Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Natural Superiority of Women (American Idol 6 Review)

Sarah Vaughan

You know how Randy and Simon obsess on this business of “We want to see something new and fresh.”

Am I the only one who noticed that there was nothing about Melinda Doolittle and Lakisha Jones’s performances Wednesday night that couldn’t come straight out of some Motown review from the sixties? Well, Jones’s song came from the 1979 musical Dreamgirls, but that was Broadway’s attempt to incorporate soul music from the sixties into its palette so Jennifer Holliday’s take on Florence Ballard with “I’m Telling You” is really a sixties song written a decade after the sixties.

Here’s just some of the whole convoluted thing with Idol’s love-hate relationship with Jennifer Hudson and how many layers there are in the show giving the very talented Lakisha Jones the anchor spot with that particular song.

1. It was a little shot at Hudson who as Idol’s most honored alum has made it her signature song. Kind of like, hey look we got someone who might do it as well as Jennifer and this is just the round of 24.

2. It was a sort of vindication for Hudson. After Simon badgered her into losing sixty pounds and being the singer whom Elton John singled out for special praise, she loses out to Jasmine Trias and John Stevens. Now, Simon tells Jones who is more endomorphic than Hudson ever was, “Tell the other 23 to pack their bags.”

3. They bring in Fantasia, the winner from Hudson’s season, this very same week. Hudson got the part of Effie in Dreamgirls over Fantasia. Now after a mixed start as a recording artist, Barrino is taking a slightly different path by hitting Broadway as Celie in the Color Purple. Iirc Hudson’s post-idol was talked about as a possibility for the Broadway version of the Lion King. Fwiw Fantasia sounded quite good.

4. Diana Ross is going to be a guest coach this year. Dreamgirls essentially tells the story of the Supremes and Barry Gordy’s decision to go with prettier, whiter-looking, singer whom he happened to be sleeping with over bigger-voiced less conventionally attractive Ballard. In the process, Ross became Gordy’s first crossover star and moved the Supremes from “Soul” to “pop”. In short, Gordy was the one who taught Simon, Nigel, et. al. that whole “better to look good than sound good” thing about American pop music.

5. The song’s lyric runs “I’m staying, I’m stayin…..” and Fantasia’s song was “I’m here.” Mmmmmm….. further conflating things Lakisha Jones is a single mother. Fantasia is a single mother. No comment on the tattoo above her breast or Fantasia’s weight heading towards Hudson’s.

6. There was also an interesting positioning shift. Some were calling Lakisha Jones, “Mandisa 2”, last year’s belter who went from contender who was singing about the Lord to Shania and out in a week. Now, the former bank teller is some cross between Jennifer Hudson and Fantasia. It was either very canny on her part or some smart producer spotted the strategy and nudged her in the right direction. fwiw, Jones's control of vocal dynamics and on stage choreography are already much stronger than Mandisa's.

So, does this mean Simon et. al. are going to give on the assumption that you can’t be a big pop music star without looking like a movie star? Given the last photo I saw of Britney Spears as Persis Khambata, I’d say there’s at least one faded pop star who’s decided to agree. Pre-mtv, many popular singers wouldn’t have made it off the bus on MTV’s Dismissed. The whole look glamorous or no recording contract thing really took hold in the last fifteen years. Yes, there was Billie Holiday, Elvis, and Lena Horne before that, but Sammy Davis, Janis Joplin, Ella, Mama Cass, and Todd Rundgren all managed to get sizeable followings without conventional looks. In fact, many of the Idols America actually voted for didn’t fit Billy Crystal's "Fernando" mold that the judges always whisper about. Reuben, Fantasia, Clay, and Taylor don’t look like models. Maybe the show is figuring that out. One hint about where the judges stand now is the way they roughed up Antonella Barba for “just looking good.”

I have to say that the whole Barba hate thing is a bit weird. You have these Facebook type pictures of her in the bathroom. It’s not the same thing as posing for pictures for a professional photographer or being paid to be a nude model. With cellphone cameras, virtually everyone that age has embarrassing pictures on someone’s hard drive. If you remember, America’s greatest secretary of defense wisely banned cellphone cameras immediately after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. Unless the photos were of Barba making like Lynndie Englund, I just don’t see anything that Barba did on that count that bother me. That includes anything that might turn up behind the black curtain in your neighborhood video store. In the meantime, that young lady seriously needs better friends.

If for whatever reason, Antonella Barba is getting the bad edit from the producers and who knows whether the judges are trying to crush her or engage in reverse psychology, Melinda Doolittle is getting the Glenda edit. They show her crying when we learned that Amy Krebs couldn’t make America love her either. As mentioned above, there’s nothing original about Melinda Doolittle. Lakeesha Jones and the backup singer from Belmont College just happen to be really really good at what they do (at least so far). I kind of like it that way. Besides, was there anything all that original about Carrie Underwood?

My take on some of the females:

Stephanie Edwards: saved the season for me. After two hours of amateur singers with scrotums, (okay, I guess this gets me banned from elementary school libraries now, I’m so lucky) I was about to give up on the show if the women were equally dreary. Edwards sang like someone whose record I might actually buy. Nice version of “How Come You Don’t Call Me”. It was also the first of many times that night that it felt like the closeup camera was actually working. The men all seemed like they were just a part of the stage and that all overtones died in the microphone. Several of the ladies had the power to do the Norma Desmond thing with the camera.

Amy Krebs: Actually a nice voice. I won’t miss her necessarily, but one of those contestants who maybe didn’t get a fair shot.

Leslie Hunt: They’re keeping her on to break out the lupus story line. They talked about her doing Aretha, but the judges forgot that this was Carole King’s song first and I think she was after the same white girl with a little soulful tinge that King and Laura Nyro staked out way back then. Might explain the go-go boots.

Sabrina Sloan: She was really invested in the song. I’m actually not sure I like her actual voice that much, but “I Never Loved a Man” came off as an actual performance vs. all those guys who felt like they were singing the words off the teleprompter. Surprised that they put Aretha covers back to back like that, but it was pretty much an all Aretha all the time format for the evening.

Jordin Sparks: Some people have suggested that NFL Daughter might be this year’s chosen one. I thought Tracy Chapman was a very canny choice and she was yet another female who could both sing and perform at the same time. She’s from a long line of teenagers on a show whose M.O. is to build them up as prodigies then tear them down as “not ready”. Most of them have had remarkable poise in some way. I thought Paris did well last year. Jordin Sparks feels even more mature at a personal level. The question is will her singing find the necessary emotional depth. Again Paris came the closest of the Teen Idols and we just haven’t had the time to find out with this one.

Nicole Tranquillo: My wife commented that she really appreciated Paula Abdul when Nicole Tranquillo got booted. I have to agree. Paula prides herself in how supportive she tries to be. This was one instance where she did it in the most admirable way possible. I also happen to agree with Paula. Tranquillo was a better singer than almost any of the guys and many of the girls. I still didn’t like listening to her song. There’s hitting the notes at a gymnastic level, but there’s still the matter of phrasing and line. Chaka Khan, not a favorite singer of mine, never meandered like this.

Haley Scarnato: I’m wondering if her Idol run is being secretly sponsored by Frederick's of Hollywood or if the wedding singer thought she was auditioning for Miss America. It probably doesn’t help that I’m not a Celine Dion fan.

Alaina Alexander: If you’re going to cover the Pretenders, don’t pretend. Based on what I’ve seen so far, she should be checking dates to take the SAT. While Nicole Tranquillo wasn’t necessarily good, Alaina Alexander’s staying is a strong argument that screen time counts for something.

Gina Glocksen: If the point of the night was that women of color sing better than their white counterparts, Gina Glocksen was probably the best of the melanin-challenged Idolettes. She seemed really really pleased with herself at the end of the performance. I’m not sure how that’s going to play after Lakisha Jones blew her off the stage. It’s a bit like getting pumped up after hitting a three hundred yard drive and then having Tiger Woods step up and outdrive you by thirty yards with his three wood. It was good. It wasn’t terribly distinctive though and if this was the best she could hope for personally, she’s in trouble in terms of contending for the chance to sing the song America writes for the Idol America chose at the end of the season.

I know this is obvious, but this show works better when the music is good. The producers have any number of tricks to maintain at least some interest when the singers just aren't good, but this one had moments I'll likely remember. With Jones, it was towards the end where she was baby-stepping to the edge of the stage and went bug-eyed while dropping the volume and picking up the tempo all at once (hard to do in music imo), at that moment she had direct contact with both live audience and the camera. I was thinking, "Here's someone who knows how to shape her performance both musically and physically."

With Doolittle, I was reminded that really great pop singers make you want to dance. It's not because they necessarily move around a lot, it's because they get beyond the business of just being in tune and make harmony, melody, and beat interact. Doolittle's performance might have been old-fashioned, but it was thoroughly professional in that sense. She knew when to accent, when to gesture, and you never wondered if she was going too fast or too slow. As much as I liked Katharine Mcphee's better performances last year, I don't think she's all that close to what these two ladies can do with a song.

Mostly, I'm wondering when and how they'll break out the makeovers with both ladies. Doolittle seems to be a little hunched which makes her look at times either like an exagerrated Smokey Robinson or E.T. I actually like it. It gives her a uniqueness that I suspect would grow on me. Jones also doesn't have a Hollywood-issue body. I'm hoping they've learned the Jennifer Hudson lesson here that star quality can come from people who don't look like movie stars.

For those who remember Jimmy Cagney, Bogart, Bette Davis, Durante, Pearl Bailey, etc. It's kind of an old-fashioned concept, but it works for me. In those days, they'd take your quirkier physical features and make them your signature instead of grinding them off your face or body.

Jennifer Hudson just won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She did not mention the show in her acceptance speech.

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At 2/24/2007 01:52:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

Name checking Persis Khambata warms my brain and heart.

There's a lot going on behind the scenes of this little tv program isn't there?

At 2/24/2007 02:13:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

You're making me feel real old. I may be the only person on the net who remembers the first Star Trek movie.

At 2/25/2007 08:37:00 AM, Blogger benny06 said...

I hope Hudson wins the Academy Award tonight and one of the Dreamgirls songs wins too.

However, I think tonight will be Al Gore's vindication.

At 2/25/2007 11:08:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

If you're old, I guess that means...hey! Did you know that Persis is no longer with us? I think it was a heart attack actually. I just came here to cheer you up again CL.

At 2/25/2007 09:46:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

it looks like you scored on both counts. Jennifer Hudson and Al did well.

I had a dream last night that my bed was full of rats and that I had a heart attack. I'd just seen the New York taco bell video on youtube earlier that day. btw, you've started to look remarkably like John Edwards in your profile photo.

Persis story seemed sort of sad, btw. She was in a handful of movies, then died at 47 from the heart attack. I don't know if she ever grew her hair out again. I guess she was the first Indian to present at the Academy awards so it's odd that we're talking about this this weekend.

At 5/26/2007 05:07:00 PM, Blogger Rick Rockhill said...

It was interesting this season to hear the contestents sing some older generation songs. I just wrote a post on my favorite female vocalists (of course Sarah Vauhan was on the list). Last Saturday I did a post on Top Male Crooners too. Would be interested in your opinion..stop by say hi sometime.


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