Can someone PLEASE explain the attraction? Is it the ever-dwindling posse of Dionne Warwick wannabes warbling forgotten show-tunes? Is it the fey hard-ass in the muscle shirt dispensing his own brand of glitzy frontier justice? Is it the jacked-up host shilling cola between inane backstage yammering? Don't even tell me it's Paula Abdul! For cryin‘ out loud, the woman put Arsenio Hall in her music video! This qualifies her to judge talent? What's next? Kid Rock judging some glam-metal karaoke contest? AUURRGGH!!!!!!!!Okay - so I was a little worked up, but a stiff regiment of Delta Blues and Nautical history got me through that difficult time. Soon I was getting through each and every day without thinking of American Idol at all, despite seeing junior sales executives do back-flips down the hall over the numbers the show was bringing in every day. No, I was doing just fine, until the driveway phone call that fateful morning…
“Stew - we're gonna need to send you to Raleigh ASAP. But you need to come here and pick up Cindy. Clay Aiken is visiting with the Governor."
"Who the hell's Clay Aiken?"
"CLAY AIKEN! American Idol! He's one of three contestants left on the show! He's from Raleigh and we just found out he's visiting the Governor at ten!"
What followed was a heated road race to Capitol City, where I first came face to face with the loopy juggernaut that is Idolatry Americus . When we entered the rotunda, a camera crush that would flatter The Pope swirled around the scrawny songbird and beaming Governor. I weaseled my way upfront, and joined the wall of lenses clamoring for close-ups. That’s when the songbird opened his throat and belted out a rendition of ‘On the Wings of Love’ that would send Jeffrey Osbourne into jagged sobs. Aiken’s powerhouse pipes filled every crevice of the historical structure that day. Even the ivory busts of lawmakers past sighed blissfully at the warm melody. It didn’t exactly make me a fan of the show, but I came way with an appreciation for the electronic audacity of it all. Eventually I penned an account of the whole sordid sojourn in the lengthy diatribe, Operation: Idol. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
After that, I thought I was through with the show. But the everyone around me started using the F-Word around me, and they weren’t talking about the trippy Mickey Mouse Acid flick. Before I knew it a strutting home girl from High Pockets flew to Hollywood, impressing all with her voice and verve. An unlikely ascent followed and I helped hype every inch of it. It’s what I do. I remember interviewing her brother, her teachers, and one especially slow newsday, her mailman. Of course the whole thing culminated with her coronation as the American Idol champ. I witnessed that too, from the swaying mosh-pits at the Greensboro Coliseum. All around me eight thousand deluded maniacs convulsed and jerked with full-on Fantasia Fever. Which puts the photog in a perilous spot. One has not fully experienced life until he has held a coliseum full of people hostage with a live TV camera. Just make sure you don’t spark a riot. I almost did, but survived the night with only mild ear hemorrhage. Find out why in the seething epistle Fear and Loathing in Fantasia-Land.
Then came August of 2004. Four five days I prowled the floor of the Washington D.C. Convention Center, dragging my camera and tripod through a sea of badly-warbling backup singers. Twenty thousand strong at the outset, the teeming masses of drama queens would be reduced to a couple dozen before the workweek was done.
"I AM the next American Idol!" each one boasted to my lens.Sure you are, I’d think, pointing the camera their way. Nine times out of ten, the sound of two feral cats making love in a tin-foil sack would immediately fill the Convention Center, setting off a chain-reaction of half-flat trills and badly-dented Doo-Wap. My lovely reporter and I endured it all, searching out Piedmont residents among the camped-out crooners and watching them slowly dismissed one by one. All except one. Greg Sanders of Pittsboro made it ALL THE WAY to Hollywood - past production assistants, executive producers and finally the judges themselves, Paula, Randy, Simon and, inexplicably, Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray. Visually, Sanders is an unlikely candidate for the Star Machine, but Clay Aiken proved it can be done. Greg Sanders DOES have a powerhouse voice to rival Aikens, loads of charisma and none of the uptight Church lady vibe that the Clayster so exudes in person. Did I mention he also yodels?
On Tuesday January 18th American Idol will kick off its new season with the Washington D.C. audition show. If crazed wannabes and the highest level of manufactured hype are your cup of tea, give it a swirl. I’ll be in front of my set, watching assorted warblers go down in flames and rooting for my buddy Greg Sanders to slay all the pretty people in his path. What could be more American than that?