This week, for one brief moment, American Idol put the reality in reality television. We saw the burden of reality on little tear-stained faces in New Orleans and the recognition of reality in the eyes of a genuinely devastated Simon Cowell in Kabira, Kenya. We've heard stories of suffering before on the show, but they usually lead to happy American Dream endings for single teenage mothers and abandoned children. This time it was different. I'd like to say something cynical about selling altruism for ratings and ad time, but you wouldn't be able to understand me through all the Kleenex and the sobbing.
"Idol Gives Back" demonstrated the paradox that is American Idol, and maybe also Chris Richardson—unapologetic commercialism trumped by a puzzlingly disarming sincerity. The whole event, like all charity rock, was inherently self-congratulatory, effectively moving, and, ultimately, a brilliant plan. It raised some money for a number of respected aid organizations, established a new one, functioned as a superpowerful viewer magnet, and capitalized on what Americans most love to do: as little as possible. So, I voted. I voted like I have never voted before! I voted with two phones! I didn't even care whom I was voting for, because the Top 6 all sang "life anthems" and wanted to do things like Imagine, Believe, and Change the World, and I guess my fingers just did the walking.
Maybe it was the residual enthusiasm from the fabulous time I'd had at the finalists' dress rehearsal. After spending all season on a waiting list, I finally got the hoped-for e-mail and headed with a friend down to CBS Television City in Los Angeles. Inside the studio, we heard the band and backup singers party like it was "1999," and watched Ryan schmooze, dork around, and expertly do his job. Regardless of how the finalists sang in the broadcast, every one of them knocked it out of the park Monday afternoon. If you listened carefully, you could hear the difference in Tuesday's end-of-the-episode recap package, which is always edited together from dress rehearsal footage.
In the performances that aired on Tuesday, but which were actually taped immediately after the rehearsal I saw, most voices (Phil!) sounded tired in comparison—except, of course, Melinda and her larynx of steel. Blake improved somewhat between takes, managing to turn odd detachment into a more appropriate solemnity. LaKisha's "I Believe"—the only "inspirational" song choice I called correctly on our way to L.A.—was fairly convincing the first time but rocky the second. Though Jordin and Chris were the standouts when I saw them live, by the second time they sang, I think he had lost some stamina, and her emotions seemed to get the better of her.
The finalists themselves were all but irrelevant this week, anyway. No one was even eliminated, so on Wednesday they just sat around in white suits looking like the little angels I'm sure they are. This event just wasn't about the Top 6 at all—it was about other numbers, like the 50 million votes Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. matched with their donation (what about the other 20 million votes?), the almost absurd number of lip-syncing celebrities crammed into a 2-minute "Stayin' Alive" montage, and the multitudes of children orphaned by AIDS every 30 seconds in South Africa.
"Idol Gives Back" delivered all the requisite charity rock essentials, like Quincy Jones, Bono, Madonna, and the African Children's Choir. The choir sang with Josh Groban, and Simon Cowell's "opera band" Il Divo rounded out the popera quotient. I totally went to college with one of the Il Divo tenors (no, not the one with the eyebrows). We were both voice majors, and since I am currently a substitute blogger, I don't think I have to tell you which of us was the better singer. He sounds older now, but his hair looks exactly the same. (Call me, Dave!) In other news, if you thought Prince's performance last year was an Idol coup, you must have been plotzing when you saw Elvis with Celine Dion. I knew it! I knew he was alive! Elvis liiiiiives! I was expecting something like Natalie Cole's duet with her father on a movie screen, but that reverse Forrest Gump effect was indeed a very special one. They didn't really have any chemistry together, though.
As for performances sung entirely by living people, we had Ellen at the Disney Concert Hall introducing a rockin' Earth, Wind and Fire medley, an ardent Annie Lennox, perennial Idol guests Rascal Flatts, and two Idol winners. I thought the video with Carrie Underwood hugging African children was a touch icky in a post-colonial cliché way, but I liked Kelly Clarkson's singing and hair color. Comedy highlights included Jack Black's shtick with Seal, Ben Stiller "Reminiscing," and Simon's Simpson-ized "Don't Cha." But where was Borat?
Here is what I learned this week. 1) My life is easy, which I know because Ryan Seacrest is not in my house right now with a camera and a Coldplay song (call me, Ryan!), and when I don't have time for my lunchtime salad I should just shut up with the whining. 2) It's not enough for American Idol to take over the world; it has to solve all of its problems, too. Next, the Idols reverse the Earth's rotation and travel back in time to warn humanity about Sanjaya! Well, the show reminded us all at once about several of the very many problems that need solving and about some ways in which we can contribute to the solutions. If you don't donate, at least go to the "Idol Gives Back" page on MySpace and watch Simon yell at a little girl for drawing him with breasts.