We weren't expecting much from Latin week - I mean, Jennifer Lopez as mentor? She's famous for many things... but her singing isn't always on top of that particular list. Her expertise seems to lie more in getting herself on the front page of various supermarket tabloids and celebrity magazines. Even with those reduced expectations, we have to be honest: this week's performances were not good. It was so bad and cheesy, we think the state of Wisconsin might have missed a golden opportunity to promote itself.
Before we turn our eye to the specific performances, we have to say something about the song choices. The theme wasn't as limited as the two previous ones were, so it's safe to assume there were more song choices this time around. So why so many Gloria Estefan songs? She's in the same category as Stevie Wonder, Celine Dion, or Mariah Carey: unless you really know what you're doing, don't try it! Besides, the cheese factor with her songs is ridiculously high. Conga by itself has enough cheese to make us queasy - and we're not lactose-intolerant.
One reason the performance night was so bad was no one was really "good." Even in a subpar night, there's usually one or two performances that are above the rest. Not this time. Every performance had a mix of both the good and the bad. Some had more good than the rest; it was still a bad night overall. It was almost painful to watch.
Back to the Muddled Middle: Earlier in the season we coined the term Muddled Middle to describe would-be Idols who weren't good or bad and aren't really rankable because there's so little to differentiate them. Everyone was in it this week. So there won't be any rankings this week; let's just go over it in performance order.
With Melinda you'll have nothing bad to say about the singing itself. As usual it was good--technically. That's never been her problem--connecting to the material is. Most of the time she can pull it off, but this was just too far from her usual repertoire. The best word to describe her performance was professional. She did her best, and it was reasonably good. There's a difference between saying, "that was well sung," and "that was a fantastic performance." Melinda was closer to the former than the latter.
Lakisha was something of an oddity. We've been saying for weeks now show some versatility! Well, that's what she tried. Unfortunately, there's a corollary to the "show versatility" rule that's rarely talked about. When you go out of your genre/comfort zone that much, you'd better be very good. Otherwise, you come off as a second- or third-rate singer. That's exactly how she came off, however. She has an above-average voice, so why choose a song that didn't show that? She doesn't have good dance moves, so why go in that direction? It's one thing to show versatility and another thing entirely to forget who you are as a singer.
Chris's Smooth tended to be overpowered by the band. Usually that's a bad thing, but not this time. The singing was horrendously weak; we've heard better in karaoke bars. He has good performance skills and good looks... but not much else. We feel like we're repeating ourselves again here, but that's because we probably have. Chris is not a good singer. He's an above average performer, and that's what's keeping him afloat. What were the judges thinking with the tongue bath? Seldom has praise been less deserved. One thing for sure: Rob Thomas he ain't!
Speaking of "karaoke," Randy felt the need to drop the word when it came to Haley. It wasn't quite that bad - the vocals aren't appreciably different from what we've gotten from her before. It's not bad, just okay. Simon's right that she's chosen a good strategy, though, it's not just about the scanty clothing. She knows she's not that good a singer, so she's bringing upping her entertainment value. Uptempo songs. Sexy outfits. It's a formula that works well enough out in the real world. It's no surprise that it's working (or, perhaps, worked) for Haley.
There's not much to say about Phil's performance, really. Sometimes Phil has the best voice among the remaining guys - operative word being sometimes. Other times, he's been shaky. It doesn't matter which one it was, though. There was little to remember in the performance. In a night of dubious song choices, Phil made one of the worst ones possible. Maria Maria's most recognizable parts are not the vocals, but Carlos Santana's guitar. It's not like Smooth where you've got unique vocals to go with the guitar. Maria Maria is not a vocalist's song. The vocals are almost secondary to the whole thing. Is this what you really want to bring to a singing competition?
Jordin's probably the most talented singer left in this group. Unfortunately, she has a tendency to make boneheaded song choices. It seems the more recent the theme, the dumber they are. Our theory is she's picking songs that she likes as opposed to songs that can actually work well for her. Sometimes those two categories happily coexist, but with Jordin that's not the case. That said, it was an above average performance for the night. It was a somewhat more convincing performance than either Melinda's or Lakisha's, but that's entirely because she has a younger, more energetic personality than just about anyone else left. The genre was still a horrible fit for her, but not as bad as it was for, say, Melinda.
Blake got the title of best of the night, but that's not because he was any good. He doesn't have an outstanding voice, but he knows how to use what he does have. His decisions don't always make a great deal of sense (Mack the Knife, anyone?) but he never forgets to put his own touch to a song. I Need to Know was just competent, but it's really trademark Blake. Fair to so-so vocals (at best), but with his own twist on it. One more thing is that Blake is never severely disconnected from the material - the way someone like Lakisha can be. That comes, however, from essentially ignoring the "flavor" of each theme and doing his own style anyway. It had very little of the original's flavor.
Sanjaya was, perhaps for the first time in weeks, tolerable. Maybe it was just because he was his usual not-so-good self, and it was everyone else coming down to his level. Still, the whole performance was off-putting. He still can't sing, but he's been taking lessons from the Constantine Maroulis School of Eye-Effing. Creepy would be the best adjective - and let's not forget that mustache, or whatever it was. There's actually an invention that's useful for such things. It's called a razor blade. Our advice to Sanjaya: Use it. Love it.
No more eye candy: Unlike the last few boots - which have all had the "too early" vibe - the one from Haley's was far different. It was a case of everyone saying "it's about time!"
Haley did very well to go as far as she did. She was never a great vocalist and couldn't be expected to go very far, but there's always been more to Idol than just pure singing ability. She may not be a good singer, but she's an above average entertainer. The looks and lack of clothing were part of it, but so were the fast songs and the blatant flirting with the audience. She's not as bad as the judges sometimes made her out to be. She didn't have us cringing in horror the way Sanjaya did - but she wasn't anywhere near the frontrunners. Simply put, Haley got as far as she could realistically be expected to go, and not any further.
Style over substance: It's not just this episode that wasn't good, but the whole season so far has been something of a lemon. One big reason is that in what may be an American Idol first, there's an (over)emphasis on performance skills, above and beyond singing ability. Call it a triumph of style over substance.
None of this is particularly new, of course. The Idol community has been arguing over how important performance skills are since Season 4, if not even earlier. We've had good singers who had excellent performers and excellent singers who weren't such hot performers. What hasn't happened before, though, is having "front-runners" who aren't really good singers at all and are getting by almost entirely on performance alone.
Let's look at the seven who are left. You've got the two divas and a kind-of-sort-of type in Jordin. You have Phil, who is inconsistent and is bound to go sooner rather than later. The three contestants left - Blake, Chris, and Sanjaya - are all really getting by on performance alone. It's one thing to be a good singer who happens to be a good performer to boot. We've had plenty of those before. Last year's winner, Taylor Hicks, certainly could be considered as such. What we have today, however, are performers who can't sing very well - another thing entirely!
The mantra about American Idol is that it's a singing competition. Setting aside the fact that as a TV show, the key measure of Idol's success is ratings, the show's goal isn't just to find the best technical singer. It's to find the next chart-topping musical star. It's not just singing ability that comes into play there - so does charisma, personality, and a ton of other things that get tossed together in the so-called "X-factor". It is a popularity contest, but few things in life aren't, in one way or another. (Besides, many of those who use that description do so with a heavy dose of snide elitism that, to say the least, annoys us.)
Performance skills are a good thing to have, but it's the music business. We must have missed the memo that you no longer have to sing well to become a singer. The "X-factor" is becoming the more important factor. That is not such a good thing. Good performance skills are a complement to good singing ability, not a replacement for it. Whoever said showmanship could replace the ability to carry a tune must have been a complete and utter moron - and tone-deaf, to boot.
It's not just Idol, of course - it's something that's affecting the whole music industry. Who thought letting tabloid fodder like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan record albums was a good idea? That's an idea which as recently as a few years ago would have been met with ridicule. "Singing" is become a noun with a very flexible meaning. Is it any coincidence that sales in recent years have been falling? Maybe, just maybe, it's because I'm not the only one who thinks a lot of what passes itself off as "music" lately is utter crap?
We've heard some comments saying that "Blake/Chris/Sanjaya, with a little work, could be a platinum-selling artist." Maybe... but given the current state of the music industry, that's not saying much. It's like the contemporary tag that the judges like to use every now and then. It seems to mean "it sounds like the sort of stuff that sells millions today, even if it is rubbish." Maybe, from the commercial perspective, that's completely true. As a music fan, however, it's something we have a hard time warming up to.
The bird is on semi-permanent holiday: The bird who's been giving us the (supposed) official results gave us some bad news today. Apparently his source for the numbers got involved in some sort of fight. We don't know all the details of the fight, but the end result is what matters: there might be no numbers from now on. Oh well - it was interesting while we had the numbers, but we had a feeling that it wouldn't last forever.
Anyone know any friends who could be confidential sources? If so, PM us.