The 2012 American Idol Songbook--Week of April 25
Introduction: Top 6 Sing a Queen Song and a Personal Choice
How do you guarantee one of the strangest Idol episodes ever? Do what the producers did for the night of April 25, 2012. Make the first portion of the show a tribute to camp-rock heroes Queen and preface the personal choices in the second half with a roast for each contestant that distracts from the songs’ ostensibly profound meanings to the artists. The strange group medley at the start of the show, which I’ve never seen before on a performance night, exposed the Queen theme for its likely purpose as a commercial for guitarist Brian May and drummer Roger Taylor’s upcoming tour with Adam Lambert, a client of the producers’ management firm, as lead vocalist. Bassist John Deacon wisely passed on participating in this bizarre product placement, partly basing his decision to stay out of contemporary tours on his continuing (and accurate) assessment that Queen will never be the same without the late lead singer Freddie Mercury’s charisma. All of the band members were exceptional musicians, but their style earned much consternation from critics and from Baby Boomers accustomed to a less stylized, more artistic type of rock music. May and Taylor questionably advise 2012 Idol hopefuls to ignore a lot of the criticism they get once famous, and the Big Brother-style “dish on singer X” segment in the second half exemplified the sort of tabloid nitpicking they’d be well-advised to brush off, but I hope the contestants do take constructive criticism seriously. I sorely missed Jimmy and the less egotistical mentors of past episodes, which might have accompanied the second half better. In any case, the contestants made the best of a tough situation, and Hollie, Jessica, and Joshua did the best they could with Queen material as artists with little orientation toward rock. Overall, the results were a mixed bag, and Hollie, Jessica, Phillip, and Skylar both had one clearly superior performance, and only with Skylar was it the Queen song. Elise and Joshua, as a matter of fact, pulled straight to the top on this unusual night by delivering two more or less equally good performances, though viewers’ choices may hinge more on personality with so much unfamiliar material in play.
Hollie Cavanagh – “Save Me” – Advanced
“Save Me” is from the 1980 release The Game, Queen’s most commercially successful album in the States, but was never released as a single in the U.S despite a respectable number 11 finish in a UK market captivated by new wave. May, perhaps the group’s most pop-oriented songwriter, was inspired by a friend’s desperate complaint about a relationship that decidedly did not end well. The melody had a lovely, sometimes almost Baroque process to it, as did many Queen songs when one got past the bombast, at times almost approaching the wistful mourning of an Elizabethan lament. It was also slightly Beatlesque, and perhaps it was kismet that ancestral Liverpudlian Hollie would sing it for Idol. Hollie clearly relates to the song’s genuine emotion and distinctly British character. It works better than one of Queen’s rockers would for her, but her stiff performance doesn’t always do the quirky melody justice. I gather, considering her just having learned the song by her own admittance, that she was not familiar with the band’s album catalog and therefore struggling with the theme. The esoteric nature of said theme makes me inclined to be somewhat forgiving, of course. I’m not sure it’s her year, but 2012 has been a good start for Hollie.
Hollie Cavanagh – “The Climb” (Miley Cyrus)
Once upon a time, Billy Ray Cyrus had retired more or less from country music, but his daughter Miley was at the right place and the right time (2006) to benefit from the Disney Channel’s transition into a dubious pop star factory. Thus was born Hannah Montana, a show about an aspiring singer played by a young woman whose real career trajectory was, in effect, engineered by America’s most successful entertainment company aimed at the under-fourteen set. Three years after the premiere of the show, which ended near the beginning of 2011, Hannah Montana: The Movie was made to universal “tween” acclaim and given a theme song based on Hannah’s stratospheric rise to fame, “The Climb.” Co-writer Jon Mabe was a virtual unknown in 2009 and collaborator Jessi Alexander was similarly obscure, though the latter went on to write a country chart-topper in early 2012, Blake Shelton’s “Drink on It.” “The Climb” was sentimental, simplistic country-pop with very little substance, but Miley did exemplify a certain development as a vocalist as if to try to justify the hoopla. She sounds sincere enough to make you forget that pre-fab success is anything but an “uphill battle.” She was in character as Hannah, is what I’m saying. Hollie shows her connection to her fan base, no doubt key on the final performance of the night, by choosing this song, but she also gives it a dynamic reading that Miley’s raspier voice could not muster. Miley, for all her commercial window-dressing, is really more of a country-rocker than a pop diva, and Hollie almost sounds more at home with material such as “The Climb.” She gives each note gravitas, sometimes more than it really deserves, and gives a taste of the mainstream pop style she excelled in at the beginning of her run this season.
Jessica Sánchez – “Bohemian Rhapsody” – Advanced
As has been routinely noted in analyses of the song, “Bohemian Rhapsody” from Queen’s 1975 breakthrough A Night at the Opera was just the sort of mock opera to serve as the centerpiece for an album so titled. The recording took literally months to put together and took the listener on a strange roller-coaster ride through the Romantic piano intro; the first set of verses in power ballad mode; the famed opera segment set at the fantastical trial of the central murderer (beginning with “I see a little silhouette of a man”); the electric rocker choruses; and the downtempo ending that takes the song back to the placidity with which it began. It’s more of a vocals-with-guitar suite than a standard thirty-two-bar pop song, so the classical title is appropriate to set the mood and highlights the enigma it poses to pop music listeners. Mercury, the writer, kept mum for a long time about the subject, but the British-Tanzanian of Indian descent eventually revealed it to be something of a Faustian tale of a man trying to get back his soul after pawning it for immunity after an accidental death, ultimately getting it back from Allah (by praying Bismillah, or “in His name”). In any case, the unique six-minute track drew significant buzz through a DJ’s piecemeal teasers, ultimately becoming a worldwide hit, just missing the number one spot stateside, and challenging radio stations to reevaluate their resistance to playing long songs. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” often handled as a novelty, has been something of a karaoke and air guitar favorite due to its many memorable and distinctive parts and the hipster appeal of its presence on the Wayne’s World (1992) soundtrack. Its reputation doesn’t exactly bode well for a cover by as “serious” a singer as Jessica, even though she tries to play the melodrama straight. Indeed, such an approach was more or less taken by the Braids, a Bay Area new jack swing duo that re-set it in a ghetto bus-jacking for the video, all for the soundtrack of Jon Lovitz’s High School High, a 1996 spoof of movies about idealistic teachers trying to re-invigorate inner-city high schools. In both the Braids’ and Jessica’s versions, the opera part is dispensed with, both for time and to avoid making the proceedings appear too silly. What’s left is a melodramatic ballad proceeding rather abruptly into the rock chorus that sounds odd coming from such a melodious voice. Jennifer hits the nail on the head when she hints that more of Jessica’s R&B voice would put the song on a more human scale; and that perhaps if the “so you think you can leave me to die” part were finessed a bit with less of the customary guitar licks, the performance would hold together better. Jessica took a big risk, but the voice is there even when the style doesn’t pay off. Maybe unfamiliarity with the catalog led her to pick one of the more recognizable hits, and as no expert on the group’s album tracks, I can sympathize.
Jessica Sánchez – “Dance with My Father” (Luther Vandross)
“Dance with My Father,” the final Luther Vandross crossover hit that Jermaine Jones performed on Top 25 week, is discussed at length in “The 2012 American Idol Songbook—Week 1.” This treatment focuses on Jessica’s version. Honestly, Jessica not only makes up for any hiccups on the Queen round but outperforms Jermaine on this song, one of the few in my memory to be performed twice in one season. The setup, describing her father’s tours of duty overseas, fulfilled two important functions. It obviously helped bring home the real emotional connection that the judges alleged to have handicapped her the week they had to save her, but it also firmly rebuked the aspersions that some fans of rivals have cast on the California native as somehow less American than other contestants due to the heavy support she’s received from Filipinos, both in and outside of the islands. The performance itself was a tour de force, taking a sappy song by a phenomenal artist and making it touching on a more genuine level than would seem obvious on paper. She gets quite emotional but never breaks down, fully in control but fully expressive. Combined with a technically exceptional voice, her ability to make the emotional content of a song engaging renders her a songwriter’s dream, and should earn her a contract regardless of whether or not she wins a considerably feasible bid for the Idol title.
Phillip Phillips – “Fat Bottomed Girls” – Advanced
“Fat Bottomed Girls” doesn’t really take much explaining. Inspired by other rock legends like AC/DC and said groups’ own blues inspirations, May decided to write a tongue-in-cheek ode to pleasingly plump women’s attributes and got it released as the B-side of the equally racy “Bicycle Race.” Both songs were among the most successful on 1978’s Jazz. The straight May did plenty to confuse naïve people judging the whole band’s sexual orientation on Mercury’s out homosexuality while producing a classic bar anthem. Although I was familiar with the song long before hearing the version on Glee, it was that one that made me first think of how much the song reflected a country-rock influence. I don’t think its mountain harmonies would have been out of place on a contemporary Skynyrd or Eagles album. Without his guitar, Phillip puts his growly voice center stage, and almost seems to be enjoying himself a bit too much, leading to the natural suspicion that the song choice is a riff on one of Jennifer’s most media-hyped characteristics (an idea alluded to by Steven in his commentary). There’s little to nothing creative or new about Phillip’s version, at least by his standards, but it does serve a real purpose for the uninitiated by showing that for all his artistic pretensions, he can still have fun from time to time.
Phillip Phillips – “The Stone” (Dave Matthews Band)
“The Stone” was indicative of the breadth of influences that color the work of Dave Matthews and his eponymous band, the Charlottesville outfit that brought the jam-band concept into the CD era and managed to balance singles success with the most out-of-this-world album tracks. Though hits such as “Ants Marching,” “Crash into Me,” “The Space Between,” and “American Baby” may have had a more radio-friendly sound, Matthews was never afraid to push the boundaries of rock music by bringing in songs from far afield. The 1998 album Before These Crowded Streets was Matthews’s commercial breakthrough, even managing to knock record-breaking blockbuster Titanic’s soundtrack off the top of the U.S. album chart, and on it were gems such as “The Stone” in addition to hit singles like “Crush.”Matthews’s composition wove a diffuse story of regret and pain, sung in a moody, post-grunge manner, together with backing from the Kronos Quartet, one of the best-known string ensembles on Earth. He wrote them a haunting accompaniment whose vaguely melodic dissonance often approaches the sound of Romany music, but switched every once in a while to a more conventional tone for the bridge.It’s almost too complex for Idol, and Phillip, often compared to Matthews by pundits, takes something of a risk singing it. However, his fan following is such that I doubt the weirdness of the song will hurt him much. He’s back with the guitar that was sorely lacking in his first performance (especially on a Queen song), and is as in tune as always with his appreciative accompanists.It’s distinctive, if obscure, music, and Phillip has the skill to make it sound understandable to even the untrained ear. The song doesn’t have time on the live show to develop in the hypnotic way it does on the record or at a concert. However, his ending at a tense moment almost heightens the impact of his performance, making this another fascinating chapter in one of the most unusual candidacies in Idol history, and certainly one of the more worthy ones.
Skylar Laine – “The Show Must Go On” – Advanced
When he wrote “The Show Must Go On,” May was dealing, like the rest of Queen, with the tragedy that would end the band as the world knew it. Mercury’s AIDS was progressing, and within six weeks of the song’s 1991 release on their last full-fledged studio album, Innuendo, he would succumb. The song was an emotional saga of the singer-pianist’s losing battle with the incurable illness, translated in the general terms of show-biz tenacity. A minor hit in the U.K. and on U.S. rock radio, “The Show Must Go On” set its epic struggle against a melody and production in the mold of arena-rock classics by groups such as Styx and Journey, complete with the heavy use of keyboard hooks and dramatic harmonies in addition to the standard rock palette of drums and guitar. Skylar’s rendition is a faithful tour de force, and shows an artist more ready than ever to tackle new horizons. She sings it as pure arena rock with nary a trace of country, and respects the story enough to let it tell itself through the words and her emotions rather than gimmicks. In fact, she doesn’t seem nearly as prone to drawing attention to herself through exotic gestures or excessive belting as she had earlier in the season, limiting the over-the-top stuff to the areas where it will make the most impact. Coupled with her revelation of a budding songwriting career, this performance proves her more than mature enough to begin her career properly when she is signed (whether or not she wins AI, I believe a record contract is a foregone conclusion at this point).
Skylar Laine – “Tattoos on This Town” (Jason Aldean)
“Tattoos on This Town” was a 2011 smash for Jason Aldean, the man who shook up the country music industry in 2005 by becoming one of the first artists in a long time to become an enormous success on a fully “indie” label, Broken Bow Records. Aldean reinvigorated the genre with his hip persona and success marketing ringtones of his music, a key indicator of a future among youth for a style of music often stereotyped as appealing primarily to older listeners. Neil Thrasher, who wrote “Tattoos on This Town” with his frequent collaborators Mike Dulaney and Wendell Mobley, is a prolific writer best-known for his songs that became hits for Rascal Flatts, including “I Melt,” “Fast Cars and Freedom,” and “Take Me There.” Some of his compositions wound up with other acts, such as Reba McEntire (“What Do You Say”) and Kenny Chesney (“There Goes My Life”), but most recently he contributed to the Aldean saga with “Flyover States,” the 2012 follow-up to “Tattoos on This Town” on 2010’s My Kinda Party. “Tattoos on This Town” traveled familiar territory in its story of a couple’s desire to leave an impression on their small hometown, returning the favor for the influence the memories made there had on that couple. The melody was rather standard, too, so of course it took the heart of a great storyteller to make it work, as with so many country songs. Skylar almost manages to be that raconteur, but her exclamatory ending puts a bit of a sour note on the end, depriving it of the finality that helps create the self-contained charm of country records ending in a home chord instead of a fadeout. Of course, Skylar doesn’t fail to entertain as she takes the listener inexorably through the song, almost making one forget the discreteness of each section because of how seamlessly she handles the transitions. Naturally, she brings back her guitar and gives a shoutout to Brandon, Mississippi, her obvious inspiration for the song’s theme.Hence, she proves that she has street cred in the genre to go with her considerable talent altogether.
Elise Testone – “I Want It All” – Eliminated
“I Want It All,” one of Queen’s last stateside hits, came from The Miracle, a 1989 album from which it was the lead single. May claimed to be writing about mere ambition in the mold of Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero,” but the impression from the feel of the song was that of a hair metal protest song. The song was popular in South Africa and American cities for similar reasons, and it’s understandable that the stirring production and universal lyrics about not wanting to wait for change, necessities, rights, privileges, etc. struck a chord. This is Elise’s home turf, and she owns it from start to finish. Her voice is the very unstoppable force of nature this song calls for, and she never lets up, even throwing in a tambourine that makes her every bit the equal of Grace Slick. This is power rock at its most invigorating, and proves that any “dark horse” labels are no longer fitting. Elise is a true contender, because on “I Want It All,” she gives what was hands down the most exciting performance of the night.
Elise Testone – “Bold as Love” (Jimi Hendrix)
“Bold as Love” came from a much more experimental arm of rock than many of Queen’s radio-ready anthems. Jimi Hendrix wrote experiences (slight pun intended), not songs in the conventional sense. “Bold as Love” was a curious word-association exercise vaguely suggesting the apocalyptic struggles between the emotions and/or mind-altering chemicals within the narrator. The music was weird and angular, almost resembling the impressionism of Debussy morphed by way of a searing wah-wah guitar into the most quintessentially psychedelic rock of all time. Drawn from Axis: Bold as Love, the 1967 follow-up to Are You Experienced? that also included “Spanish Castle Magic” and “Little Wing,” “Bold as Love” makes a perfect introduction to the more daring side of Elise’s performance. According to her, the guitarist told her the key he wanted to go in and she just went with it. The results were as great as you’d expect for someone with her solid performing background. Elise, bedecked in a colorful dress and rustic jewelry that help sit the hippie ambience, brings a cool, jazzy flair to Hendrix’s exotic vision. She brings the music to life for a new generation, but also makes sure to respect its unique character for all the classic rock fans not put off by Idol’s often overly commercial reputation, even though she knows the judges will tear up such an offbeat song choice as too risky for late in the competition. Bold choices like this can make as well as break an artist at this stage in the competition, and I’m confident that, from an artistic standpoint, hers did the former.
Joshua Ledet – “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” – Advanced
“Crazy Little Thing Called Love” was from The Game, the blockbuster 1980 album already represented on Idol by “Save Me” and also containing “Another One Bites the Dust.” Along with “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” shot to the top of the American singles charts, no doubt aided by the wholly intentional similarity to the early sound of the then recently deceased Elvis Presley. Mercury had wanted to complete a tribute but knew very few chords, which he credited with the ability to write something faithful to the simple rockabilly sound of many of the King’s RCA hits prior to serving in the Army, such as “All Shook Up” and “Don’t Be Cruel.” The record’s biggest similarities to Presley’s work, though, were in the sparse production and rolling backbeat drawn straight from Presley’s R&B inspirations, not to mention the teenybopper personifications of love as an unstoppable plague hell-bent on ruining a young person’s fun. Appropriately, then, our resident Southern soul singer Joshua takes the song back to its ultimate roots. A Stax arrangement was what I had in mind, but his rock treatment reminds me more of Little Richard or Little Willie John, for instance; and it’s still authentic Joshua to the max. He gives us a dynamic reading of a Briton’s salute to authentically American music, a perfect tribute to a tribute, if you will, and the comparisons by judges to a young Sam and Dave and Wilson Pickett are fully justified. This may be the most clever song choice of the night.
Joshua Ledet – “Ready for Love” (India.Arie)
“Ready for Love,” the last promotional single from India.Arie’s 2001 debut Acoustic Soul, was a perfect example of neo-soul at a time when many thought it would conquer the R&B world and counter the less melodic influence of hip-hop on the urban market.The hype was drowned out by the pull of MTV videos from more “fun” artists of other stripes, but those who “love art,” like the object of “Ready for Love,” had innumerable treasures to discover on albums such as Acoustic Soul.She brought a certain mystical eroticism to the form of the urban contemporary ballad on “Ready for Love,” a bit of a Song of Solomon vibe, and the violin accompaniment, quite unusual for the genre, only added to the sepulchral sort of romance of which she sings.As with many songs on the album, she co-wrote this one with producer Blue Miller. The emotional sincerity of her music made it clear that she was very much in control of her content, though, in a genre where behind-the-scenes figures often had far more say-so than artists as to the record’s final sound.Joshua sticks to the exceptional script and does it justice.He clearly has learned not to explode into his powerful gospel vamp until just the right climactic moments, making them all the more impactful when they do come.The sense of drama therefore complements the song rather than overwhelming it.Of course, Joshua also benefits from a melody that really showcases his deeper register, and he proves once and for all that he can handle a somewhat more current, if still classic, style of R&B than the evergreen 1960s and 1970s soul that I already know he can ace every time.