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Saturday, April 9, 2016

That's All Folks... For Now #AmericanIdol #IdolFinale #Series Finale #EndOfAnEra #FOX

That's All Folks... For Now #AmericanIdol #IdolFinale #Series Finale #EndOfAnEra #FOX

All pictures courtesy of FOX unless otherwise noted 

Well, it finally happened. The thing many people thought might never occur happened on Thursday night, April 7, 2016. That was the day that music, uh... not died but retired from competition. OK, that wasn't a good metaphor. Wait, did that qualify as a metaphor at all? Hm? As a writer, I'm quite confused. Let's just move away from grammar semantics and get on with the review, shall we.

Finally (and sadly) after 15 seasons of hopefuls, 15 seasons of cheers, 15 seasons of pitchy notes and questionable runs, 15 seasons of people who couldn't sing and people who could literally sing the phone book, 15 seasons of crowning musical achievements, FOX's American Idol has come to an end. To say that an era has ended is an understatement, but it is also the most apt and direct words for the series finale of a show that had at its outset become an American phenomenon. Hundreds of hours, more viewers than the broadcast network had ever seen and millions of fangirls and boys fostered a show for over a decade, one many people doubted could even make an impact in the TV landscape when it first premiered back in 2002. To honor Idol the network went with a full three night slate beginning on Tuesday with an hour and a half special focused on the history of Idol. And so too, we begin there.

Remembering the early days of Idol served as a time warp into a past that seems so distant now that it is hard to believe a show like this ever existed before immediate fan reaction similar to what we get off Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and the like. We're talking a time in which the internet was still on the expanse in many homes across America and certainly wasn't the center of our lives that many people both young and old find it to be today. There, in the digital quiet post-911 world the country looked for something new and heart-warming around which to galvanize. After the overwhelming success of many broadcast networks in the 90s, the networks began to look elsewhere for the next great boom of television programming. The family sitcom boom was coming to an end and adult comedies like Seinfeld and Friends were either already gone or on their way out. But, more importantly, with the success of HBO's prison drama Oz quickly followed by the ratings-blister of The Sopranos, networks slowly realized that they'd soon have unprecedented competition from cable networks. To keep viewers and turn a profit, they'd have to shift their paradigms and seek out newer ways to entertain. In came the reality competition.

Not that American Idol was the first, it did capitalize on a coming revolution of viewer/fan interaction at every level of the competition. A successful British show, Pop Idol used the same format to streamline singers into the changing music industry. When bringing the show to American TV, they kept the format but knew they'd have to make some changes in order to make it fit. One of the things not addressed in the 90-minute trip down memory lane was the religious backlash to the very name of the show. American Idol was seen as an affront to many religions, especially Christianity; a sacrilege that encouraged the worship of false idols. This, coupled with the feeling that it amounted to another Star Search ripoff--a show that had long seen its heyday and faded into pop culture annals--fostered hate in many minds before it aired one episode. Its back already against the wall, FOX dared treat it worse by scheduling it as a summer show, once the death-knell for many series. Historically, summer shows garnered fewer viewers as people busied themselves with outdoor activities, parties, and actually living away from things like computer and cellphone screens. Just imagine, a day and age where people actually went and visited each other to talk rather than texting, tweeting, or Skyping their close ones (both in relationship and proximity). 

An abbreviated season much like this final season, many people didn't even tune in to the competition until later rounds when the show gained notoriety for its few celebrity followers. Even I didn't tune in until only six contestants remained. But by the time Justin Guarini and Kelly Clarkson stood on the finale stage together, FOX knew it had a hit on its hands as millions watched the first American Idol be crowned. From then on, people would tune in season after season in hopes of recapturing their own "Moment Like This" celebration.

Just as most writers and readers will tell you, a good story is nothing without great characters. And while the Idol hopefuls changed with each season, the people more and more viewers began to tune in for sat behind a table and voiced listener's truth. Originally questioned as a liability, Simon Cowell's truthful British bite and ascorbic attitude drew nearly as many people as the talented singers. Viewers watched to see what Simon would say either to the would-be Idols or to his fellow judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul who often disagreed with him. Paula brought a light to the judges' table that was desperately needed when crushing the dreams of fellow Americans. Randy brought a comedic flair and lightheartedness to the panel that could both deliver the truth while being gentle to those who believed they had talent. This blend of personalities helped to propel the show to what it was even when the talent was questionable at times.

Despite Randy's best efforts, none of them could last as long as host Ryan Seacrest who served as the sole host for 14 of the 15 seasons. Going from a once barely known radio host to a media mogul, he's established a brand that reaches far beyond Idol. Under his RSP production company he serves as producer on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Shahs of Sunset and the recent NBC hit, Shades of Blue. He is now just as synonymous with American Idol as anyone and has seen the coming and going of multiple judges and changes in the format. One thing always remained the same: people tuned in weekly for the story of someone's rise to success as a star was born.

With a very abbreviated season that saw the live shows of American Idol condensed down to one episode a week, the 15th season of Idol came down to three artists which narrowed even farther on Wednesday night's live performance. Left were Mississippi country boy Trent Harmon whose perfectly tamed falsetto made young girls across America swoon; and La'Porsha Renae, the single mother survivor with a big voice and even bigger hair. While I thought the performances were good, I didn't like Trent's song and future first single. I actually thought it felt too old school and not what I would see as his brand. Even more to the point, I don't see him as being a country music artist as some of the people on the show have suggested. Instead, I think he would do much better as a pop artist in the same vein as Justin Timberlake, Charlie Puth, or even a much better Justin Bieber. His voice lends itself better to pop (maybe a Taylor Swift brand of Country Pop) especially with his masterful use of falsetto. I thought La'Porsha's song was better suited for her and sounded more current but it still lacked a certain vibrance that other first songs from potential Idol winners had. Of course nothing was ever more suitable for any of the potential winners than Kelly Clarkson's "A Moment Like This," but I digress.

Performing three times, they also re-performed a past song from weeks prior--Trent choosing Sia's "Chandelier" and La'Porsha choosing "Diamonds"--as well as a song chosen specifically by the exec producer. They saddled Trent with Rod Stewart's "If You Don't Know Me By Now" and La'Porsha with Dionne Warwick's version of "A House Is Not A Home", neither of which blew me away. In some ways, I feel that the performances on Wednesday weren't as good maybe because of the overwhelming moment of this being the finale. The air felt drained from the contestants as everyone geared up for the massive concert that was Thursday's finale.

And boy what a finale it was. Everybody and they momma showed up for this thing. We opened not with a performance but with a quick speech from President Obama on the virtues of voting and how if people can be moved to vote for their favored American Idol, then they should be able and eager to do the same thing when it comes time to vote in November for president. Frankly, if voting for president was as simple as calling or texting or tweeting in for the next American Idol, I could see more people exercising their given right. Unfortunately it ain't and we'll still get plenty of people who won't vote for whatever reason.
Then came the real show. It started with the two finalists singing onstage together and slowly widened to reveal all of the top ten from the season before taking in a panoramic shot of the entire stage that would see dozens upon dozens of past competitors from the top ten flooding the stage to unite as one huge Idol choir dressed in all white like angels or psych ward patients. From there, we knew we were in for a huge night packed with big returns and nostalgia galore.

Look, Ryan, I got a haircut. 
First came the callback to the also-ran, long-suffering, once co-host Brian Dunkelman who, in the most awkward part of the night, came out to make a joke about how Seacrest and Idol have sputtered along without him for the last 14 seasons. The crowd's reaction was more mixed than Barack Obama as it seemed that some people in the crowd took it almost as a slight to the show rather than a cute, chuckle-inducing joke about the show's success. This even elicited Seacrest to give his rival a pity clap to gen up applause and laughter for Dunkelman's appearance. Listen, I wanted him to come back and expected it to be a little awkward, but that was downright cringe-worthy. After having seen the transformation from frosted tip Abercrombie and Fitch heaven to subdued but suave, rich 40-something that Seacrest underwent during his years, it was a little sad to see Dunkelman appear as if he had essentially just stepped out of a time machine that brought him to the future and added a few pounds. Virtually the same hair, the same sense of humor, the same bargain-warehouse suit and, even worse, the same sense of "I don't really belong nor want to be here" that he had in the first season played out like a reunion between you and that one friend you had in high school that you only now realize was weird as hell and wasn't really a friend.

With those few minutes out of the way, Dunkelman took his rightful seat down in the audience where he stayed quiet for the remainder of the night as more performances began. Nearly every past judge performed on the show, videoed in or appeared just to say high with the exception of Mariah Carey (I think. I might have missed her as I did have a bathroom break). Kara Dioguardi performed a Pink hit with Jordin Sparks and another Idol alum singing backup for her. Keith Urban performed a duet with Carrie Underwood that was a rock country mix. Harry Connick Jr. performed the old classic "What a Wonderful World" with a young girl from New Orleans in an effort to remember the influence that Idol Gives Back had on natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. In one of the most show-stopping performances of the night, Jennifer Lopez performed her new song "Ain't Ya Mama" while giving us all the ass we could ever hope for in what served partially as a sneak peek at her Vegas show. Ellen, Steven Tyler and Nicki Minaj all videoed in their memories of being on the show and how they enjoyed the experience. Lastly, Randy and Paula emerged onto the stage to give Ryan a gift as the only one to make it from the first episode to the last. Yes, another strange moment, they gifted him the big American Idol neon light sign. Yep, the one that lights up and takes more than half a dozen people to cart around. Honestly, if I was Ryan I don't know what I'd do with that thing. I might be so inclined as to actually keep it as it is the symbol of the one thing that changed my life forever.

The biggest will he/won't he pseudo-surprise (TMZ ruined it a day earlier) came when Simon snuck up from behind to surprise Ryan. Paula not the only one who had a tumultuous relationship with Cowell, Ryan also sparred back and forth with the Brit many a-times during the show, while forming a long-lasting bond outside of the lights and the stage. Returning cloaked in gray both in his suit color and his scruffy beard, Simon gave us all one last look at that beautiful man-cleavage before he makes his triumphant return to judging this summer on America's Got Talent. They chuckled and laughed about the good ol' times before Paula left, then Simon the following year, and reminded us of how great the chemistry was between them before the band broke up.

And as an aside to the evening highlighting why the show became such a huge success, they not only showed a montage of some of the less than stellar contestants, but ended said montage with a live performance of "She Bangs" by none other than the now-married William Hung, proving that the good singers weren't the only ones to bolster the show's viewership.

The Three Divas
But the night ultimately belonged to the myriad of contestants both past and present who performed in the 2+ hours of the broadcast. We saw a return of season three's 3 divas with a performance from Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson and the oft-forgotten third diva Latoya London who looked and sounded just as good now as she did back then. We also saw a return from Bo Bice, the runner-up rocker to Carrie Underwood's Idol win who looked far different now than what he did before (hair cut and proper like an office worker). He, along with other rocker notables such as Chris Daughtry, Constantine and Caleb Johnson (and a few more) took the stage to perform a rock medley unlike ever seen before.

Rock Out! 
Many of the country singers they had pass through the ranks including Scotty McCreery, Kellie Pickler and Lauren Alaina came out for a hootin' tootin' hoedown-esque line dancing hit. 

A Serious Country Throwdown

And pretty much every white guy with a guitar that had ever stood on stage and sung his way not just into the top ten but often to the crown of American Idol showed up in a medley of songs that spanned their genres from country to rock, including Phillip Phillips, Lee Dewyze, David Cook and Kris Allen.

All The White Guys With Guitars You Could Ever Hope For

Unfortunately, there were no other big genres that had their own play at the show as much of the other stars appearances came in a hodgepodge of music that took us from girls singing about having a crush on another woman because that woman reminds her of a man, to slow music talking about hope and belief to a Diva-filled choral recall back to Whitney Houston's rendition of "Joy to the World." Between Lopez's striptease and Colton's praise be to God song, the night took us from the strip club to church on Christmas morning and back again.

Both Jessica Sanchez and Joshua Ledet emerged from their youtube channels to remind us all that even though Phillip Phillips is good ("Home" was my 2012 Olympics jam!) it should have come down to the two singers who could really blow. Why the hell aren't they being played all over the radio right now? Jordin Sparks came and gave us as much body as we could ever handle in a black pants suit, and that was before Lopez came on stage. She sang a duet of her hit song "No Air" with Justin Guarini who reminded us all that he was not only still alive but that he could do something other than hock the sweet taste of Diet Dr. Pepper (it's the sweet one!).

Ruben also sang a duet with Amber Holcomb. Candice Glover made an appearance in one song, and so did Clay Aiken who was iffy about coming back after bad-mouthing the show earlier in the season. Katharine McPhee performed, adding to her Idol finale season performance haul, and Kelly Clarkson who couldn't be there live because she was popping out a tiny human of her own, had a pre-recorded video of her performing a medley of her hits taped weeks back when she guest-judged. Even Taylor Hicks showed up in what had to be the brightest, most Downsouth-Black-man Easter Sunday Church suit jacket I've ever seen a white man not named Craig Sager wear.

Both Diana Degarmo and her new husband Ace Young performed and boy does it look like marriage suits them well. Pia Toscano came out to remind us that yes, she can really sing, too. An embarrassment of riches, they had tons of past contestants singing and dancing and even had room to bring back another notable comic relief contestant, the famous old black guy who auditioned with his original song "Pants On The Ground." Of course they had room for last season's winner Nick Fradiani, as well as Melinda Doolittle, Kree Harrison and Carly Smithson. They literally had everyone who had ever performed on the stage, on the stage... except for Sanjaya.

In probably the funniest and most awkward presence of the night (I say presence because I don't know what else to call it), Sanjaya was shown repeatedly sitting in the audience with a plain purple shirt enjoying the festivities. Probably the only idol there who didn't hop on stage in the multiple showcases throughout the night, I'm half-certain he didn't perform in the opening number with all of them in white. In fact, the producers seemed so ticked by his presence that they didn't even talk to him as he sat in a visible sight-line for the cameras. He put his hair up into a strange rubber-banded faux-hawk which I'm sure the people sitting behind him enjoyed all night. Maybe residual hatred for him being at the center of the Idol scandal that, in my opinion, ultimately brought the show down still lingered?

See my purple shirt? What About my faux-hawk. Sanjaya! 

For those that don't remember, Sanjaya did terribly in the live shows and was repeatedly told by Simon that he couldn't sing (in some cases even questioning why they put him through from Hollywood week). By a certain round, he had not only stayed while other far more worthy singers went home, but seemed to give up trying to be anything other than a joke. It was highly publicized then that it had become viral for people who hated the show to try voting the worst singer to the ultimate throne in an attempt to kill the show (because the world, no matter how hard we try to be nice, is still filled with careless donkeys). After that, not only did viewership go down, but the judges started to exit and the infamous trend known as White Guy With a Guitar began to dominate the show, causing even more viewers to exit. Seeing Sanjaya was actually kind of sad, but also hilarious as it captured in one great image just why the show both got to be so popular and why it ultimately has come to its death: the influence of viewers is a double-edged sword.

Yes, Justin Guarini is at the end there. 
In all, this was the absolute best that Idol had to offer. With the exception of a few fan favorites missing from action (Adam Lambert couldn't be there as he was filming something in Canada I believe; hey, everybody from the show isn't still in music or famous) you can't really ask for a better send-off for a show that reshaped American culture and spawned countless copycats (yes, I'm looking at you The Voice and defunct The X-factor).

Oh wait! Before we wrap up, what about the winner. Well, the final winner of American Idol the farewell season, between La'Porsha and Trent was....................... Trent Harmon. That's right, the country boy with the smooth falsetto came back to be the final White Guy With a Guitar that the show would see, book-ending the show with a white male to go along with the white female that won the first season, proving just what we all knew: America loves white people. Oh, don't get your panties in a bunch Caucasians, if you gasped in horror instead of laughing at that joke, you're more uptight than any Black Lives Matter protester could ever suspect. No, I'm not saying nor implying that this was a judgment based on race. To the contrary, I thought Trent was quite good and it might surprise you that two out of my top four choices from Hollywood week made it to the top two and all made it to the top fourteen: La'Porsha, Trent, Thomas Stringfellow and I really wanted Sonika Vaid to make it to the top three (that was my young woman crush of the season).

Congratulations Trent Harmon

Just as good of a winner as any, Trent sobbed and pulled it together to perform, extolling the virtues of hard work in the process. His whimper of "I've worked so hard and I never wanted to take this for granted, my gift for granted. I just always wanted to try to use it as best I could," (paraphrased) was ultimately what Idol was all about. Idol, for all of its faults and low seasons, for all of its bad and stereotypical winners, for every singer that we just knew was going to win and lost, and every talentless belter that made it through to the judges, was always about people pushing through, fighting, struggling and achieving the best success they could imagine. It was about the use of a gift, God-given or otherwise, that allowed others to feel, to emote and entertained millions. Idol encapsulated the spirit of determination that all of us both young and old seek to have when chasing after a dream. Taking us on a journey that started at a stage where hope and some talent was all one had (and not everyone was even sure about that talent) to the heights of stardom where millions of people get exposed to your gift and all the work in-between, Idol made for amazing family TV that made even the most ardent pessimist believe, even for a second, that anything was possible, so long as you're willing to dedicate your all to it.

In many ways, as I struggle through this year and try to figure out if I should continue to try to write and pursue my dreams or not (a dream I once had before it was taken from me), I often find myself more than ever searching for nuggets of hope such as Idol gave for 14 years. It is not easy to create something for entertainment of another, whether that be a song, a performance, the written word or any visual art. It is even more difficult to get someone to believe in that which you've created, to find the people who will bolster your belief in your own talents before you end up giving up. But the hardest and most difficult thing of all is to try deciphering not only if you actually do have the talent you think you do, but if you're using it right, pushing yourself hard enough, working diligently to perfect such a craft. In a world so scarce of true validation, to search for it from outside of one's self is often laughed at or brushed off in any form. A single, small, infantile wish to want, to seek, to become, to use what you think can change the world can become a sufferance so few are willing and able to bear, some never achieving that elusive dream, some not working hard enough, some just not lucky enough. But when someone, anyone breaks through the struggle to earn such accolades, after we've seen the suffering, the heartache, the sickness, the pain, it helps us all to breathe, to laugh and to be proud that at least someone made it. It helps to know that hard work and determination are still appreciated and can still accomplish great things in a time where fame, prestige and accolades are so easily given away to the latest fad.

The Face Of Hope For Even In Losing You're On Your Way To A Big Win

With that said, yes, La'Porsha will also get her own recording contract, though she won't get nearly as much money as Trent will his first time out. Fret not Afro-wig fans (no way in hell La'Porsha was ever gonna convince me or anybody else that that was her real hair. Not believing it) for plenty of non-Idol winners have gone on to have bigger careers than some of the winners themselves. It'll take a lot more hard work, determination and rubbing elbows with the right people but she can make it. Hell, if you're on the Idol stage, you're already halfway there.

And to end this overly long post (I really didn't intend on covering the Idol history but what the heck!), we've gotta speculate the hell outta that last comment from Ryan Seacrest. This dude straight Marvel-movied us with his post-credits comment. Like, how are you gonna sneak in a twist ending in the final seconds of the series finale. "...For now." This man made me immediately think of the too-damn-catchy Justin Bieber song "What Do You mean?" No joke, I stayed up an hour past my usual bed time replaying that scene half-dreaming of Justin Bieber materializing from the confetti to sing that refrain. Matter o' fact, writin' about it now got me thinkin' about it again. Damn! Seacrest got me thinkin' Idol is planning a Jay-Z style comeback. The show is not gonna stay gone for four years or so then return like it never left, is it? Idol not runnin' off to play Major League Baseball for a season before it come back and win three more championships, is it? Idol ain't about to Jay Leno us and come back with the same exact show but 90 minutes earlier every night, is it? I don't know. It's very suspicious.

And So The Lights Go Out 

OK, I've gotta get outta here. I've wasted enough of your time. What did you think? Did you watch the American Idol series finale? Was I wrong and you actually did see Sanjaya up there singing at one point? Don't call me out for not listing everybody who was there, I know I missed some people and I'm sorry if that contestant was your favorite. How many of those people do you think are still singing as their primary profession? And what, if anything, did you think the show was missing? Let me know in the comments below (hint: click the no comments button if you see no comments).

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Until next time, "Some people wait a lifetime for a moment--"
'Sorry, Kelly, but we're gonna try finishing these live shows up in about one month, so if you could just hurry it up! Thanks!'

P.S. Listen, I'm not trying to complain and I know that the show's ratings weren't stellar this year but really? Y'all had the auditioning process last for two months, two days each week, but you cut the live shows to four or five episodes? That's like having to bury your favorite loved one in a suit that's too small with a funeral that lasts for only 10 minutes because you gotta be outta the church so the Glory dancers can have their meeting. It's just wrong.

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