'American Idols' at the Allstate Arena


October 18, 2002




Unlike the vast majority of the audience Wednesday night in the three-quarters-full Allstate Arena, I studiously avoided "American Idol" and all of the attendant hype throughout the show's run as must-see TV last summer. For one thing, I don't need a cantankerous Englishman named Simon Cowell to do my critiquing for me, thank you very much. For another, I prefer to judge musicians in the forums where they matter most--on record and onstage.

But Wednesday night, it was my turn.

Billed as "The Top 10 American Idols Live," the 2-1/2-hour concert and celebration of cross-promotional synergy (Watch the show! Buy the record! Copy the hairdo!) was a fast-paced and surprisingly entertaining showcase for several prime young talents--though not necessarily in the order in which they were anointed on TV and presented onstage.

As teen-pop spectacles go, the show should be lauded for eschewing canned, pre-programmed backing music in favor of a live and kicking eight-piece band. Yes, there were the requisite giant video screens (flashing scenes from the show, of course), and the fireworks and flashpots that the 'N Sync and Britney Spears set has come to expect.

But in stark contrast to Ms. Spears' performances, the singers here really sang. And unlike 'N Sync, they performed good material--albeit familiar covers (most of them oldies) of the sort that you'd hear at a semicool wedding reception.

The first half of the show was devoted to introducing the Top 10 finalists, who themselves were winnowed down from a pool of 3,000 contenders to the pop music throne. A few left me wondering about the other 2,990 aspirants (surely some of them were better!). But others genuinely deserved their places in the spotlight.

The concert was at its best when the strongest of these performers were taking their solo turns. Unfortunately, the second half of the night was devoted mostly to ensemble medleys, including quick tours through the Motown and disco catalogs that were way too reminiscent of a high school variety show.

Couple that with the fact that there were way too many songs about friendship and too much buddy-buddy choreography, and the show-biz facade started to crack. Who were these 10 kidding about how much they all love one another? Any one of them would have stabbed all of the others in the back to be the winner, and that's probably as it should be.

Pop music is a ruthless business, and so, too, is pop music criticism. With that in mind, I feel compelled to readjust the ranking of these 10 as determined by Cowell, Paula Abdul, and their fellow judges. Here’s what I think of these alleged stars of the future:

* Nikki McKibbin (23, from Texas) wants to be Pink in the worst way, but Pink did a better version of Janis Joplin’s “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart.” On the other hand, McKibbin really proved herself with a bravura and suitably witchy take on Stevie Nicks’ “Rhiannon.” The show ranked her No. 3, but I’d put at No. 1.

* Ryan Starr (19, from California) has a strong voice and a spunky personality that carries over into her performance. Plus, she looks like Steven Tyler. The show ranked her No. 7, but I put her at No. 2.

* Christina Christian, (20, from Florida), brought down the house with a reggae version of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The show ranked her No. 6; I put her at No. 3.

* Kelly Clarkson (20, from Texas) has a strong voice, but her performance style is really nothing special. She was No. 1 on the show, but I put her at No. 4.

* Tamyra Gray (23, from Maryland) did a jazzy run through “I’m Every Woman,” but she tries too hard to impress with faux-Whitney Houston trilling. The show ranked her No. 4, but I put her at No. 5.

* There’s a lot more that’s vaguely unnatural about Pennsylvania hambone Justin Guarini, 23, than that weird Brillo-pad hair. I don’t get the appeal, but then I’m not female. The show gave him second place; I put him at No. 6.

* Jim Verraros, 19, is a likable lad, and a local boy, too, from Crystal Lake. He did as well as anyone could with easy-listening drivel like “Easy Like Sunday Morning.” The show ranked him No. 9, but he deserves No. 7 in this company.

* A.J. Gill (17, from Washington) is strictly a boy-band clone, and someone should tell him that “My Cherie Amore” doesn’t work with a salsa beat. The show ranked him No. 8, and I put him there, too.

* R.J. Helton, the cherubic, 21-year-old Georgia boy, showcased a nothing-special voice with a sappy, blah ballad. The show ranked him No. 5; I put him at No. 9.

* Ejay Day (20, from Georgia) opened the concert in a completely forgettable manner. The show ranked him No. 10, and last place is where I put him, too.