When my music-obsessed friends ask me how I can stand writing about “American Idol” every week (and they do increasingly in this less-than-stellar season), I often declaim on the importance of getting the wide view of pop — a picture with soundtrack of how ordinary fans absorb and react to music as it floats beyond particular fan bases or artistic enclaves.
Tuesday night’s show offered a classic example of “Idol” doing that work. As the Top 10 singers, mentored by smooth operator Usher, worked to find themselves within a style for which few had the slightest affinity, it became clear how the definitions some cherish within music translate very differently for others.
The episode was ostensibly oriented around the idea of R&B, at least partially as defined by Usher: black or, to use the industry term, “urban” pop in the post-Michael Jackson era, with serious beats, a gospel root and a strong connection to hip-hop. But in the hands of the remaining finalists, few of whom have any meaningful connection to that style of music, it became something more amorphous.
Some approached R&B as soul, in the historical sense: the uplifting sound of the titans of the civil rights era, which still represents the deepest kind of authenticity for many music lovers. More than half of the night’s songs dated from before the dawn of disco, which seems odd, given the judges’ constant urging that these Idols be “contemporary,” and the presence of Usher, a mentor known for updating the sincere soul singing style to suit pop’s current mood of sophisticated showmanship.
But Lee Dewyze, Casey James and Crystal Bowersox know on which side their bread is buttered. The front-running boys, especially, are white shouters whose connections to black musical traditions run through the roadhouse barrooms of heartland America. Dewyze received big praise for sounding quite a bit like Bob Seger, singing “Treat Her Like a Lady” by the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose. James was solidly in Stevie Ray Vaughan mode on Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” (His comment to Ryan Seacrest that he’s “always gonna play (guitar), because that’s what I do,” was, for “Idol,” quietly revolutionary.)
The admirable Mama Sox, responding to judge Kara’s advice to get outside her comfort zone, put on high heels and sat at the piano to perform one of soul’s great soliloquies, “Midnight Train to Georgia.” This move reminded us that Alicia Keys is, in her own way, as earthy as Melissa Etheridge — and as proper a role model for the young hippie mom from Maumee, Ohio. Though her performance was her shakiest yet, it took her to a new safe place.
Not so for Didi Benami, who stayed stuck within her angry-ingenue box singing Jimmy Ruffin, or Tim Urban, ruffled during his mentor session when Usher told him to gaze into his eyes and deliver (it’s showbiz, kid, it’s not real!) and equally psyched out by his own song choice: Anita Baker’s immortally classy “Sweet Love.”
This season’s teens, Katie Stevens and Aaron Kelly, couldn’t help but seem distant from songs old enough to be their parents and overdone enough to scream “talent show” from the get-go — Aretha Franklin’s music, particularly, should be banned from the repertoire of anyone who hasn’t yet gone to prom. Siobhan Magnus also fell flat trying to chase a great diva’s trail; she may be daring and fun to champion, but her piercing high note on “Through the Fire” illustrated exactly why she is no Chaka Khan — there was no depth or fleshiness in that squeal.
The two “Idol” dreamers whose renditions came the closest to something you’d hear on a current R&B mix tape were also the night’s most defiant of the category. Andrew Garcia made a comeback by reworking a Chris Brown song in his trademark Patrick Stump-inspired way (something he’s done before). And yet again, Michael Lynche was more musically, well, artistic than virtually anyone else. Delivering a fairly straight rendition of India.Arie’s self-respect anthem “Ready for Love,” he forced open “Idol’s” old-fashioned vision of R&B so that it could accommodate the artist busy expanding the term today. Usher approved.