March 14, 2012: The Top Eleven
I wonít lie. I was flipping channels tonight for the first ninety minutes. But that stopped suddenly, thanks to the last two performances.
1. Joshua Ledet. Not the best overall, but the absolute best R&B performance ever on the Idol stage. And thatís saying something. Tamyra Gray was the first; a brilliant R&B singer, but never personified gospel soul like those who followed. Fantasiaís magnificent I Believe was Idolís first exposure to R&B gospel soul at its finest. It was she who actually pushed back the frontier and opened the door for artists like Jacob Lusk and Joshua Ledet. But credit must also be given to the incredible Nikko Smith, one of the finest R&B male singers ever to set foot on the Idol stage. His R&B had nothing to do with gospel soul; it was a celebration of the ladies. Nikko remains the only male to accurately project the raw, tantric sex rhythm of Marvin Gayeís melancholy Distant Lover. Then we were introduced to finest singer ever to set foot on the Idol stage, the incomparable Elliott Yamin. His A Song for You is not the best R&B performance ever but is still, in my opinion, the finest overall performance in the eleven year history of American Idol. Next up was Jacob Lusk, who offered up a spine-tingling, gospel soul version of God Bless the Child. All these wonderful R&B singers helped pave the way for tonight and Joshua Ledetís When A Man Loves A Woman; unquestionably the finest R&B performance ever on the Idol stage. This dude absolutely disappeared inside these lyrics, man. Iíve never seen anything like this anywhere. Where did he learn this authentic, old school, dirt floor, wrong-side-of-the-tracks R&B gospel soul? In church? It reminded me in some ways of Greg Kirkland and Kim Burrell, two other R&B gospel soul singers that utilize the gospel death rattle to perfection. Also, this was not a Percy Sledge impersonation. Parts of it, especially the soul screams, were very reminiscent of Lenny Williams painful Cause I Love You, DíAngeloís overtly sensual How Does It Feel, and Jesse Powellís elegant and ranging If I. And that Luther Vandross staccato progression with body roll near the end made had me begging for an Encore! Joshua, wherever you are tonight, thank you, thank you, thank you. This is why I watch American Idol; why I remain its self-appointed #1 fan after eleven seasons.
2. Holly Cavanaugh. An unadorned, straight-laced, singerís singer, version of a Celine Dion classic; no runs, no vocal calisthenics, no melisma. If you are a music purist and prefer crystal clear tonal integrity and a healthy respect of melody, you probably preferred this to Joshua Ledet. I am one who appreciates both; for me, the two are not mutually exclusive; music comes in many forms, and itís difficult to compare contrasting styles, but that doesnít mean necessarily that one is better than the rest. It comes down to choice and individual preference. For me, Hollieís was a beautifully measured and elegant performance; her best work yet on the Idol stage. There is no mistaking who she is as an artist; she knows who she is and doesn't pretend otherwise. I picked her to win and that hasnít changed. She is my favorite singer and my favorite person; and thatís not going to change. She can definitely sing but her greatest strength; the reason I picked her to win, is not her pipes; itís that insanely palpable and wonderful likeability.
3. Jessica Sanchez. I got nothing from this performance but I think she is the best singer here so canít rank her lower. She is a gifted, magnificent singer. I just think this performance was a complete waste and misuse of an otherwise enormous talent. Wrong song.
4. Colton Dixon. I think the judges got this one wrong. Colton hasnít changed who he is; heís always been a weird mix of emo, Goth, and indie rock. I donít think that Steven appreciates any of these art forms but Colton is not hard rock or heavy metal, and has never pretended to be, so I donít why the judges were surprised to learn his true nature. I donít know Broken Heart but Iíve heard When the Children Cry a thousand times, and Colton definitely channeled Tramp tonight; sounded just like him. Not only did I believe him, I thought this was his best performance yet. Like it or not, this is his home. I, too, wish he would embrace the musical genius of authentic indie rockers like Arcade Fire, Radiohead, and The Cure (instead of Decode), but he is determined to do things his way. The problem is not indie rock; the problem is song choice. Colton needs to pick rock songs (any subgenre) that translate well to prime time television; e.g., When We Were Young (The Killers), The Pretender (Foo Fighters), or Sex on Fire (Kings of Leon). The biggest problem with Idol is those silly themes; they rob contestants of what they do best. It is not in Idolís best interest to corral contestants into a bunch of clones and cookie cutters.
5. Skylar Laine. I didnít like this performance as much as her first two. I listen to Bonnie Raitt all the time (one of my favorite singers) and while Skylar got the notes right, this performance had none of Bonnieís patented soulful passion or melancholy blues vibe. Skylarís was (because I canít think of a better description) too millennial; e.g. technical and efficient. This song (and Bonnie Raitt) is too mature for Skylar. But I loved this kid from the start, and I continue to look forward to each performance. She is a genuinely beautiful soul.
6. Dandre Brackensick. I disagree with the judges about this one as well. Díandre is definitely more suited to Lost Without You or When I Get You Alone (Robin Thicke); Feels Just Like It Should (Jamiroquai); and absolutely tailor-made for Tevin Campbellís Can We Talk and Jesse Powellís octave ranging If I, but this looked good on him too. And, of course, he is already a Prince clone, so that songbook should fit his eye as well. I am not a fan, not yet, but I enjoyed this performance, because it forced him to stand still and emote; something he apparently cannot do when heís dancing about the Idol stage. He still may end up at home but Can You Feel the Love Tonight would have robbed him of even more votes.
7. Phillip Phillips. I donít know what to make of this kid. He, too, was one of my favorite contestants early on, but I am losing patience quickly. Hard to Handle sounded just like last weekís and the week before. Heís one dimensional and apparently incapable of change. For me, Iíd like to hear Jason Mrazís Geek in The Pink or Jack Johnsonís Better Together; Bruce Springsteenís Fire. I donít like his pop blues styling; itís fun to watch but indigestible.
8. Shannon Magrane. I like her. Sheís a good kid; a good singer; and she did a good job with this simple but difficult song, but it just wasnít good television.
9. Erica Van Pelt. Ryan Adamsí Heaven? Not for me. Erica is one of my favorite contestants but I canít handle songs like these. Again, thereís nothing to criticize. She looked great; the camera loves her; and she sang it well. But itís a boring song, on its face; and in my opinion, will never translate well to prime time television.
10. Elyse Testone. The judges loved this performance more than I did. The verse was off-melody, she failed to maintain vocal integrity, and she never found the heart of these lyrics. I liked Elyse a ton during the early rounds but she hasnít lived up to expectation. And Iím not sure whoís to blame. Again, I wonder if her problems can also be attributed to Idol themed format. I donít think this kid has even been given the chance to show her true talent.
11. Heejun Han. This was agony personified. Heejun is a likeable fellow, and a good guy, but again, this was not good television. I canít believe Jimmy Iovine and will.i.am didnít force him to pick something else. Heejun, if youíre out there and coming back next week, please, I beg you, pick something with some muscle.