The 2012 American Idol Songbook--Week of March 28
Introduction: Top 9 Finalists Sing Their Own Idols' Songs
On March 28, after three weeks of theme shows that threw curveballs at whichever contestants were least familiar with the prescribed repertoire, the top nine American Idol contestants finally got to explore more familiar territory and, in many cases, did what they do best. The results were unsurprisingly more competitive than I’ve come to expect, although there were several performances that rose a cut above the rest and really made an impression on me. Stevie Nicks, the folk-influenced member of Fleetwood Mac who later became a successful solo performer under the aegis of producer Iovine, mentored with him and helped bring out much-needed authenticity from even some of the flakiest contestants this season. The same could not necessarily be said of the trio medleys interspersed throughout the show, including nods to Nicks, Michael Jackson, and Madonna that rarely showcased the individuals’ talents any better than the group performances on results nights. The eclectic solo set list owed itself to the show’s vague “sing the songs of your own idol” theme, which contestants interpreted in several ways. Those that chose songs they found personally inspirational, as did Colton, Heejun, and Hollie, sometimes had trouble keeping the performance as pitch-perfect as it was emotional, but they each brought genuine conviction and warmth to the songs. Joshua and Skylar each had their moments and are without a doubt some of the most passionate performers in the competition, but each struggled to convey the song as a cohesive story in a way that jibed with their own style of music. DeAndre, Elise, and Phillip, however, chose material rarely heard on Idol and gave it a faithful treatment that really showcased their potential, providing a particularly nice surprise in the case of the recently underperforming DeAndre. Jessica repeated last week’s success by once again proving that she not only can sing impeccably but can also build upon the original to make a song her own.
Colton Dixon – “Everything” (Lifehouse) – Advanced
“Everything” is a track from No Name Face, the landmark 2000 debut album by Jason Wade’s band Lifehouse. I say landmark because when No Name Face came out, complete with a Top Ten pop single in “Hanging by a Moment,” Lifehouse got a mainstream reception that no clearly Christian-focused rock act had gotten since metal band Stryper in the late 1980s. Wade, the child of missionaries who ministered in several East Asian countries before returning to their native United States, was honest but not pushy about his spirituality. This trait, combined with his knack for moody, melodic post-grunge along the lines of contemporary bands such as Creed and Linkin Park, to make Lifehouse popular with the Christian rock and pop-rock scenes alike. Even more than hit singles such as “Hanging by a Moment” and “Whatever It Takes,” “Everything” delves into the redemptive powers of God in dark times. Wade’s somber melody, tender but nuanced delivery, and lack of specific references to the divine (save for the allusion to Christ’s calming the waters), all combined to create an aural experience that appealed to teenagers and young adults of all persuasions. The ultimate effect is a sense of security that people seek in many sources, both sacred and profane. As the mentors point out, Colton needs to sell his song’s universality by making it just as easy to see the song as directed toward his female fans as to the Lord, and he succeeds to a point. His performance style didn’t always connect in the way I expected, and veers more here towards the showmanship of Christian pop performers than the subtle alt-rock tones Wade sang on the original, which I felt conveyed the song’s message more effectively than Colton’s take. However, Colton made the song interesting enough to maintain my interest by respecting the essence of its melody, rarely trying to give it a power ballad belt where it wasn’t needed.
Heejun Han – “A Song for You” (Donny Hathaway) – Eliminated
“A Song for You” is that rare song that seems to be aiming explicitly for timelessness (indeed, it revolves around a love seemingly existing “in a place where there is no space and time”) and succeeds in doing so. Leon Russell, well-known to pop listeners for his own singer-songwriter hits “Tight Rope” and “Lady Blue,” was a fixture of the Tulsa Sound scene in the early 1970s. Back then, he made music that seamlessly fused blues, country, rock, and jazz into an eclectic mélange that inspired much of what we would later call roots-rock. On many of his songs, including “Tight Rope,” “This Masquerade,” and “A Song for You,” Russell plays on the idea of love as a musical performance, always needing the perfect balance of variety and consistency to keep going. “A Song for You,” from Russell’s solo debut Leon Russell (1970), seems almost like a wistful, somewhat apologetic ode to Russell’s own “eternal beloved” after Beethoven, and it has consequently attracted an endless string of covers, ranging from pop singers Andy Williams and the Carpenters to country stalwart Willie Nelson and soul singers Ray Charles and Amy Winehouse. The version Heejun used was from his own hero, Donny Hathaway, an exceptional and highly influential vocalist who once rivaled Marvin Gaye but was dogged by some of the same demons, eventually committing suicide in 1979 after years of struggling with paranoid schizophrenia in an outcome that tragically overshadowed his talent in many latter-day accounts of his career. Hathaway’s internal turmoil poured out into his rendition of “A Song for You” on his self-titled second album, and by choosing it, Heejun signals his desire to get serious for once. As it turns out, Heejun hasn’t entirely lost his taste for classic R&B runs, and he gives a performance refreshingly free of karaoke pretensions, proving why he was, after all, selected, and showing what he can do with the right song. He may not be the most technically perfect singer in the competition, but he does tell the story in a lucid, touching manner.
Hollie Cavanagh – “Jesus, Take the Wheel” (Carrie Underwood) – Advanced
Comparing two popular songs with spiritual content, “Everything” and “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” gives a keen illustration of just how ambiguous musical genre labels can be. While the former could just as easily refer to a human lover but is recognized by even contestant Colton as a Christian “worship song,” the latter exudes Christianity in its very title and is seen very much as mainstream country music. “Jesus, Take the Wheel” is important, however, for more than just its spiritual content, which earned it a Top Five ranking on the Christian radio charts before it spent six weeks at the top of the country listings. The song was the first “real” single from Carrie Underwood, if one discounts the pre-written “Inside Your Heaven” that she had already performed on the finale, and displayed Carrie’s skill at a more intimate, emotional style of country than the boisterous romps for which she has become known. The song was co-written by Brett James (already represented this season with Underwood’s “Cowboy Casanova,” as performed by Chelsea Sorrell) and Gordie Sampson (see Colton’s rendition of Hunter Hayes’ Sampson-penned “Storm Warning”). The collaborator most closely tied to Underwood, though, is Hillary Lindsey. One of the most prominent female songwriters in country music since the mid-1990s, Lindsey has penned most of her most memorable songs for distaff greats such as Martina McBride (“This One’s for the Girls”), Lady Antebellum (“American Honey”), and Taylor Swift (“Fearless”), and earned an Oscar nomination for her work on the soundtrack of Country Strong. Underwood owes her a debt for other hits such as “Wasted,” “So Small,” and “Last Name,” but “Jesus, Take the Wheel” is perhaps the most “country” of those four. It tells the classic story of a harried mother whose priorities are rejiggered by a near-death experience on an icy road which reminds her of what’s really important, love of family and community in the mold of the titular Savior. Underwood’s voice modulates beautifully on the original, all to the sound of a traditional three-chord melody and fiddle accompaniment. Hollie, though born in Texas, is not a country singer in terms of her voice, and her pop approach doesn’t always fit the song well, compared to some of her earlier choices. However, her performance exhibits sincerity commensurate to her obvious vocal power, a result no doubt influenced by her emotional conversation with Stevie about the latter’s personal tragedy.
Joshua Ledet – “Without You” (Mariah Carey) – Advanced
“Without You,” while quite a simple song, has a complex history. Pete Ham and Tom Evans wrote and recorded the song in 1970 as part of their group Badfinger’s third album No Dice. Badfinger showed 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 to be expected since it’s really a splice of two songs. Ham wrote the chorus of “If It’s Love” based on his regret of 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, and 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 Nilson 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, but it’s always struck me as a somewhat overwrought cover more in keeping with singer-songwriter Nilsson’s sometimes cabaret-like artistic sensibility than with the inherent content of the song. Mariah Carey’s version, recorded on her album Music Box in 1994, became one of her most global 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, Kelly Clarkson and Leona Lewis included, long before Joshua’s rendition. I would have hoped that Joshua would really make the song a retro soul classic on the order of “When a Man Loves a Woman,” which he sang so impeccably earlier in the season. Unfortunately, though he is visibly moved by the song, he struggles with the intimate verses to the same degree that he succeeds with the powerhouse chorus, reflecting the inherent dichotomy of the song itself and giving a mixed performance as he had with “She’s Got a Way.” Joshua needs to find material that he can bring to life throughout the song, not just on the power notes, and therein lays his greatest challenge.
Skylar Laine – “Gunpowder and Lead” (Miranda Lambert) – Advanced
“Gunpowder and Lead,” as the title suggests, fits squarely into the classic country and blues form of the murder ballad, but with a twist that turns the misogyny often posited in the “crime of passion” ethos inside out. Lambert, the child of private investigators who would often shelter the victims of abusive situations, wove a tale of revenge in which a love interest fitting into the classic pattern of a drunken wife-batterer is finally dispatched on his way home from the jail he was just bailed out of and thinks he’ll return from to continue the pattern. Though this territory was also covered in the Dixie Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” and Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” Miranda’s personal experience (she wrote the song with her frequent collaborator Heather Little) and gritty voice made this record as tough as country gets. The righteous anger, if a bit rash in execution (no pun intended), struck a chord with listeners and became her first Top Ten country hit in 2008. While Lambert has also proven her ability to soothe with ballads such as
“The House That Built Me,” her persona as the female answer to the classic country outlaw persona comes through most clearly on records like this, drawn from her smash sophomore album, the aptly named Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Skylar’s blues/country mix has always been heavily influenced by Lambert, so it’s no surprise that she chooses a Lambert song. This should not be a mixed bag. It’s no-holds-barred music, right up Skylar’s alley, and she sings with the same verve I’ve come to know and love, the sound of some of the most energetic American music ever made. However, while I don’t mind the periodic jumping that’s very much in the Janis Joplin tradition, Skylar’s tiresome efforts to reach out and touch the audience (a common affliction of Idol contestants) and her literal gestures distract from a lyric that tells a story so controversial and powerful no video was deemed necessary or, perhaps, appropriate. Charades are not what country music is about, particularly when sung by a vocalist as talented as Skylar: she can and should tell the story primarily with her voice rather than her body, and she’ll hopefully return next week and do exactly that.
DeAndre Brackensick – “Sometimes I Cry” (Eric Benet) – Advanced
Pardon me if I sound like a crotchety old man (I’m twenty-three, just for the record), but “Sometimes I Cry” harks back to a time when mainstream R&B was far more musical than it is today. Eric Benet made it clear that his Lost in Time album from 2010, from which the single entered the R&B Top 20, was very much intended to be a throwback to a time when the sensuous grooves and romantic lyrics of great urban music could sustain an album instead of a mere succession of ringtones. Like many of his fellow neo-soul acts, now limited mainly to urban radio in a climate that doesn’t reward such music the way pop radio did from the 1970s through the early 2000s, Benet writes his own material. He penned most of the album with his cousin George Nash, Jr. The lyrics of “Sometimes I Cry” may have been a standard breakup song on paper, but the melody’s funky curves and Benet’s perfectly modulated falsetto made the recording a true feast for the ears. DeAndre does the song justice and proves that he can bowl over the skeptics when singing a tune that goes with his stratospheric voice. It’s his best yet, and proves that with the right management, DeAndre could be a compelling R&B star, especially if real music becomes fashionable again amongst the Twitter generation, a welcome phenomenon which he could very well help bring about.
Elise Testone – “Whole Lotta Love” (Led Zeppelin) – Advanced
Once upon a time, before heavy metal became ensconced in public discourse as a symbol of rock rebellion in a post-Elvis age or a parental scapegoat, it was just another genre waiting for its break into the mainstream. When Led Zeppelin released “Whole Lotta Love,” the lead single from their second self-titled album (they all were, of course) in 1969, hard rock had a reputation in the United States as psychedelia’s pretentious stepsister, all flash and no soul. In the U.K., of course, the Zep’s compatriots such as Deep Purple and Black Sabbath had already established a foothold, but it was only with the release of Zeppelin II and its smash hit single that American radio got a genuine taste of the new sound in its classic form, a visceral mix of electrified blues riffs, folk themes, and countercultural messaging. “Whole Lotta Love” attracted a different kind of controversy when Robert Plant had to admit to lifting significant portions of the lyrics from Muddy Waters’s “You Need Love,” a blues evergreen written by Chess Records maestro Willie Dixon. The group had evolved from the Yardbirds, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck’s band that was well-known for its blues covers, so the borrowing appeared to be more out of force of habit than intentional copying, and the basically American source material certainly didn’t hurt the song’s potential across the pond. This anthem is pure sonic sex, and only the most volcanic of vocalists can really make it sound convincing. Elise proves herself to be one of those singers, wringing every last drop of energy out of a song that can be a disaster when soft-pedaled, as more pop-oriented singers like Colton, Erika, or season 8’s Allison Iraheta might have done. We may have a James Durbin on our hands this year, and I hope America is ready for her.
Phillip Phillips – “Still Rainin’” (Jonny Lang) – Advanced
By performing “Still Rainin’” by Jonny Lang, Phillip Phillips is taking a big chunk of the Idol audience, including myself, to school. If there ever was a blues-rock prodigy, Jonny Lang was it, releasing his debut album at the age of fourteen. To all those who decried his first album as a “look at the talented kid” gimmick, he responded by making his work better and better. The result was Wander This World, the Grammy-nominated album a now seventeen-year-old Lang released in 1998 and a tour de force showing an artist clearly beyond his years, almost developing too fast for the hidebound conventions of the mainstream record industry too catch up with. “Still Rainin’” showed Lang at his best as both a sterling electric guitarist and a mesmerizing blues vocalist, recalling shades of Mick Jagger, John Mellencamp, and Billy Idol all rolled into one without ever making us think we were dealing with anything less than a true original. The song, composed by Lang’s keyboardist Bruce McCabe, is a classic lament that manages to be forceful and engaging in its sorrow the way great blues always does, but it’s the performance, as with most music in the genre, that really brings it to life. Phillip clearly owes a lot to Lang in terms of style and choice of material. He surely knew he was taking a risk picking one of the most obscure song choices in Idol history this side of a theme night. But you know what? This is what music as an art is supposed to be about: we discover new things, and often we are pleasantly surprised. If this hurts him as a contestant for public votes, as Jimmy has feared might happen, it won’t be Phillip’s fault. Nicks was right: Mick Fleetwood would have signed him up in a second, especially during the Mac’s blues-rock phase under Peter Green.
Jessica Sánchez – “Sweet Dreams” (Beyoncé) – Advanced
“Sweet Dreams” comes from an artist and three songwriter-producers who are in the thick of what we think of as pop music today, so it comes as something of a surprise that it should be part of a double concept album.However, that album, Beyoncé’s 2008 release I Am…Sasha Fierce, was very much about the contrast between bombastic persona and down-to-earth personality that pervade many of today’s mass-market music celebs.After playing an eclectic early soul diva, the late Etta James, in the 2008 film Cadillac Records (a fictionalized version of the history of 1950s and 1960s Chicago blues mecca Chess Records), Beyoncé decided she wanted to mix more styles into her popular R&B brew.The results were wildly popular but stylistically disappointing, and I never really got the feeling that either the folk and rock elements on I Am (as in “I am Beyoncé the person) or the electronica and dance tone of Sasha Fierce (representing Beyoncé’s indomitable stage persona a la Sgt. Pepper) really gelled as a united whole.In the end, both “Halo” and “If I Were a Boy,” from I Am, sounded scarcely less synthetic than “Single Ladies” or “Sweet Dreams,” from Sasha Fierce, drawing into question the central premise of the record and ultimately making me miss her more genre-bound material on Dangerously in Love and Independence Day, her first two solo albums.Part of what made the original of “Sweet Dreams” neither here nor there for me was the insistent beat that never quite went with the sepulchral melody, courtesy of ring-tone auteurs Jim Jonsin (Lil’ Wayne’s “Lollipop,” T.I.’s “Whatever You Like”), Rico Love (Usher’s “There Goes My Baby,” Nelly’s “Just a Dream”), and Wayne Wilkins (a Briton best-known for working with Natasha Bedingfield on the far more entertaining “These Words” and “Love Like This”).As a rule of thumb, songwriting by committee seldom yields good results, and experience with the most commercialized styles of hip-hop that crowd out truly innovative rappers doesn’t necessarily translate into ability to produce something fit for Beyoncé’s dynamic voice and admittedly well-thought out lyrics on “Sweet Dreams.”By slowing down the tempo and taking out some of the bleeps and bloops that made the record so silly and overblown, Jessica has done Beyoncé a favor and shown the world what a beautiful song she wrote and might have sung on the record were it not for the producers’ strange conceptions of what people want to hear.It’s powerful and impressive from the first harp strum to the final close of the door behind Jessica, who once again takes over a song and proves herself the voice to beat.