what performers have to do these days to get noticed. Once upon a time, talented people could just shut up and sing.
When judge Steven Tyler appeared at the piano, striking the opening bars of "Dream On," for an instant, breaths were held all over America. This was the song he promised to sing with James at the finale, if James made it into the Top 2. But no such luck; Tyler labored through a short solo that lacked the pulse and the passion James would have brought, had it been a duet.
The point is, do kids watching AI even know who Tony Bennett, Tom Jones, (or even Judas Priest) are? They might as well trot out Rudy Vallee in a raccoon coat, singing through a megaphone, for all these acts mean to the show's coveted younger demographic. As for the contemporary acts—Beyonce, Gaga, Marc Anthony (accompanied by wife and judge Jennifer Lopez, shaking her booty at the audience): this kind of overproduced pop-rock junk food is the reason God invented alt rock. It's the kind of creaky showbiz razzmatazz AI seems determined to preserve.
James demonstrated every week that he has a better idea of what to do with his big voice and rock 'n' roll sensibility than any of the so-called mentors on the show. All of a sudden, his early elimination doesn't feel like an ouster; it's more like a graduation. Come September when the AI summer tour is over, he'll be free to pursue his own dream and make the kind of music he does best. As long as nobody forces him to sing Tom Jones, he'll do just fine.