Wednesday, March 31, 2010

It's R&B night, emphasis on the blues

R&B has dominated the pop charts for the last 20 years - but you'd be hard-pressed to tell that from watching this year's "American Idol" top 10 on what was supposedly "R&B and soul night." Instead, the mostly-dreary, ballad-heavy hour played more like "R&B Standards Primarily From Before Guest Mentor Usher Was Born, Minus Soul" or, alternately, "The R&B Favorites of Contestants' Parents Adolescence, or Maybe Even Childhood." Ugh: What in the name of Beyonce was going on? And, really, to place some of the blame where it should surely rest: Why are the show's producers seemingly so intent on giving young contestants a list of potential songs that skew heavily toward the musty? Not to knock the classics, but when you have R&B superstar Usher as your guest mentor and only two contestants - that's 20 percent - angling to become the Next Pop Star perform songs released in the last two decades, from the wave of music Usher has been a part of, something is off. Ok, yes, I get that the Idol powers that be might not look favorably on clearing, say, a raunchfest like Usher's "Love In This Club" for performance, but surely there's got to be a middle ground. R&B's pop prominence makes it a perfect fit for an "Idol" evening in theory, and the fact that it wasn't in practice is too bad.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Billboard number boredom

The "American Idol" Top 11 had the entire catalog (or, presumably, something close to it) of Billboard No. 1 hits at their fingertips - and so, naturally, they managed to turn it into night of song choices mostly questionable, boring or sometimes both. On one hand, you can argue it's a problem to give contestants a theme so broad it's essentially a non-theme, but on the other, it also says something about them if they can perform one of any number of hit pop songs stretching back decades and still turn up empty. (Or, alternately, in a scenario rarely seen tonight, they're smart enough to pick the right song from a lengthy list.)

Because this week's "mentor" was Miley Cyrus, the night also featured at least tepid attempts, at least initially, to justify that a 17-year-old was a fine choice to counsel the contestants. The prospect initially mortified me, but, then again, this is "American Idol," not "America's Next Top Violin Virtuoso," and she acquitted herself perfectly well - even better than some past "adult" candidates, something that I think I can credit more to her friendly, polite demeanor than the fact that this season has set the bar low on many fronts. We also had at least three contestants (Paige, Andrew, and to a lesser extent Didi) respond to harsh words from the judges with the mindless "I had fun! I did it for the fans!" excuse, which is insulting on at least two levels, because 1) That assumes you have fans and more importantly, 2) "The Fans" aren't some lowest-common-denominator blubbering mass of jelly-minded folks who don't care whether they're listening to, oh, an in-tune, interesting musical performance as long as they're "having fun." Dude, I have fun at karaoke, but that doesn't mean I deserve a record contract (and, really, if you've heard me at karaoke, you know this is true).

Anyway, in the words of Simon: "Tonight, for me, was not a good night, overall." He urged contestants to push themselves more, pick better songs and basically just be in it to win it, instead of along for the ride. Sounds good to me.

Breaking down the night:

Lee "My Favorite Pen" DeWyze (er, thanks for that description, Ellen): So he does something cool, venturing outside his new-rock mold by picking "The Letter," by the Box Tops (R.I.P., Alex Chilton, not that the judges or anyone mentioned that) - and then attempts to infuse it with personality by using an arrangement featuring a sort of Vegas-in-1976 horn section? A little weird (also weird: How his subdued demeanor returned in his post-song chat with Seacrest, after he did seem genuinely more energetic during the song), but not as bad as the judges made it out to be, especially compared with, well -

Paige: Has any AI contestant ever pulled off Phil Collins' "Against All Odds" in remotely respectable fashion? In fact, has any person other than Phil Collins ever done so? No. Did Paige break the cycle? No, just eardrums, with a seriously plodding, sub-dentist's waiting room rendition with more bum notes than talent night at a tone deafness support group. I don't know if this was the delayed effects of laryngitis taking a toll - although that doesn't explain the poor song choice - but to quote the eloquent Randy Jackson, "Yo, man, yo, wow, honestly...that was honestly terrible."

Tim: Look, this boded poorly from the moment Seacrest said "We'll be back with you live, when Tim takes on Queen, next!" But even if Zac Efron Lite spared us his version of, I don't know, "Fat Bottomed Girls," are you kidding me? This dude's voice has less depth than a cat's water dish, and his attempts to "work the stage" - doing a Springsteen-at-the-Super Bowl slide toward the camera, leaping into a semicircle of screaming girls - only underscored the futility of it all. The ombre-plaid backing graphic behind Tim during the performance brought more excitement to the stage than he did, and a "Look what I just did there!" beaming smile at the end won't change that. Randy, in ever-helpful fashion, points out that "AI" is supposed to be a singing competition, while Simon recommends singing lessons. You don't say!

Aaron "Middle-Aged Man Ballads Ahoy!" Kelly: In true "I'm Already There" fashion, Aaron sang "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing." He suffered from pitch problems, although to be fair, he was also suffering from both laryngitis and tonsillitis. That being said, his drawn-out "tiiiiiiime" was more bleating goat than big note. But, as Simon aptly observed, he's playing to his strengths and, crucially, actually trying (I know, amazing, someone actually trying in a GIANT TELEVISED SINGING COMPETITION), even if his song selections have skewed really old-fashioned for a 17-year-old. Also, let us note his awkward moments with Seacrest: First, when Seacrest's strategy to help keep the ailing Aaron from wasting his voice during the pre-song chat involved...Seacrest writing on a clipboard? And afterward, when he said, "All right, if you want to vote for David Archuleta here," as he patted Aaron on the back.

Crystal: I am not sure what Miley could possibly have taught Crystal, but let's move past that and make the thus-far obligatory response to Crystal's performance - it was, as usual, completely on a different plane. And not just because she was standing on that carpet from the mentoring room during "Me and Bobby McGee." It's impressive how much performance she packs into a relatively brief time, varying her dynamics (in this case, starting soft, finishing louder, all in strong voice), her tempo, her phrasing - compared to, say, Tim, whose "singing" drags on tiresomely. She promises "big plans" for next week, which suggests a temporary break from her guitar - what could this be? Is she going disco? 

Mike: You and I, we've been on this journey with Mike - a journey of love. We were there when his pregnant wife was "dilated 8 centimeters" at the hospital, and we have continued down that path with him, through touching R&B-accented odes, like tonight's "When A Man Loves A Woman." Mike, you see, is a man who loves a woman - a woman in the audience! And he delivers a perfectly fine, soulful vocal to convey that point. But it doesn't go much beyond that, except when he sort of over-emotes - which is, I think, his pitfall. Go easy on the ham, dear fellow, and strive to avoid getting too smug. 

Andrew: Continuing a two-week streak of reworking classic songs to denude them of grit and soul, he tackles "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." I'm confused why he'd choose this, of all songs, and so are the judges. In fact, "confused" is probably the word that best applies to Andrew as a whole right now - I continue to believe the guy has talent, but it's almost as if the AI experience and judging has so messed with his mind that he's now rudderless. He needs to recapture his sense of musical direction, but it may be too late: As Simon said, he's had enough time to sort himself out - so what gives? Where's the emotional connection? 

Katie-bot: "The Dakota Fanning of American Idol" (thanks, Ellen) veered sharp, she veered flat, but in the end her "Big Girls Don't Cry" was certainly adequate, especially on a night like this. And she was wearing jaunty suspenders, instead of a "pageant horror outfit" (thanks, Simon). Props, too, for being the only contestant to attempt a song released since the mid-1980s (aside from Aaron, whose Diane Warren-penned movie-soundtrack ballad came out in 1998, but might as well have emerged from the Reagan era).

Casey: I wondered going in what a guy who's my age (a wizened 27) could learn from Miley, and Casey hilariously defused that by introducing himself by telling her, "I'm a big fan of your - dad's." But if he's going to pick tunes like Huey Lewis and the News' "The Power of Love" in 2010, maybe he should have asked her for some song-selection advice, because, whoa, that is bar band city, especially the way he performed it. (Sorry, Kara, he was ok, but I didn't hear "it" either, unless "it" was what Simon described as "an '8os cover band.") And despite promising more "performance" around the big stage, Casey's on-stage movement consisted of a brief walk from over by the other guitar player to the mic stand. Casey should have more in him, but he doesn't seem bothered enough to up his game, or at least hasn't so far. Then again, maybe he feels he doesn't need to? But that's depressing, too. 

Didi: At first I liked her "You're No Good," thinking it showcased the steeliness beneath her cutesy exterior, with a kind of Regina Spektor vibe. But I also noticed the judges' point about it coming off more as a theatrical role than a pop music connection. Plus, you're just tempting Idol fate, singing a song that requires repeated use of the phrase "You're no good." Still: She was nowhere near as woeful as the judges made her out to be, at least to my ears, and it seemed they treated her with undue harshness, especially considering some of the other performances of the evening.

Siobahn: I was getting a little antsy, waiting nearly two hours for the producers to give us our weekly dose of the trippy Siobhan Show, and she did not disappoint on the spaciness front, delivering lines like "I'll admit I've rocked out to a bit of Miley Cyrus" and "I think it's wicked cool that she said that my voice has swagger" in her bemused-languid-monotone. And plus, the giant glasses/acid-washed jeans/pink Members Only-type jacket combo she sported in the mentoring clip was truly in a league of its own. Her "Superstition," though, wasn't quite up to her usual standards, mixing occasional shrillness with fine notes and finishing with the type of scream and wailing she may want to dole out more sparingly going forward, so as not to just end up relying on it every week. Partially, the problem lay with song choice - "Superstition" is another tune that it's tough for anyone else to succeed with, and indeed no one ever has on "AI." Also, can we at least mention her poufy-curly on top, slicked-back on the sides hairdo? It was a mullet, it wasn't a mullet, and yet it was totally Siobhan. Say this much, though - my interest in what she'll do next extends beyond her hairstyle.

Monday, March 22, 2010

"Idol" season nine got you down? History is on your side!

So you've been watching the ninth season of "American Idol" with intensifying dread, wondering, "Er, is it just me, or is this really underwhelming?" Though in part it's probably the inevitable hangover from the highly awesome season eight, no, it's not just you - and indeed, if you've been watching the show a long time, it should even look familiar: "Idol's" most entertaining seasons have traditionally been followed by clunkers, the ranks of which will include AI9 if the every-third-season pattern holds. (See graphic above, rating seasons on the new and exciting "Cowell-Seacrest-Dunkleman" scale - click to see at full size.)

Understand that by "entertaining," I mean, how entertaining a season was for viewers - a factor that history has shown to be totally unrelated to what the winners (and runners-up) go on to do afterward. Instead, the key factors are: Are there a lot of talented people? Abundant personality? Competition and suspense (i.e., the winner wasn't a foregone conclusion early on)? You'll also note that the judges play little, if any, role in that - as much as they'd love to believe they're the center of the show's universe, their words and presence mean little compared to the quality of the contestants, with arguably only Simon indispensable to the formula. At heart, Good Contestants = Good Season, while a lackluster crop can spell doom (or at least weeks of crashing boredom). With that in mind, read on for an (admittedly subjective, but still!) explanation of the rankings, season by season, from best to worst:
Season Eight (2009): The best combination of talent, personality, cool and relevant musical styles, song-selection savvy, with performances I would actually pay to listen to - in fact, DID pay to listen to, both via iTunes and in person - and contestants that compelled me to actually vote, after seven seasons of avoiding doing just that. The top 10 had depth, variety and arguably the show's strongest-ever top four: Adam Lambert, Kris Allen, Allison Iraheta and, yes, even Danny Gokey (despite his lack of pop music knowledge and terrifying "Scream On" - um, "Dream On.") I was skeptical I'd even watch AI8, fearing that the show was limping toward an ignominious end, but I'm glad I did. Iraheta was one of the strongest, most distinctive female voices ever on the show, Lambert raised "AI" performance standards to a new high. Of course, if only I'd consulted Idol history beforehand, I would've had a better idea of what awaited. 

Season Five (2006): This year overflowed with diverse on-screen talent, and the music industry apparently agreed: At least seven of the top 10 went on to make albums, spanning R&B, pop, soul, rock and country. But AI5 also benefited from engaging personal stories, including those of Elliott Yamin, Kellie Pickler and Chris Daughtry. Though eventual winner Taylor Hicks is now maligned as a flop, he won for a reason: He was a strong, smart contestant, melding uptempo fun with more serious numbers, and his aw-shucks demeanor also garnered votes (even as his "Soul Patrol" repelled others). Even so, his victory over Kat McPhee wasn't a a lock, and have we mentioned the insane finale that featured Prince? (Four years later, the memory is still mind-blowing.) Anyway, about that outcome: Chris Daughtry's not doing too poorly for himself these days anyway, is he?

Season Two (2003): Season One HAD to be successful, or else the show wouldn't have lived to see another season. But Idol's second go-round - and the first in the now-traditional January-May timeframe - cemented the show's status as a cultural juggernaut. It had a higher level of talent than the previous year, a stellar top three (Kimberly Locke, Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard) and a nail-biting finish. It also brought out the best in the judges in a way that hasn't really been seen since, frankly. Gawky, geeky Aiken's rise wrote the book on how the show can transform its contestants, and demonstrated that runners-up can succeed, too - while also proving "AI" could showcase the kind of soaring, old-fashioned male vocals not found on contemporary radio and pop charts.

Season Seven (2008): This gains points for eventual winner David Cook, the quintessential underdog who prevailed by treating the season as a setlist, taking advantage of every performance as if it were his last, with strong singing and inventive song rearrangements. His impact on the show continues to ripple. But it loses points due to Syesha Mercado's inexplicable persistence in the competition and the judges' (especially Simon's) nauseating, persistent hyping of favorite and runner-up David Archuleta - who was, I think,
weighed down by early expectations and the understandable emotional, musical and intellectual limitations of being a talented yet sheltered 17-year-old. Still, they were a deserving top two, and the season also boasted other quirky, acoustic-oriented talents such as Jason Castro and Brooke White, the likes of which hadn't been seen before on the "Idol" stage. Other finalists, such as Carly Smithson and Michael Johns, proved alternately awesome (powerful pipes) and frustrating (they too often couldn't connect with their songs, or the audience).

TIED: Season Four (2005): The definition of a solid season, with the excellent top two of Bo Bice and Carrie Underwood, who were both responsible for (yes, Simon) "moments" that still stand out in the "Idol" ranks: Bo's a capella "In A Dream" and Carrie's "Alone." Third place went to sunny postal worker Vonzell Solomon, and this was also the year of Constantine Maroulis, the aspiring rocker with long, greasy hair and a sort of slithery semi-appeal who later found his rightful place starring in a Broadway musical about '80s hair metal. This season's top 10 gets a lot less memorable after that.
and Season One (2002): Because it started everything, proving the formula not only works, but makes great TV. And, because it rather remarkably redeemed itself despite an uneven-at-best, weak-at-worst crop of finalists, thanks to the original-and-still-the-best winner, Kelly Clarkson. Looking back on it now, it was also charmingly low-key and noncommercial, in a small studio, with the limited-time-only hosting team of Seacrest 'n' Dunkleman, a relatively coherent Paula Abdul, and without a gazillion commercial tie-ins.

Season Six (2007): Ugh. A chore to watch, with strange theme weeks, an overabundance of "guest mentors" and the difficult-to-endure likes of Haley Scarnato and Sanjaya, who survived far past where talent alone should have taken them.
Although the victor was pretty clear going into the anticlimactic non-showdown of a finale, Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis were not an unworthy top two. And Blake's song rearrangements helped set the stage for David Cook the next year, so it wasn't a total wash, unlike...

Season Three (2004): Which is the worst because it suffered from a dearth of talent, heavy pimping from the judges (Simon could not shut up about how he wanted Fantasia to win, which quickly became tiresome), an unsuspenseful top two and basically no viable guys in the top 12. Some of the performances from that year were so bad they still stand out, even seven years later (!) - the likes of John Stevens tackling Latin night comes to mind, particularly. Oh yeah, and FUTURE OSCAR WINNER Jennifer Hudson was voted out midway through the finals after an AMAZING performance. Game, set, match.

Anyway, hey, speaking of Season Three, does the above description remind you, even faintly, of any other season? Yeah, I thought so. Here's hoping for better, somehow, despite the presence of, say, Tim Urban...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

You can't always get what you want (in this year's top 12)

Hey, the "American Idol" finals are back - and this blog sort of is, though in a slightly less rambling (er, less comprehensive), more condensed form than in years past, due primarily to time and other constraints. I'm writing for fun, not on a strict schedule, with the hope of posting occasional thoughts on the Season That Is, bringing back a little of the digital-watercooler spirit and, of course, talking about The Most Important Show In The Known World, the ratings behemoth, the unslayable-but-likely-on-its-last-legs beast. So if you're reading, thanks, and welcome, too! Without further ado:

The Top 12 tackled the Rolling Stones tonight, and while not the total disaster it perhaps could have been - I'd say I liked about 25 percent of the performances, maybe? and several others were at least acceptable - this year's group kicked things off by sidling up to a low bar, rather than by taking flying leaps forward. Crystal and Siobhan were, unsurprisingly, the class of the evening, while "Big Mike" slathered a bunch of cheese all over "Miss You" (dude, tone down the on-stage gesticulating, which I guess you're confusing with "performing") (and, while I'm at it, why am I falling prey to calling him that nickname? Except he is big! And it rolls off the tongue so much easier than "Michael Lynche"! So, whatever...). And this also happened:
  • "Wild Horses," please feel free to drag Katie Stevens away. And also - bonus geography lesson, Katie! - Connecticut is already on the map, has been for about 400 years and definitely did not need your pageant-bot vocals to get there. (Of course, in her defense, the judges put her through to the semifinals presumably knowing she was a 16-year-old with a decent voice, but limited life experience and musical savvy - as they do with at least one person just about every year - and then griped about how she can't connect with songs. In season nine, how is this a surprise? For every David Archuleta, Allison Iraheta or Jordin Sparks, meet Jasmine Murray and Lisa Tucker!)
  • Unspoken, but possibly implied, after Seacrest way-too-cheerily said, "Coming up next, Tim Urban fans, you get your fix!": "Everyone else, you can now take your extended bathroom break."
  • Hey, speaking of "Tim Urban" and "fix," I'm pretty sure that flat-out turning off the TV was about the only thing that could have fixed the aural atrocity that guy unleashed tonight - because, seriously, "Under My Thumb" is not a happy, semi-calypso-reggaefied sub-Jason Mraz acoustic ditty. It. Just. Isn't. This was song sacrilege on the scale of Kristy Lee Cook's country-fried-on-meth "take" on the Beatles' "Eight Days A Week" during season seven. (Or, per Simon: "I think it was a crazy decision.")
  • Back in the land of musical merit, Siobhan totally employed the Adam Lambert Memorial Glowing Red Stairs of drama 'n' doom, convincingly brought a sense of both, then did the man himself proud with a massive scream on "Paint It Black." Yes.
  • The judges may have weeks of conflicting "advice" to their credit thus far this season, but Simon sure provided sage words for Lee, who has a strong, gritty voice but didn't go nearly far enough to infuse "Beast of Burden" with the longing, desperation and edge it needs. In fact, nearly all of the contestants failed to bring that feeling to songs that innately possess it, with Didi's "Play With Fire" a notable exception. I was expecting it from Crystal - and while I enjoyed her "You Can't Always Get What You Want," I suspect she could have brought more depth and intensity to harder-driving tracks like "Gimme Shelter," which was instead mostly wasted on Andrew, alas.
  • Who knew Paige was from Florida? In fact, who knew much of anything about Paige? And Ellen, Paige - with either forgettable or memorably bad moments on her resume thus far - has "star quality"? Who knew that, either, especially after her fairly unconvincing*, gender-switched**, first-person version of "Honky Tonk Woman"? Granted, there was the whole laryngitis factor in play, and she seems pleasant, but...
  • Um, did I see that right, or is Aaron's mom named "Kelly Kelly"? Really???
  • Wouldn't it have been hilarious if, in response to Kara's pleas for a more age-appropriate song choice, Aaron would've picked, oh, I don't know, "Satisfaction"? Hey, he's a teenage guy!
  • However, no one selected that Stones standard - because, let's face it, it has already been done.

*As in, she didn't quite seem to understand lines like, "He blew my nose and then he blew my mind."
**Yes, true, Tina Turner did this before. Paige, alas, is no Tina Turner.