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The 2012 American Idol Songbook--Week of March 21
Introduction: Top 10 Finalists Sing Billy Joel
The night of March 21, 2012, will go down as one of the most unpredictable in Idol history, a fitting tribute to one of American pop music’s great enigmas, Billy Joel. Joel is an entertainer full of paradoxes, at once a literate poet and a proletarian rocker, a sensitive romantic and an enfant terrible notoriously non-receptive to preconceived notions of what he ought to be. He is an exceptional pianist with a distinctive voice and a flair for writing challenging melodies that almost force the listener, by their sheer complexity and novelty, to pay attention to some of the wittiest lyrics ever heard on Top 40 radio. Although his oeuvre contains many tributes to particular styles of music and thereby has an eclectic, “something for everyone” feel to it, the songs themselves are so specific to Joel and performed so uniquely by him that the voice of working-class New York is seldom covered, at least when compared to similarly successful singer-songwriters. Unfamiliarity with his catalog among the young contestants, many of whom could not be more alien to Joel’s artiste persona and pop-rock style, rendered the night a bit of a slog for many of these singers, only one of whom selected something suiting their tastes from his more diverse post-1970s material. The pre-announced mentor, Huey Lewis, is something of a Billy Joel lite in terms of his musical style and populist bar-band image, but he couldn’t make it. Instead we got Diddy, the king of East Coast hip-hop and a fellow New Yorker. Diddy is from Generation X, the one that actually grew up with Billy’s music, which gives him somewhat more affinity for it than many of the contestants. He also proved a brilliant but respectful judge of exactly what the singers needed to get their point across. Tommy Hilfiger’s fashion advice, while not always followed by some of the men who may not be accustomed to such counsel, did wonders for the image of some of the artists. When all was said and done, some underperformed, but others rose to the occasion with performances that, in two cases, brought the most obscure of album tracks into the limelight for good. DeAndre and Heejun were more flash than substance, failing to convey the kernel of their song choices in a salient way. Hollie, Joshua, and Skylar each struggled with their choices but found some points of connection with the songs that salvaged their performances. Elise and Erika gave us classic, relatively no-frills Joel tracks, and did it extremely well. Colton, Phillip, and Jessica, however, did what I thought well-nigh impossible before the night’s show: they actually made Billy Joel’s songs their own.
DeAndre Brackensick – “Only the Good Die Young” - Advanced
"Only the Good Die Young" has such a reputation as a jubilant party song that it’s easy to forget the controversy it stirred up back when it was first released in 1977. After all, the lyrics did pertain, as Jimmy mentions in the mentoring session, to a horny teenager wooing a girl with a Catholic upbringing and a traditional morality with regards to premarital sex. Joel gets in plenty of barbs at the way in which dogma can separate people from their true human nature, but the real point of the song is more prosaic than polemical. In addition, the refreshing ska arrangement, sped up from the original reggae beat that Joel’s drummer didn’t care for, did more than enough to make the song a mild hit in spite of considerable radio censorship. “Only the Good Die Young” also had the momentum of three previous singles from The Stranger, Joel’s commercial breakthrough and first album with longtime producer Phil Ramone that is still ranked by many as his most artistically perfect record. On one level, I can see where DeAndre is coming from in his song choice. He’s shown an affinity for Jamaican rhythms before and may have wanted to show once again that he’s more than a pretty face singing ballads and that he knows how to have fun. However, DeAndre doesn’t pull off the swagger needed to make this song work, making the song’s adolescent angst clash with his laid-back attitude and bringing his inconsistent vocals into uncomfortable relief. Perhaps one of the ballads in Joel’s catalog might have been more appropriate for DeAndre’s talents, since his romantic vulnerability would be quite convincing on “She’s Always a Woman” (also from The Stranger) or “An Innocent Man,” the latter containing a falsetto part that he would have nailed.
Heejun Han – “My Life” - Advanced
“My Life” was a classic example of Billy Joel the gadfly, insisting on what any true student of his already knows: you can’t pin this guy’s style down and you can’t control it, no matter how much you may think he is a mere pop star. The song’s independent, devil-may-care spirit can be interpreted in many ways: a response to being pigeonholed by critics, a reaction to domineering parents, or an oblique tribute to offbeat comedian Richard Lewis’s move from the Big Apple to L.A. The song’s weird, funky synth chords were akin to those used by jazz-rock groups such as Steely Dan, and indeed Peter Cetera and Donnie Dacus from the band Chicago are rumored to contribute backing vocals. The whole mix stormed 1978 radio as the lead single from Joel’s 52nd Street, a follow-up to The Stranger that lived up to its commercial and critical promise. 52nd Street went on to become the first commercial CD upon its 1982 re-release, and “My Life” became Joel’s second Top Ten hit and later the theme from Tom Hanks’s TV debut, Bosom Buddies. Heejun’s song choice is brilliant, no matter how much one might have hoped he would stick to simple pop like “Just the Way You Are.” To be sure, he gives the worst vocal performance of the night, but he has infectious fun with the choice and conveys, from his burlesque of the mentors to his glib interactions with the judges afterwards, a total consciousness of the silly, circus-like atmosphere that all too often pervades Idol. In Heejun’s hands, the song’s message of “I don’t care what you say [or think of me]” comes out loud and clear, and his future in improv, as opposed to the recording industry, looks quite bright.
Hollie Cavanagh – “Honesty” - Advanced
“Honesty,” the third single culled from 52nd Street, was one of Joel’s most anguished ballads. Joel managed to encapsulate Kafkaesque paranoia in a romantic framework in the space of a few minutes, and displayed his usual knack for weaving big words and high concepts into a meter that sings well, something only a truly gifted songwriter could do. His composing here also made melody-writing look all too easy by fusing a pop form to moody minor chords more reminiscent of a Beethoven sonata than a Top 20 love song, but that’s just Billy J., always full of surprises. Hollie isn’t the first pop diva to try this song, since Beyoncé did a version for a Destiny’s Child retrospective in 2008 (entitled Matthew Knowles and Music World Present Vol. 1: Destiny). On that version, the soulful siren took the song quite seamlessly into Stevie Wonder territory. Hollie struggles with the song’s intimacy. Her mentors’ counsel reduced but didn’t eliminate a tendency to over-perform that doesn’t work well with the song’s subtle sense of ennui. That said, she doesn’t mangle Joel’s delicate melody and impresses with her vocal resemblance to Christina Aguilera in both talent and timbre. I agree with Randy’s assessment that she simply had too little time to prepare for unfamiliar territory and will hopefully return to form when given free choice or on a more germane theme night.
Joshua Ledet – “She’s Got a Way” - Advanced
“She’s Got a Way” has never been one of Joel’s favorites, but it holds an important place in his catalog as a selection from his very first solo album. In 1971, Joel recorded Cold Spring Harbor on Family Productions after making several other recordings with groups like the Echoes and the Hassles. The boutique label’s owner, Artie Ripp, had helped make stars out of the Shangri-Las (Joel played on “Leader of the Pack”) and the Lovin’ Spoonful, but he’d lost his touch. Joel’s songwriting also hadn’t matured yet, so the time at Family Productions was an unpleasant stretch Joel was glad to leave behind for Columbia Records. The song’s melody is relatively simple by Joel standards. It gives a rather straightforward account of a supportive girlfriend without the dictionary-crawling creativity that marked his later lyrics. “She’s Got a Way” finally became a hit by virtue of inclusion on Joel’s first live album, 1981’s Songs in the Attic, a showcase of his early work to his new fans. Like DeAndre, Joshua may have miscalculated the song choice for understandable reasons. Joshua’s intense soul style often works best with a song that doesn’t have too dense a melody, because his own voice and energetic performance is more than enough to give his rendition life. He does seem heartfelt on some parts of the song, and more than one judge noticed how he seemed to come alive with the gospel take on the last chorus, but a sense of real unity and progression was missing, and that’s exactly what makes him so electrifying at his best. In some ways, it could be considered another example of the pitfalls of theme weeks, although at least one of the mentors could have suggested something with more panache such as the Motown-like “Tell Her About It,” which in Joshua’s hands would have had the audience on their feet.
Skylar Laine – “Shameless” - Advanced
Billy Joel’s music, with its naked emotions and working-class outlook, could be convincingly called the closest thing there is to an urban equivalent of country music. When one factors in his eclecticism, it should come as no surprise that a country cover would emerge at some point, and in 1991 it did. In 1989, Billy released Storm Front and enjoyed several major hits, including “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” “I Go to Extremes,” and “And So It Goes,” despite a radical shift in sound due to a reshuffle of his band. Among the album tracks was “Shameless,” a song that mixed desperation and bravado, self-pity and cool detachment, in its cynical love lyric, all wrapped up in a melody punctuated by a quasi-dissonant chord that most resembles classic Hendrix but could easily be converted into twang. All of the above appealed to singer-songwriter Garth Brooks and fit perfectly with his gadabout persona. It turns out that Brooks was also a huge fan of Joel’s. Brooks sought and received permission directly from Joel to record the song on Ropin’ the Wind, the 1991 album that helped revive country crossover after some lean years in the mid- to late 1980s by debuting at number one on the pop charts, a first for the genre. The song topped the country charts as Brooks’s second single. Now Skylar, our resident “rockin’ country girl” in Randy’s words, gives it a go. Her performance is neither as fun nor as musically dazzling as some of her more recent efforts, but she may have been wise to bulwark her country music cred by picking a song that Brooks made straight country on his version, instead of opting for an unfamiliar song as some other singers were forced to do that night.
Elise Testone – “Vienna” - Advanced
"Vienna" is from The Stranger and could be called the polar opposite of “Only the Good Die Young.” While “Only the Good Die Young” was a rocker advocating a lustful carpe diem mentality in the mold of Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” “Vienna” was a ballad imploring the listener to take their time. The accordion transitions on the song, reproduced on Elise’s version, clued the listener in that Vienna was more than a mere metaphor. Joel attributed it, in a 2008 New York Times interview, to a powerful experience he had while visiting his father who had moved to the Austrian capital. The sight of an old lady happily sweeping the street instead of living in retired isolation made Joel consider that the American focus on youth culture may be detracting from our enjoyment of all phases of life, a profound idea that he condensed into a poetic song as he is wont to do. The song’s melody, accompaniment notwithstanding, was more Elton John than continental chanson, but it was still an unusual selection for an American pop record. Elise proves her knowledge of Joel’s deep catalog by singing it with feeling in what may be the best performance of the night. She gives the song the color, complexity, and respect it deserves, channeling Joel at his best and giving a rendition of which he should be proud. Then again, she’s always been a piano singer-songwriter type, so why should we be surprised?
Erika Van Pelt – “New York State of Mind” - Eliminated
“New York State of Mind” goes right up there with “New York, New York” (either the On the Town version by Bernstein or the Liza Minnelli song) as one of the all-time great paeans to America’s largest city and Joel’s hometown. Joel recorded it on Turnstiles, the 1976 album that was his first to actually be recorded in his hometown after moving to L.A. to find his fortune. For the first time, he recorded with his band, since he was producing his own record after rejecting arrangements by Chicago’s producer James William Guercio, resulting in one of Joel’s true early treasures. The song namechecks local institutions and landmarks, from the world-famous to the delightfully obscure, and could rival its predecessors for official song status if the matter is ever put up for a vote. In any case, his fellow New Yorker Barbra Streisand had a minor easy listening hit with her sublime version from 1977’s Superman, paving the way for Erika’s jazzy take on the song. Erika flexes her signature pipes, as did Streisand, on some of the song’s more dramatic turns, but she keeps the proceedings light and breezy. New Englander though she may be, Erika feels right at home on a song that encapsulates its author’s zeitgeist as New York’s musical poet laureate, and her punk haircut courtesy of Hilfiger’s makeover looks sensational to boot.
Colton Dixon – “Piano Man” - Advanced
“Piano Man,” written during Joel’s California sojourn for his 1973 album Streetlife Serenade, was one of those songs that define an entire career.Whether people loved or hated its Dylanesque meandering and singsong lyrics, they had to admit in retrospect that Joel’s first hit, though nowhere near his biggest, embodied the status he came to enjoy as urban America’s everyman troubadour.As is often the case with his songs, there’s a story behind “Piano Man”: while waiting to clear up legal troubles with Family Productions, which had botched the mastering on Cold Spring Harbor, he hid out in piano bars as a lounge singer, a humbling experience for a promising young singer-songwriter.The song had a certain edge of sarcasm to it, but anyone who’s enjoyed a drunken karaoke night knows how easy it is for it to be taken literally.No matter what Joel or anyone else says about a song that admittedly does not rank with his most ingenious, “Piano Man” will always be one of the first things people think of when they think Billy Joel.Colton does accompany himself on the piano, oddly enough the only time anyone did on Billy Joel night, but he doesn’t just play the story song straight, which would not really work in the Idol context.By singing the vocals in a wavering, emo fashion, he puts the song in a whole new light, making it something that would sound perfectly at home on a Snow Patrol or My Chemical Romance record and delivering the most remarkable surprise of the night.While it’s always been clear that Colton had the looks and the heartthrob charisma to garner votes, this nuanced performance proves he may indeed have the talent to make it all the way to the finale.
Jessica Sánchez – “Everybody Has a Dream” - Advanced
“Everybody Has a Dream” was yet another track from The Stranger, and crystallized the anxiety of a man trying to recapture the ambition that drove him to become an artist in the first place. Joel’s melody was low-key with a hint of gospel, the latter courtesy of the organ backing that producer Phil Ramone provided on the track. The lyrics posed the eternal questions: “Who am I?” “What am I searching for?” “Where am I headed?” This gives them a universality often lacking in the very specific content of Joel’s songs. It also appeals to Jessica, who sees in them a reflection of her own meteoric rise to stardom through the serendipity of American Idol. This song tells something akin to her story, and she takes direction perfectly from her mentors while bringing her own personal connection to the song. She makes it work as urban contemporary without over-singing the verses, recovering the excellent standard she set with her version of “I Will Always Love You” and proving that her dream of Idol victory has a good chance of coming true.
Phillip Phillips – “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” - Advanced
“Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song),” from The Stranger, was Joel at his most sardonic. The song’s prosaic melody fit a biting lyric, in which Joel skewered the superficiality of many city-dwellers’ attempts at upward mobility. Like most satire, “Movin’ Out” may not have been the easiest pill to swallow for its targets, but the cautionary tale of greedy Tony’s self-destructive avarice did have a positive purpose if one looks deeper, a certain injunction to appreciate what one has and not sacrifice it for the sake of distant, possibly unattainable goals. In a time when the excesses of capitalism are once again being questioned, Phillip’s song choice hits a bit of a nerve, and he makes sure we get to hear every one of Joel’s intricate words by slowing down the tempo. In the same manner as he did with Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight,” Phillip makes “Movin’ Out” a more compelling experience in some ways than the record by emphasizing the song as composition and not merely as a commodity, a welcome development in today’s commercialized music scene. His guitar, his casual fashions, and his occasional growling tone are not “crutches” he relies on to avoid letting go, as the mentors insinuate. They are all part and parcel of the way he simultaneously respects and expands upon a song, letting it breathe and showing us another side of a work of art that we never knew.