Tuesday, April 15, 2008

American Idol, Mariah Carey Night: A special delivery of pain

Spoilers for "American Idol" coming up just as soon as I buy some condiments...

I feel like I should start this one off with a big disclaimer. There are few assignments in my professional life I've ever dreaded more than sitting through an entire hour of Mariah Carey covers. I respond to Carey music the same way I imagine a dad in the mid-'50s responded to rock 'n roll: all the songs sound the same to me, all the songs sound like noise, and all of them represent the ruination of popular music as I know it. The emphasis on vocal runs, the power notes solely for the sake of them, etc... Mariah may be vocally gifted, but in her oeuvre you can find nearly everything that sets my teeth on edge with pop music in general and "American Idol" in particular.

That said, the night wasn't quite as agonizing as I feared, if only because there was one performance I actually liked (David Cook). The rest ranged from competent but annoying and dull (Archie, Kristy Lee) to safe and forgettable (Brooke), with only a few splashes of the anticipated horror (Carly, Syesha).

Still, my overwhelming hatred of the catalog being used made it hard to concentrate too closely on the performances. I mean, I think Kristy Lee was passable, but that may just be because my mind was replaying Manning-to-Tyree as a defense mechanism at the time. I can't guarantee that I have anything insightful to say about anybody here, but I'll give it a try.

In order...

David Archuleta, "When You Believe": It's the part he was born to play, baby! Earnest balladry, sprinkled with references to faith and prayer, eyes closed for nearly all of it as David focused on both the notes and the inspirational meaning of the lyrics -- it's the same performance he gives every week, more or less. Wake me when he's won the title.

Carly Smithson, "Without You": As you would expect, Carly and Syesha are the only two contestants on the night to try to tackle the Mariah-ness of their songs head on. Carly's problem is two-fold: first, while I admire the restraint of the first half of the song, the 90-second window isn't long enough for the slow build to the notes she really wants to sing; and second, she continues to look like she just took a football in the groin(*) whenever she hits said notes.

((*) "Barney's movie had heart, but 'Football in the Groin' had a football in the groin.")

Syesha Mercado, "Vanishing": And here was the performance where I wanted to jab an ice pick into my brain, repeatedly. I think Syesha showed off relatively impressive power and range -- not quite top of the "Idol" diva heap (Tamyra, La Toya, Melinda), but on that second level (Vonzell, Trenyce) -- but she did it in the service of an arrangement that seemed to be nothing but vocal runs. Have I mentioned how much I hate frakking runs?

Brooke White, "Hero": A part of me wishes Brooke had been a shocking boot around top 10 or top 9, because the longer her tenure lasts, the more I want to go back and reassess the earlier performances I liked so much. Was her magnificent near-breakdown during "Let It Be" just the sign of a performer tapping into the power of a classic ballad, or was it just the sign of someone who will cry at a deodorant commercial? Was her stripped-down "Love Is A Battlefield" the mark of a skilled musician who (like David Cook) understood how to adapt an unlikely song to her strengths, or that of a nervous performer trying desperately to hide all of her weaknesses? I love the raspy tone of Brooke's voice, and if they put her in a studio with some good songwriters, I might actually consider buying a song or three, but she's just a one-octave nervous wreck at this point.

Kristy Lee Cook, "Forever": Again, I can not remember a single thing about this performance, save that, at the time, it seemed like another example of the gradual resurgence for our resident horse-selling, cage-fighting android. After seeming like cannon fodder forever, I would not at all be surprised to see her as the last woman standing, maybe even in the final 3 with the two Davids.

David Cook, "Always Be My Baby": Like Blake last year, David has a very strong producing instinct. He understands what's going to work with his style, and how to adapt any song from any theme to fit that. Unlike Blake, he's got a killer voice. His style isn't exactly my taste, veering too far towards the Nickelback/Daughtry end of the alt-rock spectrum, but he feels like one of the most radio-ready contestants the show's ever had. You could release this -- or his "Hello," or "Billie Jean" -- right now with almost no tweaking from what he did on stage. (There was a bum note near the end, but that's something you can solve with a few takes in the studio.) For 90 seconds there, I didn't hate the music of Mariah. That takes a lot.

Jason Castro, "I Don't Want to Cry": Jason and Brooke have been paired throughout the contest as our "singer-songwriters" (though I have no idea if either one can write a song, even one as awful as "Flying Without Wings"). Tonight, both tried to escape the Mariah trap by doing stripped-down, unchallenging arrangements, but only Jason really succeeded, finding a way to seem confident and in control even as he was singing within a four or five-note range throughout.

Best of the night: David Cook. No question. Too good for this show, really.

In danger: Carly's a lock for the bottom three, and this could be the week her luck finally runs out. I expect Syesha to join her. What I'm damned curious to see is whether the ol' Archuleta Inevitability is so mighty as to overcome the season-long curse of the lead-off spot. By going first, by giving the same performance he always gives, and by getting good but not great praise from the judges, could Archie wind up on the seal tomorrow night, just long enough for Seacrest to admonish us about the importance of voting for our favorites? I don't expect him to be there, but if ever there was a week for it to happen, this seems like it.

What did everybody else think?


Jake said...

If there's any justice (there isn't), Kristy will be out.

But at this point I'm pretty sure we're gonna see two Davids battling for the win in the end (and I wouldn't be shocked to see David pull the upset). It's just a matter of time as the rest of the competitors drop out--they don't have the chops to compete with Archuleta and they aren't interesting or creative enough to compete with semi-rocker Dave.

Of course, America's voting record isn't consistently favorable to the best singers. As you say, Archuleta could fall through the cracks any week--but a) he's not likely to fall enough to actually lose, and b) if he does end up in the bottom 3, people will never let it happen again.

Anonymous said...

I think Brooke is a lock for the bottom three.

As for the "first slot of death," if Ramiele was able to escape it that week she had it, in which she received tepid praise at best, without even hitting the bottom three... I doubt Archuleta will hit the seal after getting a tongue bath from the judges.

Nicole said...

I enjoyed Cook and Castro's performances tonight, but everyone else was meh. Archuleta has bored me for weeks now because he sings all these inspirational songs without actually feeling them. He wasn't bad, but boring and I don't see anyone over 25 actually buying a full album of his. Also, boys who haven't completed puberty cannot wear p/leather pants.
I don't think he will ever hit the seal (although I would be happy if I'm proven wrong), and I see this as a David x2 final with Kristy Lee as the third place finisher.

Carly, Syesha and Brooke are in trouble this week, because Kristy wasn't horrible and is singing to her base. Going with the theme of "getting rid of those foreigners" I'm going to say Carly gets the boot.

I checked Dial Idol, and Cook is actually in the lead, although not by much. Of course the West Coast hasn't weighed in yet.

I wasn't impressed with the judges again tonight because this thing ran over time and should not have. I didn't need to hear the hamburger /poi comment a second time Paula.

J said...

I'm with you on the Carey thing, for the most part, just because there aren't any songs there. But without the distraction of any memorable melodies -- "Hero" and Carly's Badfinger/Air Supply cover were the only songs I recognized -- I was shocked to hear just how off the notes were. As you mentioned before, you can't overexamine the singing in Beatles tunes; you can with these.

Brooke was horrible, off-key. David Cook (pretty much the reason to watch, especially to see what he comes up with on nights like this... and awwww, he cried) had his misses, too, but hit the notes that counted, the big ones. KLCook was a mess. Carly is polished but can't construct cohesive performances. Archuleta was in his element and smooth. I thought Syesha did what you were supposed to do with these songs, and did okay. I can't remember Castro, but I am craving poi.

And I never ever want to hear any of those performances ever again.

Anonymous said...

Why did Teri Effing Hatcher get the most screen time tonight? Her face was everywhere I looked.

Anonymous said...

It is kind of amazing that Mariah Carey now has more number-one singles than Elvis. Can any one name even half of those 18 songs? And while her voice really was a wonder to hear a decade ago, these days not even she can handle the runs she used to tackle with ease. (When someone like Syesha tries, she ends up completely losing the melody.)

Overall, it was a completely boring night. I think Archuleta was good enough to be safe another week despite going first. And David Cook was so refreshing that you barely noticed that he dropped a lot of notes, too. As for the rest of them... meh.

Anonymous said...

Paula is on crazy drugs...

Unknown said...

For once I really like Kristy Lee. Brooke tanked.

Anonymous said...

Archuleta just seems too robotic or something. The way he stands perfectly still with his smile after each performance.

I'm just not getting him. Nice kid, can sing pretty well, but he's just too "factory produced" for me.

My 7-year old daughter thinks he's amazing. That about sums him up.

Now, David Cook, there's a guy that has reached "must watch" status. Just like when watching a baseball game and a great hitter comes up, whatever you're doing, you stop and watch the at-bat.

Same deal for David Cook. When he performs, the house goes quiet.

Archuleta may win, but Cook's gonna be the star.

As far as the others, I actually think Jason Castro is very underrated, and is better than any of the remaining women. At least from a future star standpoint.

I enjoy his performances more than anyone else not named David Cook.

Matthew said...

We haven't seen this episode yet in NZ - we're about three weeks behind - but I'm astonished by the theme. Isn't Mariah one of the big three that they always tell signers to stay away from? And now they have an entire night just of Mariah? It's like thety want everyone to fail.

K J Gillenwater said...

At the very beginning of the show, Ryan Seacrest said the producers had picked the theme...which I think meant that none of the judges were pleased. And I would say, none of the audience was pleased either.

Mariah Carey? Really? Top 40 crap that all sounds the same as she shows off her obnoxious range just to show she can go to ear bleed levels? Runs, runs, and more runs with no particular musical purpose.

That is why the boys did better. Because they weren't expected to copy Mariah and could leave out all the junk and still sound good.

Surprisingly I liked Jason Castro for the first time ever...and then Simon gutted him. David Cook had some bad lower notes...I wasn't as super crazy for him as I usually am.

Everyone else? The pits.

Syesha was particularly bad b/c the last 10 seconds wasn't even a damn word! Just a lot of up and down run crap just to show off. Ick.

Brooke at her piano was trembling so much, she made *me* nervous.

Please, producers, pick a better theme for next week. I really HATE the 'mentor' weeks. Go back to types of music PLEASE!

Anonymous said...

One of things that annoys me most about Mariah Carey is her habit of moving her hand up and down in sync with her voice, as if she has to point at the notes on a scale before singing. It was nice to see that she didn't confine that tic to her performance; she did it plenty during her mentoring. ("See? That note right here? Why can't you reach it?")

Joe said...

Another yawn.

Of course it was Mariah Carey night.
She has a new CD.

Some thoughts:

I am the last one on earth who likes Brooke.

Kristy Lee looked like a sure winner in her early audition "profile" videos, but now she's got nothin. She gets points for resisting the urge to show skin and pander. Although, I would welcome the pandering.

David vs. David is the final. No Goliath.

Anonymous said...

I thought Simon appeared to be "gutting" Castro, but then praised him...

J said...

I liked Jason Castro for the first time ever...and then Simon gutted him

Simon agreed with Paula (who wanted to luau "all night long" with Castro) and added, "It was a cool version." Randy was the one who got all Poi Dawg Wha? on that performance.

Eric said...

So is next week Madonna week? She's got an album coming out too. (If so, I hope Clifford the Crunchy Muppet gets dibs on "La Isla Bonita.:)

h said...

Solid recap. Awful show featuring awful songs by an awful "singer".

erin said...

Hmm--I actually disagree with most of you about Syesha. She sang the song faithfully, which is from Mariah's first album, and I thought had a lot of control besides a few bum notes. Alan's hated runs are in the original song, so you shouldn't blame her (whether it's good enough to be Mariah karaoke vs. Cook's more insprired Mariah re-interpreting is up for debate). Now, I'm partial to this song because I sang it for a talent show years ago (I know many of you are shuddering in your seats right now), but I loved it because it was it was simple and powerful, with just the voice as the instrument and not lots of extra junk. I thought Syesha did a really good job with it, but might be hurt because people don't know it.

As for D.Cook, I wasn't totally impressed with the song until halfway through (it was too low to start out with), but he had a nice ending, and I really liked the string arrangement. He definitely is album ready, and I think more talented and interesting than the oft-compared Daughtry.

Archuleta...blah. More blah. Earnestly blah. Please don't vote him into the final two, tweens of today!

Anonymous said...

David Archuleta is so God awful.. WHY OH WHY is he still there??? He sings through his nose and golly gee, why do the judges love him so? As Randy would say, "I just don't get it dawg!"

Anonymous said...

P.S. Am I the only one who thought Mariah looked pained at having to hear these amateurs sing her "babies"? I guess it's all worth it for the whoring of the new album.

Anonymous said...

Now that Chikezie and Michael Johns are out, I have to finally concede that David Cook now has my support. My 11 year old daughter is scandalized, as a die-hard tween Archie supporter. As for Carly being voted off, I can't imagine how she'll be able to take it. She may just dissolve into a puddle right there on stage.

Anonymous said...

I do wonder about Teri Hatcher (like someone noted above, she was everywhere). She even sang on the Idol Gives Back show. Desperate Housewives isn't even a Fox show, so what gives?

Anonymous said...

Isn't Teri Hatcher supposedly getting the high hard one from Ryan Seacrest?

Finísima Persona said...

I agree with every point Alan, but I'll say this: I'll rather look at Mariah's 50's-pinup curves for a couple of hours than having to sit thru Barry Manilow's plastic visage. Both mentors suck in my book, but at least one of them is easy on the eyes.

But my real question: is the "special delivery of pain" related in any way to "Clerks: The Animated Series"? If so... Kudos, sir!

Alan Sepinwall said...

But my real question: is the "special delivery of pain" related in any way to "Clerks: The Animated Series"?

It absolutely is. One of these days, I'm going to have to do a blog post on the Clerks show, and specifically about how, for a show I had a lot of problems with at the time, I quote from it an awful lot. Other lines in frequent Sepinwall usage include "Why are we walking like this?" and "A bear is driving the car! How can that be?"

Anonymous said...

Isn't Teri Hatcher supposedly getting the high hard one from Ryan Seacrest?

Don't be silly--she's a girl! ;-)