“American Idol”: the Untold Story – Book Review

American-Idol-The-Untold-StoryIt’s the night before the “American Idol” finale. You’re one of the two remaining contestants – the lesser one – and all but certain to receive a thrashing in front of nearly 30 million people. What do you do? According to Richard Rushfield, if you’re Bo Bice in Season 4, up against the bionic future country superstar Carrie Underwood, you do the sensible thing: get very, very drunk. (For what it’s worth, Bo, even steroids wouldn’t have helped.)

The story of Bice’s bender is one of a few small gems of backstage drama in Rushfield’s “American Idol: The Untold Story.” No pop-culture phenomenon is more ripe for exposé than “American Idol,” the most popular television series of the last dec­ade and the reality show that remains, even in the face of increasing tabloid interest, relatively wholesome.

As a reporter on the “Idol” beat for The Los Angeles Times and now The Daily Beast, Rushfield has been dogged and thorough, breaking several stories along the way. But there’s little new in this book, which is neither the definitive story of the “Idol” empire nor a satisfying tell-all teeming with behind-the-scenes gossip. Instead, it’s an amiable and in places astute recap of the last nine years, when an unloved British import became an American fixation, rewriting the rules of the television business along the way.

That’s true of both “American Idol” itself and Simon Cowell, the caustic yet lovable judge who left the show to bring his rival singing competition, “The X Factor,” to the United States later this year. One of Rushfield’s sharpest insights here is on the subject of Cowell, whose acid tongue he characterizes as “a trait that a succession of outraged schoolmasters saw as the nerve of an overprivileged brat, but that would eventually resolve itself into the ‘fearless truth telling’ that would reshape entertainment.” Those tough-to-watch but irresistible dressing-downs? Just small blasts of class warfare, maybe.

Rushfield himself apes this power dynamic, though, by heavily employing interviews with top “Idol” management to frame his story, then filling it in with ­flashes of intrigue from low-level contest­ants. It’s a bit like writing about the Super Bowl by interviewing the team owners and the chain gang. For this book, he does not appear to have spoken (on the record, at least) with any “Idol” winners, the judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, or the host, Ryan Seacrest. He does capture some revealing moments, though. The first-season winner, Kelly Clarkson, may be dismayed to find herself described, by the executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, as “one of those girls, not particularly pretty, not a particularly gorgeous body or anything. Just talented.” Um, thanks?

Large sections of the book consist of rote, familiar chronology, with occasional attempts at contextualizing, including some strained efforts to link the success of “Idol” to the post-9/11 mood in America. And Rushfield is given to feverish turns of phrase: “Hollywood Week” – when a few hundred contestants are whittled down to the semifinalists – “tapped into the most potent myth in American culture, even more potent than the legend that any boy can grow up to be president.”

Still, Rushfield has been around the “Idol” machine long enough to know that some of its most interesting characters are on the outside looking in. He excels when he breaks away from the rehashing and profiles people with deep and underexplored “Idol” connections. There’s the Season 1 co-host Brian Dun­kleman, still darkened by the shadow of his departure from the show almost a decade later; Dave ­Della Terza, who operates the ­“Idol”-­inspired subversion site ­votefortheworst​.com; and, most fascinating, Leesa Bellesi, a little-known unofficial spiritual adviser to several “Idol” figures in recent seasons. Rushfield notes that Bellesi’s influence seems to have risen as more and more “Idol” finalists were drawn from the world of Christian worship music, but he doesn’t pursue this topic – one of several threads left unattended here.

Similarly, this book alludes to plenty of “Idol” mysteries that it proceeds not to solve. The show’s vote totals are always kept under wraps – and remain that way. Rushfield points out that each year some potential finalists are dismissed from the show because they fail a background check, but discusses primarily those who have already been outed. He calls a squabble over “Idol Gives Back,” the show’s charity component, “the largest fight I have ever directly encountered in entertainment reporting” – and says little more.

Some omissions are curious: he details the struggles between Abdul and a new judge, Kara DioGuardi, who joined “Idol” in its eighth season, with no mention of their personal and professional history before the show.

And Rushfield has almost nothing to say about music. Fair enough, as “Idol” itself paradoxically often has little to say about music, and has been far more effective as a television Goliath than as a minter of reliable recording stars. But it would be worth examining, for example, the recent rise of moody, bruised male rock singers on the show; the last three winners fit this bill, and have mostly flopped commercially. That suggests the evolution of “Idol” from a singing competition into a participatory melodrama (now starring Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler), in which viewers are more invested in the emotional lives of contestants than in what comes out of their mouths. But that just reflects the show’s greatest bait-and-switch, that it’s somehow in line with popular musical taste, which it has rarely been.

We get no explanation of that, just a bit of gossip and little tears in the show’s hermetic seal: last season’s runner-up, Crystal Bowersox, pitching a fit over “Idol” staffers cleaning her personal microphone stand, which had been shipped from home; or the custody battle that the Season 8 contestant Megan Joy was waging over her son while on the show. And did the hair extensions on Jordin Sparks, the Season 6 winner, look familiar? Hand-me-downs from the Season 5 runner-up, Katharine McPhee, it turns out. A frugal “Idol”: who knew?

Courtesy of The New York Times.

© 2011 Copyright   Allison Stuart Kaplan  www.Askinyourface.com LLC

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