Putting the American Back in Idol

April 1, 2010
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She’s awkward, odd, and unlikely. Undeniably gifted, confident, yet sweetly modest. The heroine who pulls herself up from a humble beginning by some rather edgy bootstraps. The role model who stays true to herself in spite of each week’s transformation from being a glassblower from Cape Cod to being a performer who can hit notes deemed unbelievable by the judges. In other words, American Idol contestant Siobhan Magnus is a veritable original who typifies the American spirit–and watching her succeed is really what the show is all about.

Although there are other contestants this season who share her can-do attitude and legitimate talent, the sum of their parts still doesn’t quite equal Magnus’ and here’s why: She possesses a much higher degree of the kind of individuality commonly associated with the American success story. A “funny little thing,” according to Simon. An awkward nerd who plods through sentences in interviews and displays a somewhat psychotic fashion sense. At first glance, that is. Get to know her a bit more each week and you see that she’s actually an introspective interviewee, a serious thinker who cares about her world and those around her, who becomes suddenly stylish the more you understand that her apparent lack of style is simply a manifestation of her individuality. Moreover, she has a stunning voice and invigorating stage presence, having earned a comparison to last year’s Adam Lambert, produced a scream worthy of Aretha Franklin in her rendition of “Think,” and provided a dark interpretation of the already dark “Paint It Black.” (Her other performances—“Wicked Game,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and “Superstition”—have also been impressive, though the same can’t be said of this week’s clumsy attempt at Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire.”)

Magnus’ individuality can sometimes be a little puzzling because the distinction between her private and public personae is so sharp and uncommon. Without undermining her authenticity, a useful comparison can be made via John Hughes’ Pretty In Pink. She is like a millennial incarnation of Andie Walsh, who is arguably the most heroic heroine conceived by a man renowned for his ability to capture the spirit of American youth, and portrayed by 80s icon and girl-next-door Molly Ringwald. Walsh and Magnus have clear similarities in terms of style and sensibility–and their refusal to compromise themselves. Upon being told, “If you put out signals that you don’t wanna belong, people are gonna make sure you don’t,” Walsh responds to her principal with respectful resistance and says, “That’s a beautiful theory.” In Magnus’ case, upon being told by Usher, this week’s mentor, that her voice was strong but her look needed some fine tuning, she smiled politely but clearly put the premium on her own judgment and sense of self. “I have to do something,” she said, “I can’t just wear a dress and heels.”

Sadly, this week her voice and her look were both a little off—but far better for that to be the case than to do it any way other than her own. Although she was praised for her “courage and conviction” and for selecting a song others wouldn’t have attempted, the criticism was harsh and visibly hard for her to take, but it didn’t keep her down. In response to Ryan Seacrest’s question about how it made her feel, she calmly and confidently explained, “I could give you a million excuses [for the poor performance] but I’m not that kind of person.  I’m a human being and, you know, stuff happens–but I just do want to say…I’m not defeated and I don’t take it that way.”

Magnus is not a typical contestant and may eventually be defeated for that very reason, which would be unfortunate because it is her originality that makes her worthy of idolatry. But one thing all Americans can agree on is that it’s not always the most worthy candidate who earns the votes—and that there is no victory more satisfying and more in keeping with our national ethos than that of the uncompromising underdog. In that sense, what could be more American than wishing her to win?


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3 Responses to “ Putting the American Back in Idol ”

  1. Myles McNutt on April 1, 2010 at 3:08 PM

    I think you rightly point out that Siobhan is showing distinct signs of individuality on a show that often caters towards the bland or the “typical,” but I think it’s important to note that the show has perhaps been at its most problematic this year in terms of sending mixed messages to the performers on the judgment side of things. In one breath the judges are pushing the contestants to be more individual, and in the next they’re pushing them to be more relevant as a recording artist; at one point this week, they even argued amongst themselves what the 16-year old Katie Stevens’ genre should be, without really consulting her own opinion. They want people to fit inside certain boxes but they also want them to push the boundaries, and that sort of mixed messaging has caused a lot of contestants some headaches and further complicated their individuality (or the role of that individuality) in the competition.

    Siobhan, like Adam Lambert before her, is sort of using Idol as her own lab, experimenting with her musical style and the clash of personalities on/off stage. The question is whether that experimentation is part of her personality or a sign that she is changing her personality, and whether it could be considered “performance” to the level of Lambert’s ever-changing persona last season; either way, based on the low standards this year, she’s certainly got a chance of going quite far, but I wonder if her experimental nature will place her in the same position as Lambert. She might be able to win fans, but she might not be able to win the general public who ultimately decide the competition once things get to the Final Two. She might be helped, though, if she remains considered the “underdog” to Crystal’s frontrunner – Lambert fell because Kris Allen had all the momentum, but if Siobhan can keep moving I’d say there’s a chance she could take it…although there’s just as much chance that she goes out early (and get saved by the judges) for the same qualities that make her worthy of this article’s attention.

    Ah, the joys of reality competition democracy.

    • Kelli Marshall on April 1, 2010 at 6:33 PM

      Indeed, Miles, IDOL has been “most problematic this year” but NOT only “in terms of sending mixed messages to the performers,” right? With the exception of Bowersox (and maybe Magnus, whose singing I personally don’t care for), there is virtually no stand-out talent, no charisma, no originality, no consistency in performance. Moreover, as Ryan Seacrest stated on OPRAH earlier this week, most contestants nowadays (post-Carrie Underwood) come in to IDOL understanding “the game” with a sense of entitlement that can be rather off-putting. Perhaps this — along with Simon’s exit and the judges’ problematic advising — is why the show is rumored to be cancelled next year.

  2. mrkuple on August 2, 2010 at 4:11 PM

    Sad to see her go, but American Idol shouldn’t cancelled next year,i hope the show returned to the first motif of creation.