Idol vs. the Rolling Stones.

Obsessive analysis of American Idol.
March 18 2010 12:09 PM

That Jagger Swagger

Idol vs. the Rolling Stones.

Mick Jagger.
Mick Jagger

Here's the thing, and it shouldn't come as a surprise: Idol cannot handle cock rock. It just doesn't have the Stones. With all of Simon's predictions for a female winner, the choice of an archetypal male rock band was puzzling for the first theme. I worried that it might stump the girls and give the boys an unfair edge, but as it turned out, everyone was equally disadvantaged.

Asking the Top 12 to master the classics, the work of already-idolized artists like the Rolling Stones, implies that Idol can make legitimate heirs to music history. It's a strategy epitomized in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment during Tuesday's broadcast, when the Stones' lips-teeth-and-tongue icon appeared on the screen only to be, in a display of sheer audacity, suddenly replaced by the Idol logo. It was a bold statement but ultimately reminded me that Idol has no teeth, no mouth—in fact, no body at all—and that's the problem. Lately, the judges have been grumbling abstractly about contestants not connecting with their songs, relying on stagey posturing instead of "taking the stage." But I think the connection they're really looking for has to do with how pop stars use their bodies as expressive instruments and their voices as extensions of their bodies.

In men's rock, it's often a hair-tossing, mic-stand-hurling, chest-baring (it's where Simon's necklines come from) physicality that can fill up a stadium. That's a rare thing on the Idol stage, especially since rock repertoire has until recently also been scarce there, though some have nearly managed it—check out Bo Bice's hybrid Jagger/hair-band moves in the middle of "Whipping Post" during Season 4. It's also the kind of body work Kara was praising when she remarked on Mike Lynche's "swagger," but most of the other Idols were missing it on Tuesday. Then there's the body in the singing. Amid 11 other too-careful singers ("precise," Simon called it), we only got this in Siobhan's barely controlled, high-octave, high-octane scream. I'm not done yet being astonished at what she can do with her voice, the most versatile and dynamic one we've got this season—and out of the fascinating range of sounds she's made, the standout is that virtuosic shriek. It's a cry not only from the soul, and from soul, but also of the body, a symbol of sexuality and female virility. That's a scream that represents … well, a woman's scream. If you can't work out what a woman's scream might mean, I'm not going to explain it to you. My mom reads this blog.

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The Stones, of course, have Mick Jagger's body, which is a whole different sexual ballgame. Not that I think of ballgames as sexual. Although, OK, Derek Jeter. Stop reading now, Mom! Anyway, Jagger's sexual persona, no matter how androgynous, is still sexual—"I dance," he said in 1966, "and all dancing is a replacement for sex." Just as there's no crying in baseball, there's not really any dancing in Idol. The awkward group numbers excluded, contestants are pretty much limited to smoldering gazes, pre-existing Internet photos and the occasional pleather ensemble for the expression of sexuality. But there's more to the ambiguous Jagger: "What really upsets people is that I'm a man and not a woman…What I do is very much the same as a girl's striptease dance." And even in absentia, even if no one really embodied him onstage this week, Jagger did to Idol what he's been doing since the '60s—simultaneously threatening everyone's sexual identity to the point of panic. Why else would Ryan suddenly man up to get confrontational with Simon? The same reason the swooning of female Casey fans compelled Ellen to reassert her own orientation, in her funniest and most genuinely Ellen-like moment so far ("But for people like me," she began, and then deadpanned, "blondes …"). It was the shadow of Jagger's body, and the Idols just didn't know how to make that their own.

We can't forget the music, delivered Tuesday in an array of string-laden melodramas and smooth, Jack Johnson-inflected arrangements. Katie's "Wild Horses," Lee's mellow "Beast of Burden" and Tim's reggae "Under My Thumb" were pretty, but no matter how great the songwriting is, you don't go to the Stones for pretty. There was also a lot less electric guitar than I expected; don't tell anyone, but I actually caught myself thinking "Thank god for Casey James." And while Paige struggled with laryngitis and didn't blow my mind (or my nose), Tina Turner's ballsy—Stones-y—take on "Honky Tonk Woman" was a strong choice for her. No one else really bombed, either, a good sign for the coming weeks.

Sometimes the energy did flag, though I guess I always notice that more when current Top 40 names drop by to show us how the pros do it (that is, when I'm not distracted by dancers with silly television heads or by possibly warrior-feminist but certainly culturally disrespectful headdresses). Valley-girl thugg Ke$ha did at least solve a mystery for me when I rewatched her "Blah Blah Blah" video and saw that it featured the same huge, bizarre feather earrings Lilly Scott favored (now in Crystal's hair, in sisterly homage). Prodigal Idol David Cook and This Is It guitarist Orianthi felt like more natural visitors for Rolling Stones week, especially the latter with her epic Guitar Hero skillz and her rock-goddess hair blowing around. That's what Crystal really needs, but I guess dreads don't play that game.

In the end we saw Lacey eliminated with no hope of the Judges' Save, which they are of course saving for later. But anyone could have called that one. Last year at this time I noted the dismissal of Alexis Grace as the latest of the pink-haired to go home early, and Lacey pretty much doomed herself long before Idol, the moment she reached for that box of Fuchsia Flash. This Wednesday, it did her no more good than "Ruby Tuesday."

So it was a big week for our Top 12, taking their first steps on the new stage, making their first Ford music video, and learning (I hope) that they are not disembodied voices. Yeah, they might have some swagger, but we'll kick 'em to the curb unless they look like Mick Jagger.

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Katherine Meizel is the author of Idolized: Music, Media, and Identity in American Idol and a visiting assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Oberlin Conservatory.

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