Wednesday, May 26, 2010

There Can Only Be One

Last night, the producers of American Idol did their darnedest to convince us that Lee Dewyze should be the next American Idol. Producer Simon Fuller assigned Dewyze the task of performing REM's "Everybody Hurts," a powerful song of surprisingly haunting optimism that would surely punch everyone in the gut emotionally. They then gave him his first potential single in U2's "Beautiful Day." (More on that later.) It's hard not to listen to that song and feel your soul soaring. Meanwhile, they saddled poor Crystal Bowersox with "Black Velvet", a nearly 20-year-old song that's been done to death on the Idol stage (I still am haunted by Nikki McKibben's version of the song . . . well of any song) and is frequently the victim of numerous crimes commited by the delusional auditioners each year. For her first single, Crystal was given "Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)", a song which I would suspect the majority of the viewing audience did not know before tonight -- including yours truly. Despite the disadvantage of having to perform first (thanks to a coin toss -- otherwise you KNOW the producers would have made sure Lee had that spot!), surely Lee would be able to secure his victory with these songs (and "The Boxer") in his pocket.

But you know what happened? Not that. Instead, Lee came out and gave what were essentially pretty anemic performances that only underscored the power of the original songs. Instead of helping him, these powerhouse songs, all sung originally by artists with distinctive voices and inflections, drug him down when Lee wasn't able to infuse them with the same passion and energy that Paul Simon, Michael Stipe, and Bono did. They became pale reminders of great songs rather than great songs. There was nothing particularly new or exciting about these songs that honestly bordered on karaoke more than once -- and not particularly great karaoke. All of Lee's vocal challenges -- his pitch issues, the fragility of his voice when he goes for power notes, his inability to really sustain a note -- became glaringly obvious. I suspect that his nerves probably played a huge factor. The poor kid went through the entire evening with a perpetual look of "Holy shit!" on his face. The terror in his eyes was palpable. You kind of felt bad for the poor kid. He spent weeks being pampered and stroked by the judges, being told how great he is and how he could win this thing, and when he needed a tremendous performance the most, he just didn't have it in him.

You know who DID have it in her, though? Crystal Bowersox. Crystal came into this competition with guns blasting. Who could forget that Hollywood Week performance of "Natural Woman" that was so good the other contestants seemingly had no choice but to join in on back-up? Week after week, she turned in consistently solid, skilled, nuanced performances. And then the backlash from the judging table started. How many times did she have to stand there and listen to Randy tell her it "wasn't his favorite performance" from her? How often was she chided by Ellen or Kara for not demonstrating enough personality and vulnerability? When she eased off the gas for a couple weeks, she was taken to task for not giving memorable, powerful performances (although I still maintain her "No One Needs to Know" and "Summer Wind" were solid performances). Last week, she had to stand there and smile as Lee Dewyze got the pimp treatment complete with a freakin' choir. A lot of people would have given up with a shrug and said, "Well, clearly they have a script they're not sharing here, so I guess I'd better just go along to get along."

Not Crystal Bowersox. Instead she came out and hit it so far out of the ballpark that I worried for pedestrians blocks away. Her reprisal of "Me and Bobby McGee" was better than the first time. I like that she did a slightly different "cutting" (to use the speech lingo) of the song and played with the dynamics so beautifully. When Ryan announced that Simon Fuller had assigned her "Black Velvet," I groaned. Images of Nikki McKibben and mall hair and . . . . I worried. (Also, again, it's a song that is 20 years old. When are the powers that be behind this show going to recognize that it is 2010 and that there has been a lot of music produced in the past decade or so . . . and some of it is pretty darn good?) It turns out the only thing to worry about was whether or not Crystal was going to make it down the steps in those heels. (Way to go, Crystal! I know it's tough to go from Birks and boots to heels, but you did it!) Her "Black Velvet" was sexy, soulful, and simply perfect. And then "Up to the Mountain" . . . wow. As I said before, I didn't know the song before last night. I've never listened to a lot of Patti Griffin music, but I'm thinking maybe I should. Maybe it helped, though, that the song was completely new to me and I could really just marvel in Crystal's performance without having a basis of comparison. I really felt like I was truly witnessing the birth of a star last night. I would say that she was "in it to win it." I actually DID say that last night only to have the exact same phrase echoed by Randy Jackson minutes later, leading me to vomit profusely. I can't let that happen again.

Disappointingly, what I was NOT witnessing, though, was the birth of a new Idol schlock anthem. Instead of saddling the contestants with another treacly ballad of pop psych hope and optimism, they were instead given covers for their first singles. Yes, both songs have powerful messages of hope and optimism, but they're, um, good. WTF? I came into last night excited to witness another lyrical train wreck. I guess after the majesty of "No Boundaries," though, they just gave up. I mean, what could ever top the perfection of "You can go higher, You can go deeper, There are no boundaries, Above and beneath you, Break every rule coz there's nothing between you, And your dreams." Aw, Kara, after that song, baby, they broke the mold. I guess it was hoping too much to hope for something as cheesily delightful as that. Why bother to try?

Clearly there's no need for rankings tonight. I'm not sure there are many people out there who would argue that Lee outperformed Crystal. Of course, I'm sure that Chicagoland phone lines were blazing last night with calls to Lee's numbers, and I don't know that I would be tremendously shocked if it's Lee getting the confetti shower tonight. It would be a shame, though, because this was a case where clearly the other performer has earned that shower and that glory in a much more obvious way. For the past several months, Crystal has been consistent, she's never compromised, and she's always found a way to entertain. If that's not an American Idol, well, then, maybe I don't know what one is anymore.

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