Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Facing My Fears

Confession time: I am a hypocrite.

Okay, I'm probably hypocritical about a lot of things. Aren't we all at some level? But there's been one thing I've been kind of wagging an internal finger at myself about for awhile now. Today, I finally decided to do something about it.

This is all sounding rather mysterious and scandalous, isn't it?

It's really not.

Here's the thing: I am a teacher. Not only am I a teacher, but I am a teacher in fields that are fraught with terror for a lot of people. I teach speech, and you know the old adage about public speaking being the thing we fear more than death. I also teach drama, another field that fills many with absolute dread. Even my super talented and loyal speech and drama kids often struggle with fear and confidence. And there's Mama Mel holding their hands and telling them there's nothing to fear and how they have to have faith and carpe diem and all that cliche stuff (that I legitimately mean, lest people think I'm being an insincere fraud on top of the whole hypocrite thing).

This, friends, is where my hypocrisy comes into play. While I've never been particularly afraid of speaking in public and really don't have a ton of issues when it comes to acting onstage, there is a very powerful fear that has often been a little on the crippling side for me. Singing. Don't get me wrong. When it's me alone in the car, I crank the tunes and belt along with the best of them. But getting me to sing in front of people? No way, Jose. I freak out. It probably doesn't help that my sis is an amazingly gifted singer. I resigned myself years ago to the fact that she got certain gifts in the genetic lottery; I got others. It kind of works itself out pretty nicely. Yeah, she can sing, but I am way taller than she is.... even steven!

So now, let's take a look at today. I've been hustling my students for the past couple months about auditioning for the summer musical with a local community theatre group. I think it's so important for my kids to get as much experience as they can, it's a great way for them to meet like-minded people who love theatre, and it's also a way for them to see that, even if they don't all intend to become professional actors, there can still be a place for theatre in their lives. I am a passionate supporter of community theatre, and I love sharing that experience with my students. After all, I would not be here today were it not for community theatre. (That's how my parents met...if I've never blogged about that story, maybe I will another time.)

Making the jump to the bigger pool that is community theatre, though, is a pretty daunting prospect for some of my kids. For some of them, the only person they've ever auditioned for is me, and I tend to be a pretty supportive cheerleader kind of person, especially during auditions. (Yes, friends, I'm a Paula. No doubt about it.) Suddenly, I'm asking them to go up against unknown talent from other schools, other towns and to stand in front of total strangers and put themselves out there. And it dawned on me today that I push them to do that...and I'm not willing to do it myself.


But that all ended today.

As a way to show moral support to my very brave (and very talented) students (and former students) who made the leap and auditioned, I swallowed my fears and found myself sitting beside them today to audition for All Shook Up. Yes, I sang in front of people. In front of my students. They were quite amused. I believe one said something about it being "cosmic justice." It was a little weird being a "peer" with my students, but it was also kind of fun and a little exhilarating to find myself in the same boat as my kids. And facing down a pretty epic fear? Wow. I'm not saying that I'm going to be running out there and tackling all of those other pesky fears any time soon. I won't be climbing any giant ladders. I won't be handling any snakes. But I sang in public, and maybe showed my kids that there really is nothing to fear but fear itself. And really high places. And snakes. But mostly fear itself.

UPDATE: I got a part. Well, I was cast in the chorus, but still! I get to perform with a lovely group of my students and perform on an amazing stage (a stage where Jack Benny, Houdini, and Fanny Brice are said to have once performed). If becoming a chorus girl isn't enough incentive to keep trekking to the gym this summer, I don't know what is! Stay tuned for a summer full of stories from my life as a ginger-headed chorus girl.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Good Lord, that was excrutiating!

I could spend these paragraphs detailing all the ways in which last night's finale of American Idol was absolute torture -- the twang, the hyperbole, the ridiculous clothing forced upon a teenaged girl, the pandering. All of it added up to a total nightmare, as far as I'm concerned. Look, I have nothing against either Lauren or Scotty. They both seem like very nice kids, and there is definitely something a bit moving seeing how much this experience means to them. That look of wonder in their eyes is powerful stuff. But you can't tell me that you weren't bored by the complete lack of any variety in that hour. When Taio Cruz singing some song that America apparently helped write (I was always kind of vague on the details of that particular contest) is a highlight of the evening, you know you're in trouble.

As I thought about it this morning, I couldn't help but think that it was maybe just as torturous for the producers as it was for us lowly viewers. Sure, the ultimate winner of this show will likely sell quite a few records. (Country fans are pretty loyal and willing to part with their money -- far more so, I suspect, than rock fans. We're cheapskates, we rock fans.) But considering the fact that all of the Idol-related Facebook posts I saw last night talked about how awful the finale was (with a couple swearing off the show forever), I'm thinking Idol has a problem. If you look back over the past ten years, each finale really did have a way to appeal to just about anyone -- pop, rock, country, soul, beatboxing, folk. This year, we have country and country. I sat and listened to songs I would never willingly listen to last night -- and I didn't like a darn one of them.

Of course, the ultimate responsibility for this failure lies in us, the voting public. We're so driven by good looks, perky smiles, and charming personalities that we don't think about how miserable an hour of all country music could be. We let interesting artists slip away because they seem bratty (Haley) or weird (Casey) or maybe a little too emotional (James). Of course, the producers know this and play to that by giving us loads of footage of Scotty's winning charm or having Lauren visit tornado-ravaged neighborhoods...or have her sing a song about her mother TO her mother. (I can't help but think that the producers suspect Scotty is okay regardless of tonight's outcome but that Lauren needs the win to guarantee her album sales which is why she got the stronger original song -- the more manipulative original song -- and had the judges flipping out over her sudden brilliance.)

Am I walking away from Idol after last night? Probably not. The truth of the matter is that, even when it's bad, Idol is an awful lot of fun. I had a tremendously good time last night mocking the proceedings -- making me wish I could live blog while I watch because seriously, you guys would be rolling! After last year's travesty (Lee beating Crystal), I sort of came to a sort of peace with Idol, recognizing that the best would not always (if ever) win, that personality trumps all, and that America has no taste when it comes to music. And I somehow still love Idol for all of that and more.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Mea Culpa to MY American Idol

Friends, imagine last night's Idol without Haley Reinhart. Imagine two hours of lackluster country "hits" sung by two very sweet but ultimately not terribly interesting teenagers. Throw in a lot of meaningless patter by self-satisfied celebrity judges, some tearjerking video moments, and you have next week's finale. As much as I have grown to love Haley over the course of the past couple weeks (and I have to admit that I DO love Haley), I have a hard time imagining her making it into the finale next week despite the fact that she gave the most solid performances of last night. Go to the American Idol website and watch her performances. Here's a girl who had the balls to tackle Led Zeppelin (and a more obscure Led Zeppelin at that), Stevie Nicks, and Alanis Morisette all within the scope of two hours. And outside of her stumble on the steps, she didn't miss a single beat or a single note. Her "What Is and What Should Never Be" was a rager, full of the fire and excitement that was lacking from every single one of Scotty and Lauren's performances last night. Add to it the beauty of having her father onstage playing guitar, and it was the kind of performance that should go down in Idol history.

Her second performance was "Rhiannon." She brought a dark, raw elegance to the tune, staying true to the lines set forth by Stevie Nicks but using some inventive shades within those notes that made it her own. She also show remarkable restraint by limiting her growl and instead basking in the glow of that kick ass wind machine they gave her. (Credit the producers for at least giving Haley the pimp spot as well as the pimp effects that the other contestants last night did not receive.)

I would say that her performance of "You Oughtta Know" that closed out the show was probably her weakest of her three numbers, but it still beat anything Scotty or Lauren did. I don't know what show Randy and JLo were watching last night to NOT declare Haley as the best of the night, but we all know they clearly have an agenda that does not include a Haley finale. Bless you, Steven Tyler, for fighting for this girl the past couple weeks and giving her the love she has so clearly earned.

But back to "You Oughtta Know"...as any woman in her 30's can tell you, that's a tough song. Those of us who found ourselves blasting that song in the mid-90's know that it's not an easy song with which to sing along, so it's no wonder that Haley struggled with the crazy syncopation Alanis lays out in that track. But man, despite some rhythmic challenges here and there, she still blew everyone else out of the water with those last notes. DAMN!

I know that Haley is facing a tough battle. The judges gave Scotty and Lauren a lot of praise last night. They are clearly nice kids and they sang well. For me, though, their performances were lacking something -- heart, passion, soul. They hit their notes, they did everything they were supposed to, but they never gave me that surge of adrenaline that Haley gave me with every single note she sang last night. Sure, part of the issue, I'm sure, is that I am not a country music fan. It's probably not that surprising that my favorite Scotty performance last night was his performance of "She Believes In Me" because it was a song I actually recognized (and have always kind of liked). To be quite frank, country music largely bores me, and so Scotty and Lauren, by never straying from their country game plan, have begun to bore me as well. It also doesn't help Lauren that she was assigned "I Hope You Dance" for one of her performances -- a song that I have always loathed with a passion second only to my hatred for No Doubt's "Don't Speak." (Seriously, that song gives me hives of hatred.)

Here's the thing, though. No matter what the outcome is this week and next, I have no doubt in my mind that Lauren and Scotty have careers just waiting for them. I have a hard time imagining that Nashville isn't chomping at the bit to get those two into studios. There is a large portion of the country demographic that is young -- at least if the number of teenaged country fans I'm surrounded by on a daily basis is any indication. Scotty and Lauren give Nashville the chance to jump on that demographic and give them their very own version of Justin and Miley (or whoever the big teen idols of the day are). These two are cute, clean cut, perfect for posters, t-shirts, and lunch boxes. (Put the two of them together in a duo ala Sugarland or Lady Antebellum, and they could be unstoppable.)

I'm not sure that the same is true of Haley, though. It seems that it's a lot tougher to break into the rock industry than the country industry. Haley needs all the exposure she can get to help her make it. Haley needs to win. But I don't know that America is going to embrace this spunky little rocker the way she she needs to be embraced. And maybe Haley is content with going back to Chicago and banking on a third place finish to book slightly larger clubs and continue to jam with her mom and dad's rock band. (And how cool is that to grow up with parents who have their own rock band....in the Chicago area? Answer: VERY FREAKIN' COOL! I kind of want Haley's childhood!) I think, though, that she deserves better than that. I think she could take advantage of the wave of kick ass female singers out there and maybe carve a nice little niche in that market alongside Adele, Christina Perri, Colbie Callait, and even Lady Gaga. But she needs a win, I think, to get that shot.

Friends, I recognize the irony of this post. Believe me, I found myself laughing last night as I continually dialed Haley's number to cast my vote for her while also sitting online to cast my vote for her on the website. Weeks ago, I looked forward to the idea of Haley being voted off, was ready to pop open a bottle of champagne to celebrate said elimination, and here I was voting frantically for the same girl. But over the past few weeks, Haley has won me over with her tenacity and talent. Once I realized that my iPod is littered with chicks just like Haley (and, frankly, once Casey Abrams was gone), I embraced this plucky little diva. I just wish America would join me and not let the finale be a two-hour country jamboree. I would rather listen to "Don't Speak" for two hours on an endless loop than be subjected to that.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Bookworms Unite

According to the media, books are dying. There are a plethora of articles out there bemoaning the fact that the sale of physical books is down significantly in the face of the rising popularity (and lowering prices) of Nooks and Kindles. Book stores are closing every day. Borders is bankrupt. There is a significant portion of the media that has turned all Chicken Little and seems certain that the printed book is set to go the way of the eight-track tape and Betamax.

For a book lover like me, it's hard not to worry. Now, before you ask, no, I've not jumped on board the Kindle train. There are a lot of different reasons for that. The price was prohibitive at first. A great majority of the books I buy are purchased used through Amazon or the local bookstore here in town. And when you get right down to it, for me, nothing beats the feel and smell of a book. I struggle with the notion that I could ever get the same "high" from a little flat panel screen that I get from opening to that first page of what may prove to be an incredible literary journey.

Yes, friends, I am a bookworm. And I am damn proud.

And I also know something else . . . I am not alone.

This morning was one of my favorite days of the year, seriously right up there with the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas morning, and my birthday. It was the annual Friends of the Library book sale. Once a year, our little local library turns the second floor meeting room into a giant used book store, offering books for as cheap as a quarter a piece and antique books for as little as $15. It is a booklover's dream come true.

As I stood in line this morning waiting for the library doors to be unlocked (in my own defense, so as not to sound like a total freak, I thought the sale started an hour earlier and THOUGHT I was arriving almost an hour into the sale...after the initial crowd had already torn through), I felt a certain sort of pride. Note what I said in that last sentence -- I STOOD IN LINE. I pulled up to the back door of the library about 15 minutes before the doors opened and joined a line that was already about 15 people deep. Someone mentioned that an even longer line was at the door in the front of the building. By the time that 15 minutes passed, the line was probably a good 25 or 30 people deep. All of us were there for the same reason -- we loved books. The other thing that made this booklover's heart soar was the fact that I wasn't surrounded by a bunch of old ladies. There were young kids in line, bouncing up and down as they held their bags awaiting their future haul. There were college kids strolling over from campus. There were parents young and old. There was a group of people who just love books.

When we were finally let in, the small meeting room upstairs was soon packed with people loaded down with books. There was a tremendous selection. I walked out with roughly a dozen books, many of which looked like they had never been opened before. For just under $5, I walked away with nearly pristine copies of books by Sherman Alexie, Denis Johnson, Chelsea Handler, Emily Griffin, Ann Packer, Jonathan Safran Foer, and more. Add to it the fact that I hauled in my bounty in under 15 minutes, and you can call it a successful outing. I had decided to exercise a little self-control and did not bring in a bag but decided I would only purchase what I could actually carry myself. (Which also explains the fact that I was only in there for 15 minutes.) Others had shopping bags; some had boxes. Everyone had huge smiles of disbelief on their faces as they moved from table to table and saw the books available.

So I refuse to believe that books are dead. Booklovers are out there. We are passionate. We are devoted. We are willing to stand outside in the cold, pouring rain (yeah, did I mention it was only about 50 degrees and raining this morning?) to get our hands on books. Your Kindles and Nooks are lovely (and I know that eventually I will break down and buy one), but please don't let them rip away our pages. You keep printing; we keep buying.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Mama, He's Going Home

Well, Blogger has been down, so many of you may not have seen my post where I said my DVR malfunctioned Wednesday night and I was unable to see Idol. I do go and read the recap on Entertainment Weekly (I miss you, Michael Slezak!), and I was able to catch the performances on the Idol website, although I did not see the introductory film footage nor watch the critiques.

Friends, let me tell you, American Idol is a significantly different experience when you skip the critiques and don't let Randy, JLo, and Steven tell you who gave the better performances. Just watching the actual performances left me with no doubt that Haley Reinhart was the strongest performer on Wednesday and that James Durbin was most definitely the weakest. I'm sorry, Randy and JLo, but Haley knocked it out of the park, and if ANYONE is in it to win it, it is that spunky little chick from Chicago. (Haley is from Chicago, yes? I mean, that accent? Come on!) Sure, Lauren did fine with a serviceable Martina McBride (or whatever country-lite diva of the week Lauren is trotting out) song, but her "Trouble" was kind of a laughable mess. Scotty pulled out the maudlin "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)" that always makes me throw up a little inside and then topped it off with a short bus rendition of "Youngblood" that was remarkable more for the ridiculous faces and t-rex arms he was flailing around with the entire time he was onstage. As for James, well...to be honest, the whole James-ness of him just kind of got old. The choice to do "Don't Stop Believing" felt a bit pandering (Randy, after all, yo, was once a member of Journey), and his "Love Potion #9" just felt off. My sis, who has had years of vocal training, pointed out that his notes were sloppy and a bit all over the place. There's no denying that James is a showman and an entertaining presence on that stage, but the three best technical singers are left in the competition.

As for Haley.....

What a tremendous Idol journey that young woman has taken....in my heart. Yes, weeks ago I railed against her. I called her a petulant faker. I thought the growl was beyond overused. I hated the way she stomped around on the stage and kept waving her "Help me, Jesus" arm up and down during her songs. I waited for her elimination with a bottle of champagne ready to help celebrate the end of her era. But then something happened. She brought the growl a little more under control. (It's still a bit too much, but it's certainly not as bad as it was!) She's slowly getting better stage presence. What really has won me over is the fact that this girl seems to have a tremendous passion and fire burning in her. For the past couple weeks, Haley has walked off that stage emotionally battered around by the judges. They can't knock her for her actual skill, so they ding her on her song choice. What's remarkable, though, is that Haley takes risks. I can see dinging her on song choice if she pulled a Lauren and came out every week with some middle of the road, safe little ditty that gave her a big note or two but ultimately offered her no real challenge. No, instead Haley is out there stomping and growling and singing her heart out on some pretty ambitious choices like "Call Me" and an unreleased Lady Gaga tune. For two weeks in a row, she has stood there and received these beating and then come out and sung ANOTHER SONG. And her second performance exceeds the first because instead of pouting and crying about how mean the judges were, she channels that into what can only be called rage and gives a compelling, raw, passionate, fierce, furious performance. After the ridiculous Gaga beating last week, she turned around and gave the night's best performance with "House of the Rising Sun." After getting slammed to the ground for her quite powerful and moving "Earth Song" Wednesday, she trotted right back out there in her big girl shoes and hit a home run with "I (Who Have Nothing)". More than once in the past two weeks, Haley has moved me to tears. She FEELS this. She NEEDS this. And if the judges don't like it, well, they can just go forget themselves. (Thanks, Cee-Lo)

Does Haley have a shot at the finale? Sadly, probably not, and that leaves us with the very scary but totally realistic possibility that we will have an all-country finale with Lauren and Scotty. I'm not sure I can handle that, to be quite honest with you. The past couple weeks of having to listen to Martina McBride and Sara Evans and Alan Jackson and whatever else these two have trot out for us is really starting to wear on me. Remember when Carrie Underwood was able to win this thing by singing songs by POP artists? Her "Alone" remains one of the greatest performances to ever take the Idol stage. We all knew Carrie was a country artist, but she was able to paint outside those lines at least a little and bring some country flavor to pop music (which is why she's been a pretty darn successful crossover artist in ways that Martina, Sara, and Alan have never been able to achieve). Consider, too, that fact that an all-country finale will likely only lead us to more and more twang next season and suddenly American Idol becomes Nashville Idol, and that's my stop on this crazy train, my friends. That's my stop.

Thursday, May 12, 2011


No Idol post today. My DVR decided to be a douchebag last night and recorded nothing it was supposed to. No Idol. No America's Next Top Model. Nothing. I'm hoping to at least get a little lowdown on what happened last night, but I can't rank performances I haven't seen, and Idol is pretty shifty about putting stuff up online to view.


Friday, May 6, 2011

Singing Blind

Because I seem to spend my days doing nothing but playing armchair quarterback for American Idol, I've had a couple people ask me about NBC's The Voice. Since it appears to be law that you cannot not watch this show (based on the intense marketing campaign that I swear seemed to include ads on my toilet paper in addition to every 20 seconds during NBC's other programming), I set the DVR to record it.

Outside of American Idol (and The Sing Off... and an embarrassing flirtation with American Juniors one summer), I've never really watched most of the other "talent-based" reality shows. I've never watched So You Think You Can Dance (that screamy woman they show on The Soup all the time freaks me out), was quickly bored by America's Got Talent (no, they really don't), and barely made it through an episode of Paula Abdul's Live to Dance. I tend to find a lot of those shows a little dull, to be honest. The format is always the same; you can always predict who will make it and who won't. It's actually more shocking that I am so devoted to American Idol considering how my attention is so frequently lost while watching other talent shows.

But I was too intrigued by the notion of The Voice to not at least give it a try. It probably helped that the celebrity judges including Christina Aguilara and Cee-Lo. I love them. Adam Levine is adorable. It surely surprises no one that I was completely unfamiliar with Blake Shelton prior to this, but he seemed appealing enough in the ads. Once the sneak preview aired before SNL a couple weeks ago that featured the celebrity judges performing "Crazy", I was pretty much in for at least a sampling.

I have to say I've enjoyed what I've seen so far. The blind aspect of the auditions is intriguing -- although no one that made it to the next level seems to be particularly trollish, just maybe lacking in some performance skills. I enjoyed the suspense of whether or not a judge would push a button to claim a singer. I liked the battling amongst the celebrities to get a certain performer on his/her team. Carson Daly seems likable enough backstage with the families. The question for me becomes how the show continues on now that the gimmick stage is over. From now on, it's not just going to be about the voices, right? As the performers go into a sort of musical boxing ring to battle to keep their spots on their teams, will judges have their backs to them still? After mentoring these people, won't the judges recognize the voices they're hearing? Won't personality start coming into play now that the judges know them?

Adding to my concerns is this article that details the very non-amateur pasts of a lot of the singers (including the presence of TWO American Juniors veterans...WEIRD!). Part of the joy of American Idol is the idea of these kids being plucked from obscurity to become superstars. American Idol is the place where paint salesmen can become recording artists. I worry that The Voice may just be the place to go when your contract with MCA expires.

Don't get me wrong. I'm sticking with the show if only to see how it all plays out...and because I think Adam Levine is cute. (And honestly, Blake Shelton is not completely unattractive either. But Carson Daly looks like the Crypt Keeper's little brother Chip. Just saying, Carson, that a burger might not be a bad idea once in a while.)

PS -- I have to say I'm thrilled to see Frenchie Davis as a contestant on this show, but I can't help but think the producers are setting her up for another epic fall in the ongoing tragedy that is Frenchie's life. The Greeks couldn't write stuff this potent, man!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

House of the Rising Idol

What a season American Idol has had this year. Seriously, after last year, I kind of wondered if my own personal Idol journey would be over. My love for the show had always been very deeply rooted in the existence of Simon Cowell, and he was leaving. The judge I most despised, Randy Jackson, was staying and essentially becoming the "lead" judge. America had proven that it has no real discernible taste by selecting the bland Lee DeWyze winner over the incredible Crystal Bowersox. (Seriously, if you can, go back and watch her finale performance of "Up to the Mountain" and then come explain to me how that was a second place performance. You can't because it's isn't...or shouldn't have been.) I was not thrilled when it was announced that Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler were joining the judging panel. Overall, I figured this would probably be the end of the lien for me and Idol...and this time would be a time that would stick.

What a difference a year has made. Sure, there are still times when I miss Simon or at least wonder how he would have responded to a given performance. Sure, Randy, despite occasionally showing some moments of truly insightful criticism, is more likely to fall back on ridiculous hyperbole and dumb statements. (If I hear him say someone is "In it to win it" one more time.... the sis and I are thinking the finale would be a great opportunity to unveil the American Idol drinking game we've been devising recently...and Randy will surely be the star of that game!) As the show approaches its finale, though, there's no denying that the talent level is pretty exciting, that Jennifer and Steven have brought a great energy to the judging panel (even though neither seems overly willing to actually critique in a truly constructive manner), and every episode is fraught with drama. Every elimination is shocking and disappointing. The performances are, as a whole, stronger than ever before. Can you imagine what these kids would have done in previous seasons where the talent pool was considerably weaker?

It makes it difficult for me to play armchair music producer every Thursday morning when I spent the night before watching ten solid performances. But it also makes it exciting as I wonder what is going to happen next, as early favorites fall from favor and a bottle of champagne sits unopened as a certain once loathed contestant gets better and better.

I had difficulty with today's rankings because the first half of the show had a different line up in terms of which performances I liked better than the second half. For example, after the first half of the show, I have to admit I would have ranked Scotty first. Even though I am not a country fan (and particularly don't tend to like male country artists -- too twangy for me), I loved his high energy, confident performance of Montgomery Gentry's "Gone" better than just about anything else in the first half of the show. But the second half of the show...wow. It shook things up considerably. So what I decided to do was take each performer and establish my rankings based on my favorite of their two performances. Yes, I'll comment on both performances, but how they line up is based on the one I liked better. Does that make sense? Have I just made things too complicated? Meh. Who cares? Who's reading this anyway?

1. Haley Reinhart -- Yeah, you read that right. Without a doubt, Haley was the strongest performer last night. The judges ganged up on her a bit for picking Lady Gaga's "You and I" as her first performance. It's an unreleased track that probably 90% of the audience at home had never heard before. It was a totally ballsy move...and I thought it was a brilliant one. After all, Haley is going to potentially make a career of singing songs we've never heard before except from her. What a way to establish herself. And it was a terrific performance (although my sis thought Haley's vocals sounded young...like a twelve year old). What put Haley at #1 on my list, though, was that finale. Her version of "House of the Rising Sun" was haunting and absolutely spellbinding. Bravo to guest mentor Sheryl Crow for encouraging Haley to go with that acappella opening that just put the audience in the palm of Haley's little hand. Yeah, Haley still needs to work on some stage presence (the arm waving...Haley...stop...), but she is playing this thing brilliantly and is on the kind of trajectory that could very well lead her to the finale. (Since she's a chick, she apparently can't win thanks to the massive tween girl voting demographic out there, but it suddenly doesn't seem too far fetched to imagine her at least making it to the final two.)

2. Scotty McCreery -- I've been tough on Scotty since day one. Scotty is a tough one for me because he is a genre performer in a genre I don't like. I've tried, though, to be open and I think I've been pretty honest about saying I think the kid is a tremendous singer. I just wish he sang a kind of music I like better. I think it's great that he's stuck to his guns and not tried to fit himself into whatever genre they're working that week, that he's managed to give a country performance every single week. (I still think he should have done "Everybody's Talkin'" for Movie Week, though.) Sometimes, that stubborn devotion to genre has been a little dull. I wasn't crazy about "I Cross My Heart" from Movie Week nor did I particularly like "You've Got a Friend" last week. Last night, though, I really enjoyed both of Scotty's performances and had Haley not come out with that monster "Rising Sun", I would have put Scotty first. As I said above, I thought his "Gone" was the best performance from the first half of the show. I loved the energy and swagger. The kid is a showman. (And thank you to the Idol vocal coaches for working with him on that damn flute hold he has on the microphone!) I thought his "Always on My Mind", while a predictable choice, was absolutely lovely and showed tremendous maturity. I really think we're looking at a likely Scotty-James finale, and I wouldn't be particularly shocked if Scotty was the ultimate winner. (I work with teenage girls. They love this kid!) Regardless of the outcome, Scotty has a bright future ahead of him in the industry. There is no way Nashville is going to let this kid go -- with that talent? That smile? Come on!

3. James Durbin -- It's not so much that James stumbled last night. He really didn't. It's just that Haley and Scotty shone a little brighter. I wasn't overly crazy about James's first performance, 30 Second to Mars's "Closer to the Edge." It just kind of lacked an ineffable something for me. James's "Without You", however, was quite lovely and had me in tears. There's no doubt this kid leaves it all on the stage every single week, and his passion and dedication to music is unrivaled. Of all the kids Randy has dubbed as being "in it to win it," James seems the truest to that sentiment. Am I alone, though, in sensing that James is wearing himself out a bit? Has he peaked too soon? I hate to think what will happen to those cute little toddler eyes (as my sister calls them) should he not make it, but I also wouldn't be surprised to see him in the bottom three tonight. The real question is whether the emotion of "Without You" will overcome the merely adequateness of "Closer to the Edge."

4. Lauren Alaina -- I know we're supposed to love Lauren and think she's the second coming of Carrie Underwood. Lauren herself tried to prove that to us last night by performing Carrie's "Flat on the Floor." It was a good performance. But just good. Lauren often feels like she's a little girl trying on Mama's big girl clothes and stomping around in heels a little too big for her. (Judging from the way Lauren's Mama dresses, though, maybe it's Grandma's big girl clothes...) I wish there was a way for Lauren's youth to be capitalized on. Lauren doesn't help this, though, by continuing to choose songs that are, frankly, too old for her. Her best performance this season was "The Climb", a song written for a 16 year old. Last night, we got "Flat on the Floor" (which seriously features the line "You can't knock me off my feet when I'm down on my knees" ... yes, there IS a 13-year-old version of Michael Scott living in my head) and "Unchained Melody." Both of those are adult songs, filled with adult pain and yearning, pain and yearning that a 16-year-old girl like Lauren can really only imagine. There's no denying Lauren has a tremendous voice, and it's not that she didn't sing either song well, but there is a sort of emotional disconnect and basic absurdity to see her up there in her pageant dress (can we please get this girl better styling??!!?) singing a song that calls for such maturity. There are plenty of youthful songs out there that would be perfectly within her wheelhouse and would not feel like we're sitting in the audience of a high school production of A Little Night Music.

5. Jacob Lusk -- Several months ago, I was a big fan of Jacob Lusk. Lately, as you surely have noticed, my love has cooled. The things I was willing to overlook a few months ago -- the articulation issues, the pitch issues, the over-the-top histrionics mid-song -- I'm just not so willing to overlook now. As others have gotten better and better and more and more inovative, Jacob has just kind of floundered and not really shown much of any growth. I also have a hard time picturing where he fits in the market right now. The music world is waiting for Haley, James, Lauren, and Scotty with open arms because each of them could pop right onto the charts and have successful careers. But Jacob? His attempt to show some level of modern relevancy by performing Chris Brown and Jordin Sparks's "No Air" was, well, lacking air. I agree with Randy that it seemed cheesy and out of place for Jacob. (When he went for the implied crotch stroke, I nearly threw up.) I got what Randy was trying to say -- Chris Brown is not the artist Jacob should be. There is no way that a kid who feels uncomfortable singing "Let's Get It On" is going to be able to be successful singing something like "Ballin'". Artists like Chris Brown or Usher bank on their sexuality just as much as any other "talent" they may possess. The days of Luther Vandross making sweet, sweet sonic love are long past. The new, modern R&B is gritty, dirty, sweaty, and sexy, and Jacob seems more laughable than anything when attempting that approach. I'm not sure he has the right swagger to pull off, say, a Bruno Mars or Cee-Lo. So where does that leave Jacob? Sadly, I don't know, but I do know that his time on this show should be drawing to a close so that the other four can battle for contracts that will actually sell records rather than someone who is more likely to be the second coming of Ruben Studdard.

It should be Jacob going home tonight.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Tapestry of Idols

Carole King … what an odd choice for Idol, no? And yet…….

If I have any real disappointment in last night, it is that I wish Carole herself had been present. I would have loved to have seen her sitting beside Jimmy to talk these kids through her songs and the emotional resonance that so many of them still have today. With that being said, though, I thought Babyface was a great addition to the mentor sessions and did a great job of giving some real, honest feedback. There’s a reason why he’s one of the most powerful producers in contemporary music – he’s not afraid to tell you when something’s a mess or something’s brilliant. And the Idols got a little bit of both last night.

Obviously, the big headline that is going to emerge after last night’s show is James being dubbed the heir apparent to Lee DeWyze’s crown. Finally, after seven weeks of competition, we finally seem to have a legitimate frontrunner, something I announced to my home audience of one (my sis – audience of four if you count the three cats who curled up with us to watch the show) just moments before Randy pretty much said the same thing. James surely has some obstacles to overcome (Can America really embrace a metal Idol? Will Americans actually vote for the best since they’ve kind of shunned frontrunners for the past several seasons?), but the fact is that the guy is consistent in terms of giving exciting, creative, and just damn good performances every single week. There’s a reason why the guy keeps topping my ranking list even though he’s not necessarily my personal favorite performer. He’s just plain talented, and his performances last night highlighted that more than ever. By taking it down a little, James was able to highlight the fact that he’s got a tremendous voice – and not just when he’s hitting those big notes. But we’ll talk more about that later.

Before I get to the rankings, I do want to talk a little about the duets from last night. The duets lost a little of their excitement for me simply because we’ve already seen two of these duos perform together already at this point. I love the addition of duets and smaller group performances to the results night shows, but the novelty of it is gone now, leaving last night’s duets to gain a bit of a “been there, done that” feel . I mean, we knew that Casey and Haley were going to be awesome because their “Moanin’” from a couple weeks ago was one of the season’s highlights. (Singing with Casey makes Haley EXTREMELY likable, no?) This was the THIRD pairing for Scotty and Lauren, who are a great country duo in the making, although last night was the weakest of their three duets, in my mind. (Seriously, sign these two up to become the new Sugarland or Lady Antebellum because they sound so gorgeous together…better than when they’re singing on their own. Seriously!) James and Jacob were, um, well, interesting. I mean, God bless ‘em for trying, right? It was a weird song choice. I had no idea Carole King wrote “Something Good”…a song I love, to be sure, but not necessarily a good fit for James and Jacob. It ended up being really kind of corny, and the two of them really don’t have voices that complement each other the way that Casey and Haley or Lauren and Scotty complement each other. I wonder if the producers would not have been wiser to force those two duos apart and mix the elements up a little more, take them all out of their comfort zones. It seems almost unfair to James and Jacob to be “stuck” together while the others have a perfect partner with whom they’ve already collaborated. Of course, that would have meant NOT getting that electric “I Feel the Earth Move” out of Casey and Haley. That would be a tragic loss for all the babies that were surely made after that sexually charged performance. (PS – I think Steven is right that Casey TOTALLY loves Haley, but you know, the soap opera fan in me always loves to imagine that sort of stuff going on backstage at Idol.)

On to the rankings….

1. James Durbin – I’ll be honest; ranking James first is getting kind of old, but what can you do? The guy consistently sets the bar and leaps over it with the ease of a gazelle. A hard rocking gazelle. His song choice (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”) was brilliant in that it allowed him to really showcase his voice while still maintaining the edge. It was a tremendous performance. Here’s hoping being the “frontrunner” now doesn’t cost him votes from the fickle voting public.

2. Casey Abrams – Casey’s “Hi-Dee-Ho” was a lot of fun. There is a sparkle about Casey that doesn’t seem to be there with a lot of the other performers. Casey seems to have decided to just go with it and have fun, and that’s what he did last night with a terrific jazzy number. I also LOVED the staging as he mingled amongst his band and played off each musician with a wink and a smile. This kid is a showman, even if the judges told him he needs to work on his physicality a little more. And Casey, please don’t listen to Randy and be less growly. It’s the growly that makes me love you.

3. Haley Reinhart – Yeah, this is a shocker, isn’t it? And no, I didn’t allow the duet with Casey (which I absolutely adored) to bump Haley into the top three instead of the bottom three. While I agree with Randy that the beginning of Haley’s “Beautiful” wasn’t great (was actually kind of jarring, to be frank), the last 75% of the song was really solid and engaging. She managed to use her growl more conservatively (and thus more effectively). The real thing Haley needs to work on is her stage presence. Her body seems more nervous than her voice does, and she needs to work more on owning that stage the way that James or Casey or even Scotty do. Slowly but surely, Haley started to grow on me last night between this performance, her duet with Scotty, and the grace with which she seemed to handle the technical difficulties that delayed her performance ever-so-briefly.

4. Scotty McCreery – Unlike the judges, I was honestly not a fan of Scotty’s performance last night. Yes, hearing the upper end of his register was a nice switch, but I thought the performance seemed a bit lethargic at times. Scotty’s schtick is really starting to wear thin for me – the smirk, the eyes, the head tilt, the microphone hold. I still don’t sense a lot of growth there outside of the willingness (which seemed more forced than anything) to try some new notes. Yes, I know Scotty will likely be safe tonight. Teen girls love this kid, and I get that, but I’m starting to have real issues with the idea that he is probably the other frontrunner at this point in the competition. I wish, too, Scotty had maybe gone with a slightly less iconic song. I mean, “You’ve Got a Friend” is a great song, but it is such an integral part of our musical culture that it makes it difficult to pull off in an interesting way. Perhaps something like “So Far Away” (one of my all-time favorite Carole King songs) would have served him a little better. I will say, though, that he did a lovely job with Lauren on “Up on the Roof” and brilliantly compensated for her those couple of times where she seemed to go a bit flat.

5. Lauren Alaina – Someone’s a Gilmore Girls fan! There was not a single fiber of my being that was shocked when Lauren announced she was doing “Where You Lead.” Come on, this girl is smack dab in the middle of the ABC Family demographic and probably spends her summer afternoons the way I often do – curled up watching the hijinks of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore. Lauren’s country swagger on the song was charming, and I didn’t dislike it as much as the judges seemed to. I have to say, though, that it still felt safe for her to go with this song. I want to see Lauren shake herself up a little more. She’s got the talent, and she knows she does. She just needs that confidence to take the same sorts of risks that James or Casey or even Haley are willing to take every week. Go all in, sweetheart. Your safety may not be a foregone conclusion much longer (although I suspect Haley will likely land in the bottom three this week rather than Scotty or Lauren – of course, just when I get to like her!).

6. Jacob Lusk – While I suspect Haley will reside on the bottom three tonight despite strong performances, my stronger suspicion is that this may be the end of Jacob’s Idol journey. I’m not sure anything he did last night was even remotely on the same level as what the other five performers did. His “Oh No, Not My Baby” was fun but largely forgettable outside of the ridiculous outfit he wore and the dance moves he threw in. (My sis was offended at the continued push for Jacob to move, accusing the judges of wanting a minstrel show from Jacob rather than a fully-realized performance.) When you factor in his weak duet with James that unfortunately closed the show, we’re left with an impression of Jacob that, honestly, isn’t too impressive or memorable. Jacob has never quite lived up to the promise of “God Bless the Child”. I could be wrong and all of the Naked Gun fans out there may vote in record numbers in honor of Jacob and James’s duet, but considering that James was most definitely the stronger half of that performance, it may be time for Jacob to step back into the choir.

Bottom three prediction: Jacob, Haley, and Casey (Oh, I hope not Casey because then he’ll go all “safe” and “boring” again. Fun Casey is finally back. Don’t send him away again with your inability to vote, America!)

Going home: Jacob.