Wednesday, February 24, 2010

American Idol: Holding out for a Taylor

With "American Idol" competing with "Lost" every Tuesday for the rest of the season, my reviews of the performance shows are going to come at irregular times, and usually not until the day after. But I'm awake, and since I don't do the song-by-song breakdown until the finals, anyway, I'll have some thoughts on the Top 12 women (or the female half of the Top 24, if you prefer) coming up just as soon as someone explains how we got three Beatles songs on a Billboard Hot 100 theme night...

Not a very impressive start for the women, was it?

I thought Lilly Scott was wonderful; even if it turns out she used someone else's cover of "Fixing a Hole," as David Cook so often did covers-of-covers during his season, I love her voice and stage presence. And there were several other songs that were well and confidently performed, even if they were all much more karaoke and therefore my enjoyment depended largely on whether I enjoyed that particular song or artist being covered (Crystal Bowersox doing Alanis(*), Didi Benami doing Ingrid Michelson) or didn't (Michelle Delamor doing the show's umpteenth Alicia Keys impression). There were also a bunch of performances that were all over the map, some of which I ultimately sort of liked (Haeley Vaughn's "I Want To Hold Your Hand" started off sounding like the version from "Across the Universe" and then got weird, quickly), some less so (Lacey Brown's "Landslide"). Overall, though, I really only care about ever hearing Lilly, Crystal and Didi again, preferably in some kind of all-guitars Top 4 with Andrew Garcia.

(*) I also give Crystal points for guts in devoting such a large percentage of a brief performance to a harmonica solo. Either that, or she just has no idea of what typically constitutes a successful "Idol" performance. Based on her confusion about the show's viewership numbers in Hollywood, I wouldn't be shocked if that was the case.

What was most interesting about the show tonight was the judges.

After seeming pretty lively and on point during our glimpses of her in Hollywood, Ellen was very flat tonight. She didn't do a lot of schtick, but she also rarely said anything of substance, and was particularly bad whenever she had to lead off the critique. (She seemed most confident when she had other opinions she could piggyback off of.)

Somewhat shockingly, the two sharpest judges of the night were Kara and, especially, Randy. When Randy began giving Haeley constructive criticism about her range and the type of songs she should sing, I was stunned. Where the hell had this guy been for the last 8 years? This is what they hired him for in the first place, not all the "dawg"s and "molten lava hot"s and "you can sing the phonebook"s. And after equaling Randy in uselessness last year (while adding a healthy dose of chip-on-shoulder), Kara was also fairly observant and coherent tonight. One-night aberration, or has Simon's impending departure - which will create a hole for a new alpha dog but could also lead to a wholesale judging shakeup - forced the two of them to get their acts together?

As for Simon, he's made it clear, both in interview comments and again tonight, that he wants a Taylor Swift type to win this season. When the judges start declaring performances in week one of the semi-finals to be too safe and derivative - case in point, Ashley Rodriguez, giving the exact kind of performance that would have gotten a tongue-bath from the judges a few seasons back - you know that the show is shifting directions, hard. Ultimately, the whole "you have to reinvent a song and make it your own" thing will start to feel just as derivative as the sort of stuff that was doing well before Blake Lewis, David Cook, Kris Allen and Adam Lambert showed up, but for now, it's what the judges (and the producers) want, so it's what we're going to get. So those who can write songs - or are at least good at searching iTunes for obscure reinventions of songs that match that week's theme - are going to be at a decided advantage over the pageant-y likes of Katie Stevens.

What did everybody else think?


Michael said...

And once again, Seacrest declared this year's crop of girls "the most talented group EVAR!"

I did notice how Simon told the girls to stop singing such mature songs and essentially start singing teenybopper songs. Get ready for NSync, Jonas Bros, Taylor Swift, and Miley Cyrus covers.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Simon always does that. And Ellen joined in, particularly with Katie.

LA said...

As bad as Lacey Brown's "Landslide" was, I still preferred it to Billy Corgan's.

Simon seemed really bored. I hope he doesn't phone it in all season. I definitely noticed the improved judging by Kara and Randy.

I took offense when they credited Feeling Good to Michael Buble. Whatever. Ryan Seacrest may have a giant bank vault full of cash, but that doesn't give him the right to diss the incomparable Nina Simone.

J said...

Just not bothering with the show this year if it's up against Lost. Not worth the time-shifting effort.

BigTed said...

The trouble with "a Taylor Swift type" is that Taylor Swift herself could never win this competition. When she sings live she's always off-key (and her records rely heavily on Auto-Tune). And what she's good at (writing her own songs, and an earnest appeal that speaks to her teen-girl audience) aren't things that "Idol" really values. She might have made it to Hollywood based on her looks and charm, but she would already have been gone by the time this episode aired.

Kirk Hamilton said...

Gotta say, I'm just not that impressed with the contestants this year. Most of them just seem very, very unseasoned. It's early though, so we'll see.

I agree about Randy tonight - he's always had it in him, which is why I've found his usual brand of unengaged feedback so frustrating. I don't know if we'll see that sort of focus again anytime soon, but it'd be nice! And that's an interesting thought that perhaps he and Kara are stepping up to fill the coming void that Simon's departure will leave.

Hopefully the guys will see tonight's lackluster show as an opportunity to step to.

Kimmy said...

I loved Crystal. I thought Didi was adorable. Katie proved to me why I am not that impressed. Sure I like her voice, but the judges missed one big point. There was zero connection with the song. I was kinda miffed.

(and just to repeat LA's comment, as I totally agree. I took offense when they credited Feeling Good to Michael Buble. Shouldn't diss the incomparable Nina Simone.)

Maura said...

I like Crystal so much, I didn't even want to stick sharp objects in my ears while she was singing that awful Alanis Morisette song. She made it palatable, which is no mean feat. I also really like Lilly Scott. I don't think either one is unique (or, as Kara put it, very unique), but I think they have a good idea of who they are and what they want to do. I don't think it's anything close to what succeeds on Idol, but I would like to see them stick around for a while.

I'm not feeling the love for Ashley Rodriguez that the judges were feeling until last night. She's seriously overrated, but I think she has a good chance of going through. I'm not so sure about Michelle Delamore. She doesn't have much stage presence, and she's an average performer.

Haeley was a mess, but she's kind of adorable, so I can see her making it to the top 12.

I'm looking forward to what Andrew Garcia does tonight. He's my early favorite among the men.

Brian said...

Maybe Randy's just getting ready to be the alpha dawg(!) when Simon flies the coop next year.

And for cryin' out loud, can we have one season where no one sings "Feelin Good?"

Adam said...

As we covered in our ALOTT5MA recap, "Feeling Good" is a cursed song on the show -- eliminated two S6 semifinalists in one week and sent Adam Lambert to the bottom two last year.

Back in the first three seasons of Idol, that competent (if shouty) "All Right Now" would've been just fine. The standards are just so much higher now. Go Bowersox!

Anonymous said...

The women weren't too impressive. It is funny how a show that used to be so impressed with vocal "runs" and in love with Christina Aguilera-style overemoting now wants everyone to reinvent songs and sing youthful hits. You get more of that when people actually write their own songs, which they don't here. It was also a little early for "you're playing it too safe"---it's the first performance show.

Personally I couldn't stand Lilly, but she stood out with her wacky appearance so I'm sure she'll be around for a while. I'm a big Crystal fan, hope she sticks around.

I never understood the hatred for Randy...he's harmless. The issue has always been that its not really necessary to hear four judges' opinions, or even three, except to create conflicts among the judges and fans. That's been very effective for the show, of course, but not sure why anyone would expect four different people to have blindingly brilliant insights into the exact same thing.

I'm disapppointed that Ellen is going to play Paula and just say everyone is great...her judging in that format will be a huge waste of time.

Bobman said...

Based on her confusion about the show's viewership numbers in Hollywood, I wouldn't be shocked if that was the case.

Not only that, but in her lead-in she outright admitted that she had never watched Idol before and was only there for her kid. I hope she sticks around just to see some fish-out-of-water moments as she bucks the trends. :)

I really hate these early weeks cuz I have the hardest time remembering who's who.

Miken said...

My biggest problem during these early weeks is there is no benefit to someone taking a risk because it will be forgotten in a few weeks, since we are so FAR from anything that matters. If I'm a contestant, I would pick a song like Didi's or Crystal's because although you don't bring anything new to the song, it's good enough to get through. You save your big moments when you have a chance to make a bigger impression.

So while the judges criticize them for being unoriginal, they don't fall as flat as someone like Haeley (who took the biggest risk of the night). It feels like Didi and Crystal are doing what you have to do to win. You can't win this early on, you can only lose.

David Cook's year was the best example. He layed low until it was time to make an impression. So while Archuleta peaked early, Cook just kept getting better and better and that's what you have to do to win.

I'm just glad I'm not crazy, everyone hear thinks Didi, Crystal and Lilly were best (as did I), yet the judges seemed to not say anything good about them last night.

Indeed said...

Agree that Ellen was not a great judge. I'm starting to think that what looked like good judging during Hollywood week was actually good editing. The reality is, she's not an expert on music. I admit that neither am I, and I can't tell when someone is pitchy or not. I just know what sounds good to my ears. So when Ellen starts talking about not hitting the right notes, there's no real credibility there.
I'll give her another few chances though...

Kevin said...

I thought it was interesting that right after Randy gave his most useful criticism ever, Ellen went on and said she didn’t understand any of the technical aspect of what Randy was saying. Why the hell is she there again? I too think Simon seem rather bored.

Last night the mix seemed really strange to me. Did anyone else think that the singers were too loud, and the band was too quiet? I think any off-key parts really came through more than usual because of the mix.

Reading the title of this, I first thought you meant they're holding out for a Taylor Hicks, not a Taylor Swift.

Anonymous said...

It was good to see they've whitened up Bowersox's teeth a little. Now if they could only get a stylist on those disgusting looking dreds.

Hollywoodaholic said...

So was Ellen now using Jay North as Dennis the Menace as her hair muse?

Adam said...

My biggest problem during these early weeks is there is no benefit to someone taking a risk because it will be forgotten in a few weeks, since we are so FAR from anything that matters.

I disagree. Breakthrough performances in the semis from Chris Daughtry ("Hemorrhage") and David Cook ("Hello") catapulted them to the upper tier and allowed them to coast for a month-plus thereafter.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Ditto Bo Bice ("Whipping Post"), though that wasn't so much Bo stepping out of his own comfort zone as him stepping out of the show's comfort zone (which could also be said of Daughtry and Cook, I suppose).

Miken said...

Yeah those are examples of where it worked, but if you take a risk and fail, you go home early. I feel there is much more downside to good.

Didi and Crystal provided good renditions of their songs. On a night when no one was memorable, they will skate through to next week, and do something a little better next time around

On the other side of that, I think Haeley is in serious trouble. She might be bailed out by all the people who thought they were playing it safe and just weren't good singers.

Joe said...

I don't think any of the contestants had enough time to rehearse or warm up or were prepared for the night. All of them had issues in the beginning of the songs.

All in all, a forgettable group as it stands now.

Pei said...

Kara and Randy's improved judging was more than offset by Ellen's lack-of-substance judging.

For some reason, I could really feel the overkill (and pain) of four-judge format with this group...certainly moreso than with Paula in the mix.

Anonymous said...

Jason Castro's "Hallelujah" performance was in the semi-final round too, and I think (like Cook's "Hello" performance), that's the reason he even made it to the top 12.

Mike F said...

Gosh, both you guys and the judges are being awfully tough on the contestants. For the most part, I enjoyed the show and most of the performers sang pretty well.

I think Haley will be fine, I think she's a real contender in this thing. I also think the hot blonde who went 3rd or 4th could go far.

But surprised nobody's mentioned her, but the "dark horse", Siobhan (sp?)...she's clearly top 5 material. I think she's got a shot to take this whole thing down.