Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Idol's mad tea party

In the video for her debut solo single "What You Waiting For," Gwen Stefani ends up in a Alice In Wonderland-type universe. Tuesday, the No Doubt frontwoman and chart-topping r&b/pop/rock style icon fell down a rabbit hole into an even weirder world: American Idol. And hey, it even has its own Cheshire Cat! His name? Simon Cowell.

Unlike most "Idol" guests, Stefani came with a bonus: She's actually making successful records right now, and her career trajectory serves as a pretty admirable template for modern pop stardom. Though her "Idol" role was more reserved than that of, say, last week's hyper-ebullient guest coach Lulu, she still succeded just by being, well, herself: Sweet, but not irritating; hip and creative, but not aloof; chilled out, and still an enthusiastic Orange County girl at heart. Take her remarks to Haley, who stood before her in the rehearsal room wearing a weirdly Stefani-like outfit of a cropped camouflage jacket and cap. "She started out really great, but then she started doing this other kind of melody which I think is so unnecessary for the song." Or this sage, sage wisdom regarding Blake: "He needs to be really careful about where he chooses to do the beatboxing..." Amen to that!

The week's theme was far more nebulous, described to us only as "the artists and bands who inspired" Stefani, plus her own back catalog. Because Stefani's music draws largely on spirited '70s and '80s pop, rock and r&b, that held considerable, if strange, promise, and yet...it would have been helpful to know who those artists and bands actually were, so we'd, uh, have had a better idea of how Donna Summer, the Police and Cyndi Lauper ended up as part of the same "theme." As for the contestants, well, if, their, er, stuff wasn't totally b-a-n-a-n-a-s, it wasn't exactly rock-bottom, either.

Melinda and LaKisha both chose Donna Summer tunes, and ended up delivering another pair of well-sung but, frankly, kind of boring performances. Although I was glad to see both big-voiced gals dressed their age and singing uptempo tracks, they seemed to lack urgency onstage, not to mention a desire to surprise the audience. Everyone and their second cousin twice removed knows Melinda and LaKisha are vocal powerhouses - Melinda, for example, is the most technically skilled singer on the show - but as past seasons of Idol and indeed, pop music as a whole has shown, skill is only part of the equation, and they can't expect to coast on that alone. I mean, Donna Summer is awesome. But when faced with a choice between her - i.e. their comfort zone - and something more unexpected, Melinda and LaKisha opted for the familiar path. (I mean, I wasn't exactly expecting they take on, like, the Specials or Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, but still...song choice says something about a person's musical judgment.) As a result, I suspect many who anointed them the front-runners early on will have to eat their words come finals week. As other contestants evolve, improve and carve out niches with their personalities and song choices, Melinda and LaKisha can't risk standing still.

Gina, meanwhile, delivered a strong, heartfelt rendition of the Pretenders' "I'll Stand By You," a song that's not only excellent overall, but was perfect for her - even if she did sing it looking like she was trying to join the Goth division of the Haley Hot Pants/Miniskirt brigade. Jordin branched out yet again, displaying youthful vigor and a winning, refreshing personality in taking on a risky choice, No Doubt's part-spoken "Hey Baby. And Blake had what could best be called a Daughtry moment, smoothly performing a cover of a cover - in this case, an arrangement of the Cure's "Love Song" that sounded just like the version 311 recorded in recent years. Considering that a few weeks ago he described 311 as his favorite band, I guess that should have come as 0% of a surprise. (Similarly, last year Chris Daughtry basically covered Live's version of Johnny Cash's "I Walk The Line.") And he didn't even have to beatbox! Hurrah!

Chris Sligh's fortunes, meanwhile, appear to be fading every week, as if he's losing his grip on his nerves. After cracking to Seacrest that he spent his "Idol" downtime "knitting, crocheting, maybe playing the bongos in my boxer shorts," Chris and his night went downhill - although I didn't think that his version of the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" was as bad as the judges said it was, with Randy calling its rhythm or lack thereof "a trainwreck." Chris's vocals were decent, and yet: "It just didn't feel right, and I don't think that represented you," Simon said. But what will represent Chris, and can he rebound? I mean, last night, he was left saying "Please" after Seacrest asked "Will you vote for Chris?" And speaking of polite young men named Chris, Chris Richardson helped his case by choosing an strong song, No Doubt's hit breakup ballad "Don't Speak," and then proceeded to squander that advantage by yet again sounding like a midafternoon cut from a "listen at work!" light rock station. The sense of loss so palpable in the original failed to translate to Wannabe Timberlake's version; even if he hit a few good notes, the overall effect was underwhelming.

And of course, where would we be without, well, you know. Each week, Sanjaya sets the crazy bar a little higher, and the fact a) we're talking about it and b) he's still on the show proves that Idol is definitely not all about the singing (Melinda and LaKisha, take note, although by no means imitate Sanjaya). This week's starring role went to Sanjaya's terrifiying, towering mohawk of ponytails (Season 4's Nadia Turner, eat your heart out, because this was by far the most unique coif the Idol finals have ever witnessed). After sitting there staring at it a good few minutes, racking my brain trying to figure out the ideal animal to compare it to, I finally gave up. So then, I contemplated something even more shocking: This week, Sanjaya chose an interesting, more obscure No Doubt song, "Bathwater" (from 2000's "Return of Saturn") and for that he deserves (gasp, I know, it's hard to get the word out) credit, especially given that a number of his more formidable competitors failed at the whole song choice task. Ok, yes, the execution was less than competent. (Oh, how he bobbled his words after singing the line "wanted and adored by attractive women," haha!) He continued to display no range, even if he finished with some marginally improved notes. But somewhere between the gentle fawn put-on and hilarious faux-rocker edge, there's something ticking. I mean, Sanjaya amps up the sweet and naive, but the look he shot the camera at the end of his performance screamed "Getting away with it!"

The thing that cracks me up even more than Sanjaya himself is that Randy and Paula, while laughing, continue to try to offer constructive criticism, as if all of a sudden he's going to hunker down and become some amazing singer. Surely, Sanjaya is better than he's letting on. But is he so much better that going serious would help him succeed more than he is now, in his patented role as Wacky Dude? I mean, why change course? Better to go out in a blaze of "Idol" glory and be remembered, I suppose, than go out, like, Brandon-style. In a way, Sanjaya is this year's Kellie Pickler, surviving more on his overall persona and banter more than his singing (although to be fair, Kellie Pickler is a much better singer than Sanjaya). "Look, Sanjaya, I don't think it matters anymore what we say, actually," Simon said, getting it absolutely right. "I genuinely don't. I think you are in your own universe, and if people like you, good luck." So, until Sanjaya runs his course, we can sustain ourselves with the likes of:

Return of the footwear fixation: Thanks to his, uh, enthusiastic interactions last season with Mandisa and Kellie Pickler, we already knew Randy was fond of mentioning/noticing/leering at ladies' shoes. Thanks to his banter last night with LaKisha and Gina, now we know that was no passing fad. Ah, "Idol," consistent in formula, even when we don't really need it to be.

Eyesore, or earache? "It becomes like an eyesore for the audience," Paula told Chris Sligh after his slightly off-balance performance. That's Paula "I sometimes forget it's a singing competition" Abdul, for those of us keeping track.

Ain't that the truth: "It's not the Oscars!" Simon snapped as the "Idol" music struck up in the middle of his remarks about Chris Sligh. Indeed, unlike at the Oscars, the music actually did go back down to allow him to finish. The two shows have at least one thing in common, though - well, two, I guess, if you count Jennifer Hudson - the "Idol" finale is held in the same venue as the Oscars.

Meanwhile, in the "This just needs to be reproduced for posterity" category:
: "Now, we're disappearing, but we'll be right back with Sanjaya and Haley."
Seacrest raises his eyebrows. Why? We soon find out: Cut to a shot of a smiling Haley and - oh my gosh, stop, stop, what IS this hair? oh my gosh - Sanjaya's hair is sticking straight up. He's sticking his tongue out and raising his amrs in some kind of supposed-to-be-rockin' gesture? I guess he's thinking because this type of posturing worked for him last week, it...oh, there are no words. Cut back to Seacrest, whose eyebrows remain raised to the max. Zoom in on his face, as if to say, "Oh, viewers of America, I know. I know."

Not much, except sheer entertainment value? "Let's see what Sanjaya has for us, apart from the hair," Seacrest said as he introduced (his) segment.

Speaking of said hair: "Well, I presume you had no mirror in your dressing room tonight," Simon told Sanjaya, using one of those patented one-liners you just know he strives to dream up as the contestants perform. "You're just jealous you couldn't pull it off," Sanjaya volleyed back. Truly, that's a point there's no arguing, as even Simon had to admit. "I couldn't," he said. "I agree."

Hey, that is about the right ratio! According to Seacrest, there were eight reasons to vote for Sanjaya this week - one of them music and seven of them the mini-ponytails that made up his terrifying "pony-hawk." Hmm, the reason people vote for Sanjaya is only 1/8 music? Yep, that sounds about right!

Wait, who sang that, again? "There was nothing to remember, really," Simon said after informing Haley that thousands of other girls around the country could have done at least as good a job as she had with Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors." "Too safe, and you're gonna have to do better than that." Yeah, so, pretty much...

But the real question will be, how does it feel to go back? "How does it feel to go from an unknown to a household name in a matter of weeks?" Seacrest asked Phil during a "viewer question" segment of the show.

So, we're trying to say we thought it would suck! Gwen, Randy and Simon all found themselves pleasantly surprised by Phil's competent take on the Police's "Every Breath You Take," hilariously enough: "Wow, I didn't know it was gonna be that good!" Gwen said during rehearsal. "You know what, man, I actually kind of liked that, man," Randy remarked after the performance. Even ol' grumpy was moved. "This may surprise you, Phil," Simon said, "but I actually thought that was very good."

Make that Junior Olympics: "I've seen Chris (Richardson) on the show before, and I've noticed that he likes to do this kind of vocal Olympics thing," Gwen perceptively noted.

Now, for the week's "um, ew" Paula moment: Chris Richardson's version of "Don't Speak" apparently sent Paula into some kind of reverie. "You're good, Chris, you're good," she said dreamily. "Just good." (To achieve the most realistic re-enactment, insert a really big pause here, and then let Simon's remarks begin.)

Bottom o' the barrel: After Tuesday's brand of weirdness, it's hard to say, but I do predict Phil will be there.


Anonymous said...

Do you think Idol has finally jumped the shark?

We're right in the middle of a season that has had its share of controversy, but I actually forgot it was on last night. No one at work is talking about it, like in years past. Even you are saying the best singers are boring.

Or is this just an off year?

Jen Aronoff said...

It's interesting you ask this, because lately I've been wondering the same thing myself. For years I've been curious about when, if ever, fatigue would set in and the seemingly indestructable "Idol" machine would run out of gas. After all, even if it's wildly successful, "Idol" is a formula, and all formulas can get tired - especially if those hawking them get too comfortable. Though I think it's too early to say that's happening now, I've also sensed decidedly less buzz and interest surrounding this year's edition, even if ratings are still strong. And I must admit - although I still enjoy the show, I haven't really been looking forward to watching it quite as much as I did in the past. That said, I think this year's contestants could still surprise us. And the show has survived worse - season three comes to mind. But an off year coupled with the show's increasing age could do more damage. So, to respond, I guess - right now, it'd be hard to say this is anything more than an off year, but the next few months may provide further clues about the long-term picture! Anyway, those are just my rather un-expert thoughts...