Thursday, May 07, 2009
As a critic, I try to make a point of not allowing suppositions or presumptions colour my opinion. If I’m to review something, I make a point of not arriving with my mind made up ahead of time. It’s only fair.
In my personal life, I’m not always so diligent — especially when it comes to choosing how I spend my leisure time. As a result, I’ve spent the last eight years happily avoiding the phenomenon that is American Idol. Oh, sure, I’ve been aware of the show; I was familiar with the judges and the winners and the basic format, so I knew all about William Hung and Sanjaya Malakar and votefortheworst.com. But I never had to watch the show, so I didn’t.
In fairness, I should mention that I don’t watch much TV, period, and seem incapable of the sort of every-episode viewership shows like Idol demand. (It’s even worse with serials; despite valiant efforts and a lot of VCR programming, my wife and I have failed to ever see a full season of the Sopranos, MI5, or 24.) I should also add that, apart from a few performances by Jennifer Hudson and Kelly Clarkson, I’ve not been particularly impressed by the post-Idol work of any of the finalists.
After watching both of this week’s episodes, I have to say I feel utterly vindicated in my presumptions. It may have been “rock and roll week” on Idol, but the performances didn’t rock my world. If anything, they left me in despair, wondering in what world the evening’s performances would have been considered rock.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start by looking at the positives.
There’s no disputing the level of musicianship on the show. The performances may not have been to my taste, but there was no shortage of ability on stage. In fact, it would not be exaggerating to suggest that each of the contestants had, overall, better chops than the singers whose work they were covering. The one exception here would be Danny Gokey, who clearly cannot scream as well as Steven Tyler. Or James Brown, Paul McCartney, or several dozen others I could name. But the ability to scream does not seem to be something they look for in Idol contestants (as opposed, say, to in audience members), so we’ll let that pass.
So why didn’t that surfeit of technique strike me as being a virtue? Yes, Adam Lambert showed plenty of power and conviction when he sang “Whole Lotta Love,” and his high notes were rock solid. They were also carefully massaged with vibrato, something that made Lambert’s performance seem smoother and more like “great singing” than what Robert Plant did on Led Zeppelin II.
But “Whole Lotta Love” isn’t supposed to be “great singing.” It’s supposed to be raw, nakedly powerful, bluesy and elemental. Frankly, it sounds better without the vibrato, which is one reason Plant always seemed more of a great rock singer than the more polished Freddie Mercury.
And the sad thing was, Lambert’s performance was by far the best part of the show.
Allison Iraheta’s version of “Cry Baby” was an admirably athletic rendition of the Joplin oldie, and managed to convey a hint of emotion despite Iraheta’s apparent belief that feeling the blues means singing as hard as you possibly can. (Although I blame Joplin as much for this.) She was similarly full-on in her duet performance with Lambert, but at least the material — Foghat’s hard-grinding “Slow Ride” — supported her exertion. She shouldn’t have been cut, but was.
Kris Allen, who looks like a K-Mart knock off of the young Michael J. Fox, sang “Come Together” as if he’d never heard the Beatles’ version. That’s some sort of accomplishment, surely, but not one I’d care to applaud. The original was preternaturally cool, twisting a Chuck Berry car race lyric into a series of stoned non sequiturs, but Allen felt more comfortable playing it hot and funky, and ended up making the classic cover band mistake of ruining a tune by trying to improve on it. He also joined Gokey for a trainwreck rendition of the Styx tune “Renegade,” and let’s be honest here — if “Renegade” is what this show considers “classic rock,” no wonder I didn’t like it. Still, Allen made it through both looking cute and Fox-y, and that was enough to ensure his return.
As for Gokey, well … words fail me. I understand that he’s a big audience favourite, but I don’t get it, at least not on a musical level. The rasp in his voice, which presumably passes for character in Idol-land, actually worked against the melody in “Dream On,” and there was a strange tenseness to the performance, as if Gokey saw the song as some sort of terrifying personal challenge — which, given how he handled the final note, was very likely the case. Factor in his less-than-awesome share of the Styx tune, and I came away from Tuesday’s show wondering how this guy ever made it to the finals.
Then, on Wednesday, Ryan Seacrest showed one of the Ford “music videos” (read: commercials) the finalists had made, and suddenly all became clear. Gokey has a perfect jingle-singer voice, gritty enough to vaguely recall Michael McDonald, but otherwise utterly lacking in character. And sure enough, each of the others sounded equally at home in the ad, hitting their mark every time and singing with the perfect degree of bland professionalism. It was as if they’d each found their calling. As Seacrest might have put it, they were home.