It’s week two of the finals series on season ten of American Idol, and for this week’s theme we’re drawing on yet another tried and tested Idol staple – songs from the year the contestants were born. It means every song is drawn from my own ‘golden era’ of the mid-80s to mid-90s, when my interest in pop music was at its peak. But it also means we learn more about each contestant’s vision of what kind of artist they want to be, before we are forced down the line of genre or artist-specific themes in the coming weeks.
Anyhow, here are my thoughts in running order, scoring each contestant out of five on both their song choice and their vocal and overall stage performance. You’ll find my voting predictions at the end.
Naima Adedapo: What’s Love Got to Do with It – Tina Turner (1984)
Song choice: 3/5. Not a bad choice to open the show, and a brave one in terms of both its slow tempo and the inevitable comparisons to the superlative original. I’m still confused by exactly what kind of artist she wants to be, though. Summertime, For All We Know, Umbrella and now this? After her success with Umbrella last week, I’d have been tempted to open with something like Chaka Khan‘s I Feel For You, where it would have been easier to stamp her personality on the song.
Performance: 2/5. Despite a snappy and interesting arrangement, this performance falls flat in every possible way, from the slightly bizarre dance moves to the frequently off-key vocals. Two weeks of pitchiness equals danger for a contestant who only sneaked into the top 13 as a wild card. Naima is fading fast.
Now I’m starting to see that you’re consistently pitchy and that’s hurting you.
Paul McDonald: I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues – Elton John (1984)
Song choice: 2/5. Another song choice which is on the one hand understandable, but on the other is yet another ho-hum, mid-tempo, middle-of-the-road selection (on the back of last week’s Ryan Adams song) by a contestant whose unique selling point is his quirkiness. I would have liked to see him play with something a little more left of centre.
Performance: 2/5. His voice obviously croaking with a cold means that he is always struggling to hold his pitch. But that doesn’t stop his disconcertingly odd dance moves which involve him shaking every available limb in the style of a malfunctioning C-3PO. It’s not good – but it’s not terrible either – and he gets to play the illness joker this week.
You define a cool dude in a loose mood.
Thia Megia: Colors of the Wind – Vanessa Williams (1995)
Song choice: 1/5. Was this really the best Thia could come up with? It may have won an Oscar, but this song from the film Pocahontas is decidedly dreary and not the most challenging vocally either. Okay, she wasn’t going to break into a bit of Shaggy, but seriously? And as the third slow number in a row, it’s not really one to get the audience on their feet.
Performance: 3/5. Dull. Statuesque. Utterly forgettable. Yet again Thia, apparently dressed up as Pocahontas just in case we didn’t get the film reference, performs while firmly rooted to the spot like some kind of Asian Celine Dion-lite, only even less interesting. Her voice is technically excellent, but you never feel she is ever doing anything more than singing the words. Good enough to survive for several more weeks, but categorically not good enough to get anywhere near the final until she becomes brave enough to take some risks with her song choices and performances. And as a bewildered S-Ty asks her, “Is that song who you think you are?” Because if it is, Thia must be a very dull person – and personality counts on this show.
I felt like I was at some pageant somewhere. You have a big voice but it’s always so safe, and it was so boring tonight.
James Durbin: I’ll Be There for You” – Bon Jovi (1989)
Song choice: 3/5. Disappointingly middle-of-the-road, although I can understand him wanting to show a more sensitive side. And, in fairness, there is a bit of the Jon Bon Jovi rasp to his voice too.
Performance: 3/5. I like the rockier arrangement and the fact they upped the tempo, but James doesn’t quite deliver the whole deal. The early stuff down in his lower register is impressive and emotionally layered, but he falls a little short on the big screaming notes at the end. Okay, but not a patch on last week.
What you do always is you figure out how to make it your own. Very tastefully done, dude.
Haley Reinhart: I’m Your Baby Tonight – Whitney Houston (1990)
Song choice: 1/5. Well, at least it wasn’t something involving Stevie Nicks, having been compared to the Fleetwood Mac singer by the judges last week. Like Naima, I still have no idea what kind of artist she wants to be: so far she’s flirted between R&B and country without a great deal of success.
Performance: 2/5. Oh dear. This is shades of Betty Boop does Whitney, as an interesting arrangement fails to disguise the shortcomings in Haley’s performance. Her voice is decent, but falls horribly short in the company of better voices. She lacks both power and expression compared with many of the other contestants, and it is painfully obvious as she struggles to master a song which is always bigger than her. On the bright side: no yodelling this week.
I’m just a little confused. I’m just not sure you’re sure who you are.
Stefano Langone: If You Don’t Know Me by Now – Simply Red (1989)
Song choice: 3/5. This choice of the Simply Red version of a song originally released by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes firmly establishes him as this year’s lightweight pop crooner – not necessarily a bad thing.
Performance: 3/5. Stefano is gradually improving and growing in confidence, as this song shows off more of his voice than previous efforts. He hits a couple of crystal clear big notes at the end which are impressive. But it is still little more than pleasant, and not a performance which will linger long in the memory.
J-Lo remains a big fan, however. She says:
It was a perfect, perfect song for you. You can take this thing.
Pia Toscano: Where Do Broken Hearts Go – Whitney Houston (1988)
Song choice: 4/5. A good choice. Pia has already established herself as this year’s big balladeer and, unlike Haley, she has the voice to take on this Whitney Houston song. It’s certainly a far better selection than the execrable One Moment In Time.
Performance: 4/5. Cleverly, the arrangement is a bit more up-tempo and just enough of a change-up to move her marginally away from the ballad stereotype this week, although it is a bit cruise-ship. (Thankfully, nobody decided to add a Hammond organ.) But Pia’s vocal performance shines out from this anyway – strong, confident and beautifully controlled. Another solid effort.
You can see why this show is called American Idol. You nailed it.
Scotty McCreery: Can I Trust You with My Heart – Travis Tritt (1993)
Song choice: 3/5. Scotty sings country. Who’d have thought it? The safest, most conservative choice of the night, but his not inconsiderable fan club won’t give two hoots and, as always, it is a perfect match for his voice.
Performance: 4/5. It doesn’t really matter when you have a voice as perfectly suited to a song as Scotty’s is here. As regular readers will know, I hate country music. But even I know this is a good solid three-iron down the middle of the fairway. It would be nice to see him try a slight change-up in future weeks to keep things fresh, but this kind of slow, old fashioned song is what showcases those rich, deep tones of his best. You could sign him up right now and he would be ready to record an album tomorrow.
You can sing anything. You know who you are and you’re staying in the traditional country lane.
Although the traditional country lanes around where I live are where kids like Scotty get run over by careless drivers in 4x4s.
Karen Rodriguez: Love Will Lead You Back – Taylor Dayne (1989)
Song choice: 2/5. It’s probably a good move that K-Rod eschews the obvious Gloria Estefan-themed selections here: Can’t Stay Away From You and Don’t Wanna Lose You, but her choice of this Taylor Dayne classic (her only US number one single) is still firmly within her lane. But it doesn’t help that long-time Idol fans still associate this song with the absolute garbage rendition spewed forth by Mikalah Gordon which saw her bounced out of season four at the same stage. Even now, it’s a performance that was so bad that it is seared into my eardrums.
Performance: 2/5. Why does she always sound like a woman twice her age when she sings? K-Rod is visibly nervy, and that seriously detracts from her performance. It’s sub-par at best, and having said that she doesn’t want to be remembered as the Spanish-singing one, she proceeds to sing half a verse in Spanish. Bored now. That gimmick is so old.
I love it when you break into your ethnic what-it-is-ness.
The only problem is that K-Rod’s what-it-is-ness isn’t actually very good.
Casey Abrams: Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana (1991)
Song choice: 5/5. Let’s start with a small pat on the back for me. After last week’s results show, I said presciently “Casey was born in 1991. Will he dare to perform Nirvana‘s Smells Like Teen Spirit?” (I really must start doing the lottery again.) This is a great choice by Casey – the best of the night by a distance – an opportunity to put his individual stamp on one of the truly iconic songs of my generation on a night where almost everyone else has opted for relatively safe ballads.
Performance: 3/5. Sadly, Casey’s performance falls a little bit short. It starts well enough, but gets a bit shouty towards the end and we lose the rich tones which have been so evident in his earlier songs. (Yes, I know the original is hardly overly melodic either.) Not his best, but still a stand-out performance in an evening of safe tedium.
What I’m most impressed with and what I love about you – you love taking risks and I love that you’re putting art first.
Lauren Alaina: I’m the Only One – Melissa Etheridge (1994)
Song choice: 5/5. Casey apart, this is the best song choice of the night. After last week’s questionable Shania Twain song, this is more like it. Choosing this strutting, foot-stomping folk-rock anthem allows Lauren to showcase both her voice and her personality perfectly. (But aren’t the opening bars lifted straight from Alannah Myles‘ Black Velvet?)
Performance: 3/5. I like the little country twang in the arrangement, but I really don’t like the slower tempo which sucks all the life and soul out of the song. Despite a cold which sees her struggling on the softer notes, Lauren holds it all together well, though. But it’s not quite the roaring success it might have been. Nonetheless, it’s a million miles better than last week’s foot-off-the-gas effort.
You gave it that country flavour and you just took it and made it your own.
Jacob Lusk: Alone – Heart (1987)
Song choice: 4/5. A good choice in the sense that this is a nice change-up and a simple power ballad which demands less of the excessive vocal gymnastics of last week’s mess on I Believe I Can Fly.
Performance: 3/5. So nearly great from this season’s Captain Camp™. The start of this is good, and the final five seconds when he turns down the vibrato and tenderly caresses the ending is excellent, but the middle of the song is a bit of a mess. Again, Jacob shows his tendency to punch out too much vibrato – which pushes him sharp on a couple of occasions – and to over-sing the melody. I really wish he would resist the temptation to overdo it, because when he sticks to the melody and focuses on the emotion of a song, he is fantastic. Right now, though, he is starting to annoy me a bit.
You put yourself completely to every performance, to every song, to every moment.
And that’s exactly Jacob’s problem. Sometimes he just needs to take a step back and let a song play out in its own, without feeling the need to show off all his tricks.
Overall, this was a disappointing week, with too many of the contestants avoiding any risks, resulting in a largely dull set of performances. While a few can consider themselves untouchable for now, everyone will need to step up their game if they want to guarantee further progress in the competition.
Anyhow, here are my predictions for the public vote.
Safe as houses: Pia, Scotty, Casey, Lauren
Stuck in the middle: Paul, Thia, James, Stefano, Jacob
Bottom three: Naima, Haley, Karen
Going home: Haley
American Idol posts
Auditions: New Jersey, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Nashville, Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco
Hollywood Week: Solo auditions, Group round, Final round
Las Vegas & Green Mile: Las Vegas & Green Mile part 1, Green Mile part 2
Semi-finals: Boys, Girls, Results/wild cards
Top 13: Performances, Results
Link: American Idol website