Regular readers of this blog may or may not know that once upon a time, I was writing a novel.  (I say was because, even though I often refer back to it in my mind’s eye — twenty or thirty times a day, easy — and have come to quite enjoy torturing myself by toying with the notion of revisiting it in a serious way — an idea that I’ll one day make a concrete reality — I haven’t set finger one upon it in years.)  The book is about a hundred different things — and is driven by and populated with every bit as byzantine a constellation of backstories and bystanders as you’d reasonably expect from an author who is also a soap fan of nearly three decades — but, primarily, the book is about a guy.  Jeremy.  Early 30s.  Recovering alcoholic.  Hasn’t spoken to his brother in a decade over a ridiculously lopsided family inheritance which failed to break in his favor.  Doesn’t know how to admit it, but is still madly, hopelessly, irrevocably in love with the very first object — a flaxen-haired, brutally forthright gem of a gal — of his intensely loyal affection.


It may not make a hell of a lot of sense here in the boiled-down synopsis (and, truth be told, it may not make much more sense in the actual book), but Jeremy was once a successful trial lawyer in Boston, and is now a warbling piano player in a smoky Florida nightclub.  (It’s a long road from there to here, that seemingly wonky transition, and the minutiae therein aren’t terribly relevant to the particular yarn I’m spinning for you now, so let’s just go with this:  as increasingly detached as the repetitive tedium of his daily existence as an attorney made him feel, that’s how increasingly fulfilled Jeremy is by the fresh thrill of plugging his mind and heart and hands into the concrete joy of creation, and of imagination, as a piano man.)


As writers will, I found it most helpful to have a mental image upon which to fix my mind’s eye, and so I found my Jeremy in the sweetly boyish face of a marvelous Canadian actor called Cameron Bancroft.  (He would go on to enjoy a season-long recurring stint as Tori Spelling’s quarterback boyfriend on the original “90210” and a starring role on a sensational syndicated series about NASA employees entitled “The Cape,” but I first saw him in January 1995 in a tragically short-lived ABC series entitled “Extreme,” which had the extreme misfortune of being slotted up against a rookie NBC phenom called “Friends,” and I knew at once:  a fascinating mix of sensitive and steely — if you will, lover and fighter — there was no doubt Bancroft was the one the minute I caught sight of those shattering brown eyes.  Incidentally, Cameron, if you’re somehow reading these words, I’ve taken to begging your representation for you to appear with me on Brandon’s Buzz Radio, and you may now consider this a humble request aimed at you directly, sir.)


I had no idea then (and still don’t, natch) if Cameron could play piano or even carry a tune, and that wasn’t important, besides:  Angela Bassett and Dennis Quaid proved years ago that one can credibly and convincingly fake that kind of thing; and anyway, what was relevant to me was that Cameron be able to convey Jeremy’s internal angst and alchemy.  But I often wondered what it would be like to run across a guy, a regular guy — and when I say regular, I mean, not an Elton John or a Billy Joel, not somebody who was so obviously born to be in front of an arenaful of people and perform and maintain a larger-than-life image — whom you could visualize being happy being the local star in the local bar, a regular guy whom you could imagine playing the piano neither for the fame nor the fortune, but simply for the fulfilling thrill of taking each of his ten agile, dexterous fingers and creating something inviolably genuine with them.


So, if you’re wondering where in the hell I’m going with this blog post, you’re certainly not alone.  I’m kinda curious myself.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Beyond a pre-top 36 paragraph or five about long-forgotten exiled contestant Joanna Pacitti, I haven’t written a syllable about “American Idol” this year.  And that’s primarily because, week on week, I have often found myself at such a loss to explain what I’ve seen unfold on that show in season eight.  I think they’ve uncovered some bracing talent this year, to be sure — for instance, I find Allison Iraheta’s fascinatingly gruff voice (a perfect cross between past “Idol” winners Kelly Clarkson and Fantasia Barrino) to be one of the most dynamic and interesting the series has ever discovered, and I think it’s hilarious that Kris Allen’s dreamy looks have somewhat obscured the fact that he’s quite a dynamic performer when he’s dealt the correct material (which is to say, when he’s not covering songs from the Once soundtrack, the glorious originals from which neither he nor anyone will ever be able to top) — but this season’s crop of finalists has seemed to contain more head-scratching clunkers per capita — to name just two:  the baffling Scott MacIntyre, who, as nice as he (and as heartwarming as his story) may be, managed to survive for weeks in a singing competition without actually hitting a single note in any of his songs; or the ridiculous Megan Joy Corkrey, whose most memorable performance was the impromptu impression of a clucking chicken she flippantly tossed out en route to elimination — than any previous group.  True, “Idol” has always had its share of bizarro, ill-chosen contestants — Sanjaya the hair model, Jason the happy hobo, these immediately spring to mind — but this year has just been overrun with them.  (Even now that we’ve reached the vaunted final five and the wheat has been presumably threshed from the chaff, it’s downright stunning how much one-note, subpar artistry still remains on display in this contest:  between the painfully irritating Adam Lambert, the out-of-control shrieking banshee, and the annoyingly cloying Danny Gokey, whose full name fucking well rhymes with uncanny karaoke, for the love of Jesus (!), I need a case of ear plugs and a fifth of Jack to get through each bloated episode.)

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

So, that guy, that regular guy, the one who can play?


Found him.


It was during Grand Ole Opry week when it really clicked into place for me what exactly I was dealing with, but even before then, I’ll confess I had already found myself intrigued by the criminally smooth Matt Giraud:  even though, vocally, it was just a step or two above complete trainwreck, I found his bluesy, rough-hewn take on Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” during his leg of the Top 36 qualifying rounds to be oddly compelling.  (It didn’t work, and it didn’t work to such a violent degree that it almost kinda sorta did.)  And then, in the horrific midst of Michael Jackson week — when, taken as a whole, the Idol contestants succeeded only in proving definitively how peerless ol’ Mike was back in his day — Matt took to the piano for a spare, vulnerable version of “Human Nature” that, while it didn’t succeed in completely supplanting my memory of Jackson’s indelible original, neither did it send me scrambling for my copy of Thriller to help exorcise the fresh demons, which is one hell of a lot more than I can say for any of that night’s other performances.


And then came Opry week:  Randy Travis was the unlucky mentor; poor drowning Scott forced me to seriously rethink my undying love for Martina McBride; asinine Adam turned the legendary Johnny Cash into a punchline in front of forty million Americans (many of whom decided to vote for him anyway, apparently); and the endlessly fascinating Giraud appeared onstage to close the show.  He wasn’t accompanied by a barrowful of fanfare; neither was he in need of any.  He didn’t need Danny’s manufactured platitudes, and he didn’t need Adam’s plastic preening.  He just needed a song to sing and an old joanna to play.


Decked out in a breathtakingly tailored black suit, replete with a tie that was disheveled just so — just enough to subconsciously convey the notion that he was firmly in his element and ready to take on all comers — Matt squared his shoulders, put his fingers to work, and assuredly hurled his entire being into a beautifully slowed-down cover of Carrie Underwood’s “So Small,” whose lyrics fit his voice with such glorious precision, it’s truly difficult to believe the song wasn’t written with his chops specifically in mind.


Matt’s connection with (and obvious respect for) the piano was visceral, almost base, almost as though he was possessed.  To watch his fingers glide across those keys was revelatory, and to watch the transformation that enveloped his entire demeanor when he hit his stride in any of his better performances, almost painfully intimate.  The “So Small” triumph best and most distinctly demonstrated it, but study any of Matt’s performances in which he both sang and played, and you’ll see it clear as day:  sitting before this instrument whose curves and ridges he has no doubt caressed with more passion and devotion than many ever afford their favorite lover, his voice fell into a rich, easy timbre; that sexy-as-bootlegged-sin soul-drenched growl slinked into view at just the right moments; and, week after week, he became more confident in his ability to nail that pitch-perfect falsetto.  Watch him at his best enough times, and you’ll damn well swear one (or all) of those eighty-eight keys unlocks a secret sweet spot inside Matt’s mind — and inside his throat — and gives him the clearance to just soar.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

A likes to laugh at me sometimes, when my deep-seated admiration and respect for the favored protoplasts of both the fiction I create and the fiction I merely enjoy — squabbling brothers, or those who dare to solve the sticky emotional calculus that minds the gaps between fathers and sons, or a man who can play — bubbles to the surface.  But it’s easy to forgive him that.  A lives in a world surrounded by numbers, by pie charts and bar graphs, by notions that can be sorted, quantified, and then shoved inside a box somewhere to be forgotten about.  He can’t grasp what it is to share the space of your soul with a handful of other characters — among them, most assuredly, a man who can damn well play — other people, living, breathing, mercurial, real people.  Real people who have chosen you and you exclusively to keep their tangled, twisted lore.  He just doesn’t know, and because he doesn’t know, he laughs.  And because I can’t explain it, or quantify it, in the same reasonable way he can explain why two plus two will always equal four but why two times two will never get you five, I let him.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

It must be said, then, that Matt’s foolhardy choice to keep the piano at arm’s length in recent weeks almost certainly proved to be his downfall.  It’s funny, too, because in an exit interview with MTV.com last week, Matt stated plainly that he never came in to the competition wanting to be the American Idol, that his only dream was to play that piano on that stage.


I have no evidence to support the theory which follows, of course, but it seemed — at least to this completely biased observer — as though Matt took (a little too close) to heart Paula’s loopy proclamation that Scott was using the piano as a crutch in his performances.   (The cruel irony there is, Scott was doing precisely that; how else was he supposed to distract the judges from the fact that he couldn’t sing?)  It’s possible that I’m sniffing around for a story where none exists, but I got the distinct sense that Matt, afraid of being locked inside the same cage that Paula had tossed Scott into, made a conscious decision to step away from his firmly established comfort zone.  As a result, even though he remained a thoroughly brilliant singer, it became impossible for America to get a real bead on him, because he hurtled all across the spectrum of styles simultaneously searching for and running scared from what — a grounding force, a willing accomplice, a permission to push — only that piano seemed to give him.


I suspect in the weeks and months to come, Matt will come to question why he didn’t stick with his original dream, naysayers be damned, and see how far it carried him.  Sure, you always want to stretch and grow and try new challenges as an artist, but if what he said in that interview is in actual fact true — and, unlike the eternal cynic A (who shattered me by immediately scoffing at Matt’s claim when I shared it with him), I firmly believe him (and laugh if you must, but I also believe that having reared a real live piano player inside my soul for the past fifteen years gives me the right to back Matt up with deafening authority and conviction) — then I fail to understand why he didn’t hit that stage every week and play the living fuck out of that piano, why he didn’t try every single week to bore his way to China with his fingers and his feet and his will.  And why he failed to recognize what set him apart from those against whom he competed:  whereas Scott indeed used the piano as a crutch, as a desperate last trick in a shallow bag, Matt used it as a flashlight, as the crucial missing link in a complex musical riddle.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

A word — actually, make that three — about presumed season eight front-runner Adam Lambert:


Can’t.  Stand.  Him.


There’s no doubt Adam’s a hell of a showman, and he has a keen eye for creating and maintaining a compelling sense of drama in his performances.  (I’m even man enough to admit that what he did with Tears for Fears’ obscure chestnut “Mad World” during “Year You Were Born” week, and the revelatory 180 he pulled covering “The Tracks of My Tears” during Motown week, were nothing short of riveting.)  But just like faux-goth girl Carly Smithson last season, the package Adam continually puts forth never fails to feel aggressively fake in its presentation — only the aforementioned “Mad World” performance seemed to contain even a vague whiff of authenticity, and I suspect that has as much to do with how the song’s lyrics adroitly reflect Adam’s supposed personal history (did the lines “went to school / and I was very nervous / no one knew me / no one knew me” make anyone else go hmmm?) than any overt artistic calculations on his part — and in what is ostensibly designed to be a competition in search of America’s best undiscovered vocalist, Adam doesn’t sing so much as shriek.  During Michael Jackson week, while Matt showed the judges they were absolutely right to give him one of the coveted wild card slots with that aforementioned reading of “Human Nature,” and while Danny tried (and failed miserably) to top (or even match!) Justin Guarini’s (!!) sizzling season one performance of “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing),” Adam took to the stage and used his microphone as a blunt hatchet, decimating forever Jackson’s 1991 classic “Black or White” with his now-signature shrill squawking.  When Kara told him that same night that he hit notes she didn’t even know existed, all I could think was, “Well, sure, that’s usually what happens when you screech like a wailing hyena in labor for three straight minutes.”  (And that was actually one of his more restrained performances:  don’t even get me started on what the boy did to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” during Grand Ole Opry week by turning that song into some bizarre Indian ritual chant.  The sad, pained look of utter befuddlement on poor Randy Travis’ face absolutely said it all.)


In much the same way Danny’s sob story — his wife died just weeks prior to his audition last summer, a fact he made damn sure to trumpet loud and hard from his first moment facing the judges — seems to win him entirely undue kindness and praise from the judges — seriously, every time one of the four of them terms that bland horn-rimmed doofus “a brilliant vocalist,” I throw up a little in my mouth — so it goes with Adam:  because most of the other contestants surrounding him this season have been laughably mediocre, your attention naturally gets nudged in his direction, since — love them, don’t love them — his performances, strikingly similar though they may be, are hardly stilted, and are never boring.  (Besides, as a lifelong soap fan, I understand well the irreplaceable value of keeping front and center on the canvas the dastardly villain you love to hate.)  And they’ve made him the lead horse from the opening gun.  But I think Adam should beware:  is it too much to hope that his first-ever brush with the Bottom Two last week will reinforce for him that the initial “Idol” front-runner rarely ever makes it across the finish line brandishing the gold medal?  (Just ask Tamyra Gray, Kimberley Locke, Chris Daughtry, and Melinda Doolittle, all of whose preordained marches to the final round were stopped tragically shy of the goal line.)  I’ve been thinking (or maybe just praying) throughout the course of the season that America would eventually grow weary of Adam’s over-the-top theatrics (the shadowy lighting, the coal-hued nail polish, the so-black-it’s-blue hair, the arrogant preening, the fucking shrieking!) and send him on his merry way.  And perhaps there’s still hope of that coming to pass.  (The doofus was in the Bottom Two last week, after all.)  Or perhaps not.  Because we as a country have proven time and again that we are unable as a populace at large of distinguishing between style and substance, perhaps Adam the wailing howler monkey is the Idol we deserve. And with Matt’s devastating elimination last week, such a chilling prophecy comes one step closer to fruition.

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Well, sure, he loves Matt simply because Matt reminds him so much of Jeremy, the fictitious minstrel who lives in his mind.


Easy to think that, no question, in much the same way it must have been easy (and equally inaccurate) to suppose that I loved the incredible Brooke White last year simply because she reminded me of an unspoiled Tori Amos, the goddess who long ago took up permanent residence in my heart.


But I didn’t love Matt merely as an archetype. Nothing nearly that simple.  Even when his choice of song tended toward the untenable — I believe we can all agree his butchering of The Fray’s instant classic “You Found Me” wasn’t his finest hour, and the less said about his scattershot take on Bryan Adams’ sappy-beyond-justification “Have You Really Ever Loved a Woman,” the better — and even when his sense of fashion wandered off into the woods unchecked — with all those button-down sweaters, that unflattering tan leather jacket, and the funky fedoras, I’ve never seen a cute guy more in need of a gay best friend in my whole life — Matt was the only “Idol” contestant this season who managed to imbue every single one of his performances with a heartbreakingly graceful artistry.


America broke my heart last week in sending Matt back home to Michigan before his time, and ahead of contenders who haven’t earned fairly, on the field of play, the right to say they beat him; but ultimately, America probably did Matt the biggest favor they could have:  as much fun as it would have been to watch him win, now he won’t be boxed in by the same lofty, confining expectations that have sunk several of this contest’s previous winners.  (Taylor, anyone?  Ruben?  Adam, if this year’s uncontested front-runner indeed manages to go all the way?)  Now, he’s free to be the artist of his choosing, and on terms that will be exclusively his own.  And whether or not that means he ends up becoming the next Billy Joel, or simply the next local star in the next local bar, do know this, Mr. Giraud:  no fewer than one person on this crazy floating rock thinks you’re pretty incredible, sir, and that guy’ll be the first in line to buy your ticket.


3 responses to “what you’ve been searching for is in your hands
(or: heaven help the man who can play)”

  1. the buzz from Mike T:

    Wow, quite a post! Ok, I’ve got 3 comments to make in (much briefer) response.

    1. I absolutely disagree with your assessment of Adam Lambert’s performance of ‘Ring of Fire.’ I found Adam’s version infinitely more appealing than the almost unlistenable original version by Johnny Cash. This is the only American Idol single I’ve bought so far this season.

    2. I must disagree with your notion that the existing crop “haven’t earned fairly, on the field of play, the right to say they beat him” in this contest which you deem “what is ostensibly designed to be a competition in search of America’s best undiscovered vocalist.” I really think ‘ostensibly’ is too strong a word in this case. This is ‘American IDOL’, after all, not ‘American VOCALIST,’ and as such I’d suggest that this is more about being a performer and entertainer than being a singer, though singing is certainly a part of it. Just as politics is more about connecting with electorate and getting out the vote than it is about being the perfect legislator, so too i’d argue this contest is about connecting with and inspiring enough americans to pick up the phone on your behalf, and that is a fair fight. These aren’t platonic solids we get to compare against an idealized version of a singer, but real, breathing, shadows on the cave wall. And I’ll take those shadows any day.

    3. Don’t tell anyone I said this, but i’m excited by the prospect of an openly gay contestant winning the show. Adam can sing well (not amazingly, but well) and is consistently the best performer on the show, and if he can get the most votes while doing all that and being so brazenly gay, then he gets my vote and accolades! Well, metaphorically speaking, at least, since I can’t be bothered to actually pick up a phone and vote on behalf of any of these people. But I’ll cheer him on nonetheless.

  2. the buzz from A.:

    Mike, well, there is only one thing to say: America is a free country. You’re entitled to your thoughts, but, oh, you are so wrong!

    First off, Adam’s version of the Johnny Cash classic “Ring of Fire” was not just a cacophony and a travesty, but something so awful (I have not a word for it yet) that causes full-body pain that is even worse than screeching fingernails on a blackboard. I have a hard time believing that you actually spent your own money on something so utterly unlistenable.

    Secondly, I do not understand one bit why Adam’s sexual orientation matters (or should matter) in this musical performance competition. In this, as in virtually every contest (including elections for public office!), I would never vote for a contestant or be proud of a winner because he/she is gay — sexual orientation is irrelevant! Oh, and by the way, Adam is not especially “brazenly gay”: he has not once acknowledged his (supposed) sexual orientation during the show.

    I am sure we’ll have a chance to discuss this all further. I warn you, however, to get ready for an education in country music.

  3. the buzz from Mike T:

    A- Clearly we’re not going to agree on the whole ‘Ring of Fire’ thing. 🙂

    But for the rest, I do sort of agree with you. There’s a reason i started off my comments on that with a joking ‘don’t tell anyone I said this, but…’ i’m not saying anyone should vote for Adam because he’s gay, or that I am (I’m not voting for anyone). I guess I’m just acknowledging that for me, at least, it’s not irrelevant either, and I don’t buy the argument that it should be. And I guess there’s two reasons for this. First, and most mundanely, this isn’t a game with rules, so, for me, nothing is irrelevant. I tend to view this as more of a performance competition than a singing competition, so the whole package of how the individual presents him or herself fits in there somewhere. Attractiveness, stage presence, personality, race, age, gender, politics, personal history, all of these are factors upon which opinions are based, and so, while none of these (nor sexual orientation) are determinative for me, can I honestly say that some of them don’t play a role in influencing me? no. And I’m ok with that. I enjoy his performances, so for me, his being gay is the proverbial cherry on top that provides added value.

    And secondly, as we’ve discussed before, I perceive (admittedly perhaps incorrectly) an underlying homophobia on the part of the American Idol judges and producers. Given that, the idea of a contestant being good enough to succeed despite that does engender a little cheer from the sidelines from me.

    And never worry, I’m always up for an education on country music, or anything else! Bring it on! 🙂 If you can help me better appreciate something that I admittedly under-appreciate now, all the better! Broader horizons, here I come!