Wednesday, May 20, 2009

American Idol, episode 8-40 (May 20): final results (season finale)

[There is a LOT missing here, but I'm posting now in the interest of timeliness. I promise I'll clean it up and fill it out later this week.]

After the chickens of mediocrity came home to roost last night, I fear the mother of all chickens will roost, and Kris will pull enough of the moony-eyed teenager vote.

Kris and Adam aren't being piped into the mix. Fox sound guys strike again!

The Top 13 performance of "Rock Star" reminds us of all of the far worthier singers that could've been there in Kris's place, and not just the criminally-denied Allison Iraheta and Danny Gokey-- there's Alexis Grace, Li'l Rounds, and even Michael Sarver, bless 'em all.

(Did they just sing "and you're a tool"? Man, Fox's censors are on a non-roll!)

David Cook! Yay! Strands of hair plastered to his forehead and everything! "Permanent" is a pleasant enough moody arena-rock ballad, and David still sounds in good form, with a killer high note at the end of the last chorus. He, Danny and Daughtry should get together and make the hoarsest album ever.

David says "I don't think America can get this wrong." Er, they already did. Have you seen the top 2?

Li'l Rounds and Queen Latifah duet on ???????. This song would've gotten her farther in the competition. This song was so good! Where was it when she needed it?!

Anoop Desai and Alexis, who both sound fantastic, lead into Jason Mraz (just back from a fishing trip, apparently), which leads into the entire Top 13 singing together. The last few bars of this song, with the thirteen of them singing in glorious harmony, sounded better than any of the Ford videos, which I'm sure are done painstakingly in a studio over a course of hours. How bizarre.

The ladies of the Top 13 perform, and Megan Joy immediately reminds us why she should never have made it past the Wild Card round.

Then Fergie walks on, and of course the opening chords of "Big Girls Don't Cry" are played. Sam immediately says "Are you kidding me? Hasn't she performed this a million times? It was old on New Years' Rockin' Eve, and she's still doing it!"

And... then The Black Eyed Peas, accompanied by some really, really creepily-dressed backup dancers, demonstrate how far they've fallen from their original appeal as a funk/hip-hop hybrid band.

(They cut to another camera angle for about ten seconds. Anyone know why they did that?)

More awards, during which we meet many enablers. (Ryan Seacrest says one of the greatest off-the-cuff lines in the history of live television.)

Allison is accompanied on the zither by Cyndi Lauper. Why them together? The hair?

Danny takes the stage alone to sing "Hello", which is of course heartbreaking, and of course shows us that his absence in the Top 2 is utterly absurd. Lionel Ritchie, of course (and by "of course", I mean that we can just take for granted that Idol will book anyone and everyone they want), joins him onstage for "All NIght Long", and damn they sound good together (and the horn section is outta control).

Adam plays into the media's worst stereotypes of him with his outfit, and sings "Beth"... and... gee, we didn't see this coming... K.I.S.S. joins him! In a hail of fireworks, no less. And they're a performing a medley of, well, K.I.S.S.'s greatest hits.

Carlos Santana and his two killer Latin percussionists tears through the intro of "Black Magic Woman", joined by Matt Giraud and eventually the entire Top 13. Even with the mass unison, it still sounded pretty good.

Oh no. Not a Ford video. And of course, it's a montage of previous Ford videos. *snore*

Steve Martin accompanies Michael and Megan on Martin's bluegrass ballad "Pretty Flowers". This is Michael's obvious home territory, and Megan just gets more bizarre everything we hear her.

Boys' number! Finally. Michael seems to be getting a lot of solo time tonight. Of course, Rod Stewart shows up, and puts them all to shame.

In my opinion, we haven't heard enough of Jorge, who we heard earlier briefly. We have yet to hear a featured line from Scott at all tonight, so I thought I'd just mention him here.

The last "award", Outstanding Female, goes to Tatiana Del Toro, who is seriously a killer singer. It's such a shame she had to amass such massive ill will (I lost track of how many anti-Tatiana groups popped up on Facebook) during the Top 36 rounds, which, to be fair, she was asking for.

Brian May!!!!!!!!!!!! Freakin' Brian May!!!!! Under the bass-drum banner of Queen, Kris and Adam sing "We Are The Champions", with a monstrous, amorphous chorus behind (and around) them. This was quite glorious, I must admit.

And it comes down to... 100,000,000 votes. A large number in and of itself, but I will stick to my usual math and assume that there are 100 people voting 1,000,000 times.

And finally, after the bikini-wearing and middle-finger-displaying and adversity-overcoming and wife-mourning and sexual-orientation-questioning and machine-gun-laughing, the winner is...




I'd been gunning for a Danny/Allison final, so it's not like I had a personal favorite here, but at least Adam was entertaining and brought something new to the table. Kris is a capable musician, but is also a shag-haired bottle of Sominex. America, you officially are idiots. Well, the over 50 of you who cast 1,000,000 votes are idiots, anyway.

And now Kris sings "No Boundaries" as Fox and 19 Entertainment's new milquetoast golden boy. I do admit, the song is growing on me. Nevertheless, and I say this with the deepest sarcasm: enjoy your idol, moony-eyed teenage girls of America.

What a bummer to end this season on. What an anti-climactic end to what should have been a two-hour coronation. I will eagerly await both Kris's and Adam's (And Allison's and Danny's) first recordings, which I will critique here, and contrast-and-compare here, with relish.

And that's the season! 40 episodes of pure white-hot entertainment, most of which I was able to cover here, and I hope I did it with tact, grace, inside musical jargon, a grain of intolerance for entitlement, and a grain of my own entitlement. And, of course, there's the real reason I started this blog, which I occasionally diverted from but remained the guiding principle througout: to give some of the music educators (and other educators) out there some jumping-off points for legitimate critique of the show (and other pop culture offerings).

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

episode 8-38 (May 13): Top 3 results

The Ford video, as usual, sounds lifeless. You'd think with three solid singers left on the show, they'd be wailing on a rocker, or singing three-part harmony on a smooth R&B jam. But no, they go with the happy-crappy quasi-reggae "Break My Stride", sung with maximum lightness, accompanied by comic-book imagery of the quality you'd find in the margins of an eleven-year-old's social studies notebook.

Alicia Keys, after an impassioned plea for donations to Keep a Child Alive, introduces a young Rwandan singer named Noah, who sings a jaunty quasi-African ditty called "I'm the World's Greatest". It wasn't the most musically deep song, but I suppose that that would've been beside the point.

Jordan Sparks introduces her new single "Battlefield", and she's really reaching unnecessarily into the depths of her range. This reminds me of when Avril Lavigne performed her then-recent single "Complicated" on Last Call with Carson Daly, and, without the intense compression like on the recording, the low notes of the intro ("whatcha waitin' for" etc.) were painful to listen to. Following Sparks' low notes was a mostly mediocre song with a relentless barage of the word "battlefield"... an intense but disappointing performance, considering how decisively she beat Blake in the season 6 final.

Katy Perry surprises me with her new single "Waking Up In Vegas". As my only previous listening experience with her was "I Kissed a Girl" and "Hot N Cold", as well as the disastrous performance at the Grammys. But her voice was actually quite strong for the genre. She was wasn't as one-note throaty as I recalled; there was a huskiness and an attitude and a variety of tone colors I wasn't expecting. And such a better overall performance; this time she looked like she actually wanted to be there.

Finally after 56 minutes, a reveal! And after 80 million votes were recorded... Kris?! Oh, for the love of God. What has he done to deserve any of this? Am I insane for not giving a crap about this guy? I've been watching this show religiously, and I don't even remember what he sounds like.

Immediately, Samantha says "Danny's going home, hon." And... yeah, of course he is. Adam is in to the final, and Danny is felled in his prime. Both of my two favorites, Allison and Danny, will not be in the final, which is personally embarrassing for me and generally embarrassing for the America whose idol might actually be Kris. This is going to be one sleepy decade if Kris wins. Damn you, you 80 teenage girls who vote a million times each!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

episode 8-37 (May 12): Top 3 performances

And this... is a sham without Allison. Six days later, I'm still shocked that Kris is about to perform for America to prove his worthiness and not her. What away to celebrate a 300th episode: with a dark cloud of WTF.

Paula chooses Terrance Trent D'Arby's "Dance Little Sister" for Danny Gokey. In retrospect, it's shocking we haven't heard a TTD song from him yet, considering the similarity of his voice. This song starts off absolutely kicking butt, perfect for his voice, a great groove to match his tone... and then the chorus gets really shouty and hoarse, and not in a good way. I'm starting to hear what Samantha heard last week, in terms of his creeping (and creepy) vocal similarity to Taylor Hicks (although Danny is in far more control; Hicks' hoarseness is more of an affectation). In terms of his much-maligned "dancing," he certainly looked like he was having a blast, although it was a goof-fest.

Kris Allen gets the text message from Randy and Kara to perform One Republic's "Apologize". Oh good Lord. Really? Could a song be more half-assed than this song? Or are they bringing it onto the show to finally eliminate the ass entirely?

The grand piano makes its return for the first time since Scott MacIntrye's elimination, and now we remember why we hated it in the first place: single performer + seating + enormous looming piece of furniture = disaster. Luckily for us, the cameras swoop in and out and around, but from the audience's point of view he might as well be wearing a mask, for all of the connection he's making from behind a piano sitting perpendicular to the judges. After practically making out with the mic for the first verse, Kris's limitations shine through as he's unable to make the strong leap to falsetto for the hook ("it's too laaaaaaaaaate" and such); by the second chorus he isn't even singing the melody! I can see Simon nodding off as they pull the camera back. What a waste of time this imitation of a recording was.

Simon puts the smackdown on Kara for what he sees as hypocrisy in her comments. Wow. Just... wow. It's a shame to see this happen, as I'd seen Kara as the anti-Paula from the beginning.

Adam Lambert has the heavy duty to sing "One", as chosen by Simon. Uh oh, he's blue-lit from behind like when he sang "Mad World". But hey! He sounds really good and smooth on this! And not at all showy! And it's a tasteful arrangement! And then... everything goes to hell in the last verse, and it's back to screaming, screechy, out-of-tune run-heavy Adam. Of course, the great unwashed will eat this up, because screeching really high somehow equals good. Ugh.

Danny is up again, and we can see a string quartet set up on stage as he's talking to Ryan. He says he'll be singing "You Are So Beautiful", and my first reaction is: great, another ballad. And then my second reaction is: actually, finally, an actual ballad. "Apologize" and "One" are just middle-tempo songs with no drive or "sweep" to it; this should be good, and will probably get the hausfrau vote back. But he starts so low-- "to me" was uncomfortable to listen to. The chord changes at the end of the first refrain were quite gorgeous, and then the final refrain kicks in, and HOLY CRAP is this powerful. You can't avoid the obvious undercurrent of the loss of his wife with this song (and, previously, "Endless Love"), and whatever fake energy came from him in the first song was negated by this powerhouse performance. What a perfect choice.

Kris has the misfortune to follow that. Kanye West's "Heartless" is actually a really interesting choice; its melody feels really repetitive at West's tempo, but it's original enough that it could stand on its own if you slowed it down... and Kris does, and it works. And then... oh, right, there's the chorus, which isn't written particularly well-written, and it's awkward to listen to. This is like the Quentin Tarantino episode all over again for him; a boring mess. And naturally, the judges are falling over each other to praise him. Is it "brave" to perform in this manner on this stage? Sure, but that doesn't make it good.

Adam makes the obvious choice of an Aerosmith song, "Cryin'". Man, does he look angry. Those backing singers are really doing him a disservice with their intonation on the first chorus. And then he does himself a disservice on the bridge-- "making loooooove" and some other inscrutable run both sounded like a wounded cat. It's a shame, because he's seemed like a very musical guy throughout this season, and then he makes such odd choices for performance purposes. I get it, he's charismatic and a has a great range... but that range should be used in a way that doesn't involve screaming.

Alas, Adam and Danny are falling into the same trap, conflating soul with straining. Will the world ever learn?

By the way, tonight I listened to the show through headphones (for the second time this season), and kudos to the audio staff. Between the hi-def signal and the audio mix, It's just like being there. Quite stunning, actually, particularly in the intro of the Angola sequence.

Tomorrow we'll be seeing Jordan Sparks (yay!) and Katy Perry (yiiiii). Perry put on one of the most awkward performances I've ever seen on live TV at the Grammys this year; we'll see tomorrow if she's been putting in as much effort into her live act as she's put into her photo shoots.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

episode 8-36 (May 6): Top 4 results

In the intro video, Kris says "I'm ready to rock!" This reminds me of the episode of King of the Hill, when Chuck Mangione comes to play on Arlen's town green, and Chuck says to the crowd "Hey Arlen! Are you ready to lite rock?" It's rock... but it's not.

The Ford video is so dumb, it's not even worth mentioning. Oops.

The Top 4 jam with Slash and his band on "School's Out", and Kris's inadequacies just get more and more apparent. I'm more and more impressed by Adam (he's singing the higher harmony with Allison, for God's sake), but I'm still gunning for Danny and Allison. Danny's breathy performance leads Samantha to make a comment that chills me to the bone: "He's reminding me of Taylor Hicks." Blasphemy! Blasphemy!!!!!

Well, if anyone needs Auto-Tune, it's Paula Abdul, and she's got it in spades. This is so heavily processed, it's like the opera singer from The Fifth Element. A terribly mediocre song, with a lead singer who's lit in a way that makes it impossible to tell if she even is lip-synching. All of her increasingly rational comments this season are meaningless in the face of this nonsense.

Oh, no! They've used up their rations of insanely bright sparks dropping from the ceiling! What will they use in the finale?

We go abruptly (so abruptly that I thought it was taped) into a performance by recently-reunited No Doubt. Gwen Stefani is a force of nature, easily giving the most spirited performance we've seen on the show this season. I'd really grown tired of her solo shenanigans ("Hollaback Girl"? Really?), but she seems like an earnest performer now that she's back with her heavily-gelled friends.

And Kris... is safe? Seriously? Good lord! How could any of the remaining three possibly leave tonight? That's unthinkable. The moony-eyed teenage girl was out in force last night, that's for sure.

To distract me from my annoyance, Chris Daughtry takes the stage to debut his new single "No Surprise". I loved his first two hits-- "It's Not Over" and "Feels Like Tonight" (my band covers the latter)-- so I'm shocked how milquetoast and unoriginal this song is. Here were my predictions of the chord changes of the first chorus as I heard them; let's see how they match up:

I... yep.
V... yep.
vi... yep.
IV... aaaaaaand yep. That's a shame.

Daughtry's voice still sounds great though, and in fact sounds stronger and cleaner in his high range than I'd expected.

Ryan reminds us that Kris is safe, so my anger returns. Adam, not surprisingly, is called to safety, which now leads me to the unthinkable exacta-breaking situation of Danny and Allison being the only two left. This is going to be a crime either way, and the victim is Allison, who was the best singer in this competition.

For some friends of mine, the breaking point was the wild-card round; this might be mine. Interestingly, back in the cattle-call rounds, Danny was generally considered to be the hausfraus' sentimental choice, but now Kris's apparent army of lovesick girls are obviously kingmakers now. Adam seems a universal choice to get to the finals, but if Kris outlasts Danny, then America is as mushy as the rest of the world thinks we are.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

episode 8-35 (May 5): Top 4 performances

Slash takes on mentoring duties this week. As I mentioned last week, I'm now a bigger fan of the non-musicians as mentors, because they tend to see the bigger picture. Slash, of course, is a rock musician par excellence ("Sweet Child o' Mine" was, after all, the song that launched a thousand Long Island garage bands), and so now, in my reactionary mind, I'm expecting him to be supremely musically fussy. Instead, he's surprisingly general, and doesn't seem to say much beyond the obvious, at least in the videos, which is disappointing. The practice-with-a-full-on-rock-band-as-you-perform idea is brilliant, though; I was getting sick of hearing these guys wail next a five-foot grand piano.

Adam Lambert takes on Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love", with some decent vocal advice from Slash-- to lay off the improvs in the upper register. Matching Adam with a Robert Plant lead is a no-brainer, given his natural histrionics up there, and finally, this is a performance of Adam's I can finally say I truly liked. (What?) For once, his over-the-top nonsense worked in his favor-- except his "way, way, way..." improv, which was sloppy. (See? When in doubt, listen to the guy who's sold 100 million albums.)

(Where exactly is Kara going in clothes and a hairstyle like that? Did CBGB reopen in L.A.?)

Allison Iraheta chooses Janis Joplin's "Crybaby" over Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody To Love". At first, like Simon, I though she had nixed the Queen song; certainly, that song would've been a more obvious foil to Adam's song, but she certainly rocks the hell out of "Crybaby" anyway. (JA's "Somebody to Love" was even in consideration for her? Is she trying to channel Janis or Janis-wannabe Amanda Overmeyer?) As relatively repetitive as this song is, her power is undeniable. I sit in slack-jawed amazement and how effortless it is for her. I'd hate for her to lose her place in the show based on a less-than-perfect song choice, as opposed to, say, her ridiculous talent and preternatural focus.

Which leads us to Kris Allen's first appearance, which unfortunately for him is alongside Danny Gokey. Ryan makes a point to note that there won't be any phone numbers on the screen during the duets, implying that these songs don't count as much as the solos. But when Kris and Danny team up for Styx's "Renegade", there's no comparison. Not that Kris isn't a strong singer in isolation, but Danny's tone is so much more interesting and powerful, it makes Kris sound like a boy on a man's-- albeit an increasingly-metrosexual man's-- stage. Also, Kris looks exhausted, or perhaps just doesn't want to be there anymore. And lucky him... he's on again next! Somebody get him a cup of coffee, for goodness sake.

Kris seems eerily committed to The Beatles, and runs with "Come Together". Even in the setup video, Kris sounds so small and boyish with Slash's band. Slash opines "If he manages to pick up the actual live performance, that'll help." Uh, yeah, that's kind of the point of the show. Surprisingly, his singing is stronger live. Perhaps he's feeding off the audience, or off of the army of guitarist behind him, or off of the guitar he's playing, but he looks a lot more awake, and sounds bigger somehow, than in the duet. He's still a boy in a man's (and woman's) competition. I'm realizing now that this is the issue I've had with Kris from the beginning; it's not that he's not talented, it's just that he's just kinda there, and that kinda-there-ness is in stark contrast to Danny, Allison, Adam... Anoop, Matt, Alexis... hell, even Tatiana del Toro and Nick Mitchell, bless their neurotic hearts.

Danny dares to take on Aerosmith's "Dream On", and I expected the opening to be stronger, since it seems to perfect for his moody breathy John-Mayer-ish tone. Instead, he seems to be out of his element (and out of tune). It pains me to say this, as I've called him to win from the beginning, but this is the first time I ever thought he was delivering a less than stellar performance. Then the chorus (actually the coda, if were in Real Unabbreviated Song land) kicks in, and he kills it. Oh wait, now here comes the screaming... (Samantha and I brace ourselves)... and it's a little out of control, ruining his comeback. Samantha: "He lost control, so he just decided to shriek, and my ears were the victim."

Foghat's "Slow Ride" makes for slightly more compatible pairing of voices, although Adam's histrionic highs sound so forced compared to Allison's otherwordly grit. Although this was not nearly as interesting of a song as "Renegade" (it's quite dull actually, upon second listen), it was a more even vocal performance in comparison, no thanks to Kris not pulling his weight earlier. They did, however, spend most of the song facing each other in rock-god mutual-encouragement bliss, which I'm sure made for a dull performance in person.

My favorite tonight, for appropriateness of performance: Allison, with Adam a close second. Allison and Danny still remain my top two, partly because they have the best voices of the entire Top 36, and also because I don't care to see Adam's smarmy mug looking at me from a Skechers ad.