It may be a bit late in the "Tuning In" series to reveal this, but, like some music critics, I watch Fox's American Idol. I still follow it even though the past few seasons have been lackluster. I caught the end of the first season, which Kelly Clarkson deservedly won (cue "Since U Been Gone" and rock out), but remained a hold-out for a few years until my partner got me following Carrie Underwood and Bo Bice's season four tête-à-tête.
However, I have a love-hate relationship with the program. Many of the contestants bore or irritate me and the winner is often not who I'd choose. It also frustrates me that the competition can seem a bit racist. The wrongful ousting of Tamrya Gray and Jennifer Hudson make this evident, as did Jordin Sparks's season six win, which came after darker-skinned contestants LaKisha Jones and Melinda Doolittle were voted off.
In addition, I think the show needs to end. Simon Cowell is leaving. Episode premises and possibilities for new mentors have been stretched. Idol Gives Back continues to bloat on its own self-importance despite its purported altruistic intentions. I've also seen far too many Ford music videos (though I did perk up when last season's group did a rendition of Lykki Li's "I'm Good, I'm Gone," as my synapses fire when indie and mainstream music culture coalesce).
This season has left me with little to latch onto. In a season that's been defined by artists packaging themselves as hipster- or indie-friendly, the majority of these contestants have demonstrated for me how disappointing it can be when underground music is co-opted by the mainstream. That many of these bland artists were pretty white women with little staying power is even more disheartening. Ellen DeGeneres has offered some perceptive advice. There have been a few noteworthy guest performances, including Lady Gaga's pared-down "Alejandro" and Rihanna's "Rock Star," which made me want to teach her how to actually play the guitar. Beyond that, there's the lone female contestant in the top three who I hope takes over the title on May 26th.
But I'm concerned that Crystal Bowersox won't be the next American Idol. If past seasons are any indication, two men will be in competition toward the end. In the past two seasons, we've seen Kris Allen and Adam Lambert square off, as well as Davids Cook and Archuleta (note: that gay male contestants like Lambert and Clay Aiken tend to outperform the victor is its own post).
In fact, Bowersox is in the exact place that Alison Iraheta was last season. As the awkward rocker teen was my pick last year, I feel like I'm about to say goodbye to this year's whiskey-throated female contestant. My hunch is that Lee DeWyze will win because he's a nice guy and sounds like Bob Seger. My fear is that Casey James's hair (and not his modest vocal talent) will create an upset, so I hope Bowersox and DeWyze make it to the top two.
There's much I like about Bowersox as a personality, even though I tend to frown upon white girls having dreadlocks. She's a young mother, and I like when working moms balance building a family with carving a career or developing their talents. And if the tattoos don't say rocker chick (or recall season seven's Carly Smithson), is anything less establishment than proudly baring yellow teeth in a music and television culture accustomed to porcelain veneers? Regardless of what verdict is given, I hope she doesn't spring for a more telegenic set of choppers.
More importantly, Bowersox is immensely talented. She's got a gritty alto that obviously recalls Janis Joplin but could also draw in fans of more contemporary artists like Joss Stone. She plays multiple instrumentals, comfortable on both guitar and piano. She positions herself within a lineage of female artists by requesting that women who come on the show sign her guitar. It's an offer she even extends to artists who are several years younger than her, like Miley Cyrus. She's also paid her dues. This may be problematic in its assumptions of artistic integrity and authenticity, but I always like to see contestants' sweat equity.
This week, the top three perform two songs. One is selected by the judges and the other is self-chosen. I'm disappointed that Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi picked John Mayer's "Daughters" for James, as it's a creepy patriarchal anthem masking as a sensitive tribute to women that could be unfortunately seductive on the audience. DeGeneres picked Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" for Bowersox. I won't be surprised if she knocks out of the park, but I hope she has the votes to back it up.