The theme this week, to fit in with the whole Idol Gives Back week, was supposed to be “inspirational” songs. Unfortunately, the only thing it inspired us to do was nap and put off writing this article. It was perhaps the most lifeless episode we’ve seen so far this season, with singing that ranged from the just slightly above average, a few more that were okay, but a few total trainwrecks.
There were only two good performances of the night, both of which could be classified as controversial. The version of Over the Rainbow Jason did by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole was familiar to us, though for unusual reasons: a local radio show uses it as their theme song. With that in mind, we thought this was Jason Castro at his purest – with all the strengths and weaknesses of such. On the good side, he can connect with the emotions of a song better than anyone else. However, it also showed his primary weakness: his vocals aren’t all that strong, which is probably why there’s a sizable contingent of people who out and out hated it. Still, for us it was a definite highlight of the night – and given how few of those there were we’ll take it.
The other highlight can be called controversial because of who delivered it. Yes, that makes it three straight weeks without a trainwreck – and, to be fair, this was actually a good performance, the first time we can apply that tag to her. The past two weeks may have given her an invaluable commodity: confidence. She made a good song choice, and sang it reasonably well. The only downside to the performance was the inevitable comparison to the Martina McBride original done on Idol last year by Martina herself, but Kristy did enough to avoid the karaoke comparison.
After those two, you have three performances that we’d describe as okay. Normally, we’d talk about each performance in detail, but not this week, because they were all the same in the essentials: reasonably well sung, song choice was okay – not bad, not exceptional, but okay. The key element was, however, they were all unexciting and frightfully dull. The three not even worthy of getting a long mention are: Michael, Brooke, and David Archuleta. They couldn’t even inspire us to write anything longer about them!
And so we have three people left that stayed right in the basement. Syesha… what was she thinking? No one has done well picking an Idol winner’s song. Lisa Tucker got the boot after singing Kelly Clarkson, while Lakisha managed to survive butchering both Carrie Underwood and Fantasia, but picked up two bottom three spots along the way. This was the dumbest song choice we’ve seen this season – which, considering Ramiele’s efforts in that direction, is saying something. Also, why would you even want to touch any of the winners songs with a ten-foot pole? They’re all intolerable pieces of musical rubbish that are best forgotten.
Neither David Cook nor Carly did themselves any favors song choice either. We’re not into following the themes that closely, but there is something to be said about picking an “angry” song on an “inspirational” night. Indulgent, anyone? As for David… every one is entitled to one off night. Even front-runners. Nothing about it made sense: the outfit was too over-the-top, we could barely understand what he was singing, and that gesture with the hand? That was a cheese moment worthy of the other David.
All in all, it was a very bland episode. Save for Jason and Kristy, no one really seemed to be putting their whole effort into the performances. Maybe it was because Idol Gives Back, mostly taped over the weekend, had cut into both their energy and preparation time. Either way, the word we’d describe the show is lazy. It’s almost like some realized, at the last minute, that they actually had to do a real show this week and not just Idol Gives Back. Whatever the case, it was an utterly forgettable night of music.
The new American Idol: We promised last week that we’d talk about how, in effect, the rules for Idol have changed. Traditionally, to be successful almost all Idol pundits have believed that a contestant had to be capable of singing multiple genres. This gave us priceless sounds like Fantasia trying to do Gloria Estefan and Queen, just to mention one of many combinations of theme and singer that went poorly.
That was then. However, things have changed since the early days of Idol. In many ways, in fact, the rules have changed so much, one might be tempted to say we’re in a “new” American Idol. Like many trends, however, this has been building up for quite a few seasons to come. A short history lesson would be in order.
Back in the first few seasons, Idol could be described as the Great American Karaoke Contest. To be fair, most so-called singing competitions are just that. It was hardly unique to Idol. The hallmarks of talent in such contests really favor straight power singers. Consider the much maligned Season 3. Set aside the trio of Fantasia, LaToya London, and Jennifer Hudson. The rest of the field weren’t all that varied either: Diana DeGarmo and Jasmine Trias were also in the same broad variety, albeit a slightly different flavor than what ultimately won.
As anyone with any appreciation of Idol history knows, Season Three was not exactly a stunning success. To their credit, TPTB made changes. The most important one was the age limit, which got raised from 26 to 28. The idea was probably to bring in more experienced singers to serve as a counterweight to the younger, power-note singers that had been prominent in seasons past.
The end result of that age limit – and the increasing allure of more than 25 million viewers to any musician – was, for the first time, to produce contestants that seemed to have an inkling of what they wanted to do musically. The top two was a good example of this. All season long, you knew that Carrie Underwood was a country singer; there was no mistaking that fact. Then, of course, you had Bo Bice.
Even within the confines of Idol then – which didn’t offer contestants the kind of latitude they have now – Bo Bice managed to show that he was an exceptionally well-rounded musician. Good song choices, arrangements that highlighted his strengths, and, like Carrie, you knew right off the bat what kind of musician Bo was. In a very real way, Bo Bice and Carrie Underwood both redefined what it meant to be an Idol contestant.
The trend continued into Season Five, helped out by an album by the name of Breakaway. If Bo and Carrie proved that you could be a good singer on the show, Kelly’s sophomore album showed that finalists could also break out of the Idol mold post-show and sell millions of records along the way. The end result was perhaps the most well-regarded final four in Idol history. To us, it produced two more stepping stones along the route to the New Idol. Taylor did not have the most powerful voice, but made the most of what he did have: a sense of showmanship unrivaled before (or since then) and smart song selection. Like Carrie, Chris knew exactly what direction he wanted to take, and his choice reflected that very well.
Thanks to the most inept manipulation in Idol history, Season Six was a step back in many ways. It gave us a winner who was a throwback to the old Idol: Jordin Sparks. However, it did give us one more person on the road to the New Idol: Blake Lewis. Early on, he established his style (the most important part of the new Idol). He also managed to make the themes work for him in a way that was completely unprecedented. Just like Taylor, Blake made the best of what he did have: in his case, it was a willingness to take risks that would not have worked for anyone else, but did for him.
Perhaps the best summary of the change to the new Idol regime was made at the end of the season by FORT’s dpiranha at the end of the last season.
Whether Simon and Nigel care to admit it, after the entertainingly bad auditions are over, AI is no longer treated by the viewers as a Reality TV show. It has become a legitimate singing competition, and (especially after the excellence of AI5) America is demanding a level playing field and first-rate talent every Tuesday night. Either deliver on this demand, or a rival show will deliver it for you.
In a nutshell, that’s the biggest difference between the old Idol and the new Idol. In the early days, it was easy to regard Idol as a glorified talent show, with limited chances of actually succeeding in the real world, and the voting audience reflected that. However, along the way we got people who went far and beyond the usual confines of a cheesy TV show. Once the audience had been exposed to well-rounded musicians, there was no going back.
Strategically, what this means is that the traditional requirement of being able to sing multiple genres well is now largely obsolete. Singing many genres does not help project an image of a “well-rounded” singer; instead it generally results in a confused image. Instead, what’s more important is to pick your genre or overall feel, and perform well within it. Once again, this is “musical identity” at work. This can be distilled into question: do the public know what kind of album you will release? If yes, well done, your identity is established. If no, you are in serious trouble, and a session with the prayer beads would be in order.
Let’s be clear: this is not a license to sound the same week in, week out. What is important, though, is that your progression make sense. You can’t be a soulful balladeer one week and a disco queen the next. Take David Cook: there’s no mistaking he’s a rock singer, but his arrangements are different enough from week to week that it’s interesting to listen to.
More broadly, the evolution of the old Idol to new is just Idol reflecting the real-life music industry more closely. Not everyone has a Celine/Whitney/Mariah power voice; there are plenty of singers who have sold records without having the big, booming voice that Idol has favored in the past. There’s more than path to good music; and under the new Idol rules the same is true for winning.
Of the seven remaining contestants, you can say that at least three are products of the new Idol: David Cook, Brooke White, and Jason Castro. They’ve all established what kind of music they are about. Brooke and Jason, in particular, would never have gotten far under the old rules: neither has truly powerful vocals. They’ve made their way using their uniqueness, good song selection, and emotional connection.
The prime example in this season of the new Idol, however, is David Cook. He has a good voice, but that’s not what has powered him to front-runner status from out of nowhere. His dismal performance this week aside, he’s usually able to pick good songs and arrangements week in and week out. He’s established himself as a clear, undisputed front-runner – something that eluded Chris Daughtry. David is as well-rounded a musician as any we’ve seen on the show to date.
What about the rest? Syesha is pretty old-school; she would have been perfectly at home in previous seasons. That severely limits her appeal right now, however. Carly is just plain confused; she can’t decide if she’s a rocker or not. Kristy has established her niche, but she’s hasn’t shown any particular uniqueness and creativity.
And then we come to David Archuleta. He would have been perfect on the old Idol. Good vocal talent, check. Backstory? Check. Likable? Check. If you took a robot and programmed him with what you thought was every desirable characteristic for an Idol winner, David would be it. One could call him Number Twelve and not be too far off.
However, that was the old Idol. The old rules don’t quite apply. If he had a strategy going in of using safe “message” ballads going in, it’s not working – but it’s too late to change it anyway. David may have a good-sized fanbase, but he’s not winning over new fans, which is essential to succeed – particularly with no one else (except David Cook) being particularly outstanding. David’s stuck to his genre, but too much: every ballad he does is the same, and every non-ballad is just plain bad. On talent alone, David will go far – but he’ll fall short of the finale, demonstrating that the old rules – which many pundits still believe apply – have been swept aside.
No we’re not cynical! Just… realistic: Idol Gives Back made its re-appearance this year, and we can probably say it’ll be a regular fixture for seasons to come.
We’ll give credit where credit is due. Last year, we criticized the Idol publicity machine for patting itself on the back a little too much and not giving enough credit where it was due. To be fair, they have done a much better job of directly crediting the viewers at home, who deserve most of the credit for the success of IGB. Also, pre-empting the grumbling that was bound to come in, a separate foundation has also been set up, something that, as far as we know, did not happen last year. This means that, like every other reputable charity in America, IGB will have to have transparency in its finances, as mandated by US law. Well done on both counts.
Normally, we don’t get partisan here. Good singing, after all, is neither liberal nor conservative. Unfortunately, though, “giving back” is not as simple as one would think. We will get a bit… political here. We’re bringing out the soapbox. If this offends you, scroll down, and we’ll pretend this never existed. However, if you want to know why we’ve been uneasy with the concept from the beginning, read on.
Idol Gives Back doesn’t really undertake any independent projects on its own. Instead, it donates money to other reputable charities. Idol lists all of these charities on their website. The main beneficiaries, as far as international giving is concerned, are The Global Fund and Malaria No More.
What’s missing? One word: corruption. Africa undoubtedly suffers from diseases like AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, but next to bad government it’s chicken feed. Most of Africa is ruled by governments that are either inept, corrupt, or both. Bad governance is an even bigger problem than any disease in Africa, but how much is Idol spending for this? Nothing, as far as we can tell. Not one cent.
If you don’t believe us, look at the numbers. In 2004, the African Union estimated that losses from corruption totaled $148 billion. That’s not since some arbitrary date – that is an annual number. Let’s put that in context. All government-sponsored aid to Africa from the thirty members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), made up almost exclusively of the world’s richest countries, totaled $43.4 billion in 2006. Aid from private sources in the United States came to $33.5 billion in 2005 – and that’s for the whole world, not just Africa. No matter how you slice it, all the charity money in the world can’t make up for what’s being lost to bad governance. Yet how much is going to stop corruption. Nothing. Nada. Zero.
Of course, IGB is hardly alone in this. There are no rock stars saying we must “end corruption now”. All of the attention – and most of the money – is going to the highly visible problems. Why? The answer takes us to the heart of what is wrong with the giving in the world today.
To raise money, charities today play on the emotions of would-be donors. We’ve all seen the videos of suffering this week, and who wouldn’t be moved to act? By itself, this isn’t a bad thing at all. There’s no doubt that there are serious problems with poverty and disease around the world; awareness is the first step towards solving the problem.
However, sooner or later logic has to be brought in. Resources are limited: there’s only so much money, personnel, and time to go around. Without logic, the allocation of resources depends on emotional reaction, which results in inefficiency. Yes, people are helped, but not as many as could be ideal. Yet that’s exactly where we are in charity giving: the most successful charities are those capable of engaging the public. For example, Bono has been very successful in highlighting African poverty, and as such aid money to Africa has increased, paying particular attention to AIDS. Other foundations have done the same for other diseases like malaria.
The obvious, instinctive, reaction to seeing suffering is simple: how can we help? And that’s fine. However, someone has to ask the question – why are they suffering in the first place? The answers are usually even more depressing than the actual problem. It could be because the money supposed to pay for basic health care paid for kickbacks and bribes to some government bureaucrat, ending up in some Swiss bank account. It could be because the head of the local hospital isn’t so much a good doctor, but more the relative of a powerful politician. It could be because the health minister is in denial about what causes AIDS in the first place. In far too many cases, the deeper causes can all be blamed on bad governance.
We’re not saying that spending money to fight disease in Africa is bad, or that people who give money to such causes are wasting their money. All we’re saying is when you’ve got more than $100 million to give away – as IGB probably will – would it really hurt to give some money to trying to fix the underlying problem? Otherwise, chances are we’d still be raising money for Africa 50 years from now. Now that would be a real tragedy.
We get letters: We asked for letters, and we got them. Keep sending them in, though: we’ll be more than happy to answer them all season long. First question is Cathy, via e-mail. She asks:
First: why does everyone treat Archie’s “Imagine” as so spectacular when it is one of the songs he sang on Star Search, and I’m sure many other times, so he, at least, was very familiar with at least one Beatles tune.
Secondly, I read that Brooke had previously put out an Indie album, but no mention of that or accusations of “plant”.
Easy one first. Yes, Brooke did put out an independent album, but that’s not terribly unusual anymore. Many previous contestants have had indie albums released, or deals with some minor label, or some other behavior that, if you think about it, rules them out as pure amateurs. This is nothing new, and it doesn’t bother us at all. The only reason that the “plant” noise has been louder this year is you do have, for the first time, contestants that were signed to major record labels: Carly to MCA, Michael to Maverick. That still doesn’t bother us, but it is different from what’s happened before.
Now, David Archuleta’s Imagine. The bit about him doing it on Star Search is news to us, but had people known about that we doubt it would have changed any minds. David is probably not the first Idol contestant to pick a familiar song; Carly has admitted to doing just that this season. We’re not bothered by this revelation either: if a singer is already familiar with a song, and picks it so he can focus on other parts of his performance, good luck to him.
The question you can ask about that song is: several weeks after first hearing it, does it sound as good now as it did then? In short, has it stood the test of time? To be honest, we’re not sure. The vocals are as good now as they were then, but the song selection… not so much. Maybe because it was the first of the safe “message” songs that he’s chosen since then, but whatever the reason the whole performance does not seem as natural now as it did then.
By PM, famita asks:
who is your favorite contestant for all seasons?
Keep in mind, this takes into consideration what she’s done post-Idol, not just the show itself: Carrie Underwood. Clichéd answer? Maybe, but it’s the truth.
The Idol Power Rankings: Courtesy of Carly’s second bottom three stint and and Michael Johns’s exit the charts got a good shakeout this week. Here go the rankings:
1. David Cook (Last week: 1)
David should look at this week as a test of his fanbase. With a performance as bad as his was this week, his fan base is strong enough to keep him out of serious trouble. Next test: Mariah Carey week. This could get interesting real soon for David.
2. Brooke White (Last week: 3)
She moves up the chart largely because Carly stumbled pretty badly, we remain skeptical about David Archuleta, and Jason Castro’s vocals are too weak. However, of late she’s turned in a series of competent, but not outstanding, performances. We thought her bottom three stint would energize her, but it didn’t. Like David, Mariah week will be interesting for her.
3. David Archuleta (Last week: 5)
This is the highest we’ve ever had David up, but like Brooke it’s more because of our doubts about the rest. The theme should help him, but can he win over new fans?
4. Jason Castro (Last week: 6)
Over the Rainbow was just the shot in the arm Jason needed. However, the question for Jason is: what’s the next step? With vote-splitting with Brooke likely to come into play, a good followup would be useful – something Jason has struggled with before.
5. Carly Smithson (Last week: 2)
Carly should be worried. Very worried. Her fanbase knew she was in trouble, presumably voted like mad, but not strong enough to keep her out of trouble. This is not the sign of an Idol winner.
6. Kristy Lee Cook (Last week: 8 )
Kristy is still in the basement, but things aren’t as bleak as they were last week. If she can put together another Anyway-caliber performance and those in front of her stumble, given the known strength of the country voting block, she can go a lot further than most people suspect.
7. Syesha Mercado (Last week: 7)
Just when we thought she was no longer Screamesha, she takes on Fantasia. Oh joy. If she actually wins this whole thing, we’ll eat our shoe.
Frak, frak, frak!: One could hear the screams of anguish and howls of outrage from the Idol pundit class as Michael Johns was announced as this week’s boot. These were also punctuated with claims of rigging, cries of how Idol has jumped the shark, and promises never to watch the show again. We wish we could say this surprised us, but it didn’t.
Here’s the reality check. There’s frequently a “surprising” boot right around this time. The two good examples are Nadia Turner and Mandisa, who left at Top 8 and Top 9, respectively. The reaction back then was pretty similar too, but just as unneeded: there were good reasons for their exits, just as there are now for Michael.
Michael’s key failing was simple: he never established a clear musical identity. Yes, he was a good singer, but what kind of musical direction would he take post-Idol? Michael was a good singer, yes, but that’s not enough anymore. More than singing well, he had to sing uniquely, and he never did. Instead, he had a tendency to turn songs into flavorless, generic songs that weren’t bad, but couldn’t be described as memorable. There was nothing in his performances that could make you point and say “that’s Michael, right there.”
Even when Michael was good, he showed little artistic continuity. Consider his last two performances: the Queen medley two weeks ago, and his blues-ed up Dolly Parton song last week. Both good, but one would be hardly pressed to recognize them as coming from the same singer. Michael failed to appreciate that the rules are different: it’s no longer enough to just sing well in a given week. Michael was good, but not good enough to get votes just for sheer talent (the way Melinda did) and not unique enough to rally many people to his side. Michael’s fanbase was frightfully weak: and when Kristy upped her game enough to put herself out of danger, Michael didn’t have a safety cushion any more. Case closed.
And now, time for the bye-ku.
Too little too late
Queen? Yes. Everything else? Nope.
Back to the outback