Idol and Ellen Go Hollywood: Season 9 Finally (Sort Of) Starts

Idol and Ellen Go Hollywood: Season 9

February 9th, 2010

Like many, I don’t tend to join American Idol until after the audition rounds. Sometimes this means joining at the start of the Hollywood rounds, so that we can see the talent go through the “gruelling” process that narrows down the competition to the Top 24. However, other times I wait until the Semi-Finals, because there are some times (like last season, when Kris Allen had absolutely no coverage prior to the semi-finals and won the entire competition) when these rounds don’t actually matter in the end (not that I’m suggesting the show as a whole matters in any grand scheme of things, but rather in terms of the narratives the show wants to be able to create).

This year, of course, there is reason to tune in for Hollywood, as we see what sort of role that Ellen DeGeneres, she of the sharp wit and daytime talk show, will play as the new judge. What I realized in watching tonight’s episode, though, was that the Hollywood Round is awkwardly positioned as a launching pad and a crash zone, a place where narratives from the auditions come to die and where new narratives leading into the semi-finals are formed. And, in this internet age, I almost feel as if the rounds are becoming more and more irrelevant, in that any new narratives can be followed online while avoiding the resolution to the manipulative clip package narratives the show created in the audition rounds.

Some more thoughts on this balance, and what I thought about Ellen’s judging gig, after the jump.

I have been following coverage of this season through Entertainment Weekly’s Idolatry, and it’s clear that Idol is all about the manipulative narratives this season. The “stories” are becoming more and more prominent, a point made extremely clear by the fact that the flashbacks to the auditions of various Hollywood contenders focused almost entirely on who they were rather than what they sang, or whether they were actually a good singer. It’s always interesting to see how reality shows try to control their narratives, but the show is really working overtime right now to sell the performers as people: their “title card” has both age and occupation, even when I’d probably be more interested to know what they’re singing (as it seems more relevant to the singing competition at hand).

This is perhaps the most awkward Hollywood Round episode in that it sells itself on the personal stories, but the actual results are entirely dependent on their singing ability (or so we presume: one girl who got some fairly harsh comments from Ellen ended up going through, so we don’t know what kind of shenanigans were going on in the editing bay). Every now and then, you get a bit of convergence (like Andrew Garcia, trying to start a new life for his family, who tore up an acoustic version of Straight Up), but for the most part the judges were struggling to create narratives for the best singers: Simon noted how good it would be to have a waitress in the competition, as if having a good singer just wasn’t enough of a narrative to be satisfying, for example.

There were a number of solid auditions, almost all of them dependent on acoustic accompaniment (the backup vocals from the crowd were a fun touch, too), but the show spent more time with the people who were questionable Hollywood picks to begin with. The poor country girl, who was clearly too nervous to go through to the next round, struggled mightily, and it seemed strange the show lingered on her failure so heavily; similarly, we spent too much time with joke characters like Skiibo, at least for me to see this as something other than an extension of the audition inanity. This is the start of the shift to something more interesting, a singing competition, but it’s a bit of an awkward transition, and while Group Day has some interesting drama of its own right that is entertaining enough to justify its ultimate irrelevance to the big picture, this set of auditions does feel sort of trapped.

However, after a fairly weak stint as a guest judge on So You Think You Can Dance where she was nothing but a joke machine, Ellen proved herself to be quite a competent judge. She was very funny, dropping some good one-liners and enjoying playing with some heads with that “back, forward, to the left” bit, but she also turned that humour into something negative at points. It’s still unclear how she will be once the competition gets down to the end, as there’s every chance that she’ll revert to total Paula mode in that setting (as she did on SYTYCD), but she’s a funny comedian who understands human behaviour enough to have something substantial to say about a performance competition (even if her knowledge of singing is limited).

In the end, without Ellen, I could have just waited until Idolatry to see the auditions that “matter” to the narratives that will start forming in a few weeks without having to deal with the annoying “stories” provided the contestants. But with Ellen present, and a few strong auditions, I’m “in” for the season, even if Lost will always remain my focus on Tuesday nights.

Cultural Observations

  • I dislike Kara in general, but that she felt she had to compare Andrew Garcia rearranging a song to Adam Lambert was the kind of obnoxious nepotism that the show leans towards. People were rearranging songs before Adam Lambert, Kara.
  • As many have noted, the judges have switched from Coca-Cola to Vitamin Water Zero, which is a brilliant move on the part of the Vitamin Water people: while everyone knows what Coke is (which makes it impact on the public fairly subtle), some may have never heard of Vitamin Water, and their confusion will lead to some pretty substantial interest.

1 Comment

Filed under American Idol

One response to “Idol and Ellen Go Hollywood: Season 9 Finally (Sort Of) Starts

  1. In general, I feel that the showcasing of the contestant’s “stories” is cheesy and underhanded, but I’m normally able to move past it. However, I felt cheated and manipulated by the decision to show the country girl’s story (whose name was Vanessa Wolfe). She was heartbreaking and I genuinely felt angry when she was sent home. Maybe that’s the show’s tactics working on me, but I’m thinking it’s more along the lines of the show’s tactics backfiring on itself.

    I’m sure I’m not the only one with an abnormal attachment to that girl after seeing her dealt with in such depth (they spent about ten minutes on her during the original audition, out of a 45 minute show), and the result of it all turned out to be that I ended up with an extreme aversion to the show and am now resentful of the judges, who only gave the poor girl an honest judgment (her second audition was terrible).

    I wish they would just lay off the personal stories until we’ve hit the Top 24. It’s just too much until then.

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