American Idol takes on Frank Sinatra.

Obsessive analysis of American Idol.
May 6 2010 9:53 AM

Frank Sinatra

The Idols try to match the original American idol.

Lee DeWyze.
Lee DeWyze 

Picture it: One fateful prime-time night, a talent competition gives a young idol-in-the-making his first big break. He sings a hit written 25 years earlier but picks up some style from a recent cover, adds his own twist, and makes it sound current. His voice is carried over the airwaves into homes across the nation—and America votes, and the rest is music history.

It'll happen on May 26. Probably to Lee. But it also happened 75 years ago, when Frank Sinatra led a group of baby-faced Jersey boys to victory on Major Bowes' Amateur Hour. The Amateur Hour was foundational—it put the gong in The Gong Show and the wheel in Wheel of Fortune, and set the stage for Star Search, the Got Talent franchise, and, of course, our own American Idol. Like Idol, it made a fortune in advertising and booked major sponsorship from an automobile maker. Like our Idols, Sinatra's Hoboken Four won a little money and a place in a national touring show. And, most importantly, they won in an enthusiastic demonstration of American democracy. Every week Major Bowes had thousands of radio listeners voting by telephone, by postcard, or by telegraph—1930s texting!—as, in the throes of the Great Depression, America began helping farmers and waiters and, even back then, glass blowers reach for the newly minted American Dream. It makes you wonder whether, in 2085, we'll be calling Kris Allen (Chairman of the Ford … Fusion Hybrid commercials) "classic" and "definitive." There will almost certainly be a nostalgic Broadway musical showcasing the songs of Adam Lambert (Ol' Glitter Eyes). In any case, for all we (or Usher) might complain that shows like Idol damage the music industry, maybe we'd do well to remember that they kind of invented it, too.

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Tuesday's Idol set out to confirm our Top 5 as the heirs to Sinatra's legacy. Even his daughters were in the studio, giving their blessing to the Idols and an autographed hankie to Simon. Under the musically astute, charismatic, and, oh my, very blue-eyed guidance of anointed Sinatra successor Harry Connick Jr., they learned to wear hats and waistcoats and ties (although Lee seemed to have given up on his bow tie on Wednesday). They also, if their two results-show medleys are anything to go by, learned to sing like Harry Connick Jr. singing like Sinatra. Every time I looked away from the screen I thought he'd joined them, but it always it turned out to be Casey or Lee. I hope they also absorbed some of Connick's work ethic and creative chops, because he did about six people's jobs this week, and those were some of the richest and most energized arrangements we've had in a while—not to take anything away from the esteemed Minor and Orland, but Sinatra is of course Connick's specialty, and the band (with some of his own regular musicians) just shone under his direction.

He said he wanted his arrangements to support the singers, and they did, though it wasn't enough to save every performance. Aaron definitely got flown to the moon, but then, on Wednesday, also home to Pennsylvania. Casey's tempo proved a bit too expansive for him; as Kara pointed out, he didn't seem quite sure how to manage the long phrasing. I think that's actually a sticking point for a lot of contemporary pop artists who try their hand at old standards, because they're intensely melodic songs—they can be close to bel canto in breadth, and breath—and because today's pop aesthetic often favors shorter bursts of words and tune, they take some adjustment. But Mike's focused "The Way You Look Tonight" was a real highlight, and the Hammond-inflected, gospel "That's Life" for Lee came close to knocking my Sox off.

Don't get me wrong, Crystal's still at the top of my list, but her second low-key performance in a row worried me a little. It was beautiful—it's just that the Top 5 sprint to the finish line is no time to slow it down and lose momentum. She was smart, though, keeping a little mystery about her performance; Connick wasn't the only one dying to know about her undisclosed personal connection to "Summer Wind." Did she have an ill-fated romance one secret Ohio summer? Was the Ataris' " 'Summer Wind' Was Always Our Song" always their song? The sweetest thing about Crystal's performance this week, by far, was when the camera panned three times to a neon piece of audience signage, which turned out to be held by none other than her own idol and hair-inspiration Sista Otis. "Mama Sox and Sista Otis say Save New Orleans," it read, maybe in honor of Connick's NOLA roots?

Outside of the Idols, there were some odd choices for Sinatra week. Connick sang "And I Love Her" (Lennon-McCartney week was last month, Harry), and Lady Gaga delivered "Alejandro" in her signature face-lace. In case your radio station hasn't been playing it every 12 minutes for the past two weeks, that's the devilishly catchy single that sounds like that Madonna song—you know, the one that sounds like that Gloria Estefan song? Happily, she was not missing a leg. The song, though, would have been more in keeping with the cabaret character of our theme if Jesse Tyler Ferguson had done his Our Hit Parade cover instead.

So, Top 4. I can feel it—now the end is near, and before we know it we'll face the final curtain. (That reminds me, I'm glad no one sang the deadly "My Way.") We've got one more theme night before the home visits and producers' song assignments begin, and it's a good one. The Idols will be mentored by Jamie Foxx—who worked Rat Pack week last year—in Songs of the Cinema. Bring it on! Wait, don't do anything from Bring It On. But as the season closes, let's remember that the distance between Hoboken and Hollywood, between Sinatra and Seacrest, isn't so far after all.

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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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