American Idol

The American Idol Grand Finale

And this… was American Idol…

I started writing this just after the American Idol: American Dream retrospective special, and finished up just after midnight a few days after the finale, so if I jump around incoherently, that’s why. Or at least it’s my excuse. But either way I’ve definitely been in the mood to type a bit about the most influential music show of the 21st century… This post may be ever-evolving too, as I sit back and think “And Another Thing! … ”

It actually might be a little bit tough to add to what has already been an hour and a half of “looking back.” But, I think I might have a bit to add. I’m gonna try not to say things like “as they said on the special…” because some of it obviously is going to be duplicate information. Other stuff, not so much.

Simon: The shock of the show

As much as I like to feel like a true fan of the show, it must be said that I wasn’t there from the beginning. Not the absolute beginning, anyway. I remember when I first started watching Idol. My brother had been after me for a couple of weeks to watch this new singing competition on television and the mean British guy who was on there. I heard him mutter names like “Tamyra” and “Guarini” and not have a clue what he was talking about.

You gotta hear what this guy Simon is saying to these people! They’re trying to sing and he stops them and tells them they suck!

I vividly remember sitting in my office chair at my previous house in Bridgeport and deciding it was time to tune in. It was the first episode of the top ten. I had missed what was probably the most entertaining and shocking portion of season one, the auditions. I did catch clips here and there to make up for this later, but this was 2002 and YouTube was yet to be invented. And there certainly was no “Fox on Demand.” Shoot. Idol didn’t even have at this point in time. They started out with At any rate, even though I joined the party a bit late, I was hooked.

Kelly Wins over a nation — But, how?

Of course, Kelly went on to win Season 1, and thankfully so.  I think, quite possibly, if Justin Guarini had gone on to win that first season, there’s a good chance Idol would never have had the chance to take off. But without Kelly’s success, Idol would have become just an average TV show. But ordinary people — viewers — felt invested in Kelly’s success. They came out in full force to support Kelly after her victory by snatching up CD’s and making her one of American Idol’s power stars.

One thing I will say about the early years of Idol, and the successes that came with it, is how American Idol took a relative “nobody” and turned them into a superstar virtually overnight. And something I never quite got in the first seasons is how the audience, especially the studio audience, can go so crazy over someone who, just last week was a relative “nobody.” The show works, but how?

I think the key, to be honest, is fake enthusiasm. That may sound a bit critical coming from a fan of the show, but I think, mainly in the first season, a lot of fake enthusiasm was manufactured. The eruptions and adulation in the stands worked as a visual cue to those of us at home that simply said “I’m crazy about this singer, and you should be, too!” So, one major factor to Idol’s success was the generation of fake enthusiasm, which is indistinguishable from genuine enthusiasm to a television audience. You can see it and hear it sometimes from the crowds of season one. The sudden, unnatural eruptions of cheers and the prodding of producers barely in camera range. This helped build a franchise, one fan at a time.

Season Two — The boxing match

I loved always hearing American Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe refer to season two as a “boxing match.” He characterizes the battle between Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard as a classic punch-for-punch dance around the ring. Isn’t it funny how NBC’s The Voice refers to it’s duet rounds as Knockouts? Anyway, the real battle for Idol’s second season wasn’t only fought between Clay and Ruben, but rather fans of the “Velvet Teddy Bear” and the “Claymates.”

It may be more accurate to depict the battle as that of being between fans of either singer and the phone system. The standard phone system was simply overwhelmed for voting during season two, and that helped lead to text methods of voting, and eventually, online voting and SuperVotes. The online wikia for American Idol season two notes that out of 24 million votes cast, the winner was separated from second place by merely 130,000 votes. 

That would lead to approximately 11,935,000 votes for Clay Aiken and 12,065,000 for Ruben Studdard. Honestly, the margin of error due to voting irregularities would fall well within that range. Season two was a virtual tie, but I think Idol was happy with result they got. The resulting controversy only added to the popularity of the show, and Claymates were bound and determined to support their boy well beyond the end of the season.

Sometimes the right winner wins.

But there’s little doubt that Clay’s fans would have an impact on the future of the show. Clay’s strong support, even in the face of finishing second, showed that it didn’t take a victory to ensure success. Sometimes, finishing second can actually improve a contestant’s outlook, since a rabid fan base will voice its opinion by buying CD’s or singles, or digital downloads… Which leads me to my next point…

Idle hands?

One thing I want to say, and this seems as good a time as any, is the relationship between American Idol and our 21st century technical revolution. I think it’s a stretch to say that “American Idol taught the nation to text.” I mean, in the first season there was no text message voting, and in season two only AT&T and CIngular wireless customers could actually cast text votes. But texting and online voting is not the only change that affected American Idol, and not always for the show’s good.

When YouTube debuted in 2005 its effect on Idol was minimal. It was primarily used to catch up on missed performances (often uploaded by fans) and lo-definition clips from the summer tours taken with cell phones, also uploaded by fans. (Clack, anyone?) But as YouTube’s audience increased, and the quality of those homemade videos also increased, YouTube itself became a source of talent that began to complete for America’s attention — against American Idol.

The change was gradual. Combine YouTube with the rise of Twitter and Facebook and social media in general, and some major changes would be in store of Idol over the next few years. The show would have to become more interactive, and for a show that thrives on secrecy (we usually don’t even know how the voting numbers play out) this was cause for concern.

With the music industry struggling to sell CDs, American Idol breathed some life into sales, with several new artists coming out yearly to push their wares. But the digital musical revolution was underway, and selling CDs was becoming less and less important as Idol grew into middle age. The whole package of what constituted an American Idol was morphing and Idol was slow to catch up.

It’s interesting to note that nearer the end of the series, Idol did a fantastic job of making media available online. (Well, with the exception of That site’s been a mess ever since season three…) When Kelly Clarkson sang a stripped down version of her song “Piece by Piece” on the show toward the end of season 15, the Idol machine was able to studio record the song and have it released on iTunes by the following Monday. That’s impressive.

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Leo Laporte explains the need for strong encryption

This is one of the best explanations I’ve heard for keeping our devices strongly encrypted. The video above starts at 29 minutes and 34 seconds in… He continues on the subject for several minutes, at least through 38:26.

You can’t lower your guard without lowering it for everyone.

And that’s the key.

When you reduce security, it’s not just for bad guys, and it’s not just the government that gets access to that. It’s everybody.

Well said, Leo.

Moments LIke This

American Idol 15 – Top 10

I’ve always been a huge fan of American Idol. Back in the first few seasons of the show I would blog about episodes and do a bit of a review of each performance. In “celebration” of Idol’s final season, I present a season 15, episode 16 review

Olivia – she has shown some flashes of potential. Sometimes I like the tone of her voice, but it has to be “on point” for her to sound good. If she’s just a little off pitch it doesn’t sound that good. This song she’s doing pretty well. Sometimes I think maybe the judges see something that doesn’t come through on TV. So I don’t know if she’s really as good as they think or if I just am not hearing everything. That was probably one of the best performances I’ve heard from her though.

Gianna – She can have a powerhouse voice. Sometimes it’s too much drama with her mom… Her song choice tonight is really good. Major pitch issues here and there. She stays on key a bit better when she can hide it in her vibrato. When she holds out a note sometimes it goes flat. JLo hits it right on. Kelly is really funny, BTW. Kelly definitely gave her the “She’s 15” treatment. I think she’s right too… I think the polish will come to Gianna with time.

Lee – Lee’s got a much more mature voice than his 15 years. He sounds quite a bit older. I like to see him playing the guitar. He was a little pitchy in that performance. Harry is about right. I think if he does perform a story song he will blow it away. Something slow and melodic. Cool that Chris Medina was there to see him sing.

Avalon – Has been very tomboy-ish and informal since she’s been on. But the past couple of performances she’s shown a little more femininity – without losing her street cred. She’s doing pretty well but the arrangement’s not the best. I could hear her on Sirius XM Hits 1 though. I like Keith’s thoughts on her staying loose. This song may have been a little less her style. Kelly says “Sorry I beat Justin!“ That’s the LOLs.

Dalton – should’ve been on the Disney Channel. He’s a performer. I like what he did with that song. Good energy. #electricbarnyard I totally agree with Harry. I think his is the performance of the night so far. I like how he referenced David Cook in his piece, doing what he does with arrangements.

Tristan – a little low-key to start. Needed to start higher, especially with no blockbuster key change late in the song. A little awkward, like she was rushed and unsure. I don’t know why she sang it so low… she did reasonably well with what she had to work with. I agree with JLo about feeling comfortable in her song choice. She did have to stumble through her words and it seemed like she had to “work.” So many singers make it seem effortless.

Overall, I think a lot of it may be nerves tonight. Maybe some people are over thinking or just concerned about wanting to do well… these are all good singers and we get so nit-picky, forgetting we’re dealing with 15-year-old kids in some cases. Someone’s going to just breakout and be amazing, I can just tell.

MacKenzie – probably my newest pick to win the whole thing*. His timing and harmony are terrific. Really nice tone and he draws you in to his performances. He’s always on pitch and always on beat. He is definitely one to watch. I could definitely hear him on Hits 1, right next to One Direction and Ed Sheeran.

*It is not always good to be selected as “the one I think is gonna win” because I often have the kiss of death. (My last pick to win it all was Emily Brooke… Yeah. But I still think she’s talented.)

La’Porsha – La’Porsha has always been a fan favorite. She’s got such a story… and such a voice. I don’t know how she does some that vocal gymnastics… I’m so glad she got this moment on stage because you never know how the voting will go.

I love when the show goes all off the rails like this… it’d be so fun to be a director right now trying to decide how to cast this to the audience.

Anyway, La’Porsha obviously tore it up, and it’s gonna be impossible to beat that ovation tonight. MacKenzie is my personal favorite but La’Porsha out sang him, no doubt.

Sonika – Poor Sonika. Having to follow La’Porsha like this. Just do it… She has a beautiful voice. Very Arianna Grande. What a song choice. Nice to see her bust out some serious personality in that performance. It’s almost like “Wait just a minute!” Didn’t think anyone could touch La’Porsha, but she excelled. Kelly is right I’ve never heard Sonika out of tune – ever. #dangerous

Trent – Trent reminds me of a guy I work with. Sounds just like him when he speaks. Makes goofy faces when he sings. (Trent, not Josh, the guy I work with. I’ve never actually seen him sing.) But he’s got such a strong voice. Nice falsetto. I’m glad Trent’s here. JLo is right. He’s not pitch perfect but he brings a performance. Kelly and Harry are cracking me up. #runbattle

I agree with Harry and Keith. I kinda wish La’Porsha had started the show… maybe it would’ve started off as strong as it finished. Lol.

It’s gonna be difficult to rank this week. Well, some of it will be easy to rank. The trick is to not solely evaluate based on “what I like” but to evaluate based on quality and potential future success.











Since it’s double elimination this week, the bottom two are in red.

By the way, an unbelievable performance by Kelly Clarkson this evening. That is what American Idol has been capable of over all these years and it was nice to be reminded of that tonight. There’s a blog post coming about my thoughts on American Idol, probably coming around the time of the finale in April. It will be missed precisely because of Moments Like This:

The Day of the ‘Challenger’

The ramblings of an adult remembering the shuttle accident through the eyes of a twelve year old.

So I remember that day quite well. In north-central West Virginia, January 28, 1986 was a snow day. No school in Harrison County. Those are the words every twelve year old loves to hear in January. Back then, we still had our summers, filled with basketball and music. (I always liked to type up the Top 40 tunes each week, as announced by Casey Kasem, on a typewriter. The red ribbon would be saved for the number one song!) Also, they didn’t keep extending the school year into the middle of June, nor start in August, to make up for missed snow days, like today.

A Commodore 128 BASIC screen. At the ready.

Anyway, that particular Tuesday morning, I was busy plugging away at a computer keyboard in my bedroom. I was (what do you mean, was?) one of those nerdy kids. Synchronized-watch-with-the-school-bell kinda nerdy kids. Yeah, I really did that kind of thing… That morning I was busy writing a basketball simulation program on a Commodore 128 computer. I don’t have a screenshot of that program or a copy of it anywhere, but I remember it well. It was a side-on shot of a basketball court and backboard. When you pressed the space bar a basketball would head toward the hoop and it would randomly vary a few pixels left or right, and occasionally you’d “make a basket.” Anyway, it was just the kind of thing I was likely to do on a snow day.

“Jay, come in here,” mom yelled from the living room. “The shuttle’s going up.” “Oh, yeah, that’s happening today,” I thought. So… pack it up on the C-128, and head into the living room.

I don’t know to this date if I witnessed it live, or it was the first of many replays. “Something’s not right. That doesn’t look right.” Even at twelve, I knew what a shuttle launch should look like, and this wasn’t it. I don’t think mom believed me at first. But the news was now “breaking” — the shuttle had exploded. There would be no survivors, despite all the early reports of debris “with a parachute on it.”

Shortly after the explosion I shoved a blank tape in the VCR and started recording. CNN most of the day, NBC off and on. I think I got the NBC Nightly News that night at 6:30pm. I’m replaying the tape now. Bernie Shaw and Lou Waters interviewing everyone they could get their hands on. Tom Mintier, who sincerely struggled to put into words what he was seeing. This was one of the first instances of “breaking news” and there wasn’t a manual on how to proceed. There are some YouTube videos covering those first heartbreaking hours, though I think they will only play on YouTube. Links below…

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11:00am – Noon:

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Noon – 1:00pm:


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At any rate, that day left quite an impression on a twelve year old me. That Sunday, instead of typing out the weekly Top 40 songs, I sat down at my typewriter and compiled a timeline of events from launch to explosion, including the words from mission control. This time, the red ribbon was saved for the last line, the time of the explosion…

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In 1998 I got to see a launch in person, witnessing the John Glenn launch (“The Launch”) firsthand. It was an amazing experience, and I’m glad I got the opportunity to do it before the shuttle program ended in 2011.

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Not my picture, but NASA's...
Not my picture, but NASA’s…

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Several years later, when our daughter was born, we gave her the middle name Krista, inspired by Christa McAuliffe, who of course was selected as the first Teacher In Space. And a few years later, I got to accompany my son to a Challenger Center in Wheeling, West Virginia, and participated in a “Return to the Moon” mission. He was on the navigation team, but I may have enjoyed the trip more than he did.

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And in December of 2010 we visited Kennedy Space Center, where we got to relive some history and see where the shuttles launched from for over 30 years. There’s so much to see and do at KSC, it’s a must-see for any space fan.

More To Come…

90’s CGI memories

I’ve been undertaking a project recently to convert old VHS/VHS-C/Digital video tapes to a digital format to store on my home network Synology. It’s nice to have a backup and it’s also nice to be able to pull up any home video just within a few clicks.

Well, I happened to stumble across a video from 1990 titled “The Mind’s Eye.” It’s a collection of late 80’s CGI animation that obviously pales in comparison to the stuff in theaters today, but it certainly showed “what was possible” with technology, even in those early stages of computer animation.

Imagine my surprise (not really) when I discovered that the entire video is available on YouTube. So that’s one less video tape I have to convert…

Among the nuggets in the video is Stanley & Stella in: Breaking the Ice. It was the first computer animated short that I can remember emotionally connecting with. Give it a watch.

If you don’t want to sit through the entire Mind’s Eye video, you can find Stanley and Stella right here. Enjoy!