The 2013 American Idol Songbook: March 5-6 Top 20 Semifinals
Welcome to my second annual American Idol blog, in which I review the performances each week and tell the story behind the songs that each contestant chooses. As I write this first entry, I am well aware that I am not writing about the most critically acclaimed television show of all time. Dave Della Terza, a former College of DuPage student, who started a site called votefortheworst.com in 2004 to make a farce out of a voting process he considered frivolous, has declared a kind of victory in the declining ratings of the show (they’ve gone from record-breaking to time-slot-winning, so it’s all relative) and plans to retire the site in June 2013 as a dubious victor in his quest to discredit the show. He’s full of hyperbole and self-promotion, but he does represent the more extreme, Internet troll variation on a common refrain that the show plays to the lowest common denominator and is a staged “reality show” rather than a talent competition. To be sure, Idol’s announcement of the option of fifty votes per viewer, courtesy of AT&T’s technology that helped boost Kris Allen in his native Arkansas in season 8, doesn’t exactly help their cause this year. Moreover, the last three winners all received his endorsement, and he takes some of the credit for five guys in a row summed up pithily by the media as the “white guy with guitar” formula (Source: http://www.votefortheworst.com/story/668840/vote-for-the-worst-will-be-shutting-down-after/). Such a label is about as useful as “black guy with a harmonica” or “Asian guy with a piano” for anyone serious about music. In any case, the winner of American Idol in 2013 is unlikely to be a white guy and certainly will not carry a guitar, because no Lee DeWyze type exists in this year’s Top 20. This is not necessarily a qualitative improvement, as skin color, gender, and instruments do not a great or mediocre performer make, but it is a significant change after the current pattern, and may bode well for a show in which the aforementioned WGWGs have struggled to maintain long-term success. Indeed, even Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks, who don’t meet the description entirely, haven’t had as much luck with follow-ups as Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia Barrino, and Jordin Sparks, since the Idol model does seem to work better at promoting female artists.
If I did not believe the show had potential for greatness, however often the weight of peer pressure and popular prejudice can corrupt it, I would not be writing this blog again. I am neither a superfan nor the sort of naïve, cock-eyed optimist Della Terza mocks with his cynical project that is more successful at ruining the careers of his over-hyped “candidates” in the event of their getting record contracts than at making anyone laugh. I, like Della Terza, look at the show with a critical, objective eye, but I come to a different conclusion. Producers, possibly seeing the need for alterations, have made significant changes this year, first and foremost among them revamping the judging panel. Randy Jackson is the only remaining original judge and stays on with his trademark blend of industry insights and emphatic praise (“in it to win it” is a catchphrase he’ll always own), since Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler both left to pursue their ongoing careers. History may repeat itself if scheduling issues come up for Keith Urban, Mariah Carey, and Nicki Minaj, but all three seem to be enjoying themselves on Idol 2013, more so than Demi Lovato or Britney Spears did on The X Factor 2012. The judges reflect both the diversity and the international nature of the modern popular music market. Urban brings his laid-back Aussie personality and his country-pop credentials to the show, and is always ready to enjoy a spirited performance from hopefuls. Most crucially, he brings insights into what it takes to succeed in Nashville for contestants on a show with a voter base that often clamors for country music and has rewarded some singers of it handsomely. He understands the kernel of what makes C&W attractive on a basic emotional level. Carey, the epitome of mainstream pop music whose pitch-perfection and singing-teacher mother have imbued her with talent far more profound than many casual listeners (and certainly her detractors) realize, is just her song-memorizing, slightly eccentric, supportive self. Her much-ballyhooed “feud” with Minaj has given way to status as the calm voice of reason when the rest of the panel gets carried away with bickering over an artist. Some of that bickering comes from disagreement with the strong opinions of Minaj (born Onika Maraj), the rapper-singer from Trinidad who is of mixed African and Indian heritage (a fusion that has heavily influenced Trinidadian culture), whose music has never really lit up my world but whose personality is a breath of fresh air. Put simply, watching what she’ll do next is reason enough to watch the show. A performance artist by nature, she combines the sometimes brutal bluntness of Simon Cowell (that Commonwealth influence again) with praise that ranges from colorful pet names (if she calls you ladybug or marshmallow, you know you’re on the right track) to sometimes racy flirtation that takes the historically family-targeted show into TV-14 territory. Taking into account Randy Jackson’s experience in Journey and returning mentor Jimmy Iovine’s production track record as examples of rock expertise on the main panel, the show offers feedback keyed to a broader range of musical styles than ever before, though the Top Twenty ultimately reflects some weakness in the rock department compared to when Aerosmith’s Tyler was judging. The twenty semifinalists were selected in a “sudden death” round where they were picked by the judges (with Iovine as the tiebreaker) from forty contestants less than an hour and a half after, ten in a row, they performed live. Like the semifinals that this entry covers, they were segregated by gender. Although this practice may have been meant as a kind of affirmative action for female contestants who have been sidelined in the finals for years by voters (partly due to many young girls voting for cute guys), it ultimately propped up a somewhat less spectacular male field. This year’s crop includes one great “roots” singer who defies genre categorization but nevertheless excels at country and soul material. Most of the vocal standouts, however, lean towards either R&B or pop, which could lead to something very saleable on the current music market. A wild-card sing-off between the sixth most vote-earning woman and her male counterpart will ensue next week, perhaps on account of a few upsets of standout performers as outlined in the blog.
Adriana Latonio – “Stand Up for Love” (Destiny’s Child) – Eliminated
Back around the turn of the millennium, the most successful all-female vocal group in the United States was Destiny’s Child. Though Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams were exceptional vocalists and have made some exceptional solo efforts in recent years, Beyoncé Knowles was clearly the lead singer and has been by far the most successful of the three who made up the final lineup. The group’s last album, Destiny Fulfilled (2004), was followed by a retrospective collection entitled #1’s (2005), to which a final original single was added, “Stand Up for Love.” The song was written by its producer, adult-contemporary maven David Foster, together with his daughter, Amy Foster-Gillies. “Stand Up for Love” has a melody and anthemic lyric that harken back to another Foster (Stephen) and his quasi-gospel opus “Hard Times” (now out of copyright, not that Foster would have made much considering his publisher’s practices), complete with a stately parlor piano intro that would have done old S.F. proud. The production, of course, is more bombastic than intimate, groomed unsuccessfully for pop radio to fit into the Houston-Dion niche, but earns points for giving all the group members opportunities to demonstrate their chops and give standard charity single sentiments real heft. World Children’s Day and Hurricane Katrina relief efforts both used the song’s message as a fundraising tool, but the recording has more personality than “We Are the World,” coming off as more idealistic than sappy. Adriana Latonio, the Alaskan chanteuse who chose to perform it as her first effort for live votes on American Idol, truly believes in the message, I am sure, and it certainly resonates in a time of economic turmoil and world upheaval. She keeps on pitch, layers on the sentimentality, and holds a power note for a solid five seconds or more at the end. However, the nuance that helped really propel the song into more than another pop message piece on the recording is largely absent. Adriana neither sings the song in a plaintive whisper to emphasize its human vulnerability nor ornaments it as an R&B ballad the way the original performers did. Instead, she displays a “look at me” showmanship, pounding out each part of the song forcefully but uninspiringly, in a performance that, while pleasant at certain moments, probably justifies adding the judges’ label “pageanty” to Merriam-Webster’s.
Amber Holcomb – “I Believe in You and Me” (The Four Tops) – Advanced
There are great songs Whitney Houston made greater and mediocre songs she redeemed. “I Believe in You and Me” falls decidedly into the latter category, and it’s all the more surprising that it should be there when one considers the group that first attempted it. Ten years before the song’s original 1983 release by the Four Tops, they were Motown’s most pop-oriented male group, playing the Supremes to the Temptations’s Martha and the Vandellas. By the 1980s, however, a decade and several record labels later, the Tops were struggling to stay current and wound up taking on some less than impressive material. To put it simply, many of the writers of the time had seemingly forgotten how to write for an elegant bass like Levi Stubbs. Lyricist Sandy Linzer, best-known for his 1960s hits for the Four Seasons (“Let’s Hang On,” “Working My Way Back to You”) and several disco hits (e.g., Odyssey’s “Native New Yorker”), turns in lovely sentiments but in trite terms, while composer David Wolfert (the pop songwriter who co-authored Dolly Parton’s “Heartbreaker” in 1979) authored a melody that sort of plods without ever really going anywhere. The Tops, ill-promoted by the declining Casablanca label, barely grazed the R&B Top 40 and went nowhere on the pop charts, but Whitney and David Foster saw a chance to really make something of the tune. They took that chance in 1996, when they teamed up with Mervyn Warren on Whitney’s third soundtrack for The Preacher’s Wife. The film was Penny Marshall’s remake of 1947’s The Bishop’s Wife (itself based on a Robert Nathan novel), and it featured a down-on-his-luck preacher overwhelmed by his inner-city congregation’s problems who finds solutions through the guardian angel Dudley, here played by Denzel Washington in place of the rurally set original’s Cary Grant. Whitney, who played the title character, contributed a slightly spiritual feel to “I Believe in You and Me,” in keeping with the soundtrack’s general gospel tone and lending a new dimension to the lyrics. She made the song engaging where the original version had been forgettable. Amber has a hard act to follow in more ways than one here, because last week she earned her way into the Top 20 by singing a version of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “My Funny Valentine” that will go down in history as one of the best standard covers ever attempted on Idol. Seriously, I’m making an exception to my usual practice and showing it below just because the readers need to hear her urban-contemporary take on the song to get an idea of what this young lady on her second Idol go-round is capable of doing. Gobsmacked, as Simon might have said, the judges had to come up with at least some critiques for Amber and said she needed more confidence. With “I Believe in You and Me,” Amber sacrifices some of her inventive delivery to give a safe but still impressive Whitney cover that pleases but doesn’t quite crackle with energy. She knows what the judges and perhaps some of the audience want her to do, she delivers, and I’m glad audiences rewarded her with a place in the Top 10 so that we can see more of what got her this far.
Angie Miller – “Never Gone” (Colton Dixon) – Advanced
“Never Gone” is a rarity—a song from a contestant on one season covered by a contestant pm the next. Colton Dixon is a class act and was one of many talented individuals I had the pleasure to watch and listen to during the 2012 season of American Idol, finishing seventh after a few exceptional performances that showed a knack for turning a wide variety of material into entertaining pop-rock. Early in 2013, he came out with an album called A Messenger after embracing his evangelical roots and signing to Sparrow Records, one of the leading labels in the contemporary Christian pop and rock scenes. “Never Gone” was co-written by Dixon with Gannin Arnold and a pair of songwriters, Andy Dodd and Adam Watts, who dabble in both CCM and secular teen pop and have penned hits for Jesse McCartney’s debut Beautiful Soul (2004) and various Disney stars in the mid-2000s. The lyrical concepts were mostly Dixon’s, and he reported in his Facebook update (Source: http://greencelebrity.net/2012/09/30/celeb-gossip/american-idol-contestant-colton-dixon-turns-christian-rock-star-as-predicted/) for the song’s 2012 pre-album single release that “Never Gone” was his impression of God’s answer to Dixon’s frustrating isolation in a competition that wasn’t exactly tailor-made for praise music. His collaborators hewed to the simple, unadventurous, hymn-style melodies characteristic of much Christian pop, designed to showcase the message and thereby comfort the faithful rather than to provide worldly aesthetic pleasure. Christian radio loved it and has already taken it to number one on the associated charts. Dixon’s voice had an earnest, calming feel that sometimes got lost in the production mix on the studio version, but Angie captures the pure piano-pop feel that marked some of Colton’s best work on Idol and happens to be her own strong point as well. She is already poised to follow in his footsteps as a middle-of-the-road singer-songwriter, as she showed during the Hollywood solo round with her own song, which was miles ahead of any other original done on Idol and in a similar vein to “Never Gone.” Angie is at home at the piano and makes a wise decision to stay there, a good decision when one considers how many performances on this show go downhill once the performer leaves that instrument behind. Her dulcet voice and tonal variety brings out the “crossover-friendly” aspects of a CCM tune that, like so many of its ilk, fits in pretty well as a pop love song with the exception of an occasional religiously specific line (here, it’s the lone mention of Jesus near the end of the bridge, omitted in the Idol cover). What we’re listening to in this genre of music is usually either a love song to God or a love song from God, blurring the always tenuous line between spirituality and affection, and “Never Gone” is exhibit A.
Aubrey Cleland – “Big Girls Don’t Cry” (Fergie) – Eliminated
Just over forty years ago, a former street tough named Bob Gaudio took a line embodying playful misogyny from a gangster picture and made it into a chart-topper for his group the Four Seasons, their second single, “Big Girls Don’t Cry” (1962). Thirty-five years of second-wave feminism later, the Black-Eyed Peas’ only distaff singer came out with her own chart-topping hit, the fourth number-one Billboard song from 2006’s The Dutchess, her debut (and so far only) solo album, this time cooing sweetly about striking out on her own and leaving a shattered relationship behind. Stacy Ann Ferguson, as she was christened, had the songwriting help of German expat Toby Gad, best known for his work with Disney starlets and other pop singers much younger than the veteran Fergie, and Kara DioGuardi, a onetime Idol judge and one of today’s most prolific songwriters who could make even Ashlee Simpson sound decent (Simpson’s “Pieces of Me” is actually one of DioGuardi’s best songs). The song uses icons of childhood such as fairytales, jacks, and the blanket from the chorus to symbolize the innocence of the early stages of the love affair her character has built up the resolve to finally exit. With a lilting melody and a warm delivery from someone theretofore and later known for belting dance floor cattle calls as a Black-Eyed Pea, “Big Girls Don’t Cry” was an irresistible and surprising confection, and Aubrey gives us a perfect facsimile on the Idol stage. Complete with an acoustic intro almost indistinguishable from the original, Aubrey’s rendition is a terrific Fergie impersonation, never showing glaring deficiencies but not improving one iota on a modern pop classic. I do not doubt that she is, as the judges suggest, quite marketable, as anyone who can so effectively imitate an artist as successful as Fergie is worth a second listen. However, if I heard a cover such as this one on a recording, I would wonder why it was made when I can listen to the original and get the same experience at a slightly higher level.
Breanna Steer – “Flaws and All” (Beyoncé) – Eliminated
A year after making it two for two with her 2006 sophomore album B’day, still my favorite of hers so far just for its sense of pure R&B fun, Beyoncé released a deluxe edition with a few extra tracks, including the amazing “Flaws and All.” Her younger sister Solange helped out with the songwriting, as did superstar Ne-Yo (a prolific songwriter as well who is especially well-known for his work with Rihanna) and his associate Shea Taylor. The song’s lyrics and accompanying video were meant to show the imperfect human being behind the glitter and hype, but its melody was a beguiling dose of the Beyoncé mystique, weaving its way from traditional urban-contemporary balladry to almost spooky synthesizer washes reminiscent of classic psychedelia (the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” comes to mind). An overly prominent drum in the mix diluted some of the mood, but otherwise the song was a slam-dunk and helped introduce audiences to Beyoncé’s new image as a confessional singer-songwriter in a style of music often dominated by producers, as she perfectly illustrated in her recent HBO documentary Beyoncé: Life Is But a Dream. Breanna’s version has a better arrangement, and her voice occasionally rises to the challenge of this very complex song. She has a talent for this sort of material, and clearly displays an in-depth knowledge of Queen Bey’s catalog, but something was missing. I did not feel the goosebumps a song like this provides when done right, and I never got lost. While the performance hypnotized, it rarely did so in a good way, and I was left neither extremely disappointed nor pleasantly surprised.
Burnell Taylor – “I’m Here” (The Color Purple: The Musical) – Advanced
Back in 2005, after a year of workshops, a musical version of Alice Walker’s 1982 epistolary novel The Color Purple premiered and earned a raft of Tony nominations (eleven in all, including a win for star LaChanze). To convert the sweeping story of long-suffering protagonist Celie’s Dickensian journey through abuse, racism, and redemption in the segregated South into song, the producers tapped a trio of songwriters with long and eclectic track records in pop music and R&B. Brenda Russell was a singer-songwriter with a jazzy flair and a crossover hit in 1988 (“Piano in the Dark”). Allee Willis was a frequent contributor to soundtracks (“Neutron Dance” for Beverly Hills Cop II with the Pointer Sisters and the theme from Friends) and R&B hits for Sister Sledge and Patti Labelle (“Stir It Up”) to her credit, but her work could turn into gold for anyone from Stephen Stills to Crystal Gayle (“The Blue Side”) to the Pet Shop Boys (“What Have I Done to Deserve This”). Finally, Stephen Bray collaborated with Madonna on some of her more glossy dance-pop hits (“True Blue,” “Angel,” “Causing a Commotion,” “Express Yourself”) but also crafted hits for others, such as Regina’s “Baby Love” and the Jets’ “Cross My Broken Heart.” Russell and Willis also both worked extensively with Earth, Wind, and Fire, one of the most high-concept funk groups of all time, and all three composer-lyricists were exceptional keyboardists. Of course, writing Broadway scores is often a different ball game from writing pop, and the songwriters adjusted accordingly to deliver topical songs that work best in context, and “I’m Here” is such a song. The most famous song from the show, the climactic “I’m Here” details Celie’s gratitude in mid-life for what she has in the face of her gargantuan life struggles. This is, of course, squarely in the tradition of such theatrical thanksgiving odes as “I Got Plenty of Nuttin’” (Porgy and Bess), “I Got the Sun in the Mornin’” (Annie Get Your Gun), “My Favorite Things” (The Sound of Music), and “I Got Life” (Hair), though “I’m Here” has a more prosaic, minimalist melody in keeping with current trends in musicals. Burnell makes the melody much more interesting in its own right with his solid vocal control, but he never loses sight of the life-affirming spirit of the lyric. He doesn’t get as much time to build up the dramatic tension as a stage performer would, but he nevertheless develops something immensely satisfying with the time he’s got. Burnell proves that he is definitely “Here” to stay.
Candice Glover – “Ordinary People” (John Legend) – Advanced
Once upon a time, Kanye West had a protégé full of promise and talent, and he brought will.i.am on board to help craft a debut for the ages. John Legend’s Get Lifted (2004), the result of this undertaking, contained a single that set an almost impossible bar for his songwriting (and frankly for that of collaborator will.i.am, none of whose work with the Black-Eyed Peas or otherwise comes close to this masterpiece). “Ordinary People” concentrates on the often uncertain reality behind the romantic hyperbole of so many popular songs. However, the real earworm in the song is the gorgeous, twisty melody, full of minor sevenths and other unexpected chords that have always reminded me of great pop composers of the 1960s and 1970s like Carole King and Burt Bacharach. The song was a major hit and established Legend (born John Rogers Stephens but already living up to his stage name) as both a popular and versatile performer in his own right and a guest on many other singers and rappers’ tracks. Candice has big shoes to fill, and she does Legend proud with a fancier but no less emotional version. The star being born in this performance evoked Mary J. Blige at times, and she could indeed be that sort of star for her generation. When a veteran like Randy says after the performance that he is learning just by listening to her, he’s talking about a lesson in melody and artistry that makes Candice the breakout performer of the night. It’s the perfect closure for a night that she, far and away, dominated.
Charlie Askew – “Mama” (Genesis) – Eliminated
“Mama” 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 hit on the pop charts with “That’s All.” “Mama” was a Top Ten smash in the native UK of Phil Collins, Tony Banks, and Mike Rutherford’s group, and showcases one of the most metal vocals Collins ever attempted. The subject of Collins’s ominous, growing bellow is apparently an oedipal separation anxiety from a prostitute to whom the protagonist got a little too attached. Like watching Phil Collins screaming grittily (and awesomely) in agony about rejection by a hooker from the vantage point of his pop years, watching the mild-mannered, 18-year-old Charlie rock out to half of this song (concept rock never gets a fair shake on the Idol stage) in a camouflage wife-beater and ponytail can be a little jarring. If I needed to look up the backstory on what the song was about, then I wouldn’t be surprised at some of the judges, not exactly a panel of experts on 1980s art-rock, for not getting it, and they had some valid points about Charlie seeming to be trying a bit too hard to re-shape his look and attitude for live voters. The first half, as the judges noted, lacked the confidence and drive that gave a song like “Mama” or Collins’s similar solo effort “In the Air Tonight” such volcanic ferocity, and I felt genuinely sympathetic for Charlie’s general appearance of just being in over his head afterward as he withered under the criticism like few contestants I’ve seen on Idol. However, even though he is nowhere near the most proficient contestant on the show right now, he does serve a purpose, though he may be better suited to a band than solo stardom, as judge Keith Urban suggested. Those old enough to remember might be forgiven for seeing something of an analogy to Tiny Tim, only with classic rock instead of Tin Pan Alley pop from the interwar years, since Charlie is a diminutive, eccentric young man with an encyclopedic knowledge and energetic interpretations of a repertoire that has seen better days. YouTube comments on his video show that he struck a chord with many rock fans disenchanted with a year in which the new celebrity judges, while they’ve picked some exceptional vocalists, seem to have dismissed the potential appeal of offbeat rock-oriented contestants and to now be browbeating the closest thing they actually let through. If that sort of genre-based sympathy vote had come in from a fan base laser-concentrated on the only rock specialist left in the competition, an upset could have been in order.
Cortez Shaw – “Locked Out of Heaven” (Bruno Mars) – Eliminated
Bruno Mars’s Unorthodox Jukebox (2012), a follow-up to his 2010 breakout Doo-Wops and Hooligans, was another round of crowd-pleasing and catchy but not groundbreaking pop from Hawaii’s second-biggest celebrity of the moment. Like many of his hits, the chart-topping lead single “Locked Out of Heaven” was co-written with Ari Levine and Philip Lawrence, his partners in a production team known as the Smeezingtons and active with other artists as well. The jaunty love song about a new relationship crackled with a reggae-pop verse reminiscent of the Police (indeed, Sting paid tribute and blew the artist out of the water at the Grammys) but got bogged down in a somewhat silly chorus. The song is rendered rather imitatively in Cortez’s version here, even accompanied in the chorus by the same sort of wacky crescendoing noisemakers found on the record. Whether one likes it depends largely on how one liked the original song on radio rotation or MTV, but Shaw does carry the tune well and leave a lasting impression of why it became a hit.
Curtis Finch, Jr. – “I Believe I Can Fly” (R. Kelly) – Advanced
R. Kelly, the auteur of “I Believe I Can Fly,” has a body of work that is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, he is well-known for explicit propositions in song that leave little to the imagination (“Bump ‘n’ Grind” and “Ignition” are, for the innocent among you, not about dance and automotive keyholes, respectively) and a somewhat sleazy public image boosted by rumors of liaisons with the underaged Aaliyah and a nasty video scandal that need not be discussed here. On the other hand, he has been known to write many more platonic love songs such as Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” and gospel-tinged efforts such as Whitney Houston’s “I Look to You” that feature poignancy beyond the ken of much popular music. In the latter category squarely belongs “I Believe I Can Fly,” written for a movie on the polar opposite of the silliness spectrum about Looney Tunes in space (literally). Space Jam was a 1996 vehicle for Michael Jordan, the then recently retired shooting guard who made the 1990s Chicago Bulls one of basketball’s most legendary success stories, and posited that an inter-dimensional journey to meet Chuck Jones’s immortal cartoon creations would inspire him to return to the game. Jordan’s comeback five years later wasn’t exactly spectacular, but the song has outlasted the movie in terms of staying power. “I Believe I Can Fly” expressed pretty standard “with Him, all things are possible” sentiments to a sparse melody, but Kelly’s emotional delivery packed a wallop for any listener looking to lose themselves in something greater in more ways than one. Curtis Finch, Jr., a tutor of music among other subjects, proves his qualifications in an appropriately soaring version. From the depths of the low verse to his exquisite high note on the transition out of the chorus, Curtis shows both his vocal range and his feel for how to convey the emotional meaning of a song. It’s never been a favorite of mine, though I may have admittedly been rendered blasé by some parodies over the years, but Curtis reminded me why it’s one of Kelly’s true masterpieces.
Devin Velez – “Somos Novios (It’s Impossible)” (Armando Manzanero by way of Perry Como) – Advanced
“Somos Novios” (literal translation: “We Are Lovers”) was originally a 1968 single by Mexican bolero master Armando Manzanero. Classically trained, he worked as a pianist and talent scout for all the major multinationals’ subsidiaries in Mexico, including CBS, EMI, and his recording home RCA. In 1970, the immortal soldier of pop crooning, Perry Como, kicked off a fourth decade in the music business with an album on the American flagship of Manzanero’s RCA and took one look at an English version called “It’s Impossible” (complete with lyrics by Sid Wayne) and knew his fans would eat it up. Como recorded an album of the same name after it became his last Top Ten pop hit the same year. Manzanero’s song uses the standard AABA form, broad melodies, and sentimental lyrics of Tin Pan Alley pop, often borrowed by the bolero, in what is essentially an idealization of the perfect relationship, impervious to life’s many ups and downs. Wayne was a prolific song and film lyricist, well-known to Elvis fans as a soundtrack contributor but also the author of pop hits such as the King’s “I Need Your Love Tonight” and Rosemary Clooney’s “Mangos.” Devin’s mellow tones are a hit from the get-go, and his version takes the song full circle by segueing from the verse and chorus in English to their Spanish equivalents. Of Mexican-American heritage, Devin shows impeccable vocal control in both languages, an enormous asset on the international stage upon which American Idol performers will inevitably find themselves. This is good old-fashioned pop music done with the flair of a Michael Bublé, to whom Devin could really give a run for his money.
Elijah Liu – “Stay” (Rihanna featuring Mikky Ekko) – Eliminated
“Stay” is, like many Rihanna tracks, a real transcontinental affair. The Barbadian (or Bajan, as they like to call themselves) singer has worked a great deal with British and Swedish producers since her 2005 debut, and her late 2012 album Unapologetic was no exception, featuring as one of its ballads “Stay,” a collaboration between Englishman Justin Parker and American Mikky Ekko. Mikky Ekko (John Stephen Sudduth), featured on piano on the original recording, was a youngster with a background straight out of American Music History 101, growing up as the son of an itinerant preacher from the Louisiana area and spending some time in Elvis’s native Tupelo and Nashville. Parker, meanwhile hailed from Lincolnshire and gained a reputation as a go-to partner for singer-songwriters such as Lana del Rey, whose breakout 2012 hit “Video Games” was co-written by him. The song was a moody ballad, accompanied by an equally introspective video of a bathing, dejected Rihanna delivering lyrics of self-questioning vulnerability that, while not her composition, were often interpreted in light of her apparently re-kindled relationship with Chris Brown, whose domestic violence toward her the first time around made headlines. A Top Ten hit so far, “Stay” continued her commercial winning streak, and her version at the 2013 Grammy Awards was a highlight of her career. Elijah made a name for himself in the Hollywood rounds with the looks, vocal tone, and body language of Justin Bieber, and he didn’t sing half bad. In his debut for votes, however, he mars a sensitive start with a progression that never carries dramatic heft. The problem with this approach is that it is a very melodramatic ballad, and Elijah never makes the song’s message as heartbreaking as it should be.
Janelle Arthur – “If I Can Dream” (Elvis Presley) – Advanced
“If I Can Dream” was the ultimate comeback vehicle. Several years after young American audiences, excited by new developments in American and British rock, had tired of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s increasingly banal film soundtrack recordings, Elvis Presley re-launched his career as a gospel-flavored country-pop superstar with a live, made-for-TV special simply titled “Elvis.” Though taped in late June of 1968, it aired on December 3 of that year on NBC and showcased a re-invigorated artist no less powerful than when he first barnstormed the scene over a decade earlier. Presley took the bold step to replace “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” as the finale for the holiday special, and he and producer Steve Binder asked Walter Earl Brown, an obscure staff songwriter, to come up with something for the occasion. Presley was appalled by the wave of violence sweeping the nation that year, spearheaded by the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and he called for something appropriately topical. Brown delivered with a song that, while not as specific in its social commentary as many of its contemporaries, nevertheless called for a more hopeful future with language occasionally borrowed from Dr. King’s own biblical iconography. When his notoriously overprotective manager Colonel Tom Parker expressed doubts about the song, Presley insisted that he was tired of singing songs he couldn’t believe in and that this was one he could (Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/If_I_Can_Dream). Presley was vindicated with his biggest single hit in years and his career was back on track. Janelle is a good-natured country singer with a delicate twang and a warm timbre to her voice. That being said, her voice lacks some of the smoothness that some of the best voices in the genre have, such as Patsy Cline, to whom Randy inexplicably compares her. Particularly in the higher register, she seems to strain for an artificial passion that may or may not reflect a common tendency of those covering Elvis to try to imitate his inimitable style instead of making songs he made famous their own.
Kree Harrison – “Stronger” (Faith Hill) – Advanced
By 2002, when Faith Hill released her fifth album Cry, she was already one of the biggest crossover stars in country music history, enjoying multiple Top Ten pop hits and global success at a level that only Shania Twain could rival. Cry, which kept the sound that made Hill famous, was a commercial disappointment in both the country and pop markets, prompting her move to more traditional country on 2005’s Fireflies. Hill and Twain changed the face of modern country music in the 1990s by applying the melisma (long-held vibrato notes for you non-experts) of pop stars like Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Celine Dion to a genre stereotypically (though not always in practice) associated with a more folksy, understated approach. In “Stronger,” a power ballad album track from Cry about leaving a relationship with no future, Hill delivered her trademark powerhouse vocal on a track featuring the deft turns of phrase any country song worth its salt needs, courtesy of songwriters Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey. Verges was an up-and-coming tunesmith whose work would help popularize young artists such as Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Jessica Andrews (“Here I Am”), and most recently Kip Moore (“Beer Money”) and Hunter Hayes (“Wanted”). Lindsey, meanwhile, has gone on to even greater fame with songs for Taylor Swift (“Fearless”), Rascal Flatts (“Unstoppable”), and Lady Antebellum (“American Honey”), not to mention Idol’s own Carrie Underwood, for whom “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” “Wasted,” “So Small,” “Just a Dream,” and now “Two Black Cadillacs” have all topped the country charts. Kree, who precedes her performance on the show with a smart nod to the coaches and arrangers that help make the show’s best moments happen, does not take the Faith Hill route when covering “Stronger.” If Hill and Janelle (the latter much less effectively) represent the Nashville side of country music, Kree represents the alternative, more rootsy tendency of singers such as Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, always a bit more popular outside of the country radio format than within it. Accordingly, Kree has a soulful, earthy tone, fitting the song’s general ambience just slightly more than Hill’s rendition. There’s a sense of ease and pure joy in Kree’s singing, a link to the authentic heart of American music itself, and that’s what she brings to this competition.
Lazaro Arbos – “Feeling Good” (The Roar of the Greasepaint, the Smell of the Crowd) – Advanced
“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. Lazaro joins a long line of Idol performers to cover the song, and while he doesn’t deliver the explosive finish that Adam Lambert did in Season 8 (truly the gold standard), he vastly improves on anything he has done thus far. The warmth of Lazaro’s singing voice, often a surprise to listeners who contrast it with his severe stutter (neurologically, music and speech actually use different pathways), provides a suave ease to the song that gives a kind of Sinatra feel to his performance. It’s not a show-stopper, but it’s a heck of a warm-up to what could be a real future for Lazaro on Idol and beyond.
Nick Boddington – “Iris” (Goo Goo Dolls) – Eliminated
“Iris,” featured on the 1998 album Dizzy Up the Girl as one of several major hits in the late 1990s for Johnny Rzeznik’s pop-rock band the Goo Goo Dolls, was written for that year’s human-seraph love story City of Angels, starring Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan. The band was obscure in 1997, when he was asked to write the song, and he was ready to quit when he got the call, converting the ennui into a perfect mix of alienation anthem and love song. Taking the name of Iris DeMent from a Billboard issue (my kind of rocker) for the title, Rzeznik’s lonely, uncertain take on love and winding, ever-so-slightly dissonant melody gave us the closest thing to romantic grunge since Radiohead’s 1993 hit “Creep.” Nick captures the emotion in the song and seems comfortable at the piano, but he smooths over too many of the rough edges Rzeznik built into the song. The song may be from a very mainstream Hollywood movie and Goo Goo Dolls weren’t exactly a cutting-edge rock group, but it’s not the sort of light, airy pop song that seems, if anything, to be in Nick’s wheelhouse. To paraphrase the chorus, I don’t know why he did this cover, and I don’t think that I understand.
Paul Jolley – “Just a Fool” (Christina Aguilera featuring Blake Shelton) – Advanced
Yes, Christina Aguilera, the pop princess with strong R&B flair and a taste for the classics, did a “country” duet with Blake Shelton when she cut “Just a Fool” for her 2012 album Lotus. I put “country” in quote marks because the song put a little intro about being in a bar onto a song that is otherwise indistinguishable from anything else on Top 40 pop radio. This is not meant to be a criticism entirely, as both delivered forceful vocal performances on a song written by Wayne Hector, Claude Kelly, and Steve Robson. Kelly, the lone American, has been a prolific pop writer for five years with hits such as original Idol Kelly Clarkson’s “My Life Would Suck Without You,” Bruno Mars’s “Grenade,” and Jessie J’s “Domino.” The other two composers were Britons, including Wayne Hector, best-known for his work with boy bands such as Westlife, O-Town, and the Wanted; and Steve Robson, who qualified for the job of Christina’s country expedition through his own success across the pond with Rascal Flatts, the group that has scored six Top Ten country hits with his songs so far. Shelton hit the ground running in country music in 2001 and has been a major star ever since, and knew Aguilera from their work together as judges on NBC’s rival singing competition The Voice. “Just a Fool,” a love affair postmortem full of panache but empty of twang, seemed more suited to Aguilera than to Shelton, and he did seem to adopt his style to hers rather than the other way around. Paul, a decent singer who outdid himself in his results show performance of Heart’s “Alone,” is drawn to Christina’s showmanship more than Shelton’s usual style. He sings in tune and definitely has the energy to carry the song, but he doesn’t necessarily do anything original with the song or hit power notes with gusto. What’s more, his career plan is somewhat puzzling, as Keith notes. After the performance, he professes to want to follow in the footsteps of Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift, purveyors of a very pop-influenced, showy kind of “glam country” far removed from the “three chords and the truth” ethos of old. I don’t think, based on what I’ve seen so far, that he has a market niche yet, but if anyone is determined enough to create one, it’s Paul.
Tenna Torres – “Lost” (Faith Hill) – Eliminated
“Lost” stems from Faith Hill’s cleverly titled greatest-hits album The Hits (2007), on which Faith did her best to convey sentiments Kara DioGuardi meant for her voice coach boyfriend and current husband Mike McCuddy. DioGuardi co-wrote it with Mitch Allan, a singer-guitarist from pop-punk groups SR-71 and Satellite who also worked with her on later hits such as the Jonas Brothers’ “Play My Music” (2008), 2009 Idol winner Kris Allen’s “No Boundaries,” and Miley Cyrus’s “He Could Be the One” (2009). However, DioGuardi told Howard Stern recently that she was somewhat miffed when Warner Bros. put what she felt (with some justification) to be a pop song onto Hill’s album, something that DioGuardi feared would not be good for either’s career, glam as Hill’s brand of country may be (Source: http://www.howardstern.com/rundown.hs?d=1303876800). Overall, DioGuardi may be right, since the single made a poor showing on the country chart, and despite a much-hyped followup album still in the works, she has yet to return to the upper echelons of the country charts, let alone the pop ones. Tenna, a shy but full-voiced pop diva, has no such problems covering the song for Idol. Despite some pitch issues in the chorus, Tenna milks the melodrama of the song for all it’s worth, and her phrasing fits what I suspect DioGuardi had in mind. Some polish could make Tenna’s the definitive version of the song, particularly if she keeps the excellent ending. This is a real contender here.
Vincent Powell – “End of the Road” (Boyz II Men) – Eliminated
“End of the Road” was the end of a thirty-six-year-old record. No song had fended off that many challengers on the Billboard charts since Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” held onto the charts for eleven weeks of 1956. For over three months in late 1992, “End of the Road” held pole position, setting a 13-week benchmark that the group would top twice within the next four years. If that’s any indication, Boyz II Men attained exceptional popularity in the pop market with their blend of doo-wop harmonies and silky urban-contemporary sheen, all aided by the top producer-songwriters in the R&B business. Shawn Stockman, Michael McCary, and Stephen and Wanya Morris made magic on “End of the Road,” an epic breakup song penned and produced by a team of behind-the-scenes giants, Babyface, L.A. Reid, and Daryl Simmons. Babyface (Kenneth Edmonds), of course, had a stellar career as a singer-songwriter, but pop music students like myself know him as one of the most successful producers and composers in any genre of popular music in the late 1980s and the entire 1990s. Countless dozens of choice cuts—including hits for former New Edition members (particularly Bobby Brown), Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, and TLC buttress collaborations with Sheena Easton, Madonna, Pink, and even Eric Clapton—show a gift for unforgettable melodic hooks and dramatic chord changes that belay the sometimes trite love sentiments that come with the genre territory. Antonio “L.A.” Reid knew Babyface from their group the Deele (who enjoyed crossover gold with “Two Occasions”) and turned out to have great business acumen on top of his songwriting skills. Reid helped run Babyface’s eponymous LaFace label before being promoted to head its distributor Arista and moving on to run Island-Def-Jam Music Group and most recently Epic Records, promoting acts for the latter label as a judge on the first two seasons of X Factor USA. Simmons, while not as prolific as Babyface or Reid, was a frequent collaborator of both and knew Babyface from high school in Indianapolis. With this sort of talent behind “End of the Road,” it’s no surprise that the stars aligned to make history. Vincent’s version, up against a giant in the voices of Boyz II Men, doesn’t replicate the magic but comes close enough to provide one of the best moments of the night. He tackles the low notes, he nails the falsetto, and he’s secure in the conviction that the music he’s making is the music he was born to make, just as when he introduced me to “‘Cause I Love You,” a 1978 track from a solo platter by Lenny Williams from the group Tower of Power, included as sung by Vincent Powell below. Both a worship leader and a seasoned backup singer, he infuses some gospel qualities into his style, but he also entertains in an affable way that accents a performance of “End of the Road” that’s just so aurally good that its appeal stretches beyond denomination. This is how it’s done.
Zoanette Johnson – “What’s Love Got to Do with It” (Tina Turner) – Eliminated
“What’s Love Got to Do with It” was re-used for the title of a Tina Turner biopic, and the shoe fits, since the song truly reinvigorated the career of one of American music’s most dynamic performers. Turner had been through the end of her abusive marriage to Ike Turner, and needed a change of scenery to really move forward with her life, choosing to record her 1984 solo album Private Dancer with new label Capitol in England. The song’s producer and co-writer, Terry Britten, was a Manchester native who joined a transplanted Adelaide band named the Twilights in the early 1970s before beginning to write songs for Cliff Richard and others, including Richard’s stateside breakthrough, 1976’s “Devil Woman.” Graham Lyle, a writer from a similar background who toiled away with Benny Gallagher in a power-pop duo called McGuinness Flint and later simply Gallagher and Lyle, penned hits for expat Art Garfunkel before starting his own song publisher (Goodsingle Publishing) in 1980 and hooking up with Britten to write synth-pop songs fit for the MTV era. On a side note, Lyle would be one of Nashville’s top Brits of the 1980s, with hits for Don Williams, Lee Greenwood, Crystal Gayle, and the Judds, among others. “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” one of several songs Britten and Lyle wrote for Private Dancer, asks an immortal question with a blunt fire, accompanied by a catchy but dated keyboard riff, all of which could only be pulled off right by a performer of Turner’s caliber, so it’s no wonder the song became an international smash and kicked off a decade of platinum success for her. Lightning would strike twice, indeed, when the Britten-Lyle team wrote “We Don’t Need Another Hero” for her acting effort Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and “Typical Male” for the follow-up Break Every Rule (1986). Zoanette, for her part, is without a doubt a one-of-a-kind entertainer, captivating in a way that few performers on today’s blasé pop scene manage to be. Her personality both on and off stage has been a real shot of caffeine for everyone around her and watching at home. In addition, the story she revealed during the “Sudden Death” eliminations last week of her family’s leaving war-torn Liberia really deepened my respect for her perseverance while emphasizing her direct connection to the West African roots of much of America’s most beloved music. For all of these reasons, I was surprised when her version of Tina’s anthem didn’t really connect on any level. The derivative arrangement makes for an unflattering side-by-side comparison between the original and Zoanette’s meandering, lackluster vocal. While I’ve never felt blown away by Zoanette’s singing talent, I’ve also never been bored by her performances up until “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” What’s music got to do with this, I ask?