Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Art Is Theft

"American Idol"
Fox via DVR

Even though there haven't been many surprise eliminations or hilarious train wrecks, this "American Idol" season is beginning to distinguish itself, if only by its pure weirdness. In the absence of any truly compelling contestants, the judges have taken it upon themselves to create drama. This means playing favorites to a degree that's shameful even for this show, engaging in mostly staged little on-air scuffles, and occasionally getting into formation, Voltron-style, to let a particularly unsuspecting wannabe have it. Last night it was Lil Rounds who absorbed the full force of a choreographed tongue-lashing, probably too late to keep the clueless Lil alive in the competition.

The combination of contradictory advice and different sets of rules for different contestants (anything Adam or Danny does is good, Allison and Matt are disgusting and should be shunned despite usually being better than either Adam or Danny) is playing out like cruel psychological experiments. What possessed Scott MacIntyre to attempt playing guitar? What will Kris do next, when the judges are simultaneously encouraging everyone to show their own musical personalities and savaging anyone who does so who isn't Adam Lambert? How outrageous an outfit will Allison have to don before the judges will acknowledge she indeed has a personality and is in fact the best singer in the remaining field by a colossal margin?

All of these competing pressures might make "Idol" more exciting, rather than less so, as it begins to kick for the homestretch. The final result might be predetermined -- if Adam doesn't win, I'll be gobsmacked, as not only has he gotten far more coddling than last season's presumptive producers' pet (David Archuleta), he's actually kind of good. Not great, and certainly not as good as the judges would have you believe, but certainly capable of being in the final and earning it.

This ended up being an extra weird show for me because the live performance went long and the last song of the evening, Adam's, ended up being cut off by my DVR. I stopped taping "Fringe" a very long time ago so I had to wait and check out Lambert's "Mad World" on YouTube this morning. I wrote everything else beforehand, and knowing what I now know might have changed everything else. Adam was a) plagiarizing and b) way below his standards. I probably would have subconsciously adjusted a few folks upwards to account for this, given the insane levels of Adam favoritism in which the judges, producers, and crew are indulging.

Seriously, the judges let Lil have it for like five minutes (thus leading to the show running long and Matt Giraud getting cheated out of the fair share of praise his best performance in ages should have earned him) for doing the exact same thing Adam did. No fooling, exact same thing. Lil just picked a tune everybody knows to get all karaoke on, and Adam proved better at selecting something at the right level of relative obscurity. Whether he got it from Donnie Darko or (more likely) the TV commercial for the XBox game Gears of War, I don't see how there's any difference between Lil channeling Tina Turner and Adam ripping off Gary Jules. Except Lil actually was in key more.

Danny Gokey I just don't get this season at all. Danny would have been semifinal-round cannon fodder any year before this one, but this is the year the producers decided to go for storylines, storylines, storylines in the editing of the open-audition shows. So he got a ton of camera time, America fell in love with his dead, tragic young wife, and the producers and judges decided to simply ride his wave of unmerited popularity. A vaguely inspirational crooner at his best, Danny is simply a shouting goony mess most of the time. What's the deal with his doing "Stand by Me?" "Stand by Me" didn't come out the year Danny was born. It would be nice if just once Ryan Seacrest would announce, "We're making up the rules as we go along. Just don't worry about it." Or they had a printed disclaimer of sorts. Danny's take on the standard started in the sub-elevator music basement and then "busted out" with the dippy scatting and awkward dance moves Gokey does every week. He still has yet to show even a smidgen of commercial potential, which is one criticism you can't say of Adam Lambert. And yet Danny is going to keep wasting our time, ninety seconds at a go, for another several weeks. When and if Allison gets the boot before him, I'm really going to start hating him. Right now I'm not filled with malice towards Danny, really I wish him the best, but he hasn't been interesting since "Hero." The big climax was musically random and didn't have much at all to do with the song. He was in pitch for the most part, but even in key his voice isn't all that pleasant to listen to. 5

Kris Allen I like Kris now more than I used to, but he's not consistently showing the kind of inventiveness he would need to blitzkrieg the final, Blake Lewis-style. "All She Wants to Do Is Dance" was not a super brainy song choice, and an odd candidate for a rather ill-fitting world-funk arrangement (sort of like Naked-era Talking Heads, which by itself is a cooler reference point than you'd think Kris capable of). The more aggressive tempo of the song and the muscular horns made Allen sing in a more gritty tone than his usual whispery-smooth vibe. That I liked, but he should find a less busy way of showcasing that side of his personality. For my part, I think channeling Trey Anastasio's solo stuff is cooler than Kris's old Jack Johnson trip, but jazz fusion is a losing proposition on "Idol." I'm a more sophisticated music fan than the vast breadth of the "Idol" audience (my vain hope is that one year they'll bring Walter Becker and Donald Fagen in as mentors, which would be surreal and probably hilarious) and I think Kris has to continue in this direction if he's going to last. He's not going to win on sheer vocal talent alone, but he obviously has a leg up on most others when it comes to musical education and original ideas. Lil, Danny, and Anoop have none of either; Allison is pure unspoiled talent; Matt and Scott are both fine musicians with stupid, trite ideas. And Adam is really a misplaced theater performer taking an advantage of a field with no one else who has even close to the right idea about how to present themselves. 7

Lil Rounds I never really cared much at all about Lil's fate in the competition, good or bad, she's another version of a singer who makes a solid run in every "Idol" season, the "urban diva." That means "black girl with chops," for those of you scoring at home. As such she's not really one to draw much sophisticated analysis, given that her fate will be just the same as Melinda Doolittle's or Jennifer Hudson's. Early on it seemed like she might be the winner by default, but that was true of Doolittle as well. Only a week or so into the finals it was clear that Lil was neither smart nor self-aware enough to be a threat to win. After the judges raked her over the coals for a technically fine but woefully unoriginal "What's Love Got to Do With It," I felt sorry for her for the first time ever. Perhaps the firing-squad approach will backfire, as it usually does on this show. If sympathy votes save Lil at the expense of Allison, I guarantee you I will not feel sorry for her next week. This particular performance really shows the limitations of my scoring system, because on a technical level it was one of the better outings of the night. As far as artistic effect is concerned, it could be a career-ender. She gave it a strident, slightly harsh character that showed a serious lack of connection to the material. So long Lil, see you again in a slightly different guise next season. 8

Anoop Desai You never know what to expect from Anoop, a guy who I suspect has like 150 songs on his iPod shuffle and that's the entire extent of his pop music knowledge. The "year you were born" theme -- which with this group equated to 80's night -- took Anoop out of his shallow comfort zone. Thus the odd timing of the verses and the unflattering exposure of certain weaker bands of Desai's range were to be expected. Anoop genuinely seems to be unaware that you're allowed to change the key of a song if it will make you sound better. But, hiccups aside, "True Colors" as interpreted by the Tar Heel was thoughtful and heartfelt. Its imperfections were way more interesting than Lil's rote musical correctness. It also unexpectedly found its way into a very contemporary R&B groove and at times sounded for all the world like a current radio single. That's one area that has been a weakness for Anoop and I'm glad to see him gaining strength. Five more Anoop outings would be way more fun than five more Danny Gokey shoutfests. 8

Scott MacIntyre Boy, Scott has come a long way in terms of style and working the camera, after his own fashion. He finally got his hair fixed, too. Thing is, his voice is not all that good, and with Megan out of the way, he just seems like the odd man out talentwise. He looked out of place with an electric guitar; and he played it with the same competency I would show on the piano. It was sort of a cool idea to come out with just an axe and a big amp, but it didn't work because it's not his personality. He also had that eerie look of brainwashed sincerity in his eyes as if singing about God, and that's never good. Cheers for trying to show a new side, but he was showing one he doesn't actually have. His singing continues to decline, although I liked the part at the beginning before he started in with the clubhanded barre chords. 6

Allison Iraheta As the youngest contestant remaining in this year's "Idol" cast, last night Allison was a spooky omen of all the "Year You Were Born" episodes that are yet to come. Do you realize that in three or four seasons every single contestant on the show will have been born either in the very late 80's or the very early 90's, home to much of the worst music ever made by humans? Stuff that sounds like the fashion of that time smelled, half Aquanet, half unwashed flannel. It would take a deeply terrible song to suck all the fire out of Allison, but "Can't Make You Love Me" came very close. It was nice hearing her take a bit off of the accelerator and work soul into the longer, meatier midrange notes, but it was an underwhelming outing for a dark horse who needs to be radical every time out just to survive, thanks to her minimal exposure the first two months of the season. Still, it's super obvious she's the only alternative to Adam as winner. She's got that talent that shines through in the foggiest of arrangements. She inhabits songs beautifully and with an unteachable ease. 8

Matt Giraud The a capella intro to "Part-Time Lover" was absolutely brilliant and I was holding my breath waiting for Matt to make me see him in a whole new light. But then the band kicked in (they've been way off all season) and it was pretty marginal. His mannerisms, vocal and facial tics, and body movements are all wrong and vaguely offensive. The big note at the climax was way off. It was the most original he's been in some time but the bar was not set high. I wonder if the show's being short for time and the judges having to curtail their praise of him proves fatal. 7

Adam Lambert Fake arrangement-stealing controversy didn't hurt David Cook, who nicked a Chris Cornell reinvention of "Billie Jean" and won the whole thing last year. But Cook's "Billie Jean" had a lot of the singer's own style infused. Lambert's "Mad World" honestly seemed as if he was performing as Gary Jules in the theatrical adaptation of the making of the Donnie Darko soundtrack. I'm a big fan of the Jules/Michael Andrews recording, and with the exception of a couple of ad libs here and there, Lambert was doing a very clear impersonation -- except it wasn't a very good one, as he kept losing pitch. Lambert is utterly immune to criticism but in their rush to crown him the "Idol" brain trust are missing the forest for the trees -- who's going to buy a whole record by this kid? And how are you going to sell him to the Disney Radio crowd when it's pretty obvious that Adam isn't suited for the traditional heterosexual puppy love subject matter of Hanson and the Jonas Brothers? I think he's probably too young to be the new Holly Johnson, although I have to give him some props just for giving me the opportunity to name-check Holly Johnson in the context of an "American Idol" review. 6

I think if the judges had taken it easy on Lil, this would have been her turn to get the boot. But perversely their nastiness will end up winning her a sympathy boost, and that leaves Scott as the most exposed contestant. He wasn't any better or worse than his established standard, but he's got to go sometime.


  1. I didn't care for any of last night's performances...at all. Adam's was my favorite only because I love the version he ripped off. Technically, though, this was probably his worst vocal since he kept fudging notes when he went softer. It didn't help that I only recognized maybe half the songs and the half I did recognize are ones I hate ("All She Wants To Do Is Dance"? Really?)

    I couldn't care less who goes home, but I'm guessing it's either Lil, Anoop, or Scott - all of which have very little chance of winning let alone giving a surprising performance.

  2. Oh, and I agree with the judges on Lil's performance - she kept falling off-key throughout and didn't show an impressive vocal in general.