The 2012 American Idol Songbook--Week of May 9 Essay

Introduction: Top 4 Finalists Sing Songs by California Artists and Songs They Wish They’d Written

Although most of the solo performances on the May 9, 2012, episode of American Idol testified to the proficiency of this year’s Top Four, an excess of filler reminded me that the show is still a carefully weighted combination of promotional commercialism and entertainment. Instead of offering, say, an extra minute or two for the performers to really sink their teeth into a song the way they would on an album or on stage, mostly forgettable distractions were used to pad the two hours. The male duet on Maroon 5’s “This Love” was watchable by Idol group performance standards, but the ladies’ rendition of the Bangles’ “Eternal Flame” on Cirque du Soleil swings was just baffling. There were few surprises in the contestants’ descriptions of how far they feel they’ve come as one of four out of thousands to make it this far. The most ample waste of time, however, was probably the ten-minute commercial for the film version of the ‘80s jukebox musical Rock of Ages, which forced viewers to sit through the trailer, footage of finalists watching said trailer, and a poorly planned quartet rendition of a Foreigner classic cribbed for the musical. All of this was a set-up for host Ryan Seacrest, boyfriend of the film’s co-star Julianne Hough, to almost but not quite propose to her in a cheeky satire of his own double-take reveals to contestants that would have been cute on its own but seemed anticlimactic with the preceding plug, which ultimately crowded out the last portion of the end-of-show highlight reel covering Jessica and giving her vote numbers. The first portion of the night’s solos was devoted to songs recorded by Californians or about the state or points therein, and the finalists all went with the first option. For the second half, Idol hopefuls were to pick a song they wish they had written, which all but Phillip clearly interpreted to mean songs of personal import. It was something of a shock that the two artists most focused on R&B performed the most consistently given these themes, since the Golden State’s considerable output of soul performers has long been overshadowed by points east of the Mississippi and the genre has never been as well-known as, say, rock for its songwriters as artistes. However, it was Jessica and Joshua who dominated the night with astute song choices and some of the most dynamic performances of the season. This is not to say that Hollie and Phillip, though hampered by the former’s inexperience and the latter’s recent illness, didn’t hold their own, but they did have one performance below the standard of the other.

Hollie Cavanagh – “Faithfully” (Journey) – Eliminated

Journey, particularly after the arrival of keyboardist Jonathan Cain in 1980, was arguably the most pop-oriented of the many arena-rock bands that enjoyed multiplatinum success in the late 1970s and 1980s. The San Francisco band became well-known for its distinctively airy, elegant sound and often overwrought romantic lyrics, as well as for the dulcet tones of one of rock’s most clearly enunciating vocalists, lead singer Steve Perry. Perry’s exit for a solo career disbanded the group in 1987, but Cain had plenty to do, since he would parlay his friendship with Jonathan Waite from an earlier group, the Babys, into late ‘80s supergroup Bad English. Cain managed to find time to write or co-write hits for Heart, Loverboy, and Michael Bolton, among others. Though Cain had started no family yet with his singing then-wife Tané, his composition “Faithfully,” a hit from the 1983 Journey album Frontiers, did appear to be inspired by his and other band members’ family experiences in its description of fidelity as the key to making a marriage work despite the pressures and temptations of the road. Hollie is obviously a bit young to carry that message convincingly from its original point of view, but musically, the song works perfectly for her. The dramatic sweep of the song complements her crystal-clear voice, closer in timbre to Perry’s than any of her remaining competitors. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Randy was a session musician during the last year of the band’s run (1986-87), so she has a very qualified judge of her performance vis-à-vis the original, one who proclaims her to have “done Steve Perry proud.” As she continues to bounce back at just the right time in the competition, it’s hard to argue with that assessment.

Hollie Cavanagh – “I Can’t Make You Love Me” (Bonnie Raitt)

By 1990, when Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin got around to writing “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” the most successful crossover of their careers, Reid was already a country songwriting legend, but Shamblin was more or less starting out. Reid, a Renaissance man of sorts who had been a defensive lineman for the Cincinnati Bengals and a symphony pianist during the off-season, retired after a knee injury in 1974 and went on to write eight number one country hits in the 1980s for Ronnie Milsap and other smashes for Don Williams and Wynonna Judd. Shamblin, meanwhile, was just getting started in the early 1990s and penned many hits for that era’s stars, such as Collin Raye, Toby Keith, and Mark Wills. Both have revived their writing careers for the 2010s, with Reid’s “I Wouldn’t Be a Man” (for Josh Turner) and Shamblin’s “The House That Built Me” (for Miranda Lambert) among the fruits so far. In 1990, Reid and Shamblin were noodling around with what they had thought would be an uptempo number, based on a local news report about a disgruntled ex who shot up his girlfriend’s car and offered something to the effect of “I can’t make her love me” as an explanation to the judge. Of course, the writers soon realized that the level of much more sophisticated emotion in the song’s lyrics required more time to play out properly, so they slowed it down and it wound up with Bonnie Raitt and Don Was. The two co-producers were trying to follow up her Grammy-winning 1989 release Nick of Time and needed some slick outside singles to accompany her own compositions on 1991’s Luck of the Draw. Raitt found the song so poignant that she had to complete it in one exceptional take and was relieved when she finished it live, and it’s easy to see why when one considers the sheer angst of the track on record. Such a song is a textbook example of where Hollie’s pop approach doesn’t work, as opposed to its suitability for something like Journey’s “Faithfully.” Hollie sings clearly and concisely, something that gives a Journey song its “moments” and has endeared her to fans who tire of what they view as her rivals’ “screaming” or “growling,” in other words their soulful improvisation. However, on a song designed to be sung in the intense and raw, albeit melodic, manner of a Bonnie Raitt, Hollie sounds a bit stiff and out of touch. I get that she may have been trying to give two sides of the coin for the night’s performances, as she did with last week’s better pairing of the fast “River Deep, Mountain High” and the midtempo “Bleeding Love.” I also recognize that she did genuinely identify with the motif of unrequited love in “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” though perhaps misunderstanding this particular song’s setting of that situation near the end of a relationship instead of before it’s had any chance to begin. However, she seems to have stepped somewhat too far outside her comfort zone, perhaps emboldened by last week’s success. Song choice remains one of her most significant areas of concern.

Phillip Phillips – “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” (Creedence Clearwater Revival) – Advanced

The lyrically ominous but curiously cheerful-sounding “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” was, according to John Fogerty, a comment on Creedence’s impending breakup at the time they were working on 1970’s Pendulum. The group hailed from El Cerrito, a far eastern exurb of San Francisco, and were consequently near the center of the preceding decade’s tumultuous social movements, leading many to equate the song with disillusionment over the supposed defeat of those movements, but Fogerty eventually offered his more prosaic explanation. The song’s simple, folk-rock groove belied its portents of doom. Audiences couldn’t get enough of the group for a few years around the turn of the decade and the enigmatic track became a hit. Phillip doesn’t exactly augur good luck with the song, but I’m not superstitious, so my primary concern is that his version simply doesn’t continue the legacy of innovation and creativity that he brought to the show. After discussing how lucky he feels to have gotten through to this stage despite both a serious health issue that I hope he fully recovers from and the Idol format’s resistance to his performing style, Phillip understandably wants to have some fun at this point. He clearly does enjoy himself on “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” where he seems to be having the time of his life singing a bland but faithful version of the song that would be entertaining in a club but doesn’t seem to show the breath of fresh air that his more groundbreaking solos have brought to the show. There is little remarkable or unique about what he does with Creedence’s song, but his next performance proves he can still make an impression when he’s in the zone.

Phillip Phillips – “Volcano” (Damien Rice)

“Volcano” was from O, the acclaimed 2002 indie debut of Damien Rice, a member of Irish pop-rock band Juniper, who spent much of the late 1990s busking before he went back into the studio for his solo career. Rice did a duet with his band vocalist Lisa Hannigan, and while the song wasn’t as commercially successful as previous singles “The Blower’s Daughter” or “Cannonball,” the simple in-studio video was in heavy rotation for a while on both sides of the Atlantic. On the melody of “Volcano,” Rice wove a mesmerizing fabric between two or so chords in a typically Celtic drone while he told a complex story of trying to resist a May-December romance from the older man’s perspective (the best analogue for pop fans might be the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”). Phillip gets to riff off his bad-boy appeal to the young femmes in his screaming audience again, but this time far more subtly than he did with “Time of the Season” the previous week. At the same time, he’s actually performing at a higher level than he did on “Time of the Season,” exhibiting both a nuanced vocal and the usual guitar wizardry. Most importantly for his long-term legacy as contestant and potential recording artist, however, he is exposing young fans immersed in a culture that views music as disposable patter to a vast universe of real art waiting to be discovered, a phenomenon anyone perusing subsequent YouTube comments on the original will discover. Could this be the beginning of the re-awakening of an entire generation to the enjoyment of music in its own right? If Phillip has anything to say about it, it just might be so.

Jessica Sánchez – “Steal Away” (Jimmy Hughes via Etta James) – Advanced

In 1964, Jimmy Hughes brought a radical rewrite of an old spiritual to Rick Hall, the pioneer of Southern soul recording in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The song was “Steal Away,” transformed by Hughes into the saga of a young man’s need to see his girlfriend against her parents’ disapproval. “Steal Away” stormed the charts and helped pave the way for similar vocalists’ success with its mix of horn backing and gospel-inspired vocals, but Hughes never became a sensation on the order of Otis Redding or Johnny Tex. However, Los Angeles-born Etta James did cover it on her 1968 album Tell Mama, an effort to revive her and her label’s sagging chart fortunes with more straightforward R&B rather than the jazzy pop-soul mix to which James’s fan base had been accustomed. Self-taught in the art of belting but so far better known for more melodic performances, Jessica horns in on Joshua’s territory with a song choice that works surprisingly well for her and establishes her versatility. Occasionally, her emphatic, showy performance earns criticism for lacking some of the vulnerability seen in Etta’s version. Notwithstanding, one must remember that Hughes meant the song to be somewhat rebellious, a song about wanting to defy parental authority to see a lover, which Jessica daringly sets from the perspective of the girl in question. As she slowly builds up to the song’s climactic finish, her controlled but ferocious vocals evoke Southern soul divas such as Irma Thomas and Carla Thomas, making this a better candidate for an “answer song” (a popular meme in the 1960s) to Hughes’s seminal hit than Etta’s heartfelt but more subdued cover.

Jessica Sánchez – “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” (Dreamgirls)

“And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” was, of course, the most famous number from the original score of the 1981 Broadway hit Dreamgirls, the show that told a greatly modified version of the story of a Supremes-like R&B group’s triumph and breakup in the 1960s. Composer Henry Krieger had helped introduce lyricist Tom Eyen, a veteran of often racy off-Broadway productions such as The Dirtiest Women in Town, to the tamer world of the Great White Way’s mass-market musicals. Already, in the mid-1970s, Krieger and Eyen had toyed with the idea of a show featuring Nell Carter of Ain’t Misbehavin’ fame in a show about black backup singers, but by the turn of the 1980s, when record exec and manager David Geffen ponied up the money with an eye toward diversifying his portfolio, Jennifer Holliday was the top pick for the pivotal role of Effie White. Effie, ostensibly based on tragically fated Supreme Florence Ballard (the writers denied similarities to avoid litigation), was trying to win back her manager boyfriend, Berry Gordy facsimile Curtis Thomas, in the scene where she sang “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Holliday, an exceptional vocalist in her own right, parlayed the musical into a mildly successful R&B career, and Jennifer Hudson would reprise the role and thus the song in the 2006 film. “And I Am Telling You” has gone on to become to millennials what “Tomorrow” from “Annie” had been for Generation X, the show tune of choice for young female singers looking to hit the big time. With all due respect to the talents of the artists that have tackled it over the years, the composition doesn’t seem to breathe in the show-biz contexts where it’s usually found, a song outside of its natural habitat. Jessica resolves that problem by taking it back into that habitat, wholly reframing “And I Am Telling You” as a true R&B song rather than a set piece, and in the process, she makes it listenable in its own right. She doesn’t merely offer vocal power to match the song’s intensity, but rather makes sure when possible to curve the song’s admittedly uninteresting string of notes into the shape of a genuinely beautiful melody. Unlike others who use the song to audition, she has already proven her mettle and is now using it to showcase her ability to innovate. I believe she’s not going anywhere soon, and a bright future awaits.

Joshua Ledet – “You Raise Me Up” (Secret Garden via Josh Groban) – Advanced

“You Raise Me Up” had one of the most unusual origin stories in popular music, since it came from the eclectic, often confounding world of the New Age scene. The original group, Norway’s Secret Garden, had gained notoriety in 1995 for winning Eurovision by shoehorning a screenwriter’s handful of lyrics into what was otherwise an instrumental, and their career continued to vacillate between the serene and the cornball as New Age acts stereotypically do. Rolf Løvland, one half of the duo, decided to search for inspiration in the homeland of his Irish violinist cohort, Fionnuala Sherry, while penning “You Raise Me Up” for their 2002 album Once in a Red Moon. Once again, he sought an unusual non-musical collaborator to write the lyrics, tapping his favorite Irish novelist, historical author Brendan Graham, to put together a self-consciously inspirational wording on top of a melody that sounded uncannily like a mix of “Danny Boy” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” complete with Irishman Brian Kennedy’s vocals, uillean pipes, tin whistle, and both Irish and gospel choirs on background. The next year, the king of adult contemporary, David Foster, was looking for material to complete the sophomore album of Los Angeleno Josh Groban, an operatic pop star along the lines of Charlotte Church. Foster was told of “You Raise Me Up” by a Scandinavian publisher friend, and he and Groban decided to record a cover. Groban’s version was somewhat less elaborate but still recognizable, becoming the best-known rendition to American audiences. In a daring but brilliant crossover move, Joshua takes the gospel aspects of the original and turns them up full blast. He performs in the classic two-part gospel mode, starting with an almost pallid first half that saves up energy for the powerhouse second chorus. Gradually rising on an oh so literal dais, he sings the pop chestnut with a rare combination of panache and sincerity, paying tribute to his father’s service as a first responder while proving that he can transform a song in a memorable fashion.

Joshua Ledet – “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” (James Brown)

“It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” had one of the most ambiguous lyrics on gender relations that one could imagine, but by the standards of the mid-1960s, it seemed positively revolutionary. After all, it did posit in its own semi-biblical tone that women were the foundation upon which all the great accomplishments the song credits to men had been based. In the right hands, it could be seen as downright feminist despite the implications to the contrary. James Brown had been working on an epic, rolling groove similar to the final song since 1963, when he’d given “I Tried” to future Motown star Tammi Terrell, then signed to his own cottage label. However, it wasn’t until 1966 that Betty Jean Newsome handed him the iconic lyrics discussing timeless conflicts over sexual politics from the perspective of the African-American community’s respect for the strong, vital mother figure. The title track for an album, “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” barnstormed the charts and became one of Brown’s true signatures. By selecting this song, Joshua tips his hat to his mother, whom he cites as his primary musical influence and the bedrock of his family’s survival in hard times. The inspired use of an almost all-female orchestra (save for the drummers) advances a laudable practice on American Idol, which showcases women instrumentalists as role models in a music world where women are often underrepresented except as vocalists. Joshua’s contribution, however, is what takes this performance to another level. Schooled in the tradition of the black church that has gifted us with so many other incredible performers, including Brown, Joshua carefully builds the song and injects every word with just the energy it needs to carry forward the story. Like James Brown, he creates a sense that the room is literally filled with an exhilarating energy. As Jennifer Lopez aptly puts it, you just want to “stop whatever it is you’re doing” and pay attention to nothing else. By the end, my hair stood on end, and I was sure that what I had just been through could be called nothing short of an out-of-this-world experience, the experience of the one, the only, the inimitable Joshua Ledet.

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