Thursday, April 26, 2007

American Idol: Down to ... 6?

"Worst Episode Ever"

So the big "Idol Gives Back" 2-hr extravaganza occurred last night and it was one of the most awkward and comically uneven two hours of TV I've ever seen, or been near. Let's look at Highlights (short list) and Lowlights (sommmmmmewhat longer)


1. Kelly Clarkson and Jeff Beck - when I heard about this pairing, I thought "Really? Do these two even live on the same planet? Come to think of it ... when's the last time Anyone saw or heard of Jeff Beck?" And the performance ... well, it looked a little awkward, in that he stood way back, like he was trying to be as unpresupposing as possible - almost like he was embarrassed to be there. But Kelly. . . . holy mother of all that is good and pure, she can sing. The song: "Up to the Mountain," which my cursory research tells me is a fairly recent offering from Patty Griffin, though it felt like a much older song. Basically, I spent the whole of Tuesday and Wednesday Idols wondering when someone, anyone, was gonna sing "A Change is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke. Kelly's performance was as close as anyone got, and the most "inspirational" thing anyone sang all week.

2. "The Simpsons" - the all-new animation, where Marge, Lisa, and Homer play Randy, Paula, and Simon, respectively, and they judge Simon Cowell (as himself) singing "Don't You Wish Your Boyfriend was Hot Like Me" - the whole thing had me genuinely laughing (which the regular "Simpsons" TV show has failed to do much lately, frankly). Simon's singing was kinda dumb, but the send-up the judges was hilarious. Makes me really Really look forward (even more than before) to the upcoming "Simpsons" movie (this summer).

3. Ryan blows the intro - did the west coast see this? The camera pans along the contestants toward Ryan, who starts talking but totally and utterly muffs his line. He then tells "Jimmy" or whatever the cameraman's name is to back the camera up and do the intro over. Awesome glitch to start off the night.


1. No Elimination - total rip-off. You're safe, you're safe, you're safe ... Chris, you're safe. That just leaves Jordin. And she is ... safe too. Nobody gets killed on "Idol Gives Back." Next week, Idol Taketh Away two contestants, so ... more bloodshed and heartache for my buck.

2. Bad clothing - all six contestants dressed in white, as if they had all died and returned as angels, or were going to play angels in some dreadful musical.

3. Ellen - normally like her, and she did her best, but the whole back-and-forth between Disney and the normal Idol venue felt so forced and weird and random and arbitrary. Plus, the guest list was ... well, random.

4. The "talent" - I love Earth, Wind, & Fire, but ... what a weird way to open your show - with 60-yr-old guys singing 30-yr-old songs in a medley, having Nothing to do with "inspiration" or "giving" or whatever the theme was supposed to be. And "Il Divo?" If they had been followed by actual DEVO, I would have been happy. But no such luck.

5. Celine - if you never hated Celine before, now you have a new reason to consider trying. She sang a duet with dead Elvis (from his '68 comeback special). To her credit, she could barely bring herself to keep up the pretense that a live Elvis was singing alongside her. I think I saw her glance in his (alleged) direction once, and then really try to do so a second time. I'm not a big fan of exploiting the dead in this fashion. That said, dead Elvis totally outsang living Celine.

6. Death - OK, the show does a good job of showing the extent of the horrible unnecessary death in Africa, but it got to feel a little exploitative after a while. Plus, it was very jarring to go from "baby dies of malaria" to "Celine sings with dead Elvis" to "emaciated A.I.D.S. mother suffers in stifling heat" to "B-list celebrities lip-sync 'Stayin' Alive.'"

7. My money goes where? - The producers did a HORRIBLE job of convincing me that I should give money to them as opposed to some other charity. Where was the explanation of where the money would go, who, exactly, would be administering it, how much would actually get to people, etc. etc. Kids are dying, send money. It was too simplistic to pry money out of me (I gave $50 to breast cancer research yesterday, completely coincidentally). Did they think that Idol viewers are shallow enough that they just need to have their heartstrings pulled and that'll be enough? I'm all for, ALL FOR, a renewed focus on reducing abject poverty and stopping preventable diseases from spreading, but you need to document your plan of action better if you want my $$$.

8. Madonna and Bono make appearances ... but don't sing? - wasn't sure to put this under "highlights" or "lowlights," but it was rather weird to have two of the biggest names in music on your allegedly big-deal show and not have either of them favor us with a tune. Bono was really condescending toward Idol, suggesting that he cares so damned much about Africa that he, the Great Bono, was willing to debase himself by appearing on this show and talking to these pop singers. Madonna was in Malawi with a dozen or so of her latest illegal adoptees. Somebody stop her! I will say that, as always, she looks fucking hot.

So thanks, Idol, for awakening my long-dormant cynicism about giving to charity. I will give some money away, but not to you.

And next week better see the end of Chris, one way or the other, or there will be hell to pay.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

American Idol: Down to 6

"Near Miss"

Well, I have thought for a while now that Lakisha would be this year's Jennifer Hudson and get sent home Well before her time, and that nearly happened last night. As my friend Andrew said, though, perhaps this will light a fire under her, because she has been Seriously underperforming. Andrew was happy Blake was in the bottom 3. I was not. Chris MUST be the next to go - that defense of "nasally" alone should be cause for his instant ejection from the show. I LOVED how they showed All of Simon's Tuesday-night reactions to Chris - what a greatly terrible coincidence that Simon appears to be dismissively rolling his eyes at Chris's good thoughts for the people affected by the VT massacre. It has the appearance of pure evil that you rarely get to see. It's something a super-villain would do. Of course he clearly was not paying attention to a damn thing Chris was saying at that point, having (understandably) tuned him out when he defended "nasally" as "a kind of singing."

So the Sanjaya buffer is gone. Everyone is potentially in danger now (except Melinda - that girl's gonna win it all). How do I love them? Let me rank them.

6. Chris - please do not vote for him. If you like Boy Band, vote Blake, who at least knows that you sing with your mouth, not your nose.

5. Penishead - no longer my least favorite. I worry that he will last longer than he should (top 3)

4. Jordin - I know, 4 is low for her, but I have not been wowed the way others have. She is like a more talented Diana DiGarmo to me; something rubs me the wrong way.

3. Lakisha - slipping ... she must make her triumphant comeback Next Week!

2. Blake - he is the guiltiest pleasure ever. The song he sang this week ("When the Stars Go Blue"), was written and first recorded by Ryan Adams, not Tim McGraw, by the way. That's RYAN Adams, not BRYAN Adams. Do not make that mistake. I hear he hates it.

1. Melinda - clearly in a class by herself right now. Lakisha is the only person whose talent even comes close to Melinda's. The only person who can beat Melinda, I think, is Jordin, mainly because she's talented enough AND kids are apt to vote for her more than they are for Melinda.

More next week, for sure.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Stocking Stuffer?

"While meandering the aisles of Barnes & Noble today, I saw ..."An entire UNO deck dedicated to David Ortiz, and it comes in a jersey-shaped box!? Why is my birthday so far away!? Surely there is some baseball-related drinking game just waiting to be invented here...

If they'd given Manny Ramirez the UNO treatment, I'd have already bought a dozen decks and wallpapered my office with the cards.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

American Idol: The Final 7

"Jesus, Take the Remote"

I missed last week's "American Idol" because I was in Mexico - they get FOX there, so I thought I might break free to watch it, but alas, no. And it turns out I didn't miss much. I watched the episodes I'd missed when I got back, and I have this to say: Man Did Last Week Suck. The only good thing I can say about Jennifer Lopez was that she was a way better "coach" than the useless Gwen Stefani. But that's neither here nor there. None of the singers was any good - even Melinda was mediocre. How bad was it? I liked Blake better than Melinda, that's how bad. That right there is the world upside down, that's what that is. The bottom three were all entirely acceptable and the worst person got the boot: Nearly Naked Hayley. Good riddance, and enjoy your future career as a stripper / soft-core porn actress.

Tonight, the final 7 sang Kountry & Western for us, tutored amiably if ineffectually by Martina McBride, who is apparently astonishingly popular even thought neither my wife nor I could (as my wife said) "pick her out of a line-up." I think Carrie Underwood and other former Idol folk have sung Ms. McBride's songs before on the show. Anyway, country always sucks for everyone who isn't country.


  • Penishead, who still sucks, but sounded better than he has since the finals began
  • Blake, who can apparently sing anything in his Blakean way and make it sound passable
  • Melinda, who tore up a fast-paced sassy little number no one had ever heard of before


  • Lakisha, who shouted fucking "Jesus, Take the Wheel" like she was telling her downstairs neighbors to shut the hell up
  • Chris, who ... I can't even remember, but I know it was "nasally" (Chris actually defended "nasally" as "a kind of singing" - seriously, in earnest, he did)
  • Sanjaya, whose hair won the battle of hair v. bandana, and who was, as they say, "pitchy"

I have no opinion about Jordin, who was passable as she stood there and just belted a song about a broken wing (sadly, not the Mister Mr. song).

Even though Penishead was adequate, I still fully expect to see him in the bottom three tomorrow, though, for the first time, Lakisha might actually be in trouble. Who's going home? Well, hmmm. I think Sanjaya and Chris will be in bottom two, and Chris will end up going home. I just hope Lakisha survives.


Monday, April 16, 2007

New-Fangled In-Flight Crossword

"What to do when you're starving on a plane"

So you know how they don't really serve meals on planes anymore, but you can buy these snack boxes or boxed lunches or whatever for $5? Well, I was starving, STARVING, on the flight from Cancún to Philadelphia - had breakfast but never got lunch, and pickings in Cancún airport were slim, plus lines moved slowly and people were arguing with the cashiers because the credit card machines were down ... anyway, starving. On previous flights, I had steadfastly refused to pay money for one of these snack boxes (I want my hot, bad, free meal, dammit), but this time, two things forced my hand. A. I was, as I have said, starving. And B. We were told that the snack box would come with ... puzzles. Turns out that the top of the box had a bunch of Ridiculously Random trivia questions (including "Who was the star of the TV show Mannix"?! A: Mike Connors), while the bottom of the box had ... well, it had this!
Perhaps some of you have seen this. It's a very basic but not embarrassingly horrible puzzle. My favorite part is the (I'm guessing unintentional) extra level of difficulty created by the absence of any clue whatsoever for 20A, the answer to which is ELK. No theme, no author credit, 90 answers. The glossy coating to the box made it impossible to solve in pencil (all I had on the plane) so I waited til I got home. In fact, I just did this puzzle earlier this afternoon. Anyway, I just liked the idea of a crossword, even a mediocre one, turning up in a really unexpected spot (so much better than the advertising that might have filled up that space). I also really appreciate the work that goes into Good puzzles, especially where cluing is concerned. None of the clues here are clever, or have "?" appended to them, and most of them are actually just single-word clues. YAWN. No "X"s or "Q"s or "J"s ... Not worth the $5 I paid for it, but since I got chips and salsa and cheese and crackers and some kind of Nestle Crunch candy in the bargain, all in all, I was satisfied with the transaction.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Club Meditations

"Top Ten Things I Learned While On Vacation At Club Med - Cancún Yucatán"

10. White women should never, ever wear their hair in corn rows.

9. Nothing feels better at the end of a hot day than cold, clean sheets.

8. Yoga is best done outside, toward dusk, looking out at the Caribbean, with a cool breeze blowing and a large iguana or two hanging out nearby.

7. Pilates is a very intense workout, and far less fruity than its ridiculous name would suggest.

6. French women have next to no compunction about exposing their breasts to a brutal mid-day sun and their lungs to pack upon pack of cigarettes.

5. My daughter (and this is very recent) enjoys few things as much as sitting by herself absorbed in a book. I find this unbearably adorable. On this trip: Ramona the Pest and Mr. Popper's Penguins.

4. Mexican theme parks will not protect you from your own idiocy. It's up to you not to fall down precipitous stone stairs, tumble into the manatee tank, or curiously cross the small moat to angry spider monkey island. "Guard rails? ... We don't need no stinkin' guard rails!" [P.S. Spider monkeys are my new favorite animal, narrowly edging out the coati and the tapir, which I also got to see up close]

3. After about day five, the Club Med experience begins to lose its capacity to relax, the way that socks, after a while, lose their elasticity and just sort of hang there on your ankles.

2. The Sheltering Sky is a novel best read in an impoverished country while being waited on hand and foot by natives whose language you don't speak.

1. The sight of a ten-foot crocodile gliding slowly in your direction across the surface of a still lagoon at twilight is pretty fucking awesome.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

American Idol: Down to 8

"Nothing could be fine-ah..."

So Gina Glocksen goes home. She didn't deserve to, but she didn't deserve to win, or even come close, either, so no big loss. Sanjaya ends up in the Middle Three with Blake and Chris, so he's clearly going to be tough to stamp out. Penishead and Haley live on to make me wince yet another week. The good news is that, with the exception of poor Gina, everything seemed just fine to me. The order of my own personal Top Nine was barely disturbed.

The best part of the night was ... Michael Bublé! Naw, I'm kidding. He did not sound great. He sounded ... bored. Like he could Give a Fuck. He mumbled and smirked in places that suggested he was forgetting the lyrics. Plus, he sounded massively French Canadian. Or possibly Eastern European. I was actually sort of floored when Ryan started chatting with him after the song (title already forgotten by me - some standard), and he sounded like your average guy from NY.

No, the Real best part of the night was the (apparent) Top Three. Shockingly, especially given the whole racial angle of my entry (and the comments) yesterday, the top three were all black. They were also, objectively, the three best singers, so their success shouldn't be that remarkable. But on a show that saw Tamyra Gray go home before Nikki McKibbin, Jennifer Hudson AND LaToya London go home before Diana DiGarmo, Kimberly Locke go home before Clay Aiken, Sabrina Sloan go home before Haley Scarnato, and Elliott Yamin go home before Katharine McPhee ... well, the current high standing of Lakisha, Jordin, and the amazing Melinda is, historically, remarkable. But wait, you say ... Elliott Yamin was a white boy! True. Technically true. But every song he sang was black black black black. The kid was working Donny Hathaway, for god's sake. So I count him. He had his teeth done and he has an album now, which actually sounds good. So good for him.

I have a feeling that there will be several more weeks of ho-humness until the chaff has been brushed aside and we get down to top 5 or so. And then it's on.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

American Idol: The Final 9

"Let's Pretend We Love Tony Bennett!"

Nine is my favorite number, so now that "American Idol" is down to its final nine, I thought, "Why not start telling everyone what you think about the show?" Actually, starting with the Final Nine is entirely arbitrary - I just feel the need to write about this show all of a sudden, if only to make you (whoever you are) understand why this show is great despite being a sickening, self-congratulatory forum for musical mediocrity.

America is a pretty racist country overall, and it's worse than it could be because everyone's so busy denying it. As I've said before and will say again, "American Idol" is the great, ugly barometer of mass-market America. And when mass-market America casts more votes for Haley Scarnato than for Sabrina Sloan, you know something is horrifically wrong. Every year, black girls get sent packing weeks before their time, while barely competent white folk wear out their welcome, and this year is no different.

And yet there are always a handful of very good singers who manage to stick around a while (and sometimes win). This year has two undeniably good singers in Melinda Doolittle and Lakisha Jones. Melinda will win. At first I thought she would win because Lakisha is just Too Black for Middle America. But now I think Melinda will win because she is deserving ... and because Lakisha is too Black for Middle America. In fact, I am ready to make the following prediction: despite being manifestly better than everyone but Melinda, Lakisha will not make the top 2. She may not even make the top 3. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Tonight was Tony Bennett night. He has an amazing voice, but he is ... Old, and he looked it; "Stop messing with the song, sonny." That was the gist of all his advice. One of my favorite parts of the night was hearing him tell Lakisha that she shouldn't do this little added vocal riff at the end of the song, and then watching her do it anyway. She sang the hell out of "Stormy Weather" with her breasts acting as a force of nature in their own right. She looked like she was wearing the drapes from her hotel room, but whatever. She is fierce and I definitely see myself buying her album some day.

Melinda sang "I Got Rhythm" - I don't think I'd ever heard the first part of the song before; it's all slow and weird and wrong. But once she hit the familiar part and it sped up, it was amazing. She has complete control, plus she sings with personality, not just hitting notes but feeling the song. Love her love her love her. She and Lakisha, vocally, are on totally different planets from the other contestants.

Sanjaya looked like a casino or brothel owner in South America somewhere circa 1958. He sang "Dancing Cheek to Cheek," and he was actually better than he has been in weeks. Plus he sang while dancing with Paula - high level of difficulty, as she is crazy and drug-addled and you never know what she is going to do. Simon is angry that Sanjaya keeps getting put through, so tonight he tried sarcasm, saying it was "amazing" or something like that. It seemed a little cruel and beneath him, actually. These damned judges should take Sanjaya seriously and critique him honestly. Right now they're just laughing at him, which only makes the Cult of Sanjaya grow stronger. If they treat him like just another mediocre contestant, then he will disappear like one. If they treat him like a freak show, then he stays memorable, becomes a martyr figure for tone-deaf teens, and stays around.

The aforementioned Haley and Phil "Penishead" Stacey are surely going to be the bottom two tomorrow. Unless Chris "Meth Dealer" Richardson sneaks in there, which is possible. Penishead sang the great "Night and Day" with all the snap and panache and sex appeal of boiled cabbage. Haley ... man I don't even remember, but her breasts are Spectacular. Everyone gushed over Chris's performance, but it was not good, whatever it was.

I have an inexplicable affection for Beat Box Blake. His voice is nice to my ears, and he is somehow cool in a way that is Beyond Boy Band. He is my pick to make the final two (unjustly) with Melinda. Jordin Sparks is bubbly and sweet and has a very good voice, but like Haley, she is too cutesy, like she's in the talent portion of a Miss Teen USA pageant. A little too put-on. I'm not feeling her pain or joy or whatever she's selling. Too Much Teen Spirit. Gina sounded very nice but boring as hell. Plus something pink took up residence on the top of her head and nobody bothered to tell her.

So my current rankings of the contestants (in terms of how much I do or do not love them):

1. Melinda
2. Lakisha
3. Blake
4. Jordin
5. Gina
6. Chris
7. Sanjaya
8. Haley
9. Penishead

I don't think any of my favorites are in danger. For now.

We'll see - tomorrow night.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Opening Day

God I love springtime. Even in upstate NY, it still rules. The sun is shining, daffodils are coming up in the front yard, people are out with their dogs and their kids. The feel of open air on skin - the sight of skin in general after months of drab covering up. It's all glorious to me. Growing up in Central California, I completely missed out on the exhilaration of springtime. When the coldest day of the year is in the 40's somewhere, and it never snows and barely even rains, April 1 means only another, perhaps slightly warmer day. When you've been iced in for two months, April = ecstasy.

No one is happier about spring than my dog, who, like the rest of the family, has put on winter weight. The dog is actually starting to go a bit stir crazy - roaming about the house and looking at you expectantly no matter what you do: "I'm just going to the bathroom, dog. Relax."

The real beginning of spring for me is not March 20 or "Spring Break" or the first flowers of the new year. No. It's opening day. Baseball season! Starting today, I've got six months of my favorite spectator sport laid out in front of me. Plus, thanks to my friend Matt, I am going to get to go to my first game at Fenway Park this year. I think we're playing someone sucky like the Royals, but I couldn't care less. Watching baseball on TV is OK, but seeing a big league game live is exhilarating. Matt and I went to two Red Sox-Tigers games in Detroit last year. Here we are before the first game, following an hour-long, thunderstorm-induced rain delay:

[I'm the pasty one who looks like he thinks he's cool] The games in Detroit were a blast - mostly because the Sox fans were so prevalent, and so loud, and so drunk. At least they understood the game and actually stood and cheered when they were supposed to. The Tigers' success last year caught that whole city off guard - you could see how out-of-practice Detroit fans were when it came to decent fan behavior. They were all dazed and listless. The one thing about Sox fans (and, god help me, I'll admit it, many Yankees fans) - they understand and appreciate the game, especially the little details, and they are uniformly Into It, from the first pitch to the last. Anyway, this afternoon I will be camped in front of Matt's TV with a six pack of beer watching the Sox play the ... let me check ... ah, the Royals. A preview of the match-up I'll see live, later in the year. Schilling takes the mound against the massively overpaid and hopefully terrible Gil Meche (worst name in baseball - sounds like a fish disease).

In the meantime, I gotta go mentor one of my star graduate students who is giving a paper in a few days (in Boston, coincidentally) and is mildly freaking out.

I'm hoping this blog doesn't degenerate into a kind of diary - it's having a bit of an identity crisis at the moment. We'll see what happens.

Feel free to tell me why you love or hate springtime (or baseball, or the Red Sox, or my dog, or whatever) if you like.


Sunday, April 1, 2007

Stamford Postscript


I realized once I finished the recap that I left out a number of truly decent people who made my experience more enjoyable than it would have been otherwise. These included:
  • Will Shortz himself - just a quick, friendly handshake, as he was busy setting up for the Finals, but better than not meeting him at all
  • Karen M. Tracey - one of my very favorite constructors
  • Janie Smulyan - probably the warmest and most approachable person I met at Stamford. She recognized my name and introduced herself early on, and we ended up speaking frequently throughout the weekend; she also introduced me to several people, including Penny (last name forgotten ... goes by sobercamel at the NYT Forum) and Linda Murray
  • Gary Sherman - along with Janie, the "stranger" to whom I spoke the most during the weekend, especially in between-puzzle moments when everyone was rehashing the puzzle.
If there are others and I left you out, sorry. As I've said, I'm a shy person by nature, and I am truly grateful to everyone who made me feel like less of an outsider than I actually was. If you are at all considering going to the Tournament next year, you should go; there is no way you will feel out-of-place or under-qualified once you get there. People are too damned nice.