Thursday, April 20, 2006

American Idol (review) That's All for Ace

I confess. I love the “standards”. In fact, when the President proposed “No Child Left Behind”, an educational program that called for all American children to master the standards by the time they graduated high school, I was thrilled. What clearer sign of cultural progress than a country where literacy includes Gershwin, Cole Porter, Dorothy Fields, Rodgers and Hart, and Duke Ellington? Sending in Sam Cooke seemed okay. I thought to myself even if you somehow include Bob Thiele and George Weiss this would be truly a “wonderful world” .

In the last decade, a lot of people have lamented the loss of spiritual education in public schools, then the same people turn around and say, “Let’s fix public education by eliminating everything but reading, writing, and math.”

Spiritual education doesn’t have to consist of endless study of the Bible, Q’aran, or the Gitas. I know this isn’t American Sufi or even American Shaker but music often addresses the needs of the spirit in surprisingly ecumenical fashion. Our music is part of our cultural and spiritual identity and is as much a part of being an educated and I might add sane adult as say knowing what “on paper” means. I’ve also always believed that it’s called “harmony” for a reason - Great music connects our souls.

This week’s standards week somehow reminded me of all this. For the last three shows, I’ve been complaining that the music and the performances on the show had been less than memorable. Whether it was letting the seven remaining contestants sing Gershwin, Isham Jones, Rodgers and Hart, and Strachey and Link, or the supportive coaching of Rod Stewart (who knew that the guy is a hugging fool), I actually enjoyed the music this time and am tempted to declare a snark moratorium -- well at least for a few paragraphs.

With better music, the producers of the show also seemed to back off the circus stuff. Paula did interrupt Simon a couple times, but the run of homo-erotic banter between Simon and Ryan was left offstage, Randy spoke in English, and guest-Idol Rod Stewart didn’t say or do anything to stir reality-fueled controversy. The only thing I noticed was that Paris’s mother chaperoned her daughter’s visit just in case Rod was starting to shop for another younger girlfriend and trying to make “Tonight the Night”. Simon’s recent run of off the wall criticisms was even limited to telling Paris that her speaking voice sounds like Minnie Mouse.

In the coded realm of Idol, some were making a big deal of the announcement of "no fooling with the arrangements." To some, this appeared to be a “Chris Daughtry, we’re looking at you” moment and a warning that the show wasn't going to let him do “All the Things You Are” with laser lights and menacing screams. Instead, Daughtry took “What a Wonderful World” and went Perry Como with it.

The result was pleasant and credible, even very good for an alt rocker. By the way, I should mention that Bon Jovi once covered “Wonderful World”. The performance though didn’t get to the level of Louis Armstrong who turned it into a valedictory for the single most significant musical career of any American musician. Armstrong’s gravelly voice evokes the price he paid to become America’s musical grandpa. Armstrong made Wonderful World about the pain he’d survived and the joy he still felt at the end of his life.

It should be remembered that in his time when he was recording with the Hot Five, Armstrong was the “coolest” guy in American show business, maybe the first alt rocker. Late in his career, he had to go show biz and was accused by some of “Tomming It Up” with the handkerchief and the patter. The angry pot addicted, musical genius Armstrong disappeared and essentially went pop a la Idol with songs like “Hello Dolly”. Sound familiar Chris?

Even Anwar Robinson’s retained a soaring quality that picked up some of the tensions in Armstrong’s version. By going Comotose, the bald one with the funny sideburns went too one dimensional with a song that isn’t as happy as most people think. Daughtry sang “What a Wonderful World This Is” rather than bringing out the melancholy in the “Wonderful World This Could Be” embedded in the lyric. I’d excuse Kellie for this, but when Randy and Simon call you the “uncompromising artist”….

The judges loved it anyway, but I’d argue that the voters may have seen something else and sent Daughtry to the bottom three for the first time.

Along with needing to lose the Sumo top knot hairdo, Ace Young should have known that choosing a song called “That’s All” is as bad an omen as say hearing Ryan hum “You Had a Bad Day” before he says your name on Wednesday. Rod Stewart appeared to really like Ace’s version though Ace seemed vaguely uncomfortable hugging Stewart. (I think that Rod Stewart urban legend made him a little nervous). Ace is probably home thinking, "Shoulda done "I Will Survive."

Ace did all right with a song that had once been a staple both for Sinatra and Bobby Darin though he seemed to run out of breath in parts and the falsetto section was a bit too boy band for my taste. Ace would have been well served to listen to Irene Kral, who like Ace was small-voiced singer, but whose phrasing always illuminated the lyric in a way that Beanie Man never quite managed between poses.

Ace handled himself well throughout his run on the show. He never was the most talented singer, but he seemed very likeable with a camera presence very similar to John Corbett’s. I just don’t know why the “star quality” that Simon and Paula seemed so excited about went into eclipse once he started singing more.

Paris Bennet has struck me as an old soul musically. While she’s shown impressive stylistic versatility for a seventeen year old, I’ve noticed she’s been most comfortable when going retro. The interesting thing about “These Foolish Things” is that it’s not a teenager’s song at all. The words are about missing someone after a long possibly too much taken for granted relationship. The harmony shifts irregularly from major to minor and rhythmically the pulse is lilting to the point of almost dropping dead if the singer isn’t careful. Paris not only negotiated the musical obstacle course well, if you listen to recordings of some of the great standards singers at young ages imho she held up.

I’d only fault her for maybe not bringing off the story in the song as well as she might have, but the feel for the music itself was certainly there. Sarah Vaughan and Anita O’day certainly had long careers having a better feel for the music than the lyric.

Taylor Hicks spent half of “You Send Me” like he was reprising "Country Roads", then popped into eight bars of the manic Taylor his fans love. The surprise had great performance value and reasserted his niche as “the artist” among the remaining contestants that Chris had usurped for several weeks.

This is a nit, but even though Rod Stewart included Sam Cooke in his album and even though I’m not so parochial as to believe that American standards can only be written by a dozen composers after Versailles and before Joe McCarthy, I’m not sure “You Send Me” is a standard. To me the test of a standard is that it can be covered by and identified with several performers. Although there are several covers of the song including one by Jose Feliciano, "Send Me" remains associated almost exclusively with Sam Cooke’s unique style. I don’t think Rod or Taylor changed that, but Taylor’s version was fun.

I’ve been thinking that Kellie Pickler is the musical equivalent of a cockroach in that her run on the show has been so indestructible. “Pal Joey’s” feature ballad, “Bewitched”, is harmonically less tricky than “These Foolish Things” in that it’s much of the way a straight circle of fifths, but it’s still a very subtle song.

Every now and then, Dolly Parton actually slips in sly and smart in her songs to great effect, because she really is both of those things, but with Kellie’s schtick, “sophisticated” probably wasn’t a good choice. Besides, you have to be smart to play dumb and the audience has to be in on the joke. Kellie needs to look at some Gracie Allen tapes instead of doing "Earnest goes to Idols Camp."

Even I could tell that she went off key at points, but far worse in this genre she just sang through the words and missed the lyric (yes they can be different) by dare I say a “country mile”?

“Butchered” is an insult to the people who cut meat for a living. Even the director turned on her by refusing to actually show her shoes. Does vote for the worst really have that much influence? Let me put it this way, Kellie was the only contestant who sounded clearly worse than Rod Stewart’s cover of David Radford. I like Rod as a rock singer btw.

Elliott Yamin did a retro “It Had to Be You” in full jaunty Broadway style. Sometimes, I’ve thought his look and actual voice elicit Jim Nabors. Now that I've grown to like him, the effortless quality in Elliot’s voice made me think Lou Rawls. At the same time, Elliott’s old Broadway take on the song made me think second or third lead in a musical who steps out, surprises the audience by singing really good, then slips back out of the plot and the spotlight. That remains the question.

On the other hand or should it be “In the other key”, Katharine Mcphee has star quality. The director went overboard with the close-ups, but she was at a minimum very good with “Someone to Watch Over Me”. Again, maybe she does smile too much mid-verse, but she had this glowing quality both vocally and on camera that fit the song and the music. She has a great vocal tone and with the exception of Paris is technically at another level in this genre from the others and she was able to bring out the sophisticated way Gershwin crafted the changes and the melody to work together so seamlessly. If she does indeed have an older boyfriend, there’s a chance the guy’s name is either George or Ira.

The fifth season of American Idol has been odd in that there’s been no clear winner this deep into the season. Taylor and Kellie are the only two who have avoided the bottom three, but interestingly many have speculated that each has too limited an appeal to win. They say Taylor’s style is too quirky and Kellie the personality won’t overcome the limitations of Kellie the singer. I’ve thought any of the six could win simply by putting together back to back memorable performances in the next four shows. This was Katharine’s “one”.

Years ago, I saw a friend play Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with a regional symphony for the Fourth of July. A classical music agent came up to him after the performance and went with a backhanded “You were very fine even though the musical material doesn’t offer much to work with….”

I happen to love “Rhapsody in Blue” and Gershwin but I suppose to serious classical musicians it’s not Beethoven’s Emperor or the Prokofiev Third. The anecdote may also explain why classical music is in economic distress - It's run by patronizing snobs.

I went home though and started listening to Gershwin the tin pan alley songwriter and the funny thing is that freed of symphonic pretense, Gershwin’s standards have a timeless quality that makes the "Great American Songbook" surprisingly vital three generations later even on Reality Television. Too often, we forget that the "Standards" were written by Americans who themselves weren't far removed from the immigrant experience and who helped bring the influence of black music to mainstream Broadway. They are deeply American in the best sense, because they express how we became who we are.

I say teach all American schoolchildren the real standards at least before we have to listen to Andrea Bocelli impressions next week.

Other Chancelucky Idol Reviews

Sir Linksalot American Idol articles


At 4/20/2006 09:00:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pretty insightful commentary. I agree that the younger generation's lack of knowledge of this great music, and history in general, is sad. Being one of the pretentious snobs you are talking about, though, I have to say that I agree that Rhapsody in Blue ain't no Emperor concerto, but Porgy and Bess has 8 or 10 of the greatest songs ever written in it. I think the real problem with classical music is that all of the resources are spent marketing people like Andrea Bocelli (a 3rd rate classical impersonator) instead of the really great artists; Renee Fleming, Domingo, Barbara Bonney, Deborah Voight. Maybe if people got to hear the real greats they would understand what all the pretentious snobs like me have been fussing about.

At 4/20/2006 11:01:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Thanks Mr. or Ms. Anonymous, I've enjoyed your albums of medieval music (assuming you are that Anonymous of the Anonymous 4),

While it's just Reality TV, one of the values of American Idol is that it does expose a large number of people to music they might not otherwise listen to closely. I'd like to think most of us could stand to listen to a wider variety of music.

I agree about Andrea Bocheesy fwiw.
I'm not a huge Porgy and Bess fan, but do agree that the Emperor is "meatier" than Rhapsody in Blue, certainly structurally. Ravel's Concerto in G is in the same vein as the Gershwin and is probably also more interesting.

I'm generally very sad about the state of Classical music. I do think great performers, the serious artists, really are pretty irresistible for most anyone who gives them a chance.

fwiw, my Gershwin playing friend was Jon Nakamatsu and the regional symphony was in Stockton. As I said goodbye that evening, I said "Next time I see you will be in Davies Hall in San Francisco".
He laughed, went "yeah right, I hope so". The next year, he won the Van Cliburn Idol competition in Fort Worth and the next time I saw him play was at Davies. I don't think there was anyone like Simon in Fort Worth though.

At 4/20/2006 11:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am not of anonymous 4, you don't want to hear me sing, just shy; I am an orchestral musician (not a group readily admitting to ai fandom) and can say that I have had teachers that make Simon look tame. People interested in achieving the highest level they can not only tolerate but encourage harsh criticism; the general public has gotten away from that old-school discipline into "just do whatever you feel like" and thus the lack of appreciation and understanding for those who actually achieve something. I think that is part of the decline of classical music as well; because everybody used to learn an instrument, there was more of an appreciation for the difficulty of playing at a high level. Now nobody seems to care.

At 4/21/2006 09:05:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, Anonymous, it was once something California schools could brag proudly: children with absolutely NO resources were allowed to learn to play musical instruments. Now, one must rent the instrument, cutting out many possibly gifted musicians- will they ever even know they were gifted? And in the 50's every school child in California listened to the Santa Barbara Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Carmen Dragon(Darrel Dragon's father- do you think Carmen ever knew his son would end up recording Muskrat Love with Tenille?) as it was broadcast over the school intercom on Thursday afternoons. Most of the classical music I have ever collected was introduced during those Thursday sessions in my childhood. Wasn't the Grand Canyon Suite the most evocative ever? My clarinet and saxophone playing years were born there as well, however, not really having the talent to play beyond 2nd or 3rd chair, or to play anything other than tambourine, I appreciate only by listening these days. (Well I sing and dance, too, to the huge dismay of my daughters, who cry out in pain whenever I am particularly moved.) But those were sure wonderful years- playing in the all school orchestra, with kids from all over the county. What do we have to offer these days? Maybe we should consider ourselves lucky that anyone has interest in performing musically at all, even if it is in an undisciplined, anything goes, way...

At 4/21/2006 09:38:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

I believe one of the big problems is that mainstream schools have never considered music part of the core curriculum. It's historically been seen as an "elective" or something in which students aren't expected to reach a minimum level of competence.

The one educational movement that does take music seriously (though it comes with a lot of other things) is the Waldorf schools that do see music and art as central to the educational experience. I've seen several people argue that Waldorf methods which include letting children begin to read at a relatively late age actually are surpisingly effective in getting kids to learn math and writing skills in particular.(there are a lot of problems with the studies though)
There's also that wonderful documentary about the string playing program in New York City, that was made into a so so movie with Meryl Streep.

I've personally gone back and forth on the "taskmaster" style of teaching anything. I think it's appropriate at certain stages, but beginners often need nurturing before they can withstand harsh criticism. Also, individual learning styles are very different. Many kids won't learn from constant praise. Many will shut down from even the mildest criticism. Most need some of each.

I believe that public performance is the ultimate form of discipline. Part of the value of playing an instrument is that people hear you as opposed to say doing math problems in a test.

I had an acquaintance who studied high school students many years ago and asked a simple question "What did you learn to do well while in high school?" Music, sports, yearbook, newspaper, speech, etc. were all very high on the list. Almost no kids said they learned traditional "academics" well. The areas they learned well always involved some sort of public presentation and often some form of open competition.

Back to Idol, I've noticed, for the most part, that the contestants do get better from the process. (not always, but usually) I wouldn't want musical competitions (not sure Idol is really one) to be the only way talent is identified, but it has its place.

Anonymous2, I'm sitting here wondering how Anonymous1 will react to the mention of Grofe.


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