American Idol

Those Tricky Low Notes, Simon's "Situation," and Kim Yu-Na?
Obsessive analysis of American Idol.
Feb. 26 2010 8:52 AM

American Idol

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Idol didn't feel much like a competition this week. Maybe I've been watching too much Olympic figure skating—you think Todrick's flip during Group Night was impressive? Let's see him land a triple lutz/triple toe combo! Everything on Idol seemed to fall a little flat. The show's energy wavered frantically along with a lot of the voices, as things hit a variety of new lows—the singers' confidence began at an unprecedented low ebb; the judges were so short on comments they had to recycle; Simon's décolletage was just a button this side of The Situation; the mic could not pick up Haeley's guitar or, later, Jermaine; and, most disappointingly, some had serious trouble with the low end of their voices.

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Watching Idol, I usually take my singing-teacher hat off (it's not that the contestants are so bad; it just gives me terrible hat hair), but amid all the panel's chastisements about song choice, I have to add my voice to the chorus. I think the problem this week was not as much wrong songs as it was wrong keys. My notes for the performance broadcasts show a pattern: "a bit low for her," I wrote as Paige Miles began "All Right Now." I upgraded to "so low!" for Ashley Rodriguez's Leona Lewis cover, "TOO LOW!" for Lacey Brown in "Landslide," and added three more exclamation points for Alex Lambert's "Wonderful World."

It's not that they don't have the range, though; it's about the first-performance jitters. If you're anxious, the increased energy that higher pitches require—though they're more intimidating psychologically—can sometimes allow you to power your way through the nerves, but the more relaxed lower range you find at the beginnings of pop ballads becomes a stage fright minefield. Think about holding a rubber band when your hands are shaking: When you pull it taut, the intensified contraction of your muscles makes the quaver less noticeable; when the rubber band is slack, it trembles violently with your hands. Plus, the mic makes every tiny glitch in those quiet passages stand out like a … chef on American Idol. (Hey, but if not Paula Deen, wouldn't Gordon Ramsay make a smashing replacement for Simon? "That was the wrong song, you [Idol-logo] donkey!") So aim high, with your … rubber band, or something. Yeah, I just got lost in my own metaphor. Send help! Anyway, there's your voice lesson for the day, judging panel. Patti LaBelle would totally tell you the same.

Those singers weren't the only ones whose musical choices got the thumbs-down from various judges (I don't remember which judges, there are too many of them now to keep track of). Both Todrick Hall and Aaron Kelly sang solidly, but earned some pretty acerbic feedback—Todrick for his arrangement and Aaron for singing the Rascal Flatts hit "Here Comes Goodbye," written by none other than Season 6's Chris Sligh. It's a little scary, but I am starting to see these repertoire decisions as part of an emerging Idol canon, clever selections that turn the show more and more into its own self-contained universe, its own industry. Even the new exit song is an Idol endeavor, from Pop Idol's original winner Will Young, who exhorted Janell, Ashley, Tyler, and Joe (aw, Joe!) to "Leave Right Now." Will Season 10 do away with the traditional theme nights completely, in favor of all-Idol all the time? There could be Kara DioGuardi week, and Journey week for Randy! Maybe "My Life Would Suck Without You" will replace "All By Myself" as the big diva showstopper, or "Time for Miracles" could be the new "We Are the Champions." And who needs the ubiquitous Shania (besides John Park) when you've got Carrie Underwood not knowing her "Last Name"?

It was exciting to see Idol alumni on stage again last night, to hear how Alison Iraheta and the U.N. Foundation's new humanitarian Kris Allen have come into their artistic own since last May and to imagine that kind of potential in the new class. I thought the folks sent home had some of the most possibility, but I didn't vote, so, as the bumper sticker says, I can't complain. Still, I'm not sure what show the judges were listening to (or what they were smoking—Ellen, Paula-ing on about bananas!) in some cases, though they did acknowledge once more that the sound in the Kodak is vastly different from the sound on our televisions at home. I can't fathom what exactly Simon heard when he called Lee DeWyze's labored and out-of-tune performance the best of Wednesday night, unless he was referring to some dress rehearsal we didn't see? If not, maybe the Idol panel needs one of those high-tech playback setups the Olympic skating judges use—then if Michael Lynche's melisma turned out to be a quarter-turn short of full rotation, they could score him down! Pitchy? That's a half-point deduction!

Well, at the end of the day—or, I guess, three days—my favorites are still my (yodeling and dreadlocked) favorites, and they are safe for another week. At least, that is, until Kim Yu-Na shows up.

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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