American Idol: Some lessons for Jessica

How many times can you ask a single rhetorical question in a single night? In the case of the American Idol judges on the evening of March 28, seven times too many. Randy Jackson isn’t even funny when he acts the befuddled elder, wondering why his nine remaining wards are doing the musical equivalent of the descent of the Holy Spirit.

Punch-line crazy Filipinos were probably screaming at their television sets, “kailangan pa bang imemorize yan?!”. That’s a cultural pun that won’t survive translation, so here’s a simpler reply for our friend. Because, Dawg, they’re singing their songs. They’re performing songs that captivate them, not the anthems of people they’ve never heard of.

Oh, sure, asking “Billy Who?” is shameful. But we can’t all be walking music encyclopedias. It takes some experience – more than a teenager can be expected to have – to take one look at notes and lyrics and immediately grasp context and the things that lie between the lines.

Now, liking a song and knowing what suits you do not always go together.  Idol contestants are not ordinary kids. They know the kind of artists they want to be. The danger is on the other end.  Great want amid the absence of creativity can bring down a web of delusions. And 18-year-old fossils get ground to dust fast inHollywood.

Redemption songs

On the night they’re singing songs of their Idols, the contestants are blessed with one of the most perceptive mentors to grace that seat beside Jimmy Iovine.

Stevie Nicks, of Fleetwood Mac fame, knows what’s it like to be young and more than a little wild. She’s a wonderful, equal-opportunity flirt, drawing out the kids and treating the cantankerous Iovine like some sweet pet.

Nicks she gives the contestants a great lesson: “Never forget you’re telling a story”.

Because, really, in the end that’s what makes an idol – the ability to make people believe a tale, the capacity to understand what it is that moves men and women to cry into their beds at night or to skip and swirl on sun-flecked lanes.

Who manages to captivate the audience? Whose tale falls flat? And who break out of their shells and private hells and propel judges and audience to their feet?

Let’s take it from the bottom:

9) DeAndre Brackensick: One high line is great. Or two, or even a run with four or five lines. But an entire song in that range just brings on a humongous headache.

DeAndre hits all the right notes in “Sometimes I Cry”. He does sound different in this Idol line-up. But that’s not the same as “unique”.

And DeAndre still can’t tell a story. His eyes tell me he’s counting the notes.

8) Hollie Cavanagh drops the sequins and her grandma’s clothes for a communion dress. That’s a bit too literal for “Jesus Take the Wheel”. Ormaybe, she just wants to copy Carrie Underwood.

Which is really Hollie’s problem. She hasn’t done anything yet but copy.

While she’s good, she doesn’t have the magic of the originals. All that white just turns her face 50 shades of bland. That’s not exactly what’s needed when you’re sharing a story about a woman in desperate straits. Someone really should find Hollie songs that are her age.

 7Skylar Laine just looks too happy for Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead”, a song about battered faces and shattered dreams.

There are precocious souls and some areas of the Mississippi have dark, dark secrets. And one day some 16-year old girl will go up on the Idol stage and bare the scars in her soul. But to do that, you need have lived some. Skylar has a great voice and even greater spirit, but there is no way she can sell the story of County Road 233:

I got two miles till he makes bail/ And if I’m right we’re headed straight for hell…I’m goin’ home, gonna load my shotgun/ Wait by the door and light a cigarette/ He wants a fight well now he’s got one/ He ain’t seen me crazy yet/ Slapped my face and he shook me like a rag doll/ Don’t that sound like a real man/ I’m gonna show him what a little girl’s made of

6) Colton Dixon is a sly fox who knows all the moves. He’s pitch perfect flirting with Stevie Nicks. He proclaims his deep faith and then sings “Everything”:

You are the strength that keeps me walking/ You are the hope that keeps me trusting/ You are the light to my soul/ You are my purpose, You’re everything/ How can I stand here with You and not be moved by You?/ Would You tell me, how could it be any better than this?…. You calm the storms, and You give me rest/ You hold me in Your hands,/  You won’t let me fall/ You steal my heart, and You take my breath away/ Would You take me in, take me deeper now

It’s a Worship song missing the word, “God”. Now, that’s not a sin. It also guarantees that his tweens will hold on to the illusion that, even on bended knees, he’s singing to them and not to some great heavenly light.

But all that do not hide the fact that it’s a thin voice here, overpowered by the busy arrangement. Still, Colton has beautiful eyes that he uses to great effect. They’re powerful narrative tools and will keep him in the higher ranks.

Into the Light

5) Heejun Han, resident clown, puts one up onColton in the backstory department. He comes to work chastised, in a confessional mood that is just the right blend of pop psycho babble and honest-to-goodness redemption lessons. Nobody can resist that, especially when the story-teller sports sad almond eyes.

But people aren’t that gullible. What really turns the tide for Heejun is what’s most important to the Idol audience: His voice.

There are one or two little wobbles but that voice is full bodied without being oppressive. That can throw up a dazzling light and shadow show.  And for someone who can’t pronounce those ending consonants, he shows remarkable talent for phrasing Leon Russel’s “Song for You”. It is great story-telling and of the hardest kind because it rests on one’s willingness to take us into that private world. If the performance didn’t convince you, get the iTunes audio version and get lost in the magic of Heejun’s song.

4) Joshua Ledet appears tentative in some of his performances. Sometimes I’ve felt the vocal acrobatics are but a mask for whatever it is Joshua can’t bring out. (Okay, I do have an overactive imagination.)

But maybe because “Without You” is a generic – if powerful – love song, Joshua is spared the ambivalence that has hampered his other performances.

I’m wondering if those doubts, those secrets that can’t be share are what cause all the overwrought singing, because he finds his balance here. So that when he climbs and unloads all that passion, and even tear at the end, it’s believable.

Fire and Ice

3) Phillip Phillips is wearing a blazer! See, Tommy, miracles happen when you stop acting like some tinpot dictator and give these kids freedom of choice.

“Still Rainin’” is a perfect foil for Phil’s gravelly vocals. He’s looser than usual; playful. Do not underestimate the power of a playful vibe in a song with the word “rain” in it. Which is really wacko in this song about heartbreak.

Clouds, one by one, fill the sky/ Just like these tears that fill my eyes/ I know by now she ain’t comin’ back/ I watch my world slowly fade into black… Look out my window it’s still rainin’/ Look out my window it’s still rainin’… They say that time heals everything/ I’ve known the pain, honey, that love can bring/ It don’t get no better with each passing day/ Any hope I had is slowly slipping away

There is no single line of redemption in the entire song. So why does that smile add meaning to the song, rather than bare a clueless mind (in the case of Sklar)?

The only reason is, that Phil is one of those rare Idol contestants — a fully-formed adult. And on and off stage, his backstory is holding up well — which is, that beyond an aw shucks demeanor is someone of implacable will, who will not hesitate to walk away from it all, or hit the mat, when he sees his world threatened.

That smile — it brings a similar one to Nicks’ face — is gorgeous. It is also full of shadows and layers. And the best thing about this dude is he carries all that sex appeal so lightly.

3) Jessica Sanchez slows down Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams”and proves she’s capable of turning out a hit tomorrow.

She’s like a wraith, Jessica is,  on a stage that is someone’s too-literal vision of a psychoanalyst’s paradise. Some parts have the eerie airs of Enya and Sinead – except that we know the power is just a turn of phrase away.

But there is something Jessica must master if she’s to keep that lead safe. She cannot yet tell a story, not in the primal way of icons.

She has the moves and there is no question about that voice, which has yet to sing a note wrong. But Jessica still has to let down her guard, which is the first step to letting us in. Or, if that’s too hard for a shy girl to do, she has find the courage to wade into our vale of tears and, convince us that she understands what, besides a beautiful voice, can move people to ecstasy and despair.

1) Elise Testone for the first time shows that she knows to be happy. And what a reason she has.

Elise leaves Jessica Sanchez in a dust with a strutting, raucous, note-perfect cover of Led Zeppelin “Whole Lotta Love”. Gone is the inward-look, the hunched shoulders, the arms folded into a cave. Elise now prowls the stage like a giant feline, stretching here, springing up there, and always engaging the audience with eyes that are a masterclass in the art of making love to the collective.

The change came slowly. Great promise was shown last week. With LedZep, we get the privilege to see the final breaking of Elise’s chains. It was, perhaps, the duet with Nicks where both gals forgot Iovine and just indulged in one heck of a love fest.

Whatever the reason, Elise has unleashed the inner goddess. The only question now is whether the American Idol audience will embrace the goddess, revere her, fall down on their knees for her — or whether they can’t take in all that glory and either run away or find some stakes for a giant bonfire. And, of course, there is always regression and backsliding….

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