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.

Though in the introduction package Usher said that the contestants could help add to the story of R&B and soul, this group's contribution is looking like a footnote at best, based on most of what transpired. Unusually, the boys bested the girls; Usher, meanwhile, was a benevolent and rather benign presence. Seacrest, meanwhile, played the "We've got two hours, so how many ways can we stretch things out?" game, which included: 
  • Interviewing Usher while wearing Usher-style sunglasses. (Not that I ordinarily take Seacrest seriously, but let me tell you, it was even less possible at that point.) 
  • Allowing each judge to essentially critique Siobhan twice.
  • Those weird post-performance clips, which either showed a marginally triumphant contestant reflecting on the performance that just was (Here's a revelation: Andrew Garcia loves his mom!), or a dejected one glumly slumping back into the green room, toward the food table (Siobhan). Only Lee's, which showed genuine enthusiasm and a new confidence, was worth the few seconds it consumed.  
  • Making a lame double-entendre-themed joke after Kara gave Casey actual constructive criticism.
  • Asking Usher what he thought of Mike's performance.
  • Egging Andrew's mom to come up and give Simon a piece of her mind, for calling Andrew "boring" and in need of more personality."
Right. And yet in a perfect example of "I laugh to keep from crying," the show STILL appeared to run long, by a couple of minutes. Anyway, before that happened, here's how it unfolded, in order of performance:

Siobhan: The glassblower has a silly grin plastered on her face when Usher greets the group. Then, in the mentoring session, she says, "I've been a big fan since I was 6 years old." Wait, Usher was already releasing music when she was 6 years old? Oh hell, I feel OLD. Anyway, he advises her to be sure her eccentric style of dress doesn't detract from the musical emotion she's trying to convey, a message she takes to heart by wearing arguably only one truly quirky piece of apparel - high-top sneaker boots (with, yes, a dress). She's singing Chaka Khan's "Through The Fire," which sounds potentially fierce in the mentoring clip, but falls very flat on the big stage. As Randy noted, it never caught on, as if she kept losing her grip as she grasped to pull herself up on a ledge. Pitch issues aside, it still would have been difficult for her to overcome the inexplicably elevator music-style arrangement - that's not Siobhan! - and the insertion of gratuitous big-note screaming. The judges are not kind; Siobhan, unused to the criticism, takes it a bit sullenly, then just kind of sadly. This is her worst by a long shot, but the judges take pains to stress that she's otherwise been good. The implicit and correct message there: Don't give her the boot. And so a long night is underway. 

Casey: Casey is excited about the theme - "It's not gonna get any closer to blues than R&B," he says - and his choice of Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Coming" proves ideal. Not only has the tune never been performed on "AI," it allows him to fit in some quality guitar playing that doesn't come off as unnecessary. Things seem to be going well enough from the start - he's up there grinning, at least - but just as I begin to wonder whether he's ever going to really be able to let himself go, about midway through he does, singing with the kind of urgency and emotion his previous performances have lacked. Though he's still a little stiff on stage, this marks the first time he's sufficiently connected with a song, and provides proof he may have more in him yet. Kara says she thinks he still has more range he hasn't shown; I agree.  

Mike: Last week I wondered: Would we ever see Mike with his guitar again? Tonight answered that question. He's focused on R&B all season, so it was no surprise he felt in his element. But after weeks of borderline-corny overemoting, he made a savvy choice, taking a less expected path when he could readily have continued in the same vein: He brings back his acoustic guitar for a seated performance of India.Arie's "Ready For Love." Though the song is far from a barnburner and also, alas, brings out the dreaded Mechanically Swaying Crowd, Mike accomplishes his mission despite a little initial shakiness in the quieter passages. Simon says it's the first time since Hollywood weeks that he can take Mike seriously as an artist instead of a karaoke act, and though he still likely has a ways to go before even fully fitting that description, it at least restores his forward motion.

Didi: The minute I saw her onstage wearing a long, strapless, sparkly, dignified (*snore*) dress, I suspected - rightly - that Simon would call her out as "old-fashioned." "Didi, why?" I wondered, and kept wondering all the way through that incredibly blah, rushed arrangement of "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" that did her no favors. Especially at first, Didi struck me as a musically aware contestant with the potential to pick songs well and perform them in a way that said, "I have something to say." I don't know what she was trying to say there - and though Seacrest pushed her on it, she declined to elaborate, leaving him to offer a cryptic explanation suggesting family or romantic tragedy, perhaps the death of a friend mentioned earlier in the season. "You've lost your way," Kara said. "I don't know who you are leaves me puzzled." Simon compared her to "a singer murdering a song on one of those dancing shows." "I'm not an R&B singer," she replied. "I did what I could." Sorry, but that's a lame cop-out, because contestants have a chance to assert themselves through song selection and performance every week. Didi has a distinctive and not unpleasant voice, and I hope this doesn't wash her out for good, but she really earned her criticism, for once.

Tim: Can you conceive of a reason Tim Urban chose to sing Anita Baker's "Sweet Love"? Yeah, me neither, and I suspect he'd also be hard-pressed to tell you. At this point, his wimpy stage presence and painfully limited range are old (and unchanging) hat - like Sanjaya, but blander! - so he's just going to hang on as long as he can in chipper fashion, flashing a cat-that-swallowed-a-canary grin, laughing and bantering with the judges as they vainly try to come up with new adjectives to describe his utter inadequacy: Randy, using unexpectedly large words, labeled this particular outing "singing waiter" and "pedestrian." But Simon catches on, remarking, "I don't think it makes any difference at all what we say....Nobody cares, you'll be here next week, so well done." I'm hoping that's a sly way of making Tim's "fans" feel comfortable enough that he does, in fact, get voted out, but we'll see. To his credit, Tim takes the criticism in good humor and replies reasonably articulately; he's like a recreational go-kart driver who somehow found himself on the track at a NASCAR Cup race and is cruising along blissfully unaware, 60 laps behind, while other cars roar past him, jockeying for position. 

Andrew: In tackling Chris Brown's "Forever," sitting on a stool, guitar in hand, Andrew managed to climb out of the pit he'd dug through weeks of subpar performances, back to sea level, and remind viewers why they might kinda, sorta have liked the dude's acoustic covers in the first place. Unlike most of the other contestants, he also picked a song recorded in recent memory. Though it still came off a bit lightweight, it was a vast improvement, so graded on that curve, he probably deserves to live another week.

Katie: Who emerges apparently wearing one of the bridesmaid dresses I tried on last weekend - wait, no, Katie's getup has shorts? It's a romper? Er, mystery solved, and moving on: Katie takes on Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools," and while not vocally offensive, she lacks the grit and, frankly, life experience to sell the song, especially what with lines like "For five whole years, I thought you were my man." What, since she was 12? It's more a pale imitation of a Kelly Clarkson performance - or, as Simon said, "all a little bit - what was what show called years ago, Star Search?" Tiresomely, Simon and Kara tussle once more about what "direction" Katie should head - Pop R&B? Country? Personally, I would say, "Back to high school, so you can figure out who you are" - and she replies by telling Seacrest that, Crystal-style, she will listen to herself going forward. Egads, Seacrest then makes a cow tipping joke.

Lee: By my clock, Lee went on at about 9:35 p.m. - and yet I must agree with what Ellen remarked afterward: "There you go! Now the night started." Lee's version of "Treat Her Like A Lady" was, I think, unique among the performances in that he managed to sound both modern and distinctive while still totally connecting with the music and in no way stripping it of its melody. Lee's earthy voice is well-suited for R&B/soul anyway, but he didn't coast on that alone. Instead, he mustered enough confidence to perform with a little bit more gleam in his eye, spring in his step and passion in his tone. The low-key, self-effacing Chicagoan emerged with a rock-influenced arrangement and the performance of the night - putting it all together when others fell far short. And for once, he looked comfortable on stage. Here's hoping that continues.  

Crystal: Ah, here's Crystal, to deliver us from (musical) evil. Though her fashion constituted a departure from her usual earth-mother vibe - a stylish red dress and towering heels - her wry personality remained very much intact. I can't be the only one who caught that eye-roll when Seacrest said early on, "We're looking forward to your surprise." Ha. That surprise, by the way: She performed without her guitar for the first time, starting out at a piano instead, before standing up for the rest of "Midnight Train to Georgia." Though clearly more tentative at the keyboard than with a six-string in hand, she still felt the music in a confident, natural style far beyond most of the other contestants' capabilities. The judges applauded her for trying something different - which I also agree she needed to do, even if she sacrificed a little in the process. That said, Simon's advice to not change too much was also on point. Unlike just about everyone else this year, Crystal knows who she is, she's comfortable with that and it works awfully well.

Aaron: The show's resident teenage boy put in about 85 percent of a valiant effort on "Ain't No Sunshine," and while it wasn't terrible, let's face it - it's been done far better before, both by Kris Allen last year and by Christina Christian, way back in Season One. His vocals just couldn't quite take off, and he lacked the world-weariness needed to truly pull off the emotion. Even so, with the likes of Tim Urban still floating around, Aaron isn't not going anywhere - except on to the top nine. 

PS: Actual thoughts that went through my head between performances last night, possibly to help me endure the long slog: 
  • "Oh, small mercies, it's a Kris Allen Ford commercial!" 
  • "Oh no, it's that kind-of-awkward Bo Bice Moe's commercial!"
  • "Could J.Lo's new movie possibly be more entertaining than what I've seen so far tonight?" 
  • "Pepperoni is the new bacon, Subway? Wrong! Bacon is the once, current and future bacon!" 
  • "Man, the Burger King king sure is creepy, especially in duplicate." 
  • "Hey, watching 'Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel' would be worse than this!"


Anonymous said...

Is it just me or does Aaron Kelly remind you of David Archuleta? I wish that kid with his Ellen hairstyle would go away!