'Idol' CD: Moments like these need emotion
By Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY
What makes a great pop single?
Is it the material? If so, American Idol: Greatest Moments could have been a collection of instant classics, with gems by such venerable tunesmiths as Carole King, Burt Bacharach and Stevie Wonder.
Is it the performer's voice? Certainly this soundtrack to TV's latest star-making enterprise, featuring the 10 finalists who duked it out before a rapt nation, is not short on vocal talent. Grand-prize winner Kelly Clarkson, who sings on a third of the album's 15 cuts, has the tone, fluidity and power of a born diva. And each runner-up is at least technically gifted enough to make a decent living crooning jingles.
The difference between a jingle and a single, however, is that the latter should require some palpable emotional connection on the singer's part. The loveliest melody and most moving lyrics add up to nothing if all the singer cares about is making pear-shaped vowel sounds and showing off range and breath control.
Therein lies the rub with the American Idol CD — and, not coincidentally, with the contemporary music scene that inspired it.
When Christina Christian layers glib histrionics on Bill Withers' gorgeous Ain't No Sunshine, she's merely echoing a generation of pop and R&B stars who substitute ostentation for genuine feeling. Likewise, Nikki McKibbin's growling Piece of My Heart is just the sort of exercise in faux grit and overstated angst that modern rock thrives on.
The album isn't entirely soulless. Tamyra Gray, whose performances on the show were marred by hyperactive riffing, manages a supple, plaintive reading of A House Is Not a Home. And R.J. Helton — never a favorite of critical judge Simon Cowley — turns in a sweetly affecting cover of Wonder's Lately.
But two original tracks underline the fundamental problem of Idol and the trends that it reflects. A Moment Like This and Before Your Love, both sung by Clarkson and making up the nation's best-selling single, are less songs than vocal showcases, saddled with enough overwrought production and romantic clichés to fill Celine Dion's next CD.
Little wonder that most of today's interpretive pop singers — whose predecessors include Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin and countless other greats — are dismissed by critics as peacocks who can't write their own songs. If Clarkson and her handlers want to revive respect for a dying art form, they're going to have to try a lot harder.