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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

American Idol: The Old Guys Are Better Than The Young Guys Edition

(Spoiler Down Below)

One thing about watching fogies night is the realization that the old, professional singers are, in large part, out-singing their American Idol counterparts. Including some of those who made it pretty far into the show. Including one of the guys who had a chance to win tonight.

Seriously, Lee DeWyze seems like a really nice guy, but his voice isn’t particularly good, he can’t seem to remember (or maybe he just doesn’t appreciate) the melody, he doesn’t connect emotionally to the song, he’s charismatic in the same way that firewood is charismatic, and he’s boring.

I like pop music and my disappointment in the show isn’t a reflection of the songs that they sing (although what I wouldn’t have given to see them have to tackle, say, Corrosion of Conformity night). It’s a reflection of the fact that they pile outrageous praise on vocal performances that simply don’t deserve it like, for instance, Lee’s take on “The Boxer.” He had zero understanding of the emotion or the subtlety of the song and, honestly, it was a horrible song for a night where they were supposed to be singing inspirational songs.

“The Boxer” may be defiant, but it’s hardly inspirational either in tone or in subject--it’s a hard song about someone who, in the words of Social Distortion’s Mike Ness, is “born to lose and destined to fail.” Unlike the Ness song, though, Simon and Garfunkel’s boxer keeps standing up to take the next punch. That’s not inspirational because there is precisely nothing in the song or the character they paint that leads anyone to believe that the guy is going to win the fight (much less “win” in life)--he’ll just gather more scars and wish he could find his way home. His life will leave him lonely and he’ll continue to take his solace in “the whores on Seventh Avenue,” but that’s an empty and cold life by anyone’s standards.

Inspirational? I don’t see it.

If he had managed to sing it well, I might have forgiven him, but he didn’t. In fact, of the episodes that I saw this year, there really weren’t a lot of highlights--and what few bright spots there were didn’t come from him.

Tim Urban, with one of the most limited voices on the show, managed one of those high points when he sang “Hallelujah.” While it didn’t capture the emotional wallop of Leonard Cohen’s original (another guy with a seriously limited voice) or the transcendent beauty of Jeff Buckley’s version, but he put heart and soul into the song and came out with something special in its own right. Perhaps it was that he managed the emotional connection that most AI performances simply can’t reach. Or maybe it was that you could tell that he was standing right at the ragged edge of his vocal range and giving his all to make it as good as he could possibly manage.

And Tim--we called him Smiley around the Zomby household--was the picture of good grace. His parents must be proud. He stood in front of judges who were brutal and, week after week, he faced their criticism with good humor and a brilliant smile. Even when you could see that something had gotten through, he didn’t let the smile fail. And, finally, the judges relented, even to the point of almost admitting that they had treated him poorly. Still, he smiled, did his best, and enjoyed his opportunity to be in the spotlight.

He didn’t deserve to win the show, and I’m not suggesting that he did, but he had something that nearly none of the others had this year: a natural charisma and good spirit that had me pulling for him whenever we caught the show.

Tonight, though, the two who had a chance to win were a second-rate vocal talent with little charisma and a much more vibrant vocal talent (and a bit of a throwback to the early late sixties in style) who wilted a bit as the show went along.

And while I enjoyed most of the songs that Bowersox had a part in, the truth is that they were often outshone by artists well past their prime. Did you catch Joe Cocker’s moment? The man still has a bigger voice than anyone else on the show (and Lee positively disappeared beside Cocker and Bowersox in that moment--it was obvious that he wasn’t even in the same weight class).

How about Alice Cooper with his immense showmanship and command of the stage? Or Michael McDonald’s duet with Big Mike? Both of the old guys showed up big (even if the audience seemed largely confused by Michael McDonald).

The truth is that American Idol largely crowns second-rate talents and, while I’m happy for the winners, they are mostly music history footnotes just a few years after they win. Tonight, between these two, the winner should have been Bowersox, but the prize went to a guy who probably won’t be remembered except to the Idol-obsessed masses. He’ll make gobs of money (because there are some big guarantees) and he’ll live the life of a star for the next couple years (more than I’ll ever experience) and he won’t much matter in the grand scheme of things.

With Simon Cowell’s retirement from the show, I’ll be mercifully released from the last, tenuous hold that American Idol has used to lure me in with increasing irregularity.

What a relief. 

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