Thursday, April 12, 2007

You Shouldn't Sing in Latin on Latin Night (American Idol 6 Review)

Maybe it's because most American schools stopped teaching Latin decades ago, but the round of eight this year was anything but the Buena Vista Social Club. As Chris Richardson mangled whatever Spanish word happened to be left in "Smooth", it struck me that Latin night on American Idol is far closer to Tom Cruise lipsynching in Risky Business than it would ever be to Celia Cruz. In fact, Ibrahim Ferrer and Celia Cruz are probably grateful that they didn't live to see this latest example of the folly of Yankee cultural imperialism.

When it's done right, Latin music makes you want to dance. Actually, when it's done well, you start moving and dancing without having to think about it. Tuesday night, we happened to be in our older daughter’s living room with four people from Idol’s alleged core audience. No feet tapped, no arms waved, and no torsos shook. It was more or less Clyde Drexler on Dancing with the Stars.

Some of the voice aficionados love to talk about the evils of singing from your throat and nose instead of your diaphragm, Latin music calls for singers who invest their entire bodies in their performance. The voice in the great Latin music is not just a “wind” instrument, it’s also a drum. For the most part, the final eight not only didn’t invest, they didn’t even have the down payment.

Melinda Doolittle- As well- promoted and multi-faceted as Jennifer Lopez’s career has been, I don’t think “vocal-coach” is exactly the phrase that jumps to mind. That is unless you’ve heard her records in which case you might be thinking that she needs one. For one, how do you manage to make Melinda Doolittle sound bad? Well, you do that by telling her that she needs to be sexy.

Btw, wasn’t Sway one of the semi-final contestants from last year? Oh right, it was a song recorded by that mambo giant, Dean Martin. In other words it’s more Latin-like than actually Latin. How’s this for trivia? The Pussycat Dolls covered Sway for the American remake of the Japanese movie, Shall We Dansu. Jennifer Lopez played the dance instructor and instead of using her version of Sway, the producers decided at the last minute to substitute the Pussycat Dolls fifties retro take on the song. Mmmmmm…You thinking what I’m thinking here?

I actually kind of liked the fact that Melinda Doolittle couldn’t necessarily do sexy, but her performance of the song was probably as good an argument as you’ll find that singing Latin well is about much more than the voice.

It was interesting that she got a bit sassy in her dismount. While making the obligatory Simon joke was funny in the moment, I thought it might have hurt her.

Lakisha Jones- Instead of asking JLO for singing tips, the bank teller rather cleverly asked her for help with the dancing. It didn’t work. What was with three Gloria Estefan and two Carlos Santana on Latin night anyway?

It was just a couple weeks ago that Lakisha Jones was considered one of the contenders. Now, Simon’s warning her about getting eliminated. It may not be fickle judges. She sings well though a bit one dimensionally. Each week though it seems like she doesn’t connect emotionally either with the camera or the audience. Not all singers are performers.

Using a gymnastics analogy, I think one of the more mystical aspects of Idol is this whole business of the dismount, the thirty seconds or so after the song when the performer has the chance to project his/her personality. It's the last impression left on the audience and the ability to come off as engaging and likeable has a huge impact. I believe Elliot Yamin's success last year came at least partly from the fact that he had such perfect pitch in reacting to the Judges' comments. Kellie Pickler built her entire fanbase on her funny exchanges with Ryan. Blake Lewis and Jordin Sparks have been the strongest this year. While Lakisha hasn't done anything wrong per se, this is where she gets hurt the most. Instead of playing up "I miss my daughter" or "I could be back at the bank", she comes across too flat for someone whose singing personality is so emotional.

Chris Richardson- I don’t see or hear what the judges claim to in this guy. He only seems new because he’s copying styles that are say five years old instead of forty a la Lakisha and Melinda. I still hear nothing original. If Haley Scarnato supposedly didn’t have the voice to win this year, neither does this guy.

Phil Stacy- With Haley gone, this is the other contestant who they tend to rough up. What’s going to happen during country week? Could Simon Cow really have gotten the guy some votes for Maria, Maria?

Jordin Sparks- Was the only one of the women whom the rhythm didn’t completely get. Still, I don’t think she was compelling enough to gain ground in the voting. No real fire, but that can be said of everyone else on Tuesday.

Haley Scarnato- I’m not sure what to say about hot pants Haley. Amanda Avila got a fair amount of praise for a very similar performance of Turn the Beat Around two years ago. Avila, however, was only in the semifinals at the time. The two brought very similar strengths and weaknesses to the show. Amanda Avila stayed relatively clothed. Haley Scarnato made the round of eight.

It’s hard to sing “got to play percussion” if your own rhythm isn’t noticeably strong. For some reason, the judges were consistently rough on her. Still, I think round of eight is at least a week or two longer than she should normally have stayed.

Blake Lewis- Was pretty good with Mark Anthony. I don’t know about the boy band outfit. I actually liked him best supplying Haley Scarnato with a beat box during the rehearsals. It’s the sort of “behind the scenes” thing (assuming it wasn’t pre-written) that I’d actually like to see more of.

Sanjaya Malakar- Was smart enough to go bossa. I know Besame Mucho is actually Mexican in origin and written in Spanish, but one of the more famous versions is by Jaoa Gilberto, a singer who happens to have some of the same strengths as Sanjaya with limited dynamics but nice tone. The choice also let him work with a more lilting rhythm rather than put his vocal limitations at risk with something more dynamic and brassier.

I personally thought the Miami Vice look was a bit weird, but that’s part of Sanjaya’s schtick. Was it great Spanish? Maybe not, but it added a sense of investment in the music that no one with the possible exception of Blake brought to the stage Tuesday. The really fascinating thing though is whether Sanjaya actually being one of the better performances helped him or hurt him in the voting.

There used to be a sharper divide between white and black music in America. While some sense that “black music” is done better by “black musicians” persists, the days of Pat Boone making a living by covering Little Richard are pretty much gone. There are any number of blue-eyed soul singers around including last year’s AI winner, Taylor Hicks. It’s interesting though that with Latinos still the fastest growing ethnic minority in the United States, but it’s stil very hard for Anglophone singers to pull off Latin music. AI contestants usually wind up sounding as inauthentic as Pat Boone in this genre.

Ironically, the most interesting exception I can think of was Selena, who actually spoke very little Spanish but learned to sing in the language of her heritage and brought Tejano into the American pop music mainstream. All I can say is “What a weird coincidence.”

Other Chancelucky Idol Reviews

Sir Linksalot American Idol articles

SirLinksalot Sanjaya Malakar American Idol



At 4/15/2007 02:45:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

Turn the blog around, love to hear your recaps. Okay, that was lame but no lamer than most of the performances was it?

I missed your recaps while I was away Chancelucky. I dipped my toe into some blog reading but I like to savour your recaps so here I am. I see you've been kept busy with your other favourite show too. Busy busy.

At 4/15/2007 07:12:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Hey Dale,
I'd much rather be in London than reading anyone's blog.
One sign that I've turned even weirder. I made sure that I watched the show while we were in North Carolina. It was actually our daughters who got us watching both shows in the first place, so I guess it wasn't completely out of line.

Still, Latin night was awfully lame. Thanks for taking the time to read it....


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