"American Idol" embarrasses the greats

In last night's episode, the show's finalists paid tribute to their favorite singers. It wasn't pretty

By Matt Zoller Seitz
Published March 10, 2011 2:30PM (EST)
Pia Toscano performs on "American Idol"
Pia Toscano performs on "American Idol"

UPDATED Thursday, 3/10/2011, 9:15 PM. Scroll down for this week's voting results.

All performers are shaped by their idols -- the greats who struck a chord in them and helped shape their sound and style. But performers only become true artists when they absorb and transform those influences into something new and personal. When a listener says, "She sings like Diana Ross," they're complimenting mimicry. But when they say, "She reminds me of Diana Ross," they're complimenting artistry. They're saying a performer has the potential to be as good as Diana Ross, but in her own way.

That's the appeal of idol night on "American Idol" -- the chance to watch performers try to convince us they can be as great as their heroes, but different. The phrase "but different" is crucial. If singers can't bring something fresh to an iconic rendition of a well-known song, it doesn't matter how polished the performances are, or how strongly the crowd seems to be pulling for them. On this night, the would-be Idols had to show us (and judges Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson) something we haven't seen before -- a spark that sets them apart from the heroes they study and emulate. Granted, part of that struggle is in the hands of unseen arrangers and coaches (in this case, the Svengali is Interscope Records' Jimmy Iovine and an army of producers, including Don Was and Rodney Jerkins). But it's ultimately the singer's moment to rise or fall. A performance has soul and originality or it doesn't. If it doesn't, the dismissals can be brutal and final: "In a million years, this girl could never be a tenth as good as Diana Ross." Or worse: "It's a bad Diana Ross impression."

That's what happened to Ashthon Jones. During last night's first Top 13 performance by finalists, she made it clear that she's a crushingly literal performer. Last week she was told she could be Diana Ross, so she showed up the next week doing "When You Tell Me That You Love Me" in the style of Diana Ross, but without Ross' strength and sincerity; basically really, really good karaoke, complete with vaguely Ross-like hand gestures and ice-cream-scooped notes. And it was weirdly listless. Jones didn't come to life until the line, "Everytime you touch me/I become a hero," and from then on, the performance was lively when it should have been stirring.  It wasn't Ross-worthy, it was Ross-flavored.

Casey Abrams' performance of "With a Little Help From My Friends" was better karaoke. In the run-up video, Abrams told us he adored Joe Cocker and that his gateway into Cocker's work was the English rocker's cover of the Beatles' "With a Little Help From My Friends," as heard in the opening credits to "The Wonder Years." Every musical obsession has to start somewhere, and a sitcom as good a place as any. But after an intriguingly sweet and reflective first verse (love that fluttery "Wha-a-a-a-a-t....would you do...."), Abrams launched into a mid-level Joe Cocker impression, complete with studied approximations of Cocker's one-of-a-kind vocal tics -- that bright yet fuzzy delivery, the Sheffield-by-way-of-a-Mississippi-bluesman inflections, and the stuttery "Ooo ooo ooh" interjections that only Cocker can do, or should be allowed to do. Abrams had me, then he lost me; that lovely first verse made me want to follow him anywhere, but after that he was so obvious I could hardly stand to watch him. Ringo Starr's original recording was a gentle paean to the power of friendship. Cocker's cover was a searing confession by a man whose friends were the only thing standing between him and the abyss. Abrams' version was about a kid watching "The Wonder Years," then trying to sing like Joe Cocker.

At least Abrams connected with Cocker, or seemed to be with him in spirit. That's more than you can say for James Durbin's rendition of "Maybe I'm Amazed." No man should sing that song unless he's suffered unimaginable misery and then found -- or thought he found -- salvation through love. Nothing in Durbin's performance suggested he'd been through an experience that powerful, or even that he understood it in the abstract. "James Durbin is dangerous, America! “ Jackson proclaimed. “This man can sing!" I agree with the second part, but the first is laughable. Durbin just didn't have the gravitas or imagination to sing "Maybe I'm Amazed.” It was mildly exciting on a technical level -- Paul McCartney's songs often demand range, and Durbin's was acceptable -- but it wasn't surprising, or even that affecting. McCartney's original performance welded ecstasy to misery. His voice cracked and fell apart on the high notes, on that super-high "Help meeeeeeeeeeeeeee," it disintegrated. The man was lying at the bottom of a pit thinking all was lost, and then he saw a silhouette at the top and realized there was hope. Durbin's rendition was more along the lines of, "I like you, but I'm going through a lot right now, so be patient with me."

It's not easy for a pop singer to be technically impeccable while connecting with audiences on a gut level. Haley Reinhart's "Blue" managed the first part; I liked the bluesy inflections in the second half of the performance and the yodel-y vocal effects liberally scattered throughout (much showier than LeAnn Rimes', but still fun). But there's a touch of chilling android awesomeness to Reinhart, and if there's a heart buried in the circuitry, she didn't show it last night. The judges didn't see it, either. Tyler offered a anecdote about how the song ended up on Rimes' debut album and told Reinhart she was "so, so fine, thank you very much," the nice guy's version of "Don't call us, we'll call you." Lopez said "You do things with your voice that are so diverse!" which is demonstrably true. But I don't see how Lopez's compliment "Really, really special" applied to this performance, unless Lopez was referring to Reinhart's chameleon quality. Jackson said, "Last week you're doing Alicia Keys, then you do LeAnn Rimes," but that turned out to be faint praise. I don't agree with Jackson on everything, but I like that he's rarely dazzled by technique alone, and when he called Reinhart's performance "a little boring, actually," he was right.

Thia Megia's version of a Posse-produced "Smile" -- a song based on a melody for Charlie Chaplin's score for the 1936 comedy "City Lights" -- was a relief; any time a contestant doesn't come barrelling in like a manic cheerleader, it sets her apart from the competition. And while the arrangement's light backbeat seemed a horrible idea at first -- This song is too quiet! Sex it up! -- it grew on me, and Megia made it feel natural. But there was nothing revelatory in her delivery, and certainly nothing that improved or expanded on her inspiration, Michael Jackson's 1995 cover. (Megia, like Jones, lacks imagination; last week the judges told her she sounded like Michael Jackson, so this week she did a song covered by Michael Jackson. If they'd told her she sounded like Miss Piggy, she would have done "Never Before" from "The Muppet Movie" while seated on a red velvet throne.)

Naima Adedapo's gratingly off-key cover of Rihanna's "Umbrella" was a near-disaster until the arrangement morphed into reggae and gave her an excuse to bust out the arena-goddess dance spasms. But that midpoint rally was more a triumph of arrangement and choreography than musicianship, and it was undercut by the dumb backdrops behind Adedapo (It's raining, she needs an umbrella!). Lauren Alainas' "Any Man of Mine" was an okay country-western cover band version, with slurry phrasing; Tyler's "I wish it had been a little more kick-ass" was too kind. Scotty McCreery's "The River" was solid but more likable than dazzling, and it was hampered by weak phrasing and McCreery's inability to hit the song's country-rumble low notes as gracefully as Garth Brooks. (More dumb backdrops. Look, a river!) Karen Rodriguez's performance of Selena's "I Could Fall in Love" was a closure moment for the singer -- her mom used to dress her like Selena -- but it had the same kid-singing-into-a-hairbrush aspect that marred Abrams' "With a Little Help From My Friends." 

Covering "Lately" was just a bad idea from the start -- with their key changes, multiple-octave ranges and acrobatic flourishes, Stevie Wonder's songs are for great singers only -- and throughout Steven Langone's cover, I kept thinking, "He doesn't have the range or the chops for this. Someone should have talked him out of it." (Although that first "Good-bye-eee-eye!" was killer.) Having loved and identified with a performer is not reason enough to do his music on "American Idol." The material has to mesh with the singer's own gifts, and there has to be something going on in a performance besides enthusiasm and nostalgia. That's why I liked Paul McDonald's cover of Ryan Adams' "Come Pick Me Up." The vocals were nothing special, but everything else about the performance was surprising, fun and uniquely McDonald -- the giddy grin, the skittering-and-hopscotching dance moves, the sheer bouncy energy. He's a charming kook. Again, Jackson nailed it: "After last week's performance of you doing Rod Stewart, it probably wasn't the most exciting thing for people, but what I love about you is, I love the character of who you are."

The same could be said for Jacob Lusk, who did "I Believe I Can Fly" not in the style of R. Kelly, but the style of Jacob Lusk. On the list of what matters most in art, perfection should be near the bottom. The ability to communicate emotion is much more important; Lusk has always understood that, and he proved it again last night. The performance was frequently off-key and sometimes off-rhythm, and in the buildup to the first chorus, there was a moment where his vocals became almost totally detached from the music. But none of that mattered. Lusk’s “I Believe I Can Fly” was awkward, crazy and beautiful, like a church performance by a singer who's so moved by forces larger than himself that he gets drunk on the rush and starts winging it . His switch to falsetto in the final stretch was heartfelt, powerful and pure, and when he followed four repetitions of a quavering "Whyyy-y-yyy-yyy" with a church-friendly "God dawg it!", I laughed with joy. 

The highlight of the night was Pia Toscano covering "All By Myself," a song that has been marked "Property of Celine Dion" since 1996. As a registered Dion hater, I was relieved that Toscano not only avoided the temptation to imitate Dion, but rejected her knee-jerk narcissism as well. Dion's "All By Myself" felt past-tense, like a report by a woman who studied a situation, made a sensible decision and expected to be congratulated on her excellent judgment. Toscano's performance was as technically clean as Dion’s, but more searching, reflective and active. It was present-tense. As she sang, you could see the narrator looking back on her past, studying her present, admitting her desolation and resolving to connect with the world -- a simple account of a hard journey. There were competent singers last night, and a few good ones, but only a handful of performances that didn't tempt me to pause the show and listen to the recordings that inspired them.  Of those performances, only one told a story: Toscano's "All By Myself." 

UPDATE: Ashthon Jones was booted off "Idol" during the March 10, 2011 results show. "I was rooting for you, baby," Lopez told her. Jones wept while a video monitor played a farewell montage backed by former "Idol" contestant David Cook's cover of 'Don't You Forget About Me." Haley Reinhart and Karen Rodriguez were with Jones in the bottom three, but will return next week.

At the start of the program, Ryan Seacrest announced that competitor Casey Abrams was not present because he was "sick and in the hospital right now," then invited the others to wave to him on TV. Abrams, 19, had been hospitalized once before during this run of "Idol" for severe stomach pains, and had a blood transfusion while in the hospital.

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