March 16, 2011

MUSIC: American Idol 2011: Songs from birth years

The wannabes take us from the mid-80s to the mid-90s tonight, with one of the show's stranger recurring themes: Sing something from the year you were born, when you weren't paying a damn bit of attention to pop music. Because heaven forbid they should get to sing something that means something to them, or that they have an emotional connection to. Ah, well.

Anyway, the rundown:

Naima, "What's Love Got to Do With It" -- Hate the arrangement. The opening verse is the best she's ever been. It's restrained and understated, and she's actually got a pretty voice. But from the chorus on, there's an unpleasant aggressive quality; it's as if she's stalking the song (and us) instead of singing it. And that closing riff is just silly.

Paul, "I Guess That's Why They Call It the Blues" -- Vocally, he's laid-back to the point of catatonia; physically, he's a bundle of nervous energy with the weird little squat step and the constantly swinging arm. The combination is very disconcerting, and it puts me on edge whenever he takes the stage. His voice is ugly, and the last ten seconds or so were wildly out of tune.

Thia, "Colors of the Wind" -- It's a flow of very pretty notes, and that's all it is. Her voice is overly smooth, to the point that the words are frequently lost in the flow. It's a bad song choice, because it's nearly impossible to make the song interesting; it's like singing the Greenpeace mission statement. Yay, birds.

James, "I'll Be There for You" -- Some rough going pitchwise at the beginning, but on the whole, not bad. But also not especially interesting or memorable. It's a spectacularly competent performance.

Haley, "I'm Your Baby Tonight" -- Alicia Keys to LeAnn Rimes to Whitney Houston: I don't think she knows who she is as a singer, and it shows; every song feels like a new personality being tried on for size, and none of them feel like her. (And I typed those words before hearing Randy say almost exactly the same thing.) This was pretty much the equivalent of James' performance -- technically proficient and instantly forgettable.

Stefano, "If You Don't Know Me By Now" -- Surprisingly good. He didn't quite make it all the way through the last big note without cracking, and he has the bad habit of pulling the microphone away from his mouth before the phrase is finished, but there was some genuine emotion coming across. His best work yet.

Pia, "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" -- Given how smooth she's been in previous weeks, there's something oddly clunky about her phrasing -- "where. do. broken. hearts. go" -- with each word pounced on separately. Her usual fluidity is missing, and she's got no sound at all in the lower register. Still, she's got a big old voice, and the money notes are impressive.

Scotty, "Can I Trust You With My Heart" -- OK, the voice is there, and he knows how to work an audience better than any of the other contestants. But I think he's coasting a little on the gorgeous voice, without making any emotional investment in what he's doing. And if there is one genre where fans demand real emotion (or at least the extremely skillful simulation thereof), it is country music.

Karen, "Love Will Lead You Back" -- There's something very beauty pageant about Karen's performances; they're all polish and not much substance. It's a very high grade of polish, to be sure, but I'd like to see a little more depth. And not that I mind the Spanish or anything, but if she doesn't want to be thought of as just the Spanish singer, she could maybe try a song or two without Spanish lyrics.

Casey, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" -- He's not singing, he's screaming. And he's screaming wildly out of tune. A ghastly mistake. Not the right song for him, and a performance so bad that it comes off as if he's trying to make fun of the song. (Love his parents, though.)

Lauren, "I'm the Only One" -- A few little odd breaks and cracks, most likely due to the flu, but on the whole, a very nice performance. Good enough to be relatively memorable on a night dominated by the adequate. 

Jacob, "Alone" -- He just can't resist throwing in those gospel runs and riffs, can he? And they're the worst moments of the song. When he's just belting out the tune, it's surprisingly effective. His vibrato is way too wide and wobbly for my taste, though, and that's more noticable (and more inappropriate) on a song like this than on his usual R&B material.

On the whole, not a great night, with almost everyone delivering slightly bland and unmemorable performances. Stefano moves up a bit; Casey moves down a lot; everyone else stays pretty much where they were.

For the night: Stefano, Lauren, Pia, Jacob, Scotty, Thia, Naima, Karen, James, Haley, Paul, Casey.

For the season: Pia, Scotty, Haley, James, Thia, Jacob, Casey, Stefano, Lauren, Karen, Naima, Paul.

Let's send home: For consistently poor performances, Paul is the most deserving. I would not weep to see Naima leave, and while I don't expect him to leave, don't be surprised if Casey lands in the bottom three.

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