The American Idol Phenomenon is in full swing again, with many of the contestants looking like professionals already and others so hopelessly amateurish that you practically feel the sympathy/cuteness votes streaming through the telephone lines and cell-towers in the minutes after the broadcast ends each Tuesday and Wednesday night. The goal of the ratings-boffo singing contest is, of course, to sell records. To the show’s credit, it is up-front about this. There is an age limit, the show is openly manipulated by the record companies who effectively sponsor it, and the true star of the show is a record producer of jaded eye.
The audience loves to mock-hate Simon Cowell because he’s Dad. He’s an asshole, and he’s insensitive, but he’s always right—and he puts food on the table. Your dad may tell you not to major in art history and to go to law school, and Simon tells contestants to lose weight and sing more commercial material. In watching American Idol we’re all trained to become A&R guys—assessing vocal power and commercial potential rather than songwriting talent or innovation.
And that’s why Simon—and “America”, I guess—went ga-ga last year when Katharine McPhee took to the Idol stage. She had big pipes, va-va-voom looks, and she’d sing just about anything. The “McPhever” wasn’t misplaced, exactly—it was directly placed on commercial success.
And so, now arrives Katharine McPhee on RCA, a dance-pop record with a healthy dose of Idol-esque ballads, tricked out with a CD booklet of glamorous pseudo-sexpot photos. On the cover in leather thigh-high boots, Katharine spreads her legs but allows her dress to drape gently over her cha-cha; in the centerspread she lounges on a couch in a black cocktail dress, tresses covering one eye; further back she serves up cleavage between lace edges of a blouse, then she looks (lips parted) over a bare shoulder; and on the back she laughs and kicks forward in a chair, minidress giving her gams-a-plenty. The music is similar—slick and seductive and plastic in exactly the way that makes so much of the exploitation in today’s mass media seem not actually exploitive or sexy at all. It says: She’s hot but she’s wholesome but she’s sooo hot but she’s sooooo unreachable but she’s the girl-next-door but her cha-cha is right there behind that striped dress. Oh, and she can sing.
She really can sing. But no matter how many times the Idol judges say “You’ve got to stand out from the crowd”, the end-product of all that competing is to sound like this: wonderfully anonymous, soulfully generic, deeply and utterly secondary to the forgettable songs, which are themselves mere vessels for the delivery of tricked out production—beats and blips and strings and schmaltzy piano where appropriate. It is product, expertly delivered. You can buy it if you please. Like a pizza or a Big Mac.
Now, I like pizza and Big Macs now and again, even though I know they’re not nutritious. And so it is with Katharine McPhee. “Love Story” is a jittery little R&B taste-treat from Nate “Danja” Hills, apparently a protégé of star producer Timbaland. Danja dominates the record with goofy tunes like this—the impossibly dopey “Open Toes”, a reach for club play that might be cut-rate Beyonce; the fake-funkier “Not Ur Girl” (O Prince, what have you wrought in the spelling of song titles?); the slow-jam “Neglected” that is awash in strings and cool-sounding whoooooshes that kind of offset the lyrical horror of “How could you neglect me, straight-up disrespect me, how could you neglect my love?”
Then there are the ballads, where McPhee is more recognizably Idol-ish—all quivering emotion, gospel affectation, and surging violins. A human emerges some from these tracks—a singer you might be able to distinguish from another singer if you really made a study of it. Take “Ordinary World”, which would seem to be the song-of-choice on Katharine McPhee. Sensitive piano accompanies a delicate first verse where—for once—the singing is not a mass of soul affectation. The drums kick in for verse two, as does the melisma and the build toward chorus. Still, it’s solid pop singing in a surging chorus. It works. Better still, perhaps, is “Better Off Alone”, where McPhee gets a backing that is more Memphis than Virginia Beach. Her voice is husky as well as vinegary, and the band sounds real—spare drumming, organ, nicely chorused guitar, then just the hint of strings. The singing relaxes some, and your ears feel like they can actually hear the song for once.
More typical, though, are tracks like “Do What You Do”, which is generic dance-pop circa 2006, and “Dangerous”, which absolutely isn’t. If these tracks were people walking down a Manhattan sidewalk, they would not receive a second glance from a single pedestrian. These tunes are professional blandness. They are the pop music equivalent of Wonder bread.
Like I said, they are Big Macs. Or, like: Big Macs without the special sauce. American Idol is a huge success because it simultaneously empowers viewers to harshly judge the regular folks on the show and to root for them as they are harshly judged. It is a genius bit of entertainment slight of hand. Katharine McPhee is not that clever. It is a work of consummate professionalism, above laughter and so very far below wonder.
Mechanical and efficient, this album does its job with minimal soul. Simon Cowell smiles and buys a new black t-shirt, and Clive Davis rubs his hands together greasily. Katharine McPhee, on cue, sings and smiles for the camera. America yawns.
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