"Idol" Tuesday: In the Year You Were Born, Music Died!
by Mark T.R. Donohue
The producers of "American Idol" are bad scientists. They have sabotaged whatever momentum this season might have built at every turn by changing too many variables all at once. In an attempt to not repeat the very dull midsection of Season 6 where a bunch of singers with so-so voices kept turning in fair performances while the frontrunners treaded water, a campaign to get more vocal talent and less "personality" into the Top 12 succeeded admirably. Everyone in the field can at least carry a tune a little (maybe not Michael Johns) and with the exception of Ramiele everyone's been pretty good at least once. Whatever you might think about the runaway popularity of David Archuleta, he's a huge upgrade in skill level from last season's comparable moppet and as such a logical choice for the producers' clear favorite to win the competition. But I wish David would stop picking wishy-washy "message" songs week after week, and he's not the only "Idol" hopeful with repertoire issues. Selecting against people with clear musical identities like last season's Blake Lewis and this season's Hollywood round casualty Josiah Leming has led to a field of lackadaisical performers who are trying to repeat past outings that earned praise instead of taking risks and showing invention and self-definition. Jason Castro and Brooke White are losing their charm. Both tried last week to move on stage without an instrument and came to regret it; White was back behind her piano and Castro again sitting and strumming guitar this week. The arbitrary and tone-deaf choices of theme that the producers have imposed have exacerbated this weakness of the cast and the result is "Idol" less fun than it could be -- and a winner, likely either Archuleta or fairly-good "rocking" contender David Cook, less probable to overturn recent trends in "Idol" winners' record sales figures.
Ramiele Malubay Ramiele seems increasingly like a throwback, a time glitch transported from an earlier season of the show, and I'm not the first person to say so. She tries to assert authority on well-traveled material by oversinging with fury, but the show has seen better singers and Malubay's tendency to zero in on traditional female power vocal showcases that have been aired on "Idol" many times over by earlier contestants contributes to the overall feeling of weariness each one of her vocals brings at this point. Tuesday's "Hearts Alone" could well have been the breaking point, since the formidable Malubay finally a melody she couldn't subdue. She sounded dreadfully scream-y and out of tune for great long slabs of it and misinterpreted earlier pleas by the judges to show more personality by oversinging even further than usual. Apparently Ramiele was feeling quite ill at the time of the show, which doesn't excuse her song choice or her performance but might win her enough of a sympathy vote to incubate her one week further. I wish she'd go; unlike, say, Chikezie or Carly Smithson, I don't think she's capable of doing anything at all interesting or surprising if she continues to sing on. 6
Jason Castro I don't know what the point of the producers' utterly arbitrary "song from the year of your birth" theme was, but it did remind me that Michael Johns is a little older than me. Jason Castro certainly could have done better than Sting's hammy "Fragile," but he sort of needed a performance to remind of us of his strengths and it was something he could play guitar on and sing with at least a little conviction. A bigger risk like the one David Cook took might have been called for, but such a move doesn't fit in at all with we've come to learn about the psychology of Jason Castro. He just doesn't seem like much of a go-getter. As such he should avoid the more specific sort of protest song he did this time around. I will say that he's improving when it comes to appearing expressive on camera while playing guitar and singing, something that may make up for his inability to rock a stage without an instrument. I think it's funny that the judges, particularly Simon, still focus in on his performance of "Hallelujah" because while affecting, it was a melody that nearly broke him at several points. It might well be that Castro is subliminally more charming when he's singing slightly too much song for his voice, he should adjust his strategy accordingly. Assuming he has one, which is something you have to begin to question. 7
Syesha Mercado Syesha is doing more and more each week to prove her inclusion in the top 12 was no mistake, and she built on a very solid "Yesterday" from last week with a very big take on "If I Were Your Woman." Impressively, she took on a real diva vocal but she didn't sing the song in anyone's style beside her own. Unlike Ramiele or (increasingly) Carly Syesha sounds like her own vocalist. Like a lot of her Season 7 brethren Mercado could use a little more coaching with her movement on stage. Her limited cycle of hand motions throughout this number was a little silly. Her body language tried to force over the message that her vocal style was doing a lot more elegant of a job communicating by itself. I do not think that Syesha has peaked yet by any means and she may be growing into a solid alternative to the Davids assuming she can keep it coming. 9
Chikezie Chikezie knew enough to know that trying a bluegrass feel for the third week in a row would be suicide, but given the theme he was in a difficult position as to where else to go. He went conservative, picking a soul ballad that he did sing rather better than any of his similar-sounding entrances during the semifinals. I am amazed by the amount of expressiveness that has opened up in Chikezie's voice just since the move to the bigger stage -- that is to say, the last three shows. He was forgettable and sometimes even painfully out-of-touch during the semis -- remember his mustard suit? Now I don't want to see him go, even though he's slipped back two weeks in a row following his brilliant "She's a Woman" gambit. I hope it's too premature for Chikezie's delivery of a fine vocal on an unexciting song to endanger him, but at this stage of the game no one is truly safe. 8
Brooke White Every time White starts off a song with just piano and brings the band in to join her, the judges say they like the first half better. I am not so sure that they are leading her down the garden path. White's piano playing, like Jason Castro's guitar playing (but unlike Cook's electric guitar) is more a confidence mechanism than a musical contribution. White started off shaky on the piano with her interpretation of "Every Breath You Take" (Why all the Sting and Police songs? Is anyone ever going to tell me, some 20 years on, what's so freaking great about Sting and the Police?) and I could almost see part of the tension leave her body when the band came in and the sound guys were able to mix her keyboard's volume down to almost an inaudible level. I don't know if America needs to see Brooke White losing her place in the middle of a song next week and having no place to turn. She might collapse into a puddle of rainbows and pretty flowers, like the creation of the Powerpuff Girls in reverse. That said -- there was a weird psychosexual appeal to the solo part of White's song but when the band came in it started to sound distinctly as if she was singing along with the background vocals rather than fronting them. I suspect that most people liked this more than I did and White will be OK for another few shows. 6
Michael Johns I thought at first that only an Australian could possibly sing a medley of "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions" and put absolutely no ironic spin on it whatsoever, but that was before Kristy Lee's reality-reordering "God Bless the U.S.A." The best thing about Johns' choice of song was that the two anthems require almost no real singing, just shouting, and Johns is a far better shouter than he is a singer. I don't think just picking a song that people love to shout along to makes him a sudden possibility to win it all as the judges announced but I will give Johns some credit for taking matters into his own hands and earning another week in the mix rather than just sitting around and waiting to get sent home. There was a certain amount of camp factor to Johns' outing -- I think it was the vest, in addition obviously to the fact that he was doing Queen songs -- that we haven't really seen from Michael before. I rather prefer campy Johns to the more familiar dull, flat Johns. 8
Carly Smithson "Total Eclipse of the Heart" was a super strange choice for Carly -- it kind of symbolized what I have been saying about her all season. There are a bunch of things that just don't match up for Carly. I wonder if that's why her earlier forays in the record business never came to much even though she's obviously got talent to spare. She looks tough but she sang the tune the way a Celine would, absolutely flogging the glory note at the end of it in the most gratuitous way we've seen any "Idol" female do all season. The tune was flecked with more pitch mistakes than Carly usually delivers. Her dress looked all right, but I can't help but notice that every week she stands in one place and bounces up and down like she's trying to wear a groove in the floor. I bet she lives this time but she's not looking like a winner to me at all. 7
David Archuleta David is so predictable at this point that I can tune him out after ten or fifteen seconds of any performance and be assured of not missing anything important. His voice is back and fully confident again after some mishaps during the Beatles shows but he simply can't stay away from treacly dreck like his random pick of some song called "You're the Voice" about, I dunno, dolphin-safe tuna or something like that. Archuleta's sincerity is... sincere and everything, but he only has one mode and he automatically gravitates to any song that sounds a little bit about helping people and petting fuzzy kitties, he's bound to be awful at least a couple of times before the final. I hope so anyway. 8
Kristy Lee Cook You can almost imagine Kristy going down the list of songs written her birth year presented her by the "Idol" secret behind-the-scenes brain trust, seeing "God Bless the U.S.A.," and thinking, "Bingo!" I don't really want to write much about this because the memory now is so unpleasant in my mind. At the very least neither the judges nor Ryan Seacrest attempted to engage Cook in talking about the motivation behind her song choice, which could have been beauty pageant-level unintentionally hilarious. As a vocal, Cook didn't do a very good job selling herself as a country voice, which is supposed to be her niche. Clearly she picked more of a country song than "Eight Days a Week" but I still don't buy her wearing a cowboy hat on an album cover. Man... the whole resuscitation of that jingoistic crappy song and the over-the-top way the "Idol" show packaged it... it made me a little sick. It's the show at its absolute worst. Kristy Lee is going to have to be better than she's ever been before next week to win this back from me. 5
David Cook Cook's power-ballad take on "Billie Jean" was far less revolutionary than the judges' effusive praise made it seem to be, but that's the precise consequence of the dire populist side of "Idol" demonstrated by Kristy Lee -- something even a little out of the ordinary plays like a live grenade. That's why the "Idol" handlers were careful not to play too much on the fact that Cook's reimagining was more of a straight cover of Chris Cornell's version of the song. That said, I am willing to grade David on a bit of a curve because he had to have known the vast majority of the "Idol" audience would have no idea what he was doing. It didn't work quite as well as his big rock "Eleanor Rigby" bridge, which I genuinely liked, but to be fair Cook was doing something slightly different than his established style and he's actively trying to be fresh every week, which sets him apart in this cast. In terms of the Cornell arrangement's difficulty level he might have overreached a little -- he sounded rhythmically wack fitting in the lyrics over a structure that had some instruments playing in three while others played in four. Sometimes he sounded rushed and too slow and the same time. But his style is coming in sharper every week and he continues to be one of the better guys with pitch in the cast. As is the norm with David, the whole thing worked just a little tiny bit better than the sum of its parts would have suggested. I guess that's the whole argument behind his status as a possible big winner. 7
Picks: It's gotta be Ramiele Malubay. She's bored everybody in the audience at least once by now, right? 10-sided die likes Chikezie, also a strong possibility.