Wednesday, March 26, 2008

It's official: I am now a David Cookhead

Yes, I watch "American Idol."

I've never felt any real need to defend this habit, since "Idol"'s never been anything more to me than a reliable - and disposable - form of weekly entertainment. I like hearing good singers, I like seeing them try to stretch their range, and yes, I have grown rather fond of the Randy-Paula-Simon dog and pony show. That's it. I have never voted for or bought an album by any AI contestant (though I have downloaded a couple of Kelly Clarkson's singles from iTunes). And while I have had my favorites every year, I've never been so invested in one that I've bothered to find out anything about him or her that I couldn't learn in the span of an "Idol" episode.

Until now. Ladies and gentlemen, my name is lylee and I'm a David Cookaholic. I got it bad...and that ain't good.

It began so innocuously. I don't watch the audition process for "Idol" - personally, I get no pleasure from bad performers suffering & making us suffer their delusions of grandeur - and I usually don't get serious about watching regularly until the top 12. Still, I managed to catch a couple of the girls' nights after the top 24 were selected. Wasn't too impressed, frankly: thought they were all decent but rather boring. I kept missing boys' night. Then one Tuesday night I happened to catch it. I'd heard a lot about the wunderkund David Archuleta; other than that I knew no names. I had the show on more or less in the background as I flitted back & forth tidying up and making a quick dinner. I barely registered David Cook when he came on, and was in fact in the kitchen when he began his rock-reimagination of Lionel Richie's cheesy-pop "Hello". Within a few bars, my ears perked up ("who is *that*?"), and within a few more I was drawn back to the living room for the rest. I was impressed. I marked his name in my memory. No one else that night came close - not even golden-voiced Archuleta - though everyone but me seemed enamored of a pretty boy with dreads and a weak voice, who I learned was called Jason Castro.

Still, at that point the DC bug hadn't fully bitten me yet - or maybe it was still in incubation period. I still saw him as a pasty-faced, stringy-haired white dude who looked like a cross between Jack Black and a lizard, and just happened to have a terrific voice and impressive musical talent. I was of course glad he made the top 12, and interested to see what he - and the others - would make of Beatles week (which turned into two weeks). While I was pleased that DC's "Eleanor Rigby" was well received, I personally didn't care for his interpretation - it veered too far away from the essence of the lyrics, even though the song isn't one of of my favs to begin with. However, I liked his "Daytripper" a lot better (apart from his gimmicky use of a voicebox, or talkbox, or whatever those things are called), and it was at about this time that I realized I was starting to find him kind of least on stage. I started to look up his earlier performances on youtube. I came across his take on Free's "All Right Now"...and that did it. It was sizzlin'...and I developed a full-on case of raging Cook fever. I began searching for as much information as I could find online about him (a lot of it is summarized in Wikipedia, and on his fansite), and wasting time wondering what he'd sing this week and whether he'd ever be able to top "Hello."

Well, it seemed impossible, but I just think he may have done that tonight, with his inspired alt-rock rendition of Michael Jackon's "Billie Jean" (yes, that one), which pretty much brought down the house. Yes, I'm aware it was a cover of a cover, as performed and arranged by Chris Cornell, formerly of Soundgarden and Audioslave. I also don't think it matters a damn - what is "AI" if not a glorified cover contest? - since Cornell WAS acknowledged by Seacrest (admittedly in passing and in competition with the anticipatory shrieks of the girls in the audience). True, the judges gave DC a tad more credit than he deserved for the originality of the arrangement, but it's their fault, not his, if they weren't familiar with it themselves. It certainly wasn't Cook's place to flag their ignorance, especially after already getting shot down in the past for (what IMO was unfairly perceived as) sassing Simon. And anyway the judges were still right to recognize DC for taking risks that no one else in the competition has taken - even if it's been done before, it was a tricky reinvention of a pop classic that not everyone could have pulled off. Cook deserves mad props for trying and succeeding, rather than going with something conventionally and safely rock-ish.

But whatevs. DC always seems to get flak for doing that on "AI" - that is, picking and adapting interesting, unexpected arrangements of old chestnuts and giving them an absolutely mesmerizing delivery. He also seems to get flak for being supposedly smug, cocky, and/or a wannabe Chris Daughtry. Dunno about the Daughtry comparison, as I missed season 5 of "Idol" (that was an insanely busy spring for me), but as for the cockiness - well, maybe there's a bit of that on stage, it's part of his appeal, but off it he's quite self-deprecating in a very endearing way. He's a smart cookie, as his interviews and musical choices reflect, and I really think he's too intelligent and has had too much experience to get high on himself. He's done the road circuit; he knows firsthand how tough it is to make it in the music business. He clearly also knows how to connect with an audience. He's a pro among (mostly) amateurs.

His experience, and that of some of the other contestants, may strike some as unfair and not in the "Star Search"-ish spirit of "AI." But I like to think DC represents the many, many gifted, struggling musicians out there who have never and may never hit the big time - the ones you hear in small clubs and bars across the country, the ones who have small and/or local followings that never quite translate into national recognition or signing by a major label. Does David Cook deserve fame more than these, his peers? Perhaps not. His solo album, Analog Heart, released a couple of years ago, is what it is - shows some decent skills without studio polish, but contains only one or two truly memorable tracks (then again, the boy was only 22 or 23 at most when he recorded it). But the fact that he got lucky is no reason to bear a grudge against him. There's no denying he's got talent; it remains to be seen whether he develops into an artist worth our continued attention beyond "Idol." For now, he's far & away the most intriguing and consistently excellent performer of this year's "Idol," and that's good enough for me.

As for the rest of the Top 10, my quick reactions to their performances tonight (the theme was "songs from your birth year"):

MICHAEL JOHNS was the other standout of the evening, who after several lackluster weeks (though I seem to be one of the few who actually liked his perf of "Across the Universe") finally got his mojo back with a mashup of Queen's "We Will Rock You/We Are the Champions." He rocked it, and looked fiiiine doing conventional standards he's far the hottest of the male contestants. But he didn't hit the big notes like my David C.

KRISTY LEE COOK made what may have seemed to some viewers like a cheap ploy to get red-state voters to call in for her by singing Lee Greenberg's "Proud to be an American." (Vote for the pretty patriotic blond!) And, as Simon rather backhandedly acknowledged, it probably worked. But I must say I've always had a soft spot for this song, ever since I sang it with my grade-school choir, and I also have a soft spot for Kristy Lee, who I think gets an overly bad rap from "Idol" watchers. She seems like a genuinely nice person, and to my ears has a pleasant, if not particularly remarkable, voice, easy on the ears. True, she almost destroyed the Beatles' "8 Days a Week" for me, but that was the fault of a horrible arrangement rather than her vocals. She did a pretty good job tonight, though I agree with Randy that she got a little pitchy in the middle.

SYESHA MERCADO gave a solid performance of "If I Was Your Woman," a song I must confess I've never heard before. Syesha is probably one of the two best female voices in the competition - Carly being the other one - and I actually prefer Syesha's vocal style. She's also attractive as hell. The problem? She looks and sounds too much like previous "Idol" contestants - ones who haven't won.

CARLY SMITHSON chose "Total Eclipse of the Heart," a song that she could and should have knocked out of the park. Instead, she seemed to be holding back a little, something the judges were getting at in their comments. Of course even Carly holding back a little can sing circles around most of the others. Still, once again I find she leaves me cold, for reasons I can't really explain. Even on her best days, there's something a little too Celine Dion-y about her voice for my taste.

BROOKE WHITE has never been a big fave of mine, though she should be, considering I tend to prefer soulful female singer-songwriters in my own listening collection. I think she's a good musician; I just find her a little...dull, and her vocal range a little limited. The only perf of hers I've really liked was "Let it Be." Her quiet, piano-driven version of the Police's "Every Breath You Take," on the other hand, to borrow a Randy phrase, was just aight for me.

DAVID ARCHULETA's choice of song was indeed a head-scratcher, but his vocals were for the most part good enough to get him through. He does have a naturally beautiful voice, and is, of course, cute as a puppy. I still think he has the edge on winning this thing, though if DC keeps raising the bar, there may yet be an upset.

CHIKEZIE is such a sweet guy (and was a freaking ADORABLE baby), I feel bad confessing that his take on Luther Vandross, while smooth and not unpleasant, bored me silly. I'm with Randy again - it was too old-school, though maybe I'm biased because I'm just not a big R&B fan. It also sounded to me like he was off-pitch on some notes. I think he may be in danger this week, even though he's not the one who should go.

JASON CASTRO, who was also an adorable baby (he does have the most amazing blue eyes, and I don't generally like blue eyes), didn't impress me much, either, with Sting's "Fragile." I don't really get Jason's popularity - I mean, yes, he's a cutie (though I still think he looks like a girl) and there's something rather soothing about his whispery style...but let's face it, folks, he just doesn't have a particularly good voice. He has an even more limited range than Brooke's, and he sounds like he belongs in a coffeehouse. And when he speaks, he sounds like he's permanently stoned. But I think he'll be around for a while because he has so many fans who are in love with him.

RAMIELE MALUBAY gave by far the weakest performance of this week, though she seems to have a very strong fan base who may keep her in the running a while yet. Amazingly, Simon was more charitable than Randy, though all the judges I think went relatively easy on her because she was sick. But the song (Heart's "Alone") was simply too much for her. Even if she were in perfect health, I don't think she's mature enough to make it work. It also doesn't help that the song's been done before, and much better, by Carly and previous Idol winner Carrie Underwood.

PREDICTIONS FOR BOTTOM 3: Chikezie, Ramiele, Carly or possibly Syesha, though who the hell knows.

WHO'S LEAVING: Probably Chikezie. Though it should be Ramiele.


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