American Idol recap: The Jaggered Edge
While Crystal and Siobhan offer their typical tour-de-force efforts, the rest of the field tightens up behind them — leaving half the remaining singers at risk of elimination
There’s a scene in the 1986 comedy Jumpin’ Jack Flash in which Whoopi Goldberg’s character struggles to decipher the lyrics of the movie’s namesake Rolling Stones jam. ”Mick, Mick, Mick! Speak English!” she cries, flummoxed by the meaning of the words pouring from front-man Mr. Jagger’s mouth.
That hilarious moment played out in my mind during last night’s episode of American Idol, because several of season 9’s finalists botched the translation of the Stones’ songs they were tasked with singing. Katie Stevens turned a classic tale of romantic longing into a pitch-imperfect plea for text-message votes. Andrew Garcia massaged a ferocious anti-war anthem into a puddle of meaningless pablum. Paige Miles, well… I’m still trying to make sense of her gender change-up of ”Honky Tonk Women.” And poor, misguided Tim Urban delivered a tale of sexual domination as if he was reading a brunch menu to an aged aunt who’d left her glasses back at the rest home.
Those four singers run the risk of seeing their ”journeys” come to an end on Wednesday night because, yes, at this stage of the competition — with only 10 more performance nights till we’re at the Nokia watching two kids tackle the Kara DioGuardi-penned ”Annual Triumph Over the Odds/Natural Disaster Metaphor Montage Anthem” — Idol‘s Top 12 face a daunting mission, should they choose to accept it. We don’t want to see them merely knock off notes like tin cans on a barnyard fence; otherwise, much like the figure-8 compulsories of figure skating’s yesteryear, we’d be lining up contestants next to the piano and asking them to run through their scales, with points subtracted for each note missed.
Oh, sure, accuracy still counts — especially when you’ve got contestants like Lacey Brown (also at risk tomorrow) fumbling for notes like an exhausted night-shift worker knocking over her bedside light as the alarm goes off. But when it’s all said and done, we, the Idoloonie nation, also demand to feel something from our finalists, too. After all, Idol is both the search for music’s next great superstar — and great songs without emotion are like TV dinners that haven’t been defrosted — and it’s also a twice-weekly TV show that runs on the fuel of joy and pain and occasional blind outrage over the ouster of Alex and Katelyn and Lilly.
Whoa, sorry about that stream-of-consciousness semifinal flashback. The wounds, they’re still fresh.
So yes, Idol finalists. We want you to hit the vast majority of your notes and we want you to live the music all the way to your marrow. And that’s why Crystal Bowersox and Siobhan Magnus entered and exited the evening as the contestants to beat. But seasoned Idol watchers also know the road to the Nokia is lined with the gravestones of early front-runners — Tamyra Gray, Melinda Doolittle, Chris Daughtry, Constantine Maroulis, and Lil Rounds — and that’s why it’s also important to keep an eye on the contestants garnering positive reviews without being set up for a backlash, singers like Didi Benami and Lee Dewyze and even Aaron Kelly. So without further ado, let’s break down the performances…
Crystal Bowersox: ”You Can’t Always Get What You Want” Talk about apt song titles, folks! For those of us folks still reeling from last Thursday’s results show (and I suspect Crystal counts herself among our ranks) we most certainly did not get the Top 12 we wanted. And yet, in the laid-back, dreadlocked earth goddess, we have a women who takes such quietly confident liberties with the melody, that the judges barely give her credit for song rearrangement in the first place. Listen to that first pass on the chorus — the way Crystal colors outside the lines of Mick Jagger’s template but ends up with an equally beautiful result. Having the song end after a mere two minutes seemed almost cruel, especially given the fact that the drama of Crystal’s performance was building so sweetly — the raucous blast of horns playing substitute for the full choral wall that stamps the Stones’ original.
NEXT: Siobhan and her “Lambert” moment
The judges’ comments for Crystal were pretty much irrelevant tonight, all four offering variations on the ”it wasn’t your best” theme that easily translated into ”we’ve been pimping you way too hard, and we realize we need to back off for a minute.” And interestingly enough, I think Simon misunderstood Crystal’s bit about ”overthinking” her performances. It was pretty clear to me that Crystal was explaining to Ellen that her three semifinal appearances lacked the playfulness of tonight’s run because she was ”overthinking” back then, not tonight. Instead, Simon picked up the chew toy like a scrappy, cardigan-clad terrier and riffed about Crystal getting outsung by Siobhan tonight. ”She was amazing,” responded Crystal, with total sincerity and an insuppressible grin. And after a bit where Simon implied that Crystal somehow thought she had the competition in the bag, MamaSox responded in a way that quashed any accusations of cockiness and poked gentle fun at Simon’s recent Jay Leno appearance (where he pretty much predicted her win): ”I haven’t thought that I’ve got the competition [in my pocket] at all, but thank you for saying it.” For a contestant who gives the impression she’s just here for the music, Crystal is turning out to be very adept at the tricky image-management portion of the competition, too. (Bonus points added for the way Crystal’s dad got choked up talking about his daughter’s original compositions. The peacock feather to honor fallen comrade Lilly was a nice touch, too.) Of course, I like to think the next contestant’s garb and song choice also reflected some dismay with last week’s results show, too…
Siobhan Magnus: ”Paint It Black” Simon was so right that people are going to either love or hate this performance — but if I’m being honest, I can see both sides of the coin. On one hand, how can you not love the theatrical audacity Siobhan displayed, especially against a backdrop of strum-and-sing sameness in the competition? On the other, how come none of the judges pointed out that there were several points in Siobhan’s performance — particularly where she delved into her lower register — where everything went just thisside of flat? Or that she seemed just slightly ahead of the band on that haunting music-box intro?
Not that it mattered all that much after Siobhan got to that howler-monkey of a note near the end of the performance. Midway through it, things got decidedly less musical and somewhat more crime scene, and yet the entire audacious act resonated with me in a way I’m not even sure I can define. To try and put my finger on it, I’d say that for the most part, Siobhan’s guttural howl somehow captured the agony of her emotional state in a way no cleanly hit note ever could. Clad in a flared, layered black minidress and combat boots, mouth wide open like an Edvard Munch muse, Siobhan dared to take vocal risks, dared to go right over the edge of the rollercoaster ride. She can tighten up the vocals in a few weeks; right now, I need her to keep the excitement coming, to keep me wide awake as that 10 p.m. hour approaches. Still, if anyone’s going to play the Phoebe to Siobhan’s Eve Harrington — Crystal is the Margo Channing, obvs! — I suspect it’ll be either Didi, Lee, or Aaron. (And for those of you scratching your head at the extended All About Eve riff, please go forth and add it to your NetFlix queue.
Didi Benami: ”Play With Fire” When you think long and hard about it, Didi’s only had one failure in her four live Idol performances, and tonight’s antagonistic delivery showed a different color of Didi’s usually sunny chirp. (Kara was right, the combination of sweet and eerie worked quite well!) Clad in a purple and black bustier, Didi stalked the stage with a surprisingly convincing snarl, later explaining how years of living in L.A. have given her a hard, protective shell over that gooey Cadbury Creme Egg center of hers. The good news for Didi was the way she came across as a credible artist during the performance — without relying on her acoustic guitar. In a season where many a contestant winds up frozen and strumming behind the mic stand, Didi’s ability to shed her axe (when appropriate) and work the full Idol stage could prove advantageous over the next couple of months.
I just wish Didi hadn’t botched that lyric at the midway point (nice recovery though) and that the horrible SwayBots (TM) hadn’t been activated midway though her performance. I also got a chuckle from Simon declaring he’s ”been a fan [of Didi’s] the last two or three weeks.” Wasn’t it just two weeks back the cranky Brit compared Didi to cats screeching in an alley after she performed ”Lean on Me”?
NEXT: Big Mike continues his hambone ways
Lee Dewyze: ”Beast of Burden” Whether or not the judges noticed, Lee also stumbled on his lyrics tonight, running together ”hard” and ”strong” into one mumble-jumbo word on the first line of the chorus (the second time through). (This isn’t the first time Mr. Dewyze has tentatively delivered a lyric this season, either!) And while Randy compared Lee’s vocal to Dave Matthews or Rob Thomas tonight, I thought the resemblance to Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz bordered on uncanny.
Ellen was right that as the lone straightforward male rocker in the competition, one might’ve expected Lee to hit his performance a little harder, but you can’t blame a guy for zigging when you expect him to zag, and the low-fi arrangement felt honest and organic. If the judges really want to help Lee, they need to get him to seize control of his visible nerves; I mean, I wasn’t sure if dude was tapping his foot off-time with the music or just trembling with terror throughout ”Beast of Burden,” but there’s a little something about Lee that reminds me of Luke Wilson in those ubiquitous AT & T ads — slightly bewildered, wondering to himself ”Whoa. How exactly did I end up here?” But while he’s got work to do on owning the stage, ultimately, Kara was right that Lee is showing growth vocally. It’s not every contestant who can iron out his pitch issues while making the transition from the small semifinal stage to tonight’s 450-seat venue, but dude definitely did just that.
Aaron Kelly: ”Angie” Similarly, Aaron Kelly banished the army of bum notes he’d brought to last week’s Lonestar cover, or as Simon put it, he sang within the limit of his own vocal range. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. You don’t need to be Aretha to make a great record, and by eschewing his standard-operating glory notes for something much more restrained, Aaron may have finally figured out the key to ensuring himself a spot on the Idol Summer Tour roster. I’m just not sure the Jim Verraros-in-season-one hair is the right move, but if the kid can survive the adult-themed Stones songbook without totally embarrassing himself, I have a feeling he could be a legit force in the competition.
After Crystal, Siobhan, Didi, Lee, and Aaron, we came to the midpack players who weren’t ”great”/”fantastic”/”great” (to use three of Ellen’s favorite adjectives), but won’t have Mick Jagger sliding down the St. Patrick’s Day shame spiral, either. These folks include Michael Lynche, Casey James, and kinda sorta maybe Paige Miles.
Michael Lynche: ”Miss You” Dial 9-1-1! ‘Cause there was some illegal mugging happening up on the Idol stage last night courtesy of a pointing, popping, and preening Big Mike. Granted, as per usual, the burly personal trainer stayed in tune throughout most of the performance, but Kara’s remark about Big Mike living up to Mick Jagger’s showmanship skills was a gaffe of ”Studio 57”/”early Aerosmith” proportions. If she and Randy really think this guy has a shot at the crown, they need to instruct him to watch himself back on tape, and banish the cruise-line affectations from his repertoire.
Casey James: ”It’s All Over Now” Of course, if Big Mike is overbaking it, then Casey suffers from the opposite issue. Casey’s lackadaisicalness is tangible in his every move, from the way he lazily holds his guitar with one hand, to the way he runs out of breath as he reaches the end of certain lines, barely bothering to finish his phrases. Good thing he’s got an adorable rocker mom with a big honkin’ ”Casey James” necklace to help him get out the vote.
Paige Miles: ”Honkey Tonk Women” Is it too soon to suggest Paige dump her laryngitis pills out the window of a moving vehicle and hang on to her throat ailment? (She can toss that bizarre gray shorts-jumper contraption into the gutter while she’s at it.) Because last night’s performance, while far from flawless, was her personal best in four weeks of live shows. Indeed, when Paige is reaching for (and hitting) the big notes, her instrument definitely bears a resemblance to (dare I express this aloud?) Kelly Clarkson’s. (Eeep, I went there.) Look, Paige is going to have to iron out the brutal pitch problems she experiences when she’s not powering through a note. And she’ll have to be more careful with her lyrics (note she repeated the line ”the man then he covered me with roses” in both the first and second verses, when it only belongs in the latter). And frankly, I’m not entirely sure she made the right choice in tweaking ”It’s the honky tonk women” to ”I’m a honky tonk woman.” So, okay, forget what I said about Kelly. But seeing how Paige’s health woes took up the bulk of her critique, I think she’ll be back next week.
NEXT: Who’s on the chopping block?
And finally we come to the four folks who most likely will/should be tapped for elimination this week: Lacey Brown, Katie Stevens, Andrew Garcia, and Tim Urban.
Lacey Brown: ”Ruby Tuesday” Dear Lacey, I am so sorry about your dry-cleaning accident this week. The way your beige bustier and your grandmother’s doily collection got cauterized to your black-and-white vertical striped blouse, and the way said blouse got one shoulder torn off during the ironing process… well, it’s a wonder you had the courage and the strength to get up on that stage and sing at all. With all that in mind, I am so proud of you for sticking it out up there.
But while there are definite sweet spots in your vocal, and while I kind of enjoy the idea of you on paper as a quiet, lilting folkie who veers in a direction that’s atypical in the Idol arena, you definitely have ”some issues where you don’t hit the notes right,” as Kara so politely put it. I could say the same (probably worse) to…
Katie Stevens: ”Wild Horses”
Name: Stevens, Katie
Occupation: Future Miss Connecticut
Goal: To achieve world peace… in Connecticut.
Favorite Vacation Location: The spotlight.
Future Book Title: Everything I Learned About Singing, I Learned from Katharine McPhee on Idol.
Areas for Improvement: Being able to hit notes when not in full diva-belting mode; brushing up on history of Rolling Stones and their lead singer… Mick… Jagger?.
Quote of the Night: ”I have no other choice but to be old”
Andrew Garcia: ”Gimme Shelter” Bob Barker would be proud. Andew took the Stones’ most riveting piece of work, ”Gimme Shelter” and had it spayed, neutered (you can do both to a song), and left for 24 hours in a cleansing bath of rubbing alcohol. Kara (yes, I am gonna say it) nailed it with her critique that Andrew’s twist on the gut-wrenching ditty about war and violence and love in our modern times lacked an inherent emotional connection. Just because Simon’s not wired for that kind of stuff doesn’t mean he should have rudely tried to one-up Kara by asking if Andrew should’ve brought a tank on stage. Sorry, dude, not everything in music is literal, despite what the guys of Il Divo tell you.
Tim Urban: ”Under My Thumb” For those of you paying half-attention to the lyrics of Tim’s song choice last night, let’s review ’em, shall we?:
Under my thumb
The girl who once had me down
Under my thumb
The girl who once pushed me around
It’s down to me
The difference in the clothes she wears
Down to me, the change has come,
She’s under my thumb
Ain’t it the truth babe?
Under my thumb
The squirmin’ dog who’s just had her day
Under my thumb
A girl who has just changed her ways
It’s down to me, yes it is
The way she does just what she’s told
Down to me, the change has come
She’s under my thumb
Now, look, we can all clap our hands with glee because Tim wasn’t horribly out of tune throughout the performance. (Ellen, diluting the word ”great” forever, declared ”you sounded great!” with practiced enthusiasm, but thankfully, no hug.) And, um, yeah, I guess as Kara said, dude made the song his own by adding a reggae beat. Just like I could type the following nonsense — whfw3bfowqnfw’qf!!!k;jbc — and make this sentence ”my own.”
But all that is just a bunch of smoke and mirrors, a distraction from the truth that Tim is a musical colander. The words spill forth from him with all the nuance and conviction of boiling pasta water running through a sieve and going down the drain, never to be thought of or contemplated again. To me, ”Under My Thumb” was the craziest kind of unintentional comedy, a theatre of the bizarre in which Tim gets rewarded for delivering a disturbingly misogynist anthem by having hoardes of tween girls text their votes on his behalf — under parental supervision. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a house with five very outspoken sisters and a politically minded mother, but my inner feminist isn’t sure whether to laugh or to cry that no one specifically pointed out to Tim the inherent horror of his performance. I’m overcome with the urge to paraphrase that great quote in that big, popular book: ”Forgive him, Lord, for he knows not what he’s doing!” Tim actually seems like a nice kid, and I’m glad for him he’s being recognized as an individual rather than a single-serving unit from the multipack of his family, but not like this, dude. Not like this.
Finally, tonight’s grades:
Crystal Bowersox: A
Siobhan Magnus: A-
Didi Benami: B+
Lee Dewyze: B+
Aaron Kelly: B
Michael Lynche: B-
Casey James: B-
Paige Miles: B-
Lacey Brown: C+
Katie Stevens: C-
Andrew Garcia: C-
Tim Urban: F
What did you think of tonight’s show? Who will and should go home? Who was your favorite? If not for yourself, then do it for Alex Lambert, Katelyn Epperly, Lilly Scott, and Todrick Hall.