"Idol" from Tuesday: Doesn't Anybody Here Want to Win This Thing?
by Mark T.R. Donohue
That's a rhetorical question in the title, but let's plow ahead and respond to it anyway. I've touched on this a few times before, but other than natural human competitiveness, why would you want to win "American Idol?" All you really need to do is get enough screen time to catch the eye of some record executive somewhere, and you know every single one worth his salt is watching. It's a win-win situation. The wannabes get their 15 minutes (or 15 seconds, which is more than enough), the record guys get to cherry-pick naïve business outsiders who already have built-in fanbases thanks to their "Idol" spells, and both get to avoid the rather restrictive path that the contract a grand champion gets seems to dictate. Kelly Clarkson aside, the most successful post-"Idol" careers have been experienced by singers who didn't come out on top at the end. And for me at least, the gold standard is held by William Hung, who never got past the auditions. He got a guest spot on "Arrested Development." I'd almost rather have that than the money and the fame.
So this morning while I polished off the remainder of the oatmeal raisin cookies my sister sent me for my birthday, I tried to think not about whom among the guys could win (because I don't think at this point any of them can) but which ones will release records this fall that I will illegally download. Chris Sligh and Blake Lewis for sure. Chris Richardson is definitely growing on me. He needs a savvy producer to shape an image for him, but I think Brandon Rogers could do some good work as well. The rest of the lot? Go back to whence you came.
Tuesday night's show set a new low-water mark for the competition. I didn't give a single score higher than an 8, and I felt like I was being generous. Sanjaya and Sundance only escaped the shame of the 1-bomb because I thought they did marginally better than past efforts that in retrospect I scored too highly. Of course, I don't expect very much of those guys. What really disappointed me was the failure of the good singers to seize the opportunity to emerge on a really weak night and distance themselves from the pack. The technical guys with weak personalities, like Phil Stacey and Jared Cotter, couldn't really get anything going. Sentimental favorites like Lewis and Sligh backslid from their solid earlier work. The biggest shame of this show is that no one did a good enough job to break the voters of their schoolgirl crushes on the pitifully outmatched Sanjaya Malakar. Simon Cowell couldn't even work up the energy to be nasty to Malakar after his dreadful "Waiting for the World to Change." What would the point be? In the absence of any real players, the guys' side of the competition has turned into a popularity contest, and it's probably going to get worse before it gets better. If I had any real affection for any of the male contestants besides the almost certainly safe Sligh, I would be on pins and needles for the results show tonight.
Blake Lewis I think a lot less of Lewis now that I know 311 is his favorite band of all time. Dude, really? 311? Lewis was the first but not even close to the last contestant Tuesday to pick a song that he liked rather than a song that was a good showcase for his abilities. His vocal scratching-outs of the swear words in "All Mixed Up" wasn't a particularly clever use of his unique skill among the players, and his attempt to channel 311's weak lead singer Nick Hexum (who always, always, always is multitracked to the point of oblivion on their records to obscure his extreme limitations) was like shooting himself in the foot. "All Mixed Up" like every 311 song (except for the "rap" ones, and let's not even go there) has a melody built on rudimentary tritones that a robot could sing adequately. The usually invincible house band didn't feel the song, and the whole performance never got off the ground. And yet...it was one of the better songs of the evening. Yikes. 6
Sanjaya Malakar Do you think I spent more time critiquing 311 than critiquing Blake Lewis in that last entry? Well, it's all I can do to keep myself from dedicating this paragraph to venting all of my hostility towards John Mayer. It's too bad that I still have to watch and break down the ladies' hour, because I just don't have time enough to go there. As for Malakar, I'm with Cowell. I throw my hands up in surrender. The kid simply cannot sing. He can't sing swing, he can't sing ballads, he can't sing soulless Sly & The Family Stone ripoffs by craven media-whoring "blues guitarists." Oh, wait, I guess I went there just a little. Cowell, piteously: "It's a singing contest!" 2
Sundance Head Since I haven't watched "Idol" before this season, I don't know what the demographic breakdowns are usually like. Are there always this many contestants in their late 20's? I was always under the impression that it was more of a teen show, but that might have more to do with the way the winners are promoted than the actual hard facts. In any case, there sure have been a lot of songs performed during this competition that were popular when I was in high school. Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" was a huge swing and a miss for the bipolar Head, who was awful for two weeks, almost good last time out, and dire once again on Tuesday. When Head managed to revive his fortunes with "Mustang Sally," I wrote that the song was basically a freebie. Attempting "Jeremy," which calls for a big rock voice but requires some real pitch control to sing at all well, could have been a fatal mistake for Sundance. He just seemed to have zero idea where either his voice or the song were going. Said Simon, "It sounded like he was shouting the whole time," and I couldn't agree more. Whatever Head seized upon last week, it's gone. 3
Chris Richardson As my appreciation of how the "Idol" machine works has grown, my opinion of Richardson has improved as well. He still can't really belt it with the true talents, but that becomes less of an issue with every passing results show. Soon there might not even be any real male belters left! Raw power is really the only thing Richardson lacks at this point. He's a looker, he has enough of a self-aware ease about himself to appeal to the sort of people who normally resent good-looking guys, and when he picks the proper song he's able to display both control and originality all at once. Not a lot of guys in the field can say that. Week after week he's been able to take songs I didn't think I liked and get me moving in my seat a little bit. He plainly has good musical instincts, and that's something you can't really teach or practice. Tuesday night wasn't his best performance, but he really benefited from the lack of musical instincts that his immediate predecessors betrayed. They chose bad songs and Richardson didn't. He gets a bit of a curve benefit but he can't control the fact that he's competing in the "Idol" equivalent of the NL Central. 8
Jared Cotter Time is running out! Jared is one of the best pure singers in the remaining male field but he's squandering what little advantage that gives him. Cotter aroused a pet peeve of mine by giving a performance that put undue stress on "an's" and "and's" and "-ing's" and other syllables that ought not to be emphasized. I liked the quirky arrangement that started funky and backpedaled into ballad mode rather than the thoroughly overdone reverse case, but that was about all I liked. Cotter's attempts to come across onstage as a party guy (in an argyle sweater-vest?) came across as super forced. Simon, translating for Paula: "Wasn't very original." But then he also said that Cotter was popular, which surprises me. In my opinion Jared is the least charismatic of the remaining male contestants. Do the judges have access to the raw totals from the phone votes every week? It seems like they shouldn't, for some reason, but I don't know precisely why. If they do it would explain Simon's complete and abject surrender in the face of the inexplicable continuing survival of Sanjaya Malakar. 6
Brandon Rogers I've been trying to avoid other people's "Idol" coverage to as much an extent as is possible. I kind of like learning from my own mistakes, and part of the whole idea here is to give a complete outsider's perspective on a long-running phenomenon. However, it was hard to miss Entertainment Weekly's selections for "interesting contenders" in this week's issue, since it was the only thing in the whole magazine that wasn't about the Oscars. EW singled out Rogers (along with Blake Lewis, Melinda Doolittle, LaKisha Jones, and Stephanie Edwards), so perhaps I have been underrating him. Tuesday night was his weakest vocal since the studio round began, but his best performance. I absolutely loved his sweet dance moves. The little kicks! "I Just Want to Celebrate" is another song like "All Mixed Up" that barely taxes even the least musical of vocalists, but Rogers was feeling it, and he's finally evidencing a personality. I also have to say that I'm super-impressed by the fact that Rogers is a competent classical piano player. I never would have guessed. The standout of a profoundly weak night. 8
Phil Stacey What can I say? Simon can claim that "It's a singing contest" until he's blue in the face, but it isn't. It's a popularity contest plain and simple. And I don't see how Phil Stacey can be very popular. He's just...well, he's creepy. There's no way around it. Putting those gigantic, undead sunken eyes under a snap-brim hat was a recipe for disaster. Stacey took a long time locating the right register on Tuesday, dithering around with a pitchy basso and a pedestrian falsetto before too late locating his happy place. He can rip when he's on, but he wasn't on enough this week and while he's technically superior to almost all the other male singers, the voters are likely to be less forgiving of his few mistakes than they will be for the likes of Sundance and Sanjaya. Simon Cowell and I seemed eerily in sync this week: "You appeared very...odd." 6
Chris Sligh An internal debate has been raging about how good Chris Sligh really is, since it's hard to separate his Michael McDonald-ish voice from his Hugo Reyes-like appearance. This week for the first time Sligh was without question the best technical performer. And yet, something was missing. After so many underwhelming showings the crowd -- and yours truly -- were completely ready for Sligh to come out and bring the house down. It didn't happen. A missed opportunity. He's as safe as safe can be for now, but I still feel like there's another gear available that he simply hasn't hit yet. Maybe it will take being in direct competition with the superior women's field for Sligh to claw his way to the top. I'm rooting for him. 8