October 18, 2002
BY JIM DEROGATIS POP
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
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
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
* 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
* 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.