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American Idol Recap: Paul F. Tompkins Endures the Birthday Song Choices

We begin with Steven Tyler looking straight into the camera and singing, kinda, “There’s something wrong with the world today … ” Then abruptly stopping. I mean, he runs out of steam so fast on that tiny handful of words you think you’re seeing the prelude to a stroke. Steven then tells us that, STARS! THEY’RE JUST LIKE US! They watch disturbing news footage from Japan! His “singing” of that little scrap of one of his own songs (“Livin’ on the Edge,” as if I had to tell you [and had to look it up]) was a fun doorway into letting us know that we could help with all the devastation in Japan. The camera widens out to reveal J.Lo, amazingly hot and attired as the Princess of the Jungle, who tells us that if we go to iTunes and download the songs that will be performed on the show tonight, the money goes to Japan. Well, that settles that! I was on the fence about this relief effort until this special offer. I was like, “Oh, plenty of people are helping them already, and besides, what’s in it for me? I mean, it’s not like I get my own copy of an amateur’s heavily produced and manipulated cover of a song I don’t like in the first place. Hold on — what did you just say to me?!”

The show begins. My wife glances up from her laptop and says, “Ryan Seacrest still moves like a fat person.” The former fatty informs us that tonight, the Idols will each sing a song from the year he or she was born. Ah, but think of it, gentlemen: What if they sang a song from the year they will die? I put it to you that science can conquer time itself! Now, just to be clear, I’m only having some H.G. Wellsian fun. I am not wishing death on anyone. I just want to hear some future music! Don’t act like you don’t.

First, Naima sings 1984’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” which is not exactly a vocal showcase. The performance is not great, and there’s an odd jazz coda at the end out of absolutely nowhere. Maybe the rest of the song should have been jazzy, or at least sung while riding a Jazzy. Oh, I am warming to this idea! Is there any singer today using that as a gimmick? Soulfully singing whilst riding an old-lady scooter? Do I need to step into the breach? Because I will.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo revokes her previous pitchy pass; now Naima must no longer be pitchy. Randy thinks it was all over the place.
ME: I liked Naima more before the competition got narrowed down. She started out unique and is becoming more and more mundane. I do not overstand why this is happening.

Let’s keep it locked in at 1984! Paul sings Elton John’s (and Bernie Taupin’s; no one escapes blame here) “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” Really? Did that song come out in January of 1984, and Paul stopped reading the list? What a boring, successful song. As Paul performs, we see J.Lo singing along, like she’s into it or something. J.Lo, stop pushing me away. Paul has a cold and does his best, I guess, but it’s fairly ragged.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says it sounded good and you have enough soul to overcome a cold. Randy thinks a cold is no excuse! But he likes that Paul makes songs his own.
ME: Well, Paul did not make this song his own. He just sang it awkwardly. I don’t know if that falls under the umbrella of “style.” Paul just seems really uncomfortable with a lot of the covers. One neat thing: We get a very clear look at the backup singers, and can finally stop wondering, What if Jon Favreau became an Andrew “Dice” Clay impersonator and married two Kate Bosworths?

backup singers.jpg

Thia was born into 1995, which I regard as a personal affront. Thia’s mother reveals that she used to sing lullabies to Thia, and busts one out that immediately puts her husband to sleep. This lady’s got powers, people. Thia has decided to sing “Colors of the Wind” by Vanessa Williams, from Pocahontas. Sure, why not. She can’t even vote yet, who cares what she does? I am so many hundreds of years older than Thia I forgot about both the song and that movie. At least it’s a tune that involves some singing. Thia is accompanied by a string quartet and an acoustic guitar. The guitar guy has to sit at the edge of the stage, while the strings get to sit on chairs, like people. Isn’t it time to stop coddling string quartets? They’re too classy to sit on the stage like the guitar guy? Go powder your wigs, is what I say (HUGE insult in string quartet circles).

JUDGES: Steven … likes it? He wants to know if that’s who Thia thinks she really is? Randy thinks the vocals were okay, and wants her to take some chances. J.Lo wants her to stop being so safe and push out of the box.
ME: Hey, geniuses, she is a child. How much sense of self is she supposed to have? “Thia, you have a nice voice, but I really need you to stare down into the dark recesses of your soul and pull something raw and bloody out of there. Run it by your on-set tutor; see if she cries.”

Kate Hudson’s in the audience! So.

James was born in 1989, with, presumably, plenty of diapers and food around, because his parents were not employed at “singing contest.” James sings Bon Jovi’s “I’ll Be There for You.” He hits a good-size clam right out of the gate, then rights himself and continues on, all James-y. It ends on a bit of a rough note, but! Sparks shoot up out of the floor! How come he gets sparks? “Colors of the Wind” couldn’t have used some sparks?

JUDGES: Steven … likes it? He warns James against poppiness. James assures him he is saving some hard-rockin’ Aerosmith for the finale. Steven agrees to sing with Jim should such a thing come to pass. J.Lo says James brings her joy. Randy says it was good, but he also says Bon Jovi’s “I’ll Be There for You “ is an amazing song, so, grain of salt, I guess.
ME: James bugs me. As soon as this “deal” was struck between him and Tyler, I just knew I was going to end up having to watch it and having to write about it. If this doesn’t happen I’ll eat my scarftail.

Haley was born in 1990, so she’ll sing Whitney Houston’s “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” We see her being coached by Ron Faire, who is apparently committed to that hat. As Haley sings, she manages to get lipstick all over her teeth and chin, somehow. This, I believe is unprecedented. Ladies, tell me. Has this happened to you? Have you gotten lipstick on your chin with a microphone? If so, how many times? Please fill out this comment card and rate our service. Your feedback is important to us.

JUDGES: Steven … likes it? He wants to hear “more blues.” Like “Love in an Elevator,” right? J.Lo wants Haley to become confident in her movements. Randy is confused by Haley’s song choices and suggests she doesn’t know who she is based on those choices. When will they drop this bullshit idea that these kids have absolute control over the songs they choose? It seems obvious that they have a short list of songs from which to choose, if they aren’t being handed songs outright. Maybe I’m too cynical. Or maybe the judges are too trusting. Only history can decide, and let’s hope it has more important things to make decisions about than this.
ME: I have not been the biggest Haley fan, which, as you know, is Haley's face’s fault. But I actually liked her cover of this song better than the original. Even though I still kind of didn’t like it. Because it’s not a good song. My point is, I may be warming up to Haley, which vaguely annoys me. But she handles the lipstick business with great aplomb. Not just regular! Great!

Stefano was born in 1989 and, through a series of loopholes, gets to sing a good song, [Simply Red’s version of] “If You Don’t Know Me by Now.” It’s a good choice for him; J.Lo is enraptured! It all really makes sense until a misguided power note at the end. Surely someone could have told him it would sound dumb to sing the last word of the song as high and loudly as he could, just to do it. Jimmy Iovine, where were you? Adjusting the opacity of your glasses or something?

JUDGES: Steven likes it! Randy proclaims it the best performance of the night! So far. J.Lo says Stefano could take the whole thing if he sings into people’s eyes more.
ME: Well, Stefano did a good job. I think I said he wasn’t gonna be around long, but he proved me to be a poor fortune teller. So, word to the wise: I cannot predict the future. I am just trying to hold your hand.

Pia was a 1988 baby, and we see a clip of her as a child singing an absolutely furious version of “I Will Always Love You.” Spurred on by that long ago, anger-filled child, Pia sings Whitney Houston’s “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” It’s a kind of disco arrangement, and it makes me think that song probably should have been a disco song anyway. It just got written too late or whatever. But this arrangement weirdly redeems it. Maybe more garbage eighties songs just need to be discofied to be enjoyable.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo is thrilled to see Pia do something uptempo. Randy says, take note, other contestants: Pia is trying to win this contest!
ME: This was my favorite Pia-formance. Something about it seemed really right to me. I especially enjoyed Pia’s whole Jaclyn Smith seventies ensemble, for my own private reasons that are none of your business.

During Scotty’s clip package, his parents both proudly sing “The McCreery Family Anthem (Babylockthemdoorsandturnthelightsdownlow)” before we get to see Scotty stretch a bit and sing the 1993 Travis Tritt hit, “Can I Trust You With My Heart.” If you’re not familiar with this number, it sounds like a country song from the nineties.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo commends him for pushing himself out there a little more. Randy likes it and lets us know that Travis Tritt is a personal friend. Well, la-di-da! Way to steal Scott’s thunder, Randy! WE GET IT, YOU HAVE A WHITE FRIEND!
ME: Okay, what are we dong here? Hasn’t country music been represented enough? Isn’t there already an all-country version of this show? Who’s being humored, here?

MySpace’s Karen Rodriguez sings 1989’s “Love Will Lead You Back” by Taylor “Not Selena” Dayne. And she is going for it! She’s got a crazy-ass outfit and hairdo, she looks great, and she is full-on performing this song! Too bad it’s a boring song that requires little in the way of theatrics. It’s as if she’s taking the theatricality of some other song and laying it on top of this one; like if someone sang “Happy Birthday” but acted as if they were singing “Paradise by the Dashboard Light.” She even slips some Spanish in there, too, because she’s not MySpace’s Karen Worthington.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! Randy thinks it started rough but was still better than last week. J.Lo likes that MySpace’s Karen Rodriguez attacked it!
ME: MySpace’s Karen Rodriguez seems really, really sweet and genuinely loves singing. She just doesn’t seem like that skilled of a performer. So she will probably be in the top two.

Casey is back from the hospital with his faulty Swiss-cheese guts and he is ready to do this. He sings 1991’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana and accompanies himself on electric bass. It seems really short. I mean, all of these songs are truncated for TV timing, but this seems exceptionally brief for the show. I wonder it’s because of Casey’s stomach problems. I forgot to look for a bucket on the stage.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo thinks it sometimes got screamy-screechy, but she loves him so much. Randy loves that Casey puts art first and commerce second. Wait, since when, Randy? He must mean he likes it as an amusing diversion to him, Randy Jackson, personally. This one time. But generally, COMMERCE No. 1 USA USA USA!
ME: Much as I like Casey and I feel I can relax when he’s on, I didn’t enjoy this so much. I give him credit for doing it, I guess. The iTunes Japan-helping download seems like the full song. I think even the iTunes preview is longer than what we saw on TV. Maybe he accused Courtney Love of murder during the bridge and they had to trim it.

Lauren has the flu and was born in 1994. These two facts are unrelated. Lauren opts to sing Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m the Only One.” As with seemingly every Idol song, it starts too low for human beings to properly sing. Who designed these diabolical songs?! But it’s not long before we get into some comfortable shouty parts. I’ve never liked this song and this version isn’t winning me over. This is what you call a “first-world” problem.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo loves Melissa Etheridge and commends Lauren for making it her own. Randy says it was very nice, get a cold every week! I am pretty sure he is kidding, but who can say? He thought that one Bon Jovi song was “amazing,” remember?
ME: I find Lauren less and less likable as the contest wears on. I feel weird saying that, because she’s just a kid, but there are kids in my life that I don’t care for, so, what, I’m gonna draw the line at televised children? I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of those parts of the world that are familiar with Lauren from American Idol!

And at last, we come to Jacob. Born in 1989 in Compton, Jacob is compelled to sing “Alone” by Heart. It’s a great choice for his range, but it’s a ridiculous choice for all other reasons. He goes for it, of course, and it’s all over the place. It starts out seeming like an interesting change of pace, then is run through the emotive wood-chipper that is Jacob’s singing style.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! Randy likes that Jacob stepped out of his comfort zone and took control of difficult moments. J.Lo loves that Jacob gives himself to every performance.
ME: Did Jacob ever hear any quiet music growing up? I’d love to hear him take on “The Girl From Ipanema” or some Feist. Because even if he just does the same overwrought stuff he usually does, but with those songs, I think I’d still be entertained.

And that’s it. After a commercial, we are admonished to vote, then warned the Black Eyed Peas will be showing up tomorrow. Do what you have to do.

You can listen to Paul F. Tompkins's podcast here, or subscribe on iTunes. He is also on Twitter as @PFTompkins.

Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FOX