Steven Tyler’s right. If you can’t sing Billy Joel, you can’t sing at all. But the siren call of Joel’s melodies, much like those of Simon and Garfunkle, also makes it darn hard to own his songs. How do folk young enough to be Joel’s grandkids avoid the dreaded just-another-cover trap? How do they put their mark on some of the most enduring classics of pop music?
The Idol Top 10 deliver some surprises. Some tapped into their artistic strengths. Some hammed it up. And a couple flailed in the Piano Man’s embrace. Here’s my take on their performances, according to rank.
#1 Jessica Sanchez
Just when fans feared Jessica was trapped in dreary karaoke limbo, a knight saved her.
Diddy and Jessica — that’s one strange pair. Rapper and budding ballad diva. Leather and jive, lace and languor. Thank god for Billy Joel’s songbook. It sprawls across enough genres and worldviews; everyone gets a room in that inn. And thank god a 16-year old Fil/Mex/Am — who’s never heard of the pop icon — was hungry enough to heed the rapper/producer/entrepreneur formerly known as Puff Daddy.
Deep reserves of steel in this wisp of a woman. Jessica saw past Diddy’s scorn as he took aim at the same affectations that must have won praise for her as a precocious kid.
“You have to pull back from the showing off, the tricks. Tricks aren’t going to get you to the superstar level,” said the rapper after a raucous, bravura run. To the camera: “I think less is more.”
Jimmy Iovine, craggy face quivering with unshakeable belief in his young ward, tells Jessica to get out of her comfort zone and train those expressive eyes at the Diddy collective.
Jessica doesn’t just pay her respects. She takes over “Everybody Has A Dream,” a hymn that sounds like a Disney movie theme in the early parts but ends with a nod to every praise-and-holler church that has succored lost souls.
“While in these days of quiet desperation / As I wander through the world in which I live / I search everywhere for some new inspiration / But it’s more than cold reality can give…” Right at the start, Jessica displays a depth that allows her to touch hearts in a way that Idol’s other big voice — Hollie Cavanagh — can only dream of. Poise, empathy, discipline and control — and that stunning gray frock emphasizing a tiny waist and limbs that taper down to the daintiest ankles in Hollywood.
It is a steady build-up that whets the appetite for the “moment” everyone knows is coming. And when it comes, Jessica silences every critic that has ever questioned whether she has enough soul and strength and grit to plumb the major themes of life.
She invades Joshua Ledet’s turf and lays waste to pretensions with control and nuance beyond the reach of most adults. That punctuation in “this is my dream” ends any doubt about her maturity. It’s a rare moment when song, talent, mentors gel. That kind of magic humbles most witnesses (and, if Jessica’s expression is any gauge, probably her, too). Tyler, certainly; he doesn’t even bother to belabor his awe.
#2 Phillip Phillips
I always watch Idol performances first on youtube before sitting down for the night-time television treat. Sometimes, seeing these on a bigger screen, sans ear phones, causes shifts in perception. But whether on a PC monitor or on TV, Phillip is a very strong presence.
It is not just the voice. It’s the whole package — that face, the mien of an earnest, nice man crossed with a touch of rebel. (Maybe refusing to budge on outfit choice may be taking the iconoclastic bit too far; it’s not like shirts and polo are that unique.)
Now, scorching looks are normally the territory of Colton. Suddenly, the dude from Georgia muscles in.
This is the greatest emotional investment Phillip has ever poured into a song. There is a grimness in his tone, in the way he bites off the lyrics. There is a feral quality to his smile as he growls about people in dire straits.
It’s probably his working class roots. He is a pawnshop worker. An entire town is trying to raise funds so worried parents could minister to a son still feeling the effects of kidney stones.
Anthony works in the grocery store / Savin’ his pennies for someday / Mama Leone left a note on the door, /She said, ‘Sonny, move out to the country.’ / Workin’ too hard can give you / A heart attackackackackackack /You oughta know by now … Who needs a house out in Hackensack? / Is that all you get for your money? …
He glowers at that last line. And then drips with sarcasm as he sings, “And it seems such a waste of time / If that’s what it’s all about / Mama, If that’s movin’ up then I’m movin’ out. ”
In a few minutes, we see a man spring forth on the Idol stage. Still very young. But very much a man, with a man’s burdens and pains and anger. What a song to mark a coming of age.
Suddenly, I’m wondering if America still has room for one more young white man with a guitar. Because the song, the singer and the times could conspire to make this so. While I’m rooting for Jessica, can’t say I’d begrudge Phillip a win.
(**Phillip and Heejun and bromance — “My Life” and “Moving Out”. Jeez, when are these guys going to run off? Nope, not insinuating anything more than, um, some high jinks Huck Finn style. But the two are such a diverting act that, I suspect, part of the reason Heejun’s still around is because the fans don’t want to deprive Phillip of his best friend.)
#3 Colton Dixon
“Piano Man” is perhaps one of Billy Joel’s most difficult songs. Not just because it reaches heights most singers fear; it also alternates that with low tones that could bleach strength out of the narrative.
Colton shows Randy no longer has to worry about lower-register pitch problems. He also probably has convinced an army of young women that a little bit of darkness trumps a sunshiny smile in the race to send hearts aflutter.
Funny that it is a high baritone and not the gravel-voiced Phillip who best lets out the shadows. It’s probably the songwriter in Colton.The tweens won’t really understand this tale of heartbreak. All they — and their moms- will know is, a certainty that they and they alone can save this wounded man 🙂
It takes courage to tackle “Piano Man” and actually play those keys. The stylish Colton caresses every note of the ballad. His is a great indie rock voice. The wounded yelp is used here to great impact.
The voice, even at its softest, is rough-hewn, rebellion at its core, concerned with more than tussling over the color of one’s shirt. Yet it carries enough glamor — and he is just on the right side of pretty — to make the leap into pop heaven.
When the money spot comes, as he climbs up ladididadididaa, your hair prickles. Colton breaks into a half smile in the middle of chord progression. The audience respond as he soars to the finish. For sheer artistry and daring, this gets a medal.
Will Elise kick herself tomorrow for choosing one of the few obscure Billy Joel songs? Hard to say.
I’d give her my vote anytime — she had the rhythm right tonight, sailed brilliantly through a difficult melody, showed off just the right touch of rasp. She even displayed a smidgen of a happy smile on her face. But this is American Idol. Too many factors playing on the emotions in the land of the brave and of the free.
Colton has gotten away with an unfamiliar song. But Elise had to choose one named after a foreign city, “Vienna”.
It’s also one of the few Billy Joel songs with lyrics that come close to hectoring. It’s not about a young one impatient to get through life — it’s a sermon to a young one impatient to get through life.
The tone is patronizing, the words enough to raise the hackles of the teenage hordes. I suppose if some youngster with irony and charisma sings this, it could make for an unorthodox anthem:
Slow down, you crazy child / you’re so ambitious for a juvenile / But then if you’re so smart, tell me / Why are you still so afraid? / Where’s the fire, what’s the hurry about? / You’d better cool it off before you burn it out / You’ve got so much to do and / Only so many hours in a day … But you know that when the truth is told.. / That you can get what you want or you get old / You’re gonna kick off before you even / Get halfway through / When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?
But Elise not only looks like the mom of these teenage voters. She also has mom’s clothes on. I daresay some boy out there could probably have some fantasy of Elise singing to him, but not too many of them will. And their older sisters and moms will also be voting for someone else.
#5 Erika Van Pelt
Give Tommy Hilfiger a standing ovation, folks. A makeover takes Erika away from the world of sappy blondes and transforms her into a slightly rubenesque Monica Belluci — no, make it a cross between Belluci and k.d. Lang, if that’s not too rainbow-ish for you.
It’s amazing but how pixie haircut puts sexy back into into the big gal. Her rendition of “New York State of Mind” shows it.
It’s sassy and loose, the Lady and the Tramp deigning to visit the money bags. It has enough range to let the Erika throw out a few thunderbolts, enough lyricism to showcase her soft side in the ending. Its lyrics carry enough swag for her. And she’s got enough love for the entire Big Apple. The audience loves her back, too.
#6 Heejun Han
If you believe Steven Tyler, there can only be one way to interpret “My Life”. A bucket full of piss.
But hey, times change and different folks do different strokes. Heejun is not Billy Joel. Nobody wants Heejun to be Billy Joel. People want Heejun to be Heejun, the Korean transplant who compensates for the slurred consonants with enough ‘tude for three New York boroughs.
Heejun is the Asian-American who’s broken loose of the good-boy straight jacket, not too much that he scares the bejeezus out of us, but enough to prove that yellows and browns can thumb their noses like the rest of the country. Is that racist? Naaah, it’s called breaking down the doors and if Steven doesn’t like it, tough luck.
Diddy doesn’t know if he likes it, but he’s more game than the rock star. After all, rap and hip-hop seem to be unique forms of expression, nimble enough to be adopted by youth of all colors and languages — and religions.
“I don’t know if he’s an actor, or a con man. I don’t even know if he’s Asian,” the rapper-mentor mused. If I were Heejun, I’d take that as a compliment.
He’s not the best singer. But hey, we all know he’s not going to win American Idol 2012. People keep him on because he’s not too bad a singer and he gives them plenty of laughs. If the judges were capable of more than saccharine praise and trite phrases, maybe people would have tired of Heejun already.
Got a call from an old friend we’d used to be real close / Said he couldn’t go on the American way / Closed the shop, sold the house, bought a ticket to the west coast / Now he gives them a stand-up routine in L.A.
Steven, rebellion is not the exclusive domain of restless white men.
I don’t need you to worry for me cause I’m allright/ I don’t want you to tell me it’s time to come home / I don’t care what you say anymore this is my life / Go ahead with your own life leave me alone
Get it, Steve? It’s great social commentary from Heejun. And anybody who can strut that kind of comedy on the venerable Idol stage gets my vote. Now, THAT’s rebellion.
See you soon in a sitcom, Heejun. Meanwhile, enjoy the run.
#7 Skylar Laine
It’s strange that it took a Billy Joel song to throw back almost-crossover Skylar back into wilderness of country bathos. Guess it’s hard to maintain feistiness when you’re singing these lines:
Well I’m shameless when it comes to loving you/ I’d do anything you want me to /I’d do anything at all… And I’m standing here for all the world to see / There ain’t that much left of me / That has very far to fall
She reclaims her moxie at the last chorus, but it’s a little bit too late. It’s not bad. It’s just not memorable and it’s the first time Skylar doesn’t dazzle.
This young country mama is made for more than lamentations and she should reclaim her identity next round.
#8 Joshua Ledet
” She’s got a way about her/ I don’t know what it is /But I know that I can’t live without her/ She’s got a way of pleasin’ / I don’t know why it is /But there doesn’t have to be a reason anywhere…She’s got a smile that heals me / I don’t know what it is / But I have to laugh when she reveals me / She’s got a way of talkin’ / I don’t know why it is /But it lifts me up when we are walkin’ anywhere…”
I do not know what it says that Joshua personifies blandness singing this love song. The vocal acrobatics towards the end are meaningless because they don’t have a context. They don’t have a context because he never really connected emotionally with the song.
I just got a thought bubble. Joshua should have sung “My Life”. Or, “Honesty”. Let’s get real here, peeps. Let your hair down. As Iovine warns, a good voice can only take you so far.
#9 DeAndre Brackensick
How do you solve a problem like Deandre? A stunning face. Hair that could launch a thousand escapades. A lithe body perfect for dance grooves. A voice that’s better than average. But he consistently chooses the wrong songs. Or is totally clueless about a song’s meaning.
In the Farm Aid concert, Billy Joel quipped about not knowing how much funds they would raise, but sure they’d raise hell with the song.
“Only the Good Die Young” is is all about a devil who sends nuns and moms and dads rushing to lock up their little angels.
Come out Virginia, don’t let me wait / You Catholic girls start much too late / Ah but sooner or later it comes down to fate / I might as well, will be the one … Well they showed you a statue and told you to pray / They built you a temple and locked you away / Ah but they never told you the price that you pay / For things that you might have done … Only the good die young / That’s what I said / Only the good die young / Only the good die young
Deandre sings it like a playground mate of my grandkid, Sophie. And I get a feeling that, at one-year and seven months, she would scare the hell out of Deandre. He turns this song of dangerous seduction into a Sesame Street ditty. On one level you can bop to it but Billy Joel, bless his wicked soul, was not inviting the young girls to play hopscotch.
But heck the girls were screaming so I guess hopscotch will have takers. Then again, he went first. I don’t even know if they’ll remember him after Colton and Phillip.
#10 Hollie Cavanagh
I also didn’t realize Hollie was so eager to step into Shannon’s shoes. The jerky moves. The growls and puckered brow spelling out “E M O T I O N!” And every cell of Hollie just working too hard to stay in tune and stay in competition that she crushes every speck of nuance in this huge Billy Joel hit — which she’d never heard before.
If there is any justice on earth, Hollie gets into the bottom third. I didn’t hear any boos when the judges criticized her. That’s something. Here’s hoping the audience gives credit to the deserving blonde.
Bottom line: Joshua has a voice way better than Heejun but I have a feeling the former lands in the bottom three. The voters may just reward Heejun’s cheek — or they may think some things are sacred. Hollie should and voters should try to forget that Elise is not a generous loser. Deandre should, but there’s always the hair to save him.