Tonight: we begin the biennial celebration of giving and self-congratulation known as Idol Gives Back, including pure white stage lighting, a guest mentor who glows like the sun, and enough mentions of wings to actually lift you off the ground. All this, but no Andy Rooney, tonight in 60 minutes!
Yes, the performance show is finally, mercifully down to an hour. Or an hour and three minutes, but who’s counting. You know Ryan, you know the judges, and if you didn’t know, now you know that this week’s mentor is superstar/philanthropist Alicia Keys who is expert in inspirational songs. Let’s get started.
She wafts her bronzy self the piano room and the kids all looked thrilled, and then Crystal asks a staged question about the exact degree of happiness Alicia will get from participating in IGB. Awkward. Ms. Keys professes 360 degrees – total happiness.
Don’t Stop Thinking About Your Song Choice
And now here’s Casey James! He’s singing “Don’t Stop,” which, sorry Fleetwood Mac, I will always associate with corny old Al and Tipper awkwardly dancing and not quite persuading us of their hipness back in 1992. During his rehearsal, Casey sounds bored. Alicia picks up on that and advises him to try and connect with the song, so that we at home won’t dismiss him. She wants us to be “into Casey tonight.” We’ll try, Alicia.
It’s clear that Casey mistook “connection” to mean pushing every onset to its limit. My diaphragm is tired after he finishes. He sounds good though, and the guitaring is good. It’s a good way to open the night. Good. Randy? “It was a good performance.” He goes on to say that he wants something more special from him, something other than bluesy rock another time. Ellen similarly wants him to move from good to great, in order to get that all-important water cooler buzz. Kara reminds us of how awesome “Jealous Guy” was, and similarly wishes for Casey to find that magic again. Simon echoes them all. Four little myna birds, y’all. Simon also calls the song choice lazy and uninspiring. Casey defends his work and claims to have put deep thought into this song choice. (Sum total of thought: “I love this song.”) I really don’t care. I’m thinking about what I’m going to wear to the water cooler party on Friday.
Lee Dewyze, who is up next, has been consistently there this season. At this moment I am failing at remembering a prior performance of his. He chats with Ryan before his package plays about his romance with Andrew, and how much they still support and love each other, even though divorced. And then Lee reveals the thought behind his song choice, Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” Apparently, listening to this song while growing up inspired Lee himself to learn guitar. Aw. After some hilarious dead air, wherein Ryan and Lee stare at the camera and then each other like it’s Candid Camera and they’re waiting on Suzanne Somers to pop out of the floor, the clip rolls.
Oh, “The Boxer.” 90 seconds for “The Boxer.” The rehearsal package shows Alicia having Lee recite the words to the song, and encouraging him to inhabit them a little more. “I’mma do that,” he promises. And he almost does. I do enjoy this, but. Maybe it’s the shortened clip, because although he sings really well and is getting into the material, it just doesn’t transcend. It’s always a performance on American Idol. But, I definitely won’t forget it. Lie la lie. Judges: Randy thinks he approached artistry. Ellen and Kara think he made a moment for himself, and Simon declares him brilliant, and best of the night. Out of two.
Tim Urban. He’s singing some Goo Goo Dolls song I don’t know, and Alicia Keys has the good grace to say nothing about the singing while concentrating wholly on his performing. She highlights some areas where he can affect a kind of connection by upping the volume during key changes or something. I’m going to take a page from Alicia’s book, because there’s no way to judge and no point in judging this as a vocal performance. He stands mostly still with his guitar. There’s an orchestra behind him, and strings start building on each other, and then here comes tambourine, and Tim finally pushes the volume up, and hey! It’s over with much applause. Good for him.
Randy appreciated the song choice, but says the song just laid there. Ellen continues her extended-metaphor of Tim as buffet, tonight comparing him to a rejected soup of the day. I hope the season is over before we get to desserts. Simon says if it was the first time he’d seen Tim he would’ve been impressed, but it wasn’t convincing and he feels let down. Afterwards, Ryan picks up on Ellen’s metaphor and calls Tim gazpacho. Get it? Cool soup? Oh, Ryan.
Meanwhile, Aaron Kelly. He’s doing “I Believe I Can Fly,” which apparently he has been singing since birth. Alicia is fearful for him, because this song has some kind of emotional cache that I do not get. It was on the Space Jam soundtrack. Anyway, Alicia wants Aaron to really feel the plight of those cartoon and basketball stars, and to be near tears by the end, because then and only then will she believe that he believes he can fly.
So, yeah. In future, would like, for anyone who starts singing this song to be yanked off the stage by one of those giant hooks like in other Bugs Bunny cartoons. But since I don’t yet have the power to make that happen, here’s Aaron. Also with orchestra, also standing still, spotted in white light in center stage. The opening is boring, and then the chorus happens and he starts to walk around and stretch some notes and shorten others in a way that’s actually interesting. Too bad this song is like a NyQuil/Monster Energy cocktail for me. By which I mean it makes me both bored and angry with rage. Randy lauds Aaron’s pure voice, Ellen makes puns with the word “fly.” Simon says that though he likes Aaron and enjoyed the performance, if he’d heard it on the radio he’d have turned it off straight away. Keen.
Believe It Or Not
Tonight Siobhan is singing “When You Believe” by both Whitney and Mariah, charter members of The Untouchables. During their session, Alicia unwisely encourages Siobhan in not only going after a high high note, but in pausing just before to, uh, heighten its effect. I wish she wouldn’t. Siobhan tonight looks like Rainforest Barbie, in a purple dress with butterflies clipped to her arms and a walking stick in her hair. She sings softly and prettily in the beginning, and the closing phrase is lovely, but unfortunately during the middle section, she goes for vamping and belting, and her throat takes over. Randy admires her courage in selecting the most vocally difficult song of the night, but doesn’t approve of her vocals. It’s just okay for him, dawg. Ellen disagrees, quickly and professes her approval. Simon agrees with Randy and calls it a shame, and adds that the performance was vocally all over the place.
Ryan says something about how tough the song is, and Siobhan takes that cue to go on a rambly monologue about how much she loves the song even though it’s a big belting song by two big belters, and something else … I honestly tuned out. I liked Siobhan a lot in the beginning, and would still rather see her succeed than not, but she has to learn to take the criticism. I know the judges are inconsistent and stupid, but they have consistently and smartly told her to lay off the small and then big! because it’s not working right. Don’t go for so many glory notes, because they mess things up. That advice can only help her voice in the long run, and she should listen, because if she keeps singing from her throat and pushing out the notes instead of developing them, she won’t have a singing voice ten years from now.
The Hulk Does Spiderman
Mike Lynche is our penultimate performer; he chats with Ryan about his great big list of Songs to Do If I Ever Am On American Idol. That’s kind of cute. The song he’s chosen for tonight is supposedly on the list: “Hero,” from the Spiderman soundtrack.
Alicia is pleased that he’s moving out of his comfort genre and making it his own, and encourages him to keep momentum going through the entire song instead of wimping out at the end. Once on stage, Mike acoustifies the song into a neo-soul jam, before being joined on the chorus by the orchestra and some amps. He of course employs his patented soft sensitive guy act, looking into the camera with dewy eyes, slowing it down when the lyric mentions love, etc. It’s a pretty good performance though, if you can stand Big Mike.
The judges are all over it; Randy was afraid because this song is more about guitars and rocking than about lyrics and singing, and Ellen loved it. Kara hated it, but I hate her, so who cares. Simon liked the vocals, but questions the song’s inspirational cred, being after all, about a radioactive spider in love with an actress. Okay, but we had “The Boxer” earlier. Mike points out the more obvious loophole – “Hero” is the title – and laughs congenially with Ryan about how stupid Simon is.
Get On Board
And Crystal gets the pimp spot. She’s singing “People Get Ready.” Oh, dear. This is one of those songs for me that is attached to a heartstring. And Crystal doesn’t have Curtis’s silky voice. So I’m not anticipating a whole lot of love. But Alicia counsels her to deliver the song as sincerely as it should be, and Crystal promises to focus.
And then. There’s this hookah looking mic stand, and Crystal’s dressed like a hippie at a ball, and she begins with this gorgeous a cappella section for the first verse. She does some great things with the melody that only nerds will appreciate. Then the strings and the background singers cut in and the song takes its traditional direction, only a little more kicked up than the dreamy original. From the start to finish it’s drenched in this kind of simmering fervor that I find really compelling.
And then. She crumbles into sobs during the closing phrase. I am a cynical, cynical bastard (sorry Conan O’Brien; I try), but, there is no way that breakdown was phony. Appropriate? Who can say? I personally wish she had been able to keep it together but, crying aside, my Lord I enjoyed that. It wasn’t a perfect vocal. There was still some awkwardness about the improvisational section. Her upper notes were noticeably strained (I am projecting here, but I’m assuming that and the onslaught of emotion are why her hand kept weirdly hovering around her throat). But what elevated the performance for me was the vulnerability, and the intimacy it communicated. I’m not referring to tears here.
Oh look, a teal deer: I’ve never been best pleased with Kara, and one of her most irritating characteristics is her tendency to indiscriminately label things as “artistry.” That’s much rarer on this show than the show would have you believe.
Making a connection with a song and with an audience is not just putting love into your eyes, or a growl into your voice. It’s knowing the song, knowing yourself, knowing how the two relate, and using all that stuff you know to communicate something personal. That’s what Alicia Keys has been trying to get these people to accomplish all night, with her tireless focus on lyrics and movement, using the silence, etc. Lee almost got there. Not just a performance, not just looking super cool, or sounding super powerful. And not just switching up the melody or the tempo, or turning electric to acoustic, Kara, but using the music itself as an expression of something inexpressible. That’s artistry. And that’s what I got from Crystal tonight. It felt like a purge. I thought it was awesome.
So did the judges: Randy gives her no less than five “yos” and a standing ovation, Ellen congratulates her for evolving and continuing to show more of herself each week. Kara loved her sans guitar and says something stupid about calling her “Mamasox” because she schools everyone. Simon's praise is simple and effective: "That was inspirational." He also enjoyed seeing something like raw emotion from her, because she’s been kind of closed off before tonight. Agreed. He also puts Crystal in a completely different class, and his school metaphor works out. With Ryan, Crystal talks about being an emotional rollercoaster because the show is awful and her father’s finally in the audience. Then she tries to nab Ryan’s pocket square, but it’s taped in. “Hollywood,” she says, wiping tears away. She knows where she is now.
Well, that was quite enough proselytizing about Crystal. Time for the performance recap. Unfortunately I forgot all about Casey, as well as Tim, and Aaron, so I am assuming they will be our inspiring bottom three. Lee was great and is growing. Siobhan needs help and maybe a hug. Big Mike is Big Mike. And during rehearsal (which is where they always get the recap clips from), Crystal beautifully nailed that closing. That was nice to see.
Also nice? All of the charity yet upcoming! Yes, Idol Gives Back III: The Squeakquel drops tonight. Two hours are scheduled; three will be used, so if your DVRs aren’t set to go on indefinitely, you will definitely want to stick around for MsFroggy’s sure to be excellent recap of all the highs and lows, and more importantly, results.