Listen, I really wasn’t expecting tonight’s Idol to start with a T.S. Eliot quote. But here we are: “What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is often a beginning. The end is where we start from.” I have no idea how that applies to this situation, but I’m happy to see a St. Louis literary legend reppin’ on Idol. Stack that paper, Estate of T.S. Eliot!
Our judges are at their very them-est tonight, wardrobe-wise: Randy is wearing a lavender sport coat with a giant chocolate nonpareil — a Senior Mint? — pinned to the breast. Jennifer is wearing some kind of Venetian-blind top with cutouts that display her astonishing abdominal muscles. And Steven is dressed like a pimp on Barney Miller.
Ryan’s staircase-descent smile is toned down to “aggressively pleasant,” as he deploys his Emotion-Conveyance Chin and acknowledges the passing of Dick Clark. But the moment is quick, as Mr. Clark would want the show to go on. Which is true; for as much of a giant as he was, Dick Clark did not do emotion.
Not doing emotion, you will see, turns out to be a theme tonight.
Tonight will contain the most music on any episode to date, as each of the top seven will choose two songs: one from 2000 to the present day, one soul classic. Yes, somehow they will fit fourteen 90-second songs into one 120-minute show, like some kind of fucking magician.
And there will be no mentor this evening, which after Akon is good news. Hollie’s up first. Jimmy tells her to loosen up, as you can tell when she’s nervous. Which is true! I tend to notice that she is nervous mostly when she is on my television screen. She does Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” which I’m relieved I didn’t hear more times this season. It’s technically fine, but I think it requires a warmth that Hollie’s voice just can’t deliver. Also, there are disembodied heads singing along to it on the Stage Oval. It’s very Hunger Games. The judges love it, because they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Colton is wearing some kind of ... jacket with cape tails? I don’t quite know what it is, but it’s so mall-gothy, Siobhan Magnus just got it tattooed on her back. (Deep cut.) He does Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” with a rad-looking female backup band. It immediately becomes clear they are miming. It’s a very Warped Tour Emo Stage version of this song, and it doesn’t quite translate. Also the name “Gaga” is right there in the song, which should make it coverproof. Oh well. The judges still love it, and by way of explaining his versatility, Colton says he is “planning to expand his box every week.” Listen, I know a lot of your time is spent painting children’s faces at church fairs and stuff, but don’t say that kind of thing, Colton.
Jimmy and Elise have a refreshingly frank talk about why the voters don’t seem to like her. She acknowledges that she lacks the young-girl fan base of a Colton or a Phillip, and Jimmy says she has to prove herself every week, and therefore can’t slip at all. And she doesn’t! Her version of Alicia Keys’s “No One” is actually better than the original! But it does not turn her into a dreamy young man, so she’s probably still doomed. Ryan brings up the fact that her dog is very sick, which is something Dick Clark would never have done. Shame on you.
Phillip does Usher’s “You Got It Bad,” and it is distressingly sexy; I hit pause for a moment, and I can actually hear millions of girls enter puberty. I think we’re all trying to convince ourselves that he doesn’t have this thing sewn up, but he does and we should just accept it.
Jimmy says Jessica must now save herself, which she tries to do by taking on Alicia Keys’s “Fallin’.” For me, “Fallin’” achieved white-noise status years ago; when it is playing, I tend to say: “Would someone turn the radio on?” She is surrounded by floating red umbrellas, because maybe this performance is sponsored by Citibank. It’s fine, but she hasn’t solved her personality problem, and you know what? Neither has Alicia Keys. But the judges love it, because they are gagging for her to win. Randy: “Girl blew the box out the song.” Let’s maybe stop talking about boxes for a little while.
Skylar Laine chooses the country version of “Born This Way,” which is different from the other version of “Born This Way” in that it has a fiddle and it tells you it’s the country version of “Born This Way” a million times. Skylar elides all the lyrics about how you should be gay if you’re gay, which kind of rips the heart out of the song, though I’m always grateful not to hear “Don’t be a drag, just be a queen.” It’s fine. The judges love it a little too much.
Joshua does “I Believe,” by Fantasia, which is one of those songs that is designed for maximum melisma. You are correct in assuming that he delivers. But what is the song about? Who is Joshua? The guy is still a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, who yells too much. The judges go bananas as usual, and Ryan attempts to banter with him, to no avail. But the exchange does elicit the Ryan-est line of all time: “Great emotion.”
It is time for round two, in which the kids sing a soul song from back in the day. It is tied somehow to “Soul Train,” which is tied to Dick Clark because it was a show that was kind of like American Bandstand. Okay. Hollie does “Son of a Preacher Man,” which was released three years before “Soul Train” premiered. She sounds more relaxed than ever, probably because she’s been able to warm up, but the song is still too sexy for someone who is dressed like an American Girl doll.
Colton turns Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” into something you’d hear in an episode of The Secret Circle. For once, the judges don’t love it! And they’re right! It’s too safe, too neutered, too nasal! This won’t matter, of course, but it’s refreshing all the same.
Elise packs “Let’s Get It On” with the growls and yelps that white people who are desperate to appear soulful like to affect. It’s nice, but it could have stood to sound less rehearsed; it is, after all, a song about sex. Elise seems straight terrified in the moment before judging, but J. Lo gives her some good advice: show some emotion and vulnerability. (You know, like she does in her new song featuring Pitbull.) That note applies to all seven of these kids. Maybe the fact that Idol is anchored by an android and three cheerful lobotomy patients has something to do with it.
Phillip cuts loose on Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour,” by which I mean he ditches the guitar and takes three steps in either direction. He can’t quite make eye contact with the audience, though; he’s still caught looking off into the middle distance. Steven puts it best: It was “brilliantly awkward.”
Jessica is wearing the pelt of a chandelier she killed on the plains of Beverly Hills, as she performs “Try a Little Tenderness.” It might be unfair to expect a 16-year-old to possess the soul that’s necessary to put this song across, but again she confuses volume and virtuosity for emotion. She needs seasoning, and the Idol tour is probably not where she’s going to get it.
Skylar’s been boring me lately, but I got to give it up: She absolutely owns “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” It’s somewhere in between soul and country; she fuses the song’s personality with her own, the way it should be done at this stage of the game. Good for her! Best of all, the crucifix around her neck is totally horizontal, like she’s storing Jesus sideways to preserve His freshness.
Joshua does “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and you know what it sounds like. He makes his Joshua noise A LOT. My earlier critique of Joshua stands: We know he can sing, now he needs to go do some living. But — everybody now! — the judges love it. Randy actually says “The talent on Idol is better than any other show on TV,” which is an egregious and unnecessary swipe at The Voice. And while he’s on a roll, when Joshua says he was looking at J.Lo’s abs through his whole performance, Randy bellows, “What about mine? What about my abs? WHAT?” Stop, Randy. You are killing me.
T.S. Eliot is right: The end is in the beginning, namely in Hollie’s choice of “Rolling in the Deep.” I think the massive popularity of Adele speaks to the fact that we haven’t heard a singer convey emotion in forever. Now that someone has come along with a technically flawless voice that can also express heartbreak and longing and lust, people are lapping it up. (See also: Gotye.) And these kids, who were raised on Christina Aguilera and Auto-Tune, see this phenomenon and approach it like a math problem: What is the right number and combination of notes to make me sound like I’ve had a human experience? Shows like this — with judges like these — don’t know how to discourage this strategy, so we end up with two hours of yelling. If I ran the zoo, I would actively encourage these kids to start boning each other.
But I don’t, and most of them are too pious to do it anyway. I’m also not a 12-year-old girl, so I have no idea who’s going home tomorrow. And now, a sentence I never thought I would type: American Idol has inspired me to pull out my copy of The Waste Land.