Thursday, May 27, 2010

It's the end of "American Idol" as we know it (and that might be fine)

The two-hour-plus "American Idol" season nine finale cut off pretty abruptly Wednesday night, before newly crowned victor Lee DeWyze had even finished his take on U2's "Beautiful Day" - with a swift break that I suspect also spelled the end of "American Idol" as we know it. The show has hit bumps and survived transition before, thanks in part to a format that's proved remarkably enduring, but I'm having a hard time seeing how it can move forward without its most defining and essential persona, departing judge Simon Cowell - especially once the televised singing competition that will have the acid-tongued Brit on its judging panel, the X Factor, makes its U.S. debut in the fall of 2011. I mean, who hasn't threatened to break up with "AI" before (see: after season six)? I know I have - but it kept pulling me back in. I'll be curious to see what it has to offer next year, but also really, really skeptical that it can hold my interest, or the wider viewing audience's, for that matter. Based on the History of Idol Cycles, AI-10 ought to be better than this dismal installment, but I have to think that Simon leaving throws off that pattern completely. But, as Simon himself said, maybe it's just time to move on - everything runs its course, it's been an impressive run and I suspect he could be proven very wise for leaving when he did.

Anyway, in other news, Lee won! With "won," in this context, apparently meaning "inspired legions of teenage girls to pledge their devotion despite his obvious and fairly major shortcomings." But this night wasn't really about that, was it? I mean, despite Seacrest's hilarious assertion that "Tonight is about Crystal and Lee," which came at about 9:52 p.m., after a good 25 or so minutes in which Crystal and Lee had been neither seen, heard or mentioned. No, the "AI" powers that be knew what the big story was last night. Indeed, an Idol finale has arguably never been less about the contestants than this one, and perhaps deservedly so, in light of the subpar season, the eventual winner and Cowell's looming departure. In a weird way, that made it feel more like a series finale, what with all of the tributes to Simon and the past winners and finalists emerging onstage to serenade him. Even Randy refrained from his usual top o' the hour booing to instead applaud Simon and give him a standing ovation.

Though various figures on the broadcast gamely tried to reassure us that the show would go on without Simon, it came off to me like they were trying desperately to convince themselves that it could. I mean, how forced did that early segment featuring Seacrest and Randy feel, as they attempted to act like it was some great thing that it'd be just them now, minus Simon. Come on, guys: We know otherwise, and so do you. In the same segment, Simon tried to explain his own appeal, prefacing his remark by saying that it was going to sound arrogant, but that it was because he was the only one who knew what he was talking about. But it isn't arrogance if you can back it up, and for most of the show's run, he did - even as he seemed to coast a little bit (senioritis or lame duck-itis, perhaps?) the last couple of years.

In that context, especially, it was interesting to see a very brief clip later in the night that showed Cowell addressing contestants during Season One. At a time when none of them had ever heard of him or the show, he stood up and said that one of them would become the most famous person, the American Idol. The prediction didn't fall flat, because the show caught on (thanks, Kelly Clarkson!). Yet a few minutes later in the program, he says that he feared the show would be a failure and that he'd be kicked out of the country. I don't know if that's false modesty or not, but it's an interesting contrast that he might have felt that anxiety even when putting on a blustery face for the contestants. (Also, I had totally forgotten that he had more or at least wilder hair then - which was really weird to see, and a strange reminder of how long ago the show debuted. Eight years, egads!) Following a video tribute medley to the tune of "My Way," he said, "I've had the best 10 years of my life, so I genuinely mean this: I'm going to miss you. Thank you." The feeling is likewise, buddy.

Alas, all of this transpired on a night that also named probably the least deserving winner in the show's history, and I say that having watched all of them. To paraphrase Taylor Hicks' winner's single, THAT DID NOT MAKE ME PROUD. And, in fact, speaking of the gray-haired leader of the Soul Patrol: He may have turned into a partially-unwarranted punch line at this point, but anyone who watched Season Five could I think at least understand why and how he won (I know I did). The Davids and Kris and Adam last year were also better matched. By contrast, I have a much harder time explaining Lee's win, except by resorting to the "a lot of ladies who voted, especially tweens, just didn't care that Crystal was objectively way better." I don't want to unfairly tar my fellow female viewers with too broad a brush, but 50 years of pop history proves that musical merit is not always the first thing on early-teen audiences' minds. I'm not sure how this tide didn't play as much of a factor in the show's earlier seasons - maybe the voting audience was broader, or more diverse? - but it sure seems to have taken hold the last three years, when Crystal has been the only girl in any top two, and all of the winners have been not-totally-dissimilar, nonthreatening, guitar-strumming white guys (no disrespect to the very talented David Cook and Kris Allen, mind you). While two might not be a pattern, three straight winners from this vein is a trend, and one the show ought to confront if it moves forward - because it won't be much of a competition if girls have no chance of winning. (Incidentally, voting and eliminations are something the X Factor handles differently, to perhaps guard against this.)

That said, I think the judges also bear some responsibility for so strongly promoting the "Lee is growing so well!" narrative. Look, he stood out from the start, albeit in a very weak season, had some good performances, and seemed like a very nice guy. But he routinely struggled with pitch problems, had trouble articulating himself and didn't improve musically or confidence-wise nearly as much as the judges let on - which Tuesday's face-to-face battle with Crystal made abundantly clear. That led the judges to eat their words, but by that point, the Lee train had already left the station and was steaming down the tracks - apparently with momentum that even a seriously subpar final performance night couldn't halt. Though kind of embarrassing, it's also kind of a fitting and telling result - that such a weak season wouldn't even end with the best person winning. Anyway, it's all in the books now, and both Crystal and Lee will have to ply their trade on the open market. Will either become the next Kelly or Carrie? Highly unlikely. But the gracious, talented Crystal should be fine regardless, while Lee should be able to move ahead with true confidence, in the wake of his endearingly disbelieving reaction when the results were announced.

As for the rest of the night, well, it wasn't exactly as much of a big ol' celebration of the year that was - at least, it didn't seem to have that feel, unlike other finale nights, including last year's - because, well, come on. Was the year that was really worth celebrating? (Unsurprisingly, Seacrest mentioned during the show that they're already offering discounted tickets for the upcoming Idol tour. See you there - not!) Instead, there were painful reminders of missed opportunities - a Didi Benami sighting, for instance, and the prematurely booted Janell Wheeler serving as the correspondent at Crystal Central in Toledo - and a lineup of mostly paleolithic guest artists that didn't exactly constitute a major argument in favor of the show's relevance. Oh, what could have been! And, for that matter, what will be? A question for another time, I suppose. Here's how it unfolded:

The rundown:

  • "School's Out," the top 12 (dressed like schoolboys and schoolgirls, Hogwarts-style!), Orianthi, Alice Cooper and some backup folks in zombie makeup. (Unintentionally hilarious moment: Lee not dancing, even amid some weak attempted choreography.)
  • Farewell to Simon, segment one
  • "Trust," Kris Allen :-)
  • "How Deep Is Your Love," Siobhan, Aaron and the Bee Gees (Barry and Robin Gibb).
  • "Takin' It To The Streets," Michael Lynche and Michael McDonald. (Potential highlight: When Big Mike introduced McDonald and McDonald, unlike the other performers, reciprocated, saying, "Big Mike Lynche, everybody!" Finally, a nearby person Lynche probably couldn't pick up - sorry, Seacrest.)
  • "Simon Says," Dane Cook, backed by a bunch of infamously terrible former contestants. Well, he tried, but let's face it: Simon's words are better in the original form, which is why the show could be in trouble without them. 
  • "Beautiful/Fighter," female finalists, doing quite the fine job, leading into...
  • "You Lost Me," Christina Aguilera, performing her new single, a ballad that gives me concern about her new album. Also, she forgot her pants, apparently? Because let's be real, tights with sparkles on the front of them? Not pants. But, on the bright side, at least we were spared a "Genie in a Bottle" duet with Andrew Garcia. 
  • Ricky Gervais, via satellite, with a mildly diverting (and, definitely, better-than-Dane Cook, but, um) tribute to Simon.  
  • "I Can't Go For That/Maneater," male finalists, before being joined by Hall & Oates for "You Make My Dreams." Aaron Kelly on "Maneater"? Oooof.
  • "Ironic," Crystal, followed by a duet to "You Oughta Know" with Alanis Morrisette. She rocks this, but ha, they changed the line "would she go down on you in a theater?" to "would she go down with you to the theater?" Family-friendly zone ahoy! They trade lines, then sing together, with satisfying results. (Then again, "Jagged Little Pill" was the first non-New Kids on the Block album I ever owned, so...)
  • "Undo It," Carrie Underwood, wearing an uber-tight black and silver outfit, singing a kicky track co-written by Kara. Her stage presence and vocal confidence has improved so much since she was on the show!
  • Kris Allen presents the top two with new Ford Fiestas, featuring their designs from earlier in the season. They all seem a little embarrassed to be there. And...we get a recap of the year's Ford commercials.
  • "Every Rose Has Its Thorn," Casey James with Bret Michaels. So, this actually sounded really good - it's like Casey could finally relax, be himself and jam, with help from a fellow rocker with long blond hair (although it didn't seem like they even introduced Michaels, did they?). And is it just me, or is the Poison frontman showing up everywhere now that he's apparently defied death, surviving a massive brain hemorrhage? Winning the "Celebrity Apprentice" on Sunday, showing up on the Idol stage Wednesday! He wasn't on "Dancing With the Stars" or "the Biggest Loser," too, was he?
  • "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?/medley/25 or 6 to 4," Lee DeWyze and Chicago. Yes, Lee is from Chicago, so I see that connection - but otherwise I'm not as sure about this pairing, as cool as it was to see the trombone, sax and trumpet onstage (ok, yes, we played this in high school jazz band, but, still). Anyway: Boy, did this go off key, with some wheezy, laconic, underenunciated moments. 
  • Farewell to Simon, yet another installment
  • "Pants on the Ground," General Larry Platt with - oh NO - William Hung joining him at the end. This was not as good as the original, but damn, General Larry has some serious dance moves for a dude in his 60s. The breakout hit of Season Nine, which says a lot.
  • Paula Abdul's recollections of Simon: "Simon was loud and proud, telling everyone how they sucked," she says, explaining her first day of work as an "Idol" judge. Ha, and that's why he was AWESOME! As I watch, though, I wonder: How is she this lucid talking about the past? Where was this Paula on the show? She then comes out onstage in a hot pink strapless minidress with a puffy skirt, and it is around this point that she starts performing as if she's at a roast, which I guess she sort of is? She praises Simon. She cracks jokes. She walks around the stage. But why are we here, again? Is this still a finale? Is someone supposed to win tonight? As she goes on, she begins to seem a bit more like her loopy self. She also notes that "AI" will not be the same without Simon, "but it will go on." She begins to seem a bit more like her loopy self. She says that American Idol will not be the same without Simon, "but it will go on." Well, maybe? This leads into more clips of Simon, including a gem of a rejected aspirant proclaiming, "That guy can shove it!" Which leads into - well, not immediately -
  • "Together We Are One," a ballad that brings all of the previous Idol winners (Kelly! Ruben! etc!) (except David Cook, alas, for reasons that went unexplained) together to sing, joined later by a huge line of previous finalists (Allison Iraheta, Bo Bice, Kimberly Caldwell, Elliott Yamin, Justin Guarini, Constantine Maroulis, Michael Johns - the list goes way on, though with no Daughtry or Jennifer Hudson, from what I could tell). I wasn't familiar with the song and at first feared it was the substitute for the lame Idol coronation single, but no, it's actually a British-Australian track from 2006 that was also performed as a group number during top five week in season five. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) 
  • Aaaaand it's at this point that the night just turns into a Simon Cowell tribute hour, not that I blame them. He comes up on stage and says that though people ask him who will replace him, and who will be the next judge, "The truth is, you guys are the judge of this show, and you've done an incredible job over the years." See: For all of the caricaturing, he was never a villain - just a class act who totally knew what he was doing. 
  • "Nasty" (!) and other songs, Janet Jackson. Though she may not have been singing entirely live, judging by the disparity between her spoken and sung parts, she did sport a fierce short haircut and perform amid green lasers galore. And while I cannot explain why she was performing here in 2010, in the Slot Previously Held By Prince, I suppose I will take her '80s gems when I can get them.
  • Montage of Crystal and Lee, starting from their auditions in Chicago. In case we did not get the point of their "journeys," words like "Ordinary people, ordinary lives" flash across the screen.
  • "With a Little Help From My Friends," Crystal, Lee and Joe Cocker. Yes, this is the song that starts, "What would you do if I sang out of tune?" Well, if you're a Lee voter, disregard that and vote for like crazy for your guy anyway? Ha, I kid. Anyway, Crystal looked like she was having a total blast during this one, and she again outsung Lee. While Cocker was a bit rough - I mean, not in his traditional, that's-just-his-voice way, but in a "he's straining more now than in the past" fashion - one cannot dispute Crystal's label for him, which is "living legend."
  • Results.
  • "Beautiful Day," Lee. Despite the fact he's choked up, he actually sings it better than he did Tuesday night - before being abruptly cut off, that is. Cue the news -and the hand-wringing, and the speculation.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Season nine leaves a Crystal-clear choice

On a show that tends to reward contestants who "grow," Lee DeWyze had the momentum heading into Tuesday's "American Idol" season nine performance finale. But Crystal Bowersox brought something far more important: Unbridled talent, with both the skills and, yes, the ambition to carry the night. By the time the evening was through, viewers had witnessed a Crystal eclipse, buoyed by superior personality, confidence, musicality, pitch, phrasing and the factor that's arguably hardest to pin down, but easiest to recognize when you see it - heart.

After the judges buried Lee with praise last week, I still figured anything could happen - neither contestant seemed an overwhelming, easy favorite, offering hope that season nine, for all its disappointments, might at least conclude interestingly. But, I also suspected that, as much as I wanted both contestants to bring their A games, top two night would offer little middle ground. Either the Chicago paint salesman would triumphantly barrel across the finish line, or the Ohio mom would roar back and knock it out of the park, something she'd shown herself capable of all season. Well, chalk one up for the second option, because she totally rose to the occasion, even as the producers handed Lee just as many chances to do the same. Lee lacked spark compared to Crystal, and seeing only the two of them facing off made the contrast and disparity starker. While Lee has an appealing, raspy tone, he continued to struggle with pitch and, to an extent, confidence, while Crystal happily belted out incredible notes. Most of the night, the sound mix also seemed a bit off, with arrangements threatening to overwhelm the contestants' singing. To be fair, though, Crystal showed Tuesday that she wasn't just better than Lee, she was better than everyone all year. For that, she deserves to win. But will she? I'm not as certain.

Even though Lee didn't measure up to that high standard, the night overall was still, frankly, a lot better than anyone had any right to expect, with several non-intrusive hat tips to the departing Simon Cowell and a shockingly low schlock factor helped immensely by the surprising lack of an original winner's single. Instead, Crystal and Lee both performed covers of non-crappy, relatively recent, uplifting-without-being-maudlin songs. This, from the show that just last year brought us poor Kris and Adam attempting "No Boundaries"? From the show that's unleashed "Inside Your Heaven," "A Moment Like This," "Do I Make You Proud" and - well, I needn't go on. Suffice it to say, this shift dramatically lowered the cheese content, even if it was scarily un-Idol-like. As much of an improvement as both songs were musically, part of me longed for Lee and Crystal to have to run the gauntlet that the mighty Idols before them also faced down, tackling the dreck head-on - it's like, what's "American Idol" without the terrible original song to ridicule? That said, I get why the producers opted to dump it after nine seasons: The winner's singles rarely had any long-term impact, musically or commercially, anyway, nor did they ever really speak to the type of album a contestant would make. So why not sub in a cover?

At the top of the show,  I couldn't have been the only one thinking, "Surely, some of these people must have been better than a bunch of the finalists," as photos of rejected hopefuls from auditions flashed on the screen. Still, at least the producers didn't portray Lee and Crystal as boxers, a la the Battle of the Davids two years ago. Helpfully, Seacrest informed us that, "Both are here to win it," and assured us, less than reassuringly, that the judges would guide us along the way. In keeping with tradition, Randy booed Simon after his introduction, although perhaps this night, he was booing because the show's most important stalwart is about to leave the panel after nine seasons. (At least, that's why I'd be booing.) Also in keeping with tradition, Cowell dressed up for the occasion, with a jacket and semi-unbuttoned button-down shirt instead of the usual v-neck t-shirt.

Cutting to shots of Lee and Crystal walking down the looong Nokia Theatre aisles, Crystal seemed jauntier and more excited, while Lee took more of a languid stroll. "This is a lot of people!" Crystal exclaimed once onstage. Girl, not nearly as many as are watching at home! Anyway, having won the coin toss, she elected to go second - who wouldn't? - and so it began: 

Round one, contestants' favorite from this season: 
Simon & Garfunkel's "The Boxer" was the right choice for Lee - a song he performed long enough ago that it didn't seem repetitive, yet one that remained resonant and a good fit vocally. He was possibly more in tune this time than he had been the first time around, but if it was more polished, it wasn't quite as emotional, either. The judges urged him to be more energetic and exciting. "That was a kiss on the cheeks when I wanted a kiss on the lips," Simon said, hastening to add, "Not from you." Oh, how we'll miss those bons mots!
To the surprise of no one, meanwhile, Crystal revisited Janis Joplin's "Me and Bobby McGee," a nonetheless savvy choice that reminded viewers why they liked her in the first place - and why she'd stood out since the year's early rounds. (Also, seriously, how cute were those pictures of lil' guitar-playing, braces-wearing Crystal? Of course her first gig was in a mall coffee shop, playing the same 10 songs as people came and went.) Standing behind her familiar mic stand, with an acoustic guitar in hand, she laid down her template for the night - singing confidently, in fine voice, varying phrasing and dynamics and flashing happiness and engagement. This prompted heaps of judges' praise: "You are just so compelling on stage," Ellen said.

Round two, executive producer Simon Fuller's choice:
Fuller handed Lee a prime filet mignon of a song with R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts," but alas, the paint salesman proceeded to serve it up at low temperature with little to no seasoning - starting off disappointingly samey, plagued by the unbalanced mix, with a big backing chorus then inexplicably entering the proceedings. Yet ultimately, it didn't build or amount to much. The judges observed the same, with Ellen noting that every time he seemed to be getting into it, he'd pull back. Simon rightfully commended the song choice, but observed that Lee went off the melody early on - and cautioned him to rein in his nerves and recognize the importance of the night's show. "I want a 10 out of 10," he said, "because you're capable of it."
Meanwhile, Crystal got stuck with the package of 80-percent-lean ground beef that is Alannah Myles' "Black Velvet," a song that has been performed - mostly poorly - on "Idol" so many times that the mere mention of it induces grimaces and cries of "Why?!" (Simon, it transpired, had the same reaction.) But while not a particularly original or relevant pick, she managed to make it sizzle. The song certainly suited her voice, and darned if she didn't improve on the overdone original, rocking it up and sprinkling in some giant notes. Though she sounded to me to go a bit off key at the end, the overall ferociousness of the performance was pretty undeniable. "MamaSox is in it to win it! That was hot!" Randy enthused. Kara praised her for giving her all tonight. Simon, meanwhile, articulated the thoughts of millions: "I had a little bit of a problem, because I'm almost allergic to that song, I've heard so many people murder it in auditions," he said. "But I have to tell you, you took that song and you absolutely nailed it."

As the commercials struck up following this semi-unexpected turn of events - that is, Crystal's ongoing dominance and her ability to render "Black Velvet" palatable - I then wrote in my notebook, "OH GOD, THE WINNERS' SINGLE." I tell you, I was filled with dread. BUT NO! A twist awaited!

Round three, the winner's single:
Otherwise known as, "When things got more interesting." When Seacrest unassumingly announced that Lee would be performing "Beautiful Day," I immediately thought, "What, no way would they give him a song with that name, not with the U2 song already out there!" But lo and behold, it WAS the U2 song - and so, with little fanfare, it turned out that the show had shifted away from the original winners' singles after nine seasons.
Anyway, this was Lee's final chance to make an impression, and honestly, despite Simon telling him he made the most of it, he kind of blew it. It wasn't an unsuitable choice, but he did nothing with it, with pitch that was painfully weird and a bit flat at times and was, frankly, a bit drowned out by the arrangement, as the judges later noted. Lee's voice isn't as naturally soaring as Bono's, and it appeared he initially struggled to compensate, before digging into the song more at the end, with stronger and more sustained vocals. This prompted plenty of applause, but tepid endorsements from the judges, who at this point had clearly recognized the smackdown Crystal was delivering - Kara even broke out the ol' "You deserve to be here" line. Simon credited Lee for being a nice person throughout and referenced his journey from paint-store clerk to Member of the Top Two, remarking, "This is what this show is about." But seriously, isn't Crystal's path also what the show is all about - I mean, she was literally playing on subway platforms before trying out.
I feared what Crystal might end up with, but as it turned out, I shouldn't have worried, because she returned with Patty Griffin's "Up to the Mountain," a moving, modern folk-soul song also performed beautifully by Kelly Clarkson on the 2007 "Idol Gives Back," accompanied by Jeff Beck. (Honestly, it was awesome: Check it out yourself on YouTube.) Clarkson is probably the former contestant most comparable to Crystal, at least in voice if not in terms of potential pop-star malleability, so it was a fitting choice in that regard. Distressingly, a Google search revealed that Cowell protege Susan Boyle also included a version of it on her debut album - one that's way too cold and stiff for an emotional song, inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.
Astonishingly, the song was not only genuinely - as opposed to sappily - inspirational, but actually kind of subtle. Playing her acoustic guitar, wearing a lovely diamond-y necklace and backed by an understated chorus, Crystal emoted her heart out on the song, standing and delivering a huge note, but then proceeding to choke up and finish softly. This feeling spread to the judges, too - Randy appeared to have grown teary-eyed, which was a rare sight (he's going all Paula on us!), and he paused a moment before saying, "This is what this show is about - an amazing performance by an amazing singer." Ellen rightfully praised Crystal's voice, while Kara said Crystal let down her walls and invested in the performance. At that point Crystal, somewhat hilariously interrupted - I mean dude, they were in the middle of majorly complimenting you! - to thank Simon for his criticism, before getting lost, wandering a bit and hitting the cul-de-sac of her remarks by saying, "Good luck on your future endeavors," which sounds a lot like a letter telling you you've been rejected from a job or from college. Once The Only Judge That Matters got a word in edgewise, he called Crystal's take "By far the best performance and the best song of the night." And, he added, since this was going to be the last criticism he was ever going to give on the show, "That was outstanding."
When Seacrest asked Crystal how she felt, she said, "I'm beside myself - actually, I'm beside Ryan Seacrest," which, I mean, HA. She then spoke of her family, her dreams and concluded, "I'm ready for anything." After that, she should be: She took advantage of the opportunity she had, and she didn't hold back. In an interesting full-circle moment, the show then concluded with Will Young, the winner of the original, British "Pop Idol" that started the whole franchise, singing this year's exit song, "Leave Right Now."

Rationally, empirically, it's clear that Crystal was the best. Even if Lee "wins," she'll always have that - and, one has to think, a music career, no matter what. But I also wonder, especially in a lackluster season like this one, who's even invested enough to really get passionate about the outcome (and, accordingly, vote)? How, for that matter, will the "teen girl" vote that's tipped the Idol scales toward male winners lately play out?

It's weird, because Idol viewers know, logically, that runners-up can succeed just as much as the official winners. But at the same time, what is the point of the show if you don't root for and want the best person to win? That's sort of how I feel about this - I know Crystal will be ok regardless of the outcome and might even be better off as the runner-up, but this being a singing competition, she deserves the crown. Then again, in a pop landscape that's far more competitive and vast than whatever exists in the Idol bubble, will it make a difference anyway? You don't have to look back that far to find out: Though I was really happy to see both Kris Allen and Adam Lambert in last year's final, I really wanted Adam to win. He didn't, and while plenty of Adam fans (ok, including this one) initially reeled at the result, a year later, it doesn't really bother me. He'd proven his talent, he still got his chance and he's working to make the best of it. And if this year's duo is deserving, no matter how the results shake out, they'll get the same opportunity, and take it from there.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It's top three day, with plenty of Lee-way

According to my calendar, the current "American Idol" season still has one week left to go - which leaves me confused after Tuesday's show, because I think I just witnessed a coronation. Yes, that's supposed to happen in the finale, not on top three night, but since when have the "AI" powers that be shied away from a little - or, you know, a lot of - blatant manipulation? Certainly not last evening, when they hawked a very special storyline known as "Lee DeWyze: He Can Really Win This Thing!" within an inch of its gravelly-voiced, self-effacing life. In other words: Lee held up his end of the bargain enough - by keeping himself together and performing decently - that he's totally going to be around next week. And might - well, you know, win this thing.  

Does he deserve to? I'm not as sure about that; Lee might have the momentum, but Crystal is still the cream of this crop. But if Casey's devotees deluge the phone lines tonight, she may not even make it to next week's showdown (or, perhaps more appropriately, welterweight bout). Anyway, let us not get ahead of ourselves: We only have one more week to hear Randy boo Simon at the start of the show. And, for that matter, we only have one more week in which to potentially hear a relatively non-manufactured blockbuster performance. Chances of the latter are, I fear, not encouraging.

All season long, the judges have been champing at the bit to extract a "Moment" (TM) from this threadbare group of finalists, about to pop a vein as they will themselves to think "Why won't someone just have a moment already! Auuuugh!" Alas, the contestants just wouldn't oblige. So it figures that this week, when the judges at last had some power - to pick one of the two songs each contestant would perform, with the contestants choosing the other - they'd use it to create the ideal circumstances for, particularly, their current favored son, Lee, to have one now. The heavy-handed message: You wanted yourselves a moment? You got yourselves a moment!

Said moment came at (of course!) the end of the show, when Lee performed the tune Simon selected for him: Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Let me stipulate for the record that "Hallelujah" is an incredible song, not to mention a moving and potentially haunting one, especially as regards Jeff Buckley's iconic, deservedly famous cover. But especially lately, it's also become a bit overdone - an easy, emotionally manipulative crutch to reach for every time you want to evoke that mournful, elegaic feeling, a hipper equivalent of trotting out "Yesterday" or "I Will Always Love You" or "Unchained Melody." I mean, for goodness' sakes, Tim Freakin' Urban sang it earlier this very season, and Jason Castro also performed it with about 75 percent less bombast and 50 percent more emotional connection during Season Seven. Another of Simon Cowell's discoveries, Alexandra Burke, the 2008 winner of Britain's "X-Factor," released a version of it as her debut single. I heard Bon Jovi cover it when he performed in Charlotte last month. The list goes on and on. But the key to nailing the song isn't in the bombast. It's about infusing it with feeling. More on that later.

At the end of the show, Seacrest exhorted viewers to vote, saying, "Don't lose the contestant you've invested in all season!" But isn't that the problem with this season, which might as well be called "Somnambulant Idol"? I mean, has anyone, including the contestants, really invested in it? The remaining three finalists - Casey James, Crystal Bowersox and DeWyze - are three people who look like they need to be poked, prodded and otherwise forced into mustering up the ambition to win (so, in other words, the polar opposites of the audacious Adam Lambert). I'm not talking about modesty - Kris Allen was extremely humble, but when he stepped on the stage every week, he went for it, and audiences responded. Most of the times this year's top three have shown us who they are and what they want to be, it's been a bar-band singer, a member of the inaugural Lilith Fair tour and one of those interchangeable Nickelback-y dudes on 106.5 The End - none of which are all that relevant to the current pop landscape. Lee is perhaps the closest, but does he really do anything that Chris Daughtry didn't do better four years ago? He's a nice guy, but can come up a little short in musical savvy; that said, it sure seems that Simon looks at him and sees dollar signs. (I could see Crystal, honestly, carving more of a place for herself, if not necessarily on Top 40 radio.)

At any rate, to the setlist, as it was:

Casey: The tall Texan says he picked singer-songwriter Eric Hutchinson's "Ok, It's Alright With Me" because it's "a good representation of me as an artist." This turns out to be true, unfortunately: It's a midtempo acoustic pop song most people have never heard of, performed in the style of something you'd flip by on the radio dial, which is kind of perfectly Casey. (Degrees of Idol separation, by the way: Hutchinson has opened for Kelly Clarkson). His voice is fine, the style suits him, but it just isn't enough - and frankly, it hasn't been all season, with a few exceptions. But gee, standing there on stage, he sure is pretty. "I'm just glad to be here," he says, but the judges are displeased. "If you were having dinner, that's the salad," Simon says, adding that the song choice left no lasting effect on the most important night of Casey's life. "But," he said, "you sounded good." Decent and boring at once? The story of Casey's season, people!
Casey's judges' pick was John Mayer's "Daughters," selected by Kara and Randy. One of the least-heinous Mayer songs, this was actually a good fit for Casey, but I was left unclear about what the arrangement was going for - for some reason, it sounded like it had less guitar than the original, even though those type of bluesy guitar lines play precisely to Casey's strengths. "Every artist needs to know their audience, and your audience is women and girls," Kara informed Casey. That seemed to disappoint him - surely, he wants to rock it out for dudes, too! Not with this song, though, a languid paean to the importance of treating girls right. I am not sure the key worked for him, however, and he seemed uncertain, almost taking the already-subtle song down another notch, underenunciating his words at the beginning and finishing a bit weakly. That said, it showed his usually appealing sensitive side and was certainly an improvement on his first outing. "This fit you like a glove," Randy said, hilariously, because he picked it. But Simon labeled it a bit of a lazy arrangement, saying that Casey needed a bigger vocal moment on a night like this.

Crystal: Look, Crystal is my favorite finalist this year. But my issue with her is that she has not really ever picked anything surprising. She's excellent at what she does, but she hasn't ventured outside her comfort zone to put a twist on an unexpected song - a point that her selection Tuesday proved precisely. Melissa Etheridge's "Come to My Window" is exactly what you'd expect Crystal to choose. "It's always been one of my favorites, and it's a song about passion and love," she says. And I get that - that's defensible. As Simon later observes, admiringly, she's stayed true to who she is all season long and hasn't compromised herself as an artist. Sometimes, that works; others, it's like, you have this opportunity and use it on this? Then again, she hasn't really been challenged very much, has she? It's not like there are other contestants pushing her to go above and beyond.
Her stated goal with the Etheridge song was "to have fun." (Ugh, are we still on that?) "And get votes?" Seacrest asked gamely. "To have fun and get votes," she more repeats than reiterates. But a bad arrangement overpowers her, and she veers into some sharpish, nervous notes. Her phrasing, usually her best asset, is intact, and she does finish strong.
Ellen's pick, "Maybe I'm Amazed," by Paul McCartney, kind of baffled me - it's repetitive and features the line, "Baby I'm a lonely man," which doesn't really seem to embody Crystal. But I appreciated the rookie judge's motivation in picking the song: "I just wanted her to surprise people," Ellen said. And indeed, it seemed Crystal did mostly succeed at that, laying down some ferocious vocals and basically trying to throw the whole 'Sox at it, going without her guitar and displaying personality. To me, it nonetheless seemed like a waste of Crystal, frankly, but Kara said it showed off new parts of her voice. "That was terrific," Simon said, after confessing he was initially skeptical of the song choice, and even though his crush on Crystal appears to be waning. Randy, meanwhile, returned to a familiar well, shouting, "America, we got somebody else in it to win it!" Now, let's just hope she's still in it next week.

Lee: Lee finished the night riding high, and why shouldn't he have, performing in the pimp slot with the pimp song? But he also started strong, with a far savvier song choice than either of his fellow contestants made: Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man," which is 100 percent suited for his voice - so much so, in fact, that his version in a way ended up sounding like a slightly more tentative version of the recent cover by Shinedown, a band with a similar singer. However, both they and Skynyrd performed it more deliberately than Lee, who sped it up a bit and in doing so breezed past some of the deliberativeness that gives the song its power. To my ears, he also hit some sharp notes and whiffed a little on the big note, too.
Regardless, the powers that be were pushing the Lee narrative from the start of the evening, with Seacrest saying he'd returned from his rapturously received trip home to Chicago "a different guy." I sensed a bit more spring to his step and sparkle in his eye, but he still seemed to me pretty much the same shy dude we met weeks ago, with only moderately improved stage presence.
The judges called round one for him, but that was nothing compared to the avalanche o' praise they unleashed in round two - starting even before Lee sang, with Simon explaining that he picked "Hallelujah" because "This is his night, (a) big, big, night for him," and because though we'd heard the song, we hadn't heard it like Lee could do it, and that it would show the kind of artist he could be. This continued after the performance:

  • "I've been waiting all season to see who's going to throw down the real gauntlet and win the whole thing," Randy enthused, while then acknowledging the obvious, which is that Simon set it up perfectly for Lee. Really, it was like swinging at a T-ball stand when Crystal had to hit a curveball. 
  • "That was stunning, just stunning," Ellen said.
  • Kara used the phrase "incredible, epic moment" and made the frankly ludicrous claim that, "You were the heart of the show this season, and you just owned the entire night."  
  • Simon: "Tonight, with that performance, you proved you are a great singer, a fantastic person and I really hope for you you make it next week." (No, really?)

Lee, for his part, thanked Simon for the song, as well he should have. But shorn of the overheated rhetoric, how was it? Honestly, it was good. But it was not that good - though to be fair, hardly anything could be, in the face of such crazy praise. Though Lee was dressed as if headed to work an afternoon at the paint store, our cues to interpret this as a Major Moment arrived early, with strings swelling in the arrangement and a choir walking up behind him. But those flourishes aren't what make "Hallelujah" "Hallelujah" - you have to sing it with deep feeling and mean it, and I'm not sure Lee fully succeeded at that. The strings and horns and backup singers kind of dwarfed Lee's vocal efforts, and his voice faded in and out a little before finishing strong. "It's just one of those songs when you're playing it, it pulls everything out of you," he said.
Afterward, Simon grinned with approval as sustained applause rang out. Lee stood there a little dumbstruck, and clearly moved. But I'm not going to let myself fall prey to emotional manipulation - at least, not this week.

Who hits the trail? It really ought to be curtains for Casey, not just based on tonight's performances, or because a Crystal-Lee finale has seemed inevitable for weeks or because, honestly, they're the two that deserve it based on their entire seasons - although those are all valid reasons. No, it's also because a Crystal-Lee finale would at least be semi-suspenseful and relatively more interesting, in a season that has offered little in the way of intrigue.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Movie night gets two thumbs (mostly) down

The previews are over, you've turned your cell phone off, and now it's time for "Top Four Night, Q&A style!" Because if that lumbering ratings behemoth we call "American Idol" isn't going to spice up its themes, I'm at least going to try something a little different with mine:

Q: So, what did you really think of this year's "Songs of the Cinema" Top Four night?
A: Oh dear, that was an awfully long hour, wasn't it? In other words: I think I would have rather watched last year's lesser top four duet - that'd be Kris Allen and Danny Gokey with "Renegade" - on repeat for an hour straight than sit through that again. And, not to do this to you once more - because by now the fact that Season Nine doesn't quite stack up to Season Eight is sort of old hat, but - venture with me, if you will, back through the dusky sands of time to Top Four Night in 2009, which featured the following: Slash (!!!) as a mentor, Adam Lambert singing Led Zeppelin, Kris Allen rocking out to the Beatles and Allison Iraheta tearing into Janis Joplin. Even Danny Gokey's terrifying "Scream" - er, "Dream On," was at least memorably overreaching. And there was also one of the most awesome moments in an already-awesome season, the Adam/Allison "Slow Ride" duet. In fact, let me go watch my iTunes download of said duet right now, to cleanse my palate.

(Pause for two rocktacular minutes)

Ok, I'm back. And, alas, back to considering what we saw not last year, but last night. Instead of "ROCK NIGHT," we had "SCHLOCK NIGHT" - or, excuse me, I'm sorry, "Songs from the Movies." But really, what was this, the post-lunchtime shift on Boring 102.5 FM circa 1995, featuring all of your light adult favorites? Because instead of rock 'em sock 'em cinematic music action, we instead got Seal, Michael Jackson from his wispy-inspirational-ballads phase, Kenny Loggins, Bryan Adams and Simon and Garfunkel (who are legends, yes, but not as performed by Casey James, I'm afraid). In other words, we got served - served a big, steaming, stinky hunk of cheese, with only one brief, welcome respite.

Q: Surely you exaggerate. It couldn't have been that bad, could it?
A: "Everyone loves the movies," Seacrest said. No! Incorrect! Not on "American Idol," where "movies" for some reason usually translates to "treacle central," even though movies have provided plenty of great songs (say, "Purple Rain," to pull one out of a hat). I get that contestants are presented with a list of songs from which to pick, but they're not limited to that list - and the fact that this year's top four chose not to venture elsewhere when presented with some pretty sappy choices reflects poorly on them. "All of these faces came to this stage with a dream, but only one will see it realized," Seacrest also informed us at the top of the hour - but at this point, I'm wondering whether they can even articulate their dreams, outside of the legitimately talented but seemingly conflicted (as in, "Why am I on 'American Idol'?") Crystal.
In addition, the night brought the return of Jamie Foxx as a mentor, even though he just filled the same role on the show last year. He was again fine, but even so, bringing him back seemed to me to demonstrate laziness and a lack of originality. Not on Foxx's part, necessarily, I should note - kind of amusingly, he made up t-shirts reading "Contestant" and "Artist," and presented the remaining finalists with one or the other based on the quality of their mentoring-session performance.

Q: So Lee sang "Kiss From a Rose," and you know, that guy has a knack for putting a modern spin on all kinds of tunes. That sounds promising enough, right? 
A: Oh, it sounded promising - when all I'd heard was a clip of Lee rehearsing. (He earned an "artist" shirt, for the record.) Then the actual performance began, and he was both tentative and all over the place, singing too soft and off key, and only sparking during the chorus, with little conviction or meaning to any of it. Quoth Randy: "For me, you did nothing with that song. It was just ok." Simon labeled it "verging on karaoke" and said that Lee deserved the "contestant" t-shirt. For the first of what will be many times this evening, multiple judges question why the contestant picked the song. (Speaking of things that do not make sense, let us also point to Ellen's "critique" of "I think there could've been more done with the song. That said, you're so good!") Also: Lee needs a serious crash course from the Adam Lambert School of On-Stage Conversation because his attempted explanation of why he picked the song was waaaay empty, starting with "I felt good about it" and proceeding downhill from there.

Q: Did I hear this correctly? Did Mike really sing the song from "Free Willy"? 
A: He did, ladies and gentlemen, he did. It is otherwise known as Michael Jackson's "Will You Be There." Mike starts by saying that "A year ago, I made a goal to get into the top three." Overconfident much? Anyway, your first sign that things were probably not going to pan out was when Jamie Foxx tried to present Mike with the "contestant" shirt and he wouldn't accept it. But boy, he sure did prove he deserved it, because his rendition was irrelevant, something that even five background singers marching down the stairs behind him did not help. What it lacked in feeling, it definitely did not make up for in the vocal flourishes. "It didn't really take off anywhere," Randy said. Kara, meanwhile, did not feel goosebumps, and not just because she was dressed professionally, with sleeves. "What you did tonight, you could do in your sleep," she said. (Wait, Mike was awake during that performance?) And he didn't exactly get a ringing endorsement from Simon, either: "At least you gave it 100 percent and I kinda felt that you meant it," the Acerbic One said, before being cut off by music. (And for the record, Simon, "Free Willy" is a movie about a killer whale. Or orca. Whatever.)

Q: Ok, but you said there was one good part of the evening - I mean, aside from the fact that it ended, I presume? When did that crop up, pray tell?
A: The third performance in, when Lee and Crystal performed "Falling Slowly" from "Once" - the tender duet that took the Oscar for Best Song a few years ago. Standing facing each other, each with an acoustic guitar, Lee and Crystal's voices melded pleasingly, save for a few off notes, mostly from Lee. (As a side note, this also demonstrated Crystal's superior skill.) More importantly, they sang with heart and feeling, playing off of each other, interacting and building the emotion of the song into a joyous finish - and making for one of the coolest, most genuine moments of the entire season. The judges all agreed, and semi-hilariously, Kara praised it; she called it a risky and obscure choice when Kris Allen performed it last year, but apparently in the intervening time it's become an Idol standby? On that note, Kris was the first contestant to sing the song on the show, but bringing up his also-excellent rendition would have required the judges to, well, mention Kris Allen, and we all know how they feel about doing that. Anyway, as duets go, this was more Adam-and-Allison than the alternative: "Lee's my musical crush - I told him that in Chicago, when I was sitting next to him at auditions," Crystal joked.

Q: Casey performed "Mrs. Robinson"? Let me guess: The judges cracked wise - or, what they thought was wise - making cougar jokes at Kara's expense? 
A: Right you are, savvy viewer, because we couldn't have seen that coming FIVE HUNDRED MILES AWAY!

Q: Er, what about the performance? 
A: Playing with a mandolin was a cool touch, but otherwise, sitting in that awkward kind of swaying-audience-pit-area, Casey just kind of faded into the song, singing lackadaisically to an arrangement that was kind of musically same-y, robbing the song of its cleverness and spirit. I was left unsure of what he was trying to do, and why, for that matter, and the judges wondered the same thing. "Why did you choose that song?" Randy said. I mean, it wasn't completely abysmal, but what was the point? Said Simon: "I do think there've been some very strange song choices tonight, and that was one of them."

Q: Tell me, did you not die a little inside when Ryan Seacrest said, "Coming up, it's Crystal and the classic song from 'Caddyshack'"?
A: Yes. I cannot tell a lie, I was concerned. Of all the songs to pick, she goes for, well...I mean, even Seacrest was skeptical: "The judges have been tough on your song choice, and you're going with a song from 'Caddyshack'?"

Q: You're referring to "I'm Alright," by Kenny Loggins?
A: I know, cue the "Yacht Rock" references, right?

Q: "Yacht Rock"? Not so much in this case. Did you know that "I'm Alright" can actually be construed as a defiant, riot-grrl anthem?
A: Huh?

Q: Didn't you hear how Crystal tried to remake this grade-A slice of Velveeta - with a bit of a snarl, a bit of an angry edge, playing her guitar, with a percussionist standing nearby onstage and an almost-country guitar sound in the background? 
A: Oh, I heard that. She threw everything she had at that de-cheesing effort. It was, well, a little strange, to say the least. But unlike anyone else last night, she actually tried to make something of her song. She played it with feeling, and after a couple tentative weeks, her voice was most definitely back. So, I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. She's still miles above everyone else, and I hope the voters reward her for it. The judges said she took the song and made it better, but given the song in question, I am not sure how high a bar that was. "After that performance, you, Crystal, are back in the game," Simon proclaimed. Probably so - was she ever really out of it? - but it's so much easier to get back in the game when your opponents keep stumbling. And also, really, I can understand "Free Willy," but really, Simon Cowell has never seen "Caddyshack"? That sounds like a man card violation. I mean, even Crystal had seen "Caddyshack," dude.

Q: But on to something really important. Did you see Crystal's boyfriend's pants?
A: Yes, I did. They were kind of amazing - American flag print and all - although his ensemble, as a whole, made it look like he'd just arrived from volleyball practice.

Q: So the night ended there, right? 
A: Sadly, no - we still had one more duet to go, and it was a strange yet predictable one: Casey and Mike singing Bryan Adams' "Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman." It did feature fine guitar playing from Casey, but that couldn't compensate for the fact that he and Mike hardly sang together - they more switched off verses then actually dueted - and when they did, on the chorus, their voices didn't really mesh. The judges, nonetheless, praised it, noting along the way that the duets were far better than the solo performances tonight (indeed, they were, but again, only compared to the baffling standard set by said solo performances). Another salient judges' quip from this one: "As a matter of fact, yes, I have loved a woman," Ellen says. Hah.

Q: Whew, that's over. But who's going home?
A: If I had to guess, maybe Casey, though Mike probably deserves it just as much. So, yeah. Roll credits on THAT. Time to go listen to the new M.I.A. single.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Sinatra night starts spreadin' the snooze

Wow, how about that primary election, eh? Oh, wait, forgive me - my mind was just drifting away toward one of the many contests, horse races, etc. that contained more excitement and will to win than tonight's Frank Sinatra-themed installment of "American Idol." And that's despite Ol' Blue Eyes' impeccable songbook and supreme musical inspiration, and the super-personable, ultra-good-humored, warm and witty presence of a man who doesn't do too bad in the blue eyes department himself, Harry Connick Jr. But really, I ask: Does anyone really want to win this season? Because sometimes, that doesn't seem to clear at all - which is totally mind-boggling, given that the prize up for grabs goes a little bit beyond, oh, I don't know, a free Happy Meal.

Oftentimes, standards night - which is what this was, by any other name - brings out the surprising best in contestants, when they scrub up and tackle timeless tunes. One of Kelly Clarkson's defining performances, "Stuff Like That There," came during this theme, and I can still remember the joy of Clay Aiken's "Mack the Knife." But in true Season Nine fashion, this go-round was just kind of there, despite the judges' burst of enthusiasm toward the end of the evening. After several seasons with the likes of Blake Lewis, David Cook and, especially, Kris Allen and Adam Lambert, the consensus seemed to be that "Idol" had moved into an era where being able to rearrange a song would be more important, but this year's crop doesn't seem quite as adept, or able to adapt.

In the AI Olden Days, Top Five night meant 10 performances, but instead Tuesday brought us five, stretched out over the course of an hour, cushioned by heaps of Seacrestian Filler: Interviews, drawn-out introductions, so on, so forth. "We started with over 100,000," Seacrest noted to start the show - and I'm sorry, man, but I remain unconvinced that out of that giant number, these are the five best. Then - wait, what was that jovial New Orleans-accented voice saying, " American Idol"? Why, it was Connick, who not only mentored the contestants but arranged their songs and backed them onstage, playing piano, with a big band featuring some of his mates. ("You think Shania Twain was up in here doing this?" he joked in mock indignation, as he was pictured sitting in front of a music-filled computer screen. Well, I guess not, but I could more readily imagine her undertaking it than, oh, Miley Cyrus.) On the plus side, the Connick-led band was tight and bright, but his arranging the songs did for the most part corral the contestants into fairly traditional interpretations, on the off chance any of them would have wanted to attempt a more radical reinvention.

Seacrest, in his introduction, called Sinatra "the original American Idol" - which, ok, I can agree with - and notes that he made classic songs his own (see, kids, what happens when you Make Songs Your Own!), which, Host's Cheesy Voiceover Quotient aside, is also true. Sinatra was a master of style and interpretation, and he also carried tunes with ease and absolute confidence. To connect the legend with the present, his daughters Tina and Nancy were in the house, and they presented Simon, a major fan, with one of their father's monogrammed handkerchiefs. Did the performances drive him to use it? Find out: 

Aaron: Our first sign that Harry isn't taking his mentoring role with undue seriousness arrives when he greets lil' Aaron with a hearty "Big Mike!" This puts the high schooler at ease, and they discuss notes and how best to hold them in "Fly Me To The Moon." The big-band arrangement is excellently jazzy, but as usual, Aaron's lower register and quieter notes are shaky to start. Moreover, even though he's dressed up in a vest, tie, blue button-down shirt and tie, he just doesn't have any attitude, any panache - and he finishes with an overly twangy tone ill-suited to the song. While Randy says he thinks it was ok and Ellen makes the first of several jokes at Connick's expense, Kara says it isn't as strong as last week (which, seriously, was not that strong, either) and asks for more charisma. Simon cuts more directly to the chase: "I adore Frank, because he was the king of cool," Simon said. "If he was a lion, you were just a mouse." But then, he tacks on something along the lines of "People like you because you try hard." Granted, that isn't a given this year, but is that really the criteria we're using? You tried? I'd like him if he was, you know, better, but this is sub-sub-Archuleta territory. And at this point, I also wonder: What else can he really do? Rock? I mean, we saw how "Blue Suede Shoes" worked out. 

Casey: The oft-smiling Texan notes that he's listened to Connick his entire life, and the two seem to have a good rapport: "Don't screw it up," Harry jokes to Casey just before his performance. But alas, he did screw it up, with it being "Blue Skies." Singing without his guitar, Casey looked confused and even more unsure of how to move onstage, with his happy facial expression a little disconnected from the content of the song. That tentativeness carried over to his singing, too, which veered into all kinds of out-of-tune territory, despite a strong arrangement. This prompts an avalanche of criticism: "This was like, your worst performance for me, dude," (Guess Who), "That felt very stiff to me," (Ellen), "At least you held some notes...the bad thing is, you kinda sound like a lamb. You've gotta work on your vibrato. It's a little out of control," (Kara, perceptively and correctly), "You came over a bit awkward and embarrassed," (Simon). Connick says he thought Casey sang it better in rehearsal, though he acknowledges that doesn't help him now. Ack, he just can't seem to string two really good performances together - and I wonder if, after that, he'll get another shot. 

Crystal: Dressed in a floor-length black strapless gown, with her hair piled on head, the Ohio earth mother opted for "Summer Wind," for unexplained personal reasons (another message to the BF, perhaps?). "I still don't know why that song means something to her, but I want to hear it again," Connick complimented. It was, as she noted, a different style of singing for her - but I also think that she let that perception box her in, when really, she has more than enough talent to adapt to that or just about any other genre. If as thoroughly acoustic a dude as Kris Allen can make it through standards week, so can Crystal; while undoubtedly the most talented contestant this year, she has yet to pick anything really unexpected or surprising, and I keep hoping that one week she'll break through and do just that.
Though another subtle performance that probably wasn't her best, her rendition Tuesday qualifies as an actual interpretation of a song, unlike those that preceded it. Starting softly at the beginning, she could have articulated her words more strongly, but she then built nicely into more powerful notes. Ellen said she wanted her to loosen up more; Kara really liked it and was the only judge to point out Crystal's phrasing, which was far above what anyone else offered all night, even if the rest of the song was more tenuous. (Sinatra, Kara notes, was a master at that.) Simon labels it "a little bit indulgent," and says he isn't sure if he would have picked that song for her. "I expect better," he says, and indeed I think he's right - she has more in her, and needs to seize opportunities and choose the songs that serve her best, not just for sentimental reasons.

(After an interminable string of commercials, and a big yawn) Mike: Harry's skillful arrangement and keen advice to focus on just singing the song directly helped the brawn of the competition to one of his better performances with "The Way You Look Tonight," His vocals were fairly on-point, per usual, and his hammy, drama-king tendencies remained mostly in check, save in his appearance, which, well, let's just say consisted of a fedora and a three-piece suit that wouldn't have looked out of place in some kind of tommy gun-toting Al Capone Dinner Theater. Randy, in a typical display of overstatement, says Mike threw down the gauntlet tonight; Kara says he found the drama in the song; Simon says he listened to the advice and that it worked for him. But, ew, Mike then says this in response to a Seacrest question about how he felt about being onstage: "This is home up here." Dude, you're no Aaron, but don't make yourself too at home. 

Lee: Season Nine's Little Engine that could, Lee just needs to keep chugging along to the mental drumbeat of "I think I can, I think I can" - so say the judges, especially, who reach for the "Lee: Confidence!" storyline with the same regularity that soap opera writers trot out amnesia. That is, it neatly fits into the narrative - of contestants growing and progressing and being on a (groan) "journey" - that's AI's stock in trade. Even so, taken as a whole, Lee's "That's Life" was the best of the night, as the judges also noted, due in no small part to Lee's added comfort on stage.
"I like Lee DeWyze a lot. My wife thinks he's cute," Harry noted, hilariously. "And after meeting him, I think he looks like a new and improved version of me." Connick's advice on interpretation appears to pay off, as Lee performs with a new degree of looseness and confidence, maintaining the distinctness of his voice without sacrificing the song. He did seem to be slightly overwhelmed by the arrangement (with Connick on organ!) and still could have used a little more conviction in his words, and his pitch issues haven't disappeared (take, for instance, the last note). But do not expect the judges to bring that up: "Lee, do you think you can win?" Kara asks. Because gosh darn it, she thinks he can, she thinks he can. Simon praises Connick, saying that Harry helped bring out Lee's personality and confidence, and crediting Lee with giving it "110 percent" and delivering "the best performance of the night." Well, yes, on that relative scale - but let's not get ahead of ourselves here, crediting a state shot put champion with winning the Olympics.

Who's leavin' tomorrow: It should probably be Aaron, but might be Casey instead. Either deserves it over any of the other three, given the wide gulf between their outings and those of Lee, Crystal and Mike; I personally would prefer another week of Casey, but it's unclear whether he has the popularity to carry him to it.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Shania night impresses, a touch

With a discernible personality, brain and serious musical ability, Shania Twain is pretty much the complete package as a pop star. So, yeah, it was a fairly foregone conclusion that no one in this year's American Idol top six could live up to that standard, at least not yet, as they took a shot at an evening devoted to her songs. But oh, did they try - which is not a description that could have accurately applied to all performances in the show's previous weeks, I have to say (here's talking to you, Casey James).

The country-pop queen herself provided the mentoring. And, just as with her excellent stint as a guest judge at the Chicago auditions earlier this season, she proved refreshingly real (and goofy, and Canadian - that accent, eh?) - especially for someone who's spent a better part of the last decade living in quasi-seclusion in Switzerland. But, she's reemerging now, with plans for a show on Oprah's new TV network and, one must hope, a new album, eventually. "I feel responsible - they're all singing my songs!" she joked before the singing got underway. "I just didn't know what to expect from guys singing my songs," she cracked a few minutes later. "I was so disappointed I didn't hear 'Man! I Feel Like A Woman.'" Ha! Anyway, Siobhan and Crystal definitely tackled songs that only women could really pull off, but, more on that later.

Though Seacrest tried to imbue the proceedings with suspense at the top of the hour, intoning, "These six lives have been changed forever, but only one can take the title," I couldn't help but think, "And it's probably going to be Crystal!" (Even after tonight's semi-stumble.) And, dear me, he reminds us that we're only a month away from the finale? What an underwhelming season. But let us look on the bright side: At least, mercifully, Tim Urban is gone. Did we miss him? Hell to the no, people, hell to the no. To take a cue from Shania herself, man, I feel like - a beer? An ice cream sundae? A respite? On with the rundown:

Lee "We think he smiled": Shania, who first met Lee at his audition, advises him to slow down his guitar-strumming to let "You're Still The One" breathe, and start more slowly - which is sage counsel, because dude has a tendency to just barrel into a tune and soon after begin yelling the lyrics. Despite some seriously wonky notes at the beginning, this was a perfect choice - a really good song that holds up outside of Shania singing it, although NO, Randy, not "one of the greatest songs ever written." Lee uses it to showcase some sensitivity and a radio-ready sound, and possibly some smiling, although the judges couldn't reach a verdict on that front. "You were pulling some kinda weird faces," Simon observed. This also marked the first, but alas not the last, time that Ellen attempted to make a Shania Twain train-themed joke (get it, Twain, train) happen. 

"Big Mike" (and, btw, can Seacrest stop calling him this already? It's quite obvious that he's a large man, and it's not like there's some other Mike in the finals we're trying to distinguish him from): Segueing into this performance, Seacrest promotes the upcoming Idol tour by noting that "Big Mike" will be there - which, to be honest, for me for you, dawg, is not really going to make me want to attend, because I'm afraid I am kind of over Mike. "It Only Hurts When I Cry" was, I think, a strong enough choice of song, and Shania advises him to connect emotionally and not take for granted that his skilled voice alone will be enough. Though the judges think he achieved that, with both Ellen and Simon likening the rendition to Luther Vandross, he didn't seem to bring much to it, to me. As usual, his singing is technically fine, but he doesn't convince me overall. Simon picked up on that vibe a bit, too, noting: "I thought the performance was a little bit wet, as if you were in a musical acting out the words." He may be in danger again tomorrow, I suspect. 

Casey "taps into his inner crooner, next": In introduction, Casey says that he watched his previous performances and realized he didn't give anything new last week - and will therefore try to be different this week, after some frustratingly ordinary performances and his wake-up call appearance in the bottom two. Happily, he totally succeeds, although I don't quite understand how he didn't pick up on that sooner. "I think I'm more excited about this performance than I've been about any performance," he said. "It's a singing song." (YES, a singing song, in a SINGING COMPETITION. Maybe he can pick another one next week!) He chose "Don't," he said, "because it's amazingly beautiful," and indeed he makes it so, sitting behind the judges' table, playing only acoustic rhythm guitar and placing some much-needed focus on vocals. In every way, it's more than he's given in any previous week, except perhaps during Lennon/McCartney week's "Jealous Guy": More dynamics, more range, more emotion. Shania is enthused, the judges label it his best performance and Simon advises him to go give Shania a kiss, which he does. "We've got ourselves a competition!" proclaims Seacrest, in full-on hype man mode.

Crystal "takes on a Shania anthem": Well, kind of. I suspect Crystal would have kicked the stuffing out of "Man! I Feel Like A Woman," "I'm Gonna Getcha Good" or even "Forever and For Always," but instead she opts for an earlier Shania track - "No One Needs to Know." For a song with that title, though, she did a pretty good job sharing with millions of viewers the exact sentiment behind her choice: "Really, this song is a message to my boyfriend," she said. "I'm just dropping hints here or there. He'll man up one of these days." Translation, per Beyonce: Put a ring on it!
The laid-back, breezy, acoustic-inflected tune was probably her least savvy song selection of the season. The result was a lighter side of Crystal than we've seen, but a performance that did not surpass or transcend the original and was far from her best. Though certainly it's fine to, well, sound country on country night, there just wasn't much to dig into vocally, so instead she was left with some mumbly lyrical passages, trying to tell a story, and what Randy called "a Nickel Creek-style arrangement." The judges didn't exactly lavish praise upon her, but after weeks of Tim Urban, it's important to look at things on a relative basis: After weeks of excellence, she's earned a mulligan - past standouts, too, have had off weeks - is entitled to show a different side and ought to remain safe. If not, well, that'll show the judges for "saving Big Mike."
 "It's kind of impossible for you not to be good," Kara says, but Simon comes right out: "Shocker - we don't like Crystal this week," he says, likening her to a bad singer at a coffeehouse and citing what he viewed as a lack of conviction - despite her stated connection to the lyrical content. "Lack of conviction? I don't think so, he's right there," she says, pointing to - yes - her boyfriend, who is a bit bashful and wearing a Crystal Bowersox-themed t-shirt. She then defends herself using the patented "I had fun" technique and by saying, "It's not as big as the other performances, but bigger isn't always better." She then proceeds to turn red, blushing. 

"Seventeen-year-old Aaron Kelly": "You Got A Way" "suits him beautifully," Shania says. Well, yes: If any theme suited him, it'd be country-pop, which means this week delivers typical Aaron - a big ol' adult contemporary love ballad way outside his pay grade, featuring words like "dreams" and "believe." Per usual, his softer notes waver somewhat, but he then proceeds to compensate with a big finish. During the song, I was confused about who he was directing it to, but he makes that clear afterwards: It's for his mom, which made his decision to excise a reference to making love even wiser than it already seemed. The judges, for their part, were enthusiastic; "Tonight, you were like a different artist," Simon says, in the wake of several stumbling weeks. He calls the performance sincere, believable and the kind of record Aaron should make. Maybe, but it would never be the kind of record I'd willingly listen to.

Siobhan "takes on the record that was Shania's first number-one country hit, actually": That'd be "Any Man of Mine," and wow, is it a sassy mess, as indeed Siobhan herself often appears to be. On the plus side, it's the most energetic performance of the night, with the coolest arrangement, a kind of rockin' fiddle to-do. Shania says that the song is all about attitude, and the Glassblower provides that, too, starting the performance with promise, and an above-the-head, arm-wavin' hand clap. Quickly, though - at least to my ears - the song accelerates and Siobhan loses the plot a bit, semi-rushing through lyrics and losing her breath as she walks up and down the stage. Then, careeningly, she manages to rebottle lightning at the end, closing with a very un-Shania-like Siobhan Scream (TM). While not exactly what the song required, it did after several dreary weeks serve to remind people of Siobhan's appeal in the first place. The judges, hilariously, loved it. "Guess who's baaaack?" Kara said. "Siobhan!" Simon, more perceptively, liked it even though he isn't normally fond of country (which, to me, makes it even funnier that he was trying to get Katie Stevens to pursue the genre), but thought the end might have been a bit much: "It was almost as if you were giving birth up there." And with that, the night's labor was over.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

When inspiration strikes...out

For a theme intended to provide cheer, encouragement and that one last push we viewers all need to proceed on to greatness (and open our wallets for the "Idol Gives Back" telethon), American Idol's "Songs of Inspiration" night sure has a dispiritingly low musical success rate - ranking right up there with disco on the "Induces Grimaces" list, and inspiring more dread ("Not "I Believe I Can Fly" again!") than anything else. Sure enough, this year's version did little to damage that well-earned reputation.

Perhaps that's because, nine seasons in, the show has yet to fully comprehend that "inspiration" doesn't have to be so obvious - and that, in fact, it resides more in a powerful piece of art, well-executed, than in maudlin, cheesy, manufactured "uplift." But, sigh, I suppose that especially at this point, it'd be far too much to expect the Idol powers that be to hew to that standard in shaping a show. Situated in the "Idol" universe, then, it's up to individual contestants to determine their fates and pick the songs that say more than "A big diva first belted me out in the early 1990s!" Unsurprisingly, tonight demonstrated that that task is beyond the grasp of most of this year's remaining finalists, leaving a ratio that, while not 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, was probably more like "70 percent exasperation, and 30 percent Crystal and Lee."

Because the return of (yay!) "Glee" has forced "AI" into an hourlong time slot, tonight at least moved at a brisk clip, with none of that silly "Let us now introduce the judges by having them triumphantly walk down the stairs!" business. Alicia Keys served as a kind, wise mentor, providing a sprinkling of constructive comments (though, with the tight time frame, who knows if more fell to the cutting room floor), and for 50% more inspiration, Captain Sully of "Miracle on the Hudson" fame was in the audience, too, looking as upright and professional as ever, even in retirement. But enough of this prologue, and to the heart of the matter: Did the results inspire? Inspire people, that is, to do something other than turn off your TV and/or avoid watching "Idol Gives Back" tomorrow night (er, count me in the latter camp, by the way)? Read on:

Casey, "Don't Stop," Fleetwood Mac: Alicia Keys encourages Casey to connect with the song - familiar advice for this dude, by now, I've got to say - and says, "You don't want them to say, 'I love that song,' you want them to say, 'I love him.'" Well, I continue to like him, but love it still ain't after another consistent-but-not-very-memorable outing. Once more, the smiling Texan is in decent voice and fits in some decent guitar licks, but he doesn't use enough of the range he's shown ample signs of possessing, nor does he do much to the song. The result is about 50 percent bar cover band and 50 percent compelling, which works out to a big "So what?" That remains enough to cut it for now, but won't be all that much longer, one has to think. The judges, too, say they want more, and something special.
That being said: It completely rubbed me the wrong way to hear Simon criticize Casey's song choice, and that of at least one more later contestant (Mike), and possibly others, when he apparently picked it from a list the show's producers themselves provided. If you want contestants to sing better songs, perhaps offer better choices? Of course, as the next man up demonstrated, contestants don't have to be constrained by those predictable suggestions...

Lee, "The Boxer," Simon & Garfunkel: Dude deserves major points for an unorthodox song choice, which he says he heard in his parents' collection growing up. "Honestly, that song inspired me," Lee notes, in the midst of a fairly articulate explanation of his selection. (I know, right, a legitimate rationale for singing something? Where did THAT come from this season?!) Though he doesn't fully follow Keys' advice to not lose sight of what the song is about, under-enunciating the verses while devoting full power to the "la la" chorus, his voice again makes an impression, and the overall sense is that of a contestant who puts some thought into his choices. Ellen, I believe, calls it the best of night, which is kind of ridiculous and a slap in Casey's face, to boot, given that it's only the second performance; Simon agrees while acknowledging the silliness of that comparison, calling the rendition sincere and emotional.

Tim, "Better Days," Goo Goo Dolls: It took much longer than it should have for me to identify this song, so weak is Tim's voice compared to that of the Goos' Johnny Rzeznik. But then, Rzeznik sings with the kind of grit that conveys "I've lived enough to know what I'm singing about." In Tim's hands, the instrumentation remains relatively the same, but the words are pretty empty - more in tune than perhaps we would have expected weeks ago, and with a strong-enough finish, but still. Though I appreciate that he's now at least trying, the "A For Effort" train should have left the station long ago. "It just kinda laid there and sounded ok," lamented Randy, after slapping the "karaoke" label on the performance. Ellen, whose sense of food-related metaphor Tim apparently inspires like no other, compares him to a soup of the day - a soup that, this week, she didn't much like. (Last week it was tequila, so, uh, anyway...)

Aaron Kelly, "I Believe I Can Fly," by R. Kelly, no relation, as far as we know: Oh, of course this is a song Aaron has been singing since he was five years old - that is, for two-thirds of his brief and not-yet-adult life. He is 100 percent that kid belting it out at the school assembly while the rest of his classmates sit there, shooting glances. But wait! We later learn from Aaron that he indeed DID perform it at a school assembly, a preschool graduation ceremony. (Egads, nothing like THAT to make a person feel old!) Even so, why would he pick this song? He says he loves it, and we've learned by now that Aaron does not fear cliches, but does that lack of fear extend to Death Wish territory? At this point, an "emotional ballad" is Standard Operating Aaron - strong enough, a little bleaty at points, with big notes toward the end - but it all adds up to a big shrug of the shoulders. I mean, WHO wants to listen to that - one time, let alone again? Not Simon, if he'd heard it on the radio without knowing who Aaron was, he says. He also notes that knowing Aaron brought something to it, but there was far too much wrong here to withstand. Capt. Sully also has to endure this (although, who knows, maybe the theme resonates), probably stewing "Believe? Please, I KNOW I can fly!" the whole time. 

Siobhan, "When You Believe," Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston: What do you get when an AI contestant tackles not one, but TWO singers the Idol judges always warn people not to touch (well, except during Mariah week, thankyouverymuch David Cook)? "When Divas Collide," starring a little-known pretender to the throne! But seriously, I'm still trying to determine what led Siobhan to pick perhaps the only song that features the exalted Mariah and Whitney together (and to wear that butterfly-covered dress, but, another subject there). Yes, technically, there wasn't much to argue with: She was in tune, using proper dynamics, with excellent vocal control and soft, sustained notes. But why? The judges wondered, too, with Kara (!) delivering the most perceptive feedback: Based on Siobhan's responses of late, she says, "I kinda feel like I'd want to hang out with you more than I'd want to buy your record, because I still don't know who you are." Siobhan, in what's becoming a habit, replies that she picked the song because she liked it ("The meaning of it is why I'm here now"), is glad to have chance to be there to sing it and didn't want to be scared off by who had first done it. But picking a song only because you like it is not enough in this context; you can also do that in your shower, but this is for an audience, to whom you're trying to convey a sense of who you are and what you want to be. That, on the other hand, didn't convey anything other than Very Good Local Talent Show Entrant. Where did Fierce Siobhan go, or did we just imagine her?

Mike, "Hero," Chad Kroeger (Nickelback lead singer) and Josey Scott (Saliva lead singer): Get ready to roll your eyes, because Seacrest introduces Mike by dropping this bit of trivia: In the years leading up to his AI stint, Mike compiled a playbook of about 200 songs he'd pick from if he ever made the show. And now, he has chosen a song from that book! Alas, it is a song involving Nickelback, so let's hope he really makes it his own; Alicia credits him for going outside his comfort zone, while Mike says, "I really want this song to take flight." (Couldn't he ask Sully for tips?) The performance reminded me of the things I like most and least about him, with the welcome presence of his guitar and vocals that are, as usual, pretty on-point, but also a strange sense of bombast and self-confidence that verges on inflated self-regard, and a song choice that doesn't ultimately seem to say a whole lot. "That didn't quite gel for me," Simon says. 

Crystal, "People Get Ready," Curtis Mayfield/The Impressions: This civil rights-era anthem has already been covered repeatedly by numerous notables (U2, Eva Cassidy, even Keys herself) - and yet Crystal not only picked the song anyway, but, impressively, made none of that matter. The song choice in and of itself is to her credit and signals the higher level on which she's operating. She picked the song, she said, because she's grateful for everything in her life right now, and indeed her father was in the studio audience for the first time all season.
She followed through on that potential in her performance, using it to say something, musically and emotionally. Wearing a long black dress far fancier than her usual attire and using her mic stand from back home in Ohio, she performed for the first time sans instrument, and began a capella. Once the backup singers and fairly unhip arrangement chimed in, I wished she'd stayed that way, but she nonetheless delivered deeply felt vocals, tearing up at the end. Or, per Simon. "THAT was inspirational." And, as anyone with ears could tell, miles above anything that preceded it.
Added moment of Trademark Crystal Levity: When she reached for Seacrest's hanky and found it was taped together, prompting a shrug and a single, bemused word, "Hollywood."

Bonus song-selection guidance courtesy of this recap's special guest stars, my parents, who've been in town visiting and also took in last night's show:
My dad, on potential "inspirational" song choices: "An obvious one would be that one Bette Midler song."
Me, skeptically: "'Wind Beneath My Wings'?"
My dad: "Yeah, that one."
Me: "That'd be the one I wouldn't choose."

My mom, sitting on couch during a commercial break, beginning to sing: "When you walk through a storm..." Other lyrics follow.
Me: "Who sang that?"
My mom: "We sang it in Glee Club in high school."
(Further research indicates that, in fact, it's Rodgers & Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone," from "Carousel," a song covered by many more groups and singers than just my mom's high school glee club.)

Which contestant will Idol give back? Please, let it be Aaron, for committing the cardinal sin of "I Believe I Can Fly," although I'd be completely content with Tim leaving, too.