Idol Loves Idol
So, I'm happy to be filling in for Jody this week—I didn't even know there was such a thing as substitute blogging! (What do you mean, Jody always lets you out early? Put that spitball down, or it's detention for you!) Well, all right then, let's talk about the Idols of March:
Tuesday's show did not have Paul McCartney. No one sang "Hello, Goodbye" or "All You Need Is Love" or anything else from the Beatles catalog, for that matter—I guess those songs are too busy promoting Target stores and Chase credit cards and hanging out with Michael Jackson while they still can. Such omissions are merely business as usual for American Idol, except that Tuesday's theme was the 1960s British Invasion, and it is my understanding that the Beatles were bigger than "Jesus Take the Wheel" around then. We heard repertoire from Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Zombies, even the Stones. But the nearest we got to Beatlemania was watching endless close-ups of a little girl named Ashley weeping hysterically in the presence of Sanjaya Malakar.
That said, it was an excellent week. I wasn't sure what to expect when I saw that the guest coaches—one for the boys, one for the girls—were Peter Noone of Herman's Hermits, and Lulu. Also, for one long moment I was terrified that Chris Sligh might sing "I'm Henery the Eighth, I Am." Noone and Lulu both proved to be very worthy Idol mentors, though. Their musical advice helped the contestants rise uniformly to the challenge of performing songs that were neither soul nor Southern rock (nor Jamiroquai). I loved hearing Lulu's fabulous gritty rocker voice in the rehearsal footage and in her powerful "To Sir With Love" on Wednesday. And Noone offered possibly the smartest observation ever made about American Idol, cautioning the singers to remember that it is a voting competition, not a singing competition.
They sang their little hearts out anyway, in one of the best performance nights this season. It started off with Haley confidently singing all the words to Ally McBeal's personal theme song, in heels and short-shorts that made Simon call her a "naughty little thing." If you don't remember Vonda Shepherd, that song is "Tell Him," and the original Exciters recording makes it technically American, no matter how much you mention Billie Davis, Ryan!
Peter Noone was concerned that Chris Richardson chooses songs that are too "aaa-aaah," as he breathily described it. Chris, in fact, controlled himself admirably and sang "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" smoothly with about 80 percent fewer "runs" than we've heard in his previous performances. I know the extreme melisma on Idol is a pet peeve of Jody's, but it is something that fascinates me to no end as a sort of millennial symbol of pop cred. And maybe I am just feeling nostalgic from watching American Idol Rewind, but I like that Chris' … melismations? … make him a throwback to Season 1's Whitney Houston/Stevie Wonder school of Idol practice.
Stephanie Edwards—another throwback—was one of my favorites. But at this point in the competition, unless you are Sanjaya, any slip will make you vulnerable, and she sang a touch sharp through Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me." Simon told her she had lost her edge, and on Wednesday, she lost her chance at winning a Ford Edge, too, when America sent her home. Gina, usually solid, was also pitchy in "Paint It Black" and, in spite of Diana Ross' wise counsel last week, "pronunciated" about as well as Mick Jagger.
It was clear that Jagger's wasn't the only rock-god spirit in the air, or at least in the hair, when Sanjaya busted out in a raspy Van Halen-tinged rendition of "You Really Got Me." He actually seemed to find his inner Angry Young Man (the rock archetype, not the Styx song), or at least a moderately pissed-off one. The other boys did well, too, making up for last week's poorer showing. Phil sang "Tobacco Road" with lots of energy, mic-stand antics, and a mysterious male backup voice. I still like Chris S.'s voice, though his new " 'Fro Patrol" ('Fro Patro'?) slogan and the audience sign reading "Bringing Chubby Back" were working my last Sligh-fan nerve. Blake sang the Zombies' "Time of the Season" with terrific style and just a tasteful soupçon of beat-boxing, this time earning high praise for the edgy arrangement. And then, inspired by Blake or just seized by an unprecedented attack of adorable, Ryan danced (looking kind of like Bill Cosby in a boy band) and sang the words "who's your daddy." That makes my list of top Seacrest moments, along with last week when he introduced his Nana, and the time in Season 5 when he lay down on the floor with Taylor Hicks after "Play That Funky Music."
And finally, let's look at the contenders in Simon's "three-girl race." All of them selected repertoire associated with the great Shirley Bassey, the perfect source for these consummate ballad singers. Jordin's glorious and severely flatironed "I Who Have Nothing" brought down the house. Lakisha rocked my world, but not the judges', by whimsically choosing to sing a (Sean Connery!) James Bond theme, the only decision that could actually heighten the show's level of camp. Then it was another passionately sung musical-theater tune for Melinda, her third along with "My Funny Valentine" and last week's "Home." As Lulu pointed out to Haley, there's been a lot of talk about "big voices" this season. In the past, rich timbres like Lakisha's and Melinda's have often gone home early (Jennifer Hudson, LaToya London, Mandisa Hundley), but I'm beginning to wonder if Hudson's Dreamgirls success might bring about a comeback of this fuller, classic diva sound in pop. What happens with the girls in this season of American Idol may make all the difference.
So, I'll miss Stephanie but will console myself listening to Beyoncé this weekend. The pros of Week 10: good coaching, good singing, Ryan and Simon making an effort to avoid the homophobic banter. That this week was fab even without the Beatles just confirms what we've known for some time—that Idol is the new British Invasion.
Katherine Meizel is the author of Idolized: Music, Media, and Identity in American Idol and a visiting assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Oberlin Conservatory.