Sizing Up The 'American Idol' Top 24 : Monkey See Stephen Thompson of NPR Music joins me for one of our usual semi-combative discussions about American Idol, the top 24, where hyper-commercial music is going, and more.
NPR logo Sizing Up The 'American Idol' Top 24

Sizing Up The 'American Idol' Top 24

Here are the American Idol Top 24. Spot the winner! Fox hide caption

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Stephen: Hi, Linda Holmes!

Linda: Look, it's Stephen Thompson!

Stephen: It's-a me! [That was to be read in the voice of Mario on those old Nintendo ads.]

Linda: Oh, that's very much the way I read it.

Stephen: More like, "Eeeet's-a meeeee!"

Linda: Speaking of incredibly affected ways of saying things, I asked you here today to discuss American Idol.

Stephen: Wait, what? No.

Linda: You were hoping it was about French cinema.

Stephen: Well, I... sort of assumed as much. If there's one general subject on which I am an expert, it is All Things Fancy. The name of my new NPR program!

Linda: All Things Fanc-sidered.

Stephen: YES! Holmes FTW!

Linda: Okay. ANYWAY. We're down to the Top 24, and this is traditionally the moment where we try to figure out who's going to win. I should add that at no point last year did either one of us think that there was any chance that eventual winner Kris Allen would win, so that's the context.

Stephen: Well, yes. It's worth noting that the BIG reason you and I are trying to figure out who will win is that we participate in a friend's American Idol pool, which necessitates that we pick three (3) aspiring Idols and two (2) artists whose music we expect them to perform. And, as you noted, NO ONE thought Kris Allen was going to win last year. Not a single person in the pool picked him, and yet here we are, a country absolutely CONSUMED with all things Kris Allen in 2010. It's Kris Allen's pop-culture marketplace, and we're livin' in it!

Linda: Correct. But it's also the point where we try to figure out what, if anything, you can tell about where the crass marketing of completely commercial music is headed, based on the composition of the top 24.

Stephen: Right! You get a sense of where the great minds behind American Idol think we MIGHT be, as a listening public. And that's worth thinking about, because those people have squillions of dollars, which they obtained by more or less correctly guessing what people might like and/or unhealthily obsess over.

Linda: I would say that my first observation this year is that a surprising number of these people actually appear capable of singing.

Stephen: There's that, for sure. I noticed an uptick in the number of frontrunners who appear to at least aspire toward some level of authenticity — or at least "authenticity." Crystal Bowersox can SING. Andrew Garcia is a less polished vocalist, but seems to have an advanced-level understanding of how to stand out on a show like this. Casey James has some of that, too, and all of the three people I just named are at ease holding at least one musical instrument.

Linda: I would say there are already three or four of them who, if I heard them in a non-American-Idol setting, I would think, "That's a talented and/or polished person." The ones you named, and also Lilly Scott with the white hair, and Didi Benami, who made even a Kara DioGuardi song sound good.

Stephen: Which: Wow. Janell Wheeler had a terrific run at "American Boy," too, though I'm not sure I'll be able to fully abide her week in and week out. There's definitely a pretty broad cross-section of people, also, in terms of race, age, ethnicity, and so on. They're throwing a lot of people against the wall to see what sticks. Interestingly, what seems to be in shorter supply than usual is people with very clear-cut youth appeal. Picking in the pool, I kept thinking, "Dude, you can't pick nothing but instrument-wielding sex-havers. There's going to be a wee, non-threatening boy, because there has to be." Which is why, in the interest of full disclosure, I picked Bowersox, Garcia, and tiny 16-year-old Aaron Kelly. WHO HAD BETTER NOT LET ME DOWN, DAMMIT.

Linda: Yeah, I don't know if he's actually a good enough singer, though. That formula isn't foolproof. He could go out there and sing "Part-Time Lover" like former teen contestant Kevin Covais.

Stephen: I've had Covais' face in my nightmares ever since I made the decision to pick Aaron Kelly! You hope he's David Archuleta, with whom he possesses a bit more of a physical resemblance. That tween/elderly vote that coalesced around David Archuleta — and, yes, angry emailers, I know that David Archuleta's fans come in all ages, shapes, and sizes — will coalesce around someone.

Linda: I think one of these years, the tween/elderly vote will gather around a girl, like Katie Stevens. Who is good, a teenager, and weirdly out of time, given that her favorite artist is Whitney Houston. And she's 17! I don't really get that.

Stephen: Yeah, I thought about picking her for the same reason. It's been a while since a Diana DeGarmo type broke through. God, I am such a geek.

Linda: I think you make an interesting point, though, in that there's a slightly more world-weary vibe to this year's group, I think. And interestingly, after last year's Adam Lambert phenomenon, there's really nobody who's like, "I'M DIFFERENT AND EDGY!" And that surprised me.

Stephen: For a while, I was trying to figure out who was going to be the most polarizing — who was going to make message boards go mad with mass derangement — and I couldn't think of anyone except maybe Casey James. Which is why I almost picked him. He's no Adam Lambert, on any number of levels, but he's going to attract some love-him/hate-him reactions. Everyone seems older this season — especially me.

Who will be polarizing? And other polarizing topics, after the jump.

Linda: You know, I can't figure out who's going to be polarizing, either. Haeley Vaughn — whom they are trying to set up as an African-American Taylor Swift — is going to annoy the heck out of me, I'm pretty sure, based on her extreme bubbliness and sparkly eyelashes. But I'm not sure she will be actually polarizing.

Stephen: Nah, you don't HATE cute. You endure it patiently.

Stephen: So here's the real question on my mind: Which performer no one has ever heard of — Michelle Delamor? Paige Miles? Joe Munoz? Lee DeWyze? — is going to bust out of the gate and sing, like, Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" in a fashion so forgettable, we forget who the person is WHILE HE OR SHE IS STILL ON STAGE?

Linda: I have to say Joe Munoz. Although I think Lee DeWyze, a practitioner of what I know you call the "Hunga Dunga Dang" school of growly singing, is also a strong possibility.

Stephen: Yeah, that guy is going to sing Tonic's "If You Could Only See," and I'm going to go make myself a sandwich, even though I just ate. The thing is, someone always does that — you know, capitalizes on complete obscurity by singing something utterly middle-of-the-road. It's Taylor Vaifanua Syndrome, which I bring up mostly so Taylor Vaifanua's family can wonder what's setting off their Google Alert. (When I Googled Taylor Vaifanua's name to make sure I was spelling it correctly, I got, "TAYLOR VAIFANUA: Site is Under Maintenance.")

Linda: Do you think Crystal will be polarizing, just because she's kind of an in-your-face kind of a girl, which some people will find refreshing, but some will find annoying and affected?

Stephen: That's a possibility. I envision lots of unseemly debates about, as I said earlier, "authenticity." As in, "CrySox (or whatever the hell her superfans decide to call her) is a true rocker, like Janis Joplin! Not like this manufactured trash that blah blah blah bling blee!" I am ardently pro-Bowersox, but let me just say that I am sick to death of that in advance.

Linda: CrySox! Yes, I think you have done a good thing for the world with that one.

Stephen: All I did was get ahead of the story. Let the record show that I was there first, though. When her fans hold up signs with "CrySox" in glitter, I expect a glittery little "TM" next to it.

Linda: I will give you your TM! I should stress that I also like Todrick what's-his-name, who is very cute and who I hope is not annoying.

Stephen: I have already given up on him as a hopeless nitwit. Prove me wrong, Todrick! See also: Jermaine Sellers, on account of the wearing of suspenders. He could make Stevie Wonder sound like William Hung, and he'll always be Suspenders Q. McSuspenderswearer in my eyes.

Linda: Alex Lambert is way too Mraz-y, I think. I don't think the world needs another Mraz.

Stephen: The world wouldn't necessarily mind ridding itself of the first Mraz — if, by "the world," you mean "Stephen Thompson from NPR Music." Yeah, and Tim Urban... who was that cheesy, showboaty kid from a few seasons ago who sang a lot of Elton John type stuff and kind of bugged his eyes out? Kind of a show-choir kid. Help me out! Did he get eliminated for "A Little Less Conversation"? Jon... Jon Peter Lewis!

Linda: Wow, your brain really struggled to come up with that one, which I think is a good thing.

Stephen: Unfortunately, in order to access that bit of "information," I forgot everything I'd retained of high-school French. Anyway. I diagnose Tim Urban as having an acute case of Jon Peter Lewis-itis.

Stephen: Having never heard the kid sing in my entire life, near as I can tell.

Linda: I think that's very possible. What about very square-jawed Tyler what's-his-name?

Stephen: See, Tyler Grady is potentially an interesting kid. Very ungainly in his everyday appearance, but when he sings, he kinda seems rock-starrish to me. More to the point, though, he falls into a larger category of American Idol aspirants who seem sort of hopelessly mired in the past. It's great to admire '70s rock frontmen — or Janis Joplin, or Billie Holiday, or whomever — but those people have already happened. (Yeah, yeah. "American Idol participants are not earthshatteringly original." Newsflash!)

Linda: I feel like I never saw some of these people. What's a "Lacey Brown"?

Stephen: It's the weirdest thing about that endless audition process: There's literally something like eleven hours of show, during which you're supposed to be introduced to 24 people, and when they introduce the 24, you have no idea who half of them even are.

Linda: Well, and I kept feeling like they were doing a better job of making sure we'd seen everyone. And then: not so much.

Stephen: I assumed that, too! "This is taking so long! I must totally know who everybody is. There's Neck Tattoo Guy, Dreadlocks Lady With The Baby, The Woman Who Cries All The Time..."

Linda: And then: "Please welcome: Katelyn Epperly."

Stephen: See, now you're just making up names.


Stephen: Next thing, you're going to tell me there's someone called "Siobhan Magnus."

Linda: Who is clearly a character in Harry Potter. Or possibly a place in Harry Potter.

Stephen: I would have guessed "Irish bar," but that works, too. And Ashley Rodriguez is in the Top 24, but she and/or her loved ones appear not to be afflicted with a tragic malady, so I know nothing about her.

Linda: American Idol contestants have almost as many life difficulties as Olympians!

Stephen: Is Katelyn Epperly the one whose parents are getting divorced? Because you're going to need to ramp up the body count in order to stand out in this crowd, Epperly.

Linda: I have no idea. She has blonde hair, as do many.

Stephen: Speaking of which, what do you make of Ellen DeGeneres as a judge? (I love the fact that, every time we have one of these discussions, we NEVER remember to so much as mention the judges. It's almost as if the judges are less important than they're made out to be!)

Linda: I actually thought she was better during Hollywood Week than I expected. Not as much shtick as I feared.

Stephen: Yeah, she goes off on tangents into little comedy bits, but... I'm not going to hold that against her, for obvious reasons. I like her quite a bit so far; I just wish she'd replaced Kara DioGuardi instead of Paula Abdul, whom I always found unpredictably loopy in an entertaining way. She also could have replaced Randy Jackson, but a houseplant could have replaced Randy Jackson.

Linda: That is true. I do miss Paula a bit, I would admit. Kara bugs me.

Stephen: Yeah, I can't even put my finger on a specific reason. Kara is Death By A Thousand Papercuts to me — it's a little bit of pandering, a little bit of annoying hype, a little bit of phoniness. All that screaming at Adam Lambert, like, "YOU ARE A ROCK GOD!" Man, that grated on me after a while.

Linda: This is, again, why I'm surprised they didn't look again this year for an "out of the box" sort of person they could claim was really groundbreaking.

Stephen: I'm afraid the Kara narrative this season will revolve around her desires, vis a vis Casey James. That will be unfortunate to behold.

Linda: Oh, it's going to be so gross, yes.

Stephen: Okay, so who are we forgetting, Top 24-wise? We need to cast judgment on these people before we've heard them perform, so we look like idiots in a few hours. Alex Lambert!

Linda: Mraz-y, remember?

Stephen: Wasn't Tim Urban Mraz-y? Accessing Jon Peter Lewis' name broke my brain.

Linda: Alex Lambert, I believe, was the one who was so Mraz-y he actually had a ukulele.

Stephen: God, he did. With him, I'm waiting to see which judge (Randy or Kara) decides it's really clever to compare him to ADAM Lambert.

Linda: Also: John Park, who I think was good, but whom they haven't shown in a while.

Stephen: I liked John Park! Could be a decent soul singer, or totally boring, or both. We have also neglected to mention Michael Lynche, if I'm not mistaken. My 9-year-old son, who is also in the Idol pool because I am a horrible father and a bad influence, has picked Michael Lynche in the pool, along with Didi and Casey.

Linda: Your nine-year-old son probably picked Casey for slightly different reasons than I did.

Stephen: Ha! Well, the other entrant in my household picked him for the EXACT same reasons you did. Along with Didi, who I'm surprised attracted that much attention among Thompsons, and the ubiquitous Andrew Garcia. Which leads me to the all-important question: Who are YOU picking in the pool, Linda Holmes?

Linda: I picked Casey, Andrew Garcia, and Crystal.

Stephen: Wow, talk about great minds — those were my EXACT choices, until I had that epiphany about how there's no way three instrument-wielding sex-havers are going to make it to the end. Which is why I replaced Casey with noted world-beating megastar Aaron Kelly. I WILL WIN!

Linda: Out of all the instrument-wielding sex-havers, you eliminated the great-looking one? You have learned nothing.

Stephen: Point taken. I do think Casey could be the one who breaks the Internet by cleaving it into warring camps. I just couldn't justify 1) not picking a tween-friendly trifle; or 2) not picking Andrew Garcia. I considered plucky 17-year-old Katie Stevens, but I *also* couldn't justify neglecting the 'Sox.

Linda: You will pay dearly for this.

Stephen: I'll have you know that I have been AGONIZING about this, at the expense of balancing my checkbook or getting my hair cut. The sacrifices I make for this stupid show.

Linda: And you still got it WRONG.

Stephen: Aaron Kelly will demolish Casey James! Thousands of years from now, archaeologists will discover a tiny footprint, and within it, they will locate the crushed remains of your precious Casey James!

Linda: Aaron Kelly will sing a duet of "Sex Farm" with Kevin Covais. And it will not chart.

Stephen: Hey, dude, I didn't say Aaron Kelly is going to be a STAR. I said he's going to do well on American Idol. And I, for one, will use my pool winnings to buy up enough copies of "Sex Farm" to prove you wrong.


Stephen: I WILL!