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The 2012 American Idol Songbook--Week of April 4
Introduction: Top 8 Finalists Sing Songs from the 1980s
The 1980s, the period on which this theme night focused, has a reputation in the United States as the “Decade of Decadence,” an era of conspicuous consumption when everything was flashy, colorful, occasionally puerile, and enhanced with electronic wizardry that didn’t seem as mundane as it does in the Digital Age. The music that the word “80s” conjures up tends to carry all of those attributes, but as with any period of time that long, there is far more to the era than meets the eye. Just as there were middle-class families increasingly struggling to get by and government neglect of inner-city neighborhoods behind the commercial gloss of the era’s mainstream pop culture, so there were many styles of unique, intimate, even (gasp!) acoustic music behind the nostalgic image of hair bands and dance-pop that colors our collective memory of the time. Gen-X’ers may feel as nostalgic for the ‘80s sound as for the fashions Seacrest rattled off at the beginning of this night of Idol, but Steven Tyler made one of his most astute comments ever when he noted that the paradoxically impersonal yet egotistical style of many performances made this a challenging “era of music for today’s voices.” Some songs from the period are indeed frozen in time and inseparable from arrangements that just don’t work today, especially live, but the majority of tonight’s contestants made choices that fit or even expanded on the distinctive sound they’ve built up over the season. In this respect, they were helped by some of the best advice Jimmy has given all season and by the moral support and enthusiasm, though not always by the expertise, of Gwen Stefani and Tony Kanal from No Doubt. Limiting mentors to individuals who (with the exception of Jimmy’s former colleague Stevie Nicks) are signed to Jimmy’s Interscope-A&M-Geffen labels can lend itself to some odd choices of first mate, but at least No Doubt was heavily influenced by the era’s music. Oddly enough, neither the band’s new wave forefathers nor Gwen’s obvious solo model Madonna were represented tonight, which might have led to some better tips from the duo. Except for DeAndre and Hollie’s tepid “I’m So Excited,” each of the four duets was first-class, although Skylar was clearly more into “Islands in the Stream” than Colton and outperformed her later solo. Hollie, one of the most promising technical voices in the competition, unfortunately stumbled for the second time in a row, but Elise and Skylar also were slightly less in control than last week, though certainly no less promising. DeAndre, Jessica, and Joshua all performed first-class R&B numbers, however, and Colton and Phillip’s masterful remakes were delightfully full of surprises, making this another above-average theme night overall.
Hollie Cavanagh – “What a Feeling (Theme from Flashdance)” (Irene Cara) – Advanced
Flashdance, a poorly reviewed but commercially successful 1983 movie whose soundtrack became one of the best-selling of all time, revolved around a high school grad who works two jobs as a welder and a stripper to pay her way through dance training at a conservatory. Adrian Lyne’s film featured the production of future TV mogul Jerry Bruckheimer, who brought a background in quick music video cuts to the big screen for the first time. The film was more or less a sequence of videos, of course, and its title song became a definitive emblem of the can-do spirit that seemed to represent the best of the early MTV era. The Italian Giorgio Moroder and the English Keith Forsey, the composer and lyricist respectively of “What a Feeling (Theme from Flashdance),” were two leading men in the multinational contingent that created what we now know as disco. Moroder played keyboard and Forsey drums on many of the classic recordings Donna Summer made for Casablanca Records in the late 1970s, and they both wrote extensively for her before switching to soundtrack and occasional production work when mainstream radio rejected disco near the turn of the 1980s. Though the two wrote the song for Summer’s backing vocalist Joe Esposito, Paramount wanted it re-written for a woman to fit the movie’s heroine. That woman, Irene Cara, had already starred in Fame and had the perfect child star background to accompany both movie’s plots, but she also had a charismatic if not necessarily soulful voice that was compared by many to Summer’s, helping lift the song from a production that admittedly layered on a few too many cheesy synthesizers for potential producer Jimmy’s taste. Hollie’s little-girl-with-a-big-voice image is, in turn, quite reminiscent of Cara’s early career, and so on the surface this might have seemed a good choice. However, Hollie does not seem as secure in her choice of song as the song’s determined protagonist. She seems to have chosen a song that embodies a willingness to let loose and go for it, which is the main thing the judges have advised her to do in order to update her sometimes overly formal style. Hollie’s version of “What a Feeling,” however, seems too forced to be effective as her up-tempo debut, and the off-pitch vocals and chintzy dancing of a slumber party karaoke session aren’t the kind of change of pace this balladeer needed. Her voice has immense power, but she was forced outside her comfort zone by the ‘80s theme and wound up misusing it.
Elise Testone – “I Want to Know What Love Is” (Foreigner) – Advanced
“I Want to Know What Love Is” was the love theme from a concept album, Foreigner’s 1984 release Agent Provocateur, and it naturally became the best-selling single from the record. The concept, a sort of postmodern take on The Odyssey in which a spy looks at his life from a time-distorted mix of first- and third-person perspective, was a bit heady for the rockers’ fan base, but the lead single’s smooth arena pop sound proved Top 40 catnip and shot to the top of the charts. The American Lou Gramm may be the singer, as with most Foreigner singles, but the band’s English guitarist Mick Jones wrote and co-produced this definitive power ballad. The melody’s minor-key verses built up seamlessly to its romantic, dramatic chorus, and the song was a perfect example of arena rock at its stirring best, attracting usually faithful covers from artists as diverse as Tina Arena, Wynonna Judd, and Mariah Carey, just to name a few. Elise Testone joins this growing list, drawing from memories of playing many a Foreigner song with her band mates. Her experience shows in the passion she brings to the song, and has translated to excellent performances in earlier episodes and in her duet this same night with Phillip Phillips on Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks’s “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” When singing “I Want to Know What Love Is,” Elise delivers a sterling rock vocal, but is inconsistent in technique at several points on a song whose memorable melody makes it all the more obvious. The song is lovely and Elise’s version is never unpleasant even when it isn’t note-perfect. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the choir ported from the original doesn’t distract from the song’s solemnity the way it does in some versions.
Skylar Laine – “Wind Beneath My Wings” (Roger Whittaker via Bette Midler) – Advanced
“Wind Beneath My Wings” is one of those pop songs whose earnest intent has been somewhat tarnished through overexposure. It’s difficult, for me at least, to think of the song without picturing it being requested of wedding singers and sung at tributes of all sorts in a sentimental fashion. It is a sentimental song, of course, telling of a lover’s gratitude to an oft-neglected significant other along the lines of Elvis Presley’s “Always on My Mind.” Like that song, the original was written by country songwriters, though in this case, Larry Henley (a member of the Newbeats of “Bread and Butter” fame in the 1960s) and Jeff Silbar were writing it in 1982, a time when very pop-influenced sounds dominated Nashville. Henley had co-written Tanya Tucker’s smash “Lizzie and the Rainman” and Silbar co-authored Lobo’s “Where Were You When I Was Falling in Love?” and Kenny Rogers’ “All My Life,” so they each had a track record in the country-pop genre. The song’s demo was actually at a fast tempo, but Roger Whittaker, the English easy listening star who recorded it first, changed it to its now-familiar ballad style. By 1983, R&B stars Lou Rawls and Gladys Knight and country singer Gary Morris had all enjoyed modest success with it. Bette Midler, of course, cemented the song’s reputation as the ultimate soundtrack for really emotional situations by recording it in the soundtrack to the tearjerker and Midler vehicle Beaches. This is the sort of song that is simplistic in the utmost, but it’s effective when one is in the right mood and is considered infallible in the estimation of a certain caliber of listener. Skylar takes “Wind Beneath My Wings” back to the country roots I knew it had, but it also brought out the craftsmanship of the song than often gets lost in whatever melodrama it’s used to highlight. Up until the last chorus, Skylar’s rendition is good enough to fit into the “Covers” category below, but she finishes on a somewhat sour note by switching to full-blown belter mode without a smooth transition. This song has drama and needs colorful singing to come alive, but it doesn’t necessarily call for a full-fledged power vocal that almost makes me wonder whether Skylar and Hollie are trying to pull a Parent Trap on us. Ultimately, I don’t think quibbles like her trying to awkwardly segue from the last “wings” to “yeah” as a finale detract from the importance of her performance, which establishes that she can handle ballads as well as the upbeat material that had been her bread and butter so far this season (slight pun intended, Mr. Henley).
DeAndre Brackensick – “I Like It” (DeBarge) – Eliminated
“I Like It” was the first crossover hit for DeBarge, the group that represented Motown’s hopes for a second edition of the Jackson clan to keep the cash rolling in through the 1980s. The DeBarge siblings, evolving from Detroit group Switch in 1979, got the royal treatment for the first half of the 1980s, getting to record their own material unlike the Jacksons who had to contend with Motown staff writers’ product while Michael honed his writing skills. In 1982, the conditions were perfect for a midtempo R&B smash to break the disco curse that had slowed everything on radio without electric guitars to a ballad. DeBarge’s album All This Love did the trick, spawning several Top 20 hits on the pop charts including the title track and “I Like It.” “I Like It” was written by Randy DeBarge and the band’s two stars, his sister Bunny and lead singing brother Eldra (“El” to you), and it featured a perfect mix of knee-weakening compliments, gently circulating chord patterns, and El’s high tenor. This slice of ‘80s soul perfection could not be a better choice to continue DeAndre’s meteoric run of success this season, and at this point, controversy over his stage presence and over-reliance on falsetto are neither here nor there. He finally shows on “I Like It” that his regular register can be just as potent as the high notes. In an age when the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon can regularly mint pop stars with a superficiality unseen since the days of the Monkees and Osmonds (R.I.P. Mr. Jones), it’s nice to see someone who could actually back up the strong teenybopper following he’s already earned with real talent.
Jessica Sánchez – “How Will I Know” (Whitney Houston) – Advanced
“How Will I Know” is, with all due respect, not the best song among Whitney’s many original hits. It’s not that George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, the songwriters, didn’t have it in them. They would go on to write the much better “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” for 1987’s Whitney. Back in 1984, when Whitney’s record-breaking debut Whitney Houston was being recorded, the two were still trying to find their footing as writers. Janet Jackson’s label had been interested, but her management wisely declined the so-so number and wound up with the strong breakthrough album Control. Hence, Merrill and Rubicam (also known as singing duo Boy Meets Girl from their 1988 hit “Waiting for a Star to Fall”) shopped the song around to Narada Michael Walden. Walden was at first reluctant to take time out of working on Aretha Franklin’s Who’s Zooming Who? After all, he was one of the decade’s busiest producers, thanks to his knack for combining pop and smooth jazz grooves in productions for Franklin and later Mariah Carey, among others. Eventually, however, he relented after insisting on some major changes and wound up one of Whitney’s main producers. The result on “How Will I Know” was catchy and cheerful, and the lyrics’ cutesy depiction of teen “does he love me or doesn’t he?” angst struck a chord with MTV viewers at a time when African-American performers had just begun to get major airtime thanks to Michael Jackson and Prince’s trailblazing. However, the song’s clunky bop rhythm, perhaps an imposition by Walden rather than the original writer’s intention, dated it severely. By now, however, we should know that Jessica will not let that stop her, and she makes the song as much fun as it ought to be by fully inhabiting the innocent young Whitney persona that it represents, something not all that different from Jessica’s fun-loving alter ego (apparently named B.B. Chez). This performance brings out all the good aspects of the original while minimizing any sense of retro kitsch, which is exactly what a cover of a song from the period ought to do.
Joshua Ledet – “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” (Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes via Simply Red) – Advanced
In 1972, “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” was a turning point in R&B history. After almost a decade in which Motown and the southern soul of Stax/Volt Records represented the peak of soul music’s crossover potential, here was something entirely new to many pop radio listeners. The song had neither the propulsive punch of Motown nor the gritty horn backing of Stax, instead relying on a combination of smooth orchestration and strongly defined melody lines in a sound that was somehow melodramatic and intimate all at the same time. Although Isaac Hayes’s album Hot Buttered Soul and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder’s early concept albums had set the stage for this transition, it was “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” released in late 1972 by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, that confirmed this trend to be here to stay with its number one R&B, number three pop finish. The song was also the beginning of the most prolific period in the lives of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the writer-producers who defined the new soul sound through the output of their recently founded label Philadelphia International Records, the label that was home to the Blue Notes and the O’Jays and helped make the city of brotherly love the capital of contemporary soul music in the 1970s. Oddly enough, Gamble and Huff originally meant the song for fellow Philly native Patti Labelle, who they’d later sign, but she ultimately passed and the song went on the eponymous debut of the then little-known Blue Notes and their lead singer Teddy Pendergrass, one of the most proficient bass leads in the history of R&B. Together, the production team and artist did what the best music in the genre since then has often done, taking a universal lyrical topic, in this case a relationship clearly on the rocks, and rendering it via a haunting melody and gorgeous vocals into a classic. In the U.K., where American popular music (and particularly African-American music) is often more studiously followed than in the USA proper, the blue-eyed soul act Simply Red fell in love at first note with the song and paid tribute with their own version on 1989’s A New Flame, their own U.S. breakthrough that qualified the song for tonight’s performance. Joshua once again is brilliantly adept at choosing songs covered during the theme night era instead of brand new songs from that era, and just as with “When a Man Loves a Woman” from the other week, it pays off. He raises the key to his higher register without a hitch and wrings every emotion you expect from the song, but he also shows true respect for the material by saving his build-up for the appropriate moments.
Colton Dixon – “Time After Time” (Cyndi Lauper) – Advanced
“Time After Time” will always be one of the songs by which I would want to remember Cyndi Lauper. Lauper clearly left behind a lot of things before writing it, but ultimately seemed almost copacetic in the perspective she brought to the lyric, no doubt with some help from a melody co-authored by Rob Hyman, an ace session musician and bassist from the Hooters (a band that also included Eric Bazilian, writing of Joan Osborne’s “One of Us”). Hyman provided vocals in addition to the classic baseline, which is as un-cheesy as ‘80s synths can possibly get and is just another part of the sonic fabric in a production that can only be described as magical. It was a unique, quirky, beautiful song that helped define her smash 1983 debut She’s So Unusual, but Colton’s version is quite different in its approach. He basically announces at the end of his performance that he based it on a version by Quietdrive, an emo band that recorded it on their 2006 debut When All That’s Left Is You, and the rock approach works better with Colton’s voice even if it surprises those accustomed to Lauper’s unforgettable original. Although he borrows Quietdrive’s arrangement that concentrates on the angular new wave dissonance buried beneath the pop sheen of Lauper’s song, Colton also takes time out from basking in his growing following among Idol’s teen girl demographic to add something unique to the song. His riff on the last “If you fall,” a little Easter egg timed just thirty seconds or so before the end, is nothing if not inspired, and he seems to have really found a sound that suits him well.
Phillip Phillips – “That’s All” (Genesis) – Advanced
“That’s All” came from Genesis’s 1983 self-titled album, a kind of reboot that marked the midpoint in the band’s transition from Peter Gabriel’s prog-rock act of the 1970s to the pop act that gave us 1986’s Invisible Touch, and gave the band its first stateside Top Ten hits on the pop charts with “Taking It All Too Hard” and “That’s All.” Keyboardist Tony Banks, bassist Mike Rutherford, and singer-drummer Phil Collins were perfectly balanced between artistry and pop craftsmanship on “That’s All,” which Phil described as an attempt to write something akin to Beatles pop-rock. The song is indeed up to par with the work of Lennon and McCartney, transitioning seamlessly between the tough, minor-key feel of the chorus, the jaunty snap of the mini-chorus (the part ending with “I can’t feel a thing from my head down to my toes”), and the foreboding desperation of the bridge. The lyrics don’t necessarily hold together perfectly, albeit perhaps to highlight the confusion that suffuses the relationship described therein, but the whole sound is enough to make the tune the most appealing earworm imaginable. Phillip and his brother Phoenix (music clearly runs in the family) both worked on an arrangement, which they perform as a flawless live duet, that tosses out the vintage keyboard parts of the original and just rocks the song out to make it the angry complaint the lyrics really make it out to be. In fact, Phillip’s covers of this song and “In the Air Tonight” have really helped rehabilitate serious rock fans’ appreciation of Phil Collins’s skills as a songwriter, something extensive heckling of his later solo work has made very difficult to do in some circles. That’s an impressive achievement in musical interpretation already, and the guy’s still a minor performing on American Idol! Just imagining the future in store for Phillip boggles the mind, and to see something as nuanced and innovative as what he’s been doing brings sorely needed energy into a talent show that has come to represent, for better or for worse, the zeitgeist of American popular music today.