Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Uptight (Everything's A'ight)

We are a Stevie Wonder family. "Ribbon in the Sky" was the song Marian and I danced to at our wedding, and Julia's been getting a steady diet of "Innervisions," "Songs in the Key of Life," "Talking Book," etc, since she was in the womb. So it's always painful when an "American Idol" contestant butchers one of Stevie's tunes -- which they do with stunning regularity, considering the number of times that Randy and Simon have told people to stop freaking singing Stevie.

But Stevie Wonder Night wasn't nearly the ordeal I expected when it was announced last week. There were some bad performances, but there were four great ones and, as for the rest, well, that's what TiVo's are for.

Since we're now into the finals, I suppose it's time to start giving comments on each performance. (Keep in mind that I'll have nothing to say about the Wednesday show, because I refuse to watch the thing.) In order...

Ace Young, "Do I Do": Meh. Simon was right; it was pretty frantic. Uptempo songs that require a lot of movement don't play to Ace's strengths; unlike his spiritual father Guarini, he hasn't yet mastered the art of sexing up the camera unless he's standing lock-still and emoting a ballad. (If he ever gets a record deal, I'm guessing there's gonna be a Wilson Phillips cover on there.) Ordinarily, being mediocre at the very start of a long-ass show could be the kiss of doom, but his looks and the fact that several people were clearly worse means he should be just fine.

Kellie Pickler, "Blame It on the Sun": Maybe it's time to retract that whole "Kellie Pickler is going to win 'American Idol'" column, huh? As we've all been saying, she's Carrie with twice the sass and half the voice. Like Carrie, she looked damned uncomfortable singing a song so far outside her chosen gendre. Unlike Carrie, she doesn't have the pipes to distract people from the deer in headlights stage presence she had going on tonight. I'll give her points for her retort to Simon's Dolly Parton comparison: "Without the assets."

Elliot Yamin, "Knocks Me Off My Feet": Easily the best of the first hour, but probably only fifth-best overall. I really like the tone of Elliot's voice, and this was right in his wheelhouse. On the other hand, starting a song on a stool has never done a favor for any contestant in this show's history, and he didn't really get going until the last third.

Mandisa, "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing": A real disappointment. I figured she was gonna tear the roof off the dump with this theme, but the non-belty parts were just ordinary, and the belty sections were too shouty in spots. One of the many things that makes Stevie such a brilliant singer is that the quiet sections are just as beautiful, just as exciting as the parts where he gets to show off.

Bucky Covington, "Superstition": Better than it had any right to be, given how far removed the song is from anything Bucky's ever tried to sing in his life, but still nothing special. When I saw him line-dancing at the start, I assumed he was gonna pull a John Stevens IV and just turn it into his chosen specialty, but that was relatively straight. Frankly, I would have been more interested if he'd tried to Southern fry the song a little.

Melissa McGhee, "Lately": Okay, so nobody expected her to make the finals, she's choosing a song and a look that are a 180 from the slutty rocker thing that allowed her to squeak past Ayla last week, and she messed up the lyrics besides. When Katharine performed later in the show, Marian said, "So there's a McGhee and a McPhee?" I told her, "Don't worry. There won't be a McGhee for very long."

Lisa Tucker, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered": A classic case of the judges being so hypnotized by the stage presence that they didn't pay much attention to the vocals. Lisa moved really well, albeit in a programmed, DeGarmoBot2000 way, but there was nothing remotely special about her singing. She's a ballad girl, and she's going to have to stay in her ballot box for the rest of the season if she wants to go far.

Kevin Covais, "Part-Time Lover": Early in the season three finals, my friend Dan (whose recaps are now being posted on Zap2it) and I had a running debate over whether Jon Peter Lewis was a subversive comic genius (my take) or just a spacey kid without much brains or talent (Dan's). The longer the pen salesman stuck around, the less confident I got in my theory, until at last I had to admit that he wasn't so much punking the show as just sucking. With Chicken Little, I may have finally found my merry prankster. This kid clearly knows that he doesn't belong here, that he's going to be the butt of everyone's jokes, that he has no chance in hell of winning or even getting a record deal from an obscure label, so he's decided to screw around and amuse himself until it's time to go home. Listen to his pre-performance interview with Seacrest and then watch those dance moves and then tell me he's not in on the joke. I love that the bar for him has been set so low that Randy and Paula were wildly praising him for being in tune. Not good by any means, but damned entertaining.

Katharine McPhee, "Until You Come Back To Me": Okay, here's where the show really got started. I made the same Kelly Clarkson comparison the other day that Simon did tonight (though I have to give credit to Dan for suggesting it), and I think she could actually wind up outdoing Kelly some day. She's got that same mix of sweet personality and big voice, but she's also more self-aware and, as Marian points out, she looks like a cross between Katie Holmes and Catherine Zeta-Jones. I hate to use a Randy-ism, but that was hot.

Taylor Hicks, "Living For the City": I know the judges went apeshit for Chris, but this was the best of the night for me. First, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by the magical powers of the show's stylists, but they found a way to make Taylor presentable; with that haircut and that suit, I could actually see him as an adult contemporary star. Second, even though he committed the "Idol" sin of smiling through a dark song (Taylor would have a hard time not smiling at a funeral, he's so exuberant), his voice did all the heavy lifting the emotions of the song required. I liked Chris' "Higher Ground" and all, but if I was buying a recording of any number from tonight's show, it'd be this one.

Paris Bennett, "All I Do": Because I skipped everything prior to the semi-finals, I had a hard time understanding why so many people labeled Paris the favorite, much less why they compared her to Fantasia, who's still my favorite "Idol" winner. Tonight, I saw it. Energy, command of the vocals on both the small and big moments and tremendous stage presence. I don't usually love it when a contestant chooses a song where the backup singers take the chorus while they randomly belt, but she was so good on the verses that I let it slide.

Chris Daughtry, "Higher Ground": Look, Chris is one of my favorites, and I'd love for a rocker to win, but that was freaking ridiculous to suddenly trot out the strobe lights, turn on the fog machines and crank the band's amplifiers to 11 to make it seem like Chris was head and shoulders above everyone else tonight. It was a really solid vocal, and he's mastered the Bice-ian art of using the microphone stand as a dance partner, but it wasn't deserving of the fellatio coming from the judges. As they were slobbering over his originality, all I could think was that it was a very faithful rendition of the Chili Peppers' version. Again, I like Chris a lot, and he was probably the second or third-best performer of the night (after Taylor and maybe Paris), but it annoys me when the show makes its agenda this blatant.

Who's going home?: If people voted strictly on the quality of the performances (I know, I know... please control your laughter), Ace, Kellie and Kevin would be in some trouble. Since we all know that's not the case, I figure Simon will be proven right a week late when Melissa gets her ticket home. When you're a marginal finalist without an obvious fanbase, you need to kick ass every week or you'll get sent home to hang with Vanessa Olivarez, Amy Adams and Jessica Sierra.

What did everybody else think?


Anonymous said...

Hi Alan. A newbie here (so go easy, hehe).

Tonight was the first night in a long time that I sat down and seriously watched AMERICAN IDOL (although not from start to finish; I missed Lisa Tucker's performance), and I have to say, I think Taylor Hicks might become my favorite of the competition. His performance really was something fresh and original (although, I admit, some of that feeling probably came from the fact that I hadn't heard the song before). It was fun to watch too; I haven't seen anyone move or dance onstage quite like him (at least on AI). The gray hair perhaps helps too: to me, he's the elder statesman of sorts in this year's competition.

And I'm almost inclined to agree with you about Kevin Covais. I mean, he's even calling HIMSELF a "sex symbol" on this show. Is he being serious?

Alan Sepinwall said...

The thing that has me convinced Kevin's in on it was the way he talked back to Simon. Usually, when contestants do that, they sound arrogant or delusional. Kevin said it almost casually, like he'd accepted that Simon hated him weeks ago and has moved on.

He could still prove me wrong and turn out like Jon Peter Lewis, but I was amused last night.

Taylor's my favorite right now. I don't know if he can win, but I've consistently enjoyed his performances more than anybody else.

Daniel said...

Clearly, in Randy's honor, the title of this entry should be "Uptight (Everything's A'ight)."

And don't forget adding Julia D'Amico and Lindsay Cardinale to people whose footsteps Melissa might be following in if she gets booted this week or next week.

I'm tired. So tired.

Alan Sepinwall said...

D'Amato, Daniel. D'Amato. (Or, as TWoP referred to her, The Undead Corpse of Julia D'Amatao.) As for the subject change, done and done.

Daniel said...

Nice. Glad to be enacting tangible change. Next, when referring to Amy Adams, you always want to refer to her as Oscar nominee Amy Adams, just to screw with people's heads.

Anonymous said...

I didn't realize, until this show, how treacherously difficult Stevie's songs can be to sing. For the first half of the show, contestants seemed to be swallowed up by the songs... even my boy Elliott Yamin, who needs another home run soon before "Moody's Mood for Love" becomes a distant memory.

Katharine McPhee won the night. As soon as she strode on stage, singing "Till You Come Back to Me," she was utterly in command. She understood the storytelling aspect of singing... I believed what she was saying. I'd never taken notice of her before last night.

As for Simon going ape over Chris Daughtry's "Higher Ground," he obviously never heard the Chili Peppers version. Far from making this song "his own," Chris re-did the Chili Peppers version, which is all I could think about while watching. Yeah, he can outsing Anthony Kiedis, but don't praise the guy for originality.

Paris did a fine job with "All I Do." I wish she'd done the whole song down-tempo, like she started it. Now that would've been fresh.

Alan, if you zapped past the between-song filler, (and why not?), perhaps you missed Kellie and Bucky admitting that they were unfamiliar with Stevie Wonder's music. I didn't think that was possible in America. But I'll call it a generational thing, as opposed to racial or regional. After all, those classic albums you mentioned were made 30 to 35 years ago (older than you, Alan!)

Among my fave Stevie covers: Barbra Streisand's show-tune-style version of "All is Fair in Love"; jazz singer Vanessa Rubin's cool take on "Superwoman"; '70s group the Soul Children's churched-up version of "Signed, Sealed, Delivered."

Alan Sepinwall said...

I did watch the How I Met Stevie Wonder videos, undercover black man. I think it's regional and generational. As you say, Stevie's peak period began before I was even born and ended while I was still learning to walk. And the explosion of entertainment content on cable and the Web makes today's kids and teens even less likely to stumble across older material. There's so much stuff geared directly at them that they don't even need to bother listening to oldies radio or watching black and white movies.

It's a generalization, I know, but a few years back, I was doing a guest lecture at a local college and telling a story about how the relationship between TV stars and the press used to be so intimate that CBS' press tour party was usually at Larry Hagman's house -- followed by a roomful of blank stares. Stevie's time as the greatest musician alive was nearly a decade before J.R. got shot.