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The 2012 American Idol Songbook--Week of April 18
Top 7 Finalists Sing Songs from Now and Then
For April 18’s episode, the producers of American Idol selected a double theme designed to balance things out amongst a diverse group of contestants. Most of this season’s singers are so distinctive that no single music genre can give all of them an equal shot. Therefore, combining the contemporary hit format used the previous week (albeit modified to number one pop chart hits from 2000 on) with classic R&B that highlights the talents of last week’s bottom two (Joshua Ledet and the saved Jessica Sánchez) seems like a good choice. Overall, the superior song quality in the latter half of the show created a serious sense of nostalgia for a time when more complex material got a public hearing, but the contestants made a strong effort in both halves and even delivered a few surprises. The drawback, of course, is that to allow time for commercials, only a minute and a half or so rather than the customary two can be allotted to each performance, and many songs suffered without some of the intros that establish their atmosphere or the bridges that complete their story. Unencumbered by guest mentors, Jimmy was free to help the contestants make the best of the episode’s unusual setup, though his idea that emotional connection was the X factor that last week’s least popular contestants lacked is somewhat simplistic. Elise’s inconsistent vocals (hampered by the time constraints as she herself pointed out) and Colton and Hollie’s lack of a strong feel for soul music made for baffling efforts that didn’t emphasize their best features. However, the best of the contestants made us long for more, whether it was through the sheer energy of Skylar and Joshua, the limitless creativity and sterling musicianship of Phillip, or the unstoppable talent of Jessica, who more than justified her save on April 11.
Colton Dixon – "Bad Romance" (Lady GaGa) – Eliminated
“Bad Romance,” technically the only song performed this week that didn’t reach number one on Billboard’s Hot 100, came close at number two in 2009. GaGa released the single in 2009, as part of The Fame Monster, an eight-track EP addendum to her first hit album, The Fame (2008). As with most of her hits so far, she collaborated on “Bad Romance” with producer RedOne, the Moroccan-Swedish electropop guru who branched out to work with GaGa’s label-mates such as Enrique Iglesias and Idol’s own Jennifer Lopez. The usual ingredients of a GaGa hit were all in place, including the understandably European-influenced techno beats and the lyrics exploring the unhealthiest, most manipulative relationships imaginable, all topped off with a bizarre video that in this case features GaGa escaping and murdering the Russian mobster that buys her as a sex slave. It was weird, stylish, and at times annoyingly clever, and Colton can count on plenty of GaGa’s Little Monsters in her audience who understand the song’s minutiae in far more detail than I care to contemplate. Colton sings all the best-known hooks and entertains in his own goofy way, but his most interesting move is to use a hard-rock arrangement that’s been explored in a few obscure covers. I don’t think “GaGa ooo-la-la” or any other such nonsense syllables mesh very well with metal guitar, but Colton’s gumption just to try this sort of thing on Idol is one of his most daring moves so far, and I can’t help but respect it.
Colton Dixon – “September” (Earth, Wind, and Fire)
“September” was never one of Earth, Wind, and Fire’s best. From a group that produced nuggets of funk gold such as “That’s the Way of the World,” “Can’t Hide Love,” and “Fantasy,” a song like “September” could only work at the height of the disco craze, when sitting down to listen was missing the point. Not surprisingly, the song was released in 1978, the year after Saturday Night Fever had mainstreamed disco and encouraged many artists to jump on the bandwagon regardless of how natural a step it was to take. EWF, like other funk groups, appeared well-prepared for success at the time, but it was almost a fluke in retrospect that something as plodding as “September” would be so closely identified with them. The song had a pleasant beat, but the hooks didn’t really stand out, and the lyrics about reminiscing over a love affair that didn’t even take place that month seemed all too hastily written. “September” was co-written by bandmembers Maurice White and Al McKay with Allee Willis, a prolific songwriter who has written some other forgettable hits (“Boogie Wonderland”? “Lead Me On”? “Neutron Dance”?). The song was wisely relegated to a greatest-hits collection in 1978 instead of being put on the following year’s I Am, the album that contained better singles such as “In the Stone” and “After the Love Is Gone.” Colton’s version once again takes the approach of making it an emo ballad on the piano, and his earnest voice cannot improve such a weak song one iota. The arrangement just comes off as bizarre, and the breakup ballad approach doesn’t work with the disjointed story told by the lyrics. Lionel Richie or Smokey Robinson material might have worked better with Colton’s approach to covering songs, but I fear he doesn’t have enough understanding of R&B to pick something appropriate on such a theme night.
Elise Testone – “No One” (Alicia Keys) – Advanced
“No One” was a simple pop song from an artist from whom I longed for more. Back in 2007, singer-songwriter Alicia Keys released the song as the lead single from her third album As I Am, a general disappointment in my view compared to the captivating neo-soul of her first two releases, Songs in A Minor (2001) and The Diary of Alicia Keys (2003). Although “No One” featured the same collaborators, including producer-cum-writers Kerry Brothers, Jr., and George “Dirty” Harry, something was different. In place of the intricate melodies and intimate atmosphere of “If I Ain’t Got You” or “You Don’t Know My Name” was “No One”’s lightweight melody and bombastic production, and the “they can’t keep us apart” lyric didn’t ring true in the profound way that her earlier confessionals had. Maybe she simply got to a happier place in her life and was inspired to write more conventional music, or maybe she simply gave in to market pressures. I’m not sure what happened, but later singles from the album and its follow-up The Element of Freedom continued to make me wonder where the old Alicia who so dazzled the industry with her genuine, heartfelt music had gone. In any event, Elise picks “No One” for her contemporary chart-topper segment, and the results don’t give the song the makeover it badly needs. I would have loved to see her sing it at the piano and thereby channel the old Keys, but she plays it rather straight, sticking to the original’s lackluster arrangement. Her voice has finally overcome my initial resistance, and often reminds me of Mariah Carey, but as the judges pointed out, she should have kept up her usual practice of altering the melody somewhat. This song’s boring tune could use the Elise treatment, but the length of time she had to sing it doesn’t leave much room for improvisation, so we’re left with something nice but not exciting.
Elise Testone – “Let’s Get It On” (Marvin Gaye)
“Let’s Get It On,” the 1973 song that indelibly linked Marvin Gaye’s music with sex in the public imagination, was the ultimate retort to the strict upbringing that tragically conspired to tear its singer and co-author’s life apart. Gaye’s father was an abusive fundamentalist with a cross-dressing fetish that only served to make his cruelty more hypocritical, and Marvin had found Eastern spirituality to be a liberating alternative that didn’t put as much emphasis on sin and punishment. The casual, sex-positive sentiments of the song almost got side-tracked by initial co-writer Kenny Stover’s efforts to make a political polemic in the tradition of earlier Motown singles such as the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” or the Supremes “Love Child.” Fortunately, Ed Townsend, a leading figure in Chicago soul, best-known for his own 1958 hit “For Your Love,” was called in to re-write the song, and the result was a sax-sprinkled melody perfect for the sensual groove of the lyrics. The song anchored an entire eponymous album mostly consisting of similar baby-makin’ music, and while Gaye’s increasingly difficult experiences with drugs and dysfunctional relationships cast a sad post-script onto the album and hampered his ability to equal its success in later years, Let’s Get It On would be key to the ultimate image of Marvin Gaye as Motown’s greatest sex symbol. Elise can carry the song’s sensuality across very convincingly, certainly more so than a younger artist would, but her version doesn’t really have a very organic feel. There’s something forced about her performance, at times too relaxed and at times too shrill, as though she’s going through the motions on a song which clashes, both in form and in content, with any such artificiality. I feel that she’s more capable of emotional connection than even the judges give her credit for, and her mourning of her dog at death’s door after “No One” gave her some much-needed humanization, but she vacillates so wildly between great weeks and ones in which she’s lucky to make it through that I don’t quite know what to make of her.
Hollie Cavanagh – “Rolling in the Deep” (Adele) – Advanced
“Rolling in the Deep,” the lead single from Adele’s 2010 sophomore album 21, was one of her most genuinely interesting hits so far. Co-writer Paul Epworth was one of Britain’s leading indie rock producers and parlayed U.K. success with groups such as Bloc Party and Friendly Fires into an increasingly strong U.S. profile through his work with Foster the People and Florence and the Machine. His expertise was just what Adele needed to work her exceptional pop-soul voice and melodramatic breakup lyrics into something musically distinguished, and the result was breathtaking. The atmospheric staccato intro, unmercifully cut for Idol’s short format, pulled the listener in from the get-go, and the minor-key melody contrasted with the lively rhythms just enough to make the song stand out from anything else on the radio at the time. In a word, the song set the stage for Adele’s true rise to transatlantic fame and began the incredible journey that led to her Grammy sweep in 2012. Hollie brilliantly chooses to play up her “natural” voice’s strengths by selecting two songs for this episode that are associated with dramatic female Britons. While her rendition of “Rolling in the Deep” is nowhere near professional enough to put her at the top of a very competitive field this year, she shows more conviction and vocal power than we’ve seen since the early weeks of the 2012 season.
Hollie Cavanagh – “Son of a Preacher Man” (Dusty Springfield)
“Son of a Preacher Man” has often been seen as one of the archetypal story songs of its time. The unique tale of a girl from the wrong side of the tracks hooking up with the title character was indeed one of the most narrative-oriented numbers to hit the charts in 1968, when political polemics and bubblegum dance were just as attractive as good old-fashioned storytelling to listeners. The song was unmistakably Southern, coming from John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkens, itinerant writers well-known for their contributions to Southern soul, including the classic “Love of the Common People” recorded by the Winstons in 1969. Aretha Franklin, awash with her own material and innumerable contemporary hits to cover, turned the song down, but her producers Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin gladly offered it to Dusty Springfield for Dusty in Memphis. Dusty in Memphis marked the pop-slanted diva’s ultimate foray into R&B, and Springfield tore into every number, including the smash “Son of a Preacher Man,” with enough gusto to convert the musicians involved into true believers in her often underrated talent. Hollie attempts her own transformation in the same vein, but she doesn’t quite pull it off as well as her vocal power would suggest she could. She misses more notes than she had on “Rolling in the Deep,” and fails to convey the sense of fun that enlivened the original. It’s not a complex melody and the lyric isn’t exactly groundbreaking, and so more personality is needed to make the song work. Hollie doesn’t bring that personality to the song, though the rushed quality of her performance does owe something to the limitations of having to compress it into 90 seconds.
Jessica Sánchez – “Fallin’” (Alicia Keys) – Advanced
When I spoke, in my review of Alicia Keys’s “No One” as sung by Elise, of the old Keys that song made me miss, “Fallin’” is the kind of song that came to mind. Back in 2001, Keys was a twenty-year-old pianist with classical training and a love for the jazz and gospel touches that pop radio had long since banished to niche markets in favor of more formulaic sounds. Despite or perhaps because of the cool reception she and her neo-soul colleagues had gotten from pop culture in the 1990s, “Fallin’” shot to the top of the charts as something unlike anything else on Top 40 stations and kicked off the runaway success of her Grammy-winning debut, Songs in the Key of A Minor. The song, apparently written in E Minor despite what the album’s title might indicate, embodies great R&B at its essential core: it’s low-key music with few chords and a lyric of pained romantic confusion, all sung with the character and emotion one expects from the best of the genre. Keys and her piano (after which she replaced her birth surname Cook) were all that was really needed to make the record work, sans Auto-Tune, samples, or other electronic gimmicks so frequently used in contemporary music. Jessica’s vote totals should not be “Fallin’” again after she proves last week’s voters abjectly wrong on her superb cover. She does add more of an over-the-top diva’s persona to her rendition, but that’s a change that fits in perfectly with her identity as a somewhat more conventional artist than Keys. The judges’ and Jimmy’s insinuations that Jessica fails to connect emotionally could not be further from the truth, and her voice alone wins the title hands down at this point.
Jessica Sánchez – “Try a Little Tenderness” (Ray Noble via Otis Redding)
“Try a Little Tenderness” is one of the oldest songs ever to be featured on Idol, albeit more strongly associated with a later cover.The song was a rare transatlantic collaboration from 1932, written by Britons Jimmy Campbell and Reginald Connelly together with American Harry M. Woods.Woods had several Al Jolson hits under his belt (e.g. “When the Red, Red Robin” and “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover”) along with other songs like “Paddlin’ Madelin Home” and “Side by Side.”Campbell and Connelly were pioneers of pop music pond-crossing with “Show Me the Way to Go Home” and “Goodnight Sweetheart,” the latter written with and premiered by Britain’s best-known bandleader, Ray Noble, who also premiered “Try a Little Tenderness.”The song’s romance is a bit ersatz and dated if one listens closely, essentially reminding the listener to use the soft-sell to seduce an apparently poor dame, at the height of the Great Depression.The sentimentality worked like a charm both for Noble and in the States for Bing Crosby, with whom it was most closely associated when Otis Redding covered it in 1966.Redding’s Complete and Unbelievable: The Otis Redding Dictionary of Soul, from which his cover is drawn, was a phenomenal distillation of the king of Southern soul’s genius, including both originals such as “Sad Song” and remakes ranging from Pee Wee King’s “Tennessee Waltz” to the Beatles’s “Day Tripper.”Like most artists that cover the song today, Jessica draws on Redding’s version, though she adds a slight Latin lilt to the arrangement and speeds it up somewhat.The musicians, who seem to be having the time of their life on this episode, provide a first-rate Stax horn sound.She delivers dynamic vocals equal to her first song of the night and up to Redding’s standard.If she goes home, the tone-deaf will clearly outnumber the music lovers in the audience: there’s no less discouraging interpretation.
Joshua Ledet – “I Believe” (Fantasia Barrino) – Advanced
“I Believe,” Fantasia Barrino’s first release in 2004, was quite typical of American Idol winners’ debut singles. From Kelly Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This” to Scotty McCreery’s “I Love You This Big,” the lucky victor’s debut has almost uniformly been a bland, treacly pop song for a clear reason: millions will buy it due to sheer anticipation no matter what. In some cases, the follow-ups redeemed the artist, but in others, they ended up like Taylor Hicks and Lee DeWyze, unable to establish their presence on the market in a truly attention-getting way. Part of the problem stemmed from the songs being written well beforehand instead of being tailored or chosen for the winner, and the result was often more generic than viewers had come to expect when they voted for the person. In the case of Fantasia Barrino, undoubtedly Idol’s most jazz-influenced winner, she got a song about her amazing triumph against all odds, often interpreted in light of her dyslexia but written in so anodyne a fashion as to have none of Fantasia’s pizzazz at all in it. The lyrics are an encyclopedia of self-empowerment clichés, and the melody just sort of spins around without ever going anywhere worthwhile. Fantasia tried her best to put quality gospel showmanship into it and wound up with more worthwhile material later on such as “Truth Is,” “Free Yourself,” and “Bittersweet.” Tamyra Gray co-wrote “I Believe” with Louis Biancaniello and Sam Watters, part of a production group called the Runaways that unleashed other dubious gems such as Jessica Simpson’s “A Public Affair,” Natasha Bedingfield’s “Love Like This,” and later winner Jordin Sparks’s “Battlefield” on an unsuspecting public. Joshua views Fantasia as a role model, and she’s a worthwhile talent for him to look up to in my opinion. They both share a commitment to gospel influences, and he gives the song a respectful and engaging treatment that, even more than Fantasia’s version, makes me forget some of the song’s inherent weaknesses. I hope that, if he wins, he can overcome as she did the greatest obstacle of all: the Idol debut.
Joshua Ledet – “A Change Is Gonna Come” (Sam Cooke)
“A Change Is Gonna Come” was one of those songs that encapsulated the feel of its time of release (1964) in such a fashion that it almost seemed preordained. Sam Cooke, shortly after whose death the song was released, was truly the man most responsible for transforming the niche market of R&B into the global pop culture phenomenon of soul music by combining his preternatural gift for songwriting with one of the smoothest voices the world has ever known. A variety of events helped inspire its composition and recording in 1963, including the recent drowning of his son, meetings with demonstrators at a sit-in in Shreveport, and Dylan’s success with the similarly themed “Blowin’ in the Wind.” At some point during that pivotal year in the civil rights movement, Cooke sat down to write its first true R&B anthem, drawing on the gospel tradition of both the hymns sung by many of its marchers and his own past with supergroup the Soul Stirrers. He created the perfect combination of hope and pathos for a nation and a generation racked with violence but filled with purpose to “carry on.” It’s almost a shame that Joshua can’t tell the whole story in the time he has on the show, but he makes sure every bit of it that he can fit in is as compelling as it ought to be. His voice is reminiscent of Cooke’s, reminding us of the church upbringing from which so many of R&B’s great vocalists came and foreshadowing what will hopefully be a change in his voting fortunes as he continues to mature by leaps and bounds.
Phillip Phillips – “U Got It Bad” (Usher) – Advanced
“U Got It Bad” was a product of Usher when he was at his most entertaining, a true R&B star in the urban-contemporary tradition of synthetic grooves and lyrical soap operas. Usher was having words with a girlfriend in the studio and, as the story goes, producer Jermaine Dupri told him that for the time being he was too worked up to perform well, or as he put it, “U Got It Bad.” Lyricist Dupri and the song’s co-composer Bryan-Michael Cox put together an incredible track record, one still going strong, with Usher and countless other artists (Kris Kross, Da Brat, Xscape, Jagged Edge, Mario, and Mariah Carey, just to name a few), and their expertise together with Usher’s emotional vocal made for a winner. The song’s melody was a bit more adventuresome than some of its competition in the genre, featuring almost dissonant chord changes at times and an unforgettable descending hook in the verse, while the lyrics perfectly captured the ache of a relationship disintegrating faster than the hapless protagonist can comprehend. The song helped make 2001’s 8701 a quadruple-platinum album, and is a reminder that great music could triumph a mere decade before the doldrums in which our contestants find themselves. Phillip chews into the offbeat tune with his own brand of acoustic improvisation, creating something as far from pop as you can get on the show, and why shouldn’t he? He’s clearly on a roll, and is the most deserving of the safe contestants from last week by a long shot. I don’t blame the musicians at all for seeming to enjoy themselves much more than usual when working with a true peer like Phillip.
Phillip Phillips – “In the Midnight Hour” (Wilson Pickett)
“In the Midnight Hour” is the song that anyone looking for a definition of Southern soul would call exhibit A.On a hot night in 1965, in a Memphis hotel that three years later would play host to a tragedy for all lovers of universal brotherhood, a white guitarist and a black singer got together to write this perennial evergreen.Wilson Pickett was legendary for his raw sex appeal and emphatic vocals, a perfect fit for the punchy R&B he specialized in.Steve Cropper was a lot like our Phillip back then: a young white Southerner with a yen for the blues and an astonishing talent for the guitar.Cropper’s guitar, in addition to Booker T. Jones’s organ, King Curtis’s saxophone, and Isaac Hayes’s trombone, was an indelible part of the integrated band that helped give Southern R&B its distinctive sound, driven heavily by keyboards and horns and peppered with intense gospel testifyin’ in a thoroughly secular context.As was often the case with such music, “In the Midnight Hour” more or less came together as part of a jam session, and thereby is a perfect fit for Phillip’s musical m.o.Of course, the lusty lyrics underline Phillip’s increasingly “sexy” image as a Steve McQueen type, adding to the genius of his song choice.Phillip takes a bit of a risk leaving behind his guitar, but he more than makes up for it in a vocal and animated stage performance that almost reminded me of Mick Jagger in its pure, unadulterated swagger.If Phillip wins based on what I understand to be considerable teenybopper support rivaling even Colton’s, I may just yet have faith in American Idol’s future.
Skylar Laine – “Born This Way” (Lady GaGa) – Advanced
“Born This Way” was GaGa’s musical version of her mother’s consolation during a very difficult adolescence at a swanky New York private school. The message of “be yourself” was catnip to both her core audience and a wider populace looking for that kind of positivity in tough 2011. The song was the lead single and title track of her second full-fledged hit album, another huge winner for Jimmy’s Interscope that year. It was also a bit unusual among hit empowerment anthems, since unlike, say, P!nk’s “Perfect” or Katy Perry’s “Firework,” it’s pitched in the first person. The club grooves were catchy, if not necessarily inventive, and the similarities to Madonna’s “Express Yourself” were admittedly strong, but the song added another layer to the multifaceted, flashy personality that is Lady GaGa. And then, well, she re-recorded it in a “country” version that was more Jersey Shore rock a la Bon Jovi than C&W. Skylar took the lyrics from this arrangement, truncated of the controversial pansexuality thanks to Idol’s shorter timeframe, and went with an arrangement that is more progressive bluegrass than anything else. The result is one of the most weirdly fascinating fusions I’ve seen on Idol in a long time. The fiddler and mandolinist are killer. As for Skylar, she’s still the shot of energy today’s country music field sorely needs, completing the half-transition to country that GaGa was trying to do with her own redux.
Skylar Laine – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine” had to make the rounds at Motown before becoming one of its most iconic songs. Norman Whitfield, who had wound up in Detroit by accident when his car broke down in 1965, was just beginning to collaborate with Barrett Strong, the singer of one of Motown’s first hits, “Money (That’s What I Want).” Whitfield and Strong would go on to write and produce countless hits for Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Edwin Starr, and Gladys Knight and the Pips, but the pairing wasn’t necessarily a hit when they got together to write “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were the first to record it in 1966, but they had their own self-written hits gobbling up all the attention. When the release went nowhere, Whitfield and Strong tried shopping it to Gladys Knight and the Pips. The song’s sense of paranoia about being the last to know of a breakup is so universally resonant that one wonders why Berry Gordy was so skeptical about the song’s potential to succeed, but one must remember that the label had a reputation as the pop-oriented Hitsville U.S.A. at the time and didn’t usually put out something with a sound that bluesy. The gospel-fueled Knight version proved that Motown had room for something a bit different by becoming a hit in 1967. It was soon overshadowed by Marvin Gaye’s 1968 version, drawn from an album called In the Groove and later re-titled after what became, for many, his signature song. Marvin’s melancholy lament was Motown drama at its best, and became one of the label’s best-selling singles of the decade. Covers have been attempted in many genres, the best-known being a long folk-rock epic by Creedence Clearwater Revival, but I had never heard anything close to a country version until what Skylar did with it. She basically gives it the same treatment as she did to “Born This Way,” with the same new-grass arrangement that I find so enchanting on both. In addition, she turns the song’s lovelorn rage into a swaggering heart-stomped rocker worthy of a Carrie Underwood album. This is a versatile performer at work, and I’m so glad American Idol has given her a platform for such creativity.