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I’ve had a love-hate relationship with American Idol for a few years now. It dates back to when I used to review this show for The Trades, and I basically gave up on the reviews mid-season out of frustration and because the show was consuming so much time. This year, I balanced out the time considerations and figured out how to write about Idol and still have a life. After last season, I’d all but given up hope on the show but decided to give it one more chance after watching the first couple of audition shows and seeing that Steven and J Lo might wind up being solid judges. Boy, was I wrong about everything.
Wrong about the show being new and improved. Wrong about the upgrade in judges. Wrong about the reputed tweaks having a positive impact on the show. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
And last night is when it became really clear. Oh, I was already falling off the wagon weeks ago after the untimely elimination of Pia Toscano. By then, I’d already become sick of the sunshine, flowers and lollipops the judges handed out to their favorites while tempering their enthusiasm for the “unapproved” ones. And by the time The Voice rolled around, my heart simply wasn’t in these Idol reviews too much. But I was still basically a fan of the show.
Until last night.
Never before had I witnessed such an intentional piling-on as what the producers, Randy Jackson and Jennifer Lopez perpetrated on Haley Reinhart. It wasn’t bad enough that they ensured an uphill battle for her by slamming her into the second performance slot (the infamous spot that claimed La Toyta London, Chris Daughtry and Allison Iraheta) and then moving her to the first spot for the second round. (The others all got to sing in the third or fourth slot at least once, and Lauren Alaina got both of those spots.) And it wasn’t bad enough that they showered praise on every performance of every performer not named Haley Reinhart. And it wasn’t bad enough that they hammered her relentlessly for her first performance (a poor choice of Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song”). No, they had to bring her back out for a public, post-first round flogging where the judges declared a tie among the three other performers with an “everyone but Haley” declaration. And even after a solid second performance, they couched that praise with a reference back to the flogging of the first performance.
In essence, their hand was clearly shown. It was as if they were playing poker with a marked deck and decided they didn’t care if we knew they had five aces in their hand. The agenda we all figured was afoot was way, way overplayed. If Randy Jackson ever hoped for an acting career, it should have been torpedoed last night after his heinous over-the-top performance in an effort to ensure the end of Haley’s run on Idol. It was shameful, and after this season is ended, I’ll have no more part of it.
It isn’t as if this is a serious singing competition. That’s happening on Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. over on NBC. Every singer I heard two nights ago on The Voice could have an honest chance to clean up on American Idol. That’s because, in spite of some obvious producer’s fingerprints in that show, The Voice really does appear interested in finding a great singer. Idol is interested in something else. It can’t be about finding someone who’ll sell CDs or digital tracks. Lee DeWyze is the perfect example of that. At last count, Lee had sold perhaps 120,000 CDs — or 380,000 shy of the gold standard. No winner has even been in grenade range of a figure that hideous.
If the judges get what appears to be their way and annoint Scotty McCreery king, he might actually flirt with that total. Scotty’s cute and fun, but he’s not a serious singer. Each week on Whatnottosing.com they compile hundreds of reviews into a single number that represents the consensus about each performance. Every winner has had at least one five-star performance — even Lee DeWyze, who had just one. At this point, Scotty’s best performance is a four-star, and if he were to finish the season today, he’d rank as the worst winner in the history of the show with an average of about 56 (including the estimated numbers for last night’s show). By comparison, James Durbin would rate as the second-highest winner (way behind Kelly Clarkson), Lauren Alaina would rank fourth and Haley would rank sixth.
It’ll be hard to watch the next couple of weeks because at this point I’m doing it out of obligation to my readers more than out of a love for the show. With that in mind, here’s my abbreviated review of the Final Four’s performances of “Songs that Inspire Them” and the catalog of Lieber & Stoller:
Song that Inspires Him: “Don’t Stop Believin’,” by Journey
Lieber & Stoller: “Love Potion No. 9,” by The Searchers
Regardless of how he sings, James has grown on me as a person. Truthfully, he’s the kind of person this show should be about. Because of his combination of Asperger’s and Tourette’s syndromes, it’s unlikely that he’d have gotten the notice of the big studios without getting noticed in a venue like American Idol. On top of that, the guy can really sing. He turn on Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” wasn’t remarkable outside of the fact that he sang it note-for-note, and this is the kind of song by the kind of group that makes that a true accomplishment. The last note was a bit sketchy, but singing toe-to-toe with Steve Perry is something few people can do. (But maybe we can be done with the Randy Jackson “I used to be in Journey” bit.) For his second performance, James was promoted to the clean-up spot for a hard rock cover of “Love Potion No. 9.” It was a bit uncomfortable to watch the skunk-headed Lady Gaga manually swaying James’ hips; fortunately his performance had none of that craziness. Honestly, this was a step up from his first performance, since he updated the song with a modern rock feel that made it seem almost new. I don’t love the mid-song guitar solos that take away from the vocals, but when the vocals did happen, they were spot-on. For the night, James was undoubtedly the most consistent performer overall. (8/10; 9/10)
Now: “Earth Song” by Michael Jackson
Then: “I (Who Have Nothing)” by Shirley Bassey
It’s nice the Haley is moved by Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song,” but it isn’t exactly a song that’s likely to inspire American viewers. When she mentioned she’d be singing it, I cringed, and even moreso when she seemed to overcook some of her growling midway through the song. But then I started noticing the performance value of what Haley was doing. More than any other contestant in the first wave of performances, Haley poured every ounce of emotion into her song. These were lyrics that demanded that kind of emotion. (“What about children dying/ Can’t you hear them cry/ Where did we go wrong/ Someone tell me why.”) So when Randy went out of his way to slam her for supposed “shouting,” perhaps he might have actually listened to the song and figured out why she was shouting. (A quick aside: Randy has only had ears for one female performer this season: Lauren Alaina. A cynic might say that he’s either a pervert or “in the closet.” I’m not saying that he is either of those, but other people might…) Haley’s second song made me nervous since “I (Who Have Nothing)” was Jordin Sparks’ crowning moment. Perhaps she was heeding Lady Gaga’s advice to act a little crazy, or maybe she was channeling her obvious contempt for Randy and J Lo, but Haley’s performance added just enough manic to make it very difference from Jordin’s. And that made it truly special. The judges were right to give it a standing ovation. Perhaps next time they can make it a standing ovation without referring to previous criticism. (7.5/10; 9/10)
Now: “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” by Alan Jackson
Then: “Young Blood” by the Coasters
Now for the “play it safe” portion of our contest. It’s clear that Scotty can sing in at least two octaves (or about half the octaves of truly serious singers). It’s just also clear that he chooses not to. For his first song, Scotty chose Alan Jackson’s post-9/11 tribute, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” The cynic in me would point out that Scotty was about five years old when 9/11 happened, and that it’s doubtful his emotions about the event could be as present as someone who actually watched it as it happened. Or that the four or so chords he played on the guitar aren’t that impressive. OK, so maybe I’m really off of the Scotty Kool-Aid, so much so that I’m getting sick of the kid. I really like him as a person, but as an American Idol contestant he’s working my last nerve. Randy and J Lo smashed Haley for singing a song that was below James’ high bar, then lauded Scotty’s laid-back choice, with Randy even saying that this performance revealed Scotty was “ready for super-stardom.” Great. Maybe he can even aspire to be Lee DeWyze. Vocally, it wasn’t bad, but I could have seen this performance in any college talent show in the country. The same couldn’t be said of “Young Blood.” If that was seen anywhere outside of Idol, it might have gotten Scotty locked up for being criminally creepy. Someone must have told him that singing in his microphone like a flute is cool, and that using his bug-eyes like a weapon is sexy. Note to Scotty: It’s note. It’s scary, and it makes me want to lock up all the children in my neighborhood. On top of that, the entire performance was basically Scotty walking through the audience, high-fiving fans and leering into the camera. For the judges, it was a Scott McCreery concert. But in reality, it wasn’t just the lowest point of the season for Scotty; it was one of the worst things on the Idol stage this season. (7.5/10; 5/10)
Now: “Anyway” by Martina McBride
Then: “Trouble” by Elvis Presley
Before we get to Lauren’s performance, can we please hunt down the designer of her horrific dress, which looked like the fashion version of a mullet — short in the front, long in the back. (By the time Scotty finished his second song, I wondered if he was so crazed that he perhaps chewed off the front of Lauren’s dress…) As for the song, Lauren reached her high point of the season with “Anyway,” and earned the judges’ props for the number. She finally reached for the high note, and it was more than there — it was gloriously there. This was one of the high points of the night, and should earn her a place in the Top 3 if it wasn’t for Scotty’s crazed fans refusing to admit that he’s not vocally up to the other three. For her second song, she made a foolish choice of singing Elvis Presley’s “Trouble.” Guess who sang this song in Season 4? That wouldn’t be Carrie Underwood, would it? Lauren’s extremely talented, but she continually tries to walk in Carrie’s footprints instead of blazing her own trail. (One interesting thought: If Lauren didn’t like being thought of as “evil,” why choose this song? Hearing her sing “I’m evil” was as convincing as hearing the line being sung by a Beanie Baby or a Troll Doll.) Compare Lauren’s performance to Carrie’s (and to Elliott Yamin’s performance in Season 5). It’s a vocal copy of Carrie (minus a notch or two) and well below Elliott’s standard. In that light, and since Lauren is essentially comparing herself to Carrie, it’s impossible to give her very high marks on the number. (9/10; 7/10)
1) Haley Reinhart #2 (9)
2) Lauren Alaina #1 (9)
3) James Durbin #2 (9)
4) James Durbin #1 (8.5)
5) Haley Reinhart #1 (7.5)
6) Scotty McCreery #1 (7.5)
7) Lauren Alaina #2 (7)
8) Scotty McCreery #2 (5)
Top 4 (Odds to Win)
1 (tie). James Durbin (2/1)
1 (tie). Scotty McCreery (2/1)
3. Haley Reinhart (9/2)
4. Lauren Alaina (23/4)
Top 4 (Odds to Go)
1. Lauren Alaina (7/4)
2. Haley Reinhart (11/4)
3. James Durbin (9/2)
4. Scotty McCreery (19/4)
The body of work of the Final Four and tonight’s performances should dictate that Scotty McCreery is not only in the Bottom Two, but finally going home. That’s simply not going to happen because Scotty has one of the most crazed fan bases in the history of the show. Tonight’s Bottom Two will be an all-girl affair with Haley Reinhart and Lauren Alaina standing side-by-side in the dreaded spotlight.
The judges clearly want the axe to fall on Haley Reinhart on the way to a Scotty-James finale matchup. Tonight, a wrench will be thrown into their plans when Lauren Alaina becomes the latest victim of the Final Four curse.
Let me know what you think about last night’s performances? Do you agree? Who was the best? Who was the worst? And who should hit the bricks in tonight’s elimination show? Remember to follow this blog on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/capnpen. Also be sure to follow our Facebook group, American Idol Update.