Tonight, on American Idol, the Top 12 tackled the always-entertaining “Songs From The Year You Were Born” theme (which inevitably makes me balk at how young most of them are, and I’m only 22) and thankfully, there were no casualties. There were, however, a few swervy cars on the Idol highway, and though this metaphor may be itself swervy, I’m taking it and running with it. As Randy “Yo, Yo, Dawg” Jackson is wont to say, let me break it down for you. (The links in the song titles will take you to video of the performance.)
The Good Drivers
Born in 1988, Pia Toscano elected to cover Whitney Houston’s “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” Pia is one of those singers who can actually cover a soaring Whitney song and not sound like a drunken karaoke performer. She has a big, powerful and controlled voice that sounds as good in her lower range as it does in her belt and her mix. Tonight, I particularly liked her flip into her head voice in the bridge, and I thought that the disco-esque arrangement really suited her and the song. The one glaring negative? The heinous white pantsuit the stylists dressed poor Pia in. Ugh.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Stefano Langone (born in 1989, a year of “terrible music,” according to him) really won me over tonight. He sang Simply Red’s “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” and the song fit nicely in his relatively limited wheelhouse. I still do feel that he strains for many of his top notes (especially that last note of the song; when he went to add vibrato, the note just squirreled away from him), and I wish he’d hold his notes their full length, but I liked his R&B-tinged intensity. He’s not one of my favorites, but I won’t deny a good performance when I hear/see one.
Again, I resist saying this, but I liked Lauren Alaina tonight, too. On the whole, she’s a bit precocious for my tastes (she her awkward interaction with Ryan pre-performance, where she gave him a flu mask), but her take on Melissa Etheridge’s 1994 classic “I’m The Only One” was very pleasant to the ears. The rasp in her voice (from the flu, unfortunately) really aged her vocals nicely, and she was also more controlled in her riffing, choosing instead to pepper the song with riffs lightly instead of her usual spice overload. (My metaphors are a bit out of control tonight, I apologize.) I wish she’d have taken the song down a half-step, so that the top of her range didn’t sound quite so hoarse, but overall, the performance was a solid B+.
Rounding out the top is Jacob Lusk with his melismatic gospel stylings on Heart’s “Alone,” hailing from 1987. I’m aware that Jacob Lusk is not for everyone, and I wish he’d show us a restrained performance one week, but I can’t help but love his buttery, velvety tone. His voice is so thick and rich in his lower register, and he has such incredible range that I find myself liking him not just in spite of his histrionics, but because of them. Jacob is that singer that every musician secretly wishes they could be: that guy who rips open a vein and bleeds out every song he sings. Those diva qualities will only take him so far in the competition, though, so if he wants to win, he needs to learn how to dial it back a couple (dozen) notches.
The Middle of the Road (Pun Entirely Intended)
Leading off the pack is James Durbin, who I place here (he’s on the line between good and OK) for the sake of symmetry. He covered Bon Jovi’s 1989 hit “I’ll Be There For You,” which was a good choice of song for him, due to its rock roots and sensitive lyrics. (Lord knows rockers like to show their sensitive sides…”Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” anyone?) I thought his vocals were a little wobbly sometimes, and I’m getting a bit tired of the big screamed note being shoehorned into every song, but he was still vocally better than a good chunk of the remaining contestants. At least he’s more controlled and restrained than he used to be.
Casey Abrams is holding up the middle of the pack this week for me, after his cover of Nirvana’s 1991 smash “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” While I am a huge fan of songs covered on Idol that have never been covered before and I applaud Casey’s considerable risk, his version of the song was, well, to borrow a phrase from J.Lo, “screamy-screechy.” Some songs were just not meant for the Idol stage, and I think that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is one of them. He did not suck, by any means (his electric bass was pretty sweet, actually), but this was an off-week for the as-yet-to-stumble Casey. I have complete faith that he’ll be back and better than ever next week.
Scotty “Baby, Lock Them Doors” McCreery was back with a vengeance tonight, setting his countrified sights on another Travis Tritt song, this time “Can I Trust You With My Heart” from 1993. Scotty is not my cup of tea (as I have mentioned before), but I can’t deny that he does country well. His lower register is the best of any male contestant this season, and it was pleasant to hear him testing the limit of his upper range. The one thing I cannot get past, however, is his constant and pervasive mugging for the camera. I can’t decide if it is supposed to be “sexyface” or what, but it needs to stop if he ever wants to be taken seriously as a musician. Baby, put those faces in a closet, then lock the doors and turn the lights down low.
Paul McDonald, another of my favorites, unfortunately rounds out the middle after his cover of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues,” Elton John’s 1984 piano-pop rocker. Paul was feeling a little under the weather this week, and his messy, whispery and strangely restrained vocals can be chalked up to that, most likely, but the fact remains that Paul’s hilariously endearing performance stylings didn’t really mesh well with the song. He’s still one of the contestants I’m pushing the hardest for, though. Anybody who opens an Idol performance by shouting “What up, y’all? Come on, baby!” has my vote.
The Wrecks Waiting to Happen
Thia Megia finds herself at the top of the bottom in my book tonight, after her lackluster cover of Vanessa Williams’s “Colors of the Wind,” the theme of the 1995 film, Pocahontas. (Sidenote: The show’s stylists clearly took a cue from that movie in styling Ms. Megia; she looked like Pocahontas 400 years in the future.) I’m just really tired of Thia covering ballads week after week. She has a gifted voice, one with a mature and rich tone, so I’d wish she use that voice on songs with varied tempos. I think she manages to avoid the precocious label that plagues Lauren, but if she doesn’t change up her song choice, she won’t be around long enough to show America what else she can do. (Another sidenote to Jenny from the Block: Stop comparing Thia to Adele. Seriously. It’s just not right.)
Though she is one of the show’s oldest contestants, Naima Adedapo is very juvenile in both her vocals and her song choice, proven again tonight with her rendition of Tina Turner’s 1984 anthem, “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” Naima just cannot manage to stay consistent with her vocals, as her pitch wavers on about a third of her notes, and she gave us a tantalizing glimpse of her reggae flavor last week with her uneven “Umbrella,” yet that reggae was mysteriously absent from her performance tonight. I think Naima has a lot of raw talent, and I’d love to see her stick around for a few weeks, but unless she harnesses the wobble in her pitch and gives us a consistent picture of who Naima Adedapo is, she’ll be gone in a week or two.
I have made no secret of my disdain for Haley Reinhart, who proved all my points again tonight with her cover of Whitney Houston’s 1990 hit “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” Though she remained in tune more than some of her fellow competitors did, I was so distracted by the unnecessary growling and caterwauling that I couldn’t even focus on anything else during her performance. Couple that with the ultra-red lipstick she managed to smear all over her face, and her performance was the stuff of Idol legend. Legendary over-singing, that is.
Bringing up the rear tonight is poor, misguided Karen Rodriguez, who stated in her pre-performance interview that she didn’t want to be pigeonholed as the Spanish girl on Idol, yet proceeded to close her underwhelming rendition of Taylor Dayne’s 1989 track, “Love Will Lead You Back” with a section in Spanish. To me, Karen just smells of wasted potential: her upper register is not quite strong enough to cover these big ballad-y songs, and if a vocal coach would just instruct her to push her sound forward in her oral cavity and support her high notes just a little better, they wouldn’t sound so thin and overpowered. And if some producer/vocal coach/judge (I’m looking at you, J.Lo and Steven) would tell her to tone down that overwrought hand choreography, then maybe she wouldn’t look like a competent singer whose talent is being hidden behind meaningless, cliched hand reaches, whether they be to the crowd or to the sky. Karen has talent; it’s just buried behind poor vocal technique and poor performance skills.
So, there you have it. The temptation to continue the driving metaphor is strong, but I’ll resist. My brain can’t seem to shift into that gear, anyway. Here are my predictions for tomorrow night’s results show: Karen will go home out of a bottom three that also includes Haley and Naima. Thia might make an appearance, but with any justice, those three will sit on the Silver Stools of Doom.