Written by Gary Poole (The Pulse – Chattanooga’s Weekly Alternative)
Back in the early days of American Idol, theme nights were fairly simple. Country, Rock, R&B and so forth. As the show grew in scale and popularity, the producers became a bit more creative, reaching what I feel was the zenith with the spectacular Lennon & McCartney night of last season, easily the single best overall night in Idol’s now eight-season run.
So what the heck has happened this season? With the exception of last week’s Motown theme, this season has had some very unwieldy themes that have left most of the contestants rather befuddled. It was capped (so far) with Tuesday night’s “most popular songs downloaded from iTunes” theme. Sure, I understand how Idol would want to team up with (translation: get money from) Apple and iTunes, but what a cryptic theme. Which gave us everything from Gwen Stefani to Wild Cherry to Rascal Flatts.
I tune in to Idol every week because I am a fan of singing. I want to see and hear talented young people sing their hearts out in an effort to grab the golden ring of stardom by way of millions of speed-dialing fans. What I don’t want to see is confused contestants settling for their fifth song choice or obsessing over which of a complicated list of songs from all over the musical landscape to select in hopes of impressing the ever more unpredictable judges.
But enough about Kara DioGuardi. I’ll get to her in a moment.
Tonight’s theme was both a disservice to the contestants and the audience. Too many choices leads directly to bad choices in most cases, as can be proved any night at your local karaoke club. I much prefer the system that “Rock Star” used during its brief two-season run where they picked the same number of songs as contestants left, and then let them fight it out amongst themselves over who got to sing what. The songs were all designed to showcase the talent, not leave them floundering on stage, meekly responding to the judges with, “Well I had fun singing it and I’m sure my fans liked it.”
Or maybe I’m just in an overly critical mood tonight. Something I’m sure my mother, an avid Idol watcher in her own right, will agree with once she gets to my review of Anoop Desai.
But before I get to my reviews, I have some random thoughts and observations from my rather undecipherable notes. I know I’m a reporter by profession, but sometimes even I can’t read my own handwriting, though unlike Kara at least I can still count.
Ah yes, Kara. The fourth wheel on the Idol judges tricycle, who seems each week to become less relevant and more of a trainwreck. Basically, she’s the Megan Joy of the judges table. Her zinger back to the audience heckler to have him come do her job if he thought it was so easy struck me as not a bad idea. Instead of a having a permanent fourth judge, how about one randomly chosen audience member each week gets to fill out the panel. It’s like a mashup version of Idol and The Price Is Right. “Joey from Pasadena, you’re the lucky audience judge this week… come on down!” And then Kara could go to Studio 57 and have a nice steak smothered in Heinz 54 sauce. Or maybe she should just avoid using any numbers at all the rest of the season. Probably safer that way.
There is one part of my mind, the one that enjoys conspiracy theories, that thinks maybe Kara is all a producers plot to finally make Paula Abdul seem coherent and relevant by comparison. Because our favorite fashion critique has been unusually astute this season, even getting booed several times, something I can never remember happening in the past. Though I do have to say that Paula really is in no place to criticize what any contestant is wearing, considering her rather bizarre 50’s Barbie cocktail dress tonight, in all fairness Allison Iraheta did look like she was wearing something put together by a drunken fashion reality show contestant.
But enough on the judges. Idol is (supposedly) about the contestants. So without any further ado, here are my thoughts on how they performed for us Tuesday night.
By the time I made it to the final two contestants, Adam and Kris, I was beginning to wonder if the new Osbourne variety show that was to follow Idol would actually be entertaining in comparison. It was a very karaoke evening with a few decent singing performances but nothing that stood out and said, “I want to WIN!”
Thank goodness for Adam and Kris.
Adam Lambert’s spectacularly funky take on Wild Cherry’s “Play That Funky Music” was original, fun to watch, and so gloriously over the top that I loved every second of it. He changed up several parts of the song in very interesting ways, owned the stage like a true rock star, and when it came time for the final note, instead of just picking one high note to hit, he decided to throw caution to the wind and hit pretty much every single note in his register. In the hands of anyone else it would have crashed and burned, but with Adam and his truly amazing set of pipes, it worked perfectly. He has placed his stamp on Season Eight, letting everyone else know that he is the one to beat.
To which Kris Allen answered the challenge with easily his best performance to date. His soulful and moving take on Bill Withers’ timeless “Ain’t No Sunshine”, sung with virtuosity and musical creativity, said in no uncertain terms that he plans to be with Adam every step of the way. Stepping away from the guitar to the keyboard, an instrument I didn’t even know he knew how to play, and then combining it with a tasteful string quartet, was a masterful decision. And then he just sang his heart out. For the contestant with pretty much zero screen time before making the Top 13, Kris has emerged as a worthy challenger to Adam and in the process has just about displaced Danny Gokey to also-ran status from his early front-runner position.
Speaking of Danny, I’m beginning to wonder when he will get back to his earlier season form and remember that he is a funky stage performer with great presence and vocal prowess. The Top 9 is not the week to try to get introspective and show you can keep still behind a microphone stand. We want the energy, the exuberance, the joy which you’ve brought to the stage in past. Sure, his cover of Rascal Flatt’s “What Hurts The Most” was technically very good, but I was left a bit “Flatt” by his performance. If I were to be honest, to steal from Simon Cowell, it came across to me as nothing more than very good karaoke. He didn’t make the song a Danny Gokey song, and until he starts doing that, he is not going to remain a contender for the title. It was solid, it was strong, but it needs to be more.
Scott MacIntyre apparently consented to a trip to the salon this past week, debuting a new ‘do that clearly involved overuse of a hairdryer and an ozone hole’s worth of hairspray. He picked a song that was obviously a favorite of his and made a rather wise decision to leave out the band to focus solely on piano and voice with Billy Joel’s classic “Just The Way You Are”. And for the most part, his decisions worked. But while he sang well, pretty much the best I’ve heard from him so far, his piano playing was surprisingly a bit off, and he never really got into the darkness inside the song. It may sound like a love song, Scott, but Joel was not exactly a sweetness and light kind of songwriter back in the 70’s.
Lil Rounds has a similar problem to Scott. While she undoubtedly has a far superior voice, she also seems unable to connect to what she is singing about. An R&B diva from Memphis with an Aretha like voice and presence should never sing Celine Dion. It really should be in the Idol rulebook for future seasons. In fact, I’d be happy to never hear any contestant sing Celine again, but that’s just my personal taste. The problem Lil is having is that she never seems to have any emotional investment with what she’s singing, and that lack of connection is causing the audience to feel left out. Yes, she can sing. But until she sings as Lil Rounds, I don’t see her having much of a chance of going very deep in the competition.
This is the part of this week’s review my mother may want to skip over. It’s where I ask a simple question of Anoop Desai: who are you? Seriously, you have a fun name, a rather endearing geeky swagger, and a set of eyebrows that would look more at home on a Muppet (think Animal and you’ll understand where I’m coming from), but as far as an “artist” I really have no idea what to make of you. Usher? Really? The fact that my DVR player decided to skip over the last 45 seconds of your performance (I watched it back online in the time between everyone posting everything from tonight on YouTube and the Tuber Mods taking them all down a few minutes later) was not a good omen for Anoop’s long-term prospects. Okay, it wasn’t hideously bad – I graded it a C minus – but it left me no clearer on who you are musically than before.
Last week, I gave Matt Giraud an A, only to see him fall inexplicably into the bottom three. This week, I’ll be surprised to not see him back on the uncomfortable silver stool. You can take the boy out of the piano bar, but apparently you can’t take the piano bar out of the boy. From his odd decision to set up his keyboard in the middle if the stage left crowd, to jumping the gun on Ryan’s intro, to his grumbling and groaning through The Fray’s “You Found Me”, I kept thinking of one of Simon’s favorite words: indulgent. Matt seems very bitter about last week and appears to have lost interest in competing. There is no other way to describe his song choice and performance this week.
Yet the one thing that may save him is Megan Joy, for she committed the one (normally) unforgiveable sin on Idol: she was just plain boring. Does anyone even remember what she sang without looking it up on Google? For the record, it was Lauren Hill’s version of Bob Marley’s “Turn Your Lights Down Low” which showed no sign of either influence. Sure, she’s hot. Sure, she has a quirky voice and personality that have gained her a large fanbase. And yes, she has a figure that gets the attention of any red-blooded male. But will it be enough to carry her through another bad performance? Cleavage can only get you so far in life (Kara and Paula’s competing bustlines notwithstanding), Megan dear. You also need to entertain us. Vocally.