March 08, 2012

TV: American Idol 2012: Whitney Houston/Stevie Wonder

Well, damn if they didn't suck me back in.

I was ready to give up on Idol this year. There were just too many things that weren't working about the show, notably the lazy lack of useful criticism from the judges, and the rut the show's voters have gotten into with Nice White Boy winners.

But my roommate talked me into watching the top 13 last night, and there was enough talent to grab me again. The judges seemed to be making at least some effort to offer meaningful commentary, Mary J. Blige was a fine mentor, and there are some good singers on hand. But if this season becomes a long march to the coronation of Nice White Boy Phillip Phillips, who seems to be the obvious front-runner even before I've heard any of them sing a note, then I will be annoyed. Quite annoyed, I say.

We begin with a twist: It's boys vs. girls, mostly because the show wants to do a Whitney Houston tribute without forcing the boys to sing "I'm Every Woman" or "All the Man That I Need." So the girls get Whitney and the boys get Stevie Wonder, the public votes for a loser on each side, and the judges pick between the two. This is the voting format used by So You Think You Can Dance and The X Factor for most of their seasons, and it's a smart way to keep talented people in the running if they have a bad week, or if the public simply gets it wrong. I suspect that Idol will find excuses to do something similar two or three more times this season, and won't be at all surprised if it becomes a permanent part of the structure next season.

Since the competition is really in separate brackets tonight, I'll do the rundown accordingly. And since it's my first time hearing any of the singers, the reactions may be a little longer than usual. First, the gentlemen take on Stevie Wonder:

Joshua, "I Wish" -- That James Brown rasp in the voice doesn't feel as if it comes quite naturally to him, and I hope he's not damaging his throat. Entertaining, energetic performance, though, and all the dancing and running about doesn't leave him short of breath. From the judges' comments, I gather that this is a departure for him, and that he's been more of a balladeer so far; I look forward to hearing that side of him.

Jermaine, "Knocks Me Off My Feet" -- Lovely voice, but the pop music world seems relatively uninterested in deep-voiced men these days. (Let's hope he makes it to Disco Night, though; we'll finally have someone who can pull off a nice Barry White number.) One of the challenges for large men is moving gracefully, and he hasn't quite got that down; he always seems to be in search of someone to tackle.

Colton, "Lately" -- His voice keeps breaking in odd places where I don't think he means for it to break; it's like he's been possessed by the spirit of a really bad yodeler. Even when it's not cracking, it's not a pretty voice; it's thin and nasal. And why is there a giant Q*Bert board on the display screen behind him?

Deandre, "Master Blaster" -- The stairs have been conveniently color-coded in red, green, and yellow for us, just in case we didn't pick up on the reggae beat. Steven makes the perfect comparison, saying that he's this year's Naima. Remember Naima? Hyperactive woman with a really grating voice whose weird dance moves kept her around for three or four weeks last year? Yeah, that sounds about right -- three or four weeks.

Heejun, "All In Love Is Fair" -- OK, a bit of armchair shrinkery here. This guy has a weirdly ambivalent attitude towards his own ethnicity; he's joking about it, but in a way that would be terribly racist coming from someone else -- the grandma's accent joke, the noodle jokes, the constant bowing. From my limited experience as a performer, I know that you're never going to be comfortable expressing yourself until you're comfortable being yourself, and he's clearly not. As for the singing, the high notes are frequently a bit under pitch, and the whole thing seems a bit tentative; it's often all breath with no support behind it. He won't be around long.

Jeremy, "Ribbon in the Sky" -- What's with all those strange little hand gestures when he's standing at the mike? Maybe they're meant to distract us from his voice, which is a whiny, reedy thing that never quite gets up to the high notes for which he's aiming. The moment of falsetto near the end is particularly weak and unpleasant.

Phillip, "Superstition" -- I like the effect he's going for -- sort of a swampy, CCR-does-Stevie thing. But the sound mix is a bit off, and his voice is occasionally buried by the band. When we can hear him, his enunciation is on the sloppy side. Certainly good enough to keep him around for another week.

For the night in the Stevie bracket: Joshua, Jermaine, Phillip, Deandre, Heejun, Colton, Jeremy.

Next, the ladies tackle Whitney Houston:

Elise, "I'm Your Baby Tonight" -- Mary J. gets at the problem here; the delivery needs a precision that Elise lacks; she's sliding between notes that ought to be more crisply delineated, especially in the verses. I like the huskiness of her voice, though, and it'll be interesting to hear her on material that's more within her comfort zone.

Erika, "I Believe in You and Me" -- How thoughtful of her to dress for the Coca-Cola interview segment in a gown of Coca-Cola red! It's not a particularly exciting or memorable performance, but I like her tone. I'd like to hear her tackle something by Karen Carpenter.

(And how is it that Idol has never had a Carpenters night? Surely Richard would be willing to drive in from Thousand Oaks for a mentoring gig.)

Shannon, "I Have Nothing" -- The song is simply too big for her. Pleasant enough in the quiet verses, but she's at sea on those big choruses. Her mike technique is part of the problem; on those repeated "nothing! nothing!" phrases, she's pulling the mike away from her face.

(At this point, I'm starting to notice that everyone is simply towering over Ryan this year. Where did they hold auditions? Santa Fe, Cleveland, and Beanstalk City?)

Skylar, "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" -- I'd never have thought of this as a country song, but now I really want to hear a full-on country version of it. I like her; she can do the quiet simplicity of a good country singer, but she's also got the big flashy belt and runs of a pop diva. She could be around for a while.

Hollie, "All the Man That I Need" -- Oh my goodness, yes. That big note at the end is spectacular, and her voice is lovely, some sort of glorious cross between Kristin Chenoweth, Dusty Springfield, and Brenda Lee. I like her.

Jessica, "I Will Always Love You" -- This song is like the Mt. Everest of Idol challenges, and holy crap, did she nail it. If I were going to be very nitpicky, I would say that her voice got just a bit heavier than I'd like on the middle verse, but this was as close to perfect as an Idol performance gets. One odd physical thing: At the ends of phrases, when she's emphasizing a note with a little extra vibrato, the vibrato also comes out in the ring finger of her mike hand, which does its own little wobbly vibrato. That might suggest that something undesirable is happening -- vocal effort shouldn't be reflected elsewhere in the body like that -- but hey, the sound is great, and if she's not suffereing any vocal pain, I'm not going to tell her to change anything.

For the night in the Whitney bracket:  Jessica, Hollie, Skylar, Erika, Elise, Shannon.

The gut reaction is that the women are a far stronger group than the men, but it's hard to say to what extent that's an artifact of their being given such different material. Whitney's songs require a big voice, certainly, but beyond that, they're not generally terribly difficult; and any woman who's made it this far into the competition should have a big enough voice to handle them. Stevie's songs, on the other hand, really are difficult, with wide-ranging melodies, unexpected intervals, and tricky rhythms. The men may have come off worse simply because they faced a tougher challenge.

For the night overall: Jessica, Hollie, Skylar, Joshua, Jermaine, Phillip, Erika, Elise, Deandre, Shannon, Heejun, Colton, Jeremy.

Let's send home: Shannon should certainly be the woman up for elimination, and I wouldn't be surprised to see any of the bottom three men alongside her. At this point, there's still plenty of cannon fodder to be eliminated, and it doesn't matter terribly which of the bottom group goes home when. But Jeremy really was pretty awful, wasn't he?

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