Vulture

Skip to content, or skip to search.

American Idol Recap: Paul F. Tompkins on the Lady Gaga Tutorial

Ooooh, folks. As things wind down, the faux-drama revs up. We begin with a montage of Idols past, capturing the moments when they each triumphantly returned to the narrow-minded Podunk from whence they crawled; now having conquered the world, they make the Doubting Thomases of these backwater ignoramus farms weep at the prospect of touching the hem of an American Idol’s garment. The scene shifts to the present-day, and we see our current Idol hopefuls, bursting with promise! The stakes could not be higher! The screen hurls portentous words in our fat faces: “TONIGHT THEY NEED YOUR VOTES TO SEND THEM HOME.” Oh my God, I knew it! These kids are being held against their will! The producers of American Idol have set up some sort of … human zoo, and they force their captives to perform under pain of torture, or worse! Then the screen tosses two more words our way: “AS HEROES.” Oh, okay. It’s not as bad as I thought. No one has set up a human zoo and is treating human beings as trained beasts. They’re just misusing the word “hero.” Relatively speaking, that’s not so disgusting.

Ryan lays it all out for us: Round One (See? Even the show itself uses terminology that suggests it is trying to pummel you!) will be the Idols singing songs that inspire them in some way; Round Two will be the Idols singing from the songbook of legendary hit-makers Lieber and Stoller. So obviously the theme tonight is, “Two different songs will be sung.”

James is first, and his inspiring song is Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” James performs wearing a Journey T-shirt. I believe there’s some rule among dirtbags that proscribes the wearing of a band’s shirt to that same band’s concert; I don’t know what happens when you wear a band’s shirt and cover that band’s song. The dirtbag version of the Hague might need to be consulted. James randomly elongates notes to make the song his own, and, as with last decade’s Sopranos-led resurgence, one is reminded that this is kind of a fantastic song. One that James is not singing fantastically. James’s performance makes you realize that Steve Perry is irreplaceable (by non-Filipinos). And hey — where did James’s little chin beard come from? Has he been growing that this whole time? Is he going to show up next week with a talking Great Dane with whom he shares a fondness for both dog treats and cowardice?

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says, great song, great job, great performance. Ooh, he’s earned J.Lo’s legendary “Three Greats!” Randy says that, as in the Olympics, James performed at the highest level of difficulty and he DID IT!
ME: As James is called upon to sing more and more, his limitations become ever more apparent. Any time he is not singing a straight-up metal or lite-metal song, he sounds very “wedding band.” I am not looking forward to the next few Jamestravaganzas.

Haley’s inspirational song is “The Earth Song” by Michael Jackson. Well, I am inspired to learn this song exists for the first time. Haley is assisted by the largest number of backup singers I think I’ve ever seen on the Idol stage, including the Kates Bosworth! When she gets to the chorus, I remember this song. I may even have mumbled “Oh yeah, this,” out loud. I can confirm this later when I review the footage from the nanny-cam I employ to watch myself watch the show. Haley gives it her all, but it’s not that interesting a song. It never really takes off and it makes me feel bad about not separating my recycling more diligently.

JUDGES: Steven li — hold on a second. We’ll get there. First, J.Lo chides Haley for choosing yet another song that isn’t all that familiar to viewers, and she’s kind of mean schoolteachery about it. Very pointed, very cold. Randy agrees with Mrs. J.Lo and says the song didn’t suit Haley as an artist. Randy starts elaborating on what Haley did wrong. Haley seems bummed out by the critique and tells Randy, essentially, Yeah, I got it. Then! Steven jumps in and says Randy and J.Lo are both wrong! The audience goes nuts, including, as we see in a cutaway, Casey, whose tyrannical stomach has graciously allowed him to attend this evening. Ryan is dumbfounded and looks on, dumbly. Steven tells Haley she nailed it, she sang beautifully within her range, she pushed it over the top and America heard it. Steven, in short, likes it.
ME: I must admit I would rather have heard Haley sing a different song. Even a different Michael Jackson song; it’s an amazing catalogue to pull from. How about “Ben”? That’s a beautiful song that people still enjoy even though it’s about a guy whose only friend is a disgusting rat. I think there’s a lesson there for us all.

Ryan welcomes us back from the break and has some news. Taio Cruz still needs help with that Coke jingle we were all supposed to write for him a while back. Hey, listen, Taio is apparently really struggling and still needs lyrics. So stop dicking around here, gang. Enough playing grabass. Taio and Coca-Cola both need your help. What do you get out of it? I’m glad you asked.Your reward will come to you in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Scotty’s inspirational song is “Protect Ya Neck” by Wu-Tang Clan (Joke. How do you like that, David Rees? I’m still in the shit over here while you’re at home in your nice warm bed!). Scotty’s actual inspirational song is Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning).” It’s a 9/11 song. Am I crazy, or is it kind of missing the forest for the trees to be inspired by a song about 9/11? “Yeah, I guess I kinda shrugged when it happened, but then I heard that Alan Jackson song and I was like, ‘Ooh, I get why it was a big deal.’” To be fair, Scotty was 7 years old on 9/11. But to go back to being unfair, this is a profoundly non-inspiring inspirational song whose message seems to be, “I can’t tell the difference between Middle Eastern countries, all I know is Jesus and love, so, y’know, JUST SAYIN’.”

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says she’s in love with Scotty and what he stands for! Randy says it was a perfect song choice for Scotty and for the country today, and Scotty is ready for superstardom!
ME: Okay, so all the viewers of American Idol are more acquainted with this Alan Jackson song than they are with the Michael Jackson song Haley sang earlier? Even I recognized the Michael Jackson song once it got to the chorus. But I’ve never heard that Alan Jackson song before in my life. Am I the only one? Was it just a quirk of timing on my part that having criss-crossed the country performing for the last ten years, I never heard two seconds of that Alan Jackson 9/11 song? Even when I was doing spots on country radio stations? In 2003? When the song came out? I looked it up?

Back from the break, Ryan joins Casey and now Paul in the audience. Ryan prompts them to tell us that the tour is still happening and tickets go on sale soon. Does Ryan surreptitiously slip treats into their mouths just after introducing the next song? I’ll never be sure that he didn’t.

Lauren is going to sing Martina McBride’s “Anyway,” which resonates with her in light of the recent tornado devastation in the south. Chronologically, there should have been a song between this one and Scotty’s 9/11 song that put someone in the mind of the Japanese tsunami and nuclear accidents. That’s some pretty poor producing, if you ask me. Anyway, it’s a boring song. I’m glad it means something to Lauren, though.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says Lauren did exactly what one has to do to get to the finals. Randy declares Lauren is back in it to win it! I have never heard him make this declaration before! Is there any precedent for this?!
ME: Oh. Hi. What am I supposed to say? More stuff? Um … yeah, Lauren. She did it. Sang.

Ryan brings all the contestants out for awkward purposes. He asks the judges who did well the first round, and Randy says it was a tie between Scotty, James, and Lauren. It is not lost on Haley that she is the only person who did not tie for first place in a field of four people. Haley scoffs, “Thanks a lot.” She is so over this critiquing business. Now, I am torn. On the one hand, this is part of the competition and everyone else takes any constructive criticism gracefully and without protest. On the other hand, I really enjoy when Haley talks to the judges like they are dumb jerks.

Back from the break, Ryan opines that some might consider Randy’s remarks tonight to be a little mean. Randy counters that he’s just being honest. Well, he’s being neither, really. The things he’s said to the contestants aren’t malicious, but he’s also not being direct about this show being all about money. He’s still pretending his criticisms are about art. They are not. I hope that doesn’t sound mean, just honest.

Ryan introduces a video package that introduces Lady Gaga. Did Sheryl Crow get an introduction package last week? I’m not certain that they even pronounced “Sheryl” correctly. I have a dim memory of her being introduced as “Sherman Crow.” I will have to review last week’s nanny-cam footage. So okay, Lady Gaga is here to mentor the kids, and she’s dressed up in a total “Lady Gaga” costume. We get a glimpse of her in action, lunging at Scotty, carried forth by the momentum of balancing on 90-inch heels. Scotty doesn’t look scared, per se; rather, he appears to be calmly but eagerly studying Lady Gaga to see if there is some gender trickery going on, as he’d heard tell of such shape-shifters and wants to be on guard against bewitchments. Lady Gaga says she wants to give the kids confidence and help them realize what’s special about them. I believe her! I like Lady Gaga and have no quarrel with her whatsoever.

Haley will sing “I Who Have Nothing,” a super-dramatic song that’s been covered by super-dramatic singers from Tom Jones to Luther Vandross to Shirley Bassey. Haley and Lady Gaga hit it off right away. Lady Gaga gives Haley some theatrical performance direction and I think, This is gonna be great. Lady Gaga agrees with me, telling Haley, “You’re gonna kick so much ass, you little pony!” This is the type of folk encouragement they give back in Gagaberia. Haley plants herself and sings the song, surrounded by a sizable little orchestra, and she really sells it. The judges give her a standing ovation. If this strong-criticism-inspiring-a-grudge-that-begets-an-emotional-performance occurs one more time, we will have ourselves a pattern.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says this is why they can’t take it easy on Haley, because she is capable of so much! Randy says this was one of her best vocals ever.
ME: Actually? I would have liked Haley to have taken the microphone out of the stand and really emoted with this one even more, but overall, I think she did a great job with another revenge performance. The ending lacked a little power, I’d say. Does it matter what I think? Why am I bothering this late in the game to deliver minor critiques?

For his Lieber & Stoller number, Scotty is going to sing “Young Blood “ by the Coasters. Lady Gaga says Scotty is “so funny.” Lady Gaga, if you think he’s funny, please read my recaps of American Idol, which you are already reading if you’re reading this. (Skip over the part where I talk about the ending of Haley’s second song lacking power; I wasn’t trying to be funny.) Lady Gaga tells Scotty to keep his mouth on the microphone, which she says is both his girlfriend and his money. Neither of these metaphors seems to resonate with Scotty. Jimmy Iovine says he couldn’t think of a better fit than Scotty McCreery and Lady Gaga, which elicits big off-camera laughs from someone who gets basic sarcasm! This is all supposed to be so crazy, the two of them together, but it’s got nothing on the meeting of Randy Travis and Adam Lambert from season eight, when Adam did an Arabian version of “Ring of Fire.” Randy looked like he was going to acquire some skin to jump out of. Back to now: Scotty’s performance is just jaw-droppingly muggy. He could have used some of the restraint usually demonstrated by, say, a Lady Gaga.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says now that she’s seen two sides of Scotty, she wants to see him show yet another side and sprint toward the finish line. Randy says we just saw both sides of a Scotty concert! We all know concerts have sides, and they have a maximum of two. So I guess J.Lo will not get her pie-in-the-sky wish of a third side.
ME: A picture is worth a thousand “What the fucks.” Below, some screen caps of my favorite moments from Scotty’s performance:

Here he is, just getting started.
Scotty 1.jpg

What is this face supposed to be communicating?
Scotty 2.jpg

I like the classic Hammer Films “Dracula” feel of this.
Scotty 3.jpg

I would also like to include this screen cap of what I believe is a nightclub bouncer who has a hard time leaving his work at the office.
Bodyguard.jpg
Come on guy, you’re off the clock! Let your scalp down!

Back from break, Scotty deigns to admit that he appreciated Lady Gaga’s attempt to give him advice. As he puts it, “Everyone’s got their way of doing things.” Notice his use of the singular. Their way. That about sums it up.

Ryan fills me in a little more about this “send them home” business when he says we’re voting “not only for our favorites to win, but also to send them home for the famous ‘top three visits.’” I was not aware of these famous top three visits. So … are they that famous? How famous are they compared to a song by Michael Jackson? Or Alan Jackson? Or Wanda Jackson?

Lauren is going to sing Elvis Presley’s “Trouble.” Lady Gaga tells her she’s not a kid, she’s 16, and when she herself was 16, she would’ve been considered too weird to be on American Idol. What she does not say is that the only reason she’s on American Idol now is that she’s hugely successful. Money trumps weird every time. I’m not onboard with Lady Gaga telling a 16-year-old kid that she’s not a kid, but maybe Lady Gaga was thinking in terms of pioneer times. And isn’t Lady Gaga overdue to appear in a pioneer costume? Buckskins? Coonskin cap? What’s the holdup? “Trouble” includes the line, “I’m evil.” Lauren is afraid to call herself evil. I don’t know why this is so scary to her. Maybe she thinks it’s like saying “Candyman” to the mirror and something bad will happen if she repeats it too many times. Another lyric in “Trouble” is “I was born standing up.” No doubt judicious editing was employed to spare us Lauren’s physiological issues with that line. Lady Gaga and Jimmy Iovine are successfully able to convince her that this song is not haunted. Although maybe they spoke too soon, because when Lauren walks out on to the stage, someone is playing a keytar out there!

Keytar.jpg
I’ve just seen a g-g-g-g-ghost!

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo saw a mature performance quality in Lauren that she hasn’t seen before. Randy says he actually really enjoyed it. That’s certainly not being mean, but perhaps the phrasing is a shade too honest.
ME: Even a silly song like this requires more maturity to sing than Lauren has at 16. I don’t know what J.Lo saw, but I saw a kid trying to sex herself up, and I felt kind of embarrassed for her. As we got to break, Ryan says, “Up next, James Durbin meets Lady Gaga. Need I say more?” Yes. I need you to say you were just kidding and the show is over. But no more than that.

When we return, Ryan’s in the audience and chats with Mike Stoller. Behind them is a little kid in a comically oversize baseball cap. He looks like something out of an old movie, one that is so old that the little child from that movie would have died of old age twenty tears ago.

Stoller.jpg

I wonder if he is there to make the elderly Mr. Stoller feel more at home? Or to make him think he is seeing a ghost child. This is a great way to scare the elderly into putting you in their wills; you “exorcise” the kid-ghost and you are their hero!

For his Round Two song, James is going to sing “Love Potion Number Nine.” Really? Okay, dude. It’s your show. Lady Gaga wants James to move his hips and goes so far as to move them for him, putting her hands on them and forcing him to move them back and forth. This is all deeply unpleasant. I’m sure James’s wife, watching at home, is chuckling fondly at this, all while fashioning diapers from long-empty cereal-box liners. James’s set kicks off with a searing guitar and — oh no! It’s that guy from last week who has guitar-hate written all over his face! He is asphyxiating a different guitar! He is a serial guitar strangler!
Mad guitar.jpg

James starts the song so high it makes me nervous, because he only ever goes higher. His patterns are as predictable as the tides themselves. I’m sure all the women who’ve been watching James since auditions have synced up by now, you know what I’m saying? We’re all adults here. James runs all around the crowd before returning to the stage for a torturous, Zeppelinic ending. This is way more drama than this very slight song deserves. I’m sure even Lieber and Stoller would probably admit ”Love Potion Number Nine” was never meant to stand the test of time and was written solely to buy that nice bottle-green leather couch they’d had an eye on for their Brill Building office.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says this shows her that James can sing anything! Randy says James is peaking at the right time!
ME: It’s funny how a simple phrase — like the one J.Lo uses, “You take any song and you put that James thing on it” — can mean different things to different people. For instance, J.Lo means that as a positive, can you imagine? After James receives his raves from the judges, Ryan says to him, “Thank you very much for that activity.” It’s so stilted and odd. Ryan sounds like a distant dad trying to acknowledge the success of his son while taking care not to express any actual pride.

And there it is. “It’s imperative you vote tonight,” Ryan says. “This is the week Daughtry went home.” Wait a minute — correct me if I’m wrong, but Chris Daughtry’s just fine. I don’t think he put rocks in his pockets and jumped off a bridge, right? Isn’t he a successful recording artist? Are we supposed to fear that our favorites won’t get extra-successful? Perhaps realizing this fear-mongering speech may be met with mockery from the likes of me, Ryan closes with a threat: next week, the world premiere of a brand-new music video from Steven Tyler. Are you telling me this is not even a world premiere Aerosmith video? This is stuff Steven needs to express solo?

I’m not afraid of you, American Idol. Do your worst.

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