Music : Idol minds

What if Pearl Jam’s new zeal for promotion intersected with America’s favorite prime-time music show?

The dynamic of music as a shared experience is lost on you iPod people. TV, food, X-Box games, porn, IV needles — you manage to share the love there. But music? That’s something you use to shut humanity out. Ask a hundred people to name their favorite recording artist and you’ll have to ask a hundred people to take off their headphones.

A cinematic love triangle waiting to happen: From Justin to Kelly to Eddie V.

That’s why I envy the 33 million habitual viewers of American Idol. For them, music is still a rallying point for young and old alike. The show’s producers are shrewd. They’ve lowered the age restrictions for the contestants, but increased the number of theme shows to reel in the baby boomers. Andrea Bocelli as a mentor? It won’t be long before there’s an “all Mills Brothers show” to ensnare the last remaining octogenarian holdouts who save their power dialers for QVC.

Compared to last week’s final Idol hoopla, Pearl Jam’s return is a media event on par with a California Raisins reunion. Sure, their new album entered the Billboard chart at number two. But even Yield and No Code made strong initial showings before disappearing like the minty taste of discount mouthwash. And while this self-titled album is being touted as a return to form, to some of us that just means another rehash of Ten. With eight studio albums under their belt, Pearl Jam might just be biding time until they can release Pearl Jam X and totally blur the lines between past and present, remake and reissue forever.

What has changed is PJ’s sudden willingness to play the game. No more Ticketmaster fights, reclusive behavior, or impenetrable multi-volume bootleg sets. Like the Grateful Dead in 1976, Pearl Jam have signed with longstanding music impresario Clive Davis. The mere fact that their new album is self-titled should’ve been a tip-off. Everyone who has signed with Davis has an eponymous album, and Pearl Jam follows in the proud tradition of O-Town, Kenny G, Barry Manilow, the Bay City Rollers and Whitney Houston, making old Clive misty.

And Davis’s J Records has really been working the new record, even getting the band to appear on television. But why stop at Saturday Night Live when the label can finally turn Pearl Jam into ready-for-prime-time players? With the vampire sway Davis holds over American Idol’s proceedings (he signed Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia, even show-quitter Mario Vasquez!), he can easily strong-arm the show into doing a Pearl Jam week. Even more effective, he could secretly groom Eddie Vedder as an Idol contender! Besides, each season has at least one mush-mouthed, hair-whipping grunge devotee, so why not insert PJ’s frontman? He is their spiritual voice coach, after all. And the judges would be none the wiser. Ditto for the rest of America. I mean, who’s even seen Eddie Vedder since 1996?

Here’s how this fantasy season of Idol might play out:

Davis decides to disguise Vedder as Eddie Bobbetti. The vowels make him sound more ethnic. The next day, in a makeshift audition hall near the Space Needle, the judges grouse that this season already has too many gravelly voiced longhairs. But when Eddie Bobbetti begins an a cappella version of Stone Temple Pilots’ “Plush,” Randy gets all “Dawg, you got the Temple of the Dawg thing going on,” while Paula enthuses that Bobbetti’s flannel reminds her of Kevin Bacon in Footloose. Simon, of course, hates the song, and in one of his increasingly obtuse put-downs remarks that “it sounds like you’re a foghorn that was sent to bed without its supper.” But Eddie’s yowling similarity to Constantine Maroulis ensures he’ll be among the 175 hopefuls heading to Hollywood.

Seventy-six contestants are quickly eliminated based on their bad complexions, and the remaining are asked to pick a song and form into groups. Surrounded by dungeon-voiced belters who sound just like him, Eddie assumes a leadership role and gets everyone to sing Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” even choreographing it with major hair gyrations. It’s this number that leads Randy to exclaim, “I think it’s really, 100,000-percent true — the talent is far better than any other season. It’s almost like you guys are rock stars already.”

Eddie covers 10,000 Maniacs’ cover of “Because the Night,” and Simon demonstrates the same cultural blind spots that led him to overpraise Chris Daughtry’s “originality” for covering Red Hot Chili Peppers’ cover of “Higher Ground.” He exclaims that he could envision Bobbetti’s new arrangement of the Patti Smith song as a hit single. “This may be the moment that we look back on in five or 10 years and say that was the moment that defined Eddie Bobbetti.”

Eddie performs Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue,” complete with accompanying “boot in your ass” choreography, and nearly triples his votes from the home audience. Fans agree he’d be unstoppable if he smiled more. But his choice of the dead teenager ballad “Last Kiss” has Simon concerned that “everything we liked about you just evaporated. Who do you think you are? Eddie Vedder?”

Male and female contestants must choose a song made popular by a singer of the opposite sex. Eddie goes beyond his comfort zone to sing Kiki Dee’s “I’ve Got the Music in Me,” which mainly consists of throat-clearing gargles and vocal notes he has no business going near. Randy thinks it’s a bit “pitchy,” but is happy to see Eddie taking chances with song selection. Paula leaves the door open for a future secret tryst when she says, “I smile inside and I think that when you’re able to tap into the heartstrings of America with your gift for grimacing, then it’s a home run.” Simon comments that the ending sounded like mooing, and calls it “utter nonsense,” the first truly indigestible pun of the season.

Vedder out! “Bobbetti” loses to a rat-tailed kid from Long Island who sings a song from his birth year of 1991. The song is “Jeremy,” from Pearl Jam’s Ten. With that, Vedder realizes his career has come full circle. He hangs up his Idol dreams and gets to work on his solo album for J. The working title? Eddie. Clive’s going to love it. And later, when it’s a hit with both the iPodders and Gen X’ers, Vedder will return to American Idol as a kindly, dungeon-voiced mentor in fatigue shorts, and he’ll begin his life again.