You know how a good piece of art can take the familiar and make you see it in a brand-new way? Turns out total bullshit can do the same thing. Tonight’s Idol showed me what’s wrong with this show, with total clarity, in about a dozen different ways. The veil has been lifted from my eyes. Can we discuss it?
Okay: Last week, as you recall, absolutely nothing happened. Remember in seasons past, when if the judges wanted to use the save, the next week two people would be eliminated? This season, the save was built right into the show’s schedule, to the degree that if they didn’t use it — and why on Earth wouldn’t they? It’s right there! — the producers would have to scramble and figure out how to dick around for an extra week. That’s the first truth of the night: This is how much the judges actually cared about Janelle Arthur. That’s cold. (The second truth is that this show has a remarkable facility with dicking around.)
So, this week, the top four have yet another chance to sing two more songs and do pretty much what they’ve been doing all along, and then tomorrow one of them will go home, I guess maybe. Our top four, for the first time in years, is all ladies. And for the first time ever, all the ladies are Anne Hathaway, swotting away for teacher, trying to do just the right thing in just the right way, every single second. Idol’s ratings are sliding, and it’s not just because the young girls who drive this show (and I) don’t have a pretend boyfriend to visit every week. It’s more that these women are too good and too eager to please. A Lee DeWyze or a Kris Allen kept you coming back to see how they’d tailor each theme week to their limited skill set. They put on a lazy high-wire act, and you could sometimes see the terror in their dreamy eyes. It was thrilling, in its way. Season twelve’s top four are monstrously talented and all they seem to want is to get As. It’s getting tedious.
Round one forces the top four to perform songs from the year 2013, which actually worries me more than any theme yet because how are these girls going to sound convincingly like people who are alive now? And here to help them sound fresh and current is Harry Connick Jr. Honestly, I think the person who built the switch that everyone at American Idol is asleep at was asleep when he made that switch.
Angie chooses to do what she calls “a very different version of ‘Diamonds,’ by Rihanna,” which you have correctly guessed will be overwrought and at a piano. She and Harry have a little bit of comic chemistry, by which I mean they do a little Garth & Kat routine together that makes you appreciate Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig and wonder why they don’t just go get them as guest mentors.
Angie’s performance is a little too studied. You can see her trying to get it right: passion here, runs here, earnest look to camera here. She strips the song down just enough to where you notice that there isn’t much of a song to begin with. Keith calls out correctly that if she’s going to change the arrangement of the song, she could also change the song’s melody, (or, you know, give it one). Is Keith getting more tattoos as the season goes on, or is it just one that’s spreading across his body like lichen on a tree?
Nicki and Mariah get into another tussle, as much as they can when they’re not facing each other. Ryan says, “I have a hunch the swivel function of the judges’ chairs is going to come in handy tonight.” I have a hunch it won’t, because Mariah will only show you the right side of her face.
Amber says she’s excited to have an extra week, so she can redeem herself from last week, though I seem to remember last week the judges unanimously praising the living shit out of her. She chooses Pink’s “Just Give Me a Reason,” on whose lyrics she’s shaky. Harry counsels her to just hum the song if she can’t remember the words. Obviously, she doesn’t. She just stands stock-still onstage, looking like a girl who is straining to remember lyrics. She doesn’t move. And neither does the song. Nicki tells her to incorporate her personality into her performances, which is good advice, because she doesn’t look like she’s enjoying herself. And then everyone kind of echoes Nicki, and takes forever doing it.
Candice is up next. Here’s another thing: Many of you in the comments section have pointed out that I’ve been spelling it “Candace” for the last few weeks, even though her name is right up there in great big letters on my screen, spelled the right way, at least twice per show. Boy, there was a time not long ago when I would have been mortified by such an error. Can I tell you how much of a spelling, grammar, and general correctness scold I am? When I worked at MTV, I caught a mistranscribed lyric on an episode of Say What — a lyric to Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy With It,” which who even cares? — and I wrote a sternly worded e-mail to the producer about it. I didn’t even work on the show at the time, I was just watching it in my office, and that lyric about “you gotta Prada bag with a lotta stuff in it” crawled past as “doodada Prada bag with a lotta stuff in it,” and I said “Oh, hell no.” That’s how much of a prissypants I generally am about this kind of thing. And that’s how much this season is sapping my essence: I have consistently misspelled the name of one of the four people I’m writing about, and my honest reaction is: Huh, how about that? You’re killing me, American Idol.
Anyway: CANDICE goes for Bruno Mars’s “When I Was Your Man,” despite not actually being a man. (Right? Or am I completely out to lunch?) Harry tells her: “If you were a man, you’d be an attractive man. I’d like to look like you as a man.” This is not so much a backhanded compliment as a backhand. Her performance is solid, though: She gives the song real emotion, which is no mean feat with Bruno Mars, our most by-the-numbers pop star in ages. The judges love it. Randy adds, “I don’t even care about the thing with the gender,” when we all know that if it were a guy singing a female song, he’d bellow and guffaw for the entire rest of the show. “WHAT! You a DUDE, DOGG. This is CRAZY.”
Kree chooses Carrie Underwood’s “See You Again,” essentially surrendering to the judges’ expectations that she’ll go country. Harry likes her voice and says, “If she needed help with a song, I would say yes. That’s how much I like her.” (The implication is that he has already washed his hands of Angie, Amber, and Candice. I love it.) Her performance is typical Kree, which I like, though I wish she’d have gone with something from the new Brandi Carlile album. Mariah acknowledges that Kree “didn’t go crazy vocally just all over the place for laughs,” unwittingly exposing Mariah’s entire brand. Nicki loves it. Harry Connick comes out onstage and congratulates Kree. One gets the sense that Harry and Kree are texting each other right this second.
Round two is standards, which is irrelevant because no matter what round two would have been, these ladies would have made the songs sound like standards.
Angie’s choice is “Someone to Watch Over Me,” which her mom used to sing around the house. It’s quite good! It has that hoping, pleading, earnest quality that suits Angie well, even if she looks like a pageant contestant who’s had a team of stylists watching over her for hours. I like the idea of young people getting introduced to this song, and I’m okay with however it happens. I heard “It Had to Be You” via Harry Connick’s version on the When Harry Met Sally soundtrack, and so did you, and that’s fine. (By the way, the children of America won’t hear peppy, jazzy standards like “It Had to Be You” for the first time tonight, because there aren’t enough opportunities for vocal gymnastics and runs.) The judges love it, though Mariah says she wants more dynamics “unlike some other judges who want you to be at the top of your register all the time.” (Nobody said this, by the way.) Nicki yells over her: “Clean them ears out! Let me get you a Q-tip so you can clean them ears out!” And then she actually produces a Q-tip from her purse, and it’s almost an interesting moment, so of course they cue the music and stop it in its tracks.
Amber redoes “My Funny Valentine,” because why the hell wouldn’t she? Harry asks her what the song is about, and she answers: “It’s about two people and they’re being funny with each other. Like, they’re being weird.” (Fun fact: NO.) (And I will show mercy and not get into what she thought “is your figure less than Greek” meant.) Okay, there is something fundamentally wrong with this show if a person can sing “My Funny Valentine” more than once and not have a clue that it’s about loving an ugly person. Still, even if she thinks it’s about people sending each other goofy Snapchats, she kills the shit out of it and gets a standing ovation. I love and hate it all at once.
Keith points out in his critique that the girls face a dead audience when they come out, which means two things: (1) American Idol’s audience warm-up person is updating his résumé right this second, and (2) American Idol’s producers are missing the point entirely, which is that the show has become two hours of ballads punctuated by four babbling millionaires, and all the sugar in the world can’t keep you awake through that.
If I know one thing about Harry Connick Jr, it’s that he speaks the truth: The standards they’re singing in round two don’t need runs. (He says Amber’s big high note at the end of “My Funny Valentine” “just doesn’t make any sense at all,” and I jump off my sofa and shout, “THANK YOU.”) He tries to dissuade Candice from getting all tricksy with “You’ve Changed” — one need not Jennifer Holliday–up a Billie Holiday song, after all — and … he is mostly unsuccessful. How could he not be? This generation of singers has been infected with the Runs, and there is no cure. Especially on this show, where the judges will never ask for subtlety. This song needs some vulnerability, not so much showing off. Of course the judges love it. Randy tries to defend his pro-run position, saying that “Miles Davis told me you have to feel every note you sing,” which is a weird thing for a saxophone player to tell a bass player, but whatever. UPDATE: Turns out Miles Davis played the trumpet, which I actually knew. See? KILLING ME.
Harry worries that Kree’s licks and runs on “Stormy Weather” prove that she doesn’t understand the lyrical content of the song. He even uses the word I’ve been dying for someone to pull out on a show like this: gratuitous. He says she’ll need to spend more time getting to know the song to really knock it out of the park and then adds: “Can she do it good enough for the show? Heck yeah.” (Nobody at Idol is paying attention to what anyone is saying, ever; they leave this amazing knock on their own show in, unedited. Suddenly I want to have drinks with Harry Connick Jr. all the time.) Kree does a competent job on it, but I still feel like her heart’s not in this anymore.
Mariah says that she wishes she’d have done a blues standard, then talks forever and says everything and nothing at the same time. Here’s how Harry reacts:
Randy says she should have tried the Etta James version of “Stormy Weather,” but also should have been herself, which of course makes no sense. Keith pulls Harry up to the judges’ panel, where he and Randy debate briefly, with Harry making more sense, displaying more musical knowledge, and being funnier in twenty seconds than Randy has been in twelve years.
I want to watch Harry’s version of this show. He can lead us to a place that’s truly new: a place where singers interpret the meanings of songs, rather than trying to win a Most Notes Sung award. He can loosen these people up, the way only a New Orleans jazz man can. What I’m saying is: Can we keep Harry? I promise we’ll feed and walk him.
And then, in the worst tonal shift ever, we get an unintroduced group number, which eats up the extra five minutes of this show and looks to have been devised, rehearsed, and choreographed during the commercial break. I’m not going to get into it.
Who the hell knows who’s going home tomorrow? And, honestly, who cares? All these girls did well on the test. The show has molded them into exemplary American Idol contestants, and their futures are secure.
Unless something changes with this whole show, though, my future as a viewer is considerably less so.