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The 2013 American Idol Songbook--March 13, Top 10 Finalists Sing Winners' Songs
As Idol celebrates her bat mitzvah with its twelfth season and counting, the show’s producers have decided to take a trip down memory lane with a theme night devoted to songs that all have one thing in common: artists that won earlier seasons of the competition sang them, either before or after their victory. Like those seasons, the Idol winner theme night was nothing if not full of surprises. True, the most successful winners so far (season one’s Kelly Clarkson and season four’s Carrie Underwood) shocked nobody by providing six out of the ten songs covered. However, the unusual limitations on repertoire and the candid advice of mentor Jimmy Iovine brought about some surprising reversals. On the downside, poor song choice and the growing pressure of the finals may have hurt Curtis, Devin, and Lazaro, all of whom showed great improvement the previous week. Meanwhile, Janelle and Paul, both of whom fancy themselves country stars, took some of Jimmy’s advice to heart and showed hitherto unseen maturity and song comprehension as they covered songs previously done by Scotty McCreery. Though Amber and Burnell held their own, it was Angie, Candice, and Kree that proved most thoroughly that the women still have the edge this season. If I had to take Jimmy’s role in advising contestants for a similar night on some future season, my advice would be simple. Try to pick songs covered by the Idol rather than the winner’s originals, and avoid the syrupy “coronation songs” like the plague. As a bonus, the original Idol performance will be provided below for the pre-coronation songs as a point of comparison.
Amber Holcomb – “A Moment Like This” (Kelly Clarkson) – Advanced
Alas, this is the song that began the dubious tradition of bland inspirational ballads to start an Idol winner’s post-show career. In the spring of 2002, when Clarkson won the competition, she got offered a song to sing on the finale and then in the studio to keep her on the radio until her debut album, 2003’s Thankful, was ready to put on the airwaves. From a purely commercial standpoint, this practice is understandable, since keeping exposure up for an artist that hasn’t exactly been around for years is crucial. She recorded a double-sided single, with Desmond Child and Cathy Dennis’s more atmospheric “Before Your Love” on the nominal A-side, but radio DJs and Clarkson preferred the B-side. “A Moment Like This,” unfortunately, was a rather cornball song with “first-love” subtexts in the lyrics that didn’t conceal its ceremonial nature for one second. The melody was simple, but in a way that was more soporific than catchy, especially in the chintzy transition from the verse to the chorus. Co-writer Jörgen Elofsson was a Swede then best-known for working with countryman Max Martin on Britney Spears’s 1999 debut …Baby One More Time. Elofsson re-teamed with Clarkson a decade after “A Moment Like This” for 2012’s chart-topper “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” As for John Reid, the other writer of “A Moment Like This,” he had been in an English house group called Nightcrawlers (they of the 1993 hit “Push the Feeling On”). He went on to judge on the Australian X Factor and to co-write current Idol judge Keith Urban’s 2009 country number-one hit “Only You Can Love Me This Way.” Elofsson and Reid’s “A Moment Like This” ultimately served its purpose, proving that Clarkson’s exceptional voice translated well to the studio. Thanks to its “captive audience” of sorts, the single leap-frogged halfway up the pop chart to the top in a week and broke a kind of distance record by doing so. It was ultimately a case of a great singer singing a mediocre song expressly written for a situation in which nobody would care about the song’s quality in the midst of all the Idol buzz and fan adulation. Each year, the process has more or less repeated itself to the point where I often consider the first single after the “debut” to be the real start of the winner’s professional career, or in some cases the lack thereof. Amber, inspired by both Clarkson’s vocal prowess and the rather artificial moment in which many first witnessed it, embodies the original Idol in that she’s an incredible talent who can’t always count on great material but makes the best of what she’s got. The pleasant if somewhat formulaic sound does evoke, as Nicki points out, Whitney Houston’s two first albums (both self-titled, 1985’s Whitney Houston and 1987’s Whitney). I almost like Amber’s approach to the softer tones a bit more than her sometimes harsh treatment of the power chords, though I do do not feel that she settled the “best of the night” argument as Candice did as the closer last week. However, Amber is in no fair danger of elimination yet and has the potential to one day be a truly phenomenal vocalist.
Angie Miller – “I Surrender” (Celine Dion via Kelly Clarkson) – Advanced
A New Day Has Come, released in 2002, was Canadian pop star Celine Dion’s attempt to create a fun, positive album to celebrate a new phase in the artist’s life. The star’s marriage to her much older manager René Angélil, though it had raised eyebrows over the years, was apparently working rather smoothly and had just produced its first offspring. The resulting album was not as wildly popular as earlier efforts, and she wouldn’t be as inescapable a presence as she was in the previous decade, but the tour led into a Las Vegas stint that continues to reap enormous dividends for Dion. Sam Watters, who co-wrote the album’s chief ballad “I Surrender,” was another musician whose career had “1990s” written all over it. Back in 1991, Watters’s R&B group Color Me Badd released C.M.B. and instantly defined an era with their slick videos and sensual, at times Latin-tinged grooves of their music. Three back-to-back chart-toppers resulted, including “I Wanna Sex You Up,” “I Adore Mi Amor,” and “All 4 One.” When the sophomore album flopped, the group became a cautionary tale of too much success too soon, but Watters wasn’t done. He met Louis Biancaniello, a protégé of Whitney Houston’s old producer Narada Michael Walden, while working on an ill-fated 1998 album. The Biancaniello-Watters team proceeded to craft a couple hit singles for Jessica Simpson (no mean feat if you’ve heard her voice) while contributing to the odd album like A New Day Has Come. Now part of a production-writing team called the Runaways, their work has been on the albums of Idol winners such as Fantasia (“When I See You”) and Jordin Sparks (“Battlefield”). Indeed, Kelly would get to work with them on the title track of her 2010 album All I Ever Wanted. “I Surrender” had the epic forbidden-love drama of many a telenovela, complete with blustery major-to-minor key changes and over-the-top lyrics that only a true diva could pull off. Kelly Clarkson was, and Angie Miller is, that diva. Kelly Clarkson didn’t have a lot of time to do the song’s melodrama justice and had a somewhat hoarse voice the week she covered the song as one of four finalists, but she certainly gave the necessary vocal heft to the performance. Angie, for her part, is at her most expressive here, perhaps because she is finally singing something with real emotional conflict for once. Of all the three performances being compared here, Angie’s is without a doubt the most sincere. Even if the song seems written with show-biz razzle-dazzle rather than genuine emotion in mind, Angie demands to be taken seriously with “I Surrender.”
Burnell Taylor – “Flying without Wings” (Westlife via Ruben Studdard) – Advanced
Ruben Studdard, the second-season winner of American Idol, got to sing a proven smash for his coronation song, so of course it had to be better than the made-to-order season-enders. Westlife, the group that first sang “Flying Without Wings,” was the group that proved Simon Cowell’s industry acumen and credentials for Idol judging by scoring hit after hit in the UK under his tutelage. The song, which topped the British charts but wasn’t released stateside, was saddled with somewhat boilerplate sentiments in the lyrics and a rather tepid delivery from Westlife. However, the melody’s chord changes were gorgeous in a way that gave the song charm that a superior vocalist could unlock, courtesy of Wayne Hector and Steve Mac (born Steve McCutcheon), both very good friends of Cowell’s and actively churning out material for many boy bands like O-Town, the Wanted, and One Direction. Studdard’s version anchored his 2003 victory with a superb delivery that showcased both the song’s best features and the suave croon that brought Studdard the trophy. Burnell, though not this season’s best vocalist, does try to keep the Studdard magic in the song, and he brings the combination of R&B chords and old-school Tin Pan Alley formula into focus once more. Do the contestant’s distinctive “Burnell-isms,” as Keith calls them, really add much to a song? I’m not sure, but they don’t subtract from the original either. Ultimately, Burnell gives the impression of almost being ready to really give a knockout vocal at some point. I’m still waiting, but I do see it coming, and he certainly was not out-sung by any of the other male contestants this time.
Candice Glover – “I (Who Have Nothing)” (Ben E. King via Jordin Sparks) – Advanced
The story of “I (Who Have Nothing)” starts with an Italian singer named Joe Sentieri singing a ditty called “Uno dei tanti” (“One among Many”) in 1961. Composer Carlo Donida and lyricist Giulio “Mogol” Rapetti, the writers of Emilio Pericoli’s transcontinental hit “Al di la” among others, wrote the lively bolero “Uno dei tanti” about a glamorous beauty’s lovesick admirer for Sentieri, a top Italian pop star, and got Argentine émigré Luis Enriquez Bacalov, soundtrack orchestrator of many spaghetti westerns, to arrange the record. The result was dramatic to the extreme and became popular with Anglophone publishers. By 1963, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the first independent writer-producers in R&B history, got wind of it and added English lyrics but kept the basic idea as “I (Who Have Nothing).” When Ben E. King, a former member of the Drifters who had gone solo with the help of Leiber’s songs “Stand by Me” and “Spanish Harlem,” needed some follow-ups, Leiber and Stoller took the unusual step of lining up the original backing track. Though King’s expressive version wasn’t as big a hit as his first few solo outings, it put the song firmly in English-speaking listeners’ ears, earning a hit across the pond with Shirley Bassey’s hit cover the same year. Seven years later, Tom Jones gave it another try. By 1970, the Welsh housewives’ idol had already had a hit with “Help Yourself” (a 1968 remake of the same writers’ “Gli occhi miei,” “These Eyes of Mine” in English), so it was a natural step for him to do his own smoky, intense take on the song, which became the best-selling version ever in the United States market. It was therefore in the context of a British artists’ week early in season six of Idol that Jordin Sparks covered “I (Who Have Nothing).” And cover it she did, in March of 2007. While Jordin was not always my favorite performer either during or after her run on Idol, this song choice was brilliant, capturing the vulnerability of her voice while still displaying its power. Towering entertainers with a flair for the dramatic have covered this ground before Candice, and so her work is cut out for her. Nicki read the score quite succinctly when she said that Candice’s performance should be the last of the song ever. Candice takes full, unmistakable ownership of “I (Who Have Nothing)” with a melodic, adult soul that would be at home on a Dionne Warwick album from the period yet doesn’t feel dated at all, because it transfixes the listener in a way few talent show performances ever do. This is timeless.
Curtis Finch, Jr. – “I Believe” (Fantasia) – Eliminated
“I Believe,” Fantasia Barrino’s first release in 2004, was another Identikit debut single for another American Idol winner, this time the third. From Kelly Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This” to Scotty McCreery’s “I Love You This Big,” the lucky victor’s debut has almost uniformly been, as I have pointed out before, a bland, treacly pop song for a clear reason: millions will buy it due to sheer anticipation no matter what. In some cases, the follow-ups redeemed the artist, but in others, they ended up like Taylor Hicks and Lee DeWyze, unable to establish their presence on the market in a truly attention-getting way. Part of the problem stemmed from the songs being written well beforehand instead of being tailored or chosen for the winner, and the result was often more generic than viewers had come to expect when they voted for the person. In the case of Fantasia Barrino, undoubtedly Idol’s most jazz-influenced winner, she got a song written by Tamyra Gray and the Biancaniello-Watters team (see “I Surrender”) about her amazing triumph against all odds. The song could be interpreted in light of Fantasia’s well-known struggle with dyslexia, but it was written in so anodyne a fashion as to have none of Fantasia’s pizzazz at all in it. The lyrics are an encyclopedia of self-empowerment clichés, and the melody just sort of spins around without ever going anywhere worthwhile. Fantasia tried her best to put quality gospel showmanship into it and wound up with more worthwhile material later on such as “Truth Is,” “Free Yourself,” and “Bittersweet.” Curtis’s version, which opened up this season’s Idol winners’ night, gives it his all just as she did. That much is indisputable. However, unlike last season’s Top-Three finisher Joshua Ledet, who sang “I Believe” later on in the season, Curtis hasn’t had enough time to establish his true potential yet. As much as he believes in the song, I didn’t feel him elevating it to something more than “that song Fantasia sang when she won American Idol,” because there’s something strictly by-the-numbers about it. “I Believe” didn’t really represent the change of pace for Curtis that Jimmy recommended in mentoring, and it was missing something that would make his performance more than the sum of the song’s parts rather than a tribute to another talented performer. Indeed, a different song recorded for an artist’s actual album, instead of one-off special material, might have really highlighted Curtis’s strengths, something that someone in the Idol pipeline should be suggesting when such great songs are available.
Devin Velez – “Temporary Home” (Carrie Underwood) – Advanced
“Temporary Home” was proof that Carrie Underwood knows how to make sentimental country music anything but cloying. Her delivery on this country chart-topper, from her 2009 sophomore album Play On, showcased both melodic mastery and a genuine spirituality that she poured into a song she co-wrote. Helping her flesh out the lyrics were Zac Maloy, once in an alternative country band called the Nixons and co-author of seventh-season winner David Cook’s “Come Back to Me” (2009), and Luke Laird, no stranger to Underwood after her 2007 hit “So Small.” Rodney Atkins’s “Take a Back Road,” Chris Young’s “You,” and Little Big Town’s “Pontoon” have been part of a remarkable winning streak of consistent country hits since 2011 for Laird. In “Temporary Home,” Carrie and her collaborators drew on Pastor Rick Warren’s “The Purpose-Driven Life” to name-check various situations of people in unstable circumstances taking comfort in the universal character of their wandering. The real point of “Temporary Home,” obscured by time constraints in Devin’s version that could have (and should have) been countered by eliminating a verse or two in the middle, is (ultimate spoiler alert!) that whether mansion-housed or shanty-dwelling, all people are only guests in this world for the duration of our lives. I’m glad Devin has decided to pick a song with a meaningful message and take risks, but contrary to Randy’s comment that he played it “way too safe,” I think Devin went too far in the other direction. He didn’t just leave his comfort zone with this song choice; no, he went to the opposite end of the world from that zone, and wound up with something that didn’t fit his voice as well as it did his emotions. Curtis’s gospel background, for instance, might have given him the cultural tools to lift this song into something out-of-this-world the way Underwood did, but Devin’s croon doesn’t go well with this sort of material. I think that there’s a real deficit in Idol’s mentoring process right now, where Jimmy Iovine or the voice coaches counsel the singers at length on technique but don’t provide as useful an insight into song choice. If my blog has any message, it’s probably that song choice does matter.
Janelle Arthur – “Gone” (Montgomery Gentry via Scotty McCreery) – Advanced
“Gone,” from Kentucky twosome Montgomery Gentry’s 2004 album You Do Your Thing, came from the pens of two of the last few decades’ most prolific country songwriters. Bob DiPiero, who studied music at Youngstown and moved to Music City in 1979, has enjoyed innumerable hits with everyone from Reba McEntire to Brooks and Dunn, and the Gents enjoyed additional success with his “If You Ever Stop Loving Me” and “She Don’t Tell Me To.” Jeffrey Steele, though much younger and only a Nashville resident since 1994, is no less prolific, and has used his success in the band Boy Howdy to kick-start his behind-the-scenes renaissance in the late 1990s. Since then, many soloists have recorded Steele’s catchy, often cheeky songs, including Trace Adkins (“I’m Tryin’,” “Chrome”) and Tim McGraw (“The Cowboy in Me”). However, he seems to have the most luck with groups such as Rascal Flatts (“These Days,” “What Hurts the Most,” “My Wish,” and “Here” all hit number one) and Montgomery Gentry, whose “My Town” is one of my favorites of Steele’s. “Gone,” which Steele produced for Montgomery Gentry, fits a melody perfect for the duo’s mix of honky-tonk and John Mellencamp to one of the goofiest breakup song lyrics ever written, in which the narrator makes one ridiculous simile after another between his AWOL girlfriend and other equally absent things. It was pure fun, and it showed another side to sentimental favorite Scotty McCreery when he covered it during 2011’s season ten. Prior to singing “Gone,” McCreery was best-known for his deep voice intoning the come-on “baby lock them doors and turn them lights down low,” which started his audition song (Chris Young’s “To Be Your Man”). That mix of ersatz romance and low tones lacked some of the verve needed to set him apart from wild and wooly talents like James Durbin and Casey Abrams, but McCreery had just the wry smile and Elvis-inspired panache to pull off “Gone” on the Idol stage and blow the competition wide open. Janelle has more to do with her version than redefine herself. She was the worst female singer by a long shot in the Top Twenty round, and her first priority needs to be proving she not only can advance further but deserves to as a matter of basic fairness. Jimmy’s tough love doesn’t work for everyone, but in her case it reminded her that to establish herself in a crowded market niche, she needs to set herself apart. Instead of awkwardly emulating Scotty’s idol Elvis as she did last week, she rises to the challenge by embracing the song’s silliness without compromising her vocals. While she’s not the most agile stage performer and her voice is a little restrained (she called her hoarseness “cottonmouth”), Janelle’s “Gone” was rousing and bluesy in ways that evoked Skylar Laine. Indeed, the “most improved” title may go to Janelle hands down this week. I don’t poach Randy’s catchphrases too often, but a turnaround like this proves that Janelle, though nowhere near the top of the competition yet, clearly wants everyone to realize that she is “in it to win it.”
Kree Harrison – “Crying” (Roy Orbison via Carrie Underwood) – Advanced
“Crying,” a lilting rock ‘n’ roll ballad that went to number two in 1961, was from the master and arguable inventor of the genre, Roy Orbison. Along with “Only the Lonely,” “Running Scared,” “(Oh) Pretty Woman,” and countless other hits in the early 1960s, “Crying” showcased both Orbison’s lyrical vulnerability and his titanic falsetto. The man had some classical training but was steeped in all sorts of American popular music, be it R&B, country, or Tejano, and came from the same fertile cultural ground in the Lone Star state as Buddy Holly and Willie Nelson. Rockabilly singer Joe Melson, Orbison’s mentor, was a frequent collaborator and wrote some of the dramatic melody line. Though “Crying” was most popular as a cover choice for country artists, Don McLean of “American Pie” fame had the most successful version in 1980 with an acoustic version aimed squarely at easy listening radio, hitting the Top Ten in a year of intense disco fatigue. Underwood, in the midst of her second-to-last results show in 2005, found the happy medium between Orbison’s roots and McLean’s schmaltz with a subtle but heartfelt cover that stood out as one of the best moments in her season. It was Carrie magic at its best. Kree chooses “Crying” to define her own style, which share’s Carrie’s love for the whole potpourri of roots music that is one of America’s great legacies to the world. The video below speaks for itself from the first to the last note, so any commentary is almost perfunctory. Kree’s “Crying” has the maturity and soul of 1970s-era Linda Ronstadt, keyed to every last nook and cranny of the song that can fit into two minutes that can never be enough.
Lazaro Arbos – “Breakaway” (Kelly Clarkson) – Advanced
“Breakaway,” the self-realization anthem that anchored Kelly Clarkson’s eponymous 2004 sophomore album, was originally meant for its co-author Avril Lavigne. Lavigne, of course, was the Canadian pop star whose light punk image and punchy teen-angst odes made 2002’s Let Go one of the most distinct releases of that year with hits such as “Complicated,” “Sk8ter Boi,” and “I’m with You.” Though she had the main idea for “Breakaway,” a saga of escaping small Napanee, Ontario, for the glamour of big American cities, the song was mostly the work of collaborators Bridget Benenate and Matthew Gerrard, the latter Lavigne’s compatriot. Gerrard, who hailed from the Toronto suburbs, would later be heavily in demand as a key writer on Disney projects such as High School Musical, Hannah Montana, and The Cheetah Girls. As often happens, there was no room for “Breakaway” on “Let Go,” so the demo was shelved until the soundtrack producers of Disney’s The Princess Diaries: Royal Engagement (2004) were looking for songs. Benenate had written some for Garry Mashall’s 2001 original take on the 2000 Meg Cabot novel The Princess Diaries, so “Breakaway” was a natural choice to option off to Kelly Clarkson. The song struck a chord with Clarkon’s experiences growing up in the sleepy Fort Worth suburb of Burleson and was a little warmer than the power ballads she had been singing, so she insisted on cutting it. Lazaro likes the song for much the same reasons. He clearly likes singing this sort of upbeat material as much as, if not more than, the sometimes subdued things he’s sung in the past on Idol. As a pure musical unit, however, I’m not sure I would listen to this at length on an album. When little is added to the original version, a cover fails the true litmus test, even if enjoyable in its own right.
Paul Jolley – “Amazed” (Lonestar via Scotty McCreery) – Advanced
"Amazed” is a bona fide country ballad, but its basic melody fits very well in a pop context. Lonestar, a Nashville quartet, pulled off something in 1999 that no country act had done in over a decade and a half when they topped the Billboard pop charts, marking the culmination of neo-traditionalist country’s crossover success in the 1990s. Although quite a few Top 10 Hot 100 hits preceded and followed this milestone, only Carrie Underwood’s debut single “Inside Your Heaven” (not exactly a standard country release) and Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” have reached the pole position since. Inevitably, the song’s appeal of “Amazed” is based on a universality that is the price to pay for a certain pleasant blandness. The song’s pedigree includes three writers who follow Nashville’s current fluid pattern by collaborating with many different partners. While Marv Green is a transplant from Southern California, Chris Lindsey and Aimee Mayo are a husband-and-wife team of native Southerners. Mayo owns her own publishing firm and judged on CMT’s “Can You Duet?” Her songs have been particular favorites of previous Idol contestant Kellie Pickler after the latter received a contract from, as it happens, Lonestar’s same label (BNA Records). “Amazed” needed little explanation, a tranquil melody and a tender love ballad, nothing too complicated and all rather sweet in the hands of Lonestar’s lead singer Richie McDonald, a prominent songwriter in his own right. Nobody took Jimmy’s pithy advice to heart this week quite like Paul on “Amazed.” Jimmy, who broke a tie in Paul’s favor and respects the Broadway stagecraft that informs his style, pointed out that it doesn’t always translate well to recorded music where the listener can’t get the visual component. What results is Paul’s best vocal yet. No, he hasn’t leapfrogged the pack to be the best singer in the competition, but he actually conveys country music well and entertained me as a musician for the very first time. Maybe, as the judges and Paul himself noted, he had to “hold back” a little too much and needs to find more of a balance between style and material, but I think he definitely has earned the right to not be underestimated.