Due to the success of David Cook, Adam Lambert, and Kris Allen over the last couple years, American Idol has morphed from strictly a singing competition to a singing and producing/arranging competition. It’s no longer enough to have a great voice. You also need to be able, as the judges have made clear this year, to “make a song your own.” A spot-on replica of the original won’t do it. But merely altering the arrangement isn’t enough either, as Todrick Hall has discovered the last two weeks. You have to change the song, and change it in a way that makes it different, respects the original, and suits your sound and style.
This is a good thing. Because of the way they vary the style of music from week to week, for the first several years Idol was producing generically good but not particularly unique or creative singers–the sort of person who would otherwise find a nice career as a session background vocalist. Now, instead of being tailored to promote people who can sing lots of styles well, the show is benefiting contestants who have their own style, but can also arrange and produce a performance that bends a well-known song to fit that style. Some of the contestants who have struggled early haven’t faltered because they can’t sing, but because they chose the wrong song or, more importantly I think, because they chose an arrangement that doesn’t suit them, or caused them to be drowned out or overwhelmed by the band. At risk of sounding a bit cliched, the show now showcases artists, not mere performers. I don’t know that Crystal Bowersox or Lilly Scott would have been front runners five years ago. But they certainly are this year.
It would be interesting if Idol could get an actual producer as one of its contestant mentors this year. Ideally, it would be someone like Rick Rubin, who has an impressive track record when it comes to resurrecting well-worn songs by changing them up to fit them to new voices. If this is going to become such an integral part of finding success on the show, it seems like it would be a smart idea to bring someone on who could give the contestants some advice in that area.
That said, on to this week. I’m short on time, so I’ll summarize the top and bottom from each night.
For the men, I thought Michael Lynche stole the night. I was fairly surprised, as I thought the guy’s success was more due to his personal story than his talent. But all credit to him. That James Brown song suited him perfectly, and he brought it home. Lee Dewyze was a close second. I don’t know that he has the best voice among the men, but he definitely has the strongest. I’m not a Gavin McGraw fan, so I wasn’t crazy about Casey James this week, but he’s still clearly in the top tier. I’d like to see him do something bluesier next week. Recommendation: Greg Allman’s “Soulshine.” Alex Lambert showed a hell of a lot of improvement. I still like Andrew Garcia, but he’s still coming up short.
Who’s going home? I’m going with Jermaine Sellers and Tim Urban, though Hall or John Park wouldn’t surprise me, either.
For the women, Crystal Bowersox’s version of “Long as I Can See the Light” was probably the best performance I’ve ever seen on American Idol. Maybe it’s because I love both gospel and CCR. Seeing them mashed up like that, and mashed up so damned well, was a treat. She was confident, poised, passionate, and as one of the judges said, made it seem pretty effortless.
Lilly Scott was a close second. I was a little wary that a white girl with such an unusual voice trying to pull off Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem would come off as gimmicky or patronizing. Didn’t happen. She was magnificent.
There’s a big gap to third, but I think Siobhan Magnus goes here with her surprisingly strong version of Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” The judges all raved about that one incredible note she hit and held, but I was impressed that she had the voice to fill up the rest of the song, too. Bold pick, and she pulled it off.
Bottom two? I’ll go with Didi Benami and Lacey Brown. Paige Miles was pretty unmemorable, too.