American Idol Gives Back... and Then Some

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“You’re all my dogs,” proclaimed President Obama at the beginning of the annual Idol Gives Back show... and somewhere, Sarah Palin and assorted Tea Baggers were outraged that he had likened the contestants to canines.  

Wow, what a show. Hopey, changey, weird, wild, wacky, and—yep—touching. Think about it: On the night American Idol asked the nation to reach into its heart and wallet and be charitable and generous, the contestant who has most benefited from the nation’s generous heart, Tim Urban, was sent home. And then Idol truly did give back, and ended the broadcast without an encore of Tim’s reggae-inspired “Under My Thumb.”

Even before last night, I had made my reluctant peace with Tim. He worked his Idol experience for all it was worth and eventually figured out how to emphasize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. It is a competition after all, and Tim’s run was right up there with some of the unlikeliest Idol success stories. But Taylor Hicks, wherever he and the Soul Patrol are currently residing, remains the king of the Idol overachievers.

Idol Gives Back offers a vivid illustration of American Idol’s reach and powers of persuasion; the show certainly knows how to work its audience, and while the actual performance shows can feel too sanitized, last night’s vignettes didn’t just offer uplift—they forced the audience to confront grim realities. If that’s manipulative, so be it, but I can’t be cynical about $150 million. The show was pitchy, but in a good way.

Then there was the entertainment portion. The broadcast ran two-and-a-half hours, which suggests that Idol’s usual tight control gave way to the ragged and spontaneous nature of live television. Plus, even Simon can’t control Icelandic volcanoes. Here are some of the highs and lows:

Ryan Goes Faux-Bro Yet Again: In response to Queen Latifah, the Pat Sajak of the new millennium should never have uttered the sentence, “We hyped up over here too, we ready over here too.”

Now We Know Why Crystal Bowersox Almost Quit: The news came out this week that Crystal at one point considered leaving Idol. Maybe she caught a glimpse of the dress they planned to put her in for last night’s performance of Crystal Bowersox and Her Nights In White Satin Singers.

A Graphic Illustration of the Perils of Under-Nutrition: Interesting choice to have Victoria Beckham discuss the importance of healthy food and nutrition for children. And let’s all send in a few bucks to get little Roy from Goshen, California a new ‘do at his local Supercuts.

The Worst Moment of the Night: I have an emergency call in to Ms. Beckham’s Botox specialist, because my brow won’t unfurrow after that Black Eyed Peas performance of “Rock That Body.” An awful song made worse by the proximity of such lyrics as, “Let me see your body rock/Shakin’ from the bottom to the top” with a vignette about a dying woman whose central nervous system had been attacked by malaria. Horrible on just too many levels.

Time For A Moratorium: Please. No more references to Simon’s nipples. Last night, there were two mentions. An average of one per.

The Truth Is Out There: Watching Jeff Beck, it’s clear that a British wartime program to create a master race of dark-haired, scrawny guitar heroes is one of the great untold success stories of 20th-century science. Beck, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards, and Ron Wood? Coincidence? Oh, don’t be so naïve.

Things We Never Thought We Would Experience: Morgan Freeman hula-hooping. And the words Luddite and condom being uttered on American Idol. Thank you, Sir Elton John.

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