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2013 American Idol Songbook: May 15, Top 2 Finalists Sing Simon Fuller's Choice, Coronation Single, and Season Favorite
I’m not going to mince words. Idol is at a pretty pass, and a season full of extensive product placement and increasingly focused on the judges’ drama as opposed to the contestants’ performances has led to ratings declines and possibly the exit of at least two judges. Rumor has it Mariah and producer Nigel Lythgoe could add to Randy’s self-proclaimed exit and Nicki’s apparent firing. This means that we can expect at least a replacement of the entire panel and at most a re-tooling of the entire concept, so it’s possible that Idol as we know it now will not exist come 2014. As finales go, 2013’s was somewhat underwhelming, though I would not hesitate to say that Candice had the edge artistically. The unfortunate implications of her losing anyway could be balanced out by the opportunity to work with Randy outside of the Idol machine. Simon Fuller, the veteran British manager who founded XIX Entertainment and birthed the Idol concept of a viewer-guided singing competition as a pop culture phenomenon, gets his customary finale choice, and overall he chose wisely based on what each singer has done best all year. The “coronation singles,” as I comment annually and mentioned in the Idol covers week this year (week 2), tend to be rather bland, and this year was not very different in that regard. There was, however, a surprise in that Candice took advantage of this year’s option to co-write the single instead of Kree, who has a pre-existing catalog on albums. Finally, the contestants got to reprise an earlier performance of their own from the season as their closing argument of sorts. In the end, I was left with a final impression of two amazing performers somewhat removed from the vacuous norms of much radio fare today (see Carly Rae Jepsen’s crowd-sourced “Take a Picture” from the same night) but possessing a bright future if they find the right audience. Though they were perhaps unlucky to reach this stage of Idol during this historic but troubled season, Candice and Kree both appear to have the determination to turn that circumstance into motivation to continue developing as the remarkable artists that they are.
Candice Glover – “Chasing Pavements” (Adele), “I Am Beautiful,” and “I (Who Have Nothing)” (Ben E. King) – Winner
Back in 2008, Adele seemed like just another British pop-soul diva in a flood hitting the States at the time, and the industry’s often maddening focus on body image and danceable beats appeared to favor competitors such as Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone, and Duffy. Her 2008 debut 19, named after her age at the time, featured only one Top 40 hit in the U.S. in “Chasing Pavements,” co-written by album co-producer Eg White. By a couple years later, however, Winehouse had tragically succumbed to her downward spiral of drug and alcohol abuse, Stone had gained a reputation as an album-centered artist, and Duffy’s follow-up floundered while Adele’s 21 made her the reigning queen of British pop and an obvious choice for the latest James Bond theme (Skyfall, the first to win an Oscar in the films’ iconic musical history). A listen to “Chasing Pavements,” a breezy tune reminiscent of John Lennon’s meandering, wistful piano pop, amply foreshadows what was to come for Adele. Eg White, for his part, had tried a pop career in the early 1990s but really broke through as a songwriter with British Pop Idol winner Will Young’s 2003 smash “Leave Right Now” (hence the Fuller connection). Winning the British Isles’ top songwriting award (the Ivor Novello), he became highly in-demand and prolific, scoring hits for heartthrob James Morrison and even a collaboration with Florence and the Machines (2011’s “What the Water Gave Me”). Candice made the critics wax effusive with her last Adele cover, so Simon probably was onto something in picking the song for her. She toys with the melody in ways that reflect the best of Adele while adding her own spin, particularly near the end. The sort of melodic runs that Candice favors are in some ways more pleasing than the usual huge swings of key associated with Mariah and other divas, because turning the note just so the way Candice does keeps the intimacy factor that characterizes R&B at its best.
Candice’s coronation single, “I Am Beautiful,” is the work of several young songwriters all waiting for their first big hit. One of them, of course, is Candice herself, who seems to have drawn on her own rise in confidence over the course of the show that Nicki in particular has called an inspiration to many viewers. After all, the former travel agent has come a long way through two seasons of pre-finals elimination, arguably taking more hard knocks than many Idol contestants stereotypically unaccustomed to the bar-busting way of finding fame. This season punched her ticket to a life that, regardless of the outcome of the competition itself, will always probably be defined in one way or another by music. Co-writers Joleen Belle and Jaden Michaels will probably be around for the ride, as their catalogue will likely get a boost from Candice’s Idol single. Not that the song is a masterpiece, though the three authors appear to be just beginning their songwriting experience and deserve a bit of leeway in that respect. It’s typical Idol self-empowerment pop, but Candice sings it with the emphatic zest that regular viewers this year (I know they’re still out there) have come to expect from her. A debut album will, I hope, give her the chance to collaborate with experienced writer-producers such as Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, or Jermaine Dupri, who can put together the right chord combinations to make her ideas come alive. Randy’s strong commercial sense could also be an asset, since he can now focus full-time on working with artists instead of the exhausting Idol treadmill that occupies him so much of the year now. Of course, Belle and Michaels will get plenty more tries if Candice attains the potential I know she has, and everyone will come out enriched from the exchange.
I first thought Candice was “a contender for the title,” as Randy would say, when she sang John Legend’s “Ordinary People” in the first week of live shows for votes. However, for many the real clincher was her version of “I (Who Have Nothing),” the English-translated Italian ballad that Ben E. King and Tom Jones made a hit and Idol winner Jordin Sparks sang late in her season. I will no more belabor the song itself, which I analyze more thoroughly in my coverage of the second week’s Top Ten performances from March 13, 2013. Her “I (Who Have Nothing)” on the finale is one of the best reprises I’ve ever seen on Idol, on the finale or at any other time during the season. Though the original was spellbinding in its own right, Candice pulls off something equally remarkable by switching to a more contemporary sound with a killer intro. Her a cappella start led into something that could be on an album tomorrow (and likely will be on one someday). Keeping the melodic twists she’d put in the first time around, Candice raised her marketability and showcased the sort of big voice we’ve almost become too blasé about over the years. Many singers share her technique and raw talent, but few possess her artistry in how she uses her instrument. This season taken as a whole makes for one of the most incredible résumés any record label could hope to consider.
Kree Harrison – “Angel” (Sarah McLachlan), “All Cried Out,” and “Up to the Mountain” (Solomon Burke) – Runner-Up
With “Angel” and “Adia” from Sarah McLachlan’s fourth album, Surfacing, the Canadian-American singer-songwriter gained an enduring image as contemporary folk-pop’s leading lady. Often viewed as a latter-day Joni Mitchell, McLachlan had spent over a decade recording before her 1997 breakthrough with Surfacing, plying her trade on the Canadian scene and festivals such as Lilith Fair that made cult hits out of a generation of acoustic chanteuses. Less rock-influenced than many of her peers, she possessed a wispy, Celtic tone and a penchant for contemplative subject matter, all encapsulated on her signature song, “Angel.” A Top Ten hit in America when it first came out due partly to the immediate exposure as a soundtrack choice for both film and television tearjerkers, “Angel” was written as a result of McLachlan’s exposure to music industry heroin abuse, particularly the death by overdose of Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin whom she knew personally. It captured quite poignantly the frustration and pressure, the need for release that propelled the user toward the ultimate one, though the specificity of the song’s inspiration was overshadowed by use in different contexts, including her famed ASPCA campaign. Efforts to cover the song seldom capture McLachlan’s uniquely ethereal atmosphere, but Kree’s pure country lilt seems like it would come closest of any finalist on this season of Idol. The Celtic influence should carry over well to Kree’s twang, but it doesn’t always connect. Perhaps humbled by how demographics and musical tastes may favor her in this finale, she seems a little subdued in a way that doesn’t contribute as much to the song as one might expect for such a ballad. However, she certainly is in touch with the best qualities of her voice on a song few would dare challenge if given the option, so Fuller wins points for picking well.
Overall, though the bar’s not exactly sky-high, “All Cried Out” raises it as Idol songs go. It’s not the first time a country singer got to at least sing a take on a traditional romantic theme instead of the inspirational boilerplate artists in other genres usually get for the finale, but it’s one of the more genuine-sounding songs yet used for the purpose. Unlike Scotty McCreery’s “I Love You This Big,” a cartoonish tune written by a genre-straddling committee, “All Cried Out” is the product exclusively of country specialists in keeping with Kree’s apparent aim for that style. Steve McEwan is the most prolific of the tunesmiths involved, with a couple Kenny Chesney chart-toppers (2004’s “Young” and 2006’s “Summertime”) and another by our own Keith Urban (2009’s “Only You Can Love Me This Way”). McEwan reteams on “All Cried Out” with Gordie Sampson, his co-writer on Carrie Underwood’s 2008 song “Just a Dream” and the co-author of her first pure country single in 2005, “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” Katrina Elam is a younger co-writer who augured a successful genre-crossing duet for Randy’s favorites, Rascal Flatts, with “Easy,” sung in tandem with British pop star Natasha Bedingfield. Naturally, “All Cried Out” sounds like it would be at home on one of Underwood’s albums, though Kree does not display Carrie’s facility with the country-pop breakup ballad she got here. Not to be confused with Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam’s 1980s R&B hit of the same title, Elam, McEwan, and Sampson’s “All Cried Out” seems like it could have used more time to play out (as it surely will on Kree’s single if released). Kree’s vocal lapses likely owed something to the challenge of singing something that is new in every conceivable way. She will go far when she has time to get to know the material and continue developing her own catalogue.
Particularly after his senseless 1968 assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., became a justifiable inspiration for many works of art, and popular music is no exception. Many have their favorite among the countless tributes, including Dion’s “Abraham, Martin, and John” from the year of his murder or Stevie Wonder’s pro-King-Day anthem “Happy Birthday.” My personal favorite has long been U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love),” which seems all the more appreciative of the global scope of King’s legacy because of both the group’s geographical and religious distance from the reverend and the general epic sweep of the band’s sound. Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain (MLK),” for whatever reason, has become a favorite of talent competition singers since its 2005 composition, usually ones aiming to prove their mettle as folk-influenced acoustic vocalists. Griffin’s self-penned ode to King, which drew on his last speech’s prophetic allusions to Moses dying on the cusp of the Holy Land, had the hymnal folk feel of the generation making music when she was born (1964), and it has a certain je-ne-sais-quoi that appeals to those looking for contemporary folk. I still prefer the actual songs from the period or later takes on the issue from contemporary perspective, but I certainly understand the use of it as a vocal showcase. The late Solomon Burke, an underrated legend of Southern soul who helped pioneer what would make Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett famous, got the chance to record the song first after Griffin had debuted it on tour. Burke’s version on 2006’s Nashville showed his voice to only be all the more distinguished with the years, and Griffin finally cut it herself in 2007 on Children Running Through, a hit indie album that won widespread acclaim. American Idol’s favorite modern folk song has become almost an Idol cliché due to famous renditions by Kelly Clarkson and season nine runner-up Krystal Bowersox, charting in both cases as a downloadable single and proving in the latter example how wrong the audience got it that year. What Kree does with the song is familiar to anyone who saw or heard the earlier Idol remakes, including the usual earthy vocal and gospel organ and choir backing. It was almost inevitable that Kree would end up singing this song at some point, and indeed she did it before in the Las Vegas “Sudden Death” round that got her into the competition in the first place. That version of “Up to the Mountain,” though it lacked the elaborate presentation afforded a Top Two finalist, seemed somewhat more genuine than her finale reprise. There she was her raw but artful self, seeking the judges’ endorsement of her clear vocal talent, and here she is still musically gifted but nevertheless appears to be going for a flashy performance that will excite the more fickle audience at home. Still, she clearly has enough passion for American roots music of all sorts to provide a likeable counterpoint here to the more sedate “Angel” and “All Cried Out,” balancing out the night for one of the most promising country-flavored singers in years on this show.