Wednesday, March 18, 2009

American Idol Top 11

We've entered unprecedented territory, here folks. It is the second week of the American Idol finals and I'm actually not sure who will prevail in the top five positions. Naturally, the votes are never guaranteed, but it always very clear to me who SHOULD be there. At this stage in the competition, it is at least pretty clear who won't be moving forward, but after a set of stellar performances last night, I'm having trouble just deducing who will go home this week. I have yet to select my own favorite this season because with each performance my opinion shifts and evolves.

Such an admission is made more peculiar by its timing: "Country Week" is historically known to separate the true artists from the bunch who can copy Shania's twang like the rest of us. Like usual, the ones who stood out are those whose performance of a song originally rooted in the genre made me completely forget it might have ever been sung under a cowboy hat.

Certainly the best example of this feat came boldly--but not surprisingly--from Adam Lambert. His dark flamboyance would stick out in Nashville like a drag queen in kindergarten. His Middle Eastern-inspired, sitar-infused rendition of "Ring of Fire" gave me chills! It left the judges feeling somewhere between confused (Kara) and appalled (Simon), but I loved it. You just have to take a taste:

While Adam's performance may have offered a blatant affront to the life's work this week's mentor (Randy Travis suppressed his disapproval respectably), the others who chose not to worship the steel guitar earned rave reviews. Anoop sang "You're Always on my Mind," which may ignite a conspiracy theory involving a stunt double performing last week's "Beat It" trainwreck. His redemption, fully deserved, reminds us why his beautiful voice and sincere disposition are here. Kris Allen sang a Garth Brooks song that I had never heard, but his controlled, straight solo never even hinted at country music. This ballad gave a perfect balance to last week's upbeat performance, showcasing his range of skills. I would suggest that Alison Iraheta take a lesson from Kris, and change it up soon, because we've now seen the same basic act from her three times in a row.

On the other hand, sometimes what ain't broke need not be fixed. Lil Rounds decided to abandon her R&B style and pay homage to the Grand Ole Opry with a slightly twangy Martina McBride number. I dislike country music only slightly less than R&B, but I think she probably would have done more for her cause in the competition (i.e. to win) by appealing to to her fan base. It is important to show a range of skills, as I described above. In fact, I hope Scott MacIntyre will find a way to branch out of his piano-accompanied ballads if he can. But one can't overestimate his or her capabilities (perhaps Alison should keep doing her upbeat rock songs), and people who like Lil are going to like that style. The contestants who thrive tend to use the genre to their advantage without being a completely different singer each week. That unpredictability is more confusing than Adam completely in-character (not to mention impeccably performed) creativity and intensity.

Matt Giraud sounded awesome at the piano again with a song I didn't recognize, and Danny Gokey was right at home on Carrie Underwood's "Jesus Take the Wheel." Unfortunately, the opening verse was rocky; I sensed a disconnect with the band until he opened up at the big chorus. Storytelling songs require varying levels, but the verse needed more support. Danny has been one of the surefire contenders for the finale, but a performance like this among so many outstanding vocals makes me less sure. No matter what happens on American Idol, there are millions of wholesome teens who would rush out and buy his Christian Rock album.

We heard "Jolene" performed last year by another petite blondie, Brooke White, but thankfully Alexis Grace offers us a far superior vocal talent. She remains my favorite of the four females in the competition. Poor little Megan Joy Corkery was afflicted with influenza this week, but you really wouldn't have known it until she started hacking during the judges commentary. I just can't bring myself to enjoy her whiny vocal style and strange inflections as much as the panel seems to. I'll give her unique. But good and unique are not the same in my book.

The one true country boy, Michael Sarver, didn't do himself any favors with "Ain't Goin' Down Till the Sun Comes Up" by Garth Brooks. The jam-packed lyrics demand so much concentration that he couldn't relax and perform the song. And when the words have to be spouted so quickly, the singing gets excruciatingly sloppy. But all the country kids will love it, so even though he went first, I think Michael might be safe. Thus based on the singing, the next person to deserve a ticket home is Lil. Or as the always-proper British judge kept inadvertently calling her, "Little."

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