Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Idolhouse Rock

Last night marked the return of the Glambert. While many complained about bringing the former Idol back as a mentor (pointing out that Lambert didn't even win his season), I think the idea was quite brilliant. I've long said that, if the show is going to insist on this "mentoring" thing (Kelly Clarkson never needed a stinking mentor!), who better to help these kids navigate the shark-infested waters of a Tuesday night performance and judging than someone who has been through it. As "talented" as Usher or Miley Cyrus may be, the fact is that they have no idea what it's like to have a week to put together a "fresh" performance and then stand there on that stage and face the wrath of Simon Cowell (not to mention the inanity of Randy Jackson). Adam Lambert has been there and can help these kids with an understanding shared by very few others. Add to that the fact that, while Adam may not have won and may not have had the most successful post-Idol career (yet), he was one of the most adept contestants when it came to making the week's ridiculous theme work for him. He made a song his own and them some on more than one occasion and lit the stage on fire with sheer performance adrenalin. It also seemed clear, watching him last season, that he may be one of the most musically educated Idols, meaning that he has the training and knowledge to help kids in terms of performance and technique. One of the things we loved about Kelly, Ruben, Fantasia, Carrie, et cetera was the notion of them being diamonds in the rough, kids running on pure talent. Adam was always a diamond in the lap of luxury -- talent that had been nurtured and trained and prepared for his moment in the spotlight.

Overall, I thought Adam was a pretty decent judge -- tough in many cases (telling Andrew he was boring), insightful in others, and gave a lot of constructive, useful advice to these kids. His mentoring gave us a relatively entertaining night, although once again I found myself shaking my head in frustration as the kids were asked to sing songs that are a HALF-CENTURY OLD (in some cases), songs that are iconic parts of the American culture, and make them fresh and relevant. How do you IMPROVE upon Elvis? You can't and thus you end up being accused of performing mediocre karaoke because none of these kids has what Elvis had (talk about a diamond in the rough!!). I thought the smartest move many of them made was to pick more "obscure" Elvis tunes, songs that don't have such a permanent spot in our cultural consciousness. It made the songs seem fresh if only because we hadn't heard them millions of times already.

On to the rankings:
1. Crystal Bowersox ("Saved") Crystal opened the show with a rip-roaring tear through this hot, gospel-tinged tune. Every week, I get more and more excited for the inevitable Crystal album and how awesome it will be. My sis and I got into a bit of a discussion last night about whether or not it would be in Crystal's best interest to win. Her argument is that the weight of the victory may bury her uniqueness and stifle her creativity. The thing is that an Idol victory can go one of two ways -- you can be the next Kelly Clarkson or the next Taylor Hicks. The track record of non-winners, though, is even worse. For every Chris Daughtry, there are dozens of Justin Guarinis. Look at Melinda Doolittle. She struggled to sign any sort of record deal after her third-place finish even though few would argue that she wasn't the most talented contestant in her season. Melinda, though, is a niche kind of performer with her cool, jazz vibe. That's not something that's burning up the charts right now. You could argue the same thing for Crystal. Fifteen years ago, she would have been a seeming sure thing at a time when Blues Traveler, Joan Osborne, and other "crunchy" types of artists were all over the place. Right now, the chart is dominated by R&B and countrified pop which may make it difficult for her to land a deal without the benefit of an American Idol victory on her resume. The victory guarantees her a certain amount of comfort as she pursues her career. She's guaranteed, most likely, a number one single and a high debut on the charts with her album because she'll have the whole of the Idol machinery behind her. In terms of her credibility, yes, a loss might be better for her. In terms of record sales, though, she may need the win more than anyone else. I suppose only time will tell, but I don't know that I can handle another Melinda Doolittle debacle.

2. Tim Urban ("Can't Help Falling In Love") Yes, you are reading this correctly. Tim was my second favorite last night. It helped that he was performing one of my favorite Elvis songs. But his performance itself was so lovely. My sis pointed out that it had a sort of cool lullabye quality. It was the first time I could really imagine Tim having a successful career. And as my sis pointed out, how awesome for him to have his best performance of the season with the entire cast of Glee right there in the front row. (Seriously, how adorable would he be on Glee??) Finally, that sort of Jack Johnson vibe he's working worked for him and made him seem current and relevant and present. Rock on, Tim!

3. Lee Dewyze ("A Little Less Conversation") Now, Lee may be one of those guys who could thrive without the Idol victory. I enjoyed his romp through another one of my favorite Elvis songs last night. I found him cool and funky and thought Adam worked well with him in getting him to become more engaged in his performances. He had a good energy and made the song seem pretty cool again.

4. Michael Lynche ("In the Ghetto") Michael was the recipient of the Judges' Save last week. While I would agree with those who were disgusted by Mike's behavior last week (the chest thumping, the pompous "Check me out on i-tunes," the sulking), I still think the judges made the right choice, especially after witnessing last night's performance. This is the Mike I like, the guy who can sit down with a lovely song and give a moving, honest performance free of the showboating and cheesiness. He's a talented guy, but the personality gets in the way of that and often makes him grating. He just needs to keep letting Tuesday nights be a showcase for his voice and not for his ridiculous dance moves.

5. Casey James ("Lawdy Miss Clawdy")
Casey kind of took a few steps back from last week's beautiful "Jealous Guy," a few steps right back to the bar band stage he often seems to rock. Yes, his "Lawdy Miss Clawdy" was fun and spirited, but it also lacked the soul of his "Jealous Guy." Casey's probably a shoe-in for a top five finish, but I would rather see him work for that finish rather than coast into it the way he did with this performance.

6. Siobhan Magnus ("Suspicious Minds") I'm starting to worry about Siobhan. She came into the top 12 on such a high and kept that high with an amazing "Paint it Black." Since then, it's been a case of diminishing returns as each week has seemed like a pale imitation of the Siobhan we once loved. I liked a lot of what she did with last night's "Suspicious Minds" (another fave of mine), but I didn't necessarily like the sum of the parts put together. Siobhan herself admitted to struggling with figuring out who she is as an artist, and it's really interesting to watch her wrestle with that identity every week. The question is whether the American public will tire of that wrestling match, and I worry that the time is coming sooner rather than later. If Siobhan doesn't pull out another "Paint It Black" soon, I worry that she may not be the one joining Crystal at the Nokia next month.

7. Katie Stevens ("Baby, What You Want Me To Do"
) Yes, watching Siobhan work out her artistic identity is interesting. Watching Katie Stevens do the same thing . . . not so much. The thing is that Siobhan is entertaining, and Katie is not. Yes, we have the ongoing debate over whether Katie should be a country or R&B artist, but the whole debate is really moot because the fact of the matter is that the kid probably doesn't have a real music career after this summer's tour. Who will buy a Katie Stevens album? She could maybe go the way of Diana DeGarmo -- disappear for a year or two and then show up on Broadway. Most likely, though, she'll end up going home, going to college, and spend her life pulling out the scrapbook to show her kids that she was once on one of the most popular shows on television. So watching her get sassy with the judges via song is just precocious and not all that entertaining, and I'm frankly getting a little tired of the whole thing.

8. Aaron Kelly ("Blue Suede Shoes") Notice that the two weakest performances of the night also involved tackling two of the most iconic songs in the Elvis catalog. While Aaron's performance was entertaining, it did feel really karaoke to me ... or like a solid audition for All Shook Up. I applaud Aaron for stepping out of the ballad safety zone, but if the goal in picking a more upbeat song was to make him seem a little younger, the song did him no favors. It was more Star Search than starmaking, and Aaron may find himself in danger once again.

9. Andrew Garcia ("Hound Dog") Sadly, I suspect that last night was Andrew's last night with us. His "Hound Dog" was not necessarily karaoke as it was Holiday Inn lounge. His attempts to put a little swagger and life in the song just reminded me of Nick the Lounge Singer from the early days of SNL. It's unfortunate that Andrew's run on this show has been so unspectacular. The thing is that I LIKE the tone of his voice. With the right production team, he could be something really special. Unfortunately, he himself doesn't have the training to create that special moment on his own, and it doesn't seem as if the Idol production team is all that interested in helping him get there either. Get him in a studio with, say, an Eric Valentine (who has worked with Maroon 5 among others) or T-Bone Burnett, and the guy could be a huge star. Unfortunately, he's more likely to end up a 9th place finisher on a talent show, spend a summer touring the country, and then fading off into the sunset, just another victim of crushed dreams on the Idol stage.

Two go home tonight, and hopefully, America will start picking off some of the guys. I worry for Siobhan, though, so hopefully the Glassblowers Union of America is speed dialing like crazy to keep the quirky little moppet on the show.

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