The 2012 American Idol Songbook--Week of April 11
Introduction: Top 7 Finalists Sing Songs from the 2010s
Although holding a 2010s night does serve an important purpose in allowing the singers to show what niche their music might fit into in today’s market, that doesn’t mean I was looking forward to it with aplomb. Over the last five years or so, voice modification software (especially the ubiquitous AutoTune™) and computer songwriting suites have taken some of the romance out of fitting a carefully crafted song to a genuinely talented artist. In addition, people download songs very casually for iPods and ringtones, making the background status of music painfully clear. Music itself doesn’t suffer due to technological progress, but it does have a way of spreading even the most puerile and annoying trends very quickly and giving those fads commercial traction before they’ve fully matured. These problems are perhaps to be expected when an ever-shrinking group of large companies, largely run by MBAs rather than musical visionaries, controls both the record and commercial radio industries. This night defied all my expectations of boring, simplistic songs and generic performances that I feared based on the above factors. Akon, the Senegalese-American R&B star whose canned, synthetic beats often seem all too close to the disposable model of pop music favored by 2010s radio, proved an excellent and congenial mentor. Indeed, he and Jimmy saved contestants from what might have been disastrous mistakes on more than one occasion. Elise and Hollie improved greatly on last week’s performances, although they didn’t make a particularly lasting impression at a stage where it’s becoming crucial to do so. Jessica and Skylar picked songs that proved their readiness once and for all for success in their respective home genres, R&B and country music. Colton, Joshua, and Phillip each stepped outside the box, bringing welcome changes to shopworn material and showing off their ability to redefine songs, a particularly novel development for Joshua, who has tended to select numbers that match his style rather than adapt them.
Elise Testone – “Yoü and I” (Lady GaGa) – Advanced
Yes, it’s come to this. An American Idol contestant, perhaps surprisingly the most senior one left this season, has taken the unusual step of singing the material of Lady GaGa, in this case GaGa’s “Yoü and I.” GaGa, born Stefanie Germanotta, is first and foremost a performance artist, the sort of attention hound that insists on titling a song with an umlaut over the end of “You.” The garish contrasts of form and content that pepper her work often tend to overshadow any musicality or talent contained therein. This doesn’t mean that she lacks actual vocal chops or musical ability, as her serviceable piano accompaniment and recent image-altering duet with Tony Bennett on “The Lady Is a Tramp” will indicate even to skeptics. Indeed, I find many of her songs to be distinctly catchy and consider some of the rhymes inspired. However, it’s hard to concentrate on anything remotely resembling music as I know it when assailed with outlandish posturing such as the legendary meat dress and her alter egos of both genders for this song, or with bizarre videos such as that for “Yoü and I,” in which a post-apocalyptic mad scientist’s tortures and a mermaid orgy belied the country-rock intimacy of the song. “Country-rock” adequately reflects some of the influences on the song, released on 2011’s Born This Way, but it doesn’t necessarily capture the genre, which is best defined as ‘80s retro pastiche, I suppose. GaGa was inspired by what sounds like a thoroughly unhealthy relationship which she decided to resume at some point, and her song was as meandering and frivolous as one might expect from that point of view, even though it tries to be edgy by sampling Queen’s punchy “We Will Rock You.” Arena legend Mutt Lange produced and Brian May guested on the song (Queen’s “Radio Ga Ga” was in fact the inspiration for her stage name). Notwithstanding, GaGa’s composition didn’t quite capture the earthy appeal either of rock songs from the era she grew up in or of anything that could credibly be referred to as country music, no matter how many times she mentions Nebraska in the lyrics. Haley Reinhart got through a tough night of competition with a gospel-influenced cover in season 10, and now it’s Elise’s turn to try to prove her mettle after landing in the bottom three the week of April 4, 2012. Elise gives a faithful rendition of the song, generally staying on pitch and giving us that combo of raspy voice and wavy hand motions that Elise fans have learned to love over the course of the season. It’s not a particularly engaging song, and the performance doesn’t do anything spectacular with it. I worry that it won’t sway the undecided, but I do hope she continues to develop as both singer and musician. Her piano accompaniment on the first verse will make a better song really shine, and I hope she finds the right venue for the drum solo that was mercifully spared by Jimmy during the mentoring session, perhaps in light of Reed Grimm’s early departure this season.
Hollie Cavanagh – “Perfect” (P!nk) – Advanced
“Perfect” doesn’t necessarily live up to its name as a piece of music, but it’s the thought that counts, and it sure was a heady one.P!nk (the exclamation point perfectly represents the way she injects a controversial image into often benign pop songs) meant the song to be a tribute to the supportive attitude of her current husband, who got her through what by all accounts was a very bad time in her life.P!nk’s unconventional character was the epitome of that which society all too often rejects.She did a good job of giving “Perfect,” the new single from The Greatest Hits…So Far (2010), a distinctive resonance to her fellow outsiders, particularly young women dealing with abusive relationships, eating disorders, and self-harming habits, all graphically depicted in her controversial video.The song was co-written by extremely prolific Swedish producers Max Martin (Martin Sandberg) and Shellback (Karl Johan Schuster).Between them they’ve worked on many songs with P!nk since 2007, helping give a radio-friendly sheen to Katy Perry and Britney Spears’s recent albums as well as co-penning hits such as “Who Knew,” “So What,” and “Raise Your Glass” for the spiky-haired one.Martin, P!nk, and Shellback got so carried away collaborating that they had to give away “Whataya Want from Me?” to season eight runner-up Adam Lambert, since there wasn’t enough room on the P!nk’s 2008 album Funhouse.Hollie’s singing quality has greatly improved from last week, and she certainly conveys the song’s meaning to her fan base, but is it spectacular Hollie, the Hollie we heard on “All the Man That I Need” and “The Power of Love”?Probably not, but I suspect her following will carry the day. In any case, the future looks bright for her as someone with both the talent of powerhouse vocalists who once ruled the charts and an image that appeals to the cell-phone demographic that now picks the hits through their downloads.
Jessica Sánchez – “Stuttering” (Jazmine Sullivan) – Saved
In a golden age of behind-the-scenes musical immigrants in American pop, “Stuttering” was co-written by German-American producer Toby Gad and Philly’s latest R&B great, Jazmine Sullivan. Toby’s single work has had the variable quality one expects from a producer-writer for hire, ranging from the sublime, catchy grooves of Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and Colbie Caillat’s “I Do” to the bland patter of Beyoncé’s “If I Were a Boy” and Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper.” Sullivan, meanwhile, was a protégé of Missy Elliott, arguably the most talented female rapper, and one of the most talented rappers period, of all time, before landing a deal with J/Arista Records (now folded into RCA). Together, Gad and Sullivan put together “Stuttering” for her 2010 sophomore album Love Me Back, and it was definitely not album filler. The song was a neo-soul masterpiece with all the ear candy I always look for in great R&B, including both gorgeous chord changes and a love lyric that rolled off the tongue, the title notwithstanding. Sullivan was an enthusiastic but measured vocalist on the original, and I’m glad to say that Jessica makes me a believer in both herself and the rising star she’s covering. Taking on a great melody is the one height Jessica, already a master of emotion, technique, and poise, had left to scale, as Jennifer points out in her commentary, and scale it she has. From beginning to end, I was compelled to disagree with Steven on one important point: I didn’t “forget where I was” during that performance, but instead knew I was in the televisual presence of a star in the making.
Skylar Laine – “Didn’t You Know How Much I Loved You” (Kellie Pickler) – Advanced
“Didn’t You Know How Much I Loved You” is from the repertoire of Kellie Pickler, the most likeable, though not necessarily the most talented, of American Idol’s country-leaning grads. Co-writers Chris Lindsey and Aimee Mayo, already represented in season 11 on Baylie Brown’s version of “Amazed” and the proud authors of several Tim McGraw hits (e.g., “My Best Friend” and “Let’s Make Love” with wife Faith Hill), also collaborated with Pickler on her debut Small Town Girl (2006), yielding the hits “Red High Heels” and “I Wonder.” The duo had an appropriate partner for “Didn’t You Know How Much I Loved You?” (surely one of the longest titles in country history) in Troy Verges, co-author of hits for C&W divas such as Jessica Andrews (“Who I Am”) and Martina McBride (“Blessed”), not to mention Carrie Underwood’s “Wasted.” The song had been included on Small Town Girl but was re-recorded at Pickler’s insistence, and the second version was released off her 2008 self-titled sophomore record as a single, though it only made number fourteen on the country survey upon 2009 release. Indeed, Pickler struggled to get beyond the second rung of the country charts, only making it past there once with number-nine hit “Best Days of Your Life” from Kellie Pickler. “Didn’t You Know How Much I Loved You?” had a nice heartbroken verse, but the chorus’s punch seemed out of place, almost as if from a different song rather than the result of a dramatic buildup. There’s also the odd resemblance to Taylor Hicks’s uninspired “Do I Make You Proud,” which in retrospect was quite the kiss of death for him after he won during Pickler’s same season. On Skylar’s version, she improves by leaps and bounds from last week and proves why she’s still in this competition by making me forget all the shortcomings outlined above. That very out-of-place chorus is perfect for her powerhouse voice, which Skylar seems to almost fear weakening at times. More importantly, however, she showed a vulnerability on the verses that has been lacking amidst her impressive bluster in some of her past performances. It doesn’t hurt, either, that she knows her way around the guitar, joining the pantheon of greats, such as Dolly and Loretta, who could pick as well as they sang. She is the type of artist who can make country music work regardless of whether the listener grew up with it, a hot commodity in today’s crossover-friendly market. I keep looking forward to what she’ll do next.
Colton Dixon – “Love the Way You Lie” (Eminem and Rihanna) – Advanced
“Love the Way You Lie” started off its life as a demo from young singer-songwriter Holly Hafermann, who goes by the stage name Skylar Grey and co-wrote the song with her producer Alex da Kid (the Englishman otherwise known as Alexander Grant). Alex signed her to his Wonderland Music label and burst on the American scene in 2010 with hits such as B.o.B.’s “Airplanes,” Diddy’s “Coming Home,” and Dr. Dre’s “I Need a Doctor,” the latter two featuring Skylar’s vocals. The story of “Love the Way You Lie” demonstrates the idiosyncratic process by which hip-hop productions with samples are born. In this case, Grey came up with a song about her relationship of “masochism” (in the song’s own words) with the often abusive record industry. Alex da Kid, however, had the controversial and publicity-earning idea of having it be recorded with raps by hip-hop’s pasty enfant terrible Eminem and sung by Rihanna on the former’s 2010 album Recovery, shortly after the latter went through visibly proven domestic abuse by boyfriend Chris Brown. The song was given a video to match, which incited a metaphorical firestorm, as big as the literal one in said video, over the apparent romanticizing of a serious social ill. Grey’s original high concept seemed a million miles away in the literal interpretation, either in the version on Recovery or in that on Rihanna’s concurrent album Loud. It was definitely the most controversial chart-topper of the decade so far, outside of the crowd that denounced GaGa’s “Born This Way.” Colton surprises anyone familiar with the released versions by taking us to what the demo might have sounded like with radio-friendly production, albeit in his own more rock-oriented voice. Backed by a string section which doesn’t wreck the intimacy of the song as has happened at times on Idol, he sings “Love the Way You Lie” in a male emo perspective that fits it perfectly. He never slouches on his vocals, even while providing ethereal piano accompaniment to enhance the mood. Colton the artist has arrived.
Joshua Ledet – “Runaway Baby” (Bruno Mars) – Advanced
Bruno Mars may produce and write most of his material, but he’s still a commercial music exec’s dream due to a chameleon-like ability to adjust to an infinite number of styles. Although he hardly defined mainstream pop on “Just the Way You Are” and “Grenade,” or reggae-pop on “The Lazy Song,” or uptown R&B on B.o.B.’s “Nothin’ on You,” he had a way of making it seem like he’d been fixated on the particular style of each song for all of his professional life. This also came through in productions for others where he channeled old-fashioned soul on Cee-Lo’s “Forget You” or slow jams on Far*East Movement’s “Rocketeer.” All these left one asking, who is the real Bruno Mars? Well, at least he did seem to draw on his Puerto Rican roots a bit on the Latin-rock sound of “Runaway Baby,” which is an album track from his 2010 debut Doo-Wops and Hooligans and is somewhat reminiscent of Ricky Martin’s Anglophone hits such as “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” Still, the bravado of “Runaway Baby,” co-written with his frequent collaborator Brody Brown, seemed a bit forced on the record, making his blowing part of the lyrics into a bullhorn at the 2012 Grammys seem almost like self-parody. Joshua’s dynamic vocals and limber stage presence makes every bit of this lightweight composition ring true with the help of a killer Memphis horn section. I was reminded of Sam and Dave or Johnnie Taylor in the intensity that Joshua brought to the ditty. Although Joshua has proven that he can stay true to gospel-tinged R&B evergreens, with “Runaway Baby” he proves that he can make silly 2010 pop-rock into bona fide soul music.
Phillip Phillips – “Give a Little More” (Maroon 5) – Advanced
“Give a Little More” was from Hands All Over, the 2010 release of Maroon 5, the LA group that spent much of the 2000s and beyond straddling the overly policed boundary between R&B and rock with their distinctly funky sound and weird chords. The song’s pleas to avoid getting sucked into a draining relationship with a heartbreaker were paired with Prince-style riffs calculated to fill a dance floor. Adam Levine’s lead vocal was smooth as always, but the melody wasn’t necessarily memorable enough to compete with classics such as “This Love” or “Makes Me Wonder.” “Give a Little More” was more feel than substance, and was understandably over-shadowed by the album’s earlier singles such as “Moves Like Jagger” (see Reed Grimm’s excellent cover from the first week of live shows). Phillip dispenses with the keyboards and simply sings to the sound of his guitar and a saxophone to make the song’s protagonist sound more lonely than horny, turning the original on its head in a way that anyone familiar with this season would fully expect him to do. The judges grumbled about his performance sounding a lot like his earlier ones, but you know what? That’s called having a unique style, and his would make a great album right here and now.