Tuesday, April 29, 2008

American Idol, Top 5: Neil Diamond Night

Spoilers for "American Idol" coming up just as soon as I review the future...

How much do I love Paula Abdul right now? Her complete mental breakdown in the middle of this chaotic, ineptly-designed episode, was the highlight of an otherwise bland hour. When she started critiquing Jason Castro's second song before he even sang it, and it took Randy and Ryan a good 30 seconds to realize what she was doing... live TV, ladies and gentlemen!

The beauty of Paula's brain spasm is that it illustrates just how scripted and ill-informed the judges' comments are. No doubt she had scribbled some notes in advance, either based on the dress rehearsal (when, as we know, the performances never quite match up to what happens on the live show) or on the advice of Anne Heche's alter ego Celestia, or on Paula's memories of a conversation she once had with Keanu Reeves while filming the video for "Rush, Rush," and it just didn't occur to her that Mr. Castro had only sung one song at that point in the show.

And it became clear that Pauler's not the only judge whose comments are prepared in advance of the live show, or else Randy, for instance, might have pointed out that strangled cat note in the middle of David Archuleta's performance of "America" instead of raving about how comfortable our young presumptive winner seemed on stage.

Given the utter uselessness of two-thirds of our judges, I thought that not having them immediately critique the first performances would be an improvement. A half-hour of "Idol" that was completely Randy-free? Sign me up, I thought. But the first half of the show didn't flow at all well without them, and it only played up how brief each song is. I know Fox has been doing market research about ways to change the show next year, and one of the questions asks whether viewers think the judges get too much airtime, but this was too big an over-correction. I think the solution is to get better judges, not to shove them out of the way to help squeeze 10 performances into an episode that still had time for the padding of Neil Diamond's mentorship, two soft drink-sponsored Seacrest-erviews, etc.

And if I'm going on so much about the judges, it's because "the most talented group of finalists ever" once again gave us a pretty underwhelming show. I would have thought that the diversity of the Diamond catalog -- and its adaptability to limited voices like Jason and Brooke -- would have led to something good, but other than a couple of performances in the back half, it was just as dull and forgettable as every other graybeard theme this season.

In fact, I cared so little for most of these performances that I'm going to talk about each person's two songs together, rather than going 1-5, then 1-5 again. In order...

Jason Castro, "Forever in Blue Jeans" & "September Morn": Again, this theme should have been in Jason's comfort zone, but it mainly just gave him an excuse to hide within his three-note range (or, in the latter song, one-note), let the string section make him seem more impressive than he actually was, and hope that his smile and dimples would carry the rest. "Forever in Blue Jeans" wasn't bad as a bit of busking (and damn/thank you, Simon, for making me unable to see Jason as anything but Glen Hansard at the end of "The Commitments"), but he wasn't even trying on "September Morn." Maybe he was just freaked out by Paula's psychic criticism?

David Cook, "I'm Alive" & "All I Need Is You": I also figured big David would knock this one out of the park, but while he was arguably the best of the night, there wasn't anything particularly memorably by his own pre-established standards. "I'm Alive" reminded me of his first few semi-finals performances, before he realized that he needed to stand out by rearranging these oldies in a contemporary alt-rock way. (He also struggled to be heard over the band for the first time all season.) "All I Need Is You" sounded more like the post-makeover Cook, but I can think of at least three or four performances of his that were clearly better. Also, I don't know the song at all, and am only judging based on a 30-second iTunes snippet, but it didn't sound to me like David re-arranged the song as dramatically as Simon tried to suggest.

Brooke White, "I'm a Believer" & "I Am, I Said": Brooke's take on The Monkees' signature hit was every bit the disaster Simon proclaimed it to be. No one should look as terrified -- even with a smile plastered across her face -- as Brooke looked throughout this up-tempo, campy number. Like Jason's second number, the degree of vocal difficulty was almost nil, and yet I kept worrying that Brooke was going to burst into tears at any moment. "I Am, I Said" was a vast improvement, both in terms of the actual singing and her showcasing vulnerability in a way that didn't make me fearing for her emotional well-being. Neil's suggested lyric change from New York City to Arizona didn't exactly work for a song about bi-coastal blues, but I doubt Brooke understood the lyrics any more than she has for the rest of the season. Like Syesha, the emotions she displays are contrived; she just fakes them more plausibly.

David Archuleta, "Sweet Caroline" & "America": David badly needed to do some more uptemp songs -- the last non-ballad he sang was in the first week of the semis -- and yet he found a way to turn "Sweet Caroline" into another inspirational tune about the importance of touching other people and being touched in return. Even with the faster pace, it's amazing how much it resembled every other Archuleta performance. As for "America," I mentioned the cat strangling already, but I'll give him credit for doing something that didn't remind me of all his previous performances. Maybe I was just dazzled by the American flag display and him doing the "My Country 'Tis of Thee" portion of the lyrics, or maybe I just hypnotized myself into imagining the song as sung by Michael or Carly if they were still around, but at least it didn't put me to sleep.

Syesha Mercado, "Hello Again" & "Thank the Lord for the Night Time": Having discovered last week that she's much better when she indulges her theatrical side -- not that it helped her with the voters -- Syesha acts her way through a sensitive ballad, then a soul-spiritual joint. Her "Hello Again" was technically good but left me cold, but I quite enjoyed her "Thank the Lord for the Night Time." Again, Syesha never lets you forget that she's playing a character -- in this case, a young Aretha/Tina type -- but when the song is this fast-paced and feel-good, it becomes less bothersome.

Best of the night: Again, David Cook, but that's as damning with faint praise as Randy and Simon's "that could have been in a play" comments for Syesha's second performance.

In danger: Every previous season when they did a Top 5 show (not counting last year, when we got two Top 6's), the person singing second went home. But I don't expect Cook to go anywhere -- if Jordin could survive the "going first on top 3 night" curse, he should be fine. Even though she was probably second-best, I'm afraid for Syesha. I still don't think she has much of a fanbase, and she wasn't so brilliant as to overcome all the Brooke, Jason and Archie die-hards. I suppose the death slot could claim Jason, or the voters could decide to put Brooke out of her misery. All I know is that the Davids ain't going anywhere.

What did everybody else think?


Mrglass said...

Paula had the best moment of this boring season, she was more entertaining than all of the performances combined!

On a side note, 'Reaper' was great tonight, the best episode of this show so far, even better than the pilot.

Nicole said...

Paula was the best part of the ho-hum night. And even better, it will fuel the grassy knollers out there. Maybe if the producers want to improve the show, they should have the judges, or really Randy and Paula, say things that relate to the performance as opposed to "dawg" and "you were yourself".

I think Cook and Syesha were good with both songs, but nothing really spectacular. I don't think Castro was as bad as they said and once again Archuleta was overpraised. I actually like the song "America", but the way Archuleta sang it, I thought he was catering to the Kristy Lee crowd. And by picking Neil Diamond's most famous songs, he demonstrated how he pales in comparison with the original. Also, they need to stop calling him a prodigy. Mozart was a prodigy, Archuleta is not even close.

I do think Syesha will be gone, even though it should be Brooke with her hot mess of a first performance.

Anonymous said...

Paula's attempts to cover herself were great- wait, I thought you sang twice. Oh, I was looking at my notes for David instead.

My suggestions to improve Idol's ratings. Cut the results show to a half hour. I always fast forward through 3/4 of it anyway- we don't need to see the group song, Q&A, etc. Never, ever cut off Simon- his opinion is what everyone cares about, and too often because he goes last, behind Paula's nonsensical ramblings, he ends up having the music drown him out.

Anonymous said...

Honestly, as a collection these were the most boring performances to date. I even hated the format change. Who knew that the slow pace, stupid comments, and cheesy banter could be missed?

Amazing that someone actually thought Paula could be able to think. We do like our disasters, and the more sloshed the better. However, I am reassured that as we sink into a depression in America it is good to know you can still be paid millions to be an idiot.

Michael said...

I can see how Castro has a fanbase - he's pretty - but what's Brooke's? The preteen boy?

Castro should go tomorrow. He was horrible tonight.

Undercover Black Man said...

Worst. Season. Evar.

Paula was right about one thing: When she told David Cook that she felt she was looking at the next "Idol." Cook continues to outsmart and outperform the lot.

Archuleta: Tiger Beat + Up With People = a No. 2 finish when all is said and done.

Brooke will make it to the Top 3, thanks to her nice work with "I Am, I Said." She got totally swallowed by the band on "I'm a Believer," and should've ditched the acoustic gitbox because it compelled her to stand there like a potted palm.

Jason Castro just doesn't care anymore.

Syesha... I'm having a vision of her future... Yes, it's coming in clearer now... She is onstage singing... at Knott's Berry Farm.

The Jeremiah Wright backlash will mean that Syesha goes home tomorrow night.

Anonymous said...

Paula's nuttiness absolutely made the night for me. The rest of it was... meh.

Frankly, I have no idea why they chose Diamond as a role model, anyway. Do any preteen girls even know who he is? But as long as they were performing his songs, someone should have at least admitted that doing them correctly requires a pinch of roots rock (something Diamond himself has been returning to lately) along with a large side of cheese. In fact, I thought David Archuleta should have gone for the whole "Saving Silverman" Diamond-impersonator package, sequins and all.

As for the songs: Jason Castro had clearly never heard the ones he performed before, and the way he sang them, no one will care to hear them again.

David Cook was good -- on the first song, it was surprising how much his voice actually sounded like Diamond's. (But it's also clear how much his voice sounds exactly the same on everything he sings. He's kind of like Eddie Vedder in that way -- but Vedder comes with the added bonus of being a great songwriter.)

Brooke's "I'm a Believer" was far too low-pitched for her voice, and she really sapped all the fun out of it. But I liked her version of "I Am, I Said" -- she managed to sound sincere, even when delivering those lyrics about the chair.

David Archuleta -- well, his voice sounded pretty. What else is there to say? "Coming to America" is a ridiculous song outside the context of the movie. I don't think Archuleta was pandering to patriotism when he did it -- he just had no idea what he was singing about. As usual.

As for Syesha, she probably is heading home soon, even though she's still one of the most talented in the bunch. She'll spend the next 20 years alternating between Broadway and acting in campy TV shows like "Ugly Betty."

I will say one thing about Neil Diamond -- of all the older music stars "Idol" has had on recently, he's aged with the most dignity -- as well as some semblance of his original face. If anyone hasn't heard his 2005 CD "12 Songs," produced by Rick Rubin, I recommend it.

Anonymous said...

I fast forwarded through most of the first performances.

Paula's freakout was too awesome for words.

Then as Jason started his second song, I got so bored that I turned it off.

I really don't care who wins or goes home. I miss Carly and Michael. Hell, I even miss Amanda.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

At the end of the show, it felt like Simon was giving out instructions to vote Syesha off, and I really think that was unfair. She was so much better than Jason and Brooke, it's not even funny. I honestly think she's better than Archuleta, but I know I'm in the minority on that one.

Paula babbling incoherently was the payoff to an otherwise pathetic season. I can't wait to see what they do with that on The Soup.

Anonymous said...

I pretty shocked to say Brooke did well on I Am, I Said. Love the Neil version but it really isn't a song that translates. She can't help madly grinning at inappropriate time but it was passable.

I suspect Neil will do Pretty Amazing Grace the first song from his new album tomorrow night and sadly its highly average. I hope the rest of the record will be better.

No one should sing America unless you actually have Larry Olivier looking disappointed in the audience.

Anonymous said...

Alan, I've only seen weekly ratings here and there during the season----overall, how are Idol's ratings this season as compared to last season and previous years?

I agree a format shakeup wouldn't hurt, but they aren't changing the judges. If they haven't dumped Paula for being, um, "in no condition to perform" some of the time, they're not dumping Randy for saying the same thing every week.

KrisMrsBBradley said...

I ended up fast forwarding to every. single. performance.

Thank you, Tivo!

Only interesting part of the night was Paula's craziness.

Joe said...

Like Mariah weeks ago, Neil Diamond has an album coming out and this is cross promotion. Too bad.

Another boring night. And Brooke, how can you make "I'm a Believer" so bad?

I get the impression that no one is enjoying him/herself. It's more than having fun, which they should. But no one is enjoying the act of singing, basking in the moment. David Cook(e) does at times. Everyone else is a robot or too scared to too stupid. Makes for bland performances.

Marengo Main Street said...

The first AI I ever saw was Dolly Parton night, but it's hard to follow pop culture in any form and not hear about this show ad infinitum. So, I know about Paula's loopiness, but I'm not at all convinced that the show is rigged. I don't see how the judges' comments could influence the voting of any rabid fan. If anything, I would expect criticism to make them vote even more.

My first thought, on hearing what Paula said, was that she was commenting on the two very different styles in Jason's song--one in the lower register that she specifically said she would like to hear more of, and then when he went into falsetto (or "false" as she and Randy love to call it).

Finally, if the show needs to fill more time now that they're down to so few contestants, why not have each of them sing an entire song? That's a very different sort of trial than we've seen so far.

Reality Raver said...

Paula looked rattled and teary for the rest of the show.

Jason Castro must think he is in some baby boomer hell, with two weeks of songs just nowhere in his style.

David Archuleta needs to mix it up a bit he is becoming very bland with his middle of the road versions of songs.


K J Gillenwater said...

The problem with Idol is that they changed from having theme weeks like "Broadway" and instead decided to do this damn mentor weeks where the whole group is forced to see ONE singer's stuff. It makes for a very BORING show when all the songs sound kinda the same. Plus, they choose horrible mentors...Neil Diamond may be a very talented singer/songwriter, but his fanbase is 50+. They should be choosing younger and more interesting mentors, if they have to do that.

Personally, I HATE the mentor weeks. I like it better when there are just generic groups of songs to choose from. That is why something like 'birth year song' weeks tend to be very good.

As for this week, I think Jason's problem was that secretly he hates that he has to sing this stuff...Neil Diamond? Mariah Carey? He's young, he thinks he's hip with his dreds...and he's forced to sing what he considers schlock.

David C. was the only one who made these songs seem updated and interesting. And even then, I wasn't that thrilled. But at least he tried.

It shows how little the other contestants know about music when they don't really change the original arrangements at all. I would like a musician to win, someone who has a chance of a lifetime career, not some one-note with a decent voice. Which is what most of these guys are...

K J Gillenwater said...

Oh, and yes, mrglass, REAPER was probably the best it has ever been last night. It's like the writers read the comments and Alan's criticisms in this column during the strike and fixed up the problems.

One more thing about Idol, I think they should have had the contestants sing both songs back to back rather than 1 and then wait and then other. It was very messy and disorganized splitting them up that way.

Anonymous said...

I watched Idol for the first time this season last night and was extremely disappointed. It looks as if I made a good decision not to watch this year. The only half way decent performer was David Cook. I was shocked that the other David is even still in the competition. Maybe it was just a bad night to watch and maybe I'm still bitter that Melinda Doolittle didn't at least make the finals last year. She would have won this year in a landslide.

Anonymous said...

I realized last night that EVERYTHING David Archuleta has sung this season sounds like one thing: any and every song ever sung by Mike and the Mechanics. No wonder I'm not a fan.

Anonymous said...

A season that started with talk of 'the best contestents ever' has turned into a train wreck. Last night was the culmination of that.
For the record my immediate impression of the Paula-gaffe was that she was looking at her notes from the rehearsals. That's just wrong. By the end of the night I was just more disturbed about the overall slant of the show/judges to hate-on Sayesha (not that she's my favourite) and have nothing but praise for David A. who to me is unwatchable. How did that bandwagon ever start?
This is a lot of ranting for reality television - but the thing is, this used to be such an enjoyable show. Not anymore. A revamp is definitely in order.

Anonymous said...

A season that started with talk of 'the best contestents ever' has turned into a train wreck. Last night was the culmination of that.
For the record my immediate impression of the Paula-gaffe was that she was looking at her notes from the rehearsals. That's just wrong. By the end of the night I was just more disturbed about the overall slant of the show/judges to hate-on Sayesha (not that she's my favourite) and have nothing but praise for David A. who to me is unwatchable. How did that bandwagon ever start?
This is a lot of ranting for reality television - but the thing is, this used to be such an enjoyable show. Not anymore. A revamp is definitely in order.

KrisMrsBBradley said...

Lord, how I miss Rockstar INXS!

Anonymous said...

Wow, everyone who has so far posted to this little article has seriously no life. Why would you take the time to just write down negative things about everyone and about how horrible they were. If they were so bad, then just don't watch the show. David Archuleta probably has the best pure, natural voice of all of these contestants, and everyone here is bashing him. Just because you guys can't sing for crap doesn't mean you have to criticize someone who can.