Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Sing that Funky Music, White Boy

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - At the beginning of the current season of American Idol, I told myself that I wouldn't get sucked into following it as I did in the last three years.

Why do you bother with the show, really?, I told myself. The people who participate it or win the competition may sell a lot of records, but, with the possible exception of Kelly Clarkson, none of them have really set the music world on fire with any kind of great innovation or even immensely compelling personal style. They're usually just one more pop star to manipulate and package---in fact, they're part of the American Idol package, really. This show is not really something to take all that seriously.

And in fact, this season I've more or less kept to my word. Sure, when it was on TV and I didn't really have much else to do, I tuned in and was mildly impressed by some performances, were either bored or irritated by others. (Who knew there could be someone ditzier and with less personality than last year's Idol winner Carrie Underwood? Yet this year we saw dreadful Kellie Pickler stick around for a few weeks longer than she deserved.) But I haven't followed it carefully this season...and I never vote. Don't really care enough to.

So when Tuesday evening's Top 3 show came around, I didn't really feel much of a stake in any of the contestants than I did with, say, the genuinely compelling Fantasia Barrino in Season 3. But once again, I tuned in a) because, once again, there wasn't much else to do, and b) I guess the promise of possibly hearing one great piece of singing is enough to lure me in. And, of course, there's Simon Cowell---gotta watch it for his sheer grumpiness when he hears something he dislikes. He's sometimes not as witty as he thinks he is, but, among the judges, at least he hasn't lapsed into sometimes embarrassing lameness as Randy (Dawgpound) Jackson and Paula (Incoherent) Abdul have. If there's any reason I watch Idol, Simon is definitely one major reason.

Was there good singing on Tuesday night? Certainly; you'd expect as much from a Top 3 show. But, with one or two major exceptions, the performances from Taylor Hicks, Katharine McPhee, and Elliott Yamin weren't all that dazzling. Either the song choices were dull (or, in the case of "I Believe I Can Fly," just cheesy), or the delivery was solid but not very inspired. I think Elliott Yamin has a great, silky smooth R&B voice, but that can only get you so far.

I'll bypass Katharine McPhee, who did an above-average rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow"---a great performance, to be sure, but, for my money, still not the most memorable "moment" on this show. (Remember Bo Bice's breathtaking, all a-cappella "In A Dream" last season? Now, that was a "moment." It's a shame Bice seems to mostly be doing cheesy ballads now.) Instead, I'll go right to Taylor Hicks, whose mostly terrific interpretation of "You Are So Beautiful" encapsulated what really stands out about him for me.

Basically, it's this: he's sincere and he's refreshing. That doesn't mean he's always great---watch out when he whips out those silly dance moves, which is what he did to rather distracting effect in "Dancing in the Dark" on Tuesday evening. Even at his worst, he's solid and fun to watch. But when he tears into a lyric with all the emotional intensity he can muster, he can move you in ways very few other contestants have done. His "You Are So Beautiful" was a perfect example: he clearly felt the beautiful simplicity of the lyrics, and he rendered it in a way that made you believe in his sincerity and passion---and, crucially, did it in a way that didn't sound like merely an imitation of Joe Cocker. (Props to Simon Cowell for an astute song choice.) If you didn't believe that he understood exactly what he was singing, all you needed to do was look at him onstage, with that yearning look in his eyes and the way he held the mike stand as if he wanted to kiss it forever. The performance was only marred by one unfortunate misstep: a gratuitous falsetto "whoooo" at a bridge moment that he must have spontaneously added that broke the mood of the performance for an instant. I guess Taylor must have felt a little restless when he did that; "You Are So Beautiful" is not a very wordy song, and maybe he felt he had to add something to keep his vocal cords relatively busy. But the "whoooo" was a misguided moment that made me think briefly on some of the goofier performances Taylor has given in the past (at least, of the ones that I've seen). But that was only a few seconds, and I think the overall performance withstood that mildly bothersome intrusion: it was, I'd almost say, magical.

Taylor, for those who don't know, is a whopping 29 years old, and his gray hair gives him that elder statesman look that I suppose has always attracted me to him as both a singer and as a person. Certainly great singing requires a considerable amount of life experience in order to enrich one's singing, to give it heft and authority. Compared to some of the teenyboppers in this competition, Taylor exudes at least a little bit of that kind of wisdom and authority, although he does so in the most humble manner imaginable: he almost always seems to be having fun onstage. (In his third performance of the night on Tuesday, he took Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" and at moments actually sounded uncannily like a black preacher having some kind of workout with that song.)

Maybe it's just the hair.

Well, for those who missed tonight's padded-as-usual results show, Elliott is gone, and so next week Taylor and Katharine will be going at it for the top prize. I don't really care who wins, either way, because I don't really take this competition seriously. (If a particularly enterprising contestant ever dared to tackle a song by a defiantly non-mainstream artist or group like, say, Pink Floyd or Radiohead, maybe, just maybe, I'd make it a point to tune in every week.) But, if Taylor won it all, I wouldn't be too unhappy. This hasn't been a particularly exciting season of American Idol, but at least a good man will have won it if Taylor wins it next week.


For the last year-and-a-half or so, my TV-on-DVD catch-up project has been Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the seven-season fantasy TV series that, at its best, connected a fantastical world of demons vampires with the harsh realities of life, whether in high school, in college, or just in the outside world.

I'm still on Season 6 right now, but last night I finally got up to "Once More, With Feeling," the show's nod to musicals. In the episode, a song-and-dance demon infects the entire town of Sunnydale with a curse that makes them all break out into song at seemingly random moments. It's all the angst of the typical Buffy episode, in musical form!

Now, granted, technically the singing, for the most part, is merely adequate, and the songs aren't the most memorable things in the world. But here's what makes it more than a cool-sounding gimmick: the song lyrics reveal what the characters who sing them think deep down about life, about relationships, about the point of their existences, etc. The music and the words really do convincingly grow out of the action. In a lot of contemporary musicals, it can sometimes be embarrassing to see a show awkwardly attempt to transition organically into a musical number; sometimes, if the transition isn't done well, you might wonder why a particular song needed to be there at all. No such problem in "Once More, With Feeling."

To some extent, a deep familiarity with the characters and the themes of the show probably help to appreciate the episode fully. Still, even the most casual Buffy watcher could glimpse what is so notable about this episode: it reveals the essence of what great musicals can be. Why is the title song of Singin' in the Rain considered one of the great moments in movies? Not just because it is a catchy tuned catchily performed by Gene Kelly. A lot of it is just the sheer feeling of the song in context: former silent film star Don Lockwood (Kelly) has just kissed beautiful aspiring actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), and he is so much on cloud nine, not even rain can dampen his spirits. So he basks in the rain: dances on lamppoles, stomps on a giant puddle, etc. Through the choreography and the singing, you can feel Don's delight at that moment. There isn't anything comparable in "Once More, With Feeling," but, by putting the potential of musicals to suggest feeling front and center, by making the entire musical episode all about characters' feelings, it's engaging in a subtle act of genre deconstruction that not even French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard---ever the energetic deconstructionist before his politics took over his films---could quite manage in his 1962 film A Woman is a Woman. Godard tried to evoke the feeling of a musical without actually making a movie musical genre piece---famously, he called the film a "neorealist musical," which is an obvious contradiction---but the feeling mostly remained generalized rather than specific to characters' thoughts and feelings. (The only moment where that happened in A Woman is a Woman, I think, is when Anna Karina's character, Angela, discovers that her boyfriend is apparently cheating on her; only at that moment does the song on the soundtrack, Anna Karina's jealousy-stricken face, and Godard's filmmaking technique combine to express something tangible.) "Once More, With Feeling" actually gets rather closer to the heart of what makes musicals tick, and also has fun with different musical styles and conventions (some of the music sounds like Jonathan Larson lite---which is hardly a putdown in this case).

Of course, none of that has anything to do with the trials and tribulations of Buffy Summers. Maybe for another post...

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