Idol does Elvis.

Obsessive analysis of American Idol.
April 15 2010 10:41 AM

Elvis & Idol

Who is the real king?

Ellen DeGeneres and Adam Lambert.
Ellen DeGeneres and Adam Lambert

Adam Lambert is not Elvis. No matter how similarly lofty and luxurious his hair may be, or how loudly young girls scream and parents cry for censorship, that's not the right comparison. And no, while Crystal may be the second coming of Janis Joplin or John Fogerty or, as Randy suggested, Bonnie Raitt , she's not Elvis, either. It's Idol. Idol is the new Elvis.

Elvis wasn't just a singer—he was, and still is (Elvis lives!) a whole industry unto himself. Like Idol, Elvis is "one of the most powerful brands in pop culture," and his early career marked a turning point in how music, and musicians, were sold. The two juggernauts have impressively comprehensive merchandising strategies in common—a shared goal of cross-market success, a constant presence in every available medium, and a knack for thriving on controversy, and both have capitalized on the idea of humble Southern roots and piety.  The Elvis theme this week was brought to us by another unstoppable force, Robert F.X. Sillerman, who owns Idol and bought 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises in 2005—and he has recently opened a King-themed Cirque de Soleil show in Vegas. I'm beginning to think that's where Idol should go after The X Factor drives it off the air, a Vegas production with singing acrobats (or acrobatic singers) hanging from the ceiling like Pink, twisting sinuously to the sounds of "This Is My Now" and "No Boundaries." Viva Las Vegas!

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Speaking of twisting sinuously—Elvis, who Ed Sullivan once introduced as "a real nice boy," used to talk about his gyrating hips like they had a mind of their own, like he wasn't in control of them. "I wasn't aware of what I was doing until people told me," he said in a 1957 interview. But our Idols are so controlled, so focused, even their minds don't have a mind of their own, let alone their hips. I wasn't looking for them to become impersonators, but their general lack of energy translated to a lack of interest, and Elvis (or at least his pelvis) was nothing if not interesting. Make an effort. I mean, you can get step-by-step instructions on the Internet. While there wasn't any Elvis impersonation this week, there was still something eerily familiar going on—on Tuesday it was Ryan's turn to be possessed by the spirit of Paula, as he danced goofily with a friend of Lee, crowed, "Wassup?" nonsensically over and over, flirted with Glambert and Matthew Morrison, and forgot to forget about Brian Dunkleman. A little less conversation, Ryan.

In any case, even if Adam isn't Elvis, he is Adam, and that (since he asked) is what we want from him. He guided his successors with a firm and practiced hand—even if he was so much at a loss with Tim that all he could do was repeat the word pretty— coaching them astutely to be bigger onstage. Once again, as when Usher visited, Lee was the only one who listened.  But most importantly, Adam brought the glitter back, twinkling from Crystal's spangled guitar and even his own sparkly ear protectors. On Wednesday he also brought lasers, his retooled "Whataya Want From Me?" sounding in silhouette from the eye of a Wicked green cyclone, or possibly the heart of the Matrix. He was so obscured by effects for the first half of the song that if he'd kissed his keyboard player, we'd never have known. I'm going to imagine he did. Overall, he reminded us that Idol needs that flash sometimes, the love of performance that used to define its singers and which even our most consistent contestants are not always delivering in this singer-songwriter-focused season.

Adam wasn't the only one demanding answers this week. Katie Stevens used Elvis' "Baby What You Want Me To Do?" to question the judges' conflicting advice to her, and though she showed more personality than she has in weeks, it came too late. Well, at least she'll get to her prom after all. But it was Siobhan who bore the brunt of the panel's chronic contradictions, accused of bringing two dichotomous (thanks, Usher) vocal personalities to the stage. Trying to defend herself, she insisted, "Even I can't pinpoint who or what I am…I don't think it's necessary to be labeled." That's the problem, though. What the producers want from her is a label, because it's easier to market someone you can locate in the rock or R&B section at Borders than someone who defies categorization. They want Elvis; they want a brand. But this, I guess, is the beauty of Siobhan, oblivious to the industry and caught up in her own loudQUIETloud world. If only we all lived there.

In other performances, Crystal paid tribute to Michael's rescue with "Saved," Aaron was all shook up by the word liquor in "Blue Suede Shoes," Michael had the judges patting themselves on the back after his thoughtful rendition of "In the Ghetto" (in the ghet-toe …), and Andrew, who just never quite caught a rabbit, bought his ticket home with a "sleepy" (the new drinking-game word of the season)"Hound Dog." Andrew and Katie aren't the only ones making exits from Idol—the show isn't exactly the Titanic, but there's definitely a sinking feeling. Simon thinks it sounds like a (ghastly) cruise, folks are abandoning ship at an alarming rate, and is that the band on deck playing "Nearer My God, to Thee"? (Wait, that's Elvis!)

As you might remember, Elvis himself has been a guest on American Idol before, taking a break from his celestial tour to sing with Céline Dion on "Idol Gives Back" in 2007 (their duetted "If I Can Dream," even with one of the participants a digitalized ghost, was eons better than Brooke White and Justin Gaston's shaky reminder to check out Alex Lambert in his new reality show). Next week, Idol will Give Back again. I have a brand new box of Kleenex all ready. Bring on the inspirational songs, and show us that Idol lives!

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