Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Gradually It Gets Better

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

I didn't want to do two "Idol" posts in a row, but the only other thing I watched in the interim was ten minutes of In Bruges, and then I fell asleep. Warm milk and films about Belgium are better than Ambien.

"Idol" had a lot to answer for going into the first episode with the Final 13. In an attempt (I think) to improve the diversity and the marketability of the contending group, they toyed with the semifinal format endlessly. They often seemed to be making up the rules as they were going along, which is annoying to viewers of any competition -- ask any NFL fan. But that is over now, and you have to give it to them that the quality across the board of the singers in the first finals round show was vastly improved from the semifinals. It was also better than the first big-stage shows from the last two seasons, because under the midseason format people who weren't good but had fanbases kept cruising and the beginning of the finals didn't seem like all of that sharp a distinction from the end of the semis. It couldn't have been more night and day this time around. Of the finalists only Megan Corkrey flat-out sucks at singing. I wonder how long she'll hang around... probably a while.

Michael Jackson night? Great idea. Michael Jackson night for the very first show of the finals? Bad idea. We're still figuring out what to make of these contestants, most of whom we are seeing for only the second or third full-length performances. It wasn't quite fair to any of the finalists to ask them to do anything as mega-exposed and distinctive as Jacko's back catalog. They're not established enough to take a risk with a bold new interpretation, but there's not a lot of room for them to express their personalities within the songs as they were made famous. Outright mendacious analysis from the judges made things even more hard to follow. Anoop got hammered for singing "Beat It" well while Adam was lauded for singing "Black or White" badly. The judges dished it out for contestants who picked songs that weren't famous enough and songs that were too famous. Isn't the point of having a Michael Jackson theme that his songs are so well-loved? Why tease the theme then not let anyone sing any of the famous songs? The show's stated logic and the actual behind-the-scenes machinations of the producers couldn't be any further distinct.

Lil Rounds This was one of the few shockers of the night. Lil was brutally poor. I thought she was too talented to ever be this bad, like a Melinda Doolittle who would catch a tough theme every now and then and post an 8 instead of a 9 or a 10. But Lil's "The Way You Make Me Feel" was dreadful-sounding, not at all the recognizable product of one of the few real goosepimple-raising talents of "Idol" season eight. She had no fathomable connection to the song and sounded it. She seemed melodically and rhythmically adrift and frequently started shouting instead of singing, which is something you expect from Adam (in fact, it's all you expect from Adam) but not Lil. Her asymmetrical outfit was also very hideous. Can the fact that Lil is impervious to criticism from the rapidly marginalizing judges fool all of the voters all of the time? I don't know. She can afford this kind of so-so showing once, but I feel like all of the hype has gone to Lil's head. She doesn't think she has to try hard, or at least she didn't think she had to try hard this time. It was a chance for the buzzworthiest "Idol" hopeful of the new season to kick off a redemptive finals phase in style, and Lil completely flubbed it. She was way below her ability level, so far that she even sounded crummy by the standards of the average "Idol" contestant. If she becomes a shocker voting casualty tomorrow, I don't think anybody can say she didn't deserve it. 6

Scott MacIntyre Scott's trajectory has been unusual, which is reason enough to root for him. He started out seeming like the most shameless of several heart-tugging stories the "Idol" editors forced upon us during the audition rounds. Then he kept singing, and kept hanging on to sing some more. Suddenly, he doesn't seem at all out of place as an "Idol" finalist or even as a potential winner. His voice is fine -- above-average, though capable of an occasional leap to greatness like his huge high note in "Keep the Faith." But his conviction and his musicality are just miles ahead of everybody else's, and it doesn't hurt anything that he's the most talented instrumentalist they've had around for this long since instruments entered the picture last season. He learned to play this song on the piano this week, and look how composed and professional he seemed as opposed to Kris Allen's random, inaudible guitar strumming. It might have been more interesting to see Scott apply his musical know-how to developing a signature new arrangement for a song less innately suited to his style. That was one of the other opportunities missed when the producers elected to move Jackson night right to the front of the finals schedule. Another would have been bringing back Danny Gokey's best buddy from the Hollywood shows and having the two of them sing "The Girl Is Mine" together. 9

Danny Gokey Danny seemed a lot less relevant and a lot more desperate singing a song not explicitly referencing the continuing deceased state of his young wife. He did "P.Y.T.," which is kind of a minor song, and made it goony and populist in a sort of low-rent Taylor Hicks fashion. The producers' unrestrained enthusiasm for Lil and Adam, I understand. She's got a huge voice and preternatural confidence onstage, and he looks like Robert Pattinson meets Fall Out Boy, only he knows how to apply his own eyeliner. But Danny? I just don't get it. Assuming sympathy alone is enough to get millions of women to buy his record, who's going to listen to it more than once? Danny is the worst offender in a cast full of shouters and damningly his delivery didn't alter any going from a power ballad to an up-tempo dance number. His dance moves themselves, it should be noted, were wedding-reception quality. I do respect Danny for pressing his huge advantage regarding camera time early on during the season. No one has forgotten who he is, and that's job one for an "Idol" wannabe at this stage. Still, he garbled most of the lyrics until he reached the chorus and while I don't completely hate his voice, it's always more accurate to classify his performances as "energetic" as opposed to "good." Somebody's got to get with him on the art of proper breathing, too, as he was huffing and puffing by the end and looked like he was going to pass out while doing the postmortem with Seacrest. 7

Michael Sarver A better storyline than a singer, Sarver has gotten to the point where he just sounds like a guppy in a pond full of piranhas. The end of the road can not be far off. It was sad, because you couldn't ignore how much he was giving in his "You Are Not Alone" -- he was bleeding to make the song pop for us. But he just wasn't good enough. He had lots of long sustained blue notes. Even when he is in key, I don't think his voice has that phantom, indefinable quality of originality that a star's simply must have. Scott MacIntyre has it, David Cook had it for sure, Michael is just a well put-together sack full of bland. I hope he gets by this week because it would be sad if he got sent home on a night when he did his absolute best and a lot of more talented singers didn't even try to offer theirs. 5

Jasmine Murray Jasmine reminds me a lot of Syesha Mercado, who I kept dissing for the better part of a season until she was one of the last handful of contestants standing. Syesha had a lot more personality, though. They're similar in that they both have voices that aren't immediately arresting but have more to them than they often show. Jasmine's "I'll Be There" was really quite lovely, probably the best pure vocal of the evening and surely the best she's done on "Idol" so far. She took a less is more approach to her outfit and stage moves too and was so much the better for it. Technically good singers with a lack of flash don't fare well in the peculiar "Idol" format. Jasmine's lack of "it" factor (where "it" translates as "embarrassing, fawning and inaccurate praise from all four judges regardless of performance quality each week") makes her an elimination target. She was miles better than Lil last night, but she's in real danger while Lil isn't in any. That's pretty lame. Whenever Jasmine gets the boot, the singer right ahead of her in the voting who gets to stay at her expense probably won't be anywhere near as deserving. 8

Kris Allen Another typical "American Idol" contestant, Kris proved unable to bear the burden of two contradictory demands upon his person for MJ night. First, he had to use his guitar, because the judges more or less told him so when he went though the last time without it. Second, he had to do a Michael Jackson song. Kris is a good enough singer and comely enough that he could have sang "Remember the Time" exactly as he did, only without wearing and sort of playing a guitar while doing so, and it would have put him safely towards the upper middle of the voting pack. But he brought out the acoustic guitar, which looked awkward and sounded all wrong, for the second or two it took the master "Idol" soundman to simply turn off its feed. That's called forcing it, bro. The trouble is if you go back and listen to his vocal without watching, it sounds good. Could have been better if he wasn't mucking about with the guitar, but not bad. You watch it again, though, and the whole thing feels wrong. It would be bizarre were he to get voted off here, because after four weeks of semifinals and a month of buildup to those, we still haven't seen exactly what it was in Kris that the judges saw in the first place. Maybe it was all the soul patch. I don't know myself. 7

Allison Iraheta Allison might have peaked too early, but a rapid flameout may have been all we could of expected from someone who only occasionally seems to display the behavior of a conscious human. She could be on "Dollhouse," she's so completely vacant one moment and screaming diva the next. She and Eliza Dushku should do promos together. Allison's voice is reminiscent at times of Melissa Etheridge's, although unfortunately she shares Etheridge's tendency to make any two melodies she sings sound like the same song. I liked her modified Farrah hair quite a bit. It's going to get difficult quickly to find new things to say about her if she lasts more than a couple of weeks. At the very least you could say that she's consistent. And that alone among all of those left standing, you know precisely what an Allison Iraheta debut album would sound like. That album probably wouldn't have between-song snippets of her pricelessly useless extemporaneous speaking, but for its sake as a souvenir it sure should. 8

Anoop Desai I expected going into the live shows that I would become a big Anoop guy, but it never really came together. He seems a little lazy, to tell you the truth, and while you can't deny him his passion for music, you can question whether the particular music he is passionate about is crappy or not. I sort of liked his "Beat It." It was an impossible song to take on given its famousness and yet Anoop walked the line between paying homage and inserting his own touches as well as it could be managed. Even his jacket and some of his stage moves seemed like little misremembered tributes, in a way that none of his competitors were savvy enough to manage. But the bad part is, with such an easy melody there wasn't any excuse for all the mistakes Desai made. I wouldn't be surprised if he went home tomorrow; I wouldn't be surprised if he was top two. This guy is shifty that way. 7

Jorge Nuñez Jorge was one of the singers least affected by the theme, as he picked a tune unfamiliar to me that showcased his pure pop and Latin elements in the desirable ratio. I wonder if his choices for the night were narrowed by the high number of Jackson songs that depend on very fast, staccato English lyrics. That's not really his thing. Thankfully for Jorge going forward, most of the beloved numbers in the "Idol" songbook don't require any language comprehension skills at all, just moist eyes and vibrato. Some contestants benefit from boosts in confidence level more than others. The new, smarmy Jorge didn't sing as convincingly well as he did during the semis and his manner with the judges was a lot less ingratiating. I don't want to call him a contender yet, but I think he has more left to show us. 8

Megan Corkrey Comparisons to Kristy Lee Cook are inevitable with Megan. She's smoking hot, but she can't sing, just like Kristy Lee. She obviously has smarter handlers because it took Kristy Lee down to, like, the final seven before she realized her T&A was her only selling quality and started wearing hand towels in lieu of skirts. Megan dressed extra slutty and did all she could with "Rockin' Robin," which was very little. At least by picking something Michael could sing perfectly as a preteen she didn't overextended herself. I don't what happened to her granola-eating, soul-singer, Joan Osborne quality but it seems to have gone the way of Norman Gentle and Tatiana Del Toro: couldn't make it to the finals. Pitchwise she was simply awful and her vocal even when in key only seemed there as an excuse for her to be on stage displaying her other assets. With her looks, she could become judge-proof, but if she can't even do a halfway mediocre "Rockin' Robin" there isn't that much chance of her not face-planting more obviously some week soon. You know, I would kind of like to see that. Vote for Megan! 3

Adam Lambert You thought Sanjaya was bad? Adam's "Satisfaction" was sort of a subjective thing, you could see people enjoying it or hating it and you could construct an argument either way. But his "Black and White" was atrocious. To begin with, "Black and White" isn't really a song, it was just one piece of the massive multimedia blitz that surrounded Jackson's early-90's "comeback" with his Dangerous album. You probably remember the long-form video, where he beat up the car at the end (memorably parodied by Phil Collins of all people in a great Genesis clip). The song, like the video, is just a mishmash of a bunch of things perceived to be commercial at the time, like Slash, synthesized wood-block percussion sounds, and multiculturalism. In that sense it was perfect for Adam Lambert, the "Idol" contestant of the moment. Great attitude! Great look! Great vibe! Absolutely no musical acumen? Not important! See, Adam doesn't really sing songs, he just yells them, as loudly and as theatrically as he possibly can. Once in a while he gets lucky and sounds really great, but I'm not wholly convinced that this is a repeatable phenomenon. A few of his huge reaches Tuesday were swing-for-the-fences-and-fall-flat-on-your-face whiffs. Lambert's overdramatic approach to... everything got old five weeks ago. His added inducements to the crowd were forced, hokey, and insincere. I will have plenty of time to think of more ways to describe how much I don't like Adam because his crocodile tears while the judges heaped unwarranted praise upon him punched his ticket for the next two months. 4

Matt Giraud This goes to show how much I know. I don't really dig Matt Giraud that much -- I don't know if he'll have enough chances to erase the memory of that misbegotten effort to cross Coldplay and the New Radicals. But, I will say that of the performers from Tuesday night's "Idol" show, he was the one who seemed the most like a currently relevant commercial artist to me. That's not entirely a compliment. Giraud is shallow and predictable, and his voice tops out at pleasant. But I can totally see people buying tickets to see him in concert and paying $35 for a t-shirt to prove they were there. He's not original, he resembles a bunch of other white guys with no balls who dress like Marvin Gaye and can't hold their necks still while they're singing. But there are a bunch of guys just like that who are selling lots of records right now, so there's your winning "Idol" formula, Matt Giraud. He picked "Human Nature," and did himself a huge favor right there. That's a great song and one that's relatively lightly remembered given its status as a massive hit single from the bestselling album of all time. The song was pretty much in Matt's wheelhouse and he carried it off, although I don't know whether it was necessary for him to take some focus off the vocal by playing piano. Matt's an entertainer, not a serious musician, and his instrument isn't like an extension of his body the way it is for Scott MacIntyre. If Matt were to be a successful touring artist after his "Idol" spell, I doubt he'd spent much if any time on stage behind a keyboard. MacIntyre obviously would -- that's your litmus test. 8

Alexis Grace I try not to overdo it with this sort of stuff, but... man, Alexis looked hot. She looked amazingly hot. She's five feet tall and like two-thirds legs. Her figure is extraordinary for a young mother. Her stiletto heels and tight all-black getup completely erased all of my memories of whatever Megan Corkrey was wearing. Too bad she had to sing, too. Alexis seems like she's one of those folks who can sing just fine when they know the song really, really well, but not enough of a practiced musician to work up new material on a deadline. I suspected as much. She sort of hovered around tune for most of the number, but at the expense of all of her personal expression and style... frankly, I kind of tuned out and watched her legs for the second half of it. I don't regret my decision. 5

Two go home this week, since the judges randomly selected 13 finalists instead of 12. That makes things a little easier, I guess. The two who most obviously don't belong in this group are Michael and Megan. I guess Megan could get by at the expense of somebody like Jasmine or Kris but this early on I like to give America the benefit of the doubt and figure that they can tell when someone is on key less than half of the time. They had the chance to vote for her once before and she didn't get through, recall.


  1. And the 13 sided die says?

    My guess is Megan and Jasmine will exit. Megan for being annoying and annoyingly horrible and Jasmine just a casualty of being relatively boring.

    They are definitely changing the rules as they go this year and they teased that continues more tonight. I read someone's guess that judges will now have veto power to pull someone out of the bottom 3 before final results are announced. I think that would be lame. Just as it was lame for the judges to pick the wild cards, it is American idol afterall, the votes should have the final say. I'm hoping the change is simply that the judges will be able to suggest songs more.

  2. I hope you haven't lost too much of your faith in the public based on the results. (ha) I'm fairly ambivalent about their 'change'. It could help out, but I see it more likely being pretty anticlimactic in most weeks. Though if it comes at the expense of having call-in questions taking up time, I could become a fan.