Disclaimer: I know Charlie Askew.
Several years ago, I had a conversation about music with Charlie, who’s now 17, while standing outside a pizzeria in Little Rock, Ark.
A talented musician, songwriter and singer, Charlie knew about the blues, jazz, classic rock, Goth, punk and any other genre I threw at him. He possessed a waifish, other-worldly quality about him – think David Bowie.
Askew is the “American Idol” contestant who should have made it through Thursday night’s first round of voting, but didn’t. That’s because Charlie, described early on in the show as “adorkable,” clearly doesn’t fit the stereotypical mold that “American Idol” judges really want on the show.
But Charlie is exactly the kind of performer teenage girls want to see – and that “American Idol,” now in its 12th season, needs to attract viewers.
On Wednesday night, the judges – Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj, Randy Jackson and Mariah Carey – were unusually harsh to Charlie. That was a drastic change from earlier shows, when the judges gushed over the “seemingly dark, strange-but-cool guy” wearing a turtle necklace that he dedicated to all the “awkward turtles” in the world.
Preferring to go old school instead of picking a current Top 40 hit, Charlie sung the 1983 Genesis song, “Mama.” He wore a tank top, donned a ponytail and added an earring to his look, which seemed to cut against his earlier tailored suit from a thrift store and neon blue sneakers. But then the judges turned mean.
Urban, who always seems polite, said, “I wish I knew what people at home were saying right now. If nothing else, we definitely have offered some diversity tonight.”
Minaj went further, “I don’t want to see your arms, I don’t want you working out Charlie, I don’t want to see that ponytail. I don’t want to see that earring. Lose the mustache immediately, honey! Charlie, seriously, babe, I want my cute, cuddly Charlie back.”
Frankly, Minaj has no right critiquing what anyone wears. Ever. And isn’t diversity a good thing?
It’s not exactly what “American Idol” strives for. Sure, the show tries to cross demographic and racial lines with its contestants. But the real mission of the show is to “create” a wholesome pop idol over the course of only a few weeks that America will embrace and subsequently, buy. Think Kelly Clarkson, who sung at this year’s inauguration, and Carrie Underwood.
Charlie, on the brink of tears, said he performed the song to show that he isn’t the “happy buoyant” guy that many people think he is. He went one step further and said the only reason he smiles so much is because he is on “American Idol.”
That’s truthfulness to a fault, and the show’s host, Ryan Seacrest, told Charlie he appreciated his “honesty” and “courage.”
“American Idol” is at its core a game of politics. It’s about waging a campaign to gain votes from fans and woo judges. Risky doesn’t always play well. But Charlie also took a page from the political handbook, and smartly branded himself early with the moniker, “I glorify weirdness.”
Tweets from across the country Thursday night encouraged Charlie to stay just that – weird.
He will, and I hope he will carve out a career as himself. Weirdness — and honesty — often takes people far. Just ask Prince, Madonna, Lady Gaga and even Nicki Minaj, Charlie.
Suzi Parker is an Arkansas-based political and cultural journalist and author of “Sex in the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt.” Follow her on Twitter at @SuziParker