Pop Life: American Dreamer

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American Idol has been through a lot of trials and tribulations this season, but one thing will never change: Paula sure does like this show, doesn't she? You can't kill her enthusiasm, even when everybody else is getting that shellshocked despair in their eyes. Paula makes Idol soothing to watch — if the "Forever Your Girl" kid can put herself through this punishment, week after pitchy week, who are the rest of us to bail? For me, the most touching moment this season came when Carly Smithson sang "Total Eclipse of the Heart," driving Randy to the edge of existential rage — the poor guy looked like he was about to bang his head on the judges' table, Don Music-style, wondering how he can keep putting up with all the ridiculous vocal atrocities on this ridiculous show. It was scary to see him muttering to himself, "It wasn't in tune!" But it took Paula to talk him down off the ledge ("I don't know how you can say that!"). This season would definitely be scary without her.

It says something about Idol this year when Paula looks like the sane one in the room. At least she's shrewd enough to numb herself to enduring massive humiliation onstage, and since Paula does not self-medicate, we'll have to chalk this up to her nerves of coldhearted-snake steel. Because the cast is hard to take. God, these kids are needy. They lose their grip completely when they get voted off — after all these teary meltdowns, maybe it's time to retire the crazy ritual where the losers have to sing the song that gets them kicked off the show. But even when they're winning, the singers are just falling to pieces up there. When they listen to the judges, they go all chimp-shit bitch-kittens crazy. How are we supposed to keep up with Kristy Lee Cook's constant demands for approval? Or Jason Castro's yearning for hair validation?

I definitely worry about that Syesha Mercado. Her romantic life seems like it might be a fairly intriguing story, given her penchant for torchy ballads about doomed affairs with other ladies' men. So far this season she's sung "Me and Mrs. Jones," "Saving All My Love for You," "I Will Always Love You" and "If I Were Your Woman" — scary. I understand why many people can't stand Celt-goth geek Carly, but I've come to love every shoe-polished hair on her head — you can't deny she sounds like she really is going through a total eclipse of the heart, for better or for pitchier. As for David Cook, I think it's kind of cool that he likes Our Lady Peace so much — in the tradition of Chris Daughtry loving Live and Blake Lewis stumping for 311, it's a heartening reminder that terrible Nineties Buzz Bin reject bands can always find a home in the hearts of the Idol guys. Gosh, Idol really does give back! And when Michael Johns sang "Dream On," I gave back my dinner.

Simon and Randy have started to give the thousand-yard stare, or maybe just the thousandth-terrible-version-of-Heart's-"Alone" stare. So they're lucky to have Paula there. Have we been underestimating Paula all this time? Could it be that her bubbly, barely coherent exterior masks a will that's almost frightening in its superhuman force? Well, maybe not. But I'm impressed.

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