Tag Archive | "American Idol"

She’s Over It: Katharine McPhee at the Staller Center

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Photos by Kenneth Ho – The Statesman

For those who run the arduous gauntlet of American Idol, life can be a strange carnival ride.  Witness the ride of Katharine McPhee, the runner up for Idol‘s fifth season.   As the wife of a Kat fan, I saw Ms. McPhee live, three and a half years ago, at a county fair in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  There, she — the woman who’d placed second in the nation’s largest singing competition — performed ably and bravely, despite the lack of a live band (she was given two back up singers and a boom box that she was beholden to work herself).  This was the same young artist whom David Foster, celebrated music producer, has taken the time to curry and feature as a guest artist on several special, well-televised programs … the same young artist who has toured with he of the gorgeous, moving throat, Andrea Bocelli … the same young artist whom noted musician Chris Botti invited to appear as one of his special guests, along with Josh Groban, Sting, Steven Tyler and others, in a concert that packed the Boston Pops to its rafters.

What the post-Idol label tossed so blithely and ignorantly to the curb, noted musicians, producers, and songwriters have embraced — and it shows.  On the evening of November 7, 2010, I saw a more confident, drop dead beautiful Katharine McPhee perform at the Staller Center on site at Stony Brook University, Long Island, New York.  Selling out every one of the venue’s approximately 1,000 seats, Katharine packed in fans of all ages: “tweenies,” university students, the middle-aged, and senior citizens.  Now recording with the well-respected Verve label, Katharine took the stage in black pants and a black sequined blazer.  Her once long dark hair, cut and donated to fashion a wig for a young cancer patient, was pinned up in back; a long fringe of long bangs swung across her forehead as she defied physics to move perfectly — I swear her nude-colored heels were five inches high! — across the stage for the hour-and-a-half long set.

Wisely, that set bowed heavily to her sophomore release, Unbroken.  There was no boom box and no computers/synthesizers, the latter of which had marked and marred her first, pop-and-ballad-heavy CD.  Manning live instruments, Kat’s very competent band consisted of Doug Petty on piano and keys, Dan Petty on guitar, George Dum on drums, and Brian Allen on bass.  The lovely Laura Jones provided backing vocals.

Unbroken had surprised the critics — and no doubt a number of fans as well — for its largely dark themes and lyrics.  I rather like darker songs; I always have.  For me, they are a far better reflection of what lies in the human soul, and far more enduring, than sunny little throwaway tunes.  From that album, Katharine opened with It’s Not Right.  Doubtful of her lover’s true heart, this deeply private pep talk featured quiet, roller coaster scales that illuminated the singer’s impressive range.  Had it All was a deceptively bouncy number whose lyrics bemoan the death of a once-good relationship.

The lynchpin of the album, the song Unbroken, always made me wonder if this was Kat’s well-mannered nose thumb at those who drove her first CD, which was cranked out in ten whole days; those who’d sent her out on the road with a boom box.  The song is about walking through a tough dark night to emerge bloodied but not broken.  Unbroken is a soft, heartfelt hallelujah that crescendos on Katharine’s crystalline vocals.

Keep on Drivin’ was one of my favorites: the genteel astral-twin of John Hiatt’s gritty, grinding The Open Road.  With a U2-esque melody and a repetitive chorus powered by Katharine’s hypnotic voice, the song painted the futility ride of one who drives aimlessly through the night to escape a heavy heart.

Say Goodbye, however, is — for me — the album’s true gem, as it was when Ms. McPhee performed it Sunday evening.  Recall, if you will, Bonnie Raitt’s You Don’t Have to Love Me, and you’ll get a good sense of the core of this song.  For this, the aural equivalent of watching someone perform open-heart surgery on herself, Kat was accompanied only by the piano and gifted cellist, Debbie Seppi.  It was beautiful and cutting.

Along with other selections from Unbroken, Ms. McPhee sprinkled her set with well-loved covers, including an angrier and much more powerful version of John Waite’s Ain’t Missing You, and Cee Lo Green’s Forget You, which — God bless C Lo and Katharine McPhee — heavily embraces old-school soul music.  Kat also gave a very able reading of the Kings of Leon’s whisper-to-a-pounding Use Somebody, as well as an exquisite version of Oleta Adams’ Everything Must Change.  I love Oleta.  I was heartened to see that Katharine, hailing from a generation largely ignorant of the great Ms. Adams, knows and respects this wonderful artist.

Donning a silver mini-dress and black heels for her encore, for which her adoring fans screamed and jumped to their feet, the beautiful Ms. McPhee offered up her version of Melanie’s lilting Brand New Key (an odd addition to Unbroken).  She followed this with It’s Not Christmas Without You, a song she co-wrote for her recently released Christmas CD, which, by the way, sold like hotcakes before and after the concert.  Wrapping up the set was the song that most fans feel is her signature cover, the one for which they clamor the hardest: Somewhere Over the Rainbow.  In this, the artist’s voice, balanced between soft and commanding, did not disappoint; Ms. McPhee received a standing ovation.

Judging by the number of fans who lined up to get her autograph after the show (my husband and I stood on line a good hour), the gracious and talented Katharine McPhee made a lot of people happy on Sunday night.  I hope that those who once treated her like the character in Steely Dan’s Reeling in the Years, who wouldn’t know a diamond if they’d held it in their hands, sat up and took notice of that. 

Idolizing Ellen

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American Idol‘s latest battle for ratings has claimed a major casualty, a road warrior of an entertainer who, despite her arguable lack of talent, has endeared herself to millions tuning in year after year to watch and drive the nation’s largest singing competition.  Paula Abdul’s sweet, familiar face, non-sequitor comments, and genteel criticism will no longer buffer Simon Cowell’s eternal scowl, acid tongue, and lack of class.  In case you inhabit a monastery in Tibet, Paula was booted after eight loyal years to make way for the newest judge, Ellen DeGeneres.  We say “booted” because Paula herself, when questioned about the 11th hour lag in getting a new contract to her, stated, “Don’t believe everything you read; it’s not true.”  Ms. Abdul was referring to the media buzz alluding that she was holding out for a larger salary.  In closing the chapter on Idol, Paula’s people added that she was shocked and hurt by the decision not to renew her contract.


Enter, Ellen DeGeneres.  A strange choice, to say the least, leaving those of us not drinking the Kool Aid® to go, “Hmmmmmmmm ……”


Ellen does possess that all important likeability factor; she has it in gobs.  She is quick, witty, attractive, and a veteran of the entertainment world.  At the age of 51, she has captured the Emmy no less than a dozen times.  The former paralegal and current media darling boasts the titles of producer, writer, actress, comic, product sponsor, and voice-over for Disney films on her resume, as well as guest hosting for another grueling I9-Entertainment talent gauntlet, So You Think You can Dance.   She has twice starred in TV vehicles, once as the lead character in the sit-com, Ellen, which made history for her public admission of her sexual preference, and her current TV talk show.  Thus, Ellen is a comfy presence filling the professional dancing shoes of the beloved choreographer-singer Abdul.


But let’s examine this from a less, well, comfy angle.  Last season, Idol  introduced a fourth judge, one Kara DioGuardi.  As the show’s first-ever, permanent fourth judge, Kara constituted the handwriting on the wall for Paula.  Perhaps she constituted something else: a threat to Ms. Abdul…?  Or was it other way around?  Kara is a songwriter in her own right, of the schlock passing for far too long on commercial radio.  But she is also firmly attached to Idol’s stable of songwriters.  You know, the ones who produce the pap that the winners are forced to churn out (i.e., Kelly Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This”).


With the addition of Kara, the Rogue’s Gallery was as follows: Simon, a signer of new, er, blood for the recording industry, Randy Jackson, a serious musician and producer of talent such as Mariah Carey, Paula, the loveable, often goofy hoofer-slash-music video star, and Kara, the songstress-cum-songwriter.  Too many cooks spoil the broth, apparently.  Whether it was female jealousy or the fact that “every man” was not represented on the judging panel, what was Paula’s loss became Ellen’s gain.  But who else gains?  The viewers?  The contestants?  Or The Powers that Be, seeking to pad their coffers?


Idol‘s ratings have, over the past three seasons, been a slow mudslide.  In 2006, the year that soulful crooner and career musician Taylor Hicks was crowned, Idol enjoyed the lion’s share of the audience as well as the highest grossing tour.  In subsequent years, Idol  has been grappling to regain a lost share of audience reported by industry sources to be as high as 10% in 2007 and tour revenue down by as much as 17% in the same year.  The institution of “Idol Gives Back,” a charitable enterprise to which Ms. DeGeneres generously contributed, encouragement of contestants to play musical instruments in what Simon Cowell has incessantly howled to be a singing contest, and bloated advertising (a two for one?) causing the show to run semi-regularly over schedule — all of these blatant ploys and more, point to the fact that Idol is struggling to keep its audience interested and tuned in to those all important sponsors.


Enter Ellen.


Those with their noses glued to this show last year will remember the controversy that ensued after Kris Allen was named winner.  Compared to the runner-up — glam-rocker Adam Lambert of potent pipes and over-the-top stage presence — Allen was a milquetoast choice.  Lambert seemed poised to run off with the crown.  Indeed, the show’s finale was designed around Adam, not Kris.  After Allen was named the winner, it emerged that his hometown supporters had defrauded the voting process, though of course they cried, “Nay, nay!”  So…who exactly paid for those free text-enabled phones given out to any and all who’d wanted them — Kris’s supporters or Idol, afraid that they’d lose the Bible Belt viewers because an obvious and admittedly gay man seemed to be natural shoe-in?  The placement of Ellen DeGeneres, an openly gay woman, would be a perfect foil to offset mindsets such as mine, which rarely accept what’s spoon-fed to me at face value.


The fact that Ellen is openly gay also does the job of squelching any feminine jealousies that may have erupted a la Paula and Kara … captured for posterity, by the way, by the camera.  Meowwwwww!       


If the over-exposed Ellen was entrenched to provide the face of “every man” and “every woman” among a panel of music industry people, why bother at all?  The panel is supposed to be comprised of people with industry knowledge and experience (talent, as Simon Cowell has proven, is not necessarily a criteria).  The judges exist to separate the wheat from the chaff during the audition stages, offer criticism, both negative and positive, during the contest and yes, folks, sway the viewing audience’s choices.  But the fact of the matter remains that America determines the winners, not the judging panel.  So why add a non-music industry celebrity into the mix?  


I have only one answer for these questions.  And that is, Idol is what it always was: a show concerned far less with finding true talent than it is with the entertainment factor, which equates to big bucks.   As Abe Lincoln so wisely stated, “You can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time.”   Me?  I’m not drinking the Kool Aid®.   But if you are, bottom’s up! 

The Very Best Moments of American Idol 2009 (Part II)

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Conclusion to Yesterday’s Featured Story


How Quentin Tarantino wound up a guest mentor is anybody’s guess.  If Idol wanted a film director, maybe Quentin was their second choice.  With a long history of weaving the most appropriate and moving musical selections into his films, perhaps the show’s first selection was Martin Scorsese. Witness Scorsese’s long-time association with the legendary Robbie Robertson, the singer-songwriter best known for his contributions to The Band and producer of a respectable body of solo work.  Hey, maybe Scorsese was tied up.  Then again, maybe he just valued his musical integrity too much to lend a hand.


While we’re on the topic of incongruous mentors, I would be remiss in leaving Jamie Foxx out of the mix.   Now, Jamie Foxx makes me laugh until I double over and his acting ability is evidenced by the Oscar he captured for his portrayal as the Genius of Soul, Ray Charles.  Unfortunately, Jamie’s no musical genius; he’s not even in the same galaxy.  Methinks Brother Ray’s portrayer woke up one day longing to be a rock star.  Instead, he settled for what’s been passing for music too long on commercial radio, because, hey, anyone can do it; no talent required!  In one of the most painful performances ever aired on an Idol stage, Jamie Foxx bopped around with his singing voice (what there was of it) pulled through a techno-fuzzbox.  Five seconds into the act, and this gal hit the fast forward button.   Thank God that in so doing, I did not miss the next greatest moment, which was …     


Adam Lambert.  All right, I lied.  Lambert was not the giver of a single moment of delight.  This oddball risk-taker was this season’s crowning glory, a ray of light in the stumbling darkness. Okay, dimness (Allison Iraheta’s pipes slew me for their likeness to a very young Joplin — Janis, not Scott; get with the program!).  Initiated by the Beatles, pushed further out of the envelope by The Stones, and elevated to an art form by David Bowie in his Spiders from Mars days, androgyny in pop-rock sells.  Contestant Adam Lambert had sexual confusion nailed; mainly, he confused the hell out of every viewer until solid evidence of his orientation surfaced, as do all things, on the Net.  Lambert, the glam-rocker of this year’s crop, was also in possession of serious vocal chops, an inspired balance of confidence and humility, and perhaps most importantly, a wicked fashion sense.  None of Lambert’s admirable attributes, however, could withstand the executive producer’s ego, a manifestation of which provided me with my next OMG moment, which was …


Fight the good fight, ’60’s style or go down tryin’.  At the finale, said producer Simon Fuller dictated two different yet legendary, politically charged songs to the two contestants still standing.  Grinning like The Happy Wanderer (a mindset to which fictitious mob boss Tony Soprano studiously aspired and never achieved), Kris Allen presented the most disturbing rendition of “What’s Goin’ On” that this music aficionado has ever heard.  Allen’s wussy-cheerful delivery of this iron fist-in-a-velvet-glove, anti-war treatise was enough to send the brilliant Marvin Gaye, the song’s original artist, spinning in his grave.


The piece de resistance, however, came on the wings of Fuller’s edict that Adam Lambert offer up Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”: arguably the most outrageous, surreal, and jaw-dropping moment this show has ever aired.  I never thought I’d live long enough to see a big white gay boy sing a gifted black man’s most poignant and haunting of pleas for racial equality.  But I did.  This was either an act of dementia on the producer’s part, or a crafty ploy to create the campiest moment that this warm and fuzzy family show has ever seen.


Although powerfully understated in his delivery — which is what the song, at the very least, deserves — this gentle protest cry was wildly inappropriate in the mouth of a guy wearing a silver suit and an earring in each ear.  But, hey, that guy in the silver suit and earrings accepted Simon Fuller’s doubtless unwitting invitation to put the nation on notice that not only was a “change a-gonna come” on its favorite family show, it already had.

The Very Best Moments of American Idol, 2009 (Part I)

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It was the best of seasons, it was the worst of seasons: American Idol, 2009.  But now that it’s over, including the shouting, why dwell on the shortcomings of 19 Entertainment’s golden child, the American dream gone haywire?  Why do that when, week after never ending week, the show brought such fun into the living rooms of so many across the nation? 


Every viewer remembers with fondness his or her favorite moments.  Here are mine:


Hero worship of the Almighty Buck.  Who says capitalism is dead?  It’s alive and well on American Idol and thriving with each passing season!  Seven years after Kelly Clarkson, the show’s first winner, warbled her tearful victory song, Fox’s brainchild has come a long way from its illusion of empowering unknowns to realize the American dream through million-dollar recording contracts (from which, by the way, hefty promotional and other mandatory fees are sucked).  Now that Idol’s rampant capitalism is out in the open, I say, “Bravo!” for honesty is the best policy.  Simon Cowell, the business shark-cum-judge, is to thank for letting the cat out of the bag.  Early on this season, he deadpanned to a contestant not to his liking, “We are looking for the entire package” — thereby broadly hinting that said contestant did not represent that package.  If a candidate does not possess bodacious looks (or at best, inoffensive) along with a ready-made stage presence and oh yeah, a palatable voice, he or she has about a snowball’s chance in hell of advancing within the competition — if Simon and his fellow judges have anything to say about it.   And they do.


But this not about Simon.  I’m talkin’ important stuff here, the thing that pumps the heart of every megalomaniac.  Molded upon its British predecessor, Idol was, of course, conceived as a moneymaker.  With Season 8 less than 24 hours behind us, the show has far surpassed this gal’s original assessment of it as a goldmine.  From paid downloads to pricey post-finale tour tickets to a plethora of merchandise that has Disney, Idol’s recent affiliate, grinning like good ol’ Mickey Mouse, to the commercials whose airtime rivals that of the actual performances and has, in several cases, caused the show to run late, it is clear.  The economy is booming, at least for those at the top of the Idol food chain.  


The introduction of the fourth judge, Kara DioGuardi.  With the addition of seasoned songwriter, one Kara DioGuardi, Idol may have sought to offset the elevator-like moods of Paula Abdul or perhaps enhance the show’s respectability.  All hope died aborning.  Entrenched in 19 Entertainment’s stable of writers, DioGuardi is the author and/co-author of the schlockiest tunes that the show’s winners and runners-up are obligated to include in their first post-Idol CD’s.  As a bastion of blatant commercialism, Simon Cowell’s take on music is as far removed from a genuine art form as Michael Jackson is from reality.  However, on air during the finale, Cowell himself decried the cheesiness of a song penned by DioGuardi, a song intended as the show’s tiebreaker for the two who battled it out on stage Tuesday night.   That would be Kris Allen and Adam Lambert.  I had to clarify the combatants because the previous week, DioGuardi and Cowell themselves nearly came to blows on air.


The near-fisticuffs resulted from Simon’s criticism of a song that Kara both had created and chosen for Danny Gokey.  Danny is the guy who, hmmm, had held the third-highest spot in the contest before he was forced to sing Kara’s song and yes, subsequently got voted off.  As Kara and Cowell continued to differ over what constitutes musical artistry, DioGuardi’s hot, vitriolic salvo degenerated into biting imitation of the judge whose wardrobe consists of three T-shirts.  When host Ryan Seacrest admonished the judges throughout the season to “Play nicely, children”, he meant it … particularly the “children” part.  Which brings me to my next choicest moment, the Judge’s Save!


My favorite new addition to this season, the Judge’s Save blows to smithereens, once and for all, the delusion that the American public chooses which contestant gets the boot and which one lives to see another round.  By consensus and majority rule, the four judges are empowered to rescue a single contestant from the chopping block.  Alexis Grace, the tiny girl with the big, promising voice, was the victim of this subterfuge.  The precise moment that the kid opened her mouth to sing once more for her life, the judges went into a Hail Mary huddle, buzzing audibly over their decision: a resounding “No.”  How the judges could have heard Alexis perform as they yammered on will remain one of the unsolved mysteries of the universe.  Clearly, the panel had made up its collective mind well in advance.  So much for the deus ex machina.  The decision to pull somebody’s you-know-what out of the fire came much later in the season with contestant Matt Giraud.


Waffling between contemporary R&B, old school soul, and boy band sound, this young man with a sporadically decent voice and an unfortunate ubiquitous fedora failed to define his stage persona and, ultimately, garner lasting support from the viewers.  When America had had enough of this kid, Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Kara DioGuardi rushed to his aid.  As a grateful Matt wept with relief, believing his talent worthy of the save, Simon Cowell viciously cut the celebration short.  He let the world know that Matt would not advance past the following week.  To rob that young man of his shining victory before the American viewing public was akin to watching someone kick a newly healed animal for the sheer, sick fun of it.  Cowell’s monumental hubris demands that he have the very last word, no matter how long its acid may scorch a contestant’s psyche or the minds of potential record producers.   And, Idol/19 wouldn’t have it any other way.         


Paula Abdul’s performance (singing, that is).  Whatever possessed a middle-age choreographer who could not sing a lick back when she was playing footsy with Arsenio Hall — and who still can’t — to take the stage during the world’s biggest singing contest?  Was it validation?  Record sales?  Exhibitionism? That nasally-thready voice robotized through an electronic box, the hairstyle and lighting calculated to disguise her age, the Madonna production-like sycophants lifting and tossing Abdul about like so much floss all added up to one of the most cringing moments of my life.  Sadly, that is not a moment I will ever get back.  Ever.


But hey, it’s not Paula’s fault.  She was simply jumping on the bandwagon of the show’s newest trend of giving airtime to people without an ounce of musical talent, i.e., the guest mentors!


Read Part II tomorrow on Write On New Jersey.

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