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The 2012 American Idol Songbook--Week of May 16
Top 3 Finalists Sing the Judges’ Choice, a Personal Choice, and Jimmy’s Choice
Like the Top Ten, who all get the promotion and practice of the summer tour under their belt, the Top Three is one of those great American Idol thresholds. Not only does the trio of finalists often get the first shots at record contracts, but they also are given the traditional homecoming celebration in their towns of origin, a time to reminisce on their rise to the top and the real meaning of their newfound fame. On May 16, 2012, America beheld what was possibly the most uniformly talented, and without a doubt the most diverse (both stylistically and ethnically), Top Three in Idol history so far. At this point, so much has been said, by myself and by others, about Jessica, Joshua, and Phillip, that what’s left to decide the outcome was largely sheer enthusiasm. The contestants had to rise to the challenge of other people’s song choices for two-thirds of their performances, which did much to shake up the relative predictability of the night at this point. The judges, announcing individually but clearly making their decision as a panel, made an effort to strike a good balance between challenging the singers to face their weaknesses and encouraging them to play to their strengths. Jimmy, however, was positively brilliant in his selections, picking songs that advanced all three without undermining them. For their part, both Jessica and Joshua were quite adventurous with their own decisions. Ultimately, Jessica struggled the most, though more from inexperience than from lack of potential. Joshua and Phillip, though, proved their worth for the finale and delivered some surprises as well.
Jessica Sánchez – “My All” (Mariah Carey) –
“My All” was, in some ways, the last of Mariah Carey’s hit pop ballads that dominated the charts in the 1990s. The 1997 album Butterfly was aptly titled, for it was about the point where Carey metamorphosed from the pop diva envisioned by her discoverer and then-husband Tommy Mottola (the head of Sony-Columbia Records in that decade) into the R&B-hip-hop fusion maven she had long wanted to be. Of course, this transition was accompanied by her separation and divorce from Mottola and growing tensions with the producer he’d assigned her, Walter Afanasieff. Carey was a child prodigy with perfect pitch, but had to dictate melodies to collaborators because she didn’t learn to read sheet music (as was the case with Irving Berlin, the Beatles, and the Bee Gees, natch). The collaborator was often Afanasieff during the Columbia years. During the sessions for Butterfly, she was back from Puerto Rico with Latin music and her father’s Venezuelan roots on the brain, something familiar to the Brazilian-born Afanasieff. Afanasieff’s family were Ashkenazi Jews who brought over Russian musical tastes as wel. The whole cocktail was evident on the dramatic moods and minor-key chords of “My All,” one of the most truly interesting melodies ever released as a Carey single. The lyric’s breakup melancholy, accentuated on the iconic video with a mishmash of motifs from Titanic and The Birth of Venus, were quite the contrast to the transition she was more than happy to be making. The result, of course, was the usual multiplatinum chart-topper that had become par for the course for Carey. Jennifer, then a fellow Columbia act who was just starting to work with Afanasieff at the time “My All” came out, does the honors to announce that the judges chose the song for Jessica. Jessica shares some of the wunderkind aura that came across with Mariah, and likewise seems to have been given a very adult image that fits her talent beyond her years but has made it hard for her to have what, at least in North American terms, constitutes a childhood and adolescence. Despite a sore throat that dogged her performances in general on Top Three night, she delivers. Jessica emotes and goes to a place more sincere than we’re used to on “My All,” her best number of the night by far. Her voice has impressive tone color that brings out the song’s sinuous tune, and she proves she can handle an intimate ballad just as well as the flashy ones for which she’s known. At times, efforts to emulate Mariah’s voice were distracting in their futility, but overall, she delivered a sterling effort that will be an important part of her Idol legacy.
Jessica Sánchez – “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” (Aerosmith)
“I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” was yet another example of a smash hit song written for a panned movie. Its author Diane Warren, already represented on this season of Idol by Joshua Ledet’s live debut (“You Pulled Me Through”), was to 1990s songwriting what Carey was to 1990s music, peppering the decade and its immediate surroundings with dozens of monster successes that always fit pop radio’s demands. While most of her biggest hits have been sung by female artists (e.g. Celine Dion, Cher, Gloria Estefan), Warren has had her share of male hits such as those by Michael Bolton. Her popularity allowed her to dabble in every conceivable mainstream genre except hip-hop, including adult contemporary, urban contemporary, country, and pop-rock. Aerosmith, nearing the end of their phoenix-like rise as a contemporary glam metal group starting in the mid-1980s, was hired to sing “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” for the soundtrack of Armageddon, the somewhat popular but critically savaged 1998 disaster movie depicting Bruce Willis saving the world from an asteroid. The song was a love theme meant to accompany the wistful love affair of a member of the rock-blasting crew before he left for his potentially fatal mission. Lead singer Steven Tyler sang the song, a truculent yet ethereal composition, with plenty of heart. It got both a number one spot on the charts and an Oscar nomination, winning Aerosmith a lot of new fans while puzzling some of its old ones. Jessica takes the daring step of singing “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” atop an authentic arrangement in front of judge Steven. Her soulful approach is a bit different from Steven’s rock edge, but the performance is generally quite faithful to the original. While her emphatic style doesn’t necessarily jibe with the song’s subtlety and slight country twang, her voice is in decent form, and her twist refreshes what was always an oddity in an iconic rock group’s career.
Jessica Sánchez – “I’ll Be There” (The Jackson Five)
The story of “I’ll Be There” is told well by Jimmy in his explanation of why he chose it for Jessica, and I’m in agreement with his assessment. In 1970, Berry Gordy had already established the Jackson Five as national superstars with the biggest debut in Motown’s history, defining bubblegum soul through three singles produced and written by “The Corporation.” This group, consisting of Gordy and session musicians Fonz Mizell, Freddie Perren, and Deke Richards, was meant to replace the Holland-Dozier-Holland team (see “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” as sung by Joshua Ledet last week) that left the label in 1968. The Corporation emphasized uptempo grooves for the Jackson clan, but Gordy sought new collaborators based in the L.A. area where he planned to relocate his label for multimedia expansion. Hal Davis, Willie Hutch, and Bob West were thus tapped to write the follow-up, and would go on to write later hits such as “Dancin’ Machine” (1974). “I’ll Be There” was a pop ballad destined to showcase Michael’s lead voice and market the group to an older, more melody-conscious crowd without losing sight of the Jacksons’ youth appeal. The number’s success off the Third Album testified to Gordy’s wisdom. Michael sang like a bird and the romantic sentiments remain touching today, as they did twenty years later in Mariah Carey’s cover on MTV Unplugged. It’s easy to see why the astute Gordy was a role model for the young Jimmy Iovine, who sees the song as able to help grow Jessica’s image as it did Michael’s. The problem is that she still needs to develop more as an artist before she, sooner or later, contributes to the industry in the dramatic way that Michael Jackson did. Her cover of “I’ll Be There” is pleasant but subdued. It’s refreshing to see her sing something innocent and perform in more or less regular clothes after so many adult songs delivered in prom wear. However, it’s clear from her wavering performances and uncertain stage presence that’s she’s not ready for the level of scrutiny being thrust upon her. She seems more overwhelmed than appreciative at the sight of her homecoming banquet, having been home-schooled and thus unaccustomed to the crush of the crowds. Her talent is undeniable but clearly in need of more expert guidance if it’s ever to reach its full potential. With some formal musical training and/or a spot on a self-referential performer show along the lines of Hannah Montana or iCarly, she could get the real-world experience under her belt that will fill in the blanks unaddressed by her experience on Idol and the upcoming summer tour. I’m sure Jessica Sánchez will be a household name at some point; it’s just a question of when.
Joshua Ledet – “I’d Rather Go Blind” (Etta James) –
In a time when R&B had come to be something of a studio exercise, “I’d Rather Go Blind” harked back to the itinerant roots of the blues. Etta James heard it sung by an old friend in prison, an Ellington “Fugi” Jordan, and polished off the mellow Southern soul classic with him. She gave her co-credit to her boyfriend Billy Foster to help with his tax troubles, but the song was all Jordan and James. The song found its way to the 1968 album Tell Mama, the last album to feature Etta the hitmaker, and it made a great B-side to the title track that was similarly Southern-focused (despite the singer’s L.A. roots and Chicago residence). Ultimately, “I’d Rather Go Blind” attained an almost mythic status near the end of James’s commercial peak in the 1960s, eclipsing “Tell Mama” in fan memory and exemplifying her ability to wring emotion out of what could become turgid “please stay!” melodrama in the hands of a less skillful performer. Naturally, the judges considered it perfect for Joshua, and he proves them right. There is little more that I can say about Joshua’s talent for Southern soul that I haven’t already covered ad nauseam, so suffice it to say that I echo Randy in seeing Joshua as just what the doctor ordered to perk up R&B from its Auto-Tuned doldrums right now.
Joshua Ledet – “Imagine” (John Lennon)
“Imagine” was the mission statement of the Beatles’ chief ideologue, John Lennon. As one of the world’s most iconic pacifists, Lennon surprised nobody but charmed millions with this title track off a 1971 album meant to introduce him in a more acoustic setting than his bracing predecessor with the “Plastic Ono Band.” “Imagine” was based off a very short poem by his wife Yoko Ono, entitled “Cloud Piece,” but it really was more or less a fantasia about a utopian world without institutions or property to divide people and cloud their judgment. The melody was almost alien, a fittingly out-of-this-world soundtrack for the seemingly impossible dream that defined a generation. Despite its atheistic premise, the song’s basic message appealed to the devout Joshua enough to earn his approval for his one personal choice for Top Three night. He seems to recognize that, despite the rejection of organized religion and dogma in Lennon’s ideal world, “Imagine” does have an essentially spiritual (and definitely Christian) cast to it, an atmosphere uncannily close to that of the Kingdom of God, if you will. This light gospel take on the song works like a charm in Joshua’s hands. His vibrato stretches the song’s very compact melody without straining it, and he shows his aptitude for a variety of material, sung his way. If anything showcased Joshua’s versatility as an artist, this performance did.
Joshua Ledet – “No More Drama” (Mary J. Blige)
“No More Drama” was a great example of the ironic use of a sample, as well as an obvious showcase of Mary J. Blige’s talent as one of the foremost R&B singers of her time. While working on the title track for Blige’s 2001 album, James “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis knew they had to come up with something distinctive but accessible. Jam and Lewis, as they were almost universally known in the industry, were among the top producers in urban contemporary music. These synthesizer players, the heads of Flyte Tyme Productions, made Minneapolis a soul mecca in the 1980s and went on to produce and write countless hits with their distinctive sound, characterized by angular keyboard riffs and atmospheric echoes, for genre heavy hitters such as Janet Jackson, New Edition, and Boyz II Men. Though they had come up with many catchy melodies of their own, the duo decided to include a portion of “Nadia’s Theme” from The Young and the Restless, the 1972 product of soundtrack veterans Barry de Vorzon and Perry Botkin, Jr., to highlight the sort of soapy intrigues the protagonist of “No More Drama” was quite fed up with, thank you. Jam and Lewis’s superb production and Blige’s sublime, heartbreaking vocal made the song another in her long line of crossover hits. She convincingly gave off the impression of someone who had had it up to here with petty games. Jimmy reasons that Blige is a great example of someone who has kept the emotional core of R&B and attained commercial success even in a market saturated with the more prosaic influence of the ring-tone-friendly side of hip-hop, something Joshua will be fighting to do as an artist today. He takes us on a journey, the sort of journey only he can, where we wait to see just what kind of pathos he will evoke from each turn in the song. Joshua is a crowd-pleaser from start to finish, at one point even seeking and getting call-and-response in the church (and soul) tradition from the audience. This is music at its transformative, spellbinding best, and I hope it sets a template in the future for what American Idol can be when great talent graces its stage.
Phillip Phillips – “Beggin’” (The Four Seasons via Madcon) –
In 1967, when “Beggin’” was released by the Four Seasons, Frankie Valli’s group was struggling to cope with the aftershocks of Valli’s efforts to start a solo career. Bob Gaudio, the keyboardist member who penned most of the group’s hits between 1962 and 1965 in tandem with their producer, Bob Crewe, had been snubbed on singles releases since the middle of the decade. Although the group would continue to be popular up until the end of the decade, Gaudio’s sidelining greatly altered the group’s distinctive sound, changing them from what was arguably the last successful doo-wop group into a prototype for “blue-eyed soul.” Of course, the change did help update them, but Gaudio was, probably understandably, nonplussed by the time he and backup singer Peggy Farina (from the Angels of “My Boyfriend’s Back” fame) wrote the plodding “Beggin’” for New Gold Hits, an original album despite the implications of the title. The song’s desperate lyric and vaguely classical melody were enough to get a moderate chart placing from a public curious to see how the group would handle the new currents emerging in popular music, but it was predictably overshadowed by Valli’s more old-fashioned solo hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” After the song was re-popularized with a new generation, like many of the Seasons’ hits, by the 2005 jukebox musical Jersey Boys, one of the oddest twists imaginable happened: the song was covered by a Norwegian hip-hop group in a breakbeat version. That group, Madcon, essentially papered over the original for many first-time listeners. Madcon tried their best, and their alternative hip-hop take admittedly gave a brand new look to what was never among Gaudio’s most memorable work. It seemed almost farcical for the judges, headlined by Steven Tyler, to pick “Beggin’” as an admonition to Phillip to “stick to the melody” for once, and he takes it like the ridiculous move that it is. Armed with his rapid-fire guitar, Phillip makes the song listenable again, twisting it around into the quirky knots we fully expect from him. He makes lemonade out of those lemons the judges threw him, and they seem amused when he “couldn’t help it” and had to “Phillip Phillips it.” Their surprise is unwarranted, because Phillip is a creator who can alter the fabric of musical space-time when he sets his mind to it, turning even the most out-of-left-field song choices into something amazing.
Phillip Phillips – “Disease” (Matchbox Twenty)
“Disease” was the result of the meeting of the minds between post-grunge’s most pop-friendly singer-songwriter and the ultimate rock front man. Back in 2002, when Matchbox Twenty released More Than You Think You Are, their third album, Rob Thomas was one of the trendiest personalities in the American music world. On “Disease,” he had the songwriting help of none other than Mick Jagger, whose infectious (slight pun intended) riffs were in full force as the perfect complement to Thomas’s story of a love that just won’t quit nagging him with its unshakable symptoms. Like Thomas’s co-write for Santana’s comeback album Supernatural in 1999, “Smooth,” “Disease” had a salsa feel to its melody, all super-charged with rock panache like Ricky Martin’s Anglophone work at the turn of the millennium. Matchbox Twenty had more luck on the charts with “Unwell” and “Bright Lights” from the same album, but Phillip took a shine to “Disease” and decided to cover the song for his one choice on Top Three night. Of course, Phillip commits to making a change to the material, as he usually does, and he has fun with it while remaining professional. In addition to playing acoustic guitar, he slows the tempo down and uses a saxophone and bongos to help create an even more “Latin” feel than the original had, showing another facet of his talent just when I thought I couldn’t find any more. The impromptu, jam-band set with instrument boxes all over was a great design choice, but it’s really just window-dressing to the crux of the matter here. Phillip has somehow combined the teenybopper appeal of a pop idol with the instrumental talent of a singer-songwriter, bringing together two aspects of popular music that are often seen as diametrically opposed in some quarters but need not necessarily be.
Phillip Phillips – “We’ve Got Tonight” (Bob Seger)
“We’ve Got Tonight” was one of the most iconic songs to come from the pen and voice of Bob Seger, the man who brought roots rock to prominence. In the mid-1970s, before Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, and Tom Petty had become superstars, Seger and his Silver Bullet Band were beginning their run of hits set in struggling, post-industrial Middle America and influenced by classic rock and roll, arena rock, Southern soul, and country music. Songs such as “Night Moves,” “Still the Same,” and “Against the Wind” would go down as classic Americana as well as oldies radio staples, but “We’ve Got Tonight” had the added fame of a hit cover. In 1978, Seger released the song on Stranger in Town, the hit album that also contained “Still the Same” and “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll.” A power ballad, “We’ve Got Tonight” focused with tenderness on the last stage of a doomed relationship. The natural country qualities in the song led Kenny Rogers to cut a duet with Sheena Easton (the winner of what was arguably one of the first British predecessors to American Idol) in 1983, and that version was even more commercially successful, giving the song a two-person image that almost made it easy to forget how it was written for one. Jimmy’s idea to use the song to balance Phillip’s romantic appeal to fans and his rock appeal to fans is a stroke of genius, but Phillip’s guitar-free version makes Jimmy’s choice really pay off. He’s a little physically awkward singing without the guitar, but it doesn’t show one iota in his voice. What the song showcases most beautifully is Phillip’s ability to really carry a melody and stick to it, something he dramatically displays in a performance relatively free of improvisation. It’s his best pure vocal ever, and gives a glimpse in advance of what the softer side of America’s most talented heartthrob will sound like. What’s more, “We’ve Got Tonight,” in the context of the season as a whole, implies that Phillip Phillips has the mark of a truly great talent: the ability to pull together what seem to be wildly disparate threads of America’s diverse musical fabric, creating something that is uniquely him.