The 2013 American Idol Songbook: April 17, Top 5 Finalists Sing Songs from the Year They Were Born and Divas’ Songs
This year’s Top Five week on American Idol was under something of a pall in the aftermath of the heinous terrorist attack in Boston, in the suburbs of which contestant Angie lives. Therefore, emotional healing became as important an aspect of many performances as pure entertainment. Overall, we saw a tasteful, understated demonstration of American talent and determination over the night of April 17, and many times I was impressed by how both unusual and clichéd song choices pleasantly surprised me. “Songs from the year they were born” was, as is often the case, the inferior category except for Candice’s entry, and the choices often seem worse there than for other equally time-dependent themes. However, the divas theme, which pundits might easily dismiss as evidence of a season stacked in favor of the now-guaranteed female winner, far exceeded expectations. “Diva” has come to mean, in a popular music context, a charismatic female singer of usually mainstream, melodic music with an impressive and distinctive voice. From pop stars like Celine Dion and Barbra Streisand to R&B singers such as Aretha Franklin and Beyoncé or country performers including Dolly Parton and Faith Hill, it’s a popular catchall term for wildly popular female artists that virtually defined the sound of the 1990s in particular, hence the theme overlap for contestants born around then. Except for Janelle’s baffling take on Dolly Parton’s early hit, “Dumb Blonde,” Idol’s finest either effectively captured the feel of the originals or redefined their sound into something a bit more interesting.
Amber Holcomb – “Without You” (Badfinger via Mariah Carey) and “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” (Michael Dees via Barbra Streisand) – Advanced
“Without You,” is a simple song with a complex history. Pete Ham and Tom Evans wrote and recorded it in 1970 for their group Badfinger’s third album No Dice. Badfinger would soon show promise with hits such as Paul McCartney’s composition “Come and Get It” and the originals “No Matter What” (also from No Dice) and “Day After Day,” but they were doomed from the start by the fragility of McCartney’s Apple Records and the mismanagement of their American manager Stan Polley, which eventually drove both Ham and Evans to suicides eerily prefigured by “Without You.” For a song seen as strangely prophetic by some fans, “Without You” doesn’t quite hold together as well as one would expect, which is unsurprising since it’s really a splice of two songs. Ham wrote the chorus of “If It’s Love” based on his regret for calling off a date to finish the song, and Evans later wrote “I Can’t Live” about a woman with whom he had a tenuous, off-and-on relationship, and whom he had to chase around Europe in between tour dates. Ham’s song contributed the verse of “Without You,” while Evans’s song became the dramatic “Without You” chorus. The result was a textbook example of power pop, the style of melodic, Beatlesque rock that Badfinger pioneered. Harry Nilsson covered it in 1971 on his breakthrough solo album Nilsson Schmilsson, dispensing with some of the more colorful arrangements for a straightforward pop cover of what he first assumed to be a product of Badfinger’s Beatle mentors. Nilsson’s version, which topped the charts in the U.S., is often credited as the first power ballad and was quite well-executed technically, although it’s always struck me as a somewhat overwrought cover more in keeping with singer-songwriter Nilsson’s cabaret artistic sensibility than with the inherent content of the song. Mariah Carey’s version, recorded on her album Music Box in 1994 as her mother’s impromptu lullaby, became one of her first U.K. hits on account of its universality and Carey’s ornamentation which, frankly, made me like the song again after the turn-off of Nilsson’s histrionics. That version became popular with a generation of talent hopefuls, including Kelly Clarkson, Leona Lewis, and last season’s number three Idol finisher Joshua Ledet. Amber’s minor adjustments to the song for her range, though praised by now-judge Mariah, don’t quite counterbalance the pitchier parts. It’s not the worst performance of the night, but she doesn’t make the song much more animated than Nilsson did, and his schmaltz seems to influence Amber’s version more than Mariah’s sincerity. Again, it may be a matter of opinion as this song is one whose taste I never quite acquired, but overall this choice was not the best for her from a birth year (1994) when Toni Braxton, Janet Jackson, and other divas offered something of an embarrassment of riches.
“What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?,” though not a Barbra Streisand original, was a natural choice for her to cover, since it came from perhaps the songwriters most identified with her, lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman and composer Michel Legrand. The Bergmans, though moderately successful with Frank Sinatra in the early 1960s (including his great “Nice ‘n’ Easy”), really hit their stride working on film scores about the same time Streisand was entering the industry. Hence, their work on touchstones of her career such as The Way We Were and Yentl became indispensable parts of the Babs canon, as did side projects for her such as the duet with Neil Diamond, “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore.” The composer of Yentl, Legrand, was perhaps the most illustrious Frenchman in American music. First coming to American audiences’ attention through English covers of songs from his mid-1960s musicals with Jacques Démy (an unusual genre in French cinema) such as The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, Legrand became an eleven-time Oscar nominee and three-time winner. He applied the traditional chanson’s penchant for exotic chromatics and the influence of the American jazz with which he fell in love on a 1958 trip to the States to writing some of the most distinctive film melodies of all time. After collaborating on the Mozart-based “The Windmills of Your Mind” (a hit for Dusty Springfield the following year) for the 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair, Legrand re-teamed with the Bergmans to pen “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life” for The Happy Ending. An ill-regarded 1969 film about a marriage that turned out to be anything but, the movie was a melodramatic potboiler channeling Flaubert and Strindberg in a clumsy way, although the song got its authors one of their many Academy Award nominations. The theme song, somewhat too leisurely warbled on the original soundtrack by Andy Williams sound-alike Michael Dees, narrates a very forward-thinking marriage proposal with the subtle classical intimacy Legrand had already made his trademark. Two versions have been nominated for Grammys since, showing the song’s staying power. Streisand got ahold of the song for a shelved 1970 album (The Singer would have been the title), finally putting her evocative and definitive version on the 1974 album The Way We Were, released to capitalize on her film. The transitions to the bridge and to the last chorus in particular were perfect for Streisand, since that sort of dramatic chord change is often the place where the most beautiful aspects of her voice come out most strongly. When explaining her choice, Amber finally admitted what I knew all along—that jazz is one of her strong suits and possibly her true forte. It’s a risk for her, since it’s possibly the most unpopular genre choice with voters in recent years, but Amber has an exquisite control and flair for subtle improvisation that makes her jazz numbers some of her highlights on the show. The flawless execution of “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?,” helped out by the smaller number of contestants that gives her more time to develop a song, was a perfect coda for the night. Subtlety is sometimes misunderstood by Idol audiences, so a judges’ save may unfortunately have to be used here. On a night that could have easily led to excess, Amber gave us a touch of class.
Angie Miller – “I’ll Stand by You” (Pretenders) and “Halo” (Beyoncé) – Advanced
“I’ll Stand by You” was more a mark of the Pretenders’ decline than a gem from their heyday. In the 1980s, Akron transplant Chrissie Hynde used British studios and the help of impresario Malcolm McLaren to bring her acerbic wit and quirky voice to some of the most stylish post-punk hits of the era as the centerpieces of the Pretenders. Her British and American band-mates came and went, but classics like “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” “Back on the Chain Gang,” and “My City Was Gone” always delivered the Hynde brilliance that gave them their place in rock history. By 1994, however, the band’s salad days were more or less behind them. “I’ll Stand by You” was a crossover pop hit with a weak-tea melody and a delivery that bespoke someone weary of an industry whose trends had buried the sort of rock she used to make, forcing her to warble pablum. Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, the team that co-wrote the song, were the composers of likeable if sometimes bland ‘80s pop such as Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” and the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame.” Kelly was itching to retire by the time the duo hooked up with the Pretenders for 1994’s Last of the Independents, but Steinberg soldiered on and has remained successful in recent years with hits such as JoJo’s “Too Little, Too Late” and Demi Lovato’s “Give Your Heart a Break.” Anyone longing for some real vintage Pretenders on Idol and other mainstream competition shows has often been disappointed with the boilerplate renditions of “I’ll Stand by You,” including Carrie Underwood’s charity version in 2007 as part of Idol Gives Back. As with Underwood, Angie’s heart is at least in the right place with her choice, in this case to show solidarity with her native Boston area after the bombings this Monday. Her performance makes the most of a song as rudimentary as it gets, and her beloved piano does seem to ground her as judges have endlessly proclaimed over the course of the competition. Under the circumstances, she kept her composure very well and did something heartfelt, though the best from her was yet to come later in the night away from the ivories.
Like earlier songs covered this season, including “Flaws and All” and “Love on Top,” “Halo” is another tribute by Beyoncé Knowles to boyfriend Jay-Z’s ability to respect the less glamorous aspects of the star underneath the show-biz veneer. Ryan Tedder, her co-writer on “Halo,” balanced a career as lead singer of pop-soul group One Republic with a prolific songwriting legacy. His early hits included X Factor winner Leona Lewis’s “Bleeding Love” and Natasha Bedingfield’s “Love Like This.” He went on to pen songs for Idol graduates, including Jordin Sparks’s “Battlefield” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Already Gone.” Beyoncé and Tedder were also aided by Evan Bogart. Nicknamed “Kidd” and the son of impresario Neil Bogart of the Buddah and Casablanca labels, Evan worked with producer Jonathan “JR” Rotem on Rihanna’s “SOS” and Sean Kingston’s “Take You There.” Bogart, Knowles, and Tedder incorporated a few religious references such as the “saving grace” and the titular ring, but overall “Halo” was at heart a secular love song named in honor of what Beyoncé considered “angelic” chords. Dissuaded at the last minute from offering the song to Lewis after Beyoncé waffled on including it on 2008’s I Am…Sasha Fierce, Tedder was rewarded with a number five pop hit in 2009. It’s not my favorite song of Beyoncé’s and I don’t usually look forward to singers covering it, but Angie actually did well, though her claims to admire a much more sensual performer somewhat surprised me considering her religious outlook. Angie’s usual vocal hijinks may have seemed a bit tiresome at the start, but the performance grew on me as she went from imitating the diva to adding more and more of her own elements. In fact, some of her compositional talent came to the fore subtly as she added a whole almost rock-like chord sequence to the end of the song (in both the studio and live versions). By showing some of the most genuine emotion I’ve seen in years in the intro and improving the end of the original melody, Angie has really outdone herself.
Candice Glover – “Straight Up” (Paula Abdul) and “When You Believe” (Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston) – Advanced
Around the time of my infancy (and Candice’s) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Paula Abdul was perhaps the most serious rival yet to Madonna’s crown as the queen of dance-pop. A gifted choreographer and former cheerleader who had plied her trade on videos before her big break, Paula scored a stunning six Top Ten smashes with her debut album, Forever Your Girl, a 1988 release. Packed with effervescent bubblegum from otherwise little-known writers such as Elliot Wolff and Oliver Leiber (son of the great Jerry), the album was an impossible act to follow. Indeed, by the late 1990s her career had lost steam, and she badly needed the boost that came from becoming a charter Idol judge in 2001. “Straight Up” was the first of six chart-toppers, and like “Cold-Hearted” (recently covered on Glee for Idol’s core fan base) was written by Wolff. Wolff went on to write a few songs for similar acts like A’me Lorain (“Whole Wide World”) and Taylor Dayne (“Heart of Stone”), but “Straight Up” was probably his most enduring hit. The production and melody have aged poorly, and the metaphors for romantic manipulation like “get my love caught in the slamming door” were pretty cheesy, but the song definitely had a catchy vibe tailor-made for snazzy MTV promotion. Candice isn’t the first Idol contestant to rescue the song from its period corniness with an acoustic version, since Andy Garcia’s season eight version became a viral video hit in 2009. However, while Garcia took “Straight Up” in an acoustic rock direction, Candice brings out a neo-soul quality reminiscent of her early standout cover of “Ordinary People.” Candice gives us far more than belting, something her critics have accused her of overusing like so many Idol hopefuls. She has proven that she can do dramatic ballads (cf. “I [Who Have Nothing]), blues-rock workouts (cf. “Come Together”), and slinky grooves with equal aplomb, so in other words, she’s earned an album already.
“When You Believe” was most notable as the unique collaboration of judge Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. Carey and Houston had both worked already with contemporary R&B maven Babyface, who produced and co-wrote the track for the soundtrack of The Prince of Egypt, one of the first animated films released by DreamWorks in 1998. Doubtless the most commercially successful animated bible flick of all time and one of the few cartoons on that theme released by a mainstream studio, the film chronicled the portion of the book of Exodus up to the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea. It featured both Babyface’s pop-soul sheen and the work of Stephen Schwartz. Broadway fans knew Schwartz already from the scores of several hit shows from the early 1970s, namely Godspell and Pippin. He went on to write the 2003 smash Wicked, but he also dabbled in film. Penning lyrics for Disney on Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in the mid-1990s (he’d give them live-action Oscar gold on Enchanted in 2007), Schwartz returned to the biblical well of Godspell but for the other Testament on The Prince of Egypt. The song had a rather average melody and lyrics that pretty much spelled out the movie’s message, though with an added “believe in yourself” motif for the pop crowd to latch onto. Both singers were famously devout Christians and deeply moved by the song and film. Therefore, when Houston’s contact with Babyface and Mariah’s with producer Jeffrey Katzenberg introduced them to the project, both jumped in. The song was a Top Twenty pop hit and was immortalized as the two top divas’ only prominent teaming, earning many sometimes unimpressive covers on talent shows over the years. Candice, while nowhere near as mesmerizing as she’s been on other songs this season, does still show off the golden pipes that have made her a frontrunner. She certainly did justice to the greats that made this song (all four, in fact). Mariah’s deep emotional reaction, visible in this song even by judge Keith on the opposite end of the panel, should be authoritative in this case.
Janelle Arthur – “When I Call Your Name” (Vince Gill) and “Dumb Blonde” (Dolly Parton) – Eliminated
“When I Call Your Name” is the product of Vince Gill, one of country’s great modern treasures ever since he left the Southern rock group Pure Prairie League (of “Amie” fame). A talented singer-songwriter with a heart-breaking tenor and a mean guitar who eventually married Christian pop’s biggest crossover star Amy Grant, Gill was nearing the 1990s peak of his career when he released the 1989 album When I Call Your Name. On the title track, Gill’s biggest hit so far upon its 1990 release, he collaborated with Tim DuBois, a former accountant and songwriting gopher who had made his mark with hits for the popular group Restless Heart. DuBois went on to launch Arista Records’ Nashville office and make stars of Alan Jackson, Brooks and Dunn, and Brad Paisley, moving on to Universal Music’s Nashville office while his son Chris continued to co-write many hits with Paisley in the 2000s. Back in 1989, though, Tim DuBois was just a songwriter, and he and Gill’s “When I Call Your Name” was a heck of a weeper, telling its tale of woe against the backdrop of a slow-dance melody recalling “Tennessee Waltz.” It was pure, old-school country, and possessed a soothing quality in spite of its sadness that lulled Janelle to sleep as a baby when it came out. While she’s no Vince Gill, her studio version captures some of the same magic. For whatever reason, on stage with the guitar, it just didn’t connect with either me or the panel’s resident country expert Keith. Her voice is shaky throughout, and she didn’t effectively convey the switches between chords that provide some of the simple song’s drama. Her final notes were a taste of what she did in the studio, but the live version was another setback for her.
“Dumb Blonde” was Dolly Parton’s first Top 40 country hit when it came out on her 1967 debut album, albeit a very modest one at number 24 and not a composition of hers. Claude “Curly” Putman, Jr., the writer, was a prolific writer who helped define the slick “country-politan” sound of the late 1960s with hits such as “Green, Green Grass of Home” and “My Elusive Dreams.” Putman continued writing well into the 1990s, writing many hits for T.G. Sheppard in the late 1970s and early 1980s and latter-day classics such as George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Popular well beyond the confines of Nashville, Putman enjoyed a Tom Jones cover on “Green, Green Grass of Home” and hosted Paul McCartney (he’s the “Junior” of “Junior’s Farm”). “Dumb Blonde” was a jaunty honky-tonk track recounting the age-old theme of the jilted lover getting her turn at rejection after the jilter’s next relationship falters. “Dumb Blonde,” while definitely not one of the best songs Dolly’s sung and paling in comparison to her compositions, was at the time seen as something of a rebuttal to the negative aspects of the “tramp” image she cultivated early on. Indeed, Dolly would prove a multidimensional performer and a creative force to be reckoned with over the decades of her stellar career, and she certainly qualified as a diva for the purposes of the theme in terms of her larger-than-life personality. Again, Janelle tries the same approach, this time a country-rock remake, in the studio as on stage and gets different results in each. Once more, the studio shows a decent performer and the live show brings tired antics, this time not attributable to the terrible mix and arrangement problems found last time around. To be sure, she has the time of her life on stage, but the vocals just don’t live up to the record and might hurt her if personality is judged less important than talent (not necessarily true with Idol voters). As Keith pointed out, much better choices were available from Dolly’s later work, but there seems to be a deeper problem here. On stage at least, Janelle seems to do better when she sings country-pop versions of songs from other genres than when she performs actual country material, which is the reverse of what usually is the case for country specialists like her. It could simply be a tendency to be showy on stage that sidetracks her from living up to her potential as a singer, since the disparity between the two versions is rarely as striking as it has been lately with Janelle.
Kree Harrison – “She Talks to Angels” (Black Crowes) and “Have You Ever Been in Love?” (Celine Dion) – Advanced
“She Talks to Angels” was one of several standout hits from Shake Your Money Maker, the 1990 debut of the biggest name in blues-rock since ZZ Top. The Black Crowes, led by singer-songwriter brothers Chris and Rich Robinson, were equally at home on classic covers like their version of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” as on originals such as “Thorn in My Pride.” Their earthy but easygoing feel helped pave the way for later 1990s phenoms like Hootie and the Blowfish. On “She Talks to Angels,” the Robinsons recounted the illusory satisfaction of a heroin addict they once met, all in allegorical but highly sympathetic tones that interpreted the woman as someone trying to find a spiritual experience in the needle that’s lacking in her rather alienating life. Mainstream rock radio loved it enough to propel it to the top of that chart, and it became a modest crossover hit that appealed to Kree long before she knew the meaning of the lyrics. Kree’s is a real musician’s performance, a rustic acoustic jam that will surely appeal to “rockists” who tire of synthetic music both on and off Idol. She did what she did pretty well, though it’s nowhere near her best performance and almost seemed like she was having a little too much fun for the subject matter, blunting some of the sensitivity of the Crowes’ original. All in all, Kree is still the roots music aficionado’s best choice this season.
“Have You Ever Been in Love?” was mainly heard on adult contemporary radio when it came out on Celine Dion’s 2002 opus A New Day Has Come, hitting number two on the adult contemporary charts but missing the pop ones completely. It was one of the highlights of the album that spun off “I Surrender,” sung by Angie earlier this season. “Have You Ever Been in Love?” featured the songwriting talents of Tom Nichols and Daryl Hall in addition to a trio of Swedes. Hall, best-known as one half of pop-soul duo Hall and Oates, had a little experience writing hits for others with Diana Ross’s “Swept Away” (1984) and Mick Jagger’s theme from Ruthless People (a 1986 co-write). The Scandinavian troika here included Anders Bagge and his wife Laila, and Anders’s co-producer Peer Åström. Bagge and Åström (as Peer and Bagge) were among their many compatriots to take Anglo-American pop by storm, in their case with acts like Nick Lachey’s boy band 98º and Samantha Mumba. Together, the five wrote a treacly melody but with a few twists compared frequently to those in Streisand’s work. A self-explanatory lyric reflects the general maternal aura of the album. It never struck me as something I would put on an iPod, but “Have You Ever Been in Love” was serviceable Celine Dion and came alive with her voice for those who responded well to it. Kree gave this fluff real substance, giving a slight country tilt that reminded me somewhat of Faith Hill’s turn-of-the-millennium work. This was yet another side of Kree, but also something rare. Here is a substantial, nourishing musical experience that could actually be on the radio today. Imagine that! Nicki’s emphatic declarations aren’t every viewer’s cup of tea, but she’s right about one thing: Kree can pick and choose not just her material but her genre, because she is an artist for the ages.