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American Idol Recap: Paul F. Tompkins on Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Night

A personal note before we begin: I am still in Australia and it’s rough going here. I am missing home and getting a soupçon of comfort from the idea of watching the show and writing the recap. We’ll see how long that lasts once I start doing those things. But for now, I’m glad to be watching American Idol today. Is there ANY CHANCE ON EARTH that I will eat those words?

The theme this week is “rock 'n' roll,” so the kids will be singing the songs of inductees in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. We get a crash course in what this music is and who made it via a produced package hosted by Steven Tyler. Steven Tyler has made a career in rock, and could not sound less enthusiastic about the idea of this whole thing. His delivery of the narration is straight out of a Christopher Guest movie. They might as well have had Eugene Levy do it.

Jimmy Iovine is back and Ioviner than ever, and he’s got Will.I.Am in tow. So, this guy is on the show every week, now? It is seriously giving me anxiety that Will.I.Am’s presence on the show appears to be open-ended; if I knew he’d just be on for two more episodes and then never again, I could deal with it. But this is turning into my personal Duel, and Will.I.Am is a semitruck with a name that is annoying to type.

Will.I.Am’s description of Jacob’s singing involves submarines and some other nonsense designed to make him sound clever. We already have a gauge on your cleverness thanks to your authorship of “Let’s Get Retarded,” Will.I.Am. Please stop Ta.L.King. Jimmy and WILLIAM ask Jacob to sing, “Let’s Get It On,” and I think, Oh boy, this is gonna be nuts. But then Jacob says he can’t do it, as the song is too direct about doing “the nasty.” I guess he feels the song should go, And if you feel like I feel, baby / Then come on, come on / Let's cut to a Hays-code-era image of a curtain blowing in the window and be sure to keep one foot on the floor at all times. Instead, he’ll sing that legendary rock song Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” Jacob declares that if he ends up in the bottom three, it won’t be because he sang the song badly; it will be because America isn’t ready to look at itself in the mirror. Wow. This is some real Tom Sawyer–ian psychology. Well, Jake, America is ready to hear a classic song about sex, so I think they’ll be able to handle your cover of a lesser-canon MJ song better than you will. As Jacob performs this song that is supposed to shame us all, he vigorously thrusts his pelvis at a backup singer. Oh, sooo indirect, what does it mean? The backup singer turns out to be Siedah Garrett, one of the co-authors of “Man in the Mirror.” Thanks for stopping by, Siedah. Your presence really added so, so little.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says Jacob’s performance was perfect on every level. Randy commends Jacob for staying true to himself and singing that boring song instead of that great other song. I may be paraphrasing toward the end, there.
ME: “Let’s Get It On” would have been one of the few songs that would’ve been fun to see Jacob oversing. But it was worth sitting through that dull performance for the hubris that preceded it. I don’t know that I have ever wanted anything as desperately as I want Jacob to be in the bottom three on the results show. I am willing an eyelash to fall on my finger right now.

The judges have compared Haley to Janis Joplin so much on previous episodes that she sings “Piece of My Heart” to give the babies their musical bottle. Haley is still somewhat physically awkward onstage, but she is clearly having fun singing this song and does a good job, and maybe her awkwardness is her style, you know? Am I feeling extra-defensive of Haley because I previously criticized her for things beyond her control? I think the real question is: Why don’t you shut up?

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says Haley is showing people “they need to be careful wit Haley!” Randy says what Haley did tonight is what the judges have been wanting her to do all along. He opts not to steeple his fingers while saying this. What a wasted opportunity.
ME: I started off not enjoying this performance, but it won me over as it went on. Which is saying something, because I think “Piece of My Heart” is ultimately a deeply unpleasant song. I am ready to admit here and now that Janis Joplin’s voice is not one of my favorites, and her screechy, cracked vocals depress me to my core. Sorry, Pearl! I’m not worried about slamming her here because she’s (1) dead and (2) in Rock 'n' Roll Heaven, and I will probably go to Regular Heaven, so she cannot confront me in the afterlife. Oh, and while I’m at it, don’t forget that I hate the Doors in general and Jim Morrison in particular.

Casey was going to sing the Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” but a heated argument with Jimmy Iovine, who accuses Casey and Will.I.Am of turning the song into a rumba, puts paid to that notion. The great rumba debate leads to a side argument over Jimmy Iovine calling Will.I.Am “Mama.” Not only would this be a cooler nickname for a dude than “Will.I.Am,” it is an absolute breeze to type. Instead, Casey, accompanying himself on the upright bass, performs Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” and turns it into a Jimmy Buffet song. Is that better than a rumba? The answer is no.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says she’d pay top dollar to be in the front row to see Casey and his bass. Randy praises Casey for making the upright bass cool again. (Just let Randy believe this, he has so little.)
ME: It’s actually a good vocal, but what a senseless, pointless arrangement. Sometimes you should just leave the reimagining to the makers of the film Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights.

Lauren is going to do Aretha Franklin’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” and combine soul and country. I wish there could be another bad idea in here, just to round it out, but all of that will have to do. She sings it, it’s boring, she’s boring, I am bored. Bored.I.Am. And there’s a modulation toward the end that is so awful and gross — for all their oft-stated concerns over things being too “Vegas,” the guest producers sure let a lot of Vegas slip through.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says that was very nice and there’s nothing more to say. Randy says other people on the show have done better with that song, but Lauren did all right. What a faint-praise-damned festival!
ME: It’s so tedious to watch a kid sing a song like this, because without the life experience required to do it justice, it just becomes an exercise in vocal gymnastics. Aretha was only 25 when she sang it, but guess what? That’s almost ten more years of living a markedly different life than Lauren’s. Please, America: Put Lauren out of my misery.

Back from the break, Ryan and the judges engage in the stupidest, unfunniest, most awkward banter you could ever dream of. None of it makes any sense and I briefly wonder if I have a fever. Ryan asks all of the judges how they think the show is going. Should you be having this conversation in front of us? If so and you’re cool with it, I would like to answer the question.

James decides to slow it down a little (oh, thanks) and sings the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Perhaps to get into character, James might imagine the guitar sounding like a hungry, diaper-less baby. James is accompanied by a string section and a dry-ice machine. It is positively torturous. He ends on his signature howl and squirts out a couple of tears. I am shocked at the cynicism of the sentence I just typed. I think I want to go home.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says it’s so special that James shares his vulnerability with us. Randy loves seeing the true emotional side of James.
ME: This was truly, objectively terrible. The tempo actually seemed to get slower and slower as the song went on. Chatting with Ryan afterward, James says he’s been “working on the song for five years” and has written his own version. He does not say that he is embarrassed to have done this. Should I just infer? Oh, and Steven points out “not only did the Beatles write great songs, George Harrison did as well.” Oh, if only George Harrison and the Beatles could have collaborated on some music, how wonderful that would have been! Maybe in Rock 'n' Roll Heaven! Come on, Paul and Ringo, quit being so selfish!

Scotty sings some Elvis. Of course. I guess we should admire his restraint in staying away from Johnny Cash. They should have forced this kid to do some Public Enemy. What? Public Enemy isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? What again? Genesis is? Okay, well, I guess it could have been worse. Scotty talks a big game about going more rock than country with this performance, then does “That’s All Right Mama” and removes any trace of rock from it at all. He does add something else, though: Scotty prances impishly about onstage and holds the microphone in a weird flutelike fashion. He is like a strange Narnia creature in an untucked shirt. At the end of the song, a bunch of girls “spontaneously” run up and hug him. I guess people really like this kid! Well, Scotty is a hero to most but he doesn’t mean shit to me.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo has detected some hip-hop swagger in Scotty’s onstage moves. Hmmm. Maybe shake that swagger detector, listen for a rattle, see if there’s a loose part. Randy enthuses, “Scotty is in it to win it! Who’s gonna beat him? Who’s gonna do it?” Will no one rid me of this troublesome country singer?*
ME: I don’t know if it was the actual tempo or just my emotional reaction to it, but I am fairly certain this cover took longer to listen to than the original version of it took to be recorded.

Christian Slater is in the audience, performing his duty to the Fox network. If you star on a Fox TV show, you must sit in the audience for at least one American Idol broadcast. How come the cops from Cops are exempt from this obligation? I bet for Christian Slater this is like when you see a cop in his squad car, talking on his cell phone and not using hands-free. Christian Slater’s daughter is also there and is adorable.

Breaking out of the ballad box, Pia sings one of my all-time favorite songs, Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High.” Eh, I bet I will still like the song even after this. Pia bends at the knees a lot when she sings, which leads me to believe she’d be a good friend to have if you were moving. She could go for hours, and who doesn’t love pizza? Pia sings the hell out of it and walks all over the place. Pia!

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says Pia is spectacular but urges her to work on her moves and develop her style. Randy says Pia showed him that she could deliver an up-tempo number, which he also says he already knew. Again, no steepling! Come on Randy!
ME: I give Pia a lot of credit for going for it. Her power notes made more sense here than they ever have previously, and although she in no way touches Tina Turner’s version (no one really could) she acquits herself nicely. Pia!

After the break, we learn that Todd Rundgren is in the audience. Y’know, the legendary record producer? Used to be in Nazz? Wrote the hit song, “Hello, It's Me”? Oh, what else about Todd Rundgren, let’s see … oh, right, the guy who Liv Tyler thought was her father for almost a decade because her mother didn’t want her to know that her actual father was American Idol judge Steven Tyler, because he was too drugged up at that point to be a responsible parent? That Todd Rundgren? Ryan doesn’t mention any of this in his introduction. He does mention that Todd Rundgren and Randy Jackson are friends.

Will.I.Am shows Stefano how to take control of the song “When a Man Loves a Woman” while simultaneously showing uncles everywhere how to make nieces and nephews roll their eyes at the attempts of adults to be funny. If he truly had a point, it was overshadowed by corniness. Stefano throws a lot of sauce on it, and it’s too much. He does so many runs it’s just a sweaty mess. Then he ends the song by singing “Because baby, you’re my world,” which I have never, ever heard at the end of this song. Is it from someone else’s cover? Would I hear it if I listened to the original Percy Sledge version and cranked up the fadeout? If so, please remind me to turn the volume back down before the next song starts. I don’t want to blow my ears out! Don’t you hate when that happens? Observational humor! I am like a regular Dave Barry over here!

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says it was magic. Randy says he likes it but it didn’t make him jump up and down, and feels Stefano should have listened to Will.I.Am’s labored instructions on how to own the song.
ME: I did not enjoy this. I feel like Stefano feels he has to really push to get votes. Maybe I’m just too empathetic a person. I’m not saying I’m the greatest guy in the world, but if you say I am, I won’t contradict you.

Paul closes things out with Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.” In a bold departure from everything we’ve seen this season, he speeds the tempo up. It really helps to make the song be over faster, so thumbs-up. At the end of the song, Paul asks the audience how they’re doing. Does he think he’s doing another song? Or is this just bad stage-banter placement? Text 1 for 2 and 2 for 1!

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says it was a perfect way to end the show and that Paul was right in his lane. Randy has three words for Paul: I loved it (Randy’s three words, not mine).
ME: Paul seems increasingly affected to me. Something about this guy … I don’t like it. Put a team on him, have him shadowed. Paul says "y’all” more than any Southern person I have ever met in my life. Paul, not everything is a “y’all” occasion. Use it sparingly. It’s a garnish, not the main course.

Next: One more goes home. Maybe if it’s someone the rest like, some more will leave in solidarity! Whoever it is, at least take Will.I.Am with you.

*That’s a pretty good reference if you get it.

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX