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The 2013 American Idol Songbook: April 3, Top 7 Finalists Sing "Non-Ballad" Rock Songs
Once again, Idol gave us an unpredictable theme night. Early hints of a “classic rock” theme gave way to a more general set of songs that would ordinarily be thought of as rock music, allegedly with a stipulation that no ballads be sung. It was most likely an attempt to challenge contestants thought to have been relying too much on them this season. I put “non-ballad” in quotes because excluding songs described by the problematic term "ballad," often used to refer to songs done in a slow tempo but possibly applying to some of the anthems heard here such as “We Are the Champions,” seemed more of a loose guideline than a requirement. The term “rock,” as I’ve mentioned before, is a catchall word for music performed by a singer-songwriter or group thereof, using often (but not always) electrified and seldom orchestral instruments. Anything more specific seems to have been obliterated by the endless variety of styles, from death metal to synth-pop to emo to hardcore punk, that have been at one time or another labeled rock. Therefore, this is a more eclectic theme than it might seem at first glance. Even those unaccustomed to the rock genre’s public image could easily tap into the African-American and southern roots of rock or at least plug into its softer fringe aimed at pop radio. This year’s contestants, few of whom would ever call themselves rock stars voluntarily, made some sterling efforts to tackle the material on offer. The show’s presentation, however, didn’t always do the singers any favors. Randy asserted, as is commonly heard on Idol, that rock “is an attitude” rather than a style of music. That attitude entails showboating confidently, which was demonstrated by a somewhat excessive effort to showcase guest guitarist Orianthi, whose forthcoming album is to be released on the show’s record partner Universal Music Group. Whether a result of botched sound mixing or over-amplification of her instrument, Orianthi’s guitar often threatened to drown out the singers’ voices in what will not go down as one of Idol’s proudest moments, leading me to want to compare many of the night’s performances with of the studio versions (found on the Youtube channel IdolPlay) due to the latter’s greater clarity.
Amber Holcomb – “What about Love” (Heart) – Advanced
“What About Love,” a 1985 song of simple content but complex origins found on Heart’s self-titled reboot album, marked the transition of the best female-led progressive rock band of all time into what could most accurately be regarded as an arena pop act. This was a common trajectory in the MTV-obsessed 1980s that was also taken by the likes of Chicago, Jefferson Starship, Foreigner, and Styx. Like Chicago and Starship, Heart was beginning in the mid-1980s to rely primarily on outside pop writers rather than the considerable writing talents of lead singers the Wilson Sisters (Ann and Nancy), and the change showed. “What About Love” combined the desperate plea of its lyric with a generic power ballad melody, all put together by a Canadian band named Toronto with the help of Jim Vallance, one of Canada’s top producers in the 1980s whose collaborations with Bryan Adams made the latter a household name worldwide. Vallance opted not to release the Toronto version, perhaps with good reason but to the consternation of band members and co-writers Brian Allen and Sheron Alton. The Wilsons, an American duo who in fact first found success north of the border, did a salutary job salvaging “What About Love.” Amber is perhaps the performer most likely to be challenged by the rock theme, since soft soul and jazz are what most of her Idol work has gravitated toward. The latest vocalist to get the “next Whitney” tag proves that first impressions can be deceiving, however. Amber’s crisp pop delivery perfectly matches the pop-rock of Heart’s original. I can fully believe that Amber serendipitously heard it while vacuuming and immediately loved it, judging by the way in which nothing appeared forced or reluctant about “What About Love” in her hands. As Mariah noted, this performer has “grown” in confidence as well as in talent through the challenge of Idol, and it’s that process that makes a show often plagued by elements of phony commercialism and “down home” audience stereotypes so worthwhile. Those who watch past the auditions that please the reality-show crisis junkies are rewarded with moments like this and talents like Amber, whose voice will spin great albums even without the Idol machinery lined up behind it.
Angie Miller – “Bring Me to Life” (Evanescence) – Advanced
“Bring Me to Life” brought a distinctive presence to an often monotonous hard rock scene in 2003. Evanescence started off in Little Rock, the brainchild of classically trained pianist and consummate singer Amy Lee (born Amy Lynn) and guitarist Ben Moody. Their debut that year, Fallen, was unique in the way it mixed post-grunge metal textures and Lee’s ethereal voice. The sometimes dark spirituality of their lyrics led to early attempts to market Evanescence in the Christian rock field, something the band rejected and ultimately didn’t need for mainstream success. In writing Fallen’s lead single, “Bring Me to Life,” Lee rhapsodized on the way Josh Hartzler, now her husband, brought her out of a depressingly numb period in her life on account of an abusive relationship. Moody contributed energetic guitar parts and even David Hodges, who ultimately left over Evanescence’s decision to go for the secular market, pitched in for this minor-key redemption anthem. Angie is not the only evangelical to get wrapped up in the song’s religious overtones regardless of Lee and Moody’s rejection of marketing their music that way, and she connects with the song splendidly. The arrangement is smoother than it was on a lot of the other contestants’ performances, giving her something of an unfair edge, but her own vocal does plenty in its own right to convey the song’s murky depths just as well as the dramatic climax Angie already proved she could sing. Coming a week after a regrettable nadir on “Shop Around,” “Bring Me to Life” is appropriately enough a rebound for Angie and a triumph of smart song choice above all else.
Burnell Taylor – “You Give Love a Bad Name” (Bon Jovi) – Eliminated
“You Give Love a Bad Name” was the song that introduced Bon Jovi to one of rock music’s broadest fan bases in 1986. After two albums that sold respectably but didn’t exactly light up Top 40 radio, Canadian producer Bruce Fairbairn and American songwriter Desmond Child were brought in by the New Jersey band’s Mercury label to put together Slippery When Wet, a slick set of anthems and power ballads guaranteed to get Middle America singing along. The album practically defined the “hair metal” ethos of 1980s rock that would prevail in the mainstream until the alternative revolution of the early 1990s, in which hooks and bombast often seemed to prevail over individual expression or counter-cultural messaging. “You Give Love a Bad Name” and the other hits from the album (such as equally successful chart-topper “Livin’ on a Prayer”) were essentially pop music with metal guitars. The formula’s appeal to arenas and sports bars alike proved quite lucrative. On the strength of Slippery When Wet, Child became one of the most in-demand rock songwriting partners, as veterans such as Aerosmith and Kiss looked to his compositional wizardry to help revive then-flagging recording careers. Like most Child rock efforts (the man also worked behind the scene for Cher, Ricky Martin, and others), “You Give Love a Bad Name” was a team effort, in this case with eponymous lead singer Jon Bon Jovi and guitarist Richie Sambora. The heavy-handed heartbreak metaphors (right from the almost embarrassingly trite intro “shot through the heart”) and the catchy background licks (separate hooks in themselves in true Child tradition) made this a song to be enjoyed, not analyzed. Burnell, though not exactly made to sing schlock rock in the Bon Jovi tradition, actually showed that his famously raspy tone goes well with the song while reminding me a bit of Jon’s own falsetto. Burnell does, however, lack some of the ironic wink in the original that made it clear that Jon, Richie, and company didn’t take themselves too seriously. Although I agree with the judges’ suggestion that a true remake (something pretty much nobody attempted in earnest tonight) would help orient the song better to Burnell’s strengths, his version of “You Give Love a Bad Name” came out far better than it might have appeared on paper. To see a whole different side of him from the night he kicked off this way, take a listen to the duet included below with Candice on “blue-eyed soul” group the Box Tops’ “The Letter.” The latter is probably one of the best group performances I’ve ever seen on the show.
Candice Glover – “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (Rolling Stones) – Advanced
Even the toughest tracks from the early vanguard of the British Invasion, such as the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” or the Zombies’ “She’s Not There,” only hinted at the fury of the first bona fide smash to actually be written by the Rolling Stones’ chief tunesmiths, charismatic lead singer Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards. Before “Satisfaction” was released in 1965, rock ‘n’ roll had always seemed a jolly party no matter how rebellious, a little diversion from the humdrum pace of everyday life. “Satisfaction” set the stage for rock music’s future, however, by wrapping up a sexually charged sneer and devastating social critique of the futility of keeping up with the Joneses into one irresistible package of riffs, proving that Jagger and Richards had learned well from the driving Chicago blues that they began their careers covering. Richards literally dreamt up the immortal eight-note guitar lick for horns, but the producer turned them down and had Richards play them himself. It was up to Southern soul genius Otis Redding to put said horns on a version Richards preferred to the Stones’ own. Aretha Franklin would also sing it live, bringing the obvious gospel and blues roots of the Stones’ early music into focus and paving the way for Candice’s version on Idol. It takes a while to get going, as most soul performances of this kind do, but Candice’s pipes work around the sparse, simple musical fabric to create an architecture all their own. Those who criticize the song as an odd choice for her voice misunderstand the basic inspiration of the Stones original, because Candice does more than “get with” something she at first considered far outside her “comfort zone.” She actually gets to the real heart of the song, just as she had with “Come Together” on Beatles week. Clearly, she listens to even the more unfamiliar catalogs to find song choices that actually work, a lesson other contestants would be wise to heed.
Janelle Arthur – “You May Be Right” (Billy Joel) – Advanced
“You May Be Right” was one of the highlights of Glass Houses, the 1980 album where Billy Joel explored the rock side of his talents in what at times seemed a conscious effort to reject the “easy listening” tag he had accrued by then. The song, which scored a Top Ten finish at a time at the dawn of a decade he dominated as few other singer-songwriters could, set an exploration of his somewhat exaggerated “bad boy” persona on a delicious bed of reggae-pop vibes evoking his contemporaries, the Police. Many of Joel’s songs sounded somewhat like deft tributes of sorts to other artists, so the nod to Sting was par for the course and as catchy and clever as ever in its execution. Janelle’s live version on the show seems to have been sidetracked by a combination of the worst example of Orianthi boosterism on the television feed and a possible equipment malfunction heard near the end (cut out of the version below but there on the broadcast). She was a little off in her tone and generally harder to hear than usual for what I believe to be the above reasons, as the studio version included here for comparison should illustrate. Sped-up reggae guitar riffs of the type that backed Joel’s original are not different in their basic timbre from a fast-paced country backing track, and they fit Janelle’s twang very well in the proper context (Amber, Candice, and Kree’s studio recordings, found on the same channel as Janelle’s, also better the live show). Theme night SNAFUs notwithstanding, Janelle is really on a roll with her country-rock groove. There’s much more depth to this singer than I ever could have predicted from the way she began her live competition track record.
Kree Harrison – “Piece of My Heart” (Erma Franklin via Janis Joplin) – Advanced
“Piece of My Heart” happened to originate as a single from the sister of one of Kree’s favorite artists, Aretha Franklin. Aretha’s older sibling Erma had an excellent gospel voice on a par with her sister’s, but Atlantic made the mistake of routing her to their staff producer Bert Berns’s label Shout, where he gave her pop-soul material that didn’t match her voice the way Aretha’s records with Jerry Wexler at Atlantic did. This, at least, is the prevailing theory for why Erma struggled so much to get any commercial traction. Indeed, “Piece of My Heart” turned out to be her only pop hit despite a respectable Top Ten R&B showing in 1967. Berns, also known by the sobriquet of Bert Russell, co-wrote “Piece of My Heart” with Jerry Ragovoy, and both were pioneers of an “uptown” sound cooked up in New York studios that was a world away from the grit that defined the Franklin sound. While Ragovoy was known for songs such as Irma Thomas’s “Time is On My Side” (covered by the Rolling Stones in 1964), his frequent collaborator Berns was perhaps more influential with his heavily Latin-tinged soul. Writer-producer Berns’s jaunty, sophisticated style made Garnet Mimms’s “Cry Baby,” the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout” (covered by the Beatles), and the Exciters’ “Tell Him” some of the most memorable R&B crossovers of the early 1960s. Berns, who produced Neil Diamond’s first hits, could have done more had he not died of a heart condition at 38, at the very end of 1967. “Piece of My Heart” might have been dwarfed in the retrospectives of both songwriters’ careers by their earlier work if not for Janis Joplin’s particular fondness for their style. Though influenced by the toughest Delta blues, the ill-fated Texan rocker had a soft spot for the sort of polished soul Ragovoy wrote, covering not only “Piece of My Heart” and “Cry Baby” but also Howard Tate’s obscure “Get It While You Can.” Janis’s “Piece of My Heart,” recorded with the short-lived band Big Brother and the Holding Company on their second album, 1968’s Cheap Thrills, transformed the masochism of the original into a kind of defiance, all the while delivering the sort of robust vocal assault that would have done Franklin proud if the production had given her room to move. Big Brother’s version made it to number twelve on the American pop charts and put Janis on the pop culture map of a generation, forever redefining a song that would see diverse covers ranging from Shaggy’s odd 1997 reggae version and Faith Hill’s seamless country single from her 1993 debut. Unlike Hill, who hadn’t heard Janis’s version and was forbidden from doing so until she finished recording, Kree doesn’t countrify “Piece of My Heart,” instead doing a fairly standard but wonderfully executed Joplin impression. Kree hails from the same part of Texas as Joplin did, as she proudly mentioned, and the result is essentially a repeat of the last few weeks. That is, Kree did a hearty, bluesy take on a song hard for many listeners to think of any other way, neither surprising nor disappointing from the standard of professionalism we’ve come to expect. Her generosity and her politeness to crew members on set make it seem highly unlikely that she’d be let go from a contract again due to something as silly as “creative differences,” the stated reason for her termination from the Lyric Street label before she had a chance to record an album. Indeed, the creativity involved with making a song her own seems to be the one thing I’ve rarely seen in her otherwise flawless performances, so her only real remaining task appears to be figuring out the kind of artist she really wants to be.
Lazaro Arbos – “We Are the Champions” (Queen) – Advanced
By the time News of the World, Queen’s 1977 album on which “We Are the Champions” was recorded, was released, the band was well on its way to its peak at the turn of the 1980s. Emerging in the mid-1970s at the peak of the glam-rock craze, Queen boasted talented singer-songwriters in the quartet of lead singer Freddie Mercury, guitarist Brian May, bassist John Deacon, and drummer Roger Taylor, all of whom contributed extensively to its passel of hits in the 1970s and 1980s, right up until Mercury’s tragic death of AIDS in 1991. “We Are the Champions” was intentionally set up to be the sing-along anthem it has become, dreamed up by Mercury to get the crowd going at concerts. Reflecting in its lyrics the struggle of the working-class underdog almost as much as the prejudice some of the band’s members dealt with over their sexual orientation, the song became the biggest hit yet for the band in the United States on a single backed with “We Will Rock You.” Both songs became popular in the context of sporting events worldwide (among other “jock jams” such as Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Part 2” and 2 Unlimited’s “Get Ready for This”), partly due to an intentional catchiness that transcended tastes in music and singing ability. Since “We Are the Champions” is essentially a set piece, like so many of Queen’s kitsch chefs d’oeuvre, it works well with Lazaro’s self-conscious showmanship and sense of drama. While his voice itself goes flat in places, he is utterly comfortable throughout. Decked in the Idol stylists’ finest, Lazaro continues to improve through song choices that he believes in. There were more technically proficient performances that night, to be sure, but few contestants seemed to be having as much fun with the upbeat spirit of the night as Lazaro, a refreshing change of pace in the midst of a somewhat disappointing episode.