Wednesday, May 19, 2010

It's top three day, with plenty of Lee-way

According to my calendar, the current "American Idol" season still has one week left to go - which leaves me confused after Tuesday's show, because I think I just witnessed a coronation. Yes, that's supposed to happen in the finale, not on top three night, but since when have the "AI" powers that be shied away from a little - or, you know, a lot of - blatant manipulation? Certainly not last evening, when they hawked a very special storyline known as "Lee DeWyze: He Can Really Win This Thing!" within an inch of its gravelly-voiced, self-effacing life. In other words: Lee held up his end of the bargain enough - by keeping himself together and performing decently - that he's totally going to be around next week. And might - well, you know, win this thing.  

Does he deserve to? I'm not as sure about that; Lee might have the momentum, but Crystal is still the cream of this crop. But if Casey's devotees deluge the phone lines tonight, she may not even make it to next week's showdown (or, perhaps more appropriately, welterweight bout). Anyway, let us not get ahead of ourselves: We only have one more week to hear Randy boo Simon at the start of the show. And, for that matter, we only have one more week in which to potentially hear a relatively non-manufactured blockbuster performance. Chances of the latter are, I fear, not encouraging.

All season long, the judges have been champing at the bit to extract a "Moment" (TM) from this threadbare group of finalists, about to pop a vein as they will themselves to think "Why won't someone just have a moment already! Auuuugh!" Alas, the contestants just wouldn't oblige. So it figures that this week, when the judges at last had some power - to pick one of the two songs each contestant would perform, with the contestants choosing the other - they'd use it to create the ideal circumstances for, particularly, their current favored son, Lee, to have one now. The heavy-handed message: You wanted yourselves a moment? You got yourselves a moment!

Said moment came at (of course!) the end of the show, when Lee performed the tune Simon selected for him: Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Let me stipulate for the record that "Hallelujah" is an incredible song, not to mention a moving and potentially haunting one, especially as regards Jeff Buckley's iconic, deservedly famous cover. But especially lately, it's also become a bit overdone - an easy, emotionally manipulative crutch to reach for every time you want to evoke that mournful, elegaic feeling, a hipper equivalent of trotting out "Yesterday" or "I Will Always Love You" or "Unchained Melody." I mean, for goodness' sakes, Tim Freakin' Urban sang it earlier this very season, and Jason Castro also performed it with about 75 percent less bombast and 50 percent more emotional connection during Season Seven. Another of Simon Cowell's discoveries, Alexandra Burke, the 2008 winner of Britain's "X-Factor," released a version of it as her debut single. I heard Bon Jovi cover it when he performed in Charlotte last month. The list goes on and on. But the key to nailing the song isn't in the bombast. It's about infusing it with feeling. More on that later.

At the end of the show, Seacrest exhorted viewers to vote, saying, "Don't lose the contestant you've invested in all season!" But isn't that the problem with this season, which might as well be called "Somnambulant Idol"? I mean, has anyone, including the contestants, really invested in it? The remaining three finalists - Casey James, Crystal Bowersox and DeWyze - are three people who look like they need to be poked, prodded and otherwise forced into mustering up the ambition to win (so, in other words, the polar opposites of the audacious Adam Lambert). I'm not talking about modesty - Kris Allen was extremely humble, but when he stepped on the stage every week, he went for it, and audiences responded. Most of the times this year's top three have shown us who they are and what they want to be, it's been a bar-band singer, a member of the inaugural Lilith Fair tour and one of those interchangeable Nickelback-y dudes on 106.5 The End - none of which are all that relevant to the current pop landscape. Lee is perhaps the closest, but does he really do anything that Chris Daughtry didn't do better four years ago? He's a nice guy, but can come up a little short in musical savvy; that said, it sure seems that Simon looks at him and sees dollar signs. (I could see Crystal, honestly, carving more of a place for herself, if not necessarily on Top 40 radio.)

At any rate, to the setlist, as it was:

Casey: The tall Texan says he picked singer-songwriter Eric Hutchinson's "Ok, It's Alright With Me" because it's "a good representation of me as an artist." This turns out to be true, unfortunately: It's a midtempo acoustic pop song most people have never heard of, performed in the style of something you'd flip by on the radio dial, which is kind of perfectly Casey. (Degrees of Idol separation, by the way: Hutchinson has opened for Kelly Clarkson). His voice is fine, the style suits him, but it just isn't enough - and frankly, it hasn't been all season, with a few exceptions. But gee, standing there on stage, he sure is pretty. "I'm just glad to be here," he says, but the judges are displeased. "If you were having dinner, that's the salad," Simon says, adding that the song choice left no lasting effect on the most important night of Casey's life. "But," he said, "you sounded good." Decent and boring at once? The story of Casey's season, people!
Casey's judges' pick was John Mayer's "Daughters," selected by Kara and Randy. One of the least-heinous Mayer songs, this was actually a good fit for Casey, but I was left unclear about what the arrangement was going for - for some reason, it sounded like it had less guitar than the original, even though those type of bluesy guitar lines play precisely to Casey's strengths. "Every artist needs to know their audience, and your audience is women and girls," Kara informed Casey. That seemed to disappoint him - surely, he wants to rock it out for dudes, too! Not with this song, though, a languid paean to the importance of treating girls right. I am not sure the key worked for him, however, and he seemed uncertain, almost taking the already-subtle song down another notch, underenunciating his words at the beginning and finishing a bit weakly. That said, it showed his usually appealing sensitive side and was certainly an improvement on his first outing. "This fit you like a glove," Randy said, hilariously, because he picked it. But Simon labeled it a bit of a lazy arrangement, saying that Casey needed a bigger vocal moment on a night like this.

Crystal: Look, Crystal is my favorite finalist this year. But my issue with her is that she has not really ever picked anything surprising. She's excellent at what she does, but she hasn't ventured outside her comfort zone to put a twist on an unexpected song - a point that her selection Tuesday proved precisely. Melissa Etheridge's "Come to My Window" is exactly what you'd expect Crystal to choose. "It's always been one of my favorites, and it's a song about passion and love," she says. And I get that - that's defensible. As Simon later observes, admiringly, she's stayed true to who she is all season long and hasn't compromised herself as an artist. Sometimes, that works; others, it's like, you have this opportunity and use it on this? Then again, she hasn't really been challenged very much, has she? It's not like there are other contestants pushing her to go above and beyond.
Her stated goal with the Etheridge song was "to have fun." (Ugh, are we still on that?) "And get votes?" Seacrest asked gamely. "To have fun and get votes," she more repeats than reiterates. But a bad arrangement overpowers her, and she veers into some sharpish, nervous notes. Her phrasing, usually her best asset, is intact, and she does finish strong.
Ellen's pick, "Maybe I'm Amazed," by Paul McCartney, kind of baffled me - it's repetitive and features the line, "Baby I'm a lonely man," which doesn't really seem to embody Crystal. But I appreciated the rookie judge's motivation in picking the song: "I just wanted her to surprise people," Ellen said. And indeed, it seemed Crystal did mostly succeed at that, laying down some ferocious vocals and basically trying to throw the whole 'Sox at it, going without her guitar and displaying personality. To me, it nonetheless seemed like a waste of Crystal, frankly, but Kara said it showed off new parts of her voice. "That was terrific," Simon said, after confessing he was initially skeptical of the song choice, and even though his crush on Crystal appears to be waning. Randy, meanwhile, returned to a familiar well, shouting, "America, we got somebody else in it to win it!" Now, let's just hope she's still in it next week.

Lee: Lee finished the night riding high, and why shouldn't he have, performing in the pimp slot with the pimp song? But he also started strong, with a far savvier song choice than either of his fellow contestants made: Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man," which is 100 percent suited for his voice - so much so, in fact, that his version in a way ended up sounding like a slightly more tentative version of the recent cover by Shinedown, a band with a similar singer. However, both they and Skynyrd performed it more deliberately than Lee, who sped it up a bit and in doing so breezed past some of the deliberativeness that gives the song its power. To my ears, he also hit some sharp notes and whiffed a little on the big note, too.
Regardless, the powers that be were pushing the Lee narrative from the start of the evening, with Seacrest saying he'd returned from his rapturously received trip home to Chicago "a different guy." I sensed a bit more spring to his step and sparkle in his eye, but he still seemed to me pretty much the same shy dude we met weeks ago, with only moderately improved stage presence.
The judges called round one for him, but that was nothing compared to the avalanche o' praise they unleashed in round two - starting even before Lee sang, with Simon explaining that he picked "Hallelujah" because "This is his night, (a) big, big, night for him," and because though we'd heard the song, we hadn't heard it like Lee could do it, and that it would show the kind of artist he could be. This continued after the performance:

  • "I've been waiting all season to see who's going to throw down the real gauntlet and win the whole thing," Randy enthused, while then acknowledging the obvious, which is that Simon set it up perfectly for Lee. Really, it was like swinging at a T-ball stand when Crystal had to hit a curveball. 
  • "That was stunning, just stunning," Ellen said.
  • Kara used the phrase "incredible, epic moment" and made the frankly ludicrous claim that, "You were the heart of the show this season, and you just owned the entire night."  
  • Simon: "Tonight, with that performance, you proved you are a great singer, a fantastic person and I really hope for you you make it next week." (No, really?)

Lee, for his part, thanked Simon for the song, as well he should have. But shorn of the overheated rhetoric, how was it? Honestly, it was good. But it was not that good - though to be fair, hardly anything could be, in the face of such crazy praise. Though Lee was dressed as if headed to work an afternoon at the paint store, our cues to interpret this as a Major Moment arrived early, with strings swelling in the arrangement and a choir walking up behind him. But those flourishes aren't what make "Hallelujah" "Hallelujah" - you have to sing it with deep feeling and mean it, and I'm not sure Lee fully succeeded at that. The strings and horns and backup singers kind of dwarfed Lee's vocal efforts, and his voice faded in and out a little before finishing strong. "It's just one of those songs when you're playing it, it pulls everything out of you," he said.
Afterward, Simon grinned with approval as sustained applause rang out. Lee stood there a little dumbstruck, and clearly moved. But I'm not going to let myself fall prey to emotional manipulation - at least, not this week.

Who hits the trail? It really ought to be curtains for Casey, not just based on tonight's performances, or because a Crystal-Lee finale has seemed inevitable for weeks or because, honestly, they're the two that deserve it based on their entire seasons - although those are all valid reasons. No, it's also because a Crystal-Lee finale would at least be semi-suspenseful and relatively more interesting, in a season that has offered little in the way of intrigue.