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.


Anonymous said...

American Idol seems to be quickly becoming American Midol.

Anonymous said...

American Idol is the same every year. Same songs, same variety of contestants, same lame commentary from the judges. The only thing that changes is the model of car that Ford is trying to sell you.

I will never understand the draw to such a mindless show.