Idol Chat (Part 4)First, let me apologize for both the length and tardiness of this post and the fact that if you don't follow American Idol, this long, late post will mean nothing to you. But you might enjoy reading it if you're at all interested in the great standards of American music as this week's theme was the music of Tony Bennett. More accurately, it was the music Tony Bennett made popular and was written by the likes of George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen and many other legendary composers. I happen to know a lot about this kind of music so I plan to say a lot--which is why this post is so long. Be prepared. Second after taking almost two hours to write this post yesterday, Blogger decided it didn't feel like publishing anything--for hours. Finally I abandoned it but luckily was able to save it as a draft and planned to post after the results show. So here it is.
This week the American Idol contestants had to choose a song for the competition from among the recordings of Tony Bennett. During Bennett's heyday as a popular singer the "singer/songwriter" had not yet come into vogue. Songwriters wrote and singers sang and all was right with the world. Consequently we were left with a great generation of popular singers and a wonderful repertoire of artfully crafted songs from those songwriters. The songs have become timeless classics allowing new generations to apply their own meanings and interpretations to them. Important to note is that these songs were written at a time when popular music was not about vocal embellishments and acrobatics or fancy sound engineering tricks done in the studio. There was just the words and the music to rely on to sell a song. Understanding and trusting those two things is the key to interpreting this music. And with those ominous words we begin our rundown of this week's contestants.
Blake--Chose to sing "Mac the Knife" which initially I thought was a good choice for him. I like Blake a lot but I found this performance pretty average at best. The judges were very kind to him, probably because he was the first to perform and had no one to compare him to also he's still one of the front runners in the competition. Simon's 7 out of 10 assessment seemed about right to me, though. In his coaching with Tony Bennett Blake was advised to understand and know the meaning of the song. This is good common sense for any singer but this may have also led to Blake's problem. In the case of Mac the Knife, the meaning of the song is the depressing tale of Mac Heath, the murderous villain in The Threepenny Opera. In the show the song is performed with hurdy-girdy sounding German oom-pah-pah band. The effect is haunting and creepy which sets the right tone for the play. However in most popular recordings, the Bobby Darrin recording being the most notable, there is a complete and deliberate departure from the dark meaning. Instead it is treated as a sheer style piece and set to a boppy swing beat thus downplaying the morbid undertones. Blake seemed caught in the middle of these two interpretations and therefore gave a pretty non-committal performance. Also, I was disappointed that he never seemed to find the vocal energy needed at the end of the song. He was not helped by a rather lackluster arrangement either.
Phil Stacey--Chose to sing Cole Porter's Night and Day. Unfortunately Phil fell into both traps this song can present. First, his pitch! Porter uses a lot of repeated notes on a descending scale through the phrases to symbolize the drone of days and hours with no relief from a haunting, unrequited love. If you don't have proper vocal technique these repeated notes can go flat very quickly making it sound just awful. Second, the song is about unrequited love, bordering on the obsessive. He was criticized for giving a gloomy performance but in his defense, the song is about a man in torment. The lyric says: "this torment won't be through till you let me spend my life making love to you." It's very hard to play torment without seemingly gloomy. I think he understood the song but was inexperienced at how to play the emotion appropriately for this kind of setting.
Melinda--Chose to sing Gershwin's "I've Got Rhythm." PERFECTION! An absolutely first rate, polished, professional performance. This girl never misses. And in a week when she could have easily chosen another mature ballad, she chose instead an energetic, up-tempo song with a fun and youthful arrangement. It was great. GREAT!
Chris Richardson--Chose to sing Duke Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." At first I thought, "well, he doesn't sound terrific but he sure is charming and he's selling the heck out of the song." He completely committed to the style and unlike Blake, found the vocal energy needed in the bridge and used that energy to propel him through the end of the song, doing a few of his trademark embellishments which made it his own but without compromising the style of the song. He struck exactly the right balance which is the mark of a good artist.
Jordin--Chose to sing "On a Clear Day" by Lerner and Lane. When I heard her song choice I thought PERFECT! There is something about her sunniness and youth that is exactly the right flavor for the song. Ms. Sparks did not disappoint. She managed to hold her own vocally through some of those very long phrases, understood and committed to the meaning of the song and gave an impressive and mature performance for her 17 years. She should be very proud of herself.
Let me also just say that people like Jordin Sparks are the reason I love this show. It's so exciting to me to watch the progress of talented young singers like Jordin. Each week she comes back better than the last. She is obviously using this opportunity to really grow and learn as a singer. I'm moved by that kind of passion and committment for one's talent. I don't think she's going to win this competition, but she will do very well for herself from the exposure and her considerable talent.
Gina--Chose to sing "Smile" written by Charlie Chaplin. Gina gave a beautiful, simple, elegant, performance. This sensitive side is exactly what this "rocker girl" needed to show at this point in the competition. She kept the vocals understated and pure and managed to find the exact right emotional honesty for the song. She'll never have the vocal chops that some of the other girls have but it takes more than a good voice to be a great singer. You have to know how to use your voice effectively to connect to the song emotionally which Gina manages to do week after week.
Sanjaya--Chose to sing the Irving Berlin classic "Cheek to Cheek." Where to begin. Ironically, Sanjaya chose probably the most vocally demanding of any of the songs this week. The song has lots of long phrases, many of which should ideally be done on one breath. It changes mood and style jumping around from the jaunty "oh I love to go out fishing in a river or a creek" to the very dramatic "Dance with me! I want my arms about you..." Also, it's extremely rangy with the highest note in the song in the middle of the first phrase ("And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak") so right out of the gate you have to be ready for it. With Sanjaya's limited vocal ability, this song presents more of a challenge than usual for him. Once again his performance was pathetic compared to the other singers. He was dressed up in what looked like an ill-fitting costume from a high school play. His pitch was all over the place. He sang to some little girl in the first row which I found alarmingly creepy. He then danced with Paula at which point I had to avert my eyes it was so painful and schmaltzy to watch. The whole thing felt like somebody's cousin who was hired to sing at a Bar Mitzvah. It was awful.
Haley--Chose to sing Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'" Poor, sweet, beautiful Haley. She fell victim to a god-awful, cheesy arrangment. When she started the song I thought "okay, good, she's going to do it as a torch song" but I didn't feel she was connecting with the lyric at all. Then the arrangement changed to a jazzy up-tempo which is how the song is usually done so therefore, rather uninspired. She walked through the audience and played to them which is never a good idea and a sure fire way to make your performance seem like the amature hour. Finally she hit the stage where the arrangement changed again for a big, bluesy, powerhouse ending. Three styles in thirty-two bars, ladies and gentlemen! The whole thing was reminiscent of the the kind of acts pageant girls do to show the judges "look how many styles I can sing" in under 90 seconds. She was criticized by the judges for not understanding the meaning of the song, which was true, but in her defense, it's hard to come up with an emotional through line with such a schizophrenic arrangement.
Lakisha--chose to sing Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather." When I heard her song choice I couldn't wait to hear her sing it. It's a perfect choice. I was HORRIFIED by this performance. HORRIFIED! I'm not talking about her vocals. The vocals were fine. It was her interpreation that was off. She obviously has absolutely NO IDEA what this song is about. It was all WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG which is what I kept yelling at the tv set. She came out all glammed up and gave this superficial, sassy performance in which she flipped her hair, kicked up the hem of her skirt and even gave the "attitude" head bob complete with the finger wagging. This is hardly the behavior of a shattered woman! The song is about a woman who is bordering on suicidal "since my man and I ain't together--keeps raining all the time--ALL THE TIME" The lyric "keeps raining/so weary/so lonesome all the time" is repeated at the end of every phrase. If it was raining in Lakisha's interpretation apparently it was raining men. The lyrics really couldn't be any clearer. "Can't go on, everything I had is gone." Does it get simpler than that? Lakisha not only could go on, but she got a makeover and a new dress!
Lakisha had the advantage of choosing the song with the most emotional meat of any of the singers this week--an opportunity that was squandered for a cheap, artificial, Vegas-style performance. With most standards there is lots of room for interpretation in terms of how to treat the arrangement. But you will notice that when this song is sung by all the greats--Lena Horn, Ethel Waters, Judy Garland--it's done exactly as written which is how it should be in my opinion. This is one of those rare songs where the composer gives you absolutely everything you need. The melody so perfectly, perfectly captures the sentiment and despair of the song that all you need to do is stand there and sing it. Trust it. It will do the work for you. If you have a glorious voice, as Lakisha does, all you have to do is "tell the story," as Tony Bennett said, and believe it and you will bring down the house every time. This should have been the best performance of the evening but instead was the biggest disappointment--to me anyway.
Sadly, Lakisha will learn nothing from this performance because the judges, who obviously are also idiots, praised her for it, each and every one. Lakisha twice now has gone against good advice in favor of her own instincts which are questionable. Knowing how to accurately and honestly interpret a song is the mark of an artist as opposed to just a singer. Lakisha still has a lot to learn in that respect.
Who should go: Sanjaya--who else?
Who will go: Haley--because of Howard Stern and votefortheworst. She's been scraping by week after week and after this last performance, it's time.
The Results: Gina leaves the competition. She probably would have gone home in the next three weeks anyway but she deserves to have been there longer than Haley and maybe even Phil Stacey especially after her last beautiful performance.