There has been much discussion lately about the fact that American Idol is losing it’s fan base. Much of that discussion centers around feelings that the show has gotten formulaic, pedestrian, predictable and simply mundane. Tonight’s performances, at least the first one hour and forty-one minutes of the two-hour show, proved that discussion to be quite valid. While there was at least one standout tonight, possibly two, the rest of the performances aspired to nothing more than mediocre. I very much felt like I was attending Karaoke night at the local pub.
On the bright side, as I mentioned, there were a couple of hits. And the judges emerged to mostly provide useful, constructive criticism for a change, rather than simply faint praise and non-committal babble. The night’s mentors – Will I Am and Jimmy Iovine, however, took the opposite track, serving up what may well have been some really misdirected advice.
Tonight’s mentors were Will I Am and Jimmy Iovine. I am reconsidering my position that Jimmy should be one of the judges as this week he seemed to give bad and out of context advice – especially with song choices. Several performances fell flat mainly because the song choice (some recommended by Iovine) was either wrong for the singers style, or lacked a commitment to the song by the performer.
Will I Am – normally a talented and sharp professional, appeared, at least in the small bite sized mentoring segments that were shown, to be more oriented towards moving his own personality forward, rather than helping the contestants. He offered faint praise, the occasional laugh line, and not much else.
The contestants were singing “songs from the year they were born” (Did I mention “formulaic”?).
The night, however, was not without it’s dose of drama. The first performer up was Phillip Phillips who had very recently been through surgery for kidney stones, an ongoing concern for Phillip. In the “mentoring” segment that was shown, much was made of the fact that he had stopped by to rehearse while on his way to the hospital for the surgery. Later, after his live performance, host Ryan Seacrest asked him – (commented actually) – about the fact he had already had his surgery. Phillip responded with “Yes – Thursday, yea, Thursday I think”. A small glimpse into the timing of the show as obviously the “mentor” segment was produced last week – perhaps before the voting results? Interesting.
Not to get things out of sequence, but, the other dose of drama happened a bit more than halfway through the show, when Idol confirmed they were kicking Jermaine Jones off the show for not revealing his criminal past. Apparently, according to Jermaine during his short televised interview with executive producers Ken Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe, the arrest and charges were not that big a deal – something about a fight and arguing. However, he had four warrants outstanding in connection with the incident, including lying to the police whom he gave a false name to. That goes against the Idol terms of service, and he was “fired”. Jermaine said he did not reveal the existence of the four warrants because he was “scared” and was hoping he could just “pay them and they would go away”. Uh-Huh.
I cannot help but question why this surfaced, suddenly, and with much drama, at this rather late stage of the Idol game. The show had many months to investigate and “vet” Jermaine after his selection – as a judges save – for the top 24 during Hollywood week. There is clearly more to the story. I am left with the nagging feeling that this was a well planned publicity ploy by the show, at the expense of Jermaine. It could also be that Idol does not put much effort into checking their contestant’s backgrounds. Lackadaisical “due Diligence” may not just be a bank phenomenon.
But, on with the show. As I said, there were a couple of standouts, which we will get to in a moment, but, first, we must sit through a whole bunch of mundane performances, and, especially, really bad song choices. Indeed, while the night’s theme was “songs from the year your were born”, many contestants decided to attempt “year of their birth” covers of songs that were actually written long before they were born.
Phillip Phillips, “fresh” out of surgery led the night off and proved he is at least a talented trooper. His performance of the Black Crowes’ cover of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.” was competent, if not stand out. He showed he could still make a song his own, even if it was a bad choice. No flash, no energy, he stood there and did the song well, not bad for a recent hospital patient. The judges had apparently not had their five-hour energy drinks yet as they dispensed the usual platitudes for a song “sort of done OK”. Phillip has a whole bunch of talent, and is one of the few actual musical artists in this year’s crop. However, he was just “idoling” his way through this performance. Perhaps appropriate for a recent surgery patient. Jennifer had the best line when she accidentally made a funny pun with ” this is just so natural for you… in every cell of your body, not to get too medical for you … it just comes out of you!” (Like kidney stones?).
Randy commented ” “You are kind of unique for us… you sound amazing.”, and Steven Tyler threw in his usual non-committal one-liner with ” “Watch your melody, but keep it up.””
Next up was budding superstar Jessica Sanchez. In the back of my mind, I was worried that the Idol producracy put her this early in the night’s lineup. That normally seems to mean they expect a bad performance. Well, the expectations appeared to be right. Jessica, dubbed “Swaggernaut.” By Will.I.Am In the mentoring segment, elected to do “Turn the Beat Around,” by Gloria Estefan (at least this version was by Gloria). Now, we know Jessica can sing, but, apparently not everything. While her performance was OK, she appeared to have trouble with the up-beat tempo, often falling a bit behind the beat. At two points she let out a screech, a non-musical, totally inappropriate blast of wind that tended to spoil what was otherwise an OK performance. Maybe it sounded better in the studio. The judges, while still not fully awake, offered some useful critique with Tyler saying ” “I love your voice… can’t stray too far from what you do best, ballads.”. Jennifer said Sanchez’s selling point is her “strong vibrato,” but she had “to be syncopated and on the beat” and that she “lost energy.”. Randy simply said it was a good performance, but she “has some things to work on”. Throughout the performance, Jessica seemed to be touching her ear left ear quite a bit. Was she possibly having a problem with the rhythm, or with her in-ear monitor? If so, this would be far from the first time there have been problems with the monitors or the mix. Idols sound crew sometimes comes off as second rate – and not at all appropriate for the venue. I personally think they could do away with some of the stage production values and let the contestants use floor monitors instead of the in-ears. With most of their backgrounds, They would probably be much more comfortable with something familiar. It is about the singing, right?
So far, not too great, but not bad. Phillip had a reason, and Jessica just strayed too far from her “sweet spot”. However, I think the next contestant to perform – Heejun Han – must have been out running laps immediately before his performance. He seemed out of breath, and, his entire performance could be summed up in one word – Breathy. Another appropriate word would be “Wimpy”. Yes, Heejun, who has a very good and interesting voice, and who normally brings some energy to the song, went flat – as in flat like a tire – as he attempted to do Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting,”. While it may have been yet another bad song choice, I think Heejun should have been able to pull it off. This song is a straightforward “power ballad” that should have been right up Heejuns alley, or at least in the neighborhood. I think Heejun just literally ran out of steam (or air). The judges, however, went with “wrong song choice”, and maybe they were right. While I liked Heejun at the start, as sort of an “underdog”, I am starting to wonder, as the judges maybe are, if he should be in this contest. I can’t help but think “imitation” when watching him. Somewhere, somehow, his believe-ability has gone south, and his humor is starting to grate. He may just be a better actor than singer.
Of Heejun Han’s totally boring performance, Randy Jackson opined of Han that he was “pitchy and out of breath.” “It was the wrong song — not a great performance..”. Steven Tyler repeated Jackson’s comments, saying Heejun he still had a special voice, but “you stepped so far outside your circle to do this. Really breathy, just wasn’t a great song for you.”. Maybe it wasn’t. Heejun has become, at least for me, hard to define.
Elise Testone was next to carry the torch, and she did, bringing her “torch singer” and throaty voice to a good, if not great, rendition of Tina Turner’s 1983 cover of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”. Playing off President Barrack Obamas recently famous “cover” of the song during a fundraising event, Will.I.Am suggested they should release a duet version of the song. Obama’s performance reportedly increased the song’s sales by nearly 500%, I wonder what a duet would do. Anyway. Elise proclaimed the song would “have people making babies tonight”, and, indeed, her powerful sultry voice shined through as she delivered a solid performance. After the performance, host Ryan Seacrest had to dig into the “locker of cheap jokes” with a comment on Elise’s “baby” proclamation – “If there’s a population boom December 14, we’re gonna blame you,”
The judges, however, refrained from that territory, and were all simply in agreement that she had delivered a ” magnificent performance”. Even Randy Jackson broke out of his mold to gush: “America, Elise is back!” ”This girl is dope,” and “Welcome back.”. Certainly not something Randy says very often……
Deandre Brackensick was next up. Apparently he wants to leave the show, as he delivered what very well may have been his “send me home” performance of Mariah Carey and Luther Vandross’ cover of Lionel Richie and Diana Ross’ “Endless Love.”. Actually, he only did Mariah’s part, but that was bad enough. What was worse is that this song choice was a recommendation of Jimmy Iovine. Deandre had originally wanted to do “Can You Feel the Love Tonight,” by Elton John. But, he went with the mentor’s recommendation instead (who knew), and it may have hurt him, bad. The performance was totally – boring – and it was quite apparent he did not feel the song. Maybe he was harboring resentment about the song recommendation, Deandre plodded through so bad I nearly fell asleep. Jennifer felt “sorry” for him, saying: “Jimmy and Will steered you wrong… I didn’t think it was the right song for you… That makes me upset.”.
Randy Jackson summed it up however – “This was boring and very safe for you at the wrong time.”. A really wrong time…
Well, I woke up from Deandres performance just in time for Shannon Macgrane to teach me the meaning of the term “Karaoke”. Going against the mentor’s advice (Iovine wanted Magrane to do No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak,”), Shannon stuck to her guns and decided to perform her song choice “One Sweet Day”, the duet by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men. Well, she didn’t screw it up, but she didn’t exactly shine either. I really thought I had time-warped back to a night at a Karaoke bar. The notes & words were OK, but the performance contained bad technique, strange expressions, and manufactured emotions. Just like an evening at the local “watering hole”.
Shannon’s “stage presence” also bothers me. She seems to make strange and inappropriate facial expressions, and her body language doesn’t seem to fit the song. It is like her muscles are not all hearing the same soundtrack, and it is, at least to me, distracting and annoying. Maybe she will make a good studio artist.
The mediocrity continued into the night, with the next performance by Colton Dixon. Colton chose to perform “Broken Heart” by White Lion. I had to look that up, because, not only me, but apparently no one else, has ever heard the song before. Now that can be a good thing, with the audience not having anything to compare the performance with. But, it can also hurt, as no one can identify with the song. Colton is good, and his arrangement was well done, however, I think it is too early in the season for the contestants to strike this far out on their own. To build the fan base, they need to do competent versions of well-known, should I say beloved, songs by familiar artists. The real creativity can come later, after the audience and fans know the singer and his style, but not now. An unknown song, and a mediocre performance. It would appear that Colton wants to be this season’s Adam Lambert. But, it is far too early to tell if he has the cajoles to pull that off, and this performance did not help.
Of the performance, Jennifer injected “I think you look pretty when you sing,” “, and Randy said the song choice “didn’t matter” and that it was “dope.”. Steven and Colton had an interesting exchange with Tyler saying it was the “wrong song for your voice and your passion. I just didn’t feel the song go anywhere, man.” Colton immediately replied “Okay,” and Steven closed his intense critique with “Okay, cool,”. It’s good they get along.
So, according to the judges, Colton’s performance was “A bad song that didn’t matter, sung by a pretty face.”
Erika Van Pelt chose to cover Bryan Adams’ “Heaven.”. She told the mentors “It feels so rocky! It’s more me” during her session. A session in which Iovine suggested that she adds a break into the chorus. And, it worked great during rehearsal, but she stumbled over it in her live performance. It may have been the drummers fault for missing it, bit it prompted Tyler to say she was “too busy with it … stay with the melody.” Jennifer, who had apparently watched a different performance called her “this year’s Janis Joplin,” but mysteriously added “the arrangement left us wanting more.” Randy gave her an “8 out of 10″. I would give her more closely a 5. Mediocre, in the middle, nothing bad to criticize, and nothing great to praise. And, just as important, nothing to remember her for the next day. Sort of like the whole night.
Fortunately, just as I was falling asleep again, Skylar Laine offered a bit of fresh air. Not a gale warning, but a gentle breeze. Skylar stuck with her style, as well as played it somewhat safe by choosing Bonnie Raitt’s “Love’s Sneaking Up On You,”, Indeed, mentor Jimmy Iovine thought the song did not “have enough for her to work with”. In what was hopefully a “tongue in cheek” recommendation, Will.I.Am suggested she sing a Gountry” (ghetto country) version of Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage”. Skylar did not take the bait however, and ended up doing a fine imitation of the Bonnie Raitt song. Of the judges, Tyler told her, “I haven’t seen you sing a bad song, yet.” Lopez “enjoyed it”, but “wished the song had a stronger chorus”, and Jackson, reverting to his usual judging style, told her she “rocked it.”.
The little bit of fresh air (maybe “stolen” from Heejun?) from Skylar was a welcome break amidst all the stagnation of the evening. Fortunately, the breeze came just in time for us to be fully awake for the next performer..
One hour and forty minutes after the “official” start of the show, just as we were wallowing in the mediocrity and a bit of self pity for being stuck watching this, the REAL show started. Joshua Ledet took the stage, and made the long wait more than worthwhile as he took on Michael Bolton’s cover of Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman,”. In the vernacular, Joshua “nailed it”, with a performance that garnered the only standing ovation of the night. Earlier, Will I. Am predicted Ledet would bring down the house. And Joshua more than delivered. Lopez called it the “best thing I’ve ever seen on American Idol” and Tyler said, “You gave it up so big, God came through your eyes” along with “That was so good, we were up halfway through it.” Randy Jackson said “Percy Sledge, who originally did that song, would be very proud and happy.” But Jennifer’s final comment summed it up the best – “Wow, I just can’t stop saying Wow”, and neither could I.
Finally, Hollie Cavanagh had the unenviable position of closing the nights show right after Joshua “brought down the house”. Picking Celine Dion’s “The Power of Love.”, Hollie delivered a fine and competent performance. She can sing, of that there is no doubt. There were some pitch problems, which were duly noted by the judges, but, overall, Hollie yet again delivered on yet another power ballad. I felt, however, especially after just hearing Joshua’s performance, it was a return to the night’s theme – mediocrity. Not bad, not great, it was “just right”. And “just right”, while being fine for Goldilocks, does not make an American Idol.
It will be interesting to see who goes home Thursday Night. There are so many potential candidates after this night of OK. The judges were asked, inappropriately, who the top and bottom performers were. While Joshua was in all three’s list of top performers, along with Hollie Cavanagh, Skylar Laine, Elise Testone and Jessica Sanchez as the nights best. However, although Randy finally ventured that Heejun Han might be the one in the most trouble, the other judges refrained from mentioning any bottom candidates. Whether the were just trying to play fair with the voting, or whether it was just that hard to pick a “worst”, is hard to tell.
For myself, I think the judges safe picks will be safe. Shannon did one of the worst jobs, and she would be my first pick to send packing. Deandre Brackensick is a very close second based on his performance tonight. But, Deandre’s popularity and likeability may keep him around. Those two are closely followed by Heejun Han, Erika Van Pelt and possibly Elise Testone, even though the judges said they liked her.
That’s just my opinion. Now, back to the nap.