On Pia Toscano

Last night I just finished downloading the newest episode of this season’s American Idol. So far it has been an exciting season. While some of my early favorites like Rachel Zevita (because of her out-of-this-world rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Speechless”) or Colton Dixon (love how he made cool songs “What About Now” and “Decode” his own, during the audition rounds) have been sent home, the remaining contestants are very competitive. Each week there’s always something exciting to look forward to, like last week’s spectacular “Candle in the Wind” by the lately-boring Lauren Alaina; or Pia Toscano’s version of “All is Fair in Love” which is just a state-of-the-art perfection; and James Durbin burning a piano (literally; as well as figuratively with his outstanding vocal prowess) during the Elton John week.

I recalled very well last year, American Idol was so interesting for me until rebel oddsie, glory-note hitter Siobhan Magnus got booted in favor of the ever-so-wobbly, boring, auntie’s-favorite-nice-nephew Aaron Kelly. I thought the idiosyncrasies of Katie Stevens over Lilly Scott (and, to a lesser extent, my personal favorite Janell Wheeler) and Siobhan Magnus’s should’ve been a good reminder for this year. I miss seeing Simon Cowell on the show – he used to be the one who brings such reminders into the show. I guess this year the show is too excited to see Jennifer Lopez jumping up and down her seat when the contestants perform and Steven Tyler saying “you’re good, thank you” to all contestants in not-so-much different words. The voting of the show had lost its voice of guidance, and lost is how it’s become.

The visual reaction portrayed says it all: a heartbroken lady exited the competition, with grace, while the survivors were clearly dumbfounded.
The visual reaction portrayed says it all: a heartbroken lady exited the competition, with grace, while the survivors were clearly dumbfounded.

My excitement of the show died this year as Pia Toscano from New York got eliminated far too early. This is reminiscent to Jennifer Hudson’s elimination during which that little American world got entirely flipped – the goods were on the axe (Hudson’s dramatic, bold, and classy reinterpretation of Barry Manilow’s “Weekend in New England” got bad news), while the bads triumphed. Or the nightmare of seeing Katharine McPhee with two shaky pieces of Elvis advanced over Chris Daughtry’s more convincing repertoire that season. Throughout the season, Toscano’s performances have been consistently lauded; often as the night’s best. During the semifinals her glorious take on “I’ll Stand By You” earned her the best performance of the entire top 24 contestants. And she continued on being consistently superb up to last week’s glorious “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me”. One complaint at her was about her always-ballad-y song choice. The internet community as well as the judges voiced out that Toscano might dull herself off for those “boring”, slow-beat performances. This week, however, Toscano proved she could bring forth a ruthlessly convincing, awesome performance in the fast lane when she rocked the stage with Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High”. The big notes she belted were as sizzling and explosive as her look; and the stage fireworks that bursted at the end of her performance defined her true prowess as an artist that knows versatility. With Steven Tyler calling her a “murderer” who will get “million of guys having million of dreams about you tonight” – complete with a loud, animalistic agreeing roar from the audience by a random dude. Wild. It was a great performance for Pia Toscano and her run on Idol seemed to be going on for the long haul.

All the popular expectation (including mine) of Toscano competing in the finale of this year’s Idol was dashed. Apparently, she gained the least number of votes. Jennifer Lopez as judge said that she was mad, angry, and confused; Steven Tyler called this decision as an unforgivable lack of passion.

***

Sexism?

Many asked why things could get that wrong. Melissa McEwan in her blog Shakesville has several very interesting things to say about the elimination, arguing that the elimination represents sexism wildly up and alive in the American public, as five of the eliminated contestants of this year’s Idol finale are all female (with one exception of the third elimination, in which Casey Abrams was cut but was later saved by the judges). It could be racism, as all eliminated contestants are “ethnic”. A flaw to McEwan’s argument is that it overlooked the musical presentation of these eliminated contestants. Eliminated first from the finals this year was Ashthon Jones, after a less-than-convincing version – with sharp, thin high notes – of the huge classic “When You Tell Me That You Love Me”. Karen Rodriguez, eliminated second, whose vocals hadn’t been out of the box, had been too classic with her song choices (always from the 1990s) and hadn’t done enough to make the songs sound relevant or different. Eliminated on the Top 11 Again week (following Abrams’ save) are first Naima Adedapo, whose reggae take on “I’m Still Standing” received harsh criticism from the judges as being tacky while consistently axed for her pitch problems; and Thia Megia, whose takes on very-slow, nice-y ballads have been considered too similar and safe. These problem with music quality waters down the notion that it’s a simple racism or sexism issue.

The four contestants eliminated before Toscano went out after a lot of negative criticism. Toscano, meanwhile, has been riding a constant wave of praises and very little criticisms. So, she is the odd one out. Why did she fail to collect enough votes? I conjure a plethora of answers in my head in desperate attempt to reason. The reasons explored are fivefold.

Complacency, Stoicism, Pro-South, Unclear Judges, and Little Miss Perfect

The first reason is the “You’re Safe” theory. While it’s true that Pia Toscano had always been praised as one of the best singers in the group of remaining contestants, she had had some negative criticisms as well. When a negatively-criticized contestant remain safe and never hitting the bottom spot, many parts of the public will assume that no matter what this contestant do, s/he would always be safe so it’s not very important for me to vote for them. This is what happened to Siobhan Magnus last year – she was safe throughout her rendition of “Suspicious Minds” and “When You Believe” which received not so much positive notes from the judges. Throughout the recent past seasons we’ve heard reminders from host Ryan Seacrest about not to assume anyone’s safety – but never this season. As I said earlier, getting busy with other things BUT ensuring the vote is guided correctly might be one of the biggest hiccups (and a killing one, at least for me personally) of this year’s show. Voters this year fear for many other contestants like Haley Reinhart and Stefano Langone who had been hitting bottom-2s earlier on the season but continued to improve, Casey Abrams who had just got saved by judges. Toscano’s appearance in the bottom 3 should actually be a good thing to dispel this mantra of assumption of safety – however, there’s nothing good, or right, or fair, about her being right at the most-bottom position amongst the pack-topping rest.

The second reason is because of personality. Pia Toscano’s niceness and properness, added by the somewhat stoic and robotic stage acts, perhaps had dampened her sparkle, and furthermore, memorability, in the eyes of the public. Randy Jackson as judge has been noted to continuously mention that Idol is a “singing competition” – that is a big fat lie. The show is a popularity contest, because ultimately one will only be voted if they have enough fans to want to vote for them, and to have fans you have to be popular – perhaps not by the means of your voice only. Which is why it is imperative to have bubbliness like Alaina (and not to mention the relentless pimping-up in the audition part of the show); smooth Southern-gentlemanly charm as displayed ever so unabashedly (maybe it’s not his fault) by Scotty McCreery; Jacob Lusk’s obvious gospel vibes; or James Durbin’s rock wildness and vulnerability.

Thirdly, another convincing argument about Toscano’s elimination is how she is not from the South and how the show is infected by a huge geographical bias towards contestants from the Southern states, particularly as Fox as a television channel caters more towards the conservative, Bible-belt audience. As mentioned by the MSNBC article “Year after year, ‘Idol’ has a Southern accent” (Downey, 2010), also quoted by McEwan in the aforementioned blog, Southern-ness played a big role in the success or popularity of one contestant. This is perhaps true for Southern belles like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood who triumphed so fantastically on the show. Taylor Hicks, the winner of season 5, gave a good answer explaining this bias: “People in the South have a lot of pride … So, they’re adamant about supporting the contestants who do well from their state or region.”

Fourthly, perhaps it’s also about genres? Pia had been a ‘little Miss Perfect’ kind of singer – clean, extremely proper, absolutely musical – perhaps someone who’d follow the limelights of Idina Menzel or Lea Michele. But the pop landscape needed someone dirtier and crazier and wilder – as proven by Lady Gaga. It is interesting to argue this as someone very Gaga like Adam Lambert had not been anything close to Clay Aiken’s success. That might be a factor of time. Or might be that Lambert had been overly risque so he hit the controversy far too early in his career. ‘Dirtying things up’ work really well for Kelly Clarkson, who called her first album ‘fell for stupid love songs’ in her first explosive single “Since You’ve Been Gone” and Carrie Underwood who went from the unbearably sugary “Inside Your Heaven” and “Up Where We Belong” to a vengeful, machete-equipping “Before He Cheats” and well-dressed promiscuity in “Last Name”. During their Idol performances, Clarkson stretched her crossover range as far as the big band, super soul “Stuff Like That There” to several Celine Dion ballads; while Carrie Underwood’s most applauded crossover had been a back-to-back of classic rock “Alone” and “Love is a Battlefield” and classic country “Independence Day”. Crossover or dirtying up for Pia Toscano? Not much – she had been in that particular big-voiced, melismatic pop lane. Perhaps now it’s not the favorable genre anymore? Toscano sounded brilliant singing “Grenade” by Bruno Mars on the audition rounds and maybe that kind of unpredictable song choice is what everyone was expecting out of her.

Fifthly, can judges be a factor? The case might be that Jennifer Lopez was not such a good addition as a judge but might be a fantastic mentor for the contestants. Her constructive criticism, while helpful for the singers, have not guided the viewers enough as to whether the performance is worth voting or not. Following Toscano’s “River Deep, Mountain High”, Lopez spent so much time beating around the bush trying to criticize Toscano for not commanding the stage enough with the gestures, as opposed to giving clear signals whether it’s actually a good performance or a bad performance. Steven Tyler likes all performances – he can find nothing wrong with every piece of every bit. Randy Jackson apologizes for every bad thing that he said as though it’s his fault he said those bad stuff and not the contestants’. While it’s true that what the judges have to say in the past have not always been the truly right thing (there is no “truly right”, after all, it’s just a matter of opinion), the way the judges have delivered brief, succinct, and blunt comments in seasons past definitely helped the public’s decision-making and separate the truly good performances/performers from the mediocres.

I guess it’s true that anyone singing “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” at Idol is doomed into a no-win: Clay Aiken, Jasmine Trias, Bo Bice, Jorge Nunez, and finally Pia Toscano.

Through the reasons above, justice has been embarrassed by the elimination of Pia Toscano. While she obviously had some flaws, it is without question that she has one of the best vocal quality in the show – in caliber that very rarely appear every season. It is terrible that we must endure another Jennifer Hudson moment, and it hit us hard (I am – was – a hardcore fan) that American Idol, while promising a fresh new re-start after dwindling into such a shammy cliché over the last past years, had to disappoint once again.

***

Last two notes.

Life After Idol

It is no secret that Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood are the two outliers: Idol winners that hits stratospheric, multi-platinum success; plus, being significantly more successful than those eliminated before them. Jordin Sparks and David Cook hit moderate success with a handful of memorable personal hits; with the latter receiving hefty competition in the market by his season’s runner-up David Archuleta, whose pop career probably would’ve taken off to greater heights if not for Archuleta’s decision to pursue gospel mission instead of an entertainer’s life. Other winners have failed to live up to these ladies’ remarkable feat: Ruben Studdard’s career has been lackluster compared to Clay Aiken’s or even Kimberley Locke’s from the 2nd season; Fantasia has been effectively eclipsed by the gigantic successes and persisting relevance of Jennifer Hudson (while the former winner slides into specific obscurity that is too niche); who remembers Taylor Hicks compared to the pop and TV successes of Katharine McPhee and Chris Daughtry’s rock realness; Kris Allen’s career has basically been not visible compared to Adam Lambert’s; while Lee DeWyze (who?)… that season has basically a non-season.

Point is… in history, Idol coronation guarantees nothing. It is completely up to former contestants to establish success of their own either in front of the camera or behind the scene (for example, Vonzell Solomon’s success as a recording label entrepreneur, or Broadway success by the likes of finalists Syesha Mercado and Diana DeGarmo). Toscano’s success also does not depend on her elimination. Although clearly the status of an Idol winner is an effective marketing tool to prop up song popularity and, subsequently, album sales, it is ultimately the song that matters. For example, Hudson’s move to play Dreamgirls (more so, with Beyonce) and breathed new life to songs like “And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going” and “Love You I Do” was a brilliant one. Clarkson’s constant reinvention — from soulful pop in “Miss Independent” and “The Trouble with Love Is”, to hard-hitting rock in “Behind These Hazel Eyes”, to a highly-personal and self-written “Because of You”, and to pop suckers like “My Life Would Suck Without You” and “Already Gone” — helps in ensuring her relevance in the ever-changing world of mass music. Carrie Underwood, sticking to country, has never ceased to make the best country songs out there, combined with the amazing chops she has already as a country singers. It is not the “Idol” title per se that was the wind underneath the wings of these success. Therefore, Toscano has the task of making relev

Premonition

Actually, I had a dream two weeks ago, before the double elimination. In the dream I was weeping over Pia Toscano being eliminated from American Idol. I remembered waking up saying “what a ridiculous dream”. Today the news I learnt just proved me wrong. Throughout these last days, the wild, crazy envisionings I’ve been having throughout my restless hours of sleep are materializing themselves into reality. In woe, I faintly hope, perhaps in vain, that other “ridikulus” dreams I had will materialize themselves as well: (1) a dream of me singing like Beyoncé, hitting “Irreplaceable” so effortlessly and perfectly with that ease and soulfulness to die for; (2) a dream of Lady Gaga coming to town, working as a cashier at the local Griya supermarket in masquerade whilst preparing for her big show the following night and I was the only customer to realize it’s Gaga, chatted her up with nonchalance and coolness and ending up hanging out with her; (3) a very vivid dream, just last night, of a faraway love interest wrapped around my finger.

Toscano said it perfectly in her display of haunting angst during Motown week:

“All in love is fair…
The future no one can see
The road you leave behind
Ahead lies mystery
But all is fair in love
I had to go away…”

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