Thursday, February 26, 2009

All of You Kids Are Stupid

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

It's going to get better. It has to get better. Only one more week of this.

Going back to the three rounds of 12/wild card/finals format of a few years back has really made the first two live "Idol" shows this year suck. First I thought it was too big a field of semifinalists, and that's part of it. But there's also a serious momentum effect. Each week for three weeks we're seeing every singer for the first time on the big stage. Many of them we're literally seeing for the first time. Instead of the show improving as the chaff gets cut out and the smarter, more talented contestants benefit from getting into a routine and absorbing constructive criticism, we're seeing three weeks of nerves, desperation, and false feelings of invulnerability.

One of the things I learned quickly when I started watching "American Idol" is that the competitors are universally incapable of learning from the experiences of others. Most of them claim to be big fans of the show, viewers since the first season, but none of them seem to think this wealth of past history applies to them in the very least. It's not a tough concept people: song choice. Yes, the very phrase has been worn down to meaningless by Randy and Paula's habitual use of it as a evasion. But they do harp on it all the time.

I mean, these kids have had photo sessions and plenty of camera time by now. They've been interviewed for hours and been given pointed, coherent advice by the two and three-quarters of real music business expert the judges represent. They should know how the producers want to sell them by now. The singer who came off best in Wednesday night's broadcast was the pink-banged, deeply vacant 16-year-old Allison Iraheta, who doesn't seem to quite know where she is most of the time. The performer who stole the night was the uncommon "Norman Gentle," who embraced what got him to the dance which such elan that he might have screwed it up by giving his vocals such short shrift. After that it was a cavalcade of the wrong songs for the wrong singers, most to all of the parties guilty of their selection defending their stupid choices to the bitter end. Matt Breitzke's being too much of a meathead to not know that Tonic's three-chord "If You Could Only See" is a loser song is one level of obliviousness. The good musicians who actually selected their songs with a particular "Idol" strategy in mind, and whiffed completed, are a higher one. Meanwhile I thought the judges hated needlessly on the best pure vocal of the evening and were outright dissembling in their opinions on the marketable, but disappointing, Megan Corkrey and Adam Lambert.

Jasmine Murray Hey, it was a rough night. Let's start positive: Jasmine's a beauty. She also danced convincingly and confidently. She did not sell it very hard, but she picked a song that was at least in the right ballpark for her style. She did have a lot of pitch issues at the extremes of her range, particularly the low end. Her voice lacks force, with nowhere to go from the clear but thin place at which she began. Her finish was rather weak and it's always better to build steam than to collapse at the finish line. Kai Kalama likely ended his "Idol" run with a similar last-stanza blown fuse. 6

Matt Giraud Dueling-pianos guy, seen intermittently in the audition and Hollywood shows. A white-boy soul merchant, with a bit of theatricality, Giraud had the first really brutal song pick of the evening with the current Coldplay single "Viva La Vida." It was cynical and naive, impressively. I know the "Billboard Top 100" theme was as vague as can be, but Giraud seemed like he was trying to game the system with a song that's still popular and in people's heads right now. But even so he misgauged his appeal badly. His Andrew Ridgeley leather jacket was 80's lame. His runs, melody digressions, and "yeah yeah yeah" ad libs fit a simple song carried largely by its instrumental hook worse than the jacket fit him. He also kept popping on the mic (holding it too close to his face), which is surprising for a stage performer. I guess it's different playing and singing into a fixed mic than holding one in your hands. Lots of male contestants tonight, from Matt to Kai to Kris, talked about getting back to playing an instrument if given a chance. Were the contestants not allowed to play an instrument this first time out? Will we be told if so? If that's the case it's another big black mark against the format. You can't give the kids who auditioned basically as singer-players no chance to bring their guitar or piano onstage. This goes for last week's wild card hopeful Stephen Fowler too. 4

Jeanine Vailes Don't remember much about her, from this show or beforehand. I feel for the kids of today, listening to the crappy ProTools pop that passes for mainstream rock in the last ten years -- Tonic, Train, Maroon 5, all in one show, yikes. Plus the first Michael Jackson record they had when they were really little was Bad or Dangerous and not Thriller, which is just sad. David Cook was a Thriller kid and it's going to be a shame when the "Idol" age limit pushes our generation out. Jeanine did "This Love," terrible song. Her higher range was better than her lower, but neither was good. It was a song that gave her no opportunity to express any personal style, just singing along to the radio in the shower essentially, and rather than making a significant rearrangement or changing key she just kind of jumped octaves at random to whatever was comfortable. A more cynical criticism might be that by choosing a song by a super-white band she missed the chance to solidify the base of her potential voting bloc. The fact is, she was off-pitch for about half of the song, catching a groove in the middle but really running off the rails when she began desperately stacking up runs at the close. 5

Nick "Norman Gentle" Mitchell I don't know how exactly to apply my somewhat arbitrary but to me meaningful numerical rating system here. See, what I try to do is use the number to just give an as-objective-as-possible summation of the technical quality of the vocal, absent all deep strategy factors. Thus, a 10 would be a studio quality vocal or damn near it, and a 5 would be about what you or I (well, maybe not me, I'm not a hugely gifted singer but I have been a semiprofessional musician for more than ten years and at least know what I'm not good enough to sing and when I'm not in key) -- let's just say a totally average random American -- could do if we'd heard the song a couple of times and had a sheet with the lyrics in front of us. So on that scale you'd have to give Norman like a 6. Nick Mitchell, the man behind the legend, is a capable singer -- not special, but he knows when he's in key -- who weighed his options and decided to go for broke with his sometimes-funny character. And he pretty much hit jackpot, giving one of the most unique and hilarious stage crawls in "Idol" history. It was hysterical, and he stayed cool and in character for his judging. He's sealed his legend for sure, even if he never makes it back for another week. But I don't think he's completely undeserving. His vocal got lost and never came back as his performance grew more kinetic but he can sing well if he's concentrating on it. And what is the objective of "American Idol" anyhow? To find a regular American kid who can sell records. "Weird Al" and the Bloodhound Gang count as commercial artists. So to score "Norman" on the performance, well... it'd be a nine, or even a ten. It was balls-to-the-wall fearless and over the top. He got louder applause even than Adam "Randy Says I'm Just Like All the Things That Young Teen Girls Like" Lambert. He brought the house down. But a nine or a ten or an eight even, given the night's competition, would suggest that it would be a total travesty if Mitchell/"Gentle" wasn't a top-three vote-getter. I don't think that's so. But if there aren't three real singers all of whom it would be heresy to roll in favor of Norman, you got to put him through. 7

Allison Iraheta Allison, all of sixteen, seems genuinely afraid of Ryan Seacrest (never a good sign, but he was mean to Norman Gentle) and has all the natural grace in front of the camera of Dee Dee Ramone in the film Rock and Roll High School. When she's not singing that is. When she is, Allison is too sheltered to realize that she's awesome. That is why despite tackling the nearly impossible "Alone," which Carly Smithson rode with her teeth clenched and her jaw gritted like a mechanical bull, she seemed barely straining. All right, she could have strained a bit -- she had a ton of correctable pitch errors in there, on which she got a free pass from the judges. She might not have the attention span or the stamina to run long in this game, but man is she an unspoiled talent. Her voice cracked on some of the high notes, but she hit a lot of them -- with an instrument like that, and some decent coaching (where's David Archuleta's dad, quick) she could go from "dark horse" to contender to favorite rapidly. 7

Kris Allen Dude, you're from Arkansas. You play the acoustic guitar. You look like a goy Jakob Dylan. You don't choose a Michael Jackson song. Wrong! Allen's performance was like that multiethnic cover band I once saw at Epcot Center -- broad, inoffensive, and totally without soul. The judges telling you to show some introspection doesn't mean to choose a song literally about introspection, you ninny! If Allen had to do this song, couldn't he have repurposed it to a style less at loggerheads with his vibe? At least something with the real instruments more prominent in the mix, or an acoustic guitar? The season of the bizarro song choice rolls on. I'm pretty terrified for next week. Lots of noise on the mic from this guy, too -- maybe they should stop disqualifying people who know how to perform in front of an audience. 5

Megan Joy Corkrey Beautiful, very tattooed Megan got a love train from the judges, who were kind of off-model tonight. Simon shocked me by digging Kris Allen. But it's not fair to to harp on some people for being constantly out of pitch and not others, and the whole second half of Corkrey's "Put Your Records On" was screechy. She also danced half-heartedly and arrhythmically, shades of Amanda Overmyer. This song was sung by like 30 girls during the audition shows and we're all sick of it. Maybe it was just getting bleak with even Paula harshing on some of the earlier contestants, in her own fashion. They had to praise someone. Megan, being a "package artist" as Kara so dearly loves to say, was a good enough choice. Why did they put another woman on the judges' panel if she was going to do the same thing as the male judges do from time to time, give girls the thumbs up merely for being hot numbers, only Kara's blunt enough to outright state her reasoning? That ain't very feminist. But come on, do you want to hear Megan sing again, or Norman Gentle? I've got to say Norman! 4

Matt Breitzke Matt's a welder. Blue-collar, yes, but not quite as quaint as Michael the Oil-Drillin' Man Sarver. Breitzke is also balder and heavier. No way there's room for both in the Top 12. I think they're going to end up with the wrong one, though. Breitzke is a better singer than Sarver (of last week's show) but he picked "If You Could Only See," a dumb three-chord song by a one-hit wonder. A lot of times people pick good songs that they just aren't suited for, but I have little sympathy for people who defend the artistic excellence of Tonic. And also... it didn't suit him, since he's a crooner and not a big rock singer. He crooned throughout even though the band was cuing him to bark and growl and although he was not out of pitch much it just sounded amateurish. A lower-key treatment, even of that awful song, could have presented him in a much better light. The quiet part at the very beginning was by far the best part of Breitzke's performance. 6

Jesse Langseth This one didn't make any sense to me at all. Jesse's very lovely, dressed sharp (a sweater kinda like Thirteen from "House" would wear around the apartment), and sang a great deal better than any of the other girls, Allison included. But the judges just couldn't find anything nice to say, all four of 'em. Yeah, she picked an easy melody, but what's wrong with that? Aren't all the judges saying when they say "pick the right song" is pick a song that you can sing well? Jesse showed soul with some deliberate blue notes, a risky choice in that it's hard for anyone not closely attuned to tell the difference. And why all the rush to condemn cool? Since when is cool bad? Portishead and Garbage sold a lot of records with girl singers sounding cool bordering on bored. Not to mention Mazzy Star. Jesse is way more interesting and way more talented than the show's packaging would lead you to believe. I wonder if she did porn or something. 8

Kai Kalama Man, this season. Kai had it all laid out for him, being the exact right combination the producers like for male finalists: exotic, good but not great voice, passable musical skills, hunky, great name, great hair. But I think our man got some bad advice from the judges, or misinterpreted the advice he got. "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" might be a good audition song, but I don't think it's suited for the big stage in the modern era, unless you get railroaded into it by a theme night or something. The vocal was very last-generation, the band defaulted into bland Oscar orchestra mode, and Kai tried his best to give a pleading, emotionally engaged vocal when that's not really his bread and butter. What's wrong with mysterious? Seriously, "American Idol," first you announce cool isn't cool, then you try and sell us that wide-eyed, earnest, and eager to please is sexier than dark, brooding, and taciturn? It's trying to take us back to Pat Boone's America one telephone vote at a time. Ever heard of Prince, or Michael Stipe? Evidently not. Not that I am saying Kai is either of those guys. In desperation, perhaps, Kalama just dive-bombed the ending, which cost him an extra point. The rest was just generic, not bad. 6

Mishvonna Henson Another song-choice brain lock, another wreck. Next year, rock history counselors for these kids, seriously. I'm available. I don't really loathe Train as much as Tonic or Maroon 5 -- they're up another tier, right around zero on the musical correctness scale, neither particularly good nor actively brain-damaging (compare: Van Halen versus Van Hagar for example. And footnote to Tim Midgett). But the trouble with "Drops of Jupiter" is that it's not a singer's song, and the sad attempts of Henson to replicate all of Pat Monahan's distracting little vocal tics really sank her. Every single falsetto note she tried was a thud. It sounded like she was fudging the lyrics even though she wasn't -- also probably Monahan's fault, those metaphors don't make any sense. But weird thing, even as she was following Monahan's in-verse ad-libs hiccup for hiccup she went rogue on the more difficult bridge and started deviating in all directions from the melody to spontaneous harmonic transitions that might have been easier for her sing but completely lost her her footing within the song. Henson was confident on stage and lovely, but she doesn't play as her young age (18) and isn't much of a singer. Once again the band defaulted to the karaoke machine track; they're as off their game this season as everybody. The only thing that seems a major boost from seasons 6 & 7 is the hugely raised coherence and usefulness of Paula. Did not see that coming. 4

Adam Lambert The bizarre night couldn't have ended more appropriately. Adam, much feted in the early going, got the always-flattering end of the night slot and his wife didn't even die (as far as we know). Define insanity: doing the same thing and expecting different results. Adam did the same thing as Matt, Jasmine, Kris, Matt, Kai, and Mishavonna. He picked the wrong song. Oh, boy, and did he ever. Adam said he picked the Stones' "Satisfaction" because he "loved the melody." Dude. It's Mick Jagger singing. There is no melody. I feel like Dr. Mephesto after this show -- the judges could not stop fawning over Adam, who was disastrous for the early verses and then just started making random piercing noises for 75 seconds or so. Yes, his vocal range is great. But he has absolutely no idea what to do with it, and no sense of himself as a pop artist, because he's not one. He's a high school theater diva. That's nothing to be ashamed of, and with his talent and hard work he could absolutely make a career out of it. But I don't want him on "Idol" ripping apart songs I love and having the judges eating out of his hand. It makes me feel icky. It's not that you can't successfully rework "Satisfaction" (ahem: Devo!), it's just that you can't rework it this way. If they made a Stones musical, it would sound like this. For the sake of what little belief I have left in rock and roll's rebel spirit, let that never happen. And may fate and the voters slay Adam as soon as they can. 5

Super weird night. Paula was more on target than Kara for the most part, except with regards to Kris Allen where Kara was the only judge who felt the way I did. Anyone else feel the producers put way more effort in the lighting and editing when Danny Gokey and then Adam Lambert were closing their respective shows? That hardly seems fair. And also, the recap at the end of the show when the phone lines were about to open showed Nick Mitchell during one of the rare bits of his performance where he was either singing tolerably well or doing something hysterical. That seems unfair, also. I think this season for lack of any positive things to speculate about so far is going to give birth to lots of conspiracy theories. I'm excited for the wild card show just to see who gets selected and who gets the biggest push from the producers.

Okay, decision time. Well, here is the big question. Were three singers clearly so good that rewarding Mitchell for at least making us curious about what Norman Gentle might do for an encore would be wrong? You know what, on my scorecard, no. I didn't like any of the other male singers at all. Trouble is, Adam Lambert is producers' pet and is going on in a walk. I really think Allison Iraheta and Jesse Langseth both earned their way forward. And at this point we can only take three. Well, I'm not trying to serve justice, I'm trying to predict the results. Langseth will go down, thanks to posthypnotic suggestion from the judges, Lambert and Iraheta will be leading vote-getters, and for lack of a better third option Norman Gentle will indeed fight his way into the finals. Can you believe it! If you're a Gentle hater, here's another chance to curse the new format. No way he'd get through three semifinal shows if he had to sing every week, right? If he's top-three this week that means he's just two more wins away from the tour. Oh, dude, that tears it, people are totally going to vote for him just for that reason. Norman Gentle in the top ten, America!


  1. I couldn't agree more about Sir Gentle. He was too hard on himself. I don't get the appeal of Corkrey or Lambert much at all, or really most all who performed last night. I thought the show was very disappointing.

    I think if they continue this format, where it's basically one and done, a song should be presented to the singers by a judge or music producer as an option to sing. They can choose to sing that song or their own song choice but at least they have an opportunity to get some guidance in the right direction.

    It definitely seems that they cannot use an instrument for this round which is completely ludicrous. As you say, what is the point then of putting them through? I think the top three will be Lambert, Corkrey, and Gentle. Irahita and Giraud will be the wild cards, both deserving imo.

  2. Does the top 12 have to be half ladies, half guys? Thanks for the writeup, Mark.

  3. No and yes. The format announced is that the top male, top female, and the next leading vote-getter (could be #2 or #3 overall, but if three guys or three girls all get higher than the best of the other gender, the third-place finisher in total votes gets hosed) advance from each of the three semifinal shows. Then, there will be a wild card show where 12 of those who didn't advance get a second chance. That's where the ambiguity enters. If they get to the wild card show with six guys, three girls they may skew the balance of that field to assure 2 of 3 that go on to the finals are female. Or they could even go so far as to have an all-female wild card show.