Okay. Tonight’s American Idol was the most manipulative of the season, and not just because the top four paid bedside visits to terminally ill children in the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital. No, tonight the judges went all in for one particular contestant, even though she almost certainly didn’t do the best job. And here’s the deal: I absolutely agree with the judges. An Amber Holcomb victory is this show’s only hope for continued relevance.
She might not be the best singer in the competition, she might not bowl you over with personality, but she is growing before our eyes, and she’s the only one who fits easily into a marketable role. It’s been a while since we’ve had a young-n-sassy R&B singer, a cutie-pie to offset the va-voom of Beyoncé and Ciara, a Rihanna less bent on self-destruction. Amber is ready to start that job today. The rest of the finalists are talented, but I don’t know where they fit in our current pop-music landscape. Amber I get.
She kicks off tonight’s show with Celine Dion/Jennifer Rush/Laura Branigan’s “The Power of Love,” and sure it’s a hacky choice, and no I don’t want her to record anything like this, and yes she’s in a white pantsuit, but her charisma and poise are starting to emerge. 2013 needs its “I Wanna Be Down,” and Amber’s the girl to bring it. (The judges overpraise her vocals wildly.)
Candace sings a perfectly serviceable version of Drake’s “Find Your Love” that’s a little jazzy and a lot runsy and vocally flawless and herein lies the Candace Quandary: She is probably the most powerful vocalist in the bunch, but so what? Let’s be honest: Do we need a very powerful vocalist? In Jennifer Hudson, don’t we already have a very powerful vocalist, and doesn’t the fact that she’s already in a Lifetime movie less than five years from having won an Oscar offer proof that we aren’t taking care of her like we promised we would? Candace has the talent, but talent was never a guarantee, and in the age of Auto-Tune, it’s close to being superfluous. (I will say that Candace’s game of hide-and-seek with a sick 5-year-old in the Children’s Hospital is the most adorable thing I’ve seen on television in some time.)
Nicki tells her: “You’ve got to think about who your market is.” The other three judges say bland nice things for what seems like the full gestation period of a human baby, and the audience just straight-up dies during it. Not a peep out of these people, who — I can tell you from experience — are being force-fed Smarties and made to compete in dance contests every commercial break. They are jigged-up and bored. Think of it as an instant focus group, Idol gang: Your show could use some tightening.
Kree has the choice of literally any song in the world, and she chooses Susan Tedeschi’s “Hurts So Bad,” and it’s a perfect illustration of the Kree Konundrum: She clearly wants to be a blues singer, but what can American Idol do for a woman who is most at home in a genre that doesn’t sell? What if she is telling us via tonight’s song choice that she doesn’t have any particular desire to be a pop star? What if this is why she’s seemed listless in the last few weeks? She might honestly want to take the notoriety she’s earned so far and use it to book gigs singing grown-up songs on our country’s booming craft-fair circuit. I’m cool with it if she is. (The judges aren’t. But the judges are all attention whores who couldn’t possibly understand the shy dignity of a modest dream, so fuck them.)
Angie Miller has chosen Jessie J’s “Who You Are,” a song whose popularity I have never understood until tonight. Here’s where it hit me: The line “it’s okay not to be okay” is one of those lyrics that might as well have been cooked up by a team of scientists to make artsy teenage girls’ hearts soar. (And regardless of the contents of my DVR, or what’s playing on my iPod when I go running, or the fact that I watched a little bit of Splash last night just to see Drake Bell in a Speedo, I am not a teenage girl.) It is a line that a girl like Angie can deliver perfectly, but here’s the Miller Mystery: Can you seriously picture Angie not being okay? She seems like she’s on her way toward being a much, much more accessible Natasha Khan/Tori Amos kind of artist, but can one of those exist without a dark side? I mean, Jessie J herself isn’t exactly lighting it up. The judges give it a standing ovation, except for Mariah, who serves up hot Edina Monsoon: “I’m standing up in spirit, darling, because my train is caught underneath my chair.” (She also reminds Angie to “be inspired.” That’s where we all find inspiration, right? From checked-out zillionaires reminding us to feel that way? Great coaching, Mariah. Clear eyes, full hearts, three Klonopin, can’t lose.)
Ryan spots Angie’s weeping grandmother in the crowd, and exhorts her to “come up on stage and hug her!” You know what, Seacrest? Hugging is generally an idea grandmothers are able to generate on their own. You can just invite the woman onto the stage and let the sentimental geriatric magic happen. You do a decent impression of a person sometimes, Ryan, but this is the way human emotion works.
OH, GOOD, MORE DUETS. Kree and Amber team up for Adele’s “Rumour Has It.” I realize I’m risking my life, given the Kim Jong-Il–style devotion the world has for Adele at the moment (and I like her too! I do! Please don’t put me on a list), but “Rumour Has It” is an atrocious song. It stays at one level for its entire time, its chorus is two seconds on an endless loop, and worst of all for tonight’s purposes: Nothing about it lends itself to the duet treatment. This song barely gives one singer anything to do, much less two. The girls try their hardest, but there’s zero chemistry between them. Again, Nicki nails it: Neither one challenges herself to diva it up.
Ryan, to his immense credit, asks Nicki “How would you and Mariah do a duet?” and the two of them do the snap-and-neck-roll routine that you know they’ve actually done in real life, and it seems like a breakthrough, because everyone’s been walking on eggshells around these two, but as always it goes nowhere.
Angie and Candace duet on Rihanna’s “Stay.” Have you ever tried to picture Angie Miller doing a diva stank face? Well, stop. I have seen it, and it is weird. Their voices are right on point, though, and they’re a surprisingly good match, so they easily beat Kree and Amber in this thing they’re not really being judged on so who cares.
So, wait: The next theme was chosen by us the viewers, and it’s one-hit wonders! Nice work, us the viewers! Amber’s choice is a little bit of a stretch: Donna Summer’s version of Richard Harris’s “MacArthur Park.” I would have gone with Shanice’s “I Love Your Smile,” not least because I want to hear how fully she’d commit to “free to scream, free to bathe, free to paint my toes all day.” It’s shaky in parts, but it’s a fun performance from someone who appreciably improves from week to week, and that’s what we’re supposed to be watching when we watch this show.
Candace finds another loophole and does Samantha Sang’s “Emotion” (made famous by the Bee Gees). It’s funkier than she’s ever been, which is still not exactly funky, but at the very least she seems to be having a good time. Still, if you’re going to be funky and have a good time with a one-hit wonder, may I suggest Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart”?
And then an interesting moment nearly happens! Jimmy had said (correctly) that the judges overpraised Amber’s performance, so Ryan brings him out onstage to get a fight started. Nicki goes RuPaul’s Drag Race: Untucked on him, all snapping and saying “don’t make me come up there,” before actually coming up there. A spontaneous moment looks imminent, so Randy springs into action and inserts himself. “HA HAAAA. WHAT!” Ryan Seacrest and Randy Jackson: preventing fun since 2001.
Kree does Procul Harem’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which I know from the soundtrack to The Big Chill, a movie about aging hippies navigating the early eighties, which I saw when I was a child, and now I’m older than all of the characters. It might not help her mobilize the youth vote, is what I’m saying. All the judges agree that her voice sounds great but that there’s something missing, and I think I know what it is: Even people who know “A Whiter Shade of Pale” have no idea what the hell “A Whiter Shade of Pale” is about. So even if there’s ache and emotion in Kree’s voice, which there is, the lyrical content doesn’t take it anywhere.
To whichever Idol producer had the chance to make Kree sing Lisa Loeb’s “Stay” and let it slip through their fingers: I hope you can sleep at night.
“Cry Me a River” is a standard, and the nature of a standard is that they get recorded by tons of artists, and I guess one of the artists who recorded “Cry Me a River” never had another hit, so that’s how Angie grandfathers that one in. Okay: Is it lovely? Sure. Does she get to show off every note she can sing? Yes. Is she done up like the entertainment in a second-tier Vegas hotel? Absolutely. Do the judges love it? Buh (which is Boredom for “yes”). You know what would have been an interesting choice? “The Show” by Lenka. She might have shown a little personality, a little vulnerability, a little subtlety with this one. Oh well. Maybe next week will be “no hit wonders” week.
Everyone else in this competition already is who they’re going to be, and they’ve already gotten the boost that can help them get there. Candace has a future on Broadway; Angie can be the distaff Colton Dixon; and Kree will play the awards lunch at your town’s leukemia 10K. Only Amber still has the power to surprise us.
She’ll probably do it by getting voted off tomorrow, because who even knows what the hell is going on anymore.