American Idol's Freak Factor

When I taught high school English, I was shocked at the number of students who planned to be rappers, singers and various other celebutantes. They imagined a future of limousines, backstage orgies and Cristal, free of nagging homework and grammar lessons. They did not question this fate, much as they did not question their talent. And whatever you think of American Idol--marketing juggernaut, musical blight--know that it performs a valuable public service by crushing their dreams.

Most people can't sing, even if they think they can. For the first three weeks of broadcast (whose ratings have proven the show more popular than ever), American Idol milks this lack of self-awareness for all it's worth, showcasing a mind-numbing litany of hopefuls with nary a clue that they suck. So far the Jaw-dropper Award goes to Mary Roach, whose post-audition flip-out should raise red flags for psychiatrists everywhere. And yet, something rings phony about her, along with so many other featured contestants. They're so out there, so unfathomably bad as to be practically unbelievable. This has added a whole new level to my American Idol viewing. The question is no longer: Will they make it? The question now is: Are they faking it?

So I appreciate the direct approach of Daron Beck, the Denton musician (from art-rock bands Falkon and Pointy Shoe Factory) who appeared on the New Orleans episode. Beck wore his distaste for the show on his sleeve, claiming from the outset he was there to protest the disposability of pop music. Not that the audience wouldn't have caught on. With his undertaker suit and Vincent Gallo-meets-Vincent Prince looks, Beck stood out even among the motley AI crowd. His eccentric, warbling version of Tom Jones' "Delilah" and Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You" prompted a rather awestruck Simon Cowell to comment that Beck should be singing in a small, strange cabaret club somewhere. (Rubber Gloves, anyone?) Unlike fresh-faced Dallas youth pastor Jeffrey Johnson, Beck isn't going to Hollywood, but he did receive a rather salient criticism from guest judge Gene Simmons: "You have what a lot of these other contestants don't have. You have personality." That's the biggest thing missing from a show that would have inevitably passed on Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Mick Jagger and many of the major musical talents of the last century.

Then again, Beck got a small injection of fame after all. He appeared on VH1's Best Week Ever and Access Hollywood. I hope my former students learned a valuable lesson: When talent fails, weirdness saves the day.

Two items of business. First thing is the Ultra Music Festival contest we're sponsoring, in which one lucky DJ will be chosen to spin at the Miami electronica festival (all expenses paid). To enter, send a mix CD to my attention, P.O. Box 190289, Dallas, TX 75219. The top five entrants (must be 18 or older) will perform at Minc on Friday, February 18, when a panel of judges will select the winner. CDs must be received by February 11. Good luck.

The second item of business is the Dallas Observer Music Awards, to be held in May. Unlike past years, in which club owners and other industry professionals have selected the nominees, we're opening the process to everyone. That's right: You determine the nominees for the DOMAs. Voting begins Thursday, February 3, at You know what Puffy says: Vote or die, fool.

Last week, I got word that AWOL Records in Deep Ellum was closing. I e-mailed two fellow audiophiles, who responded thusly: 1) "I didn't realize it was still open"; and 2) "What's AWOL Records?" So maybe it's not a shocker that the tiny, dingy Main Street vendor has shuttered. But for those looking for a refuge from Virgin Megastores and strip malls, AWOL was a rare find, a High Fidelity-esque oasis of musical elitism and vinyl, and our city is a little sadder for its loss.

Are we not men? We are (not quite) Devo: On Friday, Devo cover band Smart Patrol makes a rare appearance at the Barley House. This is a must-see for fans of the new wave art-rockers.

On February 8, Eisley finally releases its major-label debut, Room Noises. It's excellent. Go buy it. We'll meet back here in two weeks to talk about it. Deal? Deal.

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Sarah Hepola