Wednesday, April 12, 2006

American Idol (review) Bucky Bottoms Out

When I first heard that American Idol was doing Queen, I thought that they meant Queen Elizabeth the Second.  I had visions of Simon’s royal highness sitting at the front end of the Kodak theater stage in crown and robes tapping out the beat with her scepter. Perhaps, she would say a few gracious words to the contestants and even knight Simon for these royal command performances.

I thought too that rest of the royal family could get in on the fun.  I could see Taylor teaching Prince Charles how to dance and maybe Kellie giving Lady Camilla makeup tips with her community snot rag. Maybe there would have been a scene of Ace Young giving Prince Harry one of his beanies. Perhaps they could steal viewers from 24 by having Randy and Paula meet with Tony Blair about the content of the Downing Street Memos.  

Now, that would have been great television.

Instead, Queen turned out to be these old guys dressed up as glam rock and rollers trying to explain to Ace that they weren’t going to change their arrangement just for him.  I was honestly a little confused.  There were all these scenes of Brian May et. al. working on arrangements with the contestants, but on Tuesday night the last eight Idolators were backed by the competent but usual American Idol band plus backup singers.  

In the couple behind the scenes glances we got of Ace Young one of the interesting things is that he’s as much of a musician as he is.  He actually does have and shares his ideas about specific changes he’d like in the arrangements.  The end of the segment strongly suggested that Queen was respectful not dismissive of Ace Young the musician.  Watching it gave me the impression that Ace is quite serious about his music rather than all about staring langorously into the camera.  It’s one of these persistent hints that the producers of the show want you to see the contestants in a particular way whether it’s Ace, Kellie, Paris, or Chris.

If American Idol is supposed to be about being “today’s” pop sound, I am curious about the recent run of guest judges.  When was the last time, you saw a young adult browsing for Kenny Rogers or Barry Manilow at the local music store?  No, Bobby Bennett doesn’t count.  Think about this, when Ryan came out and said “Here he is performing from Queen’s 1978 album….”

That’s right, it  was twenty eight years ago.  When I was a kid, music that old was Ethel Merman and even Al Jolson.  Can you imagine say John Lennon or Hendrix at the beginning of their career being told to cover “Mammy” and make it sound “hip and contemporary.”  I could see Hendrix playing the guitar with his teeth singing the verse to “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” then a big squeal of feedback as he lights his instrument on fire while her royal highness nods in approval and claps politely with her gloved hands.

The rock that I’ve listened to voluntarily has never included Queen.  That said, I thought Freddy Mercury was one of the great rock and roll front men who combined a full range high-volume voice with a sense of theatrics maybe unmatched by anyone in the last twenty years.  If nothing else, Tuesday night reinforced the point that no current Idol poses any danger of making anyone forget Freddy Mercury in this genre.  Staging Queen night invited negative comparisons and turned Idol into Fear Factor done to music where Tuesday was simply about surviving the challenge without any throwing up at the end.

Actually Fear Factor Idol might not be that bad an idea, lots of people would want to see Kellie Pickler eat a bucket of worms after asking “What’s vomit?”.  How about Ace and Katharine stripping down to dive for chord charts locked inside a sunken piano? Weren't the O'donahue twins on Fear Factor?

Another small point, I had this vision of a flamboyantly bisexual Parsi man in football pants, no shirt, and metallic blue cape showing up at an Idol open audition.  What are the odds that the judges might have said “Gee, you have a good strong voice, but you’re too out there for us.  Besides, it seems like you’re sick and I don’t think America wants to see that in a pop star.”

Freddy walks away dejected and Simon turns to Paula and shrugs “Well, there you go.  Another one bites the dust.”

So how seriously am I supposed to take the singing on the show if most of the truly iconic performers of the last generation might never have gotten past the Hollywood round on this show?  Forty years ago, Simon would have been saying something like “You know we’re looking for is something like that rocker, Pat Boone or maybe Ricky Nelson.”

Then Randy would say, “You know I worked with Connie Francis...”  

Or would it be Simon Fuller coming up to the Beatles and trying to get them to change their names to Scary, Sporty,Posh, and Ringo?

I still have this theory that Idol decided to bring in Queen because Ford is one of the sponsors and they wanted to get in subliminal plugs for Lincoln-Mercury without violating FCC rules.  We’ll know it’s true if they bring in Whitney and Bobby to guest on a night when they run a bunch of ads for Coke.  
For the first time in three weeks, Bucky Covington did not appear in a cowboy hat.  
Instead he chose to extol the virtues of “Fat Bottomed Girls” and did it reasonably well though I wasn’t sure why they kept cutting away to Mrs. Bucky this week though always from the front.  There isn’t a lot of drama in Bucky’s singing or his personal style.  He was very much, the show’s regular guy with thick accent and I feel guilty for not trying to meet Bucky half way.  

He never fought with the judges, always tried his best, and appeared supportive of the other contestants in the best tradition of southern charm and grace.  In other words, he’d make a great neighbor or some random person sitting next to you on a six hour plane flight.  This guy, however, was on my tv about nine times and I might have thought the tone of his voice was good at times, but I can’t associate Bucky’s performances with any emotion either mine or his or any jolt of creativity/originality.  On or off key, really good pop singers make you feel something.  You want to notice, you don’t want to hang out with him at a bar some time and talk about your dogs. I also believe that Rocky and Bucky switched places for Wednesday when Bucky heard he'd been singing with a suspended license to stay on the show.

Last year, Carrie Underwood went “out of zone” to do Heart and pulled it off well enough that I wasn’t thinking “pretty good for a country singer”.  Kellie Pickler’s turn as Clockwork Orange meets Cats makeup  wasn’t as bad as most imagined, but who would pay to hear Kellie’s truncated version of Bohemian Rhapsody with all the challenging mood shifts reduced to a single jump?  “Wow, you worked it out,” only makes sense from the standpoint of you weren’t all that off key.  The last time I saw expectations set this low, the then to be President was being praised in the debates for seeming to answer questions in English rather than stare blankly into the camera to ask "What's a global warming?"

Maybe in 2008, instead of debates and primaries, the candidates should have to sing through theme nights.  Hillary Clinton could do “Stand By Your Man” on country night.  Bill Frist could do “Mack the Knife” with a scalpel in one hand a copy of the constitution in the other and a bunch of immigrants in the front row. Scott McClellan could do "You Can't Hide Those Lyin' Eyes"

This is a little bit of a minority opinion, but I felt the only contestant who took on Queen as if she understood Queen was Paris.  She had the gestures, she had the big voice, she dressed up like Tina Turner.  For someone who wasn’t all that suited to “Queen” either, she got much closer to the spirit of their music as rock and roll circus than Kellie, but instead Paris got “That was weird” from Simon.  

He was implying that it was odd for a 17 year old “nice” African-American girl to throw herself into vamping like a glam rock headliner, but wasn’t that exactly the assignment?  Of course it’s weird, but your show defined the test that way.  No, I don’t envision Paris being asked to replace that guy from Bad Company, but if this was about versatility I remember seeing the same singer do Wind Beneath My Wings.

On the other hand, I found myself agreeing with Simon about Chris Daughtry’s “Innuendo”.  Daughtry had a receiver open at the five and ran out of bounds.  Maybe it was because he remembered that he forgot to shave or his eye black kept him from seeing downfield.  He’s still my wife’s favorite though.

Taylor Hicks kicked a mike stand and returned to the happy, jumpy, twitches that his fans have their crazy little love for.  Katharine did a Celine Dion turn on “Who Wants to Live Forever” which alternated between very good and screechy at points. Both changed their song choices midweek and apparently opted for finding the Queen song that fit what they wanted to do thus avoiding having to take on the Phantom of the Freddy.  

After Elliott Yamin hit the bottom three last week, it’s interesting that the producers came forward with more of Elliott’s very compelling backstory along with a glimpse of Elliott the DJ  auditioning to fill in on Ryan’s radio show.  It was interesting to find out that Elliott’s mom was a singer herself once.  I get a lot of searches my way for people looking for Elliott’s ethnicity.  Like Paula Abdul, Elliott Yamin appears to be Jewish. Ethnicity is far more subtle than most people realize and why do we care anyway?  His singing sounded good on “Somebody to Love” despite a problem with the mix levels, but like Taylor and Katharine’s performances I’m not sure he connected on a gut level with the material, sort of good voice not really the right song.  It didn’t surprise me that he hit the bottom three again.

If I have a pet peeve, it’s that most of America seems to take a cue from the judges and act like singing is solely about not being “pitchy”.  It’s actually got a lot more to do with being “catchy”.  They never seem to talk about phrasing, dynamics, or musical line, the things that make music literally pop.  The great jazz pianist, Art Tatum was once quoted as saying “There are no wrong notes, just musicians who can’t find a way to resolve them.”  

If I understand correctly, next week is 32 bar standards that have been sung by Rod Stewart. I hear on Wednesday he'll get to sing his hit "If ya want my body and ya Think I'm Sixty".  I’m hoping the show gets back to “Wow, that was great singing” instead of the Tri Wizard Cup torture test of the last three weeks.  If two of Katharine, Paris, and Elliot or anyone else don’t find a way to have that big moment next Tuesday, my “Idol Love” may not be here to stay.

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At 4/15/2006 07:59:00 AM, Blogger Sunny said...

Tri Wizard Cup torture indeed. Idol is taking a turn towards an almost Gong Show feel. On one hand you have contestants valiantly trying to deliver goods they imagine the judges want and in the other hand, Slimon throwing his snark flares at them, letting them know how just miserably they've failed him. Simon is becoming quite the comedian of this show. He and Abdul. Last week if you TIVO back through there are shots of her trying to clap. Poor dear almost misses connecting her own hands together more than once. She was positively eye-rolling goofy. Randy is starting to look at the two of them like WTF am I doing here...???

At 4/15/2006 10:09:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I was surprised to see a post-elimination interview with Bucky with Bucky of all people complaining that Simon had been less than constructive the last couple weeks.

Gong Show is a good analogy in that the judges made the jokes and the contestants were just fodder for the commentary, etc.

Maybe Idol could use Sandman Sims or whatever they used for a hook in the Gong Show.


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