Andrew Lloyd Webber songs are meant to get a powerful emotional reaction out of their listeners - they're musicals, after all. This week, our top 6 succeeded in getting that from America. However, that may have had more to do with Carly's exit than anything else. So how did the Idols play with our emotions on Tuesday night?
First of all, a disclaimer: we claim about zero familiarity with the works of Lord Webber. We can imagine the hordes of music fans rushing to their keyboards and getting ready to call us a musical ignoramus. That may well be the case, but the reality is that a lot of people aren't. Idol geeks are, in many cases, music geeks as well, and those tend to be more aware of Broadway songs than the general population. Here's something to keep in mind: people who are not aware of the original songs, as we were, will react differently to those who are. It's true of every night, but because of the theme, that's even more true than usual.
The two "worst" of the night were Jason and Brooke. We use the term "worst" relatively, however. It wasn't that bad, given what they were up against. ALW night was always going to be tough on them because the material favors singers with big, powerful voices - something that neither of them have. It wasn't going to be a smooth night for them, even under best circumstances.
Neither of them helped their causes much, though: Jason's singing was heartfelt, but breathy. Not his best effort, but we weren't quite cringing. As for Brooke, while the false start didn't bother us much, it did for many online pundits. The singing itself, while better than we've seen from her of late, wasn't quite as good as we expected from this stage of the show. It was, as Randy would say, "okay", but nothing more.
Next on the ladder was David Archuleta. Our reaction to him is rapidly becoming similar to Fantasia's, which is not a good thing. We see the talent in David, but he leaves us absolutely and completely bored. Hisfangirls kept him safe this week, and probably will for the foreseeable future, but it's all the same week in, week out. We're not entertained.
To make up for those three disappointments, we had three very good performances. Syesha learned not to rely on screechy glory notes and called upon her acting skills to produce her best performance to date. The acting was, to us, a bit overdone, but it suited the theme reasonably well. The overall impact, however, was excellent. Well done.
Carly also had a good night, which makes her departure that much more disappointing. Carly sometimes doesn't look all that natural and at ease on stage, but that was not the case here. She was in command of that stage with both her vocals, stage presence, and, remarkably enough, charisma. It's a pity she had to go home this week, but more on that later. One more thing: we had to love that T-shirt she pulled out after her performance.
David Cook surprised us a little by going with a relatively straightforward version, but on the whole it worked reasonably well. It was very different from his usual takes, but we enjoyed it, though not as much as Carly or Syesha.
More than one chance to screw up: The top 5 now move into a particularly dangerous territory: multiple songs every week. If we have one piece of advice, it's this. Better to have one good, showstopper song and one bad or below-average one, than have average songs, even if none of them aretrainwrecks. People will tend to remember the good one, and forget about the bad song, no matter how horrific it is. Katharine McPhee can be considered the perfect example. During the top 4 and top 3 episodes, respectively, she sang Black Horse And The Cherry Tree and Over The Rainbow, two of her best performances all season long. It made up for the rest of her songs during those weeks, which ranged from the average to the dismal.
The Idol Power Rankings: Maybe our contestants should be wary if they're not in the bottom slot. It seems to be that most of the boots have come from the middle of our rankings, not the cellar. Just remember the Idol Guy 100% Satisfaction Guarantee: All predictions and analysis will satisfy you, or you get your money back. Oh, wait...
Not much change in the charts this week: David Cook is still comfortably ahead of the rest of the field. The other David follows him (not too closely), and the remaining five are... well, it's a little cramped.
1. David Cook (Last week: 1)
Not only did David Cook navigate through ALW week unscathed, he did so with a straightforward version, proving he's not just about the re-arrangements.
2. David Archuleta (Last week: 2)
We're getting sick of ballad after ballad after ballad. Can he do anything else? At the rate things are going, David would find a way to turn the Macarena into a ballad.
3. Jason Castro (Last week: 3)
If singing doesn't work out, maybe Jason can write a book on how to cope with stress. Has there anyone been more relaxed about his tenure on Idol than Jason?
4. Brooke White (Last week: 5)
Her fanbase has come up big for her whenever she needs it, but that's a limited commodity. Another mistake will get her sent home.
5. Syesha Mercado (Last week: 6)
Syesha has been in the bottom two or three five times already, and this was the third week in a row she's been in there. Maybe she should take a page from Kristy Lee Cook and have the Stools of Sorrow labelled.
It's been that way forever: Both Carly and Michael's exits were met with more complaints of how the show is no longer about "singing", but now a mere popularity contest. We've become used to hearing something along those lines every year once a talented contestant leaves before their time.
Time for a reality check. The idea of the success of anything being based on pure merit is an alluring one for just about everyone - none more so than America, where it's deeply embedded into the national psyche (the American Dream, the Protestant work ethic). As an ideal, it's pretty good. Implementation, however, is tricky, as any engineer worth his salt knows (which, for the record, we are.)
There are many reasons why Idol has never been, and never will be, judged on pure merit alone. How do you define "merit" anyway? The answer: you can't. Good singing, good music, is not about the glory note, the "pitchiness", or the power.
It comes down to one fundamental fact: music cannot be judged objectively in any way. There's more to music than the ability to hit a high note, or perfect enunciation, or any of the technical matters that singing coaches love to cite. You could fulfill every item on a music technician's checklist - be the most perfect vocalist, but be a failure as a musician. Music, like all art forms, is based on conveying emotions, and that varies infinitely with every individual. One person's idea of musical heaven might well be another's nails on chalkboard.
More to the point, people don't always buy music just because someone's "tone" or "pitch" is perfect. There are many singers who may not be technically the best - they don't have the multi-octave rangers, or the ten-second-long glory note - but they are able to connect emotionally with the audience brilliantly. Whether it's to bring them to tears, or make them laugh, or make the go "wow", it doesn't matter. They bring feeling to the music.
Critics use the "popularity contest" meme to denigrate the show, but what they forget is that it's never been about just the "singing" in the first place. People react to the same song, the same singer, the same arrangement in very different ways. That's been true since Season One; that's what people vote on. Yes, it's a popularity contest, but the Idol voting process measures, within reason, that kind of emotional impact. It's not perfect - no system is - but it's better than most of the alternatives we've heard. The most horrifying prospect we've heard is giving the judges input in the finals. Yes, you could say it's a "popularity contest", but it has always been that way.
Yet another shocker that isn't: What is it with some boots on Idol that people can't react to them without being incredibly emotional? We've done the rounds of the Idol punditocracy, and it seems to be that the universal reaction is one of disbelief, anger, and more calls of how idiotic other people are?
Time for a dose of coffee and sobriety. Carly's boot is something of a complicated one. A lot of factors came into play: some of them have been hanging around for a while, but some were directly due to what happened this week.
On pure vocals alone, Carly is perhaps the best contestant this season, and maybe even one of the better ones Idol has ever seen in seven seasons. However, her problem has always been difficulty connecting with her material, and this made building afanbase difficult. This was obvious when Carly ended up in the bottom three twice: once deservedly, the other not quite as much.
The other long-term problem that hurt Carly was vote splitting. Her natural genre is rock; however she was never alone in that genre the way Kristy was, andSyesha is. She was always splitting votes with David Cook. This also made her fanbase somewhat smaller that it would have been under other circumstances.
Unlike Kristy, Carly was able to repair the damage to her fanbase early on, but there would always be some after effects. Her fanbase was good enough to get her into the top six, but compared to the others it would always be a little underpowered. Still, her good performance should have gotten her enough votes to stay, right? Wrong. She ran into a classic perfect Idol storm.
One of the paradoxes of this show is that it's not necessarily the best performances that give you the most votes each week. Sometimes, a bad - or what is perceived to be bad - performance can actually get more votes, thanks to afanbase that has a desire to "save" their favored bet. Brooke's and Jason's fanbases got the call this week, and both answered. It helped their causes, too, that both had been built early before fanbases had hardened (as we talked about last week).
It also hurt Carly that her own fanbase had been called upon to "save" her for two straight weeks as well. Their reaction to a good performance was to relax: understandable, but in the face of two energized fanbases a mistake. The result was the votes not being there when Carly needed them. This is not an unusual circumstance: Idol history is replete with cases when a relaxed fanbase sees their champion do well, becomes confident, sleeps on the job, and is shocked by the results. Ask the Melinda Doolittle fans.
What can we learn from Carly's exit? First, for future AI contestants, you have to be on top of your game early on. You have to be able to impress voters right from the start; you also need to show a clear musical identity relatively early. If you can do that - if you can develop a fanbase early on - then you've got some room for error later on. If you can't do that, then you've got no room for any mistakes. To be sure of staying every week, you have to be exceptional every Tuesday night. Even then, however, that strategy has limits.
The other lesson is for AI voters: the word relax shouldn't really be in your vocabulary, and certainly not with this few people left. For fanboys or fangirls, assume that every week, your bet is at risk. There's no ifs, ands, or buts about that. For once, Paula's right. Because the Idol voting base is more diverse than it ever has been before - an offshot of the new Idol we've been talking about - each and every contestant has a "ginormous" fanbase.
The same, in a way, holds for the rest of the Idol punditocracy. If they want the "best" to go forward, then it has to vote that way. It's a bit rich to throw peanuts from the safety of a keyboard, when it's perfectly possible to at least try and do so.
And now, the much anticipated bye-ku.
Taken by surprise
Carly Smithson, Superstar?
Cannot predict now