Wednesday, February 18, 2009

episode 8-13 (Feb. 18): Top 36, group 1 results

I'm not going to go deep into this episode, nor will I likely go too deep into any results episode unless it's really heavy on the performances. However, there are a few things I need to get off my chest:

* The first group number of the season! Yay! By which I mean GOOD LORD WAS THAT AWFUL. I find it hard to believe that the producers get together after the episode shoots and say "Wow, that number was a total winner!" I mean... really. Assuming that Ricky Minor still has any taste left, this must be the most painful moment of the week-- only slight more painful than rehearsing it, of course.

* The background music underneath the result revelation is more disturbing than ever. Yes, I get it, they're creating more suspense, and it's been the trend on game shows since about 1999 that they slow down the revelations and use vaguely pulsing and ethereal music to do it. (I admit, the studio scenes in Slumdog Millionaire brought all of those tense memories rushing back.) But this music is out of control, with the heartbeat and the swelling dark choral harmonies. I wasn't sure if I was watching American Idol or meeting 343 Guilty Spark for the first time.

* The "game" of the show is now more confusing than ever. If there's a wild-card show (on March 5th), why does Ryan keep saying "You're not in the Top 12" and let them cry and hug as thought they're done? Are the producers regretting this stupid format and hoping people will just forget about it if Ryan fails to bring it up? It's like a twist we're being encouraged not to give a crap about. Huh?

* Rickey Minor needs to go. He should be ashamed of himself. Singing careers are riding on his ability to NOT SABOTAGE THEM. Ugh. (See previous posting.)

Another 12 up for arbitrary elimination but also possible resurrection next Wednesday. Did I get that right?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

episode 8-12 (Feb. 17): Top 36, group 1 performance

A "programming note," as Brian Williams and Matt Lauer like to say. I've gotten some welcome feedback from folks I don't even know, which lets me know that people are actually reading this (and like it), which is nice. That said, obviously I'm not chronicling every episode and event, as the missing entries attest. I do have a job (music-related, which is nice), plus occasional side work (also usually music-related, also which is nice), and a wife and cat to pay attention to once in a while, _and_ a band which rehearses on Tuesday nights (meaning I'm usually watching the show on DVR, and usually don't see the whole show until past voting time). So I may not be the most comprehensive blogger ever, but I'll try to make the entries I _do_ post jam-packed with critiquey goodness.


"Two all-new hours"? Sweet Lord. Thank God I have to DVR this show on Tuesdays. So, they can choose any song from the Billboard Hot 100, ever? Ever? Any chance we'll be hearing "Over There" or "Alexander's Ragtime Band"? Probably not.

(No, it's not just you-- Paula's eyebrows have increased to twice their original area.)

Jackie Tohn plows through "A Little Less Conversation". The combination of the black shiny tights and floppy motions makes for The Jackie Tohn Workout. No denying that she's a strong, fearless performer. When she's reaching, she's got a great gritty Janis-like style that works, but she doesn't seem to know what to do with the rest of her range.

Ricky Braddy... hmm, why have we not heard him before? (Thank you for mentioning that, Paula.) Leon Russell's "A Song For You" is a good choice for his sweet, blue-eyed soul voice. (Somebody help me out: when was this song popular?) Here come Fox's microphone issues, both in Ricky's pre-song sit-down and now in the middle of the song-- "You ttchtchtchththaught me" and such. Great control over his upper register, and a really focused falsetto! (Samanatha called it "dullsville" and feigned snoring.) I say there wasn't a weak note. Randy, Kara and Paula oo'd and ah'd. Simon is with Samantha: he has a great voice but a shy demeanor. (Aghhhhhh, Kara's mic! Who's running this show?!)

Alexis Grace's idea of "dirtying" herself up is putting a streak of pink in her hair. Woo hoo. In "Never Loved a Man" , she puts on an odd accent of some sort, like a German trying to speak in an American English accent a la Heidi Klum. When the hook comes around, putting herself that low in her range, particularly at this stage, seems a bad idea. In the adjudication, recalling the "dirty yourself" audition, Kara teaches us the most important lesson of all: Never be yourself. Oh wait, that's a bad thing. I'm really confused by the judges'-- even Simon's-- effusiveness over her. A fine voice, to be sure, but it seemed really "put on".

Oh, and what was with the judges audition-round obsession with "dirtying" auditionees? Did the producers have a "dirtying" quota they wanted the judges to help them fill?

(Live TV sucks.)

Brent Keith pulses his left leg throughout "Hick Town". He's unsure on so many notes, and when he gets to the bottom of his range, it's a shame. Billy Crystal (as Fernando Lamas on SNL) once joked that "dancing is like standing, only faster"; this was some fast standing. I'm with Kara and Paula on the risk factor; this showed very little of what the judges must've seen in him. And then when Simon critiques him for being forgettable, he's suddenly cocky. Seriously? Why isn't he putting that swagger in his performance? These folks need not just vocal coach, but audition coaches as well, for all-around presentation.

I was rooting for Stevie Wright so hard. Kara refers to her as an "old soul," which is a great way to describe what we've seen of her. And then she brings out a forgettable, bubble-gummy Taylor Swift , and it's SO LOW. SO FRICKIN' LOW!!!!!! Why, Ricky Minor, why?!?! I loved her in the early rounds, but she's so incredibly unsteady. She's showing her age here, with her inabiility to control her nerves. A forgettable performance, or more accurately one I wish I hadn't seen. Samantha remarked "She's wearing something out of the '80s. I used to do that, and it looked bad then!" Damn, I really thought she was a contender. And instead she violated Rule No. 3 of auditioning:

3) Chose a song that is good for you. Unfortunately, she doesn't know what's good for her. It's not fair to throw someone to the wolves like this without some audition coaching and some help with song selection.

She also became the first victim of Ricky Minor's shoddy musical direction. I mentioned in my very first posting that I'd bring up my issues with Ricky Minor if a problem arose, and here it is in the first live episode. Transpose a song up a measly step! Work with the singer and not against them, Ricky!

Oh, and Fox: fix your goddam microphones. Seriously. (And your tapes.) And your logistics with bringing people up to the sit-down, with the approach and the hugging and saying hi to the parents and more of the hugging... what a cinematographic mess, and a waste of air time.

Anoop Desai. He killed "My Prerogative" in Hollywood, and now he's killed "Angel of Mine". (Note on jargon: killed = good.) Perfect song choice, and great connection. (Sam feigned snoring in reaction to the tempo, but I was rapt.) He's like butter, and he just gets stronger every time we see him. Randy and Kara heard a general sharpness, but I didn't hear it-- maybe in it's in the bridge, which is harmonically weird ("every breath that I take," etc.). I'm with Paula that he's McKnight-smooth and makes a mutual connection with the viewers. Anoop refers to Ricky Minor and the band for "making us all sound good," even though we're going to find quite the opposite tonight.

Casey Carlson, who we were promised would "rock the Police," makes a bad, bad, bad choice with "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" (It's occuring to me how lucky Anglophiles are that "he" and "she" rhyme interchangeably. "Her" and "him"... not so much.) "from the staaaaaaaaart" is tremendously underwhelming; this is a belting song (belted by a tenor too) that must be WAILED, and a mezzo can't pull that . Ricky Minor and the band provides a shockingly milquetoast calypso-tinged arrangement (kudos to the drummer, though!). She fast-stands as well. (Sam called the karaoke; Randy agreed.) Simon says she shouldn't have been "allowed" to sing that song. Which begs the question: who's decision is it, btw? In an ordinary auditioning situation, of course, it's the auditionee's choice, as the auditioners are probably strangers, but here? Hmm.

I'm all set to worship Michael Sarver... and then he sings "I Don't Wanna Be". Noooooooooo!!!!! Why go to such a low part of your range?! Why, Michael, why?!?! He's not the aw-shucks charmer we met in the previous rounds; he's stiff in the limelight and makes awkward runs. Paula notices the unconscious shell game he's playing with the mic (I do the same in performance, and watching someone else do it is pretty uncomfortable). Simon is surprisingly kind; I love this guy to pieces, but he didn't convince me he's worth voting for.

Anne Marie Boscovitch presumes to sing "Natural Woman". Usually, picking an Aretha Franklin tune is bad foreshadowing, but she's got a clear voice that's s different enough from Aretha's to avoid comparison, but still top quality. I can sense doom coming up on the chorus... and it's good! Whew. But her run on the bridge is odd. She's trying to add this bitchiness to her voice that doesn't fit; she can hit the high notes, so why add that tone? (Maybe she's more familiar with the Carole King version.) She's strong a-cappella, but wilts with a band behind her.

Fowler inexplicable presents Michael Jackson's evergreen semi-rockin' "Rock With You". It's bad enough that the band sounds like karaoke-- God, that awful, awful string patch-- but it's such a boring song in this context! (Simon later agrees on the karaoke. Samantha says "It's like a bad wedding band!") Why, why, why? He's got those killer high belted notes, and choses a song that just kinda sits in the low and middle of his range. What a wasted opportunity. (Kara agrees.) I disagree with Paula's application of Only One Artist theory here, but I understand where she's coming from .

Tatiana Del Toro says she "fought through every round to get here"; I think she fought herself and her own tear ducts. She may have no emotional control normally, but GOD LORD does she sing the hell out of "Saving All My Love For you". She's got the demeanor of a giggly (that's an understatement) teenager, but she's got a shockingly experienced-sounding voice. Kara wonders who she "is"; I'm sure the television audience feels the same. She is shockingly poised on live television; I will assume that this _is_ the real Tatiana, because if she's giddy normally, then she should get more giggly in front of camera in front of a live studio audience, being broadcast to a live nationwide audience, no? I'm using the word "shockingly" shockingly often. (I see that the "I hate Tatiana" groups are already popping up on Facebook. Really, people.)

Gokey. "Hero" (Sam: "Ugghhhhh." Me: "Hmmmmmm."). Nice choice! The song goes low, but he's got such a killer breathy tone it works. Like a cross between Lionel Richie and Joe Cocker, he powers through this song like he owns it. Which he does. Mariah Carey no longer owns this song; it's that simple. I rarely disagree with Simon, but here it is; this was flawless. (Kara needs to stop eating her mic. Seriously.)

Alright, Rickey Minor, you'll transpose for Michael John, but not for the contestants? Really now.

Tomorrow: The Top 3 out of these 12, in addition to potentially all of the the remain 9, will become part of the Final 12 three weeks from now. Or something like that.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

American Idol, episode 8-8 (Feb. 3): Hollywood round, days 1 & 2

"Auditioned over 100,000"? Well, not quite. I hear from friends who've auditioned that around one out of five people who line up will end up performing for the Gang of Four. That statistic still seems generous, though, since that would mean the judges pulled the current 147 competitors from a pool of 20,000 people over 16 days. That's a lot of sobbing and misplaced egocentrism.

[Fox TV recap video here.]

After a montage of quick cuts, swooping camera angles and sped-up action, the Kodak Theater is fetishized, Randy shows us that his grammar needs to catch up to his musicality, and we're introduced to Idol Boot Camp. As much I hated the idea of adding a "new twist" (read: more drama) to the show, I was actually pleasantly surprised by how productive of an addition the Boot Camp is. Although I thought bringing in Barry Manilow as a keynote speaker was over the top, he actually, perhaps unintentionally, spoke to the truth behind Boot Camp: the judges (and also the producers, I supposed) want the auditionees to succeed (i.e. not suck), and Boot Camp theoretically would raise the overall level of the auditions, bringing the show further in line with Fox's promise of less of a freak-show this season. The vocal coaches were a brilliant touch; at least now, when an auditionee makes horrible choice despite the coach's recommendations, we'll know it's ego and not just ignorance. Manilow also says that being a star is matter of "preparation meets opportunity." What's that? Being a yuge, yuge stah requires forethought? And you shouldn't squander an opportunity like you were entitled to it? Fancy that.

Lil Rounds, 23, sings "I-ee-I... Will Always Love You-ooooo". Exactly. Like. Whitney Houston. Interesting that the entire passage is no wider a perfect 4th-- without the chest voice oo-ing, it's down to a minor 3rd!-- and it sits right on the top of her range, which sounds so strained it hurt to listen to it. Kara stands for her, saying "that was hot," which suggests that the audition may have been good overall, and that leads to the obvious question: Why would Fox show bad portions of auditions that may actually be good over all, leaving the judges looking like idiots and leaving the viewers annoyed?

Dennis Brigham, 19, powers through "For Once In My Life". It comes off as very forced and a bit nasal too. (Turns out they made the right choice, given Dennis's arrogant reaction and atonal attempt at proving the judges wrong.)

Nathaniel Marshall, 18, wearing 1990 upholstery for a shirt and his heart on both non-sleeeves, sings "The Anchor Holds" with a breathy R&B intensity. He's obviously got serious pipes, but, as Paula points out, it kinda hangs out on the same few notes, like Lil's audition. His explanation for why he chose that more obscure, mellow song dissolves into balthering, and is foreshadowing for the sea-foam-tinted drama he'll create later.

Anoop Desai has come a seriously long way since his KC audition. I originally thought of his a raw talent forged in the unfortunate crucible of the college a-cappella set, but making it to Hollywood must've put some fire under his butt, because the ten seconds we hear here are fantastic. I call him for the final 36. [Insert future backpedalling here.]

Jasmine Murray continues down the vocal warpath. Not a single note sound half-assed, and it still somehow doesn't seem derivative. Like Anoop, she's obviously working on her own, and it shows. I call her for the final 36 as well.

Rose Black, continuing her run as Idol's resident street urchin, sings "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" with an odd combination of earnestness and weakness. There are moment which are strong, in a gritty Overmeyer-ish way, and then others where she looks like she's about to fall asleep. How she's going to get through the group day without collapsing is anyone's guess.

Stephen Fowler, 26, channels Stevie (Wonder, not Nicks) and, as Paula says, nails it. Gorgeous, soulful tone without going overboard. I call him for the final 36. Or Fox could be setting me up for frustration. (Bastards.)

Jorge Nunez, 20, starts off like Lil, with a long screaming high note, but mercifully heads downward and reveals a strong belting tenor.

Von Smith, 22, is _also_ belting like crazy. I loved what I heard here; it was controlled, despite the relentless high notes, and the improvvy passages felt natural. Simon calls in "indulgent nonsense," "annoying" and childlike. Again, it seems obvious that judging some performances will be impossible in these edited snippets.

Flash back to Debra Byrd, Boot Camp vocal coach, impressing the competitors on the importance of song choice. "Is this right song for me, right here, right now?" Flash forward to one auditionee after another being chastised on stage for poor song choice. Even if their were licensing limitations, how can you limit yourself to one song that doesn't work?

Nick Mitchell (27!), a/k/a Norman Gentle, a/k/a half of the guys who perform at The Duplex, has returned to cheese his way through an audition. (I love that the whole Norman Gentle get-up was sitting in a trash bin on Chelsea Piers at some point.) Again, he's got a strong voice that he chooses to pinch for comedic effect on "I Am Not Going". Not that I think that Idol is the be-all and end-all of performing, but... 100,000 people showed up hoping to get at least this far... he was picked as of the 127 to get here... why would anyone want to squander this opportunity? Simon hates the camp, and Paula would like to see him perform without the camp, which of course he should have been doing anyway. He's on the group auditions, somehow, with two strikes against him.

Following a minute of Ford product placement, we get to Jackie Tohn, 27, another Obermeyer-sounding wild child with lots of energy and tendency to twang every vowel. (She's also missing an inner monologue, which will for very interesting live television if she gets that far.)

Jamar Rogers, 26, powers through "California Dreamin'" like it's his job (and could be his job). Talk about a strong choice: a well-written song, it shows different parts of his range, and it sits perfectly in his range.

Danny Gokey, 28 (and a music teacher!), equally powers through "Kiss From a Rose". I think I would pay money to hear this guy's voice in concert. It's got that breathy off-kilter he's-about-to-blow-a-gasket-but-doesn't sound that's like butter (salted butter, but butter).

Kartina "Bikini Girl" Darrel, 22. She is the next American Idol because... she is. Right. He rendition of "I Can Feel You Breathe" is very pushy, almost whiny. Which is not to say that she lacks natural power, but she doesn't appear to have put much work into her singing since the cattle-call, which is another strike against her in the self-entitlement department. Interestinly, Randy suggests that she _has_ been working on her voice, which I find hard to believe. What is it about this girl that clouds Randy's and Simon's objectivity? Goodness. (Granted, she does look [and sound] better this time around.)

Sharon Wilbur is eliminated, thank goodness. She had no shot at the Top 36 anyway.

Jeremy Michael Sarver continues to break my heart. He's got a strong, authentic country bari-tenor that doesn't let up. HIs spot in the Top 36 is a no-brainer, assuming Fox isn't setting us up for the biggest red herring ever.

Jesus Valenzuela, 29, comes up weak. Why go so far down-- "what I really feel"-- to a part of your range thst isn't strong? Yet another bad choice in two days of bad choices, and he pays for it.

David Osmond. A good audition-- smooth as last time though not as commanding-- but my ability to critique it is overshadowed by my annoyance with Fox's audio techs, which now continues into a third season. Why is it that beat-up microphones in dive bars in New York City can handle loud singing and plosive consonants, but as soon as someone on a high-budget national television show sings the words "apart" on a louder high note, it sounds like a horror show. Turn up the gain and get those mics some pop filters, fer crissake. He moves on, mic issues and all.

Emily Lynn Hughes plans to sing "I Put A Spell On You" ("the 1940's original song," as she oddly tells two of the vocal coaches), but calls an audible and sings an unrehearsed song on stage. So much for making choices, and for using the vocal coaches that Fox is no doubt handsomely compensating; even her mom can't figure out what she was thinking. "Excuse Me Mister" sounds hesitant, and the judges call her on it, but apparently it must've been stronger than we saw, as she's on the group round. She later attributed the switch to nerves, which doesn't bode well for her as the stakes get higher.

Following that elimination, Erika Wesley, 26, who we saw for literally five seconds earlier, shows some cojones by asking the judges for another chance, and she might've gotten it from Paula if she hadn't brought up her husband's birthday, which sends Paula (and Kara and Randy) into a tizzy. You swear forcefully that you're a fighter, and then you bring up your husband's birthday? Seriously? Rule no. 4 again:

4) A crisis on your part does not constitute sympathy on an auditioners' part.

You can see the frustration and resignation on Simon's face when they cut to him, and aside from annoyance at the cajoling itself, I think I know what he's thinking. If I were in his shoes, playing the dual role of celebrity judge and co-producer (IIRC) on this show for eight years now, I'd be having a terrible revelation that the chickens came home to roost long ago, and those chickens are still showing up and will not be easy to get fend off. When the show took off in its first season, the freaks started coming out to audition for the second season. When the producers saw that the freaks were testing well in the focus groups, the show started running "best of the worst" specials, which of course gave freakdom further incentive to come out and audition and fly their freak flags on television. The freak-show in general were more likely to be overly emotive, to cajole the judges, to be arrogantly self-deluded, and to generally be less professional (and often flat-out rude) and not understand the basics of auditioning. Now, despite Fox's promise that there would less of a freak-show in this season, they're still being bombarded with auditionees who, despite being talented, still think that auditionees have license to act like babies. It's like the current rash of IM-speak sneaking into classroom writing: the kids aren't stupid or even bad speakers of English, they just have no idea that it's inappropriate.

Tomorrow night, we go to... oh, it's the same theater. What theater is that again, Ryan? I'm sure he'll remind us again, first thing.