LOS ANGELES — Song selection. It’s what the judges love to mention, the first true or false step any “Idol” striver makes, before she even opens her well-glossed lips. Sometimes, in truth, it doesn’t matter that much: The singer’s presence, tone, or sheer power shines through, no matter its vehicle.
But on this virgin night of serious “Idol” competition Tuesday, song selection really did determine the night’s best performances — in ways that were sometimes unexpected, and which further suggest that this season will be a tricky, transitional one for the show and its future stars.
In two hours of song padded with the usual feel-good bio segments and (mercifully few) dull gags from the judges table, the top 12 women ranged from the melismatically obvious to the yodel-ishly surprising, generally aiming to fulfill Simon Cowell’s mantra: Be contemporary. The ones who managed did so with songs that felt personal and daring, even if they’d been borrowed from the most commercially successful band of all time.
That would be the Beatles. Three songbirds opened the Fab Four songbook in the middle of the show, and it worked for all of them, to varying degrees. The great blessing of a Beatles song is that it can always sound fresh; the group defined pop music modernity, and their melodies and snappy rhythms never sound tired.
Lilly Scott (whose Anglophile touch recalls another sharp-voiced flower girl, Lily Allen) went a little wild on “Fixing a Hole” but made a good impression. Whimsical teen Haeley Vaughn yodeled (!) in the middle of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” — startling for sure, but a nice twist on the Moptops’ original Little Richard whoops. And though the judges didn’t praise her enough, Katelyn Epperly drew out the soul in Paul’s doo-wop flavored “Oh! Darling,” delivering the kind of pleasurably dramatic performance that once would have been an “Idol” home run. But maybe not this year.
Instead, the artist’s magic touch in this time of Simon’s departure and Ellen’s ascent may have little do do with conventional chops and more to do with ... what? Personality? Style? Musical taste? Some quality akin to all of those but perhaps better captured by that currently overused marketing term, “relatability.”
Ellen presented her own “Idol” hiring as a matter of putting a fan in a judge’s chair. In fact, “Idol” in general seems a little shrunken this year, and not in a bad way: The stage somehow seems smaller, and the kids occupying it — Big Mike aside — hardly emanate grandiosity. No Glambert here! I’m not sure there’s even a Carly Smithson. At this point, the big voices still around are strangely overshadowed by those who have more accessible — let’s call it YouTube-sized — charisma.
The Beatles work with this approach, too, because singing along with a Beatles song is a universal experience; invoking them automatically makes you relatable. Fitting the “singer-songwriter” mold is the other obvious way to project scaled-down appeal. There was Crystal Bowersox, the dreadlocked hippie mama, singing one of Alanis Morissette’s least rocking songs and playing harmonica. There was Didi Benami with a nice, sweet-and-sour version of Ingrid Michaelson’s “The Way I Am.” Best of all, there was the heretofore barely present Siobhan Magnus, taking a big risk by highlighting her lower register on Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” and offering a moment that, as Ellen wisely said, felt more like entertainment than “Idol”-style sport.
These ingenues stood out because they dared to be something other than gorgeous. They didn’t necessarily fulfill the “Idol” bromide of “being themselves,” but they did seem human as they turned inward, showed little vocal tics or let a meaningful lyric take them. There’s not a powerhouse among these singers, yet each made a stronger impression than more conventionally impressive ones like Michelle Delamor or the stunning Ashley Rodriguez (I hope she does better next week!). What they do show is intelligence. They chose well; they sang with intention. And they should all survive another round.