Thursday, March 27, 2008

Carly Smithson is a bad human being

I suppose everyone watches American Idol, because twice a week Ryan Seacrest pops out of the closet to tell me so. I admit that I've actually been watching for a few years, partly because I get hooked every February by the train-wreck audition shows and partly because I have to watch something. If that big TV sits in my family room day after day and I don't watch it, then I've wasted my money on it, and waste is a sin. (I paid cash for it; in America, you're only allowed to waste money if it's borrowed at 19% APR.)

In short, if you don't watch American Idol, you make Jesus cry, so you can either come along with me, or I'll see you in hell.

I'm moved to write about this ridiculous topic because Carly Smithson is a monster. Not just a monster, but the worst kind of monster: a 100% drum-dyed fraud of a monster. Every week she takes the Idol stage, every week she delivers a technically flawless yet utterly empty rendition of some trite song, and every week she sends shivers up my spine. Brr.

Smithson, as all Idol fans no doubt know by now, is hardly any kind of ingenue, plucked from her job at Chilis and given this once-in-a-lifetime chance to make her dreams (and our nightmares) come true. In fact, she's a professional musician -- one who had a recording contract, put out an album (under the name Carly Hennessy), and was the beneficiary of a $2 million promotional effort by her label, MCA. The reason you probably never heard of her before Idol is not that she was undiscovered. She was discovered; she just wasn't any good. The album sold so few copies that to say it sold zero copies might well be within the margin of error.

This is not what makes Smithson so objectionable. Melinda Doolittle was a professional, too, and though I rooted against her because of it, I didn't hate her for it. (I hated her for entirely separate reasons.) The difference is that Doolittle, even with her noisome so-you-really-like-me? "modesty," was totally upfront about the fact that she was a backup singer with years of performing and touring experience. You listen to Carly Smithson talk on the show, and you'd never have any inkling that she has long experience in the recording industry.

The straw that broke the camel's back came last night, when, during the interminable results show, Idol dragged us behind the scenes to watch the contestants re-record their songs for iTunes. And Smithson, whose studio album Ultimate High is at this very moment available on Amazon, had the balls to pretend that she'd never been in a recording studio before. She spoke with wonder about all the funny dials and switches on the sound engineer's board (I don't think anyone really knows what they all do!), and she giggled over all the funny terminology that the studio crew uses, and she swooned over seeing her own face show up on the screen when she played her song on her iPhone, and I wanted to crawl through my TV screen and knock her teeth down her throat.

She's a flat fucking liar. That's what I hate about her. There's not an ounce of genuineness in her entire wretched body. Even the real stuff is fake. The big tattoo on her right arm? Real, I'm sure (as her husband is a tattoo artist), but totally canceled out by the way she goes insistently sleeveless every week: You will not remember my plain face or my lumpy body or my charisma-less performances, but you will remember my big stupid tattoo. Then there's her brogue. Smithson is Irish. When she first auditioned (in sleeves, BTW), she said it just that way: Irish. Since then, she's gotten more and more Oirish with each week. The brogue, I'm sure, is real, but, just like the tattoo, she hid it until someone told her it would help her stand out. "Be yourself" is a fine motto, one that you can bet Carly Smithson screams at herself in the mirror, but art is about being true to yourself regardless of the circumstances. Smithson is true to herself only when it will get her ahead. But then again, she's not an artist. She's a technician.

Which is probably why her album didn't sell. It was probably full of songs on which every "i" was dotted and every "t" was crossed, but in the end it was cold as a glacier -- and could crush you like one if you didn't get out of the way (which you had plenty of time to do).

I'm not saying you can't get filthy rich ramming bullshit down people's throats. People can be dumb and lazy and will open wide for all sorts of tasty poop, but even dumb and lazy people have lines that they won't cross. They'll put up with Paris Hilton on their TV screens, but they won't buy her album. They'll hear a "Carly Hennessy" song on the radio and might not even change the channel, but they won't be moved to pay real money for the music.

So Ultimate High went and died. Smithson should have looked at what had happened and said: "I had the chance that every singer dreams of, I had every opportunity to make a success of it, and I failed. Maybe the problem is me. Maybe people just don't want to listen to my music." But of course she didn't say that. What she did was: She went to the United States and auditioned for American Idol. Because the true mark of an artist is: When you fail at music on her own, you go out and try to weasel your way onto a show that will manufacture an audience for you.

Smithson first auditioned for Idol two years ago. The judges (including Randy Jackson, who just happened to have worked A&R at MCA while she was making her album there) wanted to put her through, but she couldn't get a work visa. Think about that. Not only wasn't she a U.S. citizen, she wasn't even a permanent U.S. resident, which would have allowed her to work. What business does she have trying out for American Idol? What business do they have letting her through?

Two years later, she shows up again, now married to an American(!), and they put her through, and now twice a week she comes into our living rooms and screams at us.

Now, don't believe for a second that Smithson hoodwinked Idol. They knew full well who she was. They probably picked her because of who she was. Remember, the past two Idol winners have been marketing disasters. Taylor Hicks couldn't sell Kool-Aid in Death Valley and was dropped by his label. And Jordin Sparks, as Seacrest has told us repeatedly, has had her debut album "certified gold." In case you don't know, a gold record signifies 500,000 copies sold. Granted, it's about 499,500 more copies than Ultimate High, but for an album that had the full weight of Idol marketing behind it, it's not much. Last year's Idol finale drew more than 35 million viewers; fewer than 2% bought the album.

Idol badly wants (and, really, needs) another Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood in the winner's circle. It can't abide another Hicks, another Sparks, another (God forbid) Ruben Studdard. It's an embarrassment that losers (i.e. Daughtry) are getting more pub than winners (Fantasia). So this year the producers went out and got Carly Smithson, who has put out an album. They got Kristy Lee Cook and Michael Johns, each of whom had a record deal and lost it for having even less charisma than Carly Smithson. They got Robbie Carrico, who toured with (and perhaps even felt up) Britney Spears back in the day. They got David Archuleta, who won $100,000 on Star Search.

They went out and got a bunch of people who, frankly, if they were going to be pop stars, would already be pop stars. Seacrest can tell us umpteen times that this is the most talented group of Idol finalists ever (and he has). And they certainly are talented. They're also, for the most part, empty and forgettable. Except Carly Smithson, who's empty and contemptible.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Land of job opportunities

A story in Monday's Des Moines Register rings the too-small-workforce bell yet again. Appearing under the bizarre yet captivating headline "Say hello to big hole in Iowa's workforce," the story explains that our state already has at least 49,000 more jobs than it has workers, a gap that will grow to 150,000 over the next five years.

As someone who is (gainfully, I assure you) self-employed and therefore is always worried that one of these days he'll have to run out and get one of those "real jobs" he hears so much about, I found this to be heartening news. That is, until I got to the charts that ran with the jump. (They're available on the website, but only in teeny-tiny thumbnail JPEG form because the Register's online editors, I assume, are idiots.)

The most telling chart is the one that describes the level of education needed to fill the jobs that will come open over the next year. One-quarter of those jobs require no education whatsoever, and seventy percent of those jobs require no more than a high school education. In other words, Iowa is going to be needing a lot of fast-food clerks, discount store shelvers, prison orderlies and casino dealers over the next year. Wherever are we going to find them?

Iowa economic development officials frequently bemoan the "brain drain" -- the outflow of young people who get an education in Iowa, then move out of state to reap the financial rewards of that education. Those same officials also frequently point to Iowa's worker shortage as something the state can use to lure those young people back here. Just once it'd be nice to see them put two and two together.

Young, educated people move out of the state for two main reasons. The first is simply that they don't want to live in Iowa. There's nothing you can do about that, I'm afraid. If a kid is looking for excitement, he's going to go elsewhere. The second reason, the one germane to our discussion, is that they see opportunities elsewhere that they don't see here. When they look at the Iowa economy, and all they see is one service-sector job after another that pays $22,000 a year, they'd have to be stupid to stay. And they're not stupid.

You know what's pathetic? Utterly, hopelessly, dogshit pathetic? The scene we had a couple weeks back in which a number of Iowa communities went to the state Racing and Gaming Commission to beg and plead for more casino licenses. This is what passes for economic development in much of the state: casinos, prisons, hotels. No one dreams of growing up to be a blackjack dealer, a penitentiary food-service aide, or the night guy at the front desk. All of these jobs are honorable work, but you take these jobs because you have to, not because you want to. If I'm a young person with hopes and dreams and the only work I can see in Iowa is working the window at a slots casino, then I'm getting out of here. I'll go somewhere else. Because if I have to work the window at a casino, I'd rather do it in Las Vegas than What Cheer.

Nobody ever stops to ask: You want to build a casino in some small town in Iowa? Really? Who the hell do you think it's going to serve? You think the high rollers are going to fly in and drop 100 grand? No, your customers -- if you have any -- are going to be locals. Locals spending (we hope) their disposable income in the new casino rather than the restaurant down the street. The big difference being that the restaurant might be locally owned, while I can guarantee you that the casino will not be. So the casino cannibalizes the local economy for a while ... until a bigger and flashier casino opens down the road.

Or you really luck out, and the state decides to put a prison in your town! I told you rapists weren't good for nothing!

So, yes, say "hello" to the big hole in the workforce. Pray that we can scrape together enough illegal immigrants to fill it. Because I want my value meal now!

Monday, March 17, 2008

A shamrock is not a four-leaf clover

OK, I'll bite: What does a four-leaf clover have to do with St. Patrick's Day?

I ask because on the "Monday" part of the seven-day forecast, Channel 13 has been running a little icon of a rainbow ending in a pot of gold, surrounded by four-leaf clovers. Now, I understand the rainbow and the pot of gold. According to television commercials, which is where I get most of my information, Leprechauns (the technical name for Irish people) keep their pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. But that still doesn't explain the four-leaf clover.

If they were shamrocks, well, then I'd understand. Because according to legend, when St. Patrick came to Ireland to Christianize the natives, he used the shamrock to explain the Holy Trinity. Just as the shamrock has three leaves emanating from one stem, Patrick explained, God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit all spring from the same source. They are all one and the same. He didn't say anything about four-leaf clovers.

This is the point where you sputter something about the "luck of the Irish," and I call you a dumbass.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

You must be very proud

I pretty much live for Wheel of Fortune anymore. Every day at 6:30, I'm there, guessing the puzzles, appreciating how Vanna White's sole job was to turn around the letters and she doesn't even have to do that anymore, laughing along as Pat Sajak pretends he's just a harmless buffoon rather than the frothing patron saint of the black-helicopter crowd, and, what I find most enjoyable, passing judgment on the contestants.

Every night, after the first toss-up puzzle, Sajak interviews the players. Each player introduces him- or herself, then Pat asks them to "tell us a little something about yourself." That's suposed to be a cue to say something interesting. "I like to skydive," maybe, or "I'm a black belt in aikido, or "I lost a leg in the Panama invasion." Or even, "I'm studying to be a (fill-in-the-blank)." But nine times out of ten, they lead with the fact that they're married -- to a spouse they invariably describe as "wonderful." Big fucking deal. I'm married, too. And she really is wonderful. And our kid is so wonderful that if he happens to crap all over your furniture, I'm just going to laugh it off -- Isn't he CUTE? -- but none of that is interesting in the least. These people are boring and stupid.

But some are even more boring and stupid than the usual, which brings us to the pathetic critter who crawled up onto the set on Tuesday. When the time came to introduce herself, this is what she offered:

"I'm from Oxford, Mississippi, I work for my church, and I love reality television."

And that was it.

Hey, I love reality TV, too. Live for it, even. I watched every season of The Apprentice, including the Martha Stewart version. Survivor, Project Runway, Project Greenlight, Property Ladder, Iron Chef -- they've all been in heavy rotation at our house. And don't get me started on MTV. I've like totally been a little bitch for The Hills, Making the Band and, at one time, The Real World.

But the difference between me and the Wheel contestant is this: I understand that loving reality television is nothing to be proud of. It's something to be ashamed of. They call such things "guilty pleasures" because you're supposed to feel bad for liking them. When you go on Wheel of Fortune (itself a guilty pleasure) and proclaim without even a touch of hipster irony that you like this garbage? Oh, that's just sad.

Needless to say, she wasn't a winner. And she didn't do very well on the show, either.