On a night that felt more like I was watching American Valium than American Idol, there were at least three really strange moments. The first came after Mandisa did a rock-gospel shout out to the Lord as sort of a testimony to her faith amidst the lion’s den of American Idol where Simon compared her to a stripper last week, then called her “sexy.”
Paula responded, “I worship at the Church of Mandisa,” which, to put it diplomatically, was probably not anywhere close to the reaction that the Sacramento-raised singer had meant to evoke (some silly business about “false idols”).
Simon then just shook his head at her and said “Nope, not for me, I’m afraid.”
I watched Mandisa stand on stage next to Ryan with her eyes suddenly wide open and sad, saying nothing, while she possibly wondered if spirituality and TV celebrity mix.
Certainly, there have been singers who could switch between singing sacred and commercial music without compromising either. Aretha Franklin’s Spirit in the Flesh album comes to mind as does Mahalia Jackson, who might have been better than any singer of the last century at emotionally touching a non-Christian audience without compromising her spiritual roots. To go back and listen to either makes you question how Christian music devolved into Amy Grant ( I actually like Amy Grant). The great Christian music from J.S. Bach on down through Mahalia has always had this transcendent quality that makes even non-believers listen and think, “Whatever he or she has, I got to get some of that because I must be missing something in my life.”
Mandisa’s greatest strength as a contestant on Idol beyond her voice has been a sense of emotional centeredness. It’s very odd, but when she took on the kind of music that mattered most to her personally, instead of amplifying that strength, it diminished it. I don’t know if this was her God’s way of telling her “Not here, not this way,” but it brings me back to Paula’s worshipping at the Church of Mandisa.
The comment was appalling but bizarrely accurate in summing up all that was right and all that was missing from Mandisa’s attempt to transform her stay on American Idol into ministry. She sang about the Lord but didn’t quite touch the Simons of the world in the way that she managed so well when she calmly told Simon that Jesus would forgive him for making fun of her size.
The two other strange moments on this week’s Idol both involved Chris Daughtry. It’s apparent that there’s some intern at Fox who tracks message boards and blogs for rumors about the show and the contestants. So Ryan, the host and spinmeister, now does these one on one chats with the object of our collective pixel-based gossip and tries to “cool down” the buzz. So, there was Chris talking about how much he loved Live’s cover of “Walk the Line” and how he was trying to pay tribute to both Live and Joaquin Phoenix all at once, not take false credit for it and to beg them not to sue the show. The Washington Post then jumped in by announcing that Chris Daughtry was no longer one of the candidates to replace Ben Domenech as the right-wing voice on their website.
To which I ask, ”What kind of alt rocker would do image control with Ryan Seacrest? Isn’t alt rock about having a sense of independence?”
Daughtry then did a very edgy song by Creed built around the refrain “What if,” which I think you’re supposed to make sound like “What F.” Daughtry did his rocker thing reasonably well, but how do you make yourself genuinely anarchic and rebellious under a blue and white neon sign that says “American Idol brought to you by Ford and Coca Cola.” Didn’t the guy see Fight Club?
After weeks of calling him uncompromising and a “true” artist, the judges got tough on sideburn man this time. Randy accused him of singing “sharp” and Simon did this “Creed wouldn’t be caught dead on this show, Chris it’s time for you to do a Bee Gees song or maybe some Trisha Yearwood.”
Next week, I hear that Chris is going to come out in a hairpiece and blue suit with tie loosened ever so casually to do an Elvis Costello cover of Burt Bacharach. Either that or I hope he does a duet with Bo Bice so I can watch them play tug-of-war with the mike stand.
I’m not sure why American Idol’s venture into the music of the 21st century didn’t work. The judges talk constantly about sounding “new and fresh”, but Idol’s actual musical sensibilities are hardly avant garde. Fresh in Idol terms is like New Coke vs. Classic Coke or low-carb Whoppers. One of the things that hit homepage for me last night was that I didn’t know most of the music other than the Kelly Clarkson and the Gavin DeGraw “I Don’t Wanna Be” that Bo Bice covered pre-Elliot.
I’ve often wondered about American Idol as a cultural phenomenon. The vast majority of viewers don’t actually run out and buy the winners’ music or even download their MP3s. My current theory is that in this very politically and culturally divisive time in America where middle ground seems virtually unachievable, American Idol holds out the promise that a middle is still somehow possible. Millions of people vote, in an election sponsored by a cell phone company, and the show itself is one of the last icons of network TV’s power to reach the full cross section of America. In fact, I don’t know of any other show that gets followed by grandmothers, teenagers, gays, soccer moms, NASCAR dads, etc. I suspect, though, that the bulk of viewers who actually vote tend to be teenaged and female.
The hard thing about watching the 21st-century theme night was to see how far apart all the contestants really were. There was along with Chris and Mandisa, Kellie Pickler doing “Suds in a Bucket”, Elliot Yamin stretching out with “I Don’t Wanna Be”, Bucky doing Tim Mcgraw, and Katharine taking on Christina Aguilera with most of the high notes missing until the end. I found myself looking at ten singers as each tried to define a niche, but none made a case for the proposition that all of America should listen to and talk about him or her tomorrow. In its way, the show was an eloquent expression of the rise of iPod culture. We don’t listen together nearly as much as we listen to what we want when we want by ourselves.
Where things stand for me:
Taylor Hicks dialed the tick and whoo meter back a lot. It was nice to see that they’re options for him, not compulsions.
To my ear, Katharine didn’t sound almost as good as Christina Aguilera . They criticized Lisa Tucker for taking on a song that was too big for her voice, but that also might apply to Katharine, who took on material that might have been too rangy. Just as bad, there was no emotional connection to the lyric.
It wasn’t painful to hear Lisa Tucker take on Kelly Clarkson, but it was painful to watch her encounter with the judges. She clearly thought she had done pretty well before Randy went at her. She appeared caught between trying to laugh it off and crying in dismay and both emotions seemed oddly unfamiliar to her. I wish her well, but she’s not long for the show. I personally don’t think it’s the size of her voice, but her lack of apparent dynamics. She doesn’t seem to have fine control over the loud/soft thing that sends off a sense of ease and command from the singer.
I’m surprised by the number of Bucky fans on the internet. Why did the black cowboy hat remind me less of Tim Mcgraw and more of the Brokenote Cowboy group from the Hollywood segment of the auditions?
I kept thinking that Paris was auditioning for one of those Motown Revival Specials. Part of me wanted to react with, “Well Dick, I give that one a 71 because it had a great beat and it’s good to dance to.”
This is a song Fantasia, who appears to be a non person in Idoldom these days, would have killed. Paris certainly was credible, but I’m not sure she was memorable with Beyonce’s anthem to aerobics class.
Kellie also dialed her act back a bunch. This time she went for the wholesome country girl just singing the music she likes and away from Minnie Pearl meets Jessica Simpson. One of the dangers of singing in your zone though is that people actually expect you to be good at it.
Ace Young didn’t perform well, but he struck that note of defiance when Ryan asked him if he had regrets about his song choice and I liked that hint of independence from a guy who’s come off a bit too soft-edged both as a singer and a personality.
I’m not sure who dressed Elliot with the hooded jacket, sort of Eminem as lounge lizard, but he continues to sing pretty well.
Simon and Randy kept saying “This is the night when we get to see what kind of music you guys might actually record.”
First I wonder what Ayla Brown was thinking as she watched at home between timeouts of the NCAA Women’s final four which appears to be a rerun of the ACC tournament. Poor kid is probably muttering something under her breath that should stay unwritten.
Second, maybe it wasn’t the singers. Maybe last night just reminded us how stagnant, insubstantial, and non-transcendent our pop music has become. Does anyone remember when music literally did bring us together and move us socially all at once?
You can read a much longer version of this review here.