|Coaches: Can Idols Carey a tune? Charlie's take|
Charlie Toft is next to consider the Carey conundrum.
Mariah Carey becomes the first of the unholy trinity of late 1980s-90s female pop vocal powerhouses (the others being Celine Dion and Whitney Houston) to lend her personal expertise to the American Idol wannabes. Carey's early singles, displaying her admittedly amazing range and her questionable usage of melisma for its own sake (and not because she was truly "feeling it" like the gospel singers who brought the technique into modern pop music), have had a tremendous influence on women trying out for Idol, even though very few with Carey's natural talent would ever need a television show to be discovered. But an unknown doing a credible job with one of Carey's songs will tend to come across to the layman as having more raw ability than someone nailing a Norah Jones song, not to mention an old Paula Abdul single. The three judges on Idol have tended to reinforce the primacy of singers like Carey in the pantheon, warning the foolhardy away from trying their songs, but praising them effusively when they have succeeded.
Wait, read that last sentence again. And then think to yourself: how often have Mariah Carey's songs actually been performed on the show? Compared with Whitney and Celine, probably the most covered female artists ever on Idol along with Aretha Franklin, Mariah's music has been almost totally ignored over the years. Kelly Clarkson memorably performed Without You, one of the great "male diva" songs ever in its most famous version by Harry Nilsson but rather more mundane in its Mariah version, during her run to the first Idol title.
But other than that, there's been almost no Mariah on Idol, despite her new and widely ballyhooed status as the solo artist with the most #1 singles since the advent of rock. There are several reasons why this is the case, beginning with the fact that Carey's true diva period was fairly brief; since the Daydream album, with its sample-heavy (and catchy, I must admit) lead single Fantasy, her hit output has been dominated by dance tracks with a hip-hop influence, music not often heard on Idol since it doesn't showcase the singer and doesn't translate well with a live band. And then one might argue that few of her hits have been especially memorable in their own right. There's a Mariah sound that we all know, but her individual singles aren't hummable and certainly tend not to have quotable lyrics. Other than her first hit, Vision of Love, and We Belong Together, which became unforgettable through sheer repetition during the four months it was No. 1, stuff like My All, Someday, Honey ... it all tends to run together.
Carey has never come across as especially articulate or passionate about art for art's sake, so I don't know what sort of mentor she will be to the final seven. She would have to be better than someone like Gwen Stefani, I suppose. And since Carey is not merely the mentor but the artist whose songs will be performed this week, she might have some useful tips to those attempting to do it up Mariah-style on stage. Unfortunately for Carey, American Idol isn't what it used to be; there are a wider variety of singing styles and personas being displayed on the show than in seasons past.
Of the four remaining female singers, my guess is that while Syesha Mercado (who will probably cover every diva available if she hangs around the show long enough) and Carly Smithson will gladly take the opportunity to try to approximate the Mariah sound, Kristy Lee Cook and Brooke White will listen politely and then try to find a Carey song that will fit the respective styles that they have settled into.
David Archuleta presents an interesting case, because while he has a strong enough voice to tackle some of Carey's ballads, he's thus far avoided singing anything truly romantic, let alone sexual. An option for him might be Hero, but although he might do a very good job with it, I can see imagine eyes rolling all over America if he returns to the inspirational well yet again, not to mention what Simon Cowell might think. Still, there's always something to be said for sticking with your bread and butter, especially this far into the competition. David has been safe every week so clearly there's a huge audience for his typical fare.
I don't know if there's a grunge version of Dreamlover or something similar for David Cook to latch onto, but if not, he will benefit from low expectations and the desire of his fans to want to get him through an "unfair" week, in the same way they carried him after last week's awful effort. Without You could be the best option for David (assuming it's eligible to be used), because it was not only written and originally performed by men, but it is still best known in the United States as a male song, certainly for viewers over 40. I think there's likely to be some competition for Without You because while few of Carey's hits are familiar to your average baby boomer, that's a song that almost everyone knows (it would have really been perfect for Michael Johns, RIP). The same familiarity probably helped Syesha during Dolly Parton week, when she picked the one big pop song in the bunch, I Will Always Love You. David also has the option of doing the original version of the one well-known hard rock song Carey has covered, Def Leppard's Bringin' On the Heartbreak.
Carly Smithson and Syesha Mercado have more leeway than the Davids, because they have the big voices if not Carey's exact range, and have the option of doing the girlier Mariah material. Syesha hasn't been afraid of inviting unflattering comparisons with the singers she's covered so far, so I doubt she'll be scared off by anything in the Carey oeuvre. Can't Let Go would be a good choice for Syesha (or for any of the women, really), as it has a simple but very strong melody that doesn't need Mariah flourishes to make it work. But Syesha could also decide to go uptempo with one of Carey's dance tracks, as I expect the rest of them to stick to ballads out of necessity.
Carly has become identified with power ballads, so even though her recent forays into the bottom three would seem to show this approach has been questionable at best, she might have to stick with it at this point. Vision of Love could work for her, although if she avoids the runs and multi-octave swoops that made Carey's first hit so instantly memorable she could get some criticism for playing it safe. But this week presents opportunities for Carly too; there's little doubt that she has the strongest voice of any woman left in the competition, so she can come closer to the Mariah feel than any of the others--if she picks the right song.
As for Kristy Lee Cook, let's face it, it's all gravy at this point. Aside from actually winning Season 7, her goal all along was to establish her credibility in the country marketplace, and I have little doubt she has now done that. The theme weeks ahead aren't going to allow her to make many more appeals to the country audience, so she might as well perform with the pressure off. She might do I Don't Wanna Cry (assuming, um, Brooke doesn't take it), one of the less vocally demanding Carey ballads.
Jason Castro and Brooke White have the challenges of trying to make diva music fit into their acoustic niches. Jason has seemed to embrace the difficulty of some of his recent assignments, like Dolly Parton week, and being both a man and someone without a strong voice, expectations for him will be at rock bottom. Since everyone knows he has no choice but to change things up, and because he can hardly fail to hit the highest notes if he never attempts them, anything he does might be judged surprising and therefore a relative success. Why not take Carey's most vocally over-the-top song, Emotions, and perform a soft little acoustic version of it? Randy Jackson will hate it, but Jason's fans might really go for it.
Brooke has more options than Jason because she can play the piano herself (she has to know better than to try dancing this week) and many of Carey's songs work on piano. But she seems to be getting more conservative as the competition proceeds. Jason has been coming in from left field every week, but Brooke gave us the most predictable Brooke song imaginable for Idol Gives Back week, You've Got a Friend. She's in danger of not being part of the conversation anymore, and needs to bring back the buzz that she first acquired when she flipped Love Is a Battlefield. A good safe choice for her might be We Belong Together, but if there's something out there a tad unsafe, an interesting acoustic version of one of Mariah's songs she can latch onto that avoids both high octaves and racy content, that would be even better.
Mariah Carey would not have been my first choice as mentor because despite her undeniable talent, her songs have always seemed to me to elevate technique over all other musical considerations, which is exactly my major issue with judging on American Idol. There's also something basically wrong with a woman who seemed more mature at age 20 than she does now pushing 40. I mean, seriously: Touch My Body? But the people have spoken and made her one of the most successful performers of all time, and getting her is a major coup for the show. The week will likely be a hit with the viewing audience.
It's Alive! I'd be remiss here if I didn't mention the remarkable revival of Kristy Lee Cook. When the coaches were asked to give advice to finalists in crisis four weeks ago, I selected Kristy Lee, mostly as an intellectual exercise to see if one could really make a case for her, in the manner of a cocky law student trying to impress his professor by arguing an untenable position. In truth, following the Superfund disaster that was Eight Days a Week, I saw little realistic possibility that Kristy Lee could stay around for more than another week, maybe two. But it's now a month later, and while others have fallen by the wayside, Kristy Lee has noticeably gotten better. Given that the other female finalists have all shown vulnerability, it's not unthinkable anymore to believe that she could eventually wind up as the last woman in the competition, which would in its own way be the most unusual thing that has ever happened on the show.
I don't think Kristy Lee's comeback could have taken place without her improvement in both performance and song selection -- it's not like she's Sanjaya and people are supporting her because she's bad. But I think her staying power owes a little something to the non-musical factors I spelled out in my advice to her (not that I believe for a moment she ever became aware of that advice). I said that instead of trying to country up non-country songs, which didn't work artistically and just looked like panicky pandering, Kristy Lee should simply try to pick something she could sing well, trusting that she could bring the country audience along that way, and use her improvement as a rallying cry of sorts. "She hasn't given anyone a reason to root for her," I said at the time, but I added that having fallen so far and so dramatically, she could turn herself into a nice little underdog story if she just improved a little bit.
Kristy Lee set about building a fan base for herself with God Bless the USA, a declaration of solidarity with a certain segment of the audience that worked wonders. She kept laughing off her status as the seemingly permanent denizen of the bottom three, helping to flesh out her personality in an appealing way (and while much of the criticism of her has been fully deserved, it doesn't make her any less a good sport for putting up with it in even temper). And her performance of the defiant Anyway last week caused me to remember what I wrote four weeks back: "She needs to let people know that she's listening to advice, but that she's always been a fighter too and is now singing with nothing left to lose ... Kristy Lee doesn't need to be great right now; she just needs to get back in the game. I think the judges still want to support her and there's a country audience willing to throw its considerable weight behind her as well, if she only does her part and trusts what got her to this point."
The moral of her story is that in a season where little has been predictable other than the safe statuses (so far) of the Davids, it's never too late to start your comeback. Brooke, Carly, and Syesha might not like the extra competition they're now getting from the fourth woman on the show, but all of them could use a boost right now, and Kristy Lee's example might serve them well.