The 2012 American Idol Songbook--Week of February 28-29
Before I begin this series on the origins of the songs sung during the live weeks of the 2012 American Idol season, I would like to make clear that I am by no means a die-hard American Idol fan. Indeed, I consider many aspects of Idol’s production ethos aggravating. It’s not just the occasionally underwhelming production values, ranging from cornball arrangements to awkward sound mixing. There’s also much to criticize in the “reality show” aspects of the show, including the producers’ habit of lingering on colorful but musically untalented rejects in the audition episodes, not to mention the way the group rounds put together singers who often are unskilled at harmonizing in a small group, all for little discernible purpose except to gin up interpersonal drama. In addition, the show’s rising popularity seems to attract more and more people “playing” it like some kind of game where sympathetic stories or dramatic behavior will earn spots and votes in the live shows. Speaking of which, the winners have paled in comparison to the runners-up for the last several years (see Taylor Hicks vs. Katharine McPhee and Chris Daughtry, Jordin Sparks vs. Melinda Doolittle, Kris Allen vs. Adam Lambert, Lee DeWyze vs. Crystal Bowersox, Scotty McCreery vs. James Durbin and Casey Abrams), casting doubt on the voting base’s musical acumen.
So why, then, am I writing regularly on the selections, sometimes nailed and sometimes butchered, that the contestants warble each week? I believe that, for all the shortcomings of Idol as a true contest of musical talent, it has introduced Americans of all ages to a wide variety of music to which they might otherwise never be exposed in today’s narrowly targeted radio markets. When the contestant chooses a number, be it a classic from generations ago or a hit from last year, they give us all an opportunity to discover an artistic creation that resonates with people, a cultural touchstone that is close enough to the heart of a young contestant to be the vehicle upon which he or she stakes their shot at a valuable record contract.
In these articles, I will discuss the origins of the song, including the original artist (if unique), the style in which it was written, the songwriters, and some any cover that the performer's version appears to be based on. I will also opine on the contestant’s own rendition, of course; I am, after all, an avid fourth judge from the comfort of my armchair, and hope to show how this can be fully compatible with the healthy, eclectic tastes of a true music lover.
2-28-2012: The Top 13 Men’s Semifinal
Our initial set of male contestants includes twelve announced in advance in addition to Jermaine Jones, the highly anticipated wildcard. Overall, most of the performances on Tuesday night, all featuring songs the artists chose at their own discretion, were rather promising, and none of what I heard could be truthfully considered unlistenable. DeAndre, Eben, and Heejun got off to slow starts but redeemed themselves by the end of their songs. Aaron, Adam, Chase, Colton, Creighton, and Jermaine each gave a consistent showcase of their vocal talents while sticking to the original essence of the song. Jeremy, Joshua, Philip, and Reed, however, took things that one vital step further: they added something distinctive and surprising to make the song their own.
DeAndre Brackensick – “Reasons” (Earth, Wind, and Fire) - Saved
The ultimate album treasure from one of funk’s most prolific hit-makers, Earth, Wind, and Fire, “Reasons” has all the elements of a perfect slow jam. We have the intricate instrumental riffs that the languid verses build on; the soaring chorus, punctuated by falsetto runs tailor-made for co-lead singer Philip Bailey; and lyrics combining the standard romantic hyperbole of the urban contemporary genre with metaphysical complexity, in this case, the distinction between love and lust, that was bandleader Maurice White’s trademark. As was the case with most of EWF’s material in keeping with the standard for the funk genre, “Reasons” was written primarily by band members, in this case Bailey and White. However, aging producer and psychedelic soul pioneer Charles Stepney contributed some input and is thus given a co-writing credit for the song. It was composed for That’s the Way of the World (1975), the soundtrack to an otherwise quite forgettable Harvey Keitel vehicle set in the music business. While the film made little impact at the box office, EWF’s music marked the band’s transition from a funk group best-known for gutbucket soul in the James Brown tradition into the more well-rounded R&B ensemble that would earn blockbuster commercial success throughout the next decade. DeAndre was prevented by the roughly two-minute Idol format from capturing the song’s brilliance and struggled with a few of the group’s tricky chord changes, but he ultimately brought out the song’s beauty with the tenderness of his upper register, compared justifiably to Bailey’s by judge Randy Jackson.
Eben Franckewitz – “Set Fire to the Rain” (Adele) - Eliminated
It is entirely appropriate that the youngest of the night’s contestants, fifteen-year-old Eben, would choose a relatively new song for his live debut. “Set Fire to the Rain” is, of course, the latest in a string of smashes culled from British pop-soul siren Adele’s album 21 (2011), the darling of both this year’s Grammy Awards and their counterpart across the pond, the BRIT Awards. Adele’s song is, like many of her hits so far, an emotional breakup song peppered with ersatz metaphors and anchored by one of the most technically brilliant voices of her (and my) generation. Adele has shocked the entertainment world by taking the pop world by storm while based at an (albeit large) indie label and putting the focus squarely on her voice after several years in which Top 40 Radio played much music whose appeal hinged on computer enhancement and/or shock value. Though her collaborators have yet to provide accoutrements to match, Adele pours out reams of anguish in every word, both as a songwriter and as a performer of the words she writes. Her producer-writer here, Fraser T. Smith, provides a breezy, open melody lacking in excitement, which Adele redeems rather than complements. Smith is one of the up-and-coming producers on the UK’s pop and R&B scenes, just beginning to make his mark as a creative professional after paying his dues through over a dozen years of session work, so it is understandable that it would take some time for him to hit his stride. As for Eben, he has no trouble belting out the high notes and carrying the chorus, but could use judge and Aerosmith lead singer Steven Tyler’s advice to loosen up with some blues training to better capture the dynamics of Adele’s soulful delivery.
Heejun Han – “Angels” (Robbie Williams) - Advanced
“Angels” is no stranger to Idol-type competitions, having been performed by Yuridia on Mexico’s La Academia and by runner-up David Archuleta during Idol’s season 7. Not bad for the product of a half-hour writing session between Robbie, undoubtedly Britain’s top pop star of the 1990s, and his frequent collaborator Guy Chambers. The song is supposed to be based on the unwavering faith of Robbie’s uncle and aunt, but an Irish songwriter named Ray Heffernan made a compelling case, though it did not earn him a full-fledged credit, for having written the song a year before its 1997 release. “Angels” is a rarity in mainstream popular music, an unabashed Christian pop song without a hint of gospel energy, telling of Robbie’s conviction that the love of God through his angels can sustain us even when all else fails. The concept appealed to Heejun’s sentimental side, but, as all the judges noted, the song lacks the dramatic punch to showcase Heejun’s real potential as a soul crooner and will hopefully be followed up by more appropriate choices for his voice.
Aaron Marcellus – “Never Can Say Goodbye” (Jackson Five) - Eliminated
“Never Can Say Goodbye,” dating back to 1971, was the first taste that many pop listeners got of Michael Jackson’s ballad singing, coming after a string of up-tempo Jackson Five hits penned and produced personally by Motown president Berry Gordy and a coterie of writers, the latter called, “The Corporation.” In contrast to the likes of “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” and “The Love You Save,” “Never Can Say Goodbye” was written by the young Clifton Davis, later better-known as a Baptist minister both on the long-running 1980s sitcom “Amen” and in real life. A lilting melody and a breakup lyric complemented Michael’s high tenor over forty years ago, and voice teacher Aaron’s more adult voice takes an admirably adult approach to the song’s youthful vulnerability, which would have worked even better if Idol arrangers had taken more liberties with the song.
Adam Brock – “Think” (Aretha Franklin) - Eliminated
The Queen of Soul is world-famous for her ability to take songs from almost any genre and turn them into showcases for her volcanic gospel pipes, honed in her Reverend father C.L.’s church and on singing tours, but rarely gets the credit she deserves as a brilliant pianist and songwriter. “Think” was a composition of hers, released in 1968 to well-deserved acclaim and bringing full-fledged feminism to Southern soul in line with her earlier, epochal cover of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” Although the lyrics, a plea for breathing room no doubt meant for Ted White (her then-husband, whom she divorced a year later--he had the reputation of an abusive Svengali who insisted on co-writing credits for her songs--this one included) provide incentive enough for covers, Idol contestants often concentrate on her memorable, “Freedom, freedom, freedom” chorus in a quixotic effort to out-belt Aretha. Adam is no exception, and he does it well, living up to his friend’s claim of having a “large black woman trapped inside” of his white frame. A little more gumption and daring will be needed if he wants to really give songs the Aretha treatment, which is all about making the material one’s own.
Chase Likens – “Storm Warning” (Hunter Hayes) - Eliminated
Chase chose a song on the lips of country radio fans nationwide right now, a great start to establish himself as one of this year’s male country standouts. “Storm Warning” (not to be confused with the song by the same name from Bonnie Raitt’s 1994 album Longing in Their Hearts) is the 2011 debut single from Hunter Hayes, a twenty-year-old Louisianais seeking his fortune on Atlantic Records’ recently reactivated Nashville subsidiary. “Storm Warning” sports a tuneful, upbeat character and a hint of bluesy swagger, which come off more pop-rock than traditional country, like many “country” releases put out in recent years. Hayes had trendy help writing this song from two leading country-pop tunesmiths, namely Nova Scotia’s own Gordie Sampson (an eclectic performer who plays bouzouki and accordion, among other instruments) and San Francisco’s Mike Busbee (busbee for short). Chase gets right to the point, delivering his paean of love and admiration to a bombshell that is driving him crazy but could potentially devastate him as much as a metaphorical tempest. The girls swoon, giving proof of his solid fan base among potential voters, and more importantly for me, he is entirely convincing as a country-rock singer in a time when that particular fusion is coming back with a vengeance.
Colton Dixon – “Decode” (Paramore) - Advanced
Colton wanted to leave behind his piano and prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is a rocker, and he made the astute choice to give a nod to the huge tween and teen girl audience of Idol as part of that metamorphosis. “Decode,” co-written by Paramore lead singer Hayley Williams with her guitarist bandmates Josh Farro and Terry York, was the 2008 theme song from Twilight and was a marketer’s dream: America’s pop-punk princess musically kicking off the film version of the best-selling young adult book series of the late 2000s. Paramore delivered a song that stands on its own surprisingly well, eschewing the self-contained emo style of the group’s albums, opting instead for an epic saga of deceptive abandon worthy of a James Bond theme and carried with equivalent panache. Colton is no slouch at singing this sort of power ballad, and will earn plenty of votes for his effort, but needs to find songs more his speed to be more consistent. He might even want to consider returning next time to the piano that he insisted on standing upon to finish his song, as if to underscore possible insecurity about his decision.
Creighton Fraker – “True Colors” (Cyndi Lauper) - Eliminated
I must confess that “True Colors,” from Lauper’s 1986 album of the same title, has never been one of my favorite songs. Unlike her brilliant, sometimes hypnotic co-compositions, such as “Time After Time” and “Change of Heart,” “True Colors” is the product of Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, a team of technically skilled but not necessarily innovative songwriters, who produced a passel of hits in the late 1980s. The song, a tribute to Steinberg’s supportive mother spoken from her perspective, has lost some of its charm through its incessant use as one of those “inspirational” songs people seem to love more for the beauty of its sentiments than for any artistic virtue of the composition itself. Lauper’s measured pop voice and arrangement admittedly gave it a certain magic that no cover has yet mustered. Creighton does his best, however, and proves he can control his tone exceptionally well, unlike many performers in today’s age of quick, after-the-fact cosmetic fixes in the production room.
Jermaine Jones – “Dance with My Father” (Luther Vandross) - Advanced
"Dance with My Father” is the only original Luther Vandross hit I have heard so far in my five years of Idol viewing experience, however much I may pine to hear classics from his prime such as “Never Too Much,” “Love Power,” and “Here and Now.” Dogged by the diabetes that would claim his life two years later and bereft of his longtime bassist and collaborator Marcus Miller, Vandross recorded a comeback album in 2003 that was spearheaded by his touching lament for his father, a casualty of the same condition when Luther was seven. Instead of an appropriate backdrop for his trademark style of urban contemporary ballad, however, in Vandross’s recording, pop-rock singer-songwriter Richard Marx engineered a singsong melody complete with “music-box” synth riffs that almost cheapen the lyrical content of the song. "Dance with My Father" became justly famous, despite this hokey arrangement, on the strength of Luther’s performance itself. Like Luther, Jermaine does more than make the best of the material: he knocks it out of the park, giving the impression that he has truly dealt with the same family drama while caressing every curve of the simple melody and realist lyrics to the point where even the hardest heart melts.
Jeremy Rosado – “Gravity” (Sara Bareilles) - Saved
“Gravity” was the last single from Little Voice, the 2008 debut of Sara Bareilles, a piano-based acoustic singer-songwriter in the tradition of Suzanne Vega and Sarah McLachlan. Unlike the up-tempo “Love Song,” also from Little Voice, which introduced her to pop audiences, “Gravity” is an intimate ballad with a few moody chord changes using sevenths, a practice dating back in pop at least to the days of Burt Bacharach, no doubt a key influence on some of Bareilles’s melodies. The lyrics tell of an ex-lover whose manipulation lingers on despite distance like the titular force, and Jeremy delivers them like the expert pop crooner that he is. Does the song’s plaintive impact suffer somewhat from being tuned up with a full pop arrangement and Jeremy’s emotional flourishes? Perhaps it does, but his heartfelt performance more than makes up for any mismatch between tone and tune.
Joshua Ledet – “You Pulled Me Through” (Jennifer Hudson) - Advanced
“You Pulled Me Through” comes from the 2008 self-titled debut of Jennifer Hudson, perhaps Idol’s most famous also-ran and certainly the one whose finish, in seventh place, was furthest below the true merits of her talent. As was the case in the musical Dreamgirls, her freshman album saw her use her ability to sing the proverbial phone book on songs whose quality and memorability at times scarcely exceeded the Yellow Pages. She carried out her thankless task with aplomb, but to say she deserved better is an understatement, especially since Diane Warren, the writer of this melodically and lyrically generic song of thanksgiving, has written some more adventurous selections before. Warren is one of the most prolific songwriters of the last few decades, and that very fertility along with her penchant for sentimental pop earns a strong disclaimer of “results may vary.” Joshua doesn’t let that stop him from doing Hudson one better, turning her gospel approach to the material to fever pitch and giving the most rousing finish of the night; or, to paraphrase Randy Jackson, “taking us to church.”
Phillip Phillips – “In the Air Tonight” (Phil Collins) - Advanced
“In the Air Tonight” was Genesis drummer Phil Collins’s first solo single and came from his 1981 debut album Face Value. Both Collins’s talents were on ample display in the original recording, and as one of his best, it’s been considered a benchmark against which nothing he did later could ever truly compete. Whether this assessment is fair or not, it is indisputable that the song is a tour de force. Forget the soft-rock typecast into which Collins has since been pigeonholed: he and his wife separated after he discovered her infidelity and divorced two years before the song came out, and he was clearly furious but couldn’t get it out until later. The result is five minutes of pure, distilled resentment, set to an ominous melody that makes the rage more sinister and wounded than aggressive and loud, but accompanied by little more than one of the most influential drum tracks in rock history. Philip is not a cover act: he is a true artist, and when he drops the drums and gives a somehow even slower and more pained reading accompanied by his own acoustic guitar playing, I cannot help but see the beginning of something great. In any event, this was the most haunting performance of the night.
Reed Grimm – “Moves Like Jagger” (Maroon 5 featuring Christina Aguilera) - Eliminated
“Moves Like Jagger,” a single from 2010’s Hands All Over that was released to great fanfare and is already a catchphrase in its own right, is the latest hit from Maroon 5, Adam Levine’s R&B group, and features Christina Aguilera, currently his fellow judge on NBC’s “The Voice,” on the bridge (unperformed by Reed here due to time constraints). Taking on the persona of an indefatigable lothario, Adam pays tribute to one of rock’s legendary showmen while singing, in a few words, perfect pop, right from the disco-funk grooves to the clever lyrics to the indelible, whistle-dubbed hook in the title phrase. The song isn’t entirely Levine’s work, though. Swedish co-producer Karl “Shellback” Schuster, well-known for his work with Pink! and Britney Spears, lends a hand, and American co-producer Benjamin “Benny Blanco” Levin, and pop songwriter Ammar Malik (both also collaborators with Levine on his hit “Stereo Hearts”) all pitch in to lend a radio-friendly sheen to the proceedings. Eager to show off his masterful drumming and understanding that no live Idol cover could live up to the studio wizardry that rendered Maroon 5’s song so memorable, Reed plays and sings it as a slow-burning jazz tune, making it work where less competent musicians might have performed tepid lounge karaoke. With his rendition, Reed proves that his drumming is no gimmick but rather a unique tool that enhances his enthusiastic vocals without distracting from them.
2-29-2012: The Top 12 Women’s Semifinal
Overall, the night’s performances achieved nowhere near the high standard set by the men the previous night. Indeed, the lack of freshness or originality was underscored by this being the first occasion in recent memory in which two performers sang the exact same song in one night (Adele’s “One and Only”). Although a few of the women sang technically perfect covers and thereby earned their keep, some of the night’s contestants showed a tendency to add off-melody runs in outlandish places, to dance awkwardly in an effort to imitate their own role models’ videos, and to shift between their real voice and a studied imitation of the original artist. Baylie, Elise, and Haley gave lackluster, often out of tune performances that almost defined “pitchy” (Randy’s favorite negative descriptor), while Brielle’s strained posturing and Hollie’s constant voice-shifting did them no favors. On the other hand, Chelsea, Erika, Hallie, Jennifer, Jessica, Shannon, and Skylar each sang by-the-book covers with technical aplomb, and in some but not all cases, actually produced something fun to hear.
Baylie Brown – “Amazed” (Lonestar) - Eliminated
"Amazed” is the first bona fide country ballad we’ve heard so far this season, although 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 Idol winner Carrie Underwood’s debut single (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 judges on CMT’s “Can You Duet?,” and 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” needs 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. Baylie started off-key and made little improvement on that score. Although she appeared not to have forgotten any of the lyrics or melody, this only made it more obvious that she could not capture the magic that took this song to the top of the charts in the first place.
Elise Testone – “One and Only” (Adele) - Advanced
“One and Only” is from Adele’s 21, as is “Set Fire to the Rain.” While her collaborator is different for each of these two songs, her subject matter is here a romantic come-on rather than a breakup ballad, and the tempo is this time slower, the melody suffers from similar emptiness. Adele’s vocal performance sets the usual high bar, but the composition may be a case of “too many cooks.” After taking up her American record label liaison’s suggestion to work with American songwriter Greg Wells (Mika’s “Grace Kelly,” OneRepublic’s “Apologize,” Katy Perry’s “Waking Up in Vegas”), Adele decided to bring in Dan Wilson, her co-writer on 21 hit “Someone Like You.” The resulting mishmash probably deserved its relegation to an album cut. Elise has a fine, guttural voice but somehow manages to shift into a different tone every few seconds, leading me to believe I’ve caught her on a bad day. It’s an inauspicious start, but she appears in control of the situation and accompanies herself finely on the piano, pointing toward significant improvement in later performances.
Haley Johnsen – “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This” (Eurythmics) - Eliminated
“Sweet Dreams Are Made of This” was an instant classic in 1983, defining the then-young genre of synthpop with throttling electronic beats found on a sample left lying in the studio and Annie Lennox’s R&B vocals run through a cavernous echo chamber. It also put Eurythmics on the map as one of that style’s most distinctive and popular groups, which owed just as much to Dave Stewart’s stylish productions as to Annie’s bluesy voice. The strange lyric (the most lucid message, if any, appears to be that love is hell) can only work when a powerhouse such as Annie is the one singing it, but Haley is not that powerhouse. In a disappointing self-proclaimed tribute to a favorite artist of hers, Haley sings a version that is bizarre in all the wrong ways, missing Eurythmics’ angular notes and then trying to justify it as improvisation. It was a sad experience for any appreciator of Lennox’s style, but in retrospect it seems all too predictable on a song that has apparently become quite the karaoke favorite.
Brielle Von Hugel – “(Sittin’ on The) Dock of the Bay” (Otis Redding) - Eliminated
“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” was the product of Southern soul’s greatest singer-songwriter genius, Otis Redding, and Southern soul’s greatest drummer, the equally brilliant Steve Cropper, so it’s hard to imagine it becoming anything other than the classic it became. Hard as it may be to believe, a song that defines soul music for many worldwide was originally an off-the-cuff ditty, mostly scrawled by Redding on napkins, about performing far away from home at San Francisco’s Fillmore. On December 10, 1967, two days after he finished recording “Dock of the Bay” with a sound that was considered almost too pop-like by his Stax label, complete with ocean sounds and that unforgettable whistle through the fade-out, Otis and much of his road band (which did not include Cropper) died in a plane crash. Immediately, the song became one of the first in popular music history to be given a whole new meaning by the artist’s imminent death, as it seemed to embody the restless vistas that the promising young entertainer still seemed poised to conquer. Brielle loves classic soul music, and it shows in an unrelentingly cute performance that doesn’t make any egregious errors. It’s cute to watch an earnest, technically skilled young singer applying every vocal trope of the R&B she grew up with to the sort of music that her own idols were raised on. “Cute,” however, is not the word that should come to mind when someone is performing a wistful song of ennui, not when Otis breathed into his performance something almost akin to a solemn resignation to the vagaries of the poor touring arrangements that ultimately killed him. There is drama in this song, but it’s a quiet one that her histrionics don’t quite capture appropriately.
Hollie Cavanagh – “Reflection (Theme from Mulan)” (Christina Aguilera) - Advanced
“Reflection” is, as Hollie surely knows, from the soundtrack of the 1998 movie Mulan, one of the last traditionally animated films to come out of Disney’s 1990s renaissance, before the success of their Pixar projects took center stage completely. Whenever an artist chooses a song from a Disney film to perform on Idol, there are naturally some questions as to how ready he or she would be for a career as an adult entertainer, but in this case, Hollie has chosen a song that made a real-life star out of one of the most proficient voices in mainstream American pop today. Mulan was a cartoon version of the story of Chinese folk heroine Hua Mulan, taking it from its fifth-century C.E. setting back to the ancient Han dynasty and pitting her, in her deceased father’s place, against an invasion by northern barbarians. Historical context is diffuse in the hodgepodge of dynasties from China’s long history that the film draws on for inspiration, but the soundtrack is similar to that of most other Disney films of the 1990s: a pop musical, in this case featuring songs by a former dance-pop star (Matthew Wilder of “Break My Stride” fame) and a Broadway lyricist (David Zippel). Wilder and Zippel wrote a song fit for a protagonist questioning her social role, a key theme in Disney’s feminist take on the woman warrior legend, and Disney couldn’t have been happier to find a strong vocalist, the then unknown eighteen-year-old Christina Aguilera, to deliver difficult notes meant for the likes of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, both of whom were coincidentally busy with rival studio Dreamworks’ Prince of Egypt soundtrack. The rest is history, so to speak, and Christina got her RCA contract, continuing to this day to dazzle with a voice that scarcely needs the pageantry so often bestowed upon her by the industry’s top producers. Randy wryly and topically jokes, with good reason, that Hollie chose a big “dragon to slay” in Christina’s performance, and Hollie cannot top even a young Christina’s vocal performance. Although Hollie delivers the song convincingly when she stays in her gorgeous Irish alto, she confuses and disappoints when she tries to ape Christina’s voice at the more emphatic places in the song.
Chelsea Sorrell – “Cowboy Casanova” (Carrie Underwood) - Eliminated
“Cowboy Casanova,” from 2009, is one of a growing number of songs performed by former Idol contestants that new hopefuls are singing for their shot at the title. In this case, the original artist is Carrie Underwood, the fourth-season winner raised on Shania Twain who established herself straight out of the box as an unabashedly commercial country-pop star. The song, a beware-the-ladykiller warning shot, is typical Underwood—a sassy, energetic personality and dynamite voice attached to a lyric name-dropping Southern expressions and a musical texture that is essentially guitar-fueled pop-rock with fiddles dubbing the bass lines to allow it to squeak under the radar as “country.” Although Underwood is listed as a co-writer, it is unclear what she contributed other than her larger-than-life persona, and the song’s other writing credits betray its unconventional stylistic alchemy by combining Brett James, a top-flight Nashville writer also responsible for her earlier hit, “Jesus, Take the Wheel”; and Mike Elizondo, a producer better-known for his collaborations with Dr. Dre. Chelsea gives us exactly what we would expect with her fun, energetic pop-rock performance, and doesn’t misstep in doing so. It’s imitation Carrie done well.
Erika Von Pelt – “What About Love” (Heart) - Saved
“What About Love,” a 1985 song with simple content but complex origins and 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, 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 the Starship, Heart was beginning when this song came out 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. The song Erika sang here is a desperate plea in the form of a power ballad with a generic melody, put together by a Canadian band named Toronto with the help of Jim Vallance, who was one of Canada’s top producers in the 1980s and 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, who were American but first found success north of the border, did a salutary job salvaging “What About Love.” Indeed, their vocal oomph, recaptured faithfully in solo form by Erika, was one of the record’s few redeeming values, and the result in both Erika’s case and that of the Wilsons is a great cover of a middling song done with an excellent voice—no less and no more.
Hallie Day – “Feeling Good” (The Roar of the Greasepaint—The Smell of the Crowd --Newley/Bricusse) - Eliminated
“Feeling Good,” the favorite jazz standard of many an Idol hopeful over the years, came from the score of a 1964 British musical that was something of a flop at home, at least compared to its stateside success under the aegis of Broadway legend David Merrick, which earned it 231 performances and six Tony nominations the following year. The show, with music by West End theatre darling Anthony Newley and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, is a pantomime allegory in which Newley’s character Cocky, a working-class Briton, constantly fights in vain to succeed despite the determination of Sir, an effete aristocrat played in the Broadway production by Cyril Ritchard, to keep Cocky down. While “Who Can I Turn To?,” Cocky’s sad, Chaplinesque lament of self-pity, was the big record hit in versions by Tony Bennett and Dionne Warwick, one of the most high-profile and daring jazz singers of the day turned “Feeling Good” into the evergreen it is today. The number was a sidebar that would strike audiences as rather dated today, what with black actor Cy Grant portraying a character literally labeled “The Negro” and leading a chorus of street urchins (including the young Elaine Paige in the British production) in a languid vamp about the joys of living in poverty sans a rich man’s cares. On her 1965 album I Put a Spell on You, however, Nina Simone transformed the nondescript number into a solid, multifaceted jazz novelty on an album where her material ranged from the titular R&B classic by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins to French songs by Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour. It is Simone’s aptly spellbinding version that allowed “Feeling Good” to rival the Gershwins’ similar-sounding and similarly themed “Summertime” as an audition chestnut for entire generations of aspiring singers, this time eclipsing a show far less well-known than Porgy and Bess. Hallie covers the version with aplomb but doesn’t add any of the flourishes that, for instance, runner-up Adam Lambert did in season eight of Idol. It’s good music, but one hesitates to call it good jazz when Hallie adds so little true improvisation.
Jennifer Hirsh – “One and Only” (Adele) - Eliminated
Before Elise Testone sang her version of “One and Only,” Jennifer sang a more polished version. For more information on this song, see Elise’s entry above. Though younger and less experienced than Elise, Jen gives a standard R&B version of the song, in this case mimicking much of Adele’s approach without the constant shift in tone that Elise’s hoarseness created. She doesn’t make mistakes, per se, and carries the tune, which she claims appeals to her out of identifying with Adele’s romantic misfortunes. However, there is little effort to make the song her own beyond a few runs that I saw done umpteen times the same night.
Jessica Sánchez – “Love You I Do” (Dreamgirls – Jennifer Hudson in the Movie) - Advanced
“Love You I Do” is one of several songs added to the score of the 1981 musical Dreamgirls expressly for the 2006 film version. Henry Krieger, the original composer, worked with lyricist and Michael Jackson protégé Siedah Garrett to craft a new song for the character Effie, an aspiring singer played in the film by Jennifer Hudson, to sing in her bid for a record contract with the object of her own affection, who happens to own a burgeoning R&B label in the 1960s. Since Dreamgirls is an extremely loose Broadway re-interpretation of the life story of 1960s-era Motown’s most successful vocal group, the Supremes, Krieger accompanied both the songs in the Broadway version and his additions to the movie with lukewarm versions of one of the most infectious sounds in pop music history. The result, at least in the movie version that I saw, was a disappointment, especially when compared to the music to which the musical allegedly pays tribute. I am therefore consistently shocked, on principle, to see Dreamgirls itself become a source of covers for up-and-coming singers, but apparently it is. On one level, then, Jessica’s choice is a predictable but understandable meta-selection: she wants audiences to love her and to get a shot at a record contract, so she sings a song whose protagonist character wants the exact same things. Jessica does a decent Jennifer Hudson impression as she sings the self-referential number and gesticulates wildly around the stage, but she doesn’t add one iota to the plodding song Hudson sang in the film and accompanying soundtrack, giving us an imitation of an imitation.
Shannon Magrane – “Go Light Your World” (Kathy Troccoli) - Advanced
"Go Light Your World” is, as Shannon freely admitted after her performance, not the first song people expect to hear on American Idol. It is a true CCM (contemporary Christian music) song, coming from one of American popular music’s most insular markets, from which very few songs ever cross over to pop radio unless they are nonspecific enough to allow interpretations other than the intended religious meaning. Despite earning one crossover hit with another song, mainstream pop writer Diane Warren’s “Everything Changes” in 1991, Kathy Troccoli is very much a CCM star, well-known for playing to the suburban evangelical audiences of her genre by not shying away from controversies such as abortion (the theme of her 1998 smash, “A Baby’s Prayer”) and often picking or writing material drawn from actual bible verses. In other words, she’s quite distinct from Amy Grant, her crossover-friendly contemporary who served as a more apt ambassador for the genre through her moderate but internally controversial stance on issues of language, style, and even personal life in terms of her high-profile divorce. Chris Rice, a songwriter active since the mid-1980s, wrote “Go Light Your World” based on the passage from Matthew 5:14-16 in which Christ is described as a beacon of light to the nations, passing on a model for ethical Kingdom living in his every action. Rice won a recording contract after the song’s 1995 success, and Troccoli got another in her long string of successful praise anthems, but many will have heard it for the first time on tonight’s show, in a remarkably faithful rendition. To be sure, Shannon adds some moderate touches of gospel melisma to the melody, but keeps the basic template of a pop diva a la Celine Dion singing Christian lyrics, which is just what gave Troccoli much of her appeal and continues to win her fans. Shannon takes a calculated risk with the unfamiliarity of the material outside of the CCM base, but doesn’t make major mistakes that would disappoint the faithful in either sense of the word.
Skylar Laine – “Stay with Me” (The Faces) - Advanced
By performing a blistering rendition of “Stay with Me,” a choice cut from Rod Stewart’s early band, the Faces, Skylar wins my vote as the most promising performer of the night. A top 10 hit in their native UK and a top 20 chart entry in the US drawn from their cheekily titled 1971 album A Nod Is as Good as a Wink…to a Blind Horse, “Stay with Me” was written by Rod in tandem with his bandmate Ronnie Wood, a renowned guitarist who would later go on to join the Rolling Stones while Rod developed his solo career. Wood’s killer licks, which Idol’s staff guitarists could scarcely approximate, provided the perfect grounding for Rod’s introduction to Top 40 listeners, a growling blues lead in which he essentially propositions a passed-out dame for a one-night stand the way only Rod in his ‘70s player persona could do, and without the hints of ridiculous self-parody that would haunt his solo records from the late 1970s on. Since Skylar is the only one of tonight’s three country-oriented performers to actually come from the Deep South (Mississippi, as opposed to Baylie’s native Texas and Chelsea’s hometown in North Carolina), it should come as no surprise, despite the notable absence of such material in her performances up to this point, that she has the blues in her. By paying tribute to this underrated favorite of hers, she sets herself up as the peer of Gretchen Wilson and Miranda Lambert, both gutsy country singer-songwriters steeped in a solid appreciation of classic rock. Skylar delivers this slice of blues-rock with so much energy, so much swagger, and such true conviction in every word that we forget little things like the fact that it came from two Britons over four decades ago, that she’s a woman singing a song from the perspective of an extremely assertive man, and that she had only turned eighteen less than a month before this performance. This is a world-class roots music performance up to par with the legacy of Janis Joplin, to whom comparisons will doubtless emerge in the coming weeks, and I eagerly await what more this performer has to offer.