Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Let's have a luau, "Idol"ators: Mariah's here!

I shuddered a little when I first heard that this week on "American Idol" was going to be all Mariah Carey all the time. I bear no ill will towards the lady - I'm only vaguely familiar with a handful of her songs - but what I do know about her is that no aspiring female singer should ever try to compete with her crazy vocal gymnastics, and no male singer, to my knowledge, ever tries. Under these circumstances, I couldn't imagine how her repertoire was going to make anyone sound good.

Well, the idols didn't altogether prove me wrong. But what was interesting to me about tonight's programme was how much it brought out the stylistic differences between the contestants - and also how much it highlighted their respective strengths and weaknesses. Also, Mariah herself surprised me. Apart from the rather homely little dog she brought along with her (for the record, I love little dogs), she was very un-divaesque. Though I didn't buy her whole "just think of me as some ordinary shmoe listening to you sing" (yeah right, you're Mariah f---ing Carey), overall she came across as unexpectedly relaxed and down-to-earth, and seemed to be genuinely interested in working with the "Top 7," if not quite as cuddly and sunshiny as Dolly P.

So here's the rundown - in PERFORMANCE ORDER, not ranking.

DAVID ARCHULETA led off with "When You Believe," originally a duet recorded by Mariah and Whitney Houston for the animated film "Prince of Egypt." (Man, can't believe that was already a decade ago.) The song is DULL, DULL, DULL and Da Arch didn't make it any less so. And that is all I have to say about that.

Judges sure overpraised him, though, even more so than usual.

CARLY SMITHSON followed, singing "Without You." She was looking pretty sexy tonight (whoa cleavage) and more self-possessed than usual. I think her session with Mariah must have boosted her confidence a bit, since Mariah clearly likes her. Not her best performance, however, IMHO. I'm with Randy on her sounding a little uncertain, even a little breathy, in the beginning; I don't agree, however, that it got better once she opened up into the "power part." She seemed to be singing at rather than to her audience, and the whole thing sounded too...labored. I like Carly - loved the shout-out to dear departed Michael Johns - and I respect her talent, but on stage she just doesn't always come together for me. (Beatles ref involuntary.)

SYESHA MERCADO finally avoided Obvious Land this week in choosing an obscure Mariah song, "Vanishing," and delivered another solid vocal. As far as I can tell, this girl has never had a bad or even an "off" performance. Then why is she not more popular, and why is the praise for her - from the judges, from Dolly, from Mariah - always so tempered? Over and over again the impression she seems to make on others, not just me, is that she's very good, but somehow not a star or a standout. One criticism I've read about her is that she insists on trying songs that are too "big" for her pipes. I don't completely agree - girl can belt - but it's true that I like her better when she's not working it to the max, and the diva songs may not be the ones best suited to her voice, however well they may fit her temperament. Re: the latter, I don't see a prima donna so much as a mannequin, from her model-like posture to her fixed pearly-white grin. She doesn't seem quite human. Every week I find myself wishing I could combine Carly's personality with Syesha's voice. Then I'd have a female contestant I could support wholeheartedly. As it is, each of the girls in the competition has a quality or two I like, but none the total package.

BROOKE WHITE wore an unusual amount of un-Brooke-like glitter (ah, Glitter) and looked quite lovely, but was obviously out of her element in Mariahland. I love how the "AI" mentors - Dolly, and now Mariah - are always talking about how "genuine" Brooke is, because I'm sure it's true and yet it always sounds like code to me for "which makes up for the fact that she's one of the weakest vocalists." She does what she can, she clearly has a good ear and understanding of her own, er, "wheelhouse" (to quote Randy), but she and Mariah mix like milk and wine...which is to say, not at all. Her rendition of "Hero" was, I'm sorry to say, downright painful. Her pitch wavered and squeaked slightly with the jumps, and she seemed to be constantly fighting for breaths as she stretched the limits of her range. Accompanyng herself on the piano didn't seem to keep her very well anchored, either - the whole tempo felt rushed, like she couldn't wait to get to the end. (Good on Paula for calling that - woman's not as flaky as viewers make her out to be.) And it looks like Brooke has, indeed, taken over Ramiele's role as the resident pouter of this year's Idols. I find it annoying.

Side note: Simon evidently remembers those Wendy's commercials from the '80s. Seriously, though, that whole "where's the beef"/bun/condiments riff got kind of out of hand. Between that and Randy's luau comment after Jason's performance, it makes me wonder if the judges get hungry during the show and whether that affects their judging.

KRISTY LEE COOK, like Syesha, chose a lesser known Mariah song ("Forever") and gave it, per her usual, a countryish twang (Simon called it "whiny"). I've always secretly preferred her to Brooke, and I really do think that she, unlike Brooke, has been stepping it up as the competition goes on - though I'm in the minority who was not at all impressed by her Martina McBride number last week. This week she didn't get much love from the judges, but gets more from me. While she was a little out of tune in her lower register, where the melodic line soared she infused her vocals with real feeling and warmth. Not the most artistically interesting or technically impressive performance of the night, but in my opinion one of the most approachable and appealing. She's getting the girl next door thing down, and it seems to be helping her.

DAVID COOK scored the ultimate pre-performance "WTF?" with his song choice, "Always Be My Baby." (Hell, he got a wtf out of Mariah herself.) Ah, David, my David. How could you know that that is the one and only Mariah song I love, and my signature karaoke number? And leave it to you to pick the one song in Mariah's bag that I (and I'm sure anyone else who thought of it) felt absolutely certain you wouldn't come near. My feelings about what you did with it are mixed, mainly, I believe, because the original is so special to me, and I can't quite accept it being turned into a stalker-ish emo anthem. But the very fact that you even saw and heard that in the ultimate '90s bubble-gum upbeat pop love song proves you are some kind of genius. Vocals weren't bad, either, though the lower range doesn't play to your strengths. And you sure know how to make love to the camera. Not complaining about any of that, and delighted that your performance went over so well. Loved the quizzical look on your face as Simon went from "karaoke hell" to "breath of fresh air" - it was clear you caught his drift a beat before the studio audience did. Also delighted that your brother Adam (the one with brain cancer) was able to attend and see you in all your glory, and that "AI" didn't make a big schloopy fuss over his being there - hopefully they won't at tomorrow's results show, either. And those tears in your eyes? Looked real. That does it: David Cook must win this thing. I have decreed it.

JASON CASTRO is starting to grow on me. I still think he, along with Brooke, has one of the weaker voices in the competition. But he's shown real skill in taking on songs in genres that seem completely ill suited to him and making them fit his vocal style. And the fact that he could do that in Mariah Week, with "I Don't Wanna Cry," and make the result even mildly appealing suggests that he may, in fact, be the true dark horse of the competition, especially now that Michael Johns is out. His performance, coming directly after Cook's, also underscored why the men seem to have the edge this year. It's not that the men are better vocalists than the women; they're not. Rather, they seem to have a much clearer sense of themselves as musicians (well, except David I-have-a-scary-stage-dad Archuleta). They know what works for them, and therefore convey more personality that fans can recognize and support.

To a lesser extent, this is also why Carly and Syesha aren't miles ahead of Kristy and Brooke: even though the former are far superior vocally, the latter seem to have better-defined musical identities. It remains to be seen whether musical self-definition outlasts pure vocal chops in this competition, though there's a good chance both will fall to the almighty power of the Cute.

BEST IN SHOW: For creativity and ballsiness - David Cook. For pure vocals - Syesha.

WORST: Brooke, and I also think it's time for her to go. She's just out of her depth now.

BOTTOM 3: All women. I think Kristy will escape the stools this week.

GOING HOME: Tough call - I think Brooke, though really, I wouldn't be surprised to see any of the women go.


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