Tuesday, March 28, 2006

21st Century, boy

If there's been a worse night of "American Idol," I can't remember it. This was worse than Broadway night last year, worse than 21st Century Night last year, worse than any of the Burt Bacharach nights. This was a stinkeroonie, virtually from start to finish, where the between-song filler was more entertaining than most of the songs. In order...

Lisa Tucker, "Because of You": I had been joking with Fienberg that you could probably turn this theme into an "Idol" Salute to "Idol," with Kellie singing "Inside Your Heaven," Taylor doing "Invisible," Elliott doing "Flying Without Wings," etc., etc., etc. I just never imagined Lisa would be brave/dumb enough to pick a Kelly Clarkson tune. Very sharp all over the place and not that interesting. I know I said it last week, but she's going home.

Kellie Pickler, "Suds in the Bucket": The judges nailed it: a novelty song, and one that didn't even give Kellie a chance to show off her alleged personality, save for a wink in the middle. Much as I hate to quote an old line by the D-A-double-G, that whole performance was a non-event.

Ace Young, "Drops of Jupiter": The highlight of the show, by far, was Simon's scolding of Paula when she was having a Corey Clark flashback while fantasizing about Ace's scar. The arrangement was so modest and avoided all of the song's big notes, so I have no idea if Ace could sing the real thing. Snooze.

Taylor Hicks, "Trouble": Simon was right and he was wrong about the wardrobe choice. It didn't look like something Clay would wear, but the motorcycle jacket wasn't working for him at all. I like that he abandoned most of the tics and Pee-Wee Herman big shoe dancing in favor of doing a straight rendition (and I'm stunned that I agree with Paula on anything). Oddly enough, I think he could have made that ending bigger than it was, and I'm usually anti-belting for the sake of belting. One of the better ones of the night, but far from Taylor's best. And, of course, they cut to Taylor's season three doppleganger George Huff in mid-performance.

Mandisa, "Wanna Praise You": Prostelytising aside, this was energetic but not good. She was talk-singing the verses and shouting the chorus, and she always seemed like she was racing to keep up with the arrangement; don't know if that's how the actual song goes or if that's just the result of squeezing it into 90 seconds.

Chris Daughtry, "What If": Before Chris gets to sing, Seacrest has to come out to do one of his patented damage control interviews where he tries to defuse a controversy from the week before, in this case by not only crediting Live for Chris' arrangement of "Walk the Line," but inviting him to suck up to Live as much as possible. As for the performance? Bleah. I hate Creed to begin with, and this song was all shouting and growling, with Chris trying to look so hardcore that he might as well be singing "The Legend of the Rent." On the one hand, I'm glad Simon finally called Chris on being a one-trick pony, but wasn't he the same guy who last week was applauding Chris for refusing to step out of his tiny box?

Katharine McPhee, "The Voice Within": Earlier in the show, Marian dubbed her "the hot wedding singer," and this performance didn't exactly give me evidence to rebut the charge. She looked uncomfortable, was relying on way too much meliasma to compensate for her inability to hold some of those vintage Xtina notes, and it was easily the worst vocal she's done to date. And for all Simon scolds Paula for wanting to be inside Ace's heaven, the only excuse for him dubbing this almost as good as the original is if he wants to do the same with the McPheever.

Bucky Covington, "Real Good Man": Well, this is the most comfortable Bucky has looked and sounded so far, but I'm guessing that this kind of performance would land him in about seventh place on "Nashville Star." (Just like Chris would have struggled to go far on "Rock Star.") Nothing special, but on this night, nothing special is an accomplishment.

Paris Bennett, "Work It Out": Again, I don't have much to say that Simon didn't already put perfectly with his "A little girl pretending to be Beyonce" comment. Paris can sing and she can dance, but that entire performance had me wishing for the real thing.

Elliott Yamin, "I Don't Want to Be": He's growing leaps and bounds as a stage performer, but the vocals kept getting swallowed up by the orchestra and the backup singers, and the one spot in the song where they dropped out so he could go a cappella, he was doing the talk-sing thing. I'm happy to see Elliott showing some confidence (and the producers showing confidence in him by giving him the final spot), but it wasn't spectacular.

Prediction: I'm gonna keep saying Lisa is going home until she does, but this should be a telling bottom three. With everyone either sucking or being mediocre, the votes are going to depend entirely on fanbase strength. Is Pickler really as indestructible as Simon has been suggesting? Will Ace get bottom three'd again? Or does Bucky suffer the Kevin Covais fate of going home when he was slightly above average and his fanbase assumed he was safe?

Ugh. The only pluses were the no-nonsense pace and the return of "House." (More on that tomorrow.)


Anonymous said...

Please excuse my ignorance, but what is 'meliasma' (see McPhee's review)?

Alan Sepinwall said...

I may have misspelled it, but it's that singing technique where you embellish a note by stretching it out forever and singing 15 different notes inside it. Basically, it's the annoying thing that every pop singer has been doing ever since Whitney Houston sang the national anthem at the Giants-Bills Super Bowl. When Randy Jackson goes on and on about how he wanted to hear some "runs," that's what he's referring to. Me, I prefer people who can sound good just hitting the notes as written.

Anonymous said...


I couldn't agree more with your skepticism about the proliferation of melismatic singing among pop stars. Sometimes a little simplicity is welcome. Katharine apparently sang a Christina Aguilera song, however; I don't think I've heard the original, but isn't Aguilera another singer who does a lot of oversinging of that sort? So in a way (and again, keep in mind, I haven't heard the original song), maybe Simon had a point. Whether that's a good thing is a different story, and I essentially agree with you about her performance; I thought Katharine was much better last week.

My man Taylor was probably one of the better ones last night, though: at the very least, he seemed to me to really feel the words, and he also kept his dance moves to a minimum. I liked it.

I have to challenge you (in a friendly manner, of course), though, on Paris. Now, I think last week she performed "Fever" and you were a little suspicious of just how much young (17-year-old, I believe) Paris could really bring to such a song. And this week Simon calls her a "little girl trying to be Beyonce." Is she doomed to never be taken seriously because of her age? B/c, I mean, her singing voice is certainly something to hear...

Tosy And Cosh said...

Agreed on Paris, Kenji. If she had walked in as an unknown entity and given that performance, Simon would have loved it. If he didn't already know that she's only 16 - and more importantly have in his head the small, cute voice and manner she has when not singing, he would never have thoughtg of it as a little girl imitating Beyonce.

Adam said...

It's melisma.

The problem last night was that everyone was too much in their comfort zone, and no one was trying to show the outer limits of their talent or push it into a different genre. The thing that most amused me last night was counting the number of times Bucky shifted his microphone between hands; the thing that scared me most was the threat of seeing Ace's nipple.

Alan Sepinwall said...

My issue with Paris isn't just about her age. Fantasia was only a couple of years older, and she pulled off all kinds of womanly songs. (There are exceptions to a lot of rules. In general, plucky white girls shouldn't sing Aretha, but I loved Kelly Clarkson's version of "Respect.") When Paris does songs from older eras, she doesn't seem as much like a kid as she does on contemporary songs. Maybe it's just that I've seen Beyonce sing that song, do those dance moves, and there's just no comparison. Beyonce oozes sex out of every pore when she does a number like that; Paris seemed like a very well-rehearsed kid. Technically, the singing and dancing were perfect, but that's all it was: a lifeless copy.

Thanks for the proper spelling, Adam. And you're right that the performers generally struggle most when given broad themes that allow them to stay in their respective boxes. Problem is, ever since the fiasco that was Showtunes Night last year, I think the producers are afraid to ever again do a specific theme that forces their favorites out of their comfort zones. Stevie Wonder has a huge catalog that in theory had something for every niche; ditto the '50s. I'm guessing we're only a week or two away from Songs From the Year You Were Born Night, followed by Songs With The Letter E Night, Songs You May Have Once Heard on the Radio Night, Songs With Rhyming Lyrics Night, etc.

The sucky thing is that most of the really memorable "Idol" performances have been on out-of-the-box theme nights: Kelly doing "Stuff Like That There" on Big Band Night, Clay doing "Solitaire" on Neil Sedaka Night, Fantasia's "Summertime" (a song she'd never heard before) on Movie Soundtrack Night, etc. Sometimes the only way to find out who has what it takes to actually have a music career is to make people do something they're not familiar with.

Anonymous said...

Yep, Alan... a very off night. You say last year's 21st century night stunk as well? Then that does it... I lay the blame on all the suck-ass songs being written nowadays. Clearly pop songwriting is a dying art.

I give Paris the best-performance edge over Taylor for the night. Yeah, she was doing Beyonce, but as ever this little girl demonstrated that she's ready to hit major-league pitching. She's ready to be out there.

Nice to see Taylor simply render a well-done vocal without the spastics.

I wasn't feeling McPhee this night, but we did get a hiney shot courtesy of the cameraman, for which I'm always grateful. (Well, almost always... because we also got a hiney shot of Mandisa.)

And while I'm judging the women on such shallow bases, did you notice Kellie Pickler's before-song interview? One, she looks real different without the makeup. Two, it appears she's been dwelling near the doughnut table.

But I will say that "Suds in a Bucket" is a great song title, in the way that "Snakes on a Plane" is a great movie title.

Poor Lisa Tucker. I've always had a certain fondness for her, because she looks like the prettiest girl in most people's high school... the kind of girl I always got a crush on. Sure enough, she's a homecoming queen in real life.

But as someone recently pointed out in print, Lisa seems like the high-school beauty who goes to college and is shocked to discover that she's now just another face in the crowd, no longer the standout. Her flummoxed face-making during last night's judges' commentary brought to mind the voice of Stewie Griffin: "Life isn't what you thought it would be." Buh-bye, Lisa. See ya on stage at Knott's Berry Farm.

It was a good night for Paula Abdul, because she was spot-on about Elliott Yamin. Funky white boy. But his vocal was a little rough... clearly a bit of strain going on, as will happen as the competition proceeds. He sounded markedly better during that little sliver of dress-rehearsal footage. He's still my boy. And since I downloaded an mp3 of his performance of "Moody's Mood for Love," I'll never lose sight of what he's capable of.

Now Alan, you say he went last as a vote of confidence from the producers?? Surely in a TV competition with a prize at stake, the order of performance is chosen at random... as there is an advantage to performing last and a disadvantage to performing first. It's random, right? How else could they avoid accusations of shenanigans, favoritism, etc., as well as disgruntled contestants?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Performance order has never been chosen at random. though it's allegedly not done to favor any one contestant. Basically, the goal is to start and end each episode as strongly as possible, which is why the first performer is usually good and up-tempo, and the best performance closes the show on a high note. (The producers decide the performance order after watching dress rehearsal.) Doesn't always work out that way, either because someone does much better or worse in the live show than they did in rehearsal, or because the best person is someone who closed the show recently.

In a nod to fairness, they do try to move the performers around from show to show; most of the singers from the second half of Stevie Wonder Night, for instance, performed in the first hour of '50s Night. The producers can occasionally cheat the order in the early part of the finals: Chris went last in two out of three weeks, but because one of those was in the semis, it didn't "count."

But the producers have always, always had the means to subtly help or hinder contestants, whether it's giving Chris that laser light show and smoke machine on "Higher Ground," or sticking Clay with a boring song (I think it was "Vincent") in one of the season two episodes where the judges chose what the contestants sang. Another example: Bo Bice, one of the producers' two favorites last year, wound up in the bottom two after half-assing his way through a cut-down of "Freebird," and during the results show he acted like he didn't care if he went home. The following week's theme was announced as Disco Night, but somewhere in the rehearsal process, the producers decided to do everything they could to save Bo, so they changed the theme to the much more nebulous "'70s Dance Night," which gave him an excuse to sing "Vehicle," which barely fit that theme but wouldn't have been allowed at Disco Night, and he rocked the house with it.

Adam said...

Well, next week is "country" week. Is Nickleback now a "country" band?