The 2013 American Idol Songbook: May 1, Top 4 Finalists Sing Hits of 2013 and Standards
Before I get into the actual content of this episode, a few words are in order about the biggest travesty of last week. In their infinite wisdom, the Idol producers decided to combine the votes from that episode when nobody was eliminated with this week in which someone will be. This means that those not savvy enough to figure out the likely non-elimination were given a retrospective leg up on those who could read the tea leaves, which may have contributed to a nonsensical ranking that seemed to reflect racism. I don’t use that term lightly in regards to this show, but there was little in terms of either quality or style that the bottom two from last week, Amber and Candice, had in common, leaving race the common denominator both for them and the top two, Kree and Angie. Amber and Candice’s supporters, therefore, had to compete against a stacked deck last night; and Candice, at least, deserved better. As for this week, the themes struck the ultimate balance between countering those who have speculated about an inability to clear new material and those fine with the oldies format, by following up a round of hits from Top 40 radio this year with a set of standards from the Great American Songbook. Overall, the classics acquitted themselves quite well against some rather lackluster selections from 2013, though the singers and judges both ended up at loggerheads with the guest mentor, purist Harry Connick, Jr. A debate at the end of the show between Harry, one of Generation X’s best-known interpreters of mid-20th-century American popular music, and Randy put the conflict in a nutshell. Though Harry kept a sharp sense of humor, he earnestly fought what often seemed a losing battle for Tin Pan Alley orthodoxy in both mentoring and on-air asides, advocating (more or less in vain) for the singers to preserve the immortal melodies while letting their emotional connection to the lyrics provide the individuality. After all, in a time (the 1920s through the 1940s or so) when pianos for sheet music were just as much must-haves as radios and turntables, the singer was but a middleman for the song that got the credit when multiple artists made it a hit. Randy’s philosophy was based on the post-World War II credo that “a great singer can literally sing anything,” and he believed that the artist’s personal identity should be the top priority. As Harry himself admitted to Candice, the only one for whom the ornamentation he discouraged seemed organic and not forced, the “thirteen-year-olds in the audience might not get it” if the singers took his advice to heart, so perhaps the four finalists did what they had to do in order to survive in an atmosphere where the votes are even more crucial than last time. If the producers and contestants other than Candice, whose elimination would be the greatest tragedy of tonight if it were to occur, had put as much thought and energy into song choice, arrangement, and general performance strategy as the choreographers did for the ridiculous quartet dance number for a cover of the debut from Simon Cowell’s new X Factor group, this might have been more than another rather disappointing episode on the whole.
Amber Holcomb – “Just Give Me a Reason” (Pink featuring Nate Reuss) and “My Funny Valentine” (Rodgers and Hart) – Eliminated
“Just Give Me a Reason,” Pink’s current chart-topping single, is pure pop from one of the most distinctive divas of the last decade and the leader of pop-rock’s biggest breakout band from last year. Pink’s slightly offbeat but likeable persona has been entertaining audiences since 2003, and 2012’s The Truth About Love has continued her platinum streak with hits like “Just Give Me a Reason.” Nate Reuss, the guest vocalist, is the lead singer of fun. (sic), whose light, airy sound is something of a cross between emo and 1980s Genesis on smashes such as “We Are Young” and “Some Nights” (both from their 2012 sophomore album that shares the latter song’s title). Reuss has a co-written hit with Ke$ha’s “Die Young” last year, but this is his first major solo success and his voice meshes well with Pink’s. Heavily influenced by 21st-century hip-hop, Reuss had tapped Jeff Bhasker (already represented in Candice’s “Find Your Love” this season) to produce Some Nights, part of what would get him further notice apart from mentor Kanye West along with additional work for Alicia Keys and Bruno Mars. Bhasker was brought in to helm “Just Give Me a Reason,” but neither he nor Reuss nor Pink really create much magic in the song itself. Somehow Pink has never seemed as engaging on her ballads (e.g. “Who Knew?” and “Perfect”) as she has on her party anthems (e.g. “Get This Party Started” and “Raise Your Glass”), probably due to a kind of tongue-in-cheek detachment to her persona that works better for the latter songs. That pattern continues here, and Amber can be forgiven for forgetting some of the uninspired lyrics in a very spirited rehearsal. As the judges note afterwards, she does not bring the ease from her mentoring sessions to the stage, and the performance on the show just plods. While just bland on the introduction, her runs in the middle and near the end are positively out of place. It’s a poor song choice, particularly in a year when several more introspective songs came out that would really bring out more appealing parts of her voice. When she rushes through a by-the-numbers pop performance, as she did here, it’s a hollow experience that makes me long for the feeling she tried to recapture with her second performance.
“My Funny Valentine,” as Harry points out in his mentoring, was perhaps the epitome of Lorenz Hart’s wishful thinking about his own perceived unattractiveness. Hart had a combination of alcohol problems and possible depression that wove a thread of melancholy through many of his lyrics, often in contrast to his collaborator Richard Rodgers’ warm melodies. Rodgers and Hart, the children of immigrant German Jews in New York who met through a mutual friend in the 1910s, spent much of the period from the 1920s through Hart’s death in 1943 writing textbook examples of the archetypal pre-war musical comedy for both stage and screen. That sort of show, a kind of half-way point between the operettas brought to America by such immigrants and the plot-less revues preferred by smaller playhouses that served as vehicles for up-and-coming songwriters, tended to boil down to a romantic comedy with a slight satirical edge courtesy of the influence of Yiddish theater and vaudeville. A Connecticut Yankee (a 1927 update of Twain’s novel), On Your Toes (1936), and The Boys from Syracuse (a 1938 take on The Comedy of Errors) were just some of the highlights of the duo’s contributions to the interwar Broadway scene. Pal Joey, a moody 1940 effort affected by Hart’s increasing personal agony, was a hint at the more complex shows to come. However, it was really Hart’s death and Rodger’s teaming with operetta veteran Oscar Hammerstein on Oklahoma! the same year that marked the final merger of the New York comedy Hart espoused and the epic sweep Hammerstein represented. Babes in Arms, the 1937 saga of rural teens putting on a show to avoid debt slavery that gave rise to the Mickey and Judy meme in its film version two years later, was classic Rodgers and Hart and featured standards such as “Where or When” and “The Lady is a Tramp” in its score as well as tonight’s choice, “My Funny Valentine.” Mitzi Green, a child star in her first adult lead, sang it to the Ray Heatherton in the show, but the consensus is that “My Funny Valentine” represented the appraisal Hart wanted but never quite got. Rodgers’ melody, often overshadowed by the message, was dramatic and dark, almost too much so for a comedy such as Babes in Arms as opposed to one of his shows with Hammerstein. When Amber first sang it on Idol, she earned her place in the Top 20 with a spectacular version that was rather contemporary but nevertheless channeled some of the best aspects of the Ella Fitzgerald version considered among the most definitive (though Sinatra’s was notable as well). It set a precedent for Amber’s willingness to try material that has been relatively uncommon on the show since Fantasia’s win in 2004, and therefore the standards round seemed like a sure thing, especially if she was going to bring back the song that got her into contention for votes in the first place. However, there were some differences this time. Her misunderstanding of the subject matter struck me as something of a surprise after she did it so well the first time, and her version the night of May 1st lacked some of the consistency of the Hollywood take. The elegance and poise she’s developed over the competition showed, to be sure, but the later notes came out somewhat shrill in that predictable “you have to make it sound like Christina Aguilera” way Idol detractors love to hate. I could almost feel Harry wince as the crowd applauded wildly for what was clearly the worst part of the interpretation. This wasn’t Amber’s best, particularly compared to some other performances in this vein, but it wasn’t the worst of the night by a long shot and definitely didn’t earn the elimination to which last week’s votes may subject her.
Angie Miller – “Diamonds” (Rihanna) and “Someone to Watch over Me” (Gershwin Brothers) – Advanced
In the great quantity-over-quality triumph that has been Rihanna’s career, “Diamonds” launched her seventh annual album in 2012. Since it didn’t peak until 2013, the lead single from Unapologetic, ostensibly a platter whose title indicates her reaction to criticism of her reconciliation with abuser Chris Brown, was considered eligible for the “Hits of 2013” theme. “Diamonds,” a fairly simple song consisting mainly of a chorus and a vibe extended out over four minutes, was co-written by Rihanna’s longtime Norwegian-American associates StarGate (a duo consisting of Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel Storleer Eriksen) and their protégé Sia Furler in tandem with Benny Blanco, who sounds like a Scandinavian record guru but is actually American Benjamin Levin. Sia first came to prominence with guest spots on David Guetta’s “Titanium” and Flo Rida’s “Wild Ones” a couple years ago, while Blanco is best-known for shepherding to fame acts such as 3OH!3 (“Don’t Trust Me”), Ke$ha (“Tik Tok,” “We R Who We R,” “Blow”), Taio Cruz (“Dynamite”), Wiz Khalifa (“No Sleep”), and Karmin (“Brokenhearted”). Blanco has teamed in the past with established stars for hits such as Britney Spears’s “Circus,” Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” and the Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger” and “Payphone,” but StarGate is far more prolific. In addition to innumerable hits for Rihanna since 2006’s “Unfaithful,” the production-songwriting duo also mentored R&B superstar Ne-Yo and contributed to Beyoncé (“Irreplaceable,” “Beautiful Liar”), the aforementioned Wiz Khalifa (his breakout “Black and Yellow”) and Katy Perry (“Firework”), and debuts for Idol stars Jennifer Hudson (“Spotlight”) and Jordin Sparks (“Tattoo”). Though these writers undoubtedly had their finger on the pulse of the selling sound, “Diamonds” was written in a rather ad hoc fashion through correspondence and not really meant for Rihanna. She loved it though, and record it she did. Her voice has never been the most exciting, but there was an undeniable catchiness to the track and an exotic feel that could highlight a more interesting singer if they chose to cover it. Diamond White, who finished fifth on last year’s X Factor, did an excellent performance after the audience picked it for her as something of a pun. Angie, at her over-hyped piano, was not so lucky. Even though he was clearly half-joking, I felt a certain agreement with Harry in his apparent dislike of Angie’s facetious approach to music. Her performance of “Diamonds,” like so many of hers this season, started off with a real genuine feel as she sang the verses in a calm but expressive manner. Then came the inevitable shouts on choruses that evoked cheers from the audience that could not see that her quieter moments are her best. I hope the audience at home realizes that her upper register is not the knockout instrument that it is trumped up to be. Those screeches are jarring distractions from the flow of the song and rewarding them does not do an artist any favors in the long run. It’s not really germane to the style she seemed to be going for, it can’t be good for her voice, and it detracts from her serviceable playing and solid lower-pitched tone.
It’s safe to say that the Gershwin brothers were the StarGate of their day. The oft-overlooked Ira was a wry lyricist who teamed up successfully with other composers long after his brother George’s 1937 death from a brain tumor, but it’s right to say that the latter really defined American music like few others. Never afraid to bridge the worlds of classical, popular, and folk music together, Gershwin’s melodies brought the jazz he grew up around, his classical training, and his love of the stage together into music that for many epitomized both the American melting pot and the spirit of the city that arguably defined it, New York. Both brothers worked as “song pluggers,” a sort of walking demo tape publishers hired to hawk material to artists and revue and record producers, before they got their big break around 1920. While George explored his longhair side (as they called classical music in the day) with works such as Rhapsody in Blue, both were hard at work on stage works such as Lady Be Good (1924), Funny Face (1927), and Of Thee I Sing (1931). Though the Gershwins were successful enough with these shows to start a friendly rivalry with the similar work of Rodgers and Hart, they likewise moved on to Hollywood scores when the opportunities came, continuing to work with their stage associate Fred Astaire on Shall We Dance? and A Damsel in Distress. Porgy and Bess, one of their last works, is often considered one of the best jazz operas despite the frequent controversy over racial stereotypes in later years. Oh, Kay!, the 1926 musical that birthed the songs “Do, Do, Do” and “Clap Yo’ Hands,” revolved around British brother-sister bootleggers whose female half fell in love for the first time on American soil. Gertrude Lawrence, whose character was the sister Kay named after Gershwin’s rumored girlfriend and fellow songwriter Kay Swift, sang “Someone to Watch Over Me” in the guise of a petty criminal looking for a more stable life than the one her brother led. Eventually she gets her man, handsome American Jimmy Winter, but in the meantime her longing is telegraphed in an immortal song that Ira insisted be a ballad. Again, Ira proved how underrated he was by setting the winding melody reminiscent of “My Funny Valentine” at a slower tempo. Once it was set that way, a masterpiece was born. It’s safe to say that songs like “Someone to Watch over Me” are not to be trifled with. To Harry’s chagrin, Angie is determined to do just that. Her appoggiatura notes (outside the chords for those of you playing the home game) are often, as he puts it, things that “don’t mean anything.” Though she sounded like she might be tempted to do something tasteful, that impression collapsed as the song picked up speed. The later verses demonstrated all the excesses Harry decried, but without any real sense of purpose; and that last note encapsulated everything a lover of the Great American Songbook tends to decry about American popular music today. The thing is, Angie is able to perform decently without that and doesn’t pull off the ornamentation as well as, say, Candice, but she insists on putting the “power notes” in every single performance and endangers the good impression left by her introductions. I hope that, as a songwriter, she comes to either write melodies that go better with this tendency than the songs she’s covered on the show, or that she tones that habit down, because there could be a decent artist
under all the bluster.
Candice Glover – “When I Was Your Man” (Bruno Mars) and “You’ve Changed” (Bill Carey and Carl Fischer) – Advanced
Once again, a contestant turns to the work of Bruno Mars for some hip, contemporary bona fides. “When I Was Your Man,” the latest hit from Mars’s 2012 sophomore album Unorthodox Jukebox, is basically the work of Mars, Ari Levine, and Philip Lawrence (the Smeezingtons production team that also did “Locked Out of Heaven” performed by Cortez Shaw earlier this season) together with a special guest. Andrew Wyatt, an American-born singer in a Swedish pop band called Miike Snow, has already collaborated with Mars on “Grenade” from Doo Wops and Hooligans, his 2010 debut. Unlike the equally plaintive “Grenade,” “When I Was Your Man” is a more subtle breakup song about a girlfriend lost on the way to fame. Whether autobiographical or not, the song comes across as deeply personal in a way that few works of the facile singer-songwriter have, and the mostly acoustic recording shows a different side of him. The melody is still rather bland, but Bruno’s genuine poignancy and Candice’s vocal wizardry should be able to fix that. Candice provides an interesting explanation for her decision, a common one on the show, to keep the pronouns the same despite being the opposite gender of the protagonist: she says she sees herself as a narrator. Fair enough. It doesn’t seem like a difficult switch to make, but her performance certainly takes one’s mind off the issue. Though her version of “When I Was Your Man” pales in comparison to some of her past efforts on the show, it still trounces much of what I heard from other contestants this season. It’s a song a bit too bland to really bring out her best, but rest assured, it’s enough to keep her as a front-runner.
Bill Carey and Carl Fischer, the authors of “You’ve Changed,” are rather obscure as writers of standards go. Though Fischer, a full-blooded Cherokee who had a lucrative career as a backup pianist, would later write one of Frankie Laine’s first hits, 1945’s “We’ll Be Together Again,” he and lyricist Carey’s only famous song together was “You’ve Changed,” the story of a relationship very much on the rocks. “You’ve Changed” had one of those subtle torch song melodies that was perfect for a distinctive small-group jazz cover, and perhaps it got lost in the shuffle of the heavy big band arrangements Dick Haymes sang with Harry James upon its 1941 release. Later covers in the intimate style that became popular in the postwar years, including a well-regarded one by Billie Holiday, gave the song its current reputation, and Candice’s addition to this tradition lives up to it in full. Often reminding me of Etta James and Ray Charles’s terrific soul covers of standards in the 1960s, Candice adds the usual gospel touches without losing the thread of the song as the other contestants did this round. No, she doesn’t completely keep it old school as Harry might have liked, but she finds a better balance than her competitors and did something that made sense in the context of “You’ve Changed.” My verdict sure hasn’t. This woman is not just “in it to win it,” as Randy would say, but in it to make good music, and a great album is guaranteed.
Kree Harrison – “See You Again” (Carrie Underwood) and “Stormy Weather” (Arlen and Koehler) – Advanced
Carrie Underwood really is a latter-day Glen Campbell, always content to sing the most pop-flavored country music imaginable to get that vital crossover appeal, as she did with the latest single from 2012’s Blown Away when she battled Idol’s awful results show sound mix a few weeks ago. “See You Again,” a song referring to the grand reunion in the sky, almost seems like a coup for Kree that Angie might have wanted. Underwood and Hillary Lindsey, the latter already represented in Faith Hill’s “Stronger” that was Kree’s first choice for the live shows, provided the light country aspects of a song dominated by David Hodges’s Christian pop sensibility. Hodges, no crossover slouch himself, developed quite a profile in pop after leaving Evanescence (see Angie’s “Bring Me to Life” from April 3 for that story), and he’s had a lot of luck with Idols. Kelly Clarkson topped the charts with his “Because of You,” Underwood’s fourth-place competitor Chris Daughtry went Top Ten with his “What About Now,” and seventh-season runner-up David Archuleta just missed the top of the charts with Hodges’s “Crush.” Complete with wordless vocals (the “oh, oh, oh” Harry rightly criticizes and praises Kree for leaving out) and a melody stuck in a stall pattern all song long, the song is one of the most uninspiring I’ve ever heard from Underwood. Kree manages to make it sound like actual country music, and good country music at that. Her trills hit all the right places, imbuing a real turkey with enough substance to craft perhaps the second-best performance of the night. This was, as Nicki fondly put it, “authentic” in the way Kree’s best singing is. Elimination appears impossible, especially given her head start in last week’s legacy votes, and in this case elimination would not be deserved.
Harold Arlen, the composer of “Stormy Weather,” was a triple threat. A talented singer and pianist, he made his living primarily as a writer and spent the 1930s and 1940s putting together effervescent melodies such as “Let’s Fall in Love,” “Over the Rainbow” and “Blues in the Night” for every medium imaginable. Whether he was writing material such as his breakout hit with Ted Koehler, “Get Happy” (1929), for nightclub acts at the Cotton Club (Duke Ellington’s legendary Harlem hangout), or teaming up with Edward “Yip” Harburg on the score of The Wizard of Oz a decade letter, or writing jaunty wartime anthems like “That Old Black Magic” with Johnny Mercer, Arlen was one of the most versatile tunesmiths of his age. Ethel Waters premiered “Stormy Weather” at the Cotton Club in 1933 and recorded it shortly thereafter, though her version was eclipsed by Lena Horne’s later one in the 1942 film musical Cabin in the Sky. Waters came out of a blues tradition started by W.C. Handy and Ma Rainey, which combined the basic blues form with vaudeville theatrics quite different from the straight presentation and simple guitar accompaniment associated with the delta style. Writing in this pop blues vein but with a conventional AABA form, Arlen and Koehler put together one of American music’s great tales of woe, equally appropriate for a charismatic wailer like Waters as it was for a subtle torch singer like Horne. The judges recommended a version by Etta James, heavily influenced by Waters, as a better model for Kree than the Horne cover recommended by Harry, and here the Idol insiders may have a point. Kree was without a doubt one of Harry’s favorites in mentoring, but his effort to put her in the standards box didn’t exactly fit and wasn’t really necessary with someone who already is better at the whole “real music—no frills” thing than many of her contemporaries. She seemed a little frustrated this week, perhaps due to the unpredictable themes or the usual fatigue that sets in around the end of the competition. Overall, she tried to bring a little bit of country and soul to an arrangement that had little room for either, and the result grew increasingly tiresome as the song wore on. Arlen’s melodies do not need the kind of alterations Kree put in, unlike a song such as “See You Again.” She will probably get by this week on the strength of last week’s votes and the first song. She has great recordings ahead of her, but this was not the best choice of standard for her.