For those of you who watched the lukewarm first night of live performances of American Idol's 11th season and its subsequent tedious results show, you likely caught Interscope exec Jimmy Iovine providing pre-recorded commentary and blunt critique on this year’s contestants.
Does Jimmy have difficulty sounding natural in front of a camera and not like he’s doing an impersonation of a cranky grandma from Hoboken? Most definitely. But his honesty and industry expertise is refreshing on a now Simon Cowell-less show that is all about emotionally fluffing these amateur singers who are daring to live out a dream they’ve been holding since they were, apparently, in utero.
He was spot on in some assessments (though, his praise of 16-year-old Jessica Sanchez wasn’t surprising because she’s TOTALLY GOING TO WIN) but when it came to his take on Heejun Han — the 22-year-old who reps Flushing, Queens, soulful Michael Bolton covers, and working with developmentally disabled youth — I had to disagree.
I must preface this by saying that my disagreement has nothing to do with the fact that I love Heejun Han. I am able to disassociate the emotional swell of my crush from my crush object’s actual abilities. [I just happened to luck out with this year’s season of Top Chef in that my TV husband Paul Qui did deserve to take home the crown] Do I think Heejun has the strongest voice? No. Do I think he will win American Idol? Not really. But I do think he’s become an Asian American pop culture revolutionary?
And Jimmy Iovine’s mini-rant about Heejun’s class clown persona and that the show is not “American Comedian,” just further cemented that belief for me.
Let’s face it, Asian Americans have not fared well on American Idol. The contestants of Asian descent who have made it past Hollywood Week have typically been … boring. Technically skilled, but not as captivating as they could have been, whether it was due to song choice (i.e. snoozy ballads) or lack of stage presence (Oh, Thia Megia…). Season 3’s Camile Velasco (who awesomely sang the hook to The Fugee’s “Ready or Not” in her audition) was just too hip to conform to Idol's staid routine even in its early seasons and even AI’s resident Asian stud John Park (the one who set Shania Twain’s loins afire during his audition) failed to excite audiences. It’s been argued that singers who receive little screen time during the Hollywood Week episodes are facing one hell of an uphill battle to capture the hearts of America once voting begins, especially if they don’t have a maudlin backstory to tug on viewers’ heartstrings. I think that’s true for a show like Idol — and its competition The X-Factor — which put a large emphasis on creating a “package” star.
And who had a ton of well-deserved Hollywood Week time? Heejun Han. Since his audition, he’s been giving America some of the best deadpan one liners that reality TV has ever seen. Even his facial expressions — though, often bordering on the absurd — are genius. Plus, he really can sing. So while Jimmy and the increasingly joyless Ryan Seacrest question how seriously Heejun is taking the competition, they’d be naive to think he’s not taking his career seriously.
First, he has every right to joke around on the AI set. Everyone knows that a few outliers notwithstanding, winning this show means absolutely nothing. If post-Idol success is a gamble, odds are on you being a Lee DeWyze rather than a Kelly Clarkson. Exposure on the show certainly helps though, such as the case for fourth runner up Chris Daughtry, who’s stadium touring with Nickleback (I don’t know if that’s true, it just sounded like it made sense) straight into a solid modern rock career.
Second, the show has consistently moved less-skilled singers forward. Booting off Jennifer Hudson mid-season and crowning Scotty McCreery are just two examples of this. Most of the time, America often forgets that this is a singing competition and as I’ve said before, AI certainly creates a framework for it to be strictly a popularity contest. Why wouldn’t Heejun pander to the crowd, particularly if you know that your singing skill only accounts for a minute percentage of your votes?
And finally, and most importantly, Heejun is doing something incredibly crucial:
He is an Asian American who has refused to be the butt of American Idol's joke. He's creating the joke and making us all (Asian American or otherwise) want to be in on it.
For every expertly deflected question from Seacrest, he’s criticizing the show for exploiting William Hung into the damaging cultural legacy he has become. By mocking Jimmy Iovine’s dismissal, he’s shirking a music industry that’s created a near insurmountable barrier for Asian Americans to become mainstream artists. And with every additional quip or face he directs to the camera, he’s testing audiences to let themselves fall in love with an Asian American who is uncategorizable by the nation’s cultural and racial codes. He’s bucking the rules of a system that, historically, doesn’t care for him. And it’s making him a star.
Of course, I’m projecting this political significance onto Heejun, interpreting his dry humor and sound bites as someone with a critical understanding of race and representation in pop culture. In reality, he could just be a funny cat with a lovely voice whose charm is winning him a following across America.
I’m cool with that, too.
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