Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Just a little less than a month before Howard Stern leaves the conventional airwaves for the auspices of satellite. Actually, as I sit here and type this at 5:12 AM, the official countdown clock says 29 days, 18 hours, and 47 minutes. Stern only has 13 more original shows left, with the month being rounded out by various "Best Of" shows.

Of course, this all comes with mixed feelings in the general public. A lot of people cheer Stern's departure from public airwaves the way an Iraqi cheers the falling of Saddam's statue. Many conservative Christians have long held grudges with Stern over what they perceive to be profane and immoral broadcasts. Many fans of the show are saddened that they'll now have to subscribe to his show on Sirius. On the other hand, a lot of people are excited to see what new uncensored topics and content the show can now pursue.

I, for one, am sad to see him go. I say this as a conservative and religious person. Over the course of the years, I've listened to Howard on the air and watched his E show many times. I've found his humor to be sophomoric, vulgar, and downright offensive many times. However, I've also found him to be funny, enlightening, and inspiring at other times. His frat boy humor can range from being bizarre to being very endearing, and at times his outlook on life can go from being wacko to just plain right. I've never known his show to be uninteresting, and no matter what he says, I keep coming back, listening, laughing, and yeah, occasionally getting disgusted, but so what?

I believe no matter what I might disagree with Howard on, radio is better for his having been here. A lot of syndicated morning shows around the country owe their existence to him and his formula (my own morning shows included.) Howard has always challenged the medium of radio to be more than what it is, pushed the boundaries of what can be said and what cannot be said, and redefined what mornings should sound like. More and more, people are waking up to the fact that the government has exercised its powers to silence views and expressions that it doesn't want heard. His fearlessness in tackling issues behind the microphone have let people know what really goes on. I listened vigorously to his discourses on George Bush, his overt bashing of the FCC (loud audible cheering here), and his ramblings about life in general. I mean, what else is left to say that he hasn't already said??

There is almost one universal response when you bring up Stern's name among conservatives or religious people, and that response is "he should be banned from our airwaves!" I hear that, and I sigh. These are the same people who complain whenever someone pulls the Ten Commandments down from the courthouse steps. "But there's a difference!" they claim. No. There's not. If you take away someone else's right to free speech, you are handing them the right to take away yours. I wonder if conservatives have considered what might happen if a radically liberal administration, one unfriendly to Christianity and conservatism, won an election and took over this country's government. I wonder how loud they would cry if suddenly their right to public expression via radio or TV was silenced. Unfortunately, by silencing voices like Stern's a hideously dangerous precedent is being set to work against the very people who are proposing it.

And who could blame Howard for going to satellite? I sure wouldn't. When you have to be careful of every word you say in order to avoid millions of dollars in fines from the FCC, why would you not choose to move to a place where the FCC can't yet touch you?? Why would you navigate through a mine-field where Janet Jackson's partially exposed breast at the Super Bowl gets millions of dollars in fines while an inmate stabbing a guard to death on Prison Break doesn't get noticed? Why would you stay in an arena where Oprah can openly discuss rimjobs but Howard has to pay millions for suggesting it? Why would you work in a place where you're not even allowed to say the word "Sirius?" And work with Tom Chiasano?

And the ripple effects go on and on. The Bob & Tom Show, once very edgy and outright hilarious, has had to water itself down to nearly nothing. Music stations are having to weed out their playlists of classic songs just so they don't have to worry about some moralistic thug siccing the FCC on them! Everybody is having to watch their back.

So, with that all said and done, I wish Howard well on his journey to Sirius. I will miss your show a lot, since I'm an XM subscriber, but hopefully you'll do what you do well and continue to change the face of the business and break down those walls. Thank you for what you've done for our industry.

Oh, and Tom... give him the carts, man!

Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Best & Worst of American Idol Seasons 1-4 DVD is out now. Whether you like it or not is going to depend on how big of a fan you are of the show.

So I admit it. I'm a fan of the show. I wasn't to begin with, but like a tumor or fungus, it grew on me. I sort of dismissed it as bubble-gum pop, compounded by the fact that it's a reality TV show...just the genre I love to hate. I should clarify that I'm not now nor have I ever been a musical snob. I've never been convinced that one genre of music is "real music" or that any genre of music is NOT "real music." Professionally, I've worked for radio stations with rap, rock, country, and talk formats. Personally, I've gone through the gangsta, pop, R&B, and metalhead phases. It took several girlfriends to get me to listen to country, but I did. Now basically anything goes. Still, I'm not big on big staged productions, which is what I figured A.I. must be.

Still, I caught glimpses of the show. I guess my interest was piqued when I first saw Kelly Clarkson in a magazine spread with the poodle-haired frat boy Justin Guarini. I've had a crush on her ever since, and after checking out what she sounded like via Morpheus, I was blown away by her voice. Still, I didn't see the need to watch the show, as I figured her a sure bet to win. The next year I couldn't have cared less, what with Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard, though I have since bought their CDs. The third season interested me a little bit with my hometown girl Trenyce in the competition, but again, it wasn't enough to hook me week after week, and I managed to get by just listening to Howard Stern sum up the performances in the morning.

Somewhere between the third and fourth season I happened to stumble across an American Idol DVD in the Wal-Mart bargain bin. It was a fairly comprehensive recap of the first season, and I figured, what the heck, for five bucks I could finally see what everyone saw in this show. I watched it, and I still don't know what it was about it, perhaps the slick production values, the editing, the whole Kelly Clarkson-ness of it, whatever it was I was interested in seeing the next season.

So I started watching season 4, and by the end of the second episode I had seen Carrie, predicted her ultimate victory along with the rest of the world, and couldn't miss it since. Call me a dork, but hey, there were 500 million plus of us dorks out there calling in and voting for our favorites.

As for Season 5, I will be watching with only one regret: that due to Hurricane Katrina relief efforts in this city, American Idol was unable to host their auditions here (and I couldn't make it to any of the other cities to audition.)

Anyway, back to the DVD, you can buy "The Best of American Idol," "The Worst of American Idol," or get the combo set with an extra disc for a little over 20 bucks. The individual discs cost a little over 13 dollars. I bought the combo set, so that's where this review will come from.

A quick look at the back packaging shows that the runtime is give or take 600 minutes long. I thought that it must have been a misprint. That's over 10 hours of stuff. So I popped it in when I got to work (because I have a cool job where I can do whatever I want to for 8 hours a day) and got busy watching it. Each disc comes with a "Play All" feature, so I hit that and let the disc cruise.

The first disc features the best singers, concentrating mainly with the top two contestants of each year. The disc begins though with a montage of the worst ones and an Idol retrospective that documents the show's beginnings all the way back to Pop Idol in the UK. It introduces the judges, shows highlights and lots of Idol trivia, then launches into the individual performances. Each Idol winner has their final performance showcased as well as 2 or 3 other performances, and the runners-up have a couple of appearances themselves. When it comes to the 3rd place and down, there are performances by Tamyra Gray, LaToya London, Constantine Maroulis, and Vonzell Solomon. This disc focuses a lot on Season 4 winners. Also included are the original auditions from each season's top 2, from Kelly Clarkson to Bo Bice. The packaging describes them as extended versions, but they're still edited a bit. Then there's another set of montages showing how each top 2 finalist changed during the contest (gee, it's less than a year, they don't change much except Kelly striped her hair and Bo Bice grew a beard.) There are interviews with different groups from Season 4 about the tour. Each Idol (except Bo who was hospitalized at the time of the production and Nadia who is mysteriously absent from the entire disc set) dishes about doing number 2 in the bathroom, tour bus shenanigans, Bo-Savol pranks, and who spends the most time in front of the mirror. If you're not already tired of the disc by then there are more looooong interviews with Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Bo Bice to round it out. And if, by chance, you're still there at the end, there are a couple of trailers for non-Idol-related documentaries.

The second disc is auditory agony as the worst possible examples of musician wannabes are showcased in all their ignominy and ingloriousness. William Hung is prominent here, and whether you like it or not, you will have his version of "She Bangs" in your head for weeks. I had a couple of problems with this disc, aside from the obvious. One is Mary Roach. She was by far the worst audition from Season 4, I'll grant that. But she has since made it known, via her website, that she was simply an actress trying to get camera time. It's impossible, or at least it would seem so, that someone in Fremantle Media or 19 wouldn't have picked up on this very public information. I don't see why they wouldn't distance themselves from that, since it does little to dispel the notion that a lot of A.I.'s auditions are staged. Problem number 2 is in the same vein: comedian Chris Wylde (nee Christopher Noll) as the rapping nanny. From the first time this was broadcast, members on the Idol message board, newsgroup, and various other bloggers knew and posted tons about this bogus audition. Yet, not only did they include this fake audition on the disc once, they did it twice (once in an extended uncut version.) They didn't even bother to mention it on the labeling. This kind of thing doesn't help Idol's credibility at all. But I digress. The disc starts with a montage of bad auditions, many of which (thankfully) cut straight past the singing and directly to the judges' stinging insults and mocking. Featured on the disc are several extended horrible auditions. These are often rough cut, unedited takes, and the sound on them is horrible. (Someone should fire the boom mic operator. They must do a lot of looping in post-production. I seriously could not hear a lot of the dialogue on two or three of these clips.) Rounding out the disc are montages of several commonly screwed-up songs, including Edwin McCain's "I'll Be," "The Star-Spangled Banner," and some Christmas carols. Oh, and those same trailers again.

The bonus disc is supposed to be the pay-off for buying the combo set. I'm a little wary of the vaunted bonus discs in most sets. Usually they have five or six featurettes that are about four minutes long apiece, and you end up feeling less than satisfied with it. Not here. There are HOURS of interviews on this disc. Carrie Underwood does two entire interviews. Bo does one. Vonzell does one. Constantine does one. There's extended footage from Bo and Carrie's homecoming (which as I remember, happened right before Vonzell was eliminated.) And finally Paula Abdul wraps it all up in one nice long bow with a hefty interview. Carrie and Kelly seem to be about on par with talkativeness, as both of them tend to run off at the mouth for extended periods of time without so much as a glass of water or a breath. Carrie talks about every single aspect of the auditioning process, the Hollywood trip, the interactions between the contestants, the various levels of the show, the plane trip back home, and a partridge in a pear tree. Bo, Vonzell, and Constantine talk about the same exact things, except Bo is a lot more interesting to listen to, whereas you can tune out Carrie and just stare at her face for an hour. I'm kidding of course, because they all have very interesting things to say. Seriously. Their perspectives are mostly divergent. Paula gives the judge perspectives, talks about Idol hookups (I didn't know Justin and Kelly actually dated) and teased about one short-lived romance in the past season but wouldn't elaborate on it. One huge omission is that she does not talk about the fourth season's Corey Clark controversy (say that five times fast.) His dismissal from the second season due to his undisclosed arrest record is, however, prominently featured (almost emphasized as if to say nyah nyah) on the first disc.

So anyway, this is a looooooooong DVD set. If you're just a casual Idol watcher, you won't care for it. If you are a curious fan, you'll pick your way through it, and you should probably get the less expensive single discs. If you're a die-hard fan, get the combo set and clear your day, because that's a lot of Idol you'll be watchin' there.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Carrie Underwood is finally on our store shelves with a full album.

American Idol fans will remember her from the past season as the shy, lovable country girl from Oklahoma who was, by and large, everybody's favorite to win the whole way through. I have to admit to being a Carrie fan from day one. As I watched her in her opening audition, I said to myself and those who were watching with me, "She's the one. She's going all the way." She didn't disappoint, to say the least.

So now the big question is this: will her album be as good as she appeared to be on Idol? To be honest, not all of the initial albums released by Idol winners were good. Kelly Clarkson's Thankful was a good effort, but was all over the place stylistically, as though they were looking for a niche to put her in. They fixed this with her incredible follow-up album, Breakaway, firmly entrenching her in the chick-rock genre. Ruben Studdard's first release, Soulful, a pseudo pop/R&B mish-mash, was only so-so, and it's lack of substance was a big part of what caused it to be completely buried by Clay Aiken's runway smash Measure of a Man. Fantasia's first R&B album was probably the only real show-stopper of them all. So, that all being precedent, how impressive can we expect Carrie's album to be?

Actually, it's pretty darned good! (And if you don't want to take my word for it hop over to her official site to sample some of the tracks.)

The country genre is nothing new to former Idols. Josh Gracin has been burning up the country charts for a year or two now. But it's a nice detour from the usual, and Carrie Underwood is rather uniquely fitted for the job. Some Hearts delivers a nice melodic blend of modern country, ranging a bit into the pop side, but occasionally dipping into the twang and steel guitars.

It would appear that a huge team was put to work to really flesh out this album. Producer Dann Huff had a lot of great material to work with.

Song-writing mega-superstar Diane Warren penned no less than 3 of the songs on this album. Her list of accomplishments are too numerous to list here (you can check out her site at for a comprehensive listing), but she has written smash hits for Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Aretha Franklin, Heart, Lionel Richie, Mariah Carey...etc. It seems like whenever Diane Warren touches paper, it turns to gold. There are a lot of artists whom you might never have even heard of had it not been for them singing one of her songs (think Milli Vanilli's "Blame It On the Rain.")

Some of country music's hottest songwriters are on here. There's Brett James, Troy Verges, and Hillary Lindsey to name a few. Hillary contributed three songs to the album and appears twice on the disc singing back-up. Fans of country music may remember her from Martina McBride's video "This One's for the Girls." (She also wrote the song.) She's also been part of the creative team that powered Faith Hill's Cry to the top of the charts. I'm as much a fan of hers as I am of Carrie Underwood, but that may be a bias since we both attended the same high school. I clearly remember losing to Hillary in a community talent show, though in my defense, I was doing comedy and she sings better than me. I remember we were paired together in a class once and our assignment was to write a song. I wrote some crappy lyrics, she wrote the music and sang it, and I knew right then and there the girl would go far. But I digress...

Finally, there's Carrie herself, and she plays the most amazing instrument on the whole album: her voice. All of the rest of the work on this album are nice parts of the car, but her vocals are the engine that sends this vehicle zooming off down the road. Whether she's soulfully belting out "Jesus Take the Wheel" or seducing us with "We're Young and Beautiful," she has the pipes and the God-given sense of how to use them. I found myself mesmerized by "Some Hearts" and "That's Where It Is." And the CD rounds up with a song she penned herself, "I Ain't in Checotah Anymore," which turned out better than expected. Her voice is commanding and strong. There are no Britney Spears' half-whispered half-sung songs here. (And nobody pronounces "me" as "may.") She's got a sound as sweet as honey and it lulls the listener into a peaceful state while hammering home conscious lyrics and heartfelt emotions.

In summary, this CD is a very solid country album. It's nothing incredibly ground-breaking, but it's thoughtful, insightful, soulful, and pretty! Those of you who are long-time Carrie fans probably have it already, but if you don't, it's worth a buy.