2013 American Idol Songbook: May 8, Top 3 Finalists Sing Jimmy's, Judges', and Producers' Choices
Halfway through this Top Three episode, an extravagant spectacle that sacrificed valuable performance time for the usual five-minute-plus “homecoming” video and other fluff, Ryan Seacrest brought up the elephant in the room: singing other people’s choices all through took the singers outside their comfort zone. Faced with the baffling song selections of the people responsible for this season of American Idol, I was outside of mine too. Between mentor Jimmy Iovine, the four judges, and the production staff led by Nigel Lythgoe, the powers that be deigned to pick songs that often appeared to stem more from corporate synergy than a real appreciation of the contestants’ strengths. With the exception of the Broadway-originating “Somewhere” and two songs by Pink (more on that in a second), every tune was by an artist linked to Idol’s record industry partner Universal Music, including two to hawk the debut of Emile Sandé, a talented British singer on their newly acquired EMI label. As for Pink, signed to former Idol partner Sony/RCA, Idol courted her as a judge last year and has been trying again for the next, so the selection of two Pink songs appears to be a possible effort to butter her up. Of course, Randy admitted that Pink’s “Try” was co-written by a friend of Randy’s, so other factors were certainly at play. When the three remaining hopefuls did connect with the material, it almost seemed by accident or at the very least in spite of the mostly poor song choices imposed on them. Nicki, who has often been blamed by pundits and even the producers themselves for driving viewers away with her brash personality, may have been exaggerating a bit when she said her bosses should be stoned, but I understand her frustration with how this season has devolved. Indeed, she may have been privy to rumors I picked up last night that the entire panel and Nigel himself could be scrapped for next season, which might change the window-dressing but doesn’t necessarily address the structural flaws of the show, especially if the likes of Justin Bieber and Diddy replace Mariah or Keith. I try to be measured and subtle in my criticism, but for this episode, I am so flummoxed as to need to quote Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s song that Jimmy gave Angie: “it’s a sad, sad situation, and it’s getting more and more absurd.”
Angie Miller – “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” (Elton John), “Try” (Pink), and “Maybe” (Emeli Sandé) – Eliminated
For the first half of the 1970s, Elton John was the definitive pop-rock performer of the age. A gifted composer-pianist who declared “pop music is my life” as his parents sought the best in classical training, Reginald Dwight took the stage name in the late 1960s and sought a lyricist by classified ad. That lyricist, Bernie Taupin, provided an inexhaustible supply of wit to match Elton’s distinctive melodies, a challenging but never boring task when those tunes drew from an eclectic stew of rock, Broadway, gospel, country, and soul that helped give him a universal appeal while his flamboyant costumes and piano wizardry made his tours iconic. “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word,” the lead single from the 1976 album Blue Moves, was his last major stateside hit before a falling-out with Taupin presaged a five-year drop in Elton’s popularity and critical respect that only returned when the pair began collaborating again. The ultimate exploration in song of that terrible phenomenon when two people are at odds but can’t bring themselves to discuss it openly, “Sorry” may have been an oblique reference to the growing professional tension between Elton and Taupin. Elton’s mournful melody echoed that sentiment perfectly, and the resulting smash has appealed to many recording artists and talent competitors over the years, particularly those looking for a sad ballad to showcase their vocal ornamentation. For some reason, Angie decided to play her much-lauded piano on an Emeli Sandé song instead of this one by the ultimate piano man, defeating the purpose of choosing a song by a piano-based artist as I had expected Jimmy to do. As so often happens with an Angie performance, the low tones in the verses are the most nourishing parts of the song, though she does keep more control than usual on the choruses. This is certainly one of Angie’s best Idol moments, and she preserves the meaning of the song more than she has with most others that she’s covered which don’t fall under the Christian pop rubric. “Sorry” by Angie still doesn’t edge out the other two contestants, as hampered as they are by what they were told to sing, but it’s a good way to remember the best of what she brought to Idol.
Pink, the grand champion in clearing new songs for usage on American Idol, needs no introduction here. Her 2012 album The Truth About Love was already represented just last week with the anemic “Just Give Me a Reason,” sung by Amber Holcomb the night that got her voted off. “Try” was a bit more substantial of a song, though it didn’t exactly merit the effusive praise Randy lavished diplomatically on his friend Mike Busbee, who co-wrote it with Detroit session man Ben West. Busbee goes by his last name in the lower-case of an artiste, and the San Francisco native has managed to straddle the global pop world (his songs have been covered by a Japanese girl group as well as acts on both sides of the Atlantic) and Nashville, contributing songs to Katy Perry and Lady Antebellum with equal success (cf. Antebellum’s 2010 country chart-topper “Our Kind of Love”). “Try” has a similarly silly inspiration lyric to “Just Give Me a Reason,” which perhaps would have drawn in Angie anyway even if she had free rein to pick her material this week, but the melody does have an intriguing New Wave/Fleetwood Mac sort of atmosphere. The Cars might have been at home with a song like this thirty years ago, and the retro groove sort of works with Pink, but Angie doesn’t quite pull it off. No self-proclaimed rock fan would view rock as Angie’s natural habitat, though she occasionally has pretensions to the genre. Her showmanship on “Try” belies a voice that flags on the climactic parts of the song where she stretches beyond the best aspects of her voice, making this anthem feel a little forced. I would love to see more performances like her first of the night, where the chorus is as pleasant to listen to as the verses, but that consistency doesn’t seem to happen often with Angie.
Emeli Sandé is an interesting new artist who channels a mix of R&B and pop-rock, a perfect addition to a market where Leona Lewis and Adele have helped revive the British Invasion hype of another age. Signed to Britain’s grand old label EMI Records just as it got a fresh infusion of cash from its new owner Universal Music, the Scottish Emeli appears set to follow in her label-mate Corrine Bailey Rae’s footsteps with the blockbuster 2012 release Our Version of Events, now hitting the states and getting the full-court press from Idol’s promotion machine. “Maybe,” co-written by producers Paul Herman and Ash Millard, is a track that definitely proves the album to be more than a one-trick pony. Herman’s biggest U.S. exposure in the past was for his collaboration with singer-songwriter Dido on her 2001 hit “Thank You,” and “Maybe” has some of the earlier song’s ethereal sheen and bohemian perspective. There’s an ease in the song that contrasts with the theme of desperately trying to avert a breakup, giving it a refreshing complexity that Angie can’t quite capture. Yes, she accompanies herself on the piano just as Emeli does and as Angie’s been praised for doing all season, but she doesn’t capture the subtlety of Emeli. Angie highlights the song’s repetitiveness with her increasingly off-kilter high notes at the end, culminating in a finale that just doesn’t feel right. She starts off decent but ends “Maybe” like so many other performances of hers this season, belting without the artistry to take it outside of the realm of gimmickry. I don’t see the appeal, but I concede that her studio recordings capture someone trying less to please and more to simply express herself, an improvement if ever there was one.
Candice Glover – “One” (U2), “Next to Me” (Emeli Sandé), and “Somewhere” (West Side Story) – Advanced
By the time that U2 were getting around to writing songs for the 1991 album Achtung Baby, they were beginning to feel the crush of the transatlantic stardom that had followed them for the previous five years. 1987’s The Joshua Tree and 1988’s Rattle and Hum had established the Irish band’s reputation for many first-time fans as purveyors of a big, jangly sound and even bigger, often spiritual messages. The group was almost falling apart when guitarist The Edge’s chord progression provided the germ for the reconciliatory “One,” and lead singer Bono’s sentiments were more like their old work on that single than on other more satirical tracks like “Mysterious Ways” and “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.” While those songs pointed towards the group’s increasing influence by the mordant humor and exotic melodies of “Britpop” groups like Oasis and Suede, “One” was vintage U2 about the need for togetherness in a fractured world. The song’s Christian undertones (particularly in the bridge going “love is a temple, love is a higher law”) led to many covers emphasizing its status as a kind of modern-day spiritual, including one of Johnny Cash’s haunting, lo-fi covers on his American series with Rick Rubin and a gospel duet with Mary J. Blige on her 2005 comeback album, The Breakthrough. The latter version, a “look, these two are singing together” curio that didn’t really showcase the best of either artist, was presumably the basis for Jimmy’s choice of the song for Candice. She is visibly frustrated at the choice of something so immaterial, and Randy’s notion of the song “giving her room” to innovate understates how little she has to work with save for The Edge’s chord noodling and Bono’s Lennon-esque philosophizing. Candice does her best to put gospel touches into the song, but it’s really made for slow, contemplative renditions like the group’s original and does not provide the Candice moments I’ve gotten used to over the course of the show. I’m going to consider Candice on the merits of the incredible work she’s done prior to this, since her own talent is clearly not being served by the decisions that were made for her.
“Next to Me” just missed the top of the British charts for Emeli Sandé last year, and it’s headed up the American Top 40 now. It’s certainly a fun, energetic way to introduce an artist, courtesy of her collaboration with production duo Craze and Hoax. Craze and Hoax specialize in dance-pop and consist of Harry Craze and Hugo “Hoax” Chegwin. They provide a bed of propulsive, catchy beats almost reminiscent of classic Motown to Sandé’s ode to fidelity, and it’s a great way to introduce Our Version of Events to the American public. While there’s certainly a soul edge to the song, “Next to Me” is still somewhat more of a pop song than I would expect of the judges’ choice for Candice. She tries to weave some artistry into the copycat arrangement, but Candice doesn’t have much space in the song to provide the kind of sonic Easter eggs that made her past efforts on Idol highlights of so many episodes this season. Part of the problem is that she doesn’t have the time to develop the song, which is to some extent the fault of the producers who insist on including enough long montages and sidebars to confine the actual performing to two minutes at a time tops. My biggest gripe, though, is that the format of this whole episode takes her skillful song choices, perhaps the best of the season, out of the equation.
When it premiered in 1957, West Side Story was the culmination of Leonard Bernstein’s mainstream success as a songwriter and the beginning of one of Broadway’s leading lights for over a half century now, Stephen Sondheim. Bernstein had already succeeded by then to George Gershwin’s mantle as the ultimate bridge between popular and classical music, though On the Town, Wonderful Town, and Candide (arguably his Porgy and Bess) were more cult hits than long-running seat-fillers. He had long been better-known for his advocacy for classical music as maestro of the New York Philharmonic than for his theatrical scores, but his effort to reset Romeo and Juliet in the rougher parts of the Big Apple proved a game-changer. Sondheim’s wit, though often over-shadowed in discussions of the classic show and high school drama club favorite by Bernstein’s arias and take-offs on Puerto Rican music, helped make Shakespeare’s tale current for the mid-twentieth century while keeping the poetic sweep of the original. Both the original musical and the 1960 film version were lauded with innumerable awards, and many songs from the score became standards, perhaps most famously “Somewhere.” Originally an off-stage narration to a ballet sequence later reprised by Romeo stand-in Tony as he dies in star-crossed lover Maria’s arms, the song came to overshadow many sung by key characters. Barbra Streisand’s epic 1985 version from The Broadway Album is often considered the definitive rendition, taking the sometimes cornball wishful thinking of the lyric and the Beethoven-Tchaikovsky borrowings of the melody to new heights. Without a dynamite vocalist, the song can get a bit tiresome. Despite all the machinations that helped put this episode and to some extent this season under its own kind of curse, the producers at least did something to redeem themselves by realizing that Candice is that dynamite vocalist. Here at last, though not nearly as much as in some of the astounding things I’ve heard from her this season, is Candice bringing her full vocal power and expressive ability to a recognizable song. She takes classics and makes them something completely new, just as much as she makes modern songs seem like future classics.
Kree Harrison – “Perfect” (Pink), “Here Comes Goodbye” (Rascal Flatts), and “Better Dig Two” (Band Perry) – Advanced
“Perfect” doesn’t live up to its name, but it’s the thought that counts, and it sure was a heady one. Pink wrote the song to pay tribute to her supportive current husband, who got her through what by all accounts was a very bad time in her life. Her unconventional character was indeed the epitome of that which society all too often rejects. She did a good job of giving “Perfect,” the one original single from The Greatest Hits…So Far (2010), a distinctive resonance to her fellow outsiders, especially the young women dealing with the abusive relationships, eating disorders, and self-harming habits that were depicted in its controversial music video. The song was co-written by extremely prolific Swedish producers Max Martin (Martin Sandberg) and Shellback (Karl Johan Schuster). Together they worked on many songs with Pink since 2007, helping give a radio-friendly sheen to Katy Perry and Britney Spears’s recent albums as well as co-penning hits such as “Who Knew,” “So What,” and “Raise Your Glass” for the spiky-haired one. Martin, Pink, and Shellback got so carried away collaborating that they had to give away “Whataya Want from Me?” to season eight Idol runner-up Adam Lambert, since there wasn’t enough room on her 2008 album Funhouse. Kree’s polite bromides about liking “the message” cannot hide her recognition that this “challenge” (as Jimmy puts it) was not one she ever would have undertaken on her own. It’s just a boring song, one meant to be given life by a pop belter such as last season’s fourth-place finisher Hollie Cavanagh and not handed to a country talent such as Kree. She tries to put twang into the beginning, but try as she might, she cannot get past the song’s blandness to tell an interesting story where only a general positive-thinking message exists. On a night full of sabotage, intentional or not, why should this mismatch surprise me?
“Here Comes Goodbye” was selected for Kree as something of a favor, it appears, for its co-writer Chris Sligh. Though he gained chart success by writing the song with Clint Lagerberg, Sligh started as the loveable, chubby tenth-place finisher on season six (2007) of American Idol, better-known perhaps for entering the audience than for his singing chops on the show. It turns out he had some Nashville gold in him, and the result was the lead single for the 2009 album from Rascal Flatts, Unstoppable. The Flatts, led by soft-voiced crooner Gary LeVox, have always struck me as the closest thing to a bunch of crooners in country music today, a fittingly squeaky-clean flagship artist for Disney’s now-defunct country label, Lyric Street. “Here Comes Goodbye” had all the dreading-the-breakup formula needed to top the country charts and keep the Rascal Flatts winning streak going, and the thing is, it actually works better with Kree. Unlike LeVox, Kree actually excels at the sort of melody runs that make country music such a unique genre of music, and she definitely converts the emotional wallop of her visit to the home where her deceased parents lived into palpable pain. Genuine in every way despite the crushing weight of a night where the people in charge of Idol mishandled the song choices, Kree proves why she has been a contender all along in what may be tied with Candice’s “Somewhere” or even ahead of it as the best performance of the night.
The Band Perry is one of the great roots-country acts of our day, a true heir to the Dixie Chicks now that they’ve gone their separate ways for solo efforts. On “Better Dig Two,” a recent country chart-topper from their 2013 sophomore album Pioneer, they got a song that perfectly captured the gothic feel of the old Anglo-Celtic ballads that so heavily influenced the subject matter of bluegrass, a huge influence on the Perry siblings’ sound. Trevor Rosen was just coming off a hit with Chris Young’s “Neon,” while his fellow co-writer Brandy Clark is a rising star who collaborated around the same time on Miranda Lambert’s hit “Mama’s Broken Heart” with the third writer of “Better Dig Two,” Shane McAnally. McAnally, a Curb artist starting in 1999, has become one of the real rising stars of country writing with Kenny Chesney smashes (2010’s “Somewhere with You” and 2012’s “Come Over”) and hits for younger artists like Jake Owen (“Anywhere with You”) and Kacey Musgraves (“Merry Go ‘Round”) already under his belt. “Better Dig Two” takes romantic hyperbole to the extreme with its pronouncements of the dire fate the narrator expects should her lover leave for any reason whatsoever. It’s macabre, it’s maudlin, and given the right approach and a great bluegrass-country treatment, it’s magical. Putting aside the bad luck of ending Kree’s selections with a suicide-themed song, the producers appear to misunderstand the degree to which Kree underperforms when trying to rush through an up-tempo song such as this one. Though she seemed alright when she sang the first verse, by the mid-point of the performance, she realized that this wasn’t nearly melodic enough for her sort of country voice. Yes, she likes bluesy, rootsy music, but she doesn’t perform it as effectively as some other contestants have (both past and present). Nigel and company do not seem to grasp the essence of what makes Kree such a likeable artist. Perhaps they are ironically doing her a favor if they are trying to eliminate her from the competition, since she could pick (and probably write) her material far better than the people who chose her songs tonight and who might wind up supervising her debut album were she to win.