Idol tackles the Lennon-McCartney songbook.

Obsessive analysis of American Idol.
April 8 2010 10:27 AM

The Beatles With Bagpipes

Idol tackles the Lennon-McCartney songbook.

Lee DeWyze.
Lee DeWyze on American Idol  

An April thunderstorm lost me eight minutes of American Idol last night. Just after Ryan told us to "prepare for a surprise or two"—because my TV has a sense of irony—his face suddenly froze in a bizarre plaid of artificial fog and intersecting spotlights. While I stared in horror and panicked as Direct TV's automated system estimated my hold time, I imagined what I might be missing. Had the Idols delivered a rousing and hairographed rendition of "Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey?" Did the Beatles digitally reunite just like when Idol Gave Back Elvis? As it turned out, no. This week, though, things were so crazy I don't think I would have blinked—I hear it's been wet out in California, too, but Idol had a bad case of spring fever.

This meant that the contestants got punchy, the audience got rowdy, and the judges got authoritarian. Song choices, beside Casey's excellent "Jealous Guy," were predictable, but some of the performances felt a bit helter skelter. The band overshadowed Andrew in "Can't Buy Me Love," the tempo dragged for Aaron's "Long and Winding Road"—also David Archuleta's choice for the very first Lennon-McCartney night two seasons ago—and instrumentation went to unexpected places. Maybe the Beatles' relationship with Eastern culture makes the Lennon-McCartney songbook especially prone to exoticist reworkings, but I can't say I was expecting a didgeridoo (culturally sticky, but I suppose it could have been worse). The surprise bagpipe attack came together better, anyway, I think—nothing says "naaa na na, na-na-na-naaa" like that Highlander lonesome sound, and curiously, Lee's not the first to think "'Hey, Jude?' Hey, bagpipes!"

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Speaking of noise, the crowd interruptions on Tuesday were so vehement that at times the panel could barely be heard, and because Idol is addicted to attention-seekers, on Wednesday some guy named Earl was rewarded for his bad booing behavior with stage time and a hug. (Don't any of the producers watch Supernanny? That was a naughty-step moment if I ever saw one.) As for viewers at home, the lure of Dancing With the Stars seemed to have left Idol in the hands of Urbanites and Aaronites, who were willing to let Michael Lynche go despite a mostly glorious "Eleanor Rigby" inspired by his family band, the Lynche Mob (maybe culturally sticky, maybe awesome). The audience nearly became its own mob when Ryan announced the results, but the judges at last made use of their secret weapon and rescued Michael, vetoing America's decision and striking a triumphant blow against democracy everywhere.

It was nice, especially since Simon had called Michael out earlier for not being clear about the kind of artist he wants to be. On the other hand, everyone praised Casey James for his steadfast devotion to a blues sound, and Ryan invited America to vote for "Casey and his authenticity." After grading identical plagiarized papers this week—my students have spring fever, too—I've been thinking a lot about authenticity and noticed that Idol has been upping the volume on its perennial Polonial refrain. Contestants are advised to "be true to yourself" so repeatedly that they sometimes, like Crystal, have begun quoting it back. Variations on the theme, like "you know who you are," and the Coca Cola-sponsored "you're the real thing," carry a lot of weight, too, both inside and outside of the music—"I know who I am" was Adam Lambert's motto when asked during his Idol time about his sexuality.

Jason Derülo definitely knows who he is, too—in spite of the misleadingly Metal umlaut—and he even sings his name to make sure that we know, too, introducing his auto-tuned self like he is schmoozing at a robot party. (The Idols should do this, too, add in little musical ID tags in every song. Siobhan could scream hers.) Rihanna aside, the guest list is getting more and more self-referential, isn't it? I mean, we used to get some of Simon's artists, and every now and then the return of an Idol alum, but now we're getting Kara's singers (like Derülo), too, and the familiar faces come practically every week.

In fact—though I am not complaining—next week: Adam Lambert as Idol mentor! Even if Katie seemed most excited to hear the news, I want to see Adam and Siobhan together—especially in a rock scream-off. But it will be just about one year since Adam's memorable performance of "Mad World," so maybe he'll offer some pointers for the quiet intensity Siobhan struggled with this week, instead.

And if he brings along a bouzouki or a tuba or a glass harmonica? If America votes off everyone but Tim and Aaron? I'll just blame it on the rain.

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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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