A few years back—2010, in fact, during Season Nine of American Idol—a hopeful named Andrew Garcia took a risk during Hollywood Week: He performed "Straight Up," the breakthrough hit by then-judge Paula Abdul, only he did it with an acoustic guitar, turning the sultry hip-shaker into a pleading ballad. The makeover wasn't all that surprising in the context of the shape-shifting weekly talent show—singers like David Cook and Kris Allen had been giving songs rock refreshes for years now. But it won over the judges, who praised his originality and eventually put him through to
Last night, on the first Idol Top Five to have an all-female slate—thus guaranteeing the program its first lady winner since Jordin Sparks took the crown in 2007—Candice Glover, the belter from South Carolina who brought down the house last week with her impassioned reworking of The Cure's "Lovesong," performed her version of the track. Her makeover was similar to Andrew's in a couple of ways; it slowed down the track, highlighting its internal pathos. She didn't have a guitar, and she played with a band, so it wasn't exactly like Andrew's reworking. But in spirit it was thematically similar, and in keeping with the way that Candice has consistently made over songs all season. Her greatest triumphs have involved using rock music to make her point in some fashion; recall her being able to rise above the rest of the pack during the disastrous Rock Night a few weeks back, or the way she turned "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" into a slow simmer. Yet she hasn't been praised for this, not in the way that male contestants who engaged in similar making over would do.
My boiling over with annoyance at this trend happened last night, during the post-performance interview of Interscope exec-slash-designated "industry dude" Jimmy Iovine. He called out the fact that the song didn't allow her to hit big notes—to, essentially, fit into the "diva" box that in the world of American Idol has to be occupied by any African-American female on the stage. Never mind that in the real world, artists who hit big notes every time come off as wearying. Never mind that Candice is a better performer and interpreter than anyone else on that stage. Basically, never mind that had she been a dude who made over the song in the same exact way she would have been praised for her "innovative" reworking and not called out for not hitting big notes. (When was a guy singer ever called out for that, anyway?)
For her second performance, Candice took on the Mariah/Whitney duet "When You Believe" and she gave it the full-on diva treatment. There was no Jimmy chat after this performance, alas, so who knows how he felt about it. But I hope that if she's around next week, she doesn't take those comments to heart and give herself over to big-voiced ballads that wouldn't sound out of place on an adult-contemporary radio station in 1996 for the rest of the season. On this season of Idol, where the offscreen drama and judge infighting has too often overshadowed what's going on onstage, she's actually an exciting performer, and comments about her needing to hit more "big notes" will only blunt her edges.
Anyway. A brief rundown of last night, which will probably not matter in the grand scheme of things since there are still five weeks to go and tonight is the last chance for the judges to use their save, so nobody's going home unless they really screw up their sing-out:
Candice Glover. See above.
Janelle Arthur. I'm putting Janelle second out of protest. Even though I was sort of surprised to learn that she is the same age as Candice and older than Angie Miller; she seems to be consistently infantilized by the show. Perhaps that's why she chose Dolly Parton's sassy "Dumb Blonde" as her song for the show's "divas" half—a rebuke to the judges and producers who constantly treat her like a dippy Southern rube. I also appreciated her guitar-assisted performance of Vince Gill's "When I Call Your Name"; it was sweet if a little bit cloying, but the other three non-Candice performances during that first album were rife with problems of their own.
Amber Holcomb. Amber took on the Mariah Carey-covered Badfinger song "Without You" for the "Year You Were Born" segment. Which must have made her nervous! Unfortunately the song didn't mesh well with her voice at all; her lower register sounded lifeless and husky, and while the peaks of the Big Notes were great, getting there was a rocky trip. For her second pick she took on Barbra Streisand's "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?," which suited her voice much better but which had a slightly stuffy atmosphere. Clearly the producers love her and want her to at least go to the Top Two because she's fairly marketable, and that's fine, but the match between singer and song has been off more often than not.
Kree Harrison. I was excited when Nigel Lythgoe announced that Kree would be singing "She Talks To Angels," The Black Crowes' portrait of an addicted woman lost at sea. But her karaoke-bar past came through when she asked the audience to get into her performance after the opening lyric—which should be a portent to the inherent tragedy in the lyrics, and not a party invitation. The rest of her performance was smooth in a disconcerting way. For her second selection she chose Celine Dion's "Have You Ever Been In Love" and gave it a slight countrypolitan makeover. If only someone had told her to take on "I Drove All Night" instead; that could have been pretty spectacular.
Angie Miller. Angie is from Boston and this season's token "inspirational" contestant—a combination that made her the obvious Top Five member to respond to this week's awful bombing of the Boston Marathon's finish line. But why would you dedicate a song to a city and then follow it up with the opening line "Why you look so sad?" Her performance consisted of a lot of piano-banging and Tori Amos-style bench-humping and staring straight into the camera to prove that she Really Meant The Lyrics. It was hollow and summed up pretty much everything I dislike about her Idol trajectory, and it probably colored my view of her technically decent take on "Halo." Sorry Angie. You just don't do it for me.
Who I would have voted for: Candice all the way. Maybe a vote or two for Janelle, too.
Who's going home tonight: Well, probably nobody. But I would guess that Janelle and Candice are in the most danger of being voted off.