Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Barely stayin' alive

In his introduction to Tuesday's "American Idol," Ryan Searest rhapsodized about guest coach Barry Gibb and the Bee Gees' musical contributions. They revolutionized '70s dance music! They helped define a generation! But as the final four contestants', uh, contributions made clear, the line between a leisurely groove and a plain ol' drag is indeed a fine one - and it takes talent to remain on the right side. As a result, a night that was supposed to celebrate the power of "boogie music" (as Seacrest so artfully put it last week) just sputtered along to its merciful end, stopping dead in its tracks my hope that, after last week's surprisingly entertaining Bon Jovi night, Season Six was gaining momentum and might snowball toward an exciting conclusion.

Instead, we endured an hour in which the only redeeming factors were Gibb (who rose above the overall snoozefest with kindness and good humor, sporting a silver mane and the same facial hair he did 30 years ago, judging by the clips) and that part at the very end where Seacrest proclaimed, "Seacrest, out!" And, well, that's about it. Honestly, as I sat there on my couch watching the show, it occurred to me that a night like that was enough to make a person - ok, more specifically, me - long for the wild and crazy times of, perish the thought, Sanjaya and Haley (who, by the way, looked to be in the audience), and heck, even the not-too-distant days of Chris Richardson. Last year at this time, the problem wasn't that no one was good enough to win, it's that everyone was. Now, perhaps I just have "Idol" fatigue, but it seemed to me that, more than anything, this final four's performances succeeded mostly at bringing back to the fore the weaknesses that have dogged them throughout the season, as if they'd reverted to the worst versions of themselves. Blake overrelied on beatboxing. Melinda couldn't add personality and life to her technical proficiency. LaKisha's performances veered toward the odd. And Jordin came off largely as more of a teen pageant contestant than a soaring, world-beating potential pop star. (I should have known early on something was amiss, because I found myself agreeing with even Paula's comments.) It all made me want to listen to the still-incredible "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack to cleanse my mind and dull my memory, except that, much to my chagrin, I don't actually own it. (Note to self: Borrow mom and dad's record the next time you're home.)

The evening began promisingly enough, with the 75 percent female Final Four singing "How Deep Is Your Love" with Gibb. "I've made lots of records with ladies, so this was a perfect scenario for me," the prolific producer cracked. Then Melinda took the stage for "Love You Inside and Out." Fashion and lack of her over-the-top, "what, me?" humility largely aside, she returned to unfortunate form, which is to say, technically proficient but boring. Of course she was in tune. Of course she was on pitch. Of course she was in rhythm. But Paula, providing shocking insight, said we now need more to impress us. "That was a backing vocalist's performance," Simon said. "You are better than that." Word. Her second song, "How Can You Mend A Broken Heart," was better but still boring and, frankly, old-fashioned in a bad way. She finished strong, dropping some huge notes that she really dug into, but as (again, I can't believe I'm citing her, but) Paula cautioned sometimes vocals aren't everything, and people need to be surprised. Will it be enough to keep her out of the bottom two for the gazillionth straight week? I'm not sure it is, but then again...

If we were judging by last night's performances alone, could it be Blake's week to hit the trail? He'll probably benefit from being the only guy remaining, and truth be told, I'd rather see him survive than enter a final three populated only by ladies with similar singing styles. But oh, as the judges also lamented, it was so not his week. With white streaks in his dark hair, he soft-shoed and beatboxed his way through "You Should Be Dancing." Even though it looked like he was throwing everything he had at it, it remained on life support throughout (although I did kind of enjoy the part where he sort of scatted). The only benefit of that performance was that, afterwards, the producers finally decided to identify his family in the audience. (Yes, he has a family! And the unidentified guy shown last week who looks like his dad probably is his dad!) To his everlasting credit, Randy was not exactly feeling the beatboxing. "It actually made it very corny for me," he said, delivering probably one of the best Randy lines of the year (admittedly, the pickings are slim, but still): "I felt like I was at some weird discotheque in some foreign country." Paula praised Blake for being unique, but then negated any enthusiasm she may have shown by following her remarks with a plodding clap. Simon, unsurprisingly, hated it. And Blake's next choice of song? Egads! Believe me, I'm not opposed to obscure songs if they're, you know, good, but where did Blake unearth "This Is Where I Came In"? And why, when he had the Bee Gees catalog to choose from, would he pick something so generic, so "completely tuneless," as Simon put it? Blake's weirdly transfixing top - what was it? A sweater? A vest? A t-shirt? - held my attention far more than the singing/mugging/whatever. Afterwards, I was torn about Blake's fate: Should one bad night doom him, or has he done all he can do, meaning last night's cheesefest was a symptom of a larger problem, not an aberration?

Given that she was in some ways lucky to survive to this week in the first place, though, I suspect LaKisha may be the one heading home. That's kind of a shame, because her voice is undeniably powerful, but then again, it's not like Melinda and Jordin are really slouches in that department, either. Even if she had delivered the Bee Gees equivalent of last week's electrifying "This Is Not A Love Song," Kiki may not have been able to stave off a trip to the bottom two. Without such a performance, she's a lock to at least go there. Though she took the stage with confidence, strutting out and attempting to seize possession of "Stayin' Alive," the arrangement dragged, and she also trotted out a weird hop mid-song and broke up the melody with bits of gospel-flavored belting. She chose her second tune, "Run To Me," because she thought it was a beautiful ballad, but her lower range proved an issue, and toward the end, her voice cracked. In and of itself it wouldn't be a deal-breaker, but cumulatively, it could well be a deal-sealer.

Which leaves us with Jordin, probably the person least likely to get the boot. Not because she delivered showstopping performances amid the overall drudgery, mind you, but because if we had to grade on a curve, she'd come out on top. She said she came into her practice session determined to show Gibb how much emotion she felt in "To Love Somebody" - the best song choice of the night, incidentally - and she must have succeeded, because he responded with effusive, hyperbolic praise. "I know a couple hundred people have sung this song, but I haven't heard a greater version than Jordin's," he said. (What, he wasn't familiar with the Clay Aiken version from Season Two, which was, to my mind, at least as good?) When Jordin took the stage, she invested the tune with similar feeling, adding a soulful breakdown midway through (something that sounded a lot better in practice than it does in print, I must admit). And even if the overall performance didn't exactly take flight, it was at least cleared for take-off - which was enough to make it the nominal highlight on a night when everyone else was still docked at the gate. But on her second song, "A Woman In Love," she turned back around and headed toward Dullsville, wearing a flowing turquoise dress and performing with all the passion and fervor of a bored '50s housewife about to start in on some vacuuming. Simon criticized it as being too old-fashioned and pageanty, and though Jordin hit some pretty excellent notes toward the end, the overall song dragged - a description that, unfortunately, could just as easily applied to the whole dispiriting night.

So it's not just in terms of performances? In that clip toward the beginning of the show where the final four gathered 'round the piano, singing "How Deep Is Your Love" with Gibb, did anyone else notice how tall girl Jordin totally towered over everyone else? Hello, pronounced height differences! LaKisha was maybe up to her shoulder. But anyway...

Actually, to answer your question, Seacrest... "As you know, this show lives and dies by the strength of the songs, and tonight we've got eight of the best," Seacrest said before introducing the first performance. "Can we fit all this in?" Seacrest, you asked, and I'm here to deliver: Well, uh, let's see, if you just removed the viewer questions, the cell phone commercial/forced banter with Randy inserted early in the show and the five million hours of commercials, then, yeah, maybe you wouldn't have had to, say, totally blow through LaKisha's second segment, hardly leaving the judges a moment to get a word in edgewise. But hey, just a hint!

Painful yet amusing host-related moments, volume 427: When Seacrest tried to beatbox his way through the word "text," telling numbers you could dial for Blake, who totally cracked up at the remark.

He's still got it: Unlike some of Idol's other retro guest coaches, Barry Gibb still seemed to be in decent voice, demonstrating his falsetto for LaKisha. That can't be (easy for a 60-year-old).

Eh, she's probably grateful: "Well, LaKisha, no kiss tonight, baby!" Simon said after LaKisha's lackluster "Stayin' Alive," referring to the lip-lock he laid on her after her crackling performance in last week's Bon Jovi night. "Clearly, Simon not the type who calls back after a first date to see how you're doing," Seacrest quipped afterward.

Graduating with a degree in "Idol" savvy, it's Melinda:
Talk about self-awareness (not to mention having learned from, say, Phil's prophetic song choice from last week, where he went on and on about going out in a blaze of glory and then, well, you know)! Instead of singing "how can a loser ever win," Ms. Doolittle very consciously recycled a verse about rain. "You know what, I'm very careful about words, so I've been very careful not to sing about being a loser on 'American Idol,'" she said. "I was like, maybe I'll just go back to the part that says, 'How can you stop the rain from falling?' because I'd rather be wet than a loser," she said. "If I was her, I'd probably want to leave that line out, too," Gibb said, smiling.

And by "gifts," we can also mean "overused tics": "It does give him the chance to explore those extra little gifts that he has," Gibb said, after expressing shock that Blake chose to perform the relatively obscure "This Is Where I Came In" as his second song of the night.

It may keep waiting: "I love the idea that he's performing it," Gibb said in reaction to Blake's choice of "This Is Where I Came In." "We thought it could be a hit, but we were wrong," he said, laughing. "It still has the ability to be a hit record, even if not by us, and here it is. It's been waiting for its time, and maybe Blake will bring it up to date right now."

But no, really, cut the beatboxing: "Just remember, you don't have to do the beatboxing on every joint, dude. You don't have to do it. We know you can do it," Randy said rather emphatically after Blake's second beatbox-intensive performance of the night. "But if he can, he can," Paula said, interjecting in a tone of voice that suggested "I've just emerged from heavy sedation." "Yeah, but he ain't gotta do it every time," Randy volleyed back. "It gets old."

The verdict? Feisty! "Look, it is Simon's evil twin," Seacrest teased toward the end of the show. "Judge Judy is with us!" After a quick exchange, he offered, "All right, let's tell the truth, they've been dating for three months now." "You troublemaker!" the judge replied in mock offense.

Just wondering: After watching the final four not exactly do justice to the Bee Gees' catalog on Tuesday's show, I'm wondering how an artist like Gibb feels after being a featured part of an "Idol" show on which the contestants totally bellyflop. In this case, the phrase "stick to the originals" occurs to me...


Anonymous said...

I think the judges simply failed to grasp disco when they cited a lack of excitement. Disco isn't exciting. It's repetitive and rock-steady. If you want dramatic effect, you move on to 80's music.

Anonymous said...

I think it goes without saying that 60's night is always the best, most enjoyable night each season.