Wednesday, May 07, 2008

More Rollin' than Rockin' through "Idol" Top 4 Week

Before I begin, a caveat may be in order: since I grew up listening almost exclusively to classical music, with a slight shift in high school and college to female singer-songwriters of the Lilith Fair variety, my knowledge of the history of rock music is EXTREMELY spotty. It's a gap I've been trying to fill over the years, but there are still many, many iconic artists that I'm only vaguely familiar with, if at all.

For this reason, I came into this week's "American Idol" with almost no frame of reference for most of the songs, which were selected from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's list of 500 songs most influential on the genre. I'm not sure whether my ignorance gave me an advantage or a disadvantage as a listener. However, it didn't take much background to realize very quickly that each of the Final Four chose songs (two apiece) that fell more or less within their "wheelhouse," to quote Randy, though with, um, varying degrees of success. Oh, and in case you didn't get the memo from last week, the show's powers that be Could Not Have Made it Clearer that they want Jason Castro outa there, like, yesterday. It's to the point where I feel genuinely bad for the boy, even though I never thought he belonged in the top five, let alone the top three. Nonetheless, I think tonight's performances confirmed why a David-David matchup, however overmanipulated an outcome it may be, is really the only truly satisfying finale to this season.

Ok, now to the rundown.

DAVID COOK went first with Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf" and followed up in the second round with "Baba O'Riley" (aka the "teenage wasteland" song) by The Who. The first wasn't familiar to me at all: even though Duran Duran was at the height of its popularity when I was growing up, it was before I was of an age to buy records (yes, it was still records back then, and tape cassettes!). So again, bearing in mind that I have no idea what the original is supposed to sound like, I thought Cook was vocally solid but lacking something - conviction? energy? I got the impression that he picked the song for strategic reasons without actually liking it that much. Or maybe he was just nervous and restrained because he knows this is the week Chris Daughtry got shock-booted in season 5. If you watched the recaps at the end, where they play clips from the contestants' dress rehearsal rather than the live show, you could tell even in those passing seconds that he put a lot more oomph in the rehearsal and then, for whatever reason, held back in the final cut. Of course, this being Cook, even his "B" game is better than many others' "A" game. And "Baba O'Riley" was gorgeous - though it really needed about 30 more seconds to build and develop to a proper climax. Abrupt ending aside, I can't get over how versatile this guy's voice is, and how astronomically more mature an artist he is than the other contestants. If there's any justice in the "AI" universe he has to win, or at least make the final two. Unfortunately, as he himself acknowledged, expectations have been raised ridiculously high for him - the more so this week since it's, you know, rock & roll week! (though in truth, he is really more of an emo/pop rock type than a true "rocker.")

SYESHA MERCADO threw it all out there tonight...yet neither song quite worked for me. I've always liked her voice, but tonight was the first night I found myself agreeing with the critics who say it isn't as strong as she seems to think it is. Dammit, girl, doing a Tina Turner impression (with "Proud Mary") is asking for as much of a smackdown, which Simon predictably delivered, as belting Aretha! Her upper register went off the rails a bit and she seemed to be trying too hard to channel TT in the dancing. It felt...amateurish. Her second performance, of Sam Cooke's "Change is Gonna Come," was better, but still too belt-y and not, at the end of the day, all that memorable. Also, her comments made it sound like she was analogizing her time on "A.I." to the struggles of the civil rights movement(!) which just flat-out annoyed me. Way to sound more narcissistic than ever, Sy! To be fair, her tears seemed genuine - unless that's just the actress in her coming out, and I'm not quite hardened enough cynic to assume that - and may move some people to vote for her.

JASON CASTRO got raked over the coals by the judges for karaoke-ing his way through Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" and the other Bob (Dylan)'s "Mr. Tambourine Man." I wasn't surprised, but I was a little taken aback at their vehemence because Jason's performances tonight didn't seem especially bad for him...which is to say, like all of his performances they were easy on the ears but vocally limited and not in the same league as the other contestants. Sure, "Sheriff" wasn't all that, and maybe was a little subpar even for him - though I thought Simon was unnecessarily harsh - but I actually mildly enjoyed the Dylan song. Of course, I may have been overly generous because I again, ahem, have never heard the original "Tambourine Man" and didn't even notice Jason had forgotten some of the lyrics until he pointed it out himself. And I certainly don't think he deserves to outlast the others, especially not either of the Davids...My point is only that it's weird to me that the judges should praise him to the high heavens one week for something like the (IMO) vastly overrated "Hallelujah" or "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (sorry Jas, you're no Iz), and then tear him down the next for something that's not, to my ears, markedly worse. Oh well. Jason aka "Bob Marley, man!" looks like he can stand the pillorying and not take it personally. Spacey he may be, but I don't think he's stupid. He has to know at some level that most of this is just BS shaped by the producers' agenda. At least Paula was kind (and coherent!), though she owes him that much after last week's debacle.

DAVID ARCHULETA, after treading water the last several weeks and getting overpraised by the judges (esp. Randy) for it, finally earned his high marks tonight with his best performance, hands down, since he made top 12. His first song, "Stand By Me," was the perfect song choice for him, and he owned it. Not only was his tonal purity on full display, he looked more confident and comfortable on stage than he has in weeks. It was obvious that he loves the song and was really, really enjoying singing it and connecting with the audience. Then, closing out the night, his take on "Love Me Tender" was very sweet and expressively sung, though his falsetto didn't quite come through and I can't get over the disconnect of a 12-year-old (ok, I know he's 17, but seriously? have you looked at him?) trying to get inside an Elvis love song. Does not compute. I'm not trying to deny the beauty of his voice or his natural musicality. I just wish he, or rather his stupid stage dad, had given himself a few more years to develop further as an artist and a human being before coming out on "Idol."

Still, of this lot, he's clearly the only one who comes anywhere close to David Cook in terms of overall vocal and musical ability, and may in fact beat him since he is pretty adorable in a pet-me kind of way and this is, at the end of the day, a popularity contest. As it is, I'm still pulling for a David-David final 2.

BEST OF THE NIGHT: Overall, counting both songs, I have to give it to Archuleta. That said, DC's "Baba O'Riley" was my favorite performance of the night.

WORST: Sorry, Jason.

GOING HOME: Probably JCas, though he does have a pretty rabid fan base that Syesha doesn't seem to (though maybe hers just doesn't have a big online presence).

The only one I'm positive isn't in any danger of going home is Archie. The specter of Daughtry still looms large, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous about Cook's consistent excellence possibly being overshadowed by Archie's home run, Castro's implosion, and Syesha's teary-eyed invocation of the civil rights movement. However, given how overwhelmingly the deck has been stacked against JCas this week, I'm inclined to think David C is at this point more in danger of getting Melinda-ed (see season 6) than Daughtried. The difference is that even at her best I always found Melinda kind of dull (though technically irreproachable), while DC has the "it" factor coming out of his ears, even if he seems to have turned it down a little these past couple of weeks.

So if tomorrow's elimination goes as expected, I think this season is shaping up to be more like Season 4 - in fact eerily so, right down to how I feel about the contenders: a presumptive frontrunner (Carrie/Archie) who has the best pure vocals but very little stage presence, a strong "rocker" challenger with the best performance chops (Bo/Cook), and a dark horse with a pretty voice, face, and body, but not enough firepower to be more than an also-ran (Vonzell/Syesha). Except that while Bo was my favorite, I wasn't obsessively invested in him the way I am in Cook. Also, I liked Vonzell a lot more than I do Syesha, though personality may have had something to do with that (Vonzell was a total sweetheart, Sy not so much, though she's been showing more of a human side recently).

All right, enough rehashing of past seasons. Season 7, this is your now. Lylee out.


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