In the course of chronicling the full immensity of the most important show in entertainment history, this column has strived to take its readers deep inside the machine and the psyches that produce it. From the editing bays to the makeup room to the Idoldome bleachers, I have tried to provide fleeting glimpses into a few of the many mansions that make up the house of "Idol."
Ultimately, however, if one truly wishes to get to the essential nature of a beast, one must take a long and lonely walk through dark, snowy woods in that beast's footsteps. On Tuesday's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame night, this columnist ventured deeper into the core of "Idol" than any have dared penetrate before. That night, I became, provisionally, the first journalist in entertainment history to watch "American Idol" live from the mosh pit.
Although many of my colleagues in the "Idol" press bleachers chortled at my desire to leave the comfort of my seat and dive into the teen masses crushed before the stage, and as much as my faltering back and flat feet advised that this mosh pit truly was no country for old men, I knew that the only path to understanding the breathing, pulsing heart of "American Idol" lay through that pit.
'Load' the pit
For months I have sat 10 rows high in the Idoldome stands and looked down on the bobbing blond heads of teens lining the front of the stage and shrieking the Chosen One, David Archuleta, along his path to greatness. Of all the tweaks to the "Idol" format this season, the addition of the mosh pit seems to have had the most far-reaching effect.
Replacing the front wings of seats -- often reserved for celeb visitors -- with a standing room seemingly reserved for the most young and jubilant has guaranteed that even the most tepid performances would have a bit of a rock concert air, with screaming fans leaning in to every word. The success this year of the instrument-wielding contestants undoubtedly was made possible by their legions in the pit.
And so Tuesday, I crossed the floor and went down into the mosh pit.
First impression: The stage looks very different from its foot. Looming above the Idoldome, it looks fit for gladiator warfare. I watched the faces of the young people as they entered and 10 at a time were "loaded" into the pit. As they shuffled forward almost to a person, they gaped upon entering the room and looking up at that stage of legend. I could not tell whether it was by natural selection or some coordinated effort, but I soon noticed most of the young and telegenic had somehow found their way to the front, while in the mid-pit, I huddled with a mixed crowd that included a few in an advanced age like myself.
Loaded in to stage left, about eight feet away from where Randy Jackson's right arm would soon dangle, I learned my neighbors were members of a high school girls water polo team from Agoura Hills that had been given tickets after participating in another TV-related event, the exact nature of which I wasn't quite able to discern before the warm-up began.
When the judges entered the Idoldome, they had to wade through the crowd to their desktop perch, clearly giants striding through the masses that parted before them, like royalty distributing alms among the peasants.
Seeing this troika take its place and ultimately deliver its judgments a mere arm's length away gave one the bizarre feeling of having been teleported inside a TV set. In a way that one could never feel from a distance of 10 rows up, I was inside this iconic scene -- as if showing up suddenly alongside the table where Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock were lining up to take their quills to the Declaration of Independence. This remarkable sense goes a long way toward accounting for the state of perpetual giddiness I found my neighbors in.
As the show started and the Idols took the stage, the rock concert feeling became all the clearer as the contestants loomed above us -- tantalizingly real, tantalizingly near, and by virtue of the fact that we gazed up at them, necessarily imposing and awe-inspiring.
Some other observations from the mosh pit:
The acoustics were significantly worse in the pit than they were in the seats. However, the stagecraft and presence were significantly clearer for each contestant. What star power they generate radiated a thousand times more. Likewise, the smaller sighs and grimaces were crystal clear.
Archuleta Time. They say that when you are near the center of a hurricane it sounds like a locomotive roaring toward you. Well, when you are in the pit during a David Archuleta performance, it sounds like a hurricane is about to level you.
The shrieking started at the first mention of his name. It increased when his face was projected on the screen and exploded when the Chosen One stepped onto the stage. Girls bubbled over in tears and screamed "I love you!" throughout his time on stage. At the breaks, he waved to the screamers and gave his trademark "Aww, cut it out, you guys!" impossible-not-to-love embarrassed grin.
Being in the center of this whirlwind is not an experience a grown-up should dive into unprepared, although many ladies of a certain age in the pit seemed to get pretty well carried away by it.
The kids' vote. Monitoring this crucial demographic, I must say that more than a few of the children were carrying signs for David Cook.
Cook. Even more so than in the stands, the rocker candidate appeared by far the most comfortable and at home on the stage. Most impressive was the effortless way he ran his hands along the pleading outstretched fingertips of my pit-mates while he sang, and the way he casually sauntered offstage, giving only the briefest wave back.
However, up close he also seemed fairly exhausted, his energy between songs appearing not just low-key but at a very low ebb. After months locked in the "Idol" bubble preparing for show after show, he can hardly be blamed. One can hope he manages to get some rest before next week's crucial show.
Jason Castro. Whether this was the first time this side came out or it was visible only from the pit, the hippy crooner clearly lost his mellow for a moment after his first judging and showed signs that his previously unruffled demeanor had actually been shaken by the poor notices. Watching from just feet away as a contestant was fed to the lions, one had to feel compassion for him.
Syesha Mercado. Her version of "Proud Mary" provided the biggest bounce in the pit, where the stagecraft speaks loudest. However, her tears after the second song seemed to provoke more confusion -- whether they were tears of joy or sorrow -- than empathy.
As the show ended, my back and feet said it was time to go but my heart was not ready to walk away.
Being so close to these titans of our culture, who stepped forth into this arena after so many weeks of battle and risked everything on two songs, one could not help but feel the immensity of the challenge they face, the grueling struggle it becomes this late in the competition.
In the end it's exhilarating simply to see how each in their own way, with the best that they have in them, rise to face that challenge.