Thursday, March 22, 2012

AI Recap: Making Billy Joel Your Own

"If you can't sing Billy Joel, you can't sing at all," Steven declared at the top of last night's show in which the contestants tackled "the songbook of Billy Joel." (Of course, Steven allegedly worked with Billy but yet didn't know one of his most famous songs, but more on that later.)

True confession time: I am a die-hard Billy Joel fan. Seriously. I have all of his music, know 95 percent of his songs word for word, have seen him in concert numerous times, and consider him to be one of my top two favorite singers of all time. That being said, I approached Billy Joel Night with some cautious optimism, because while his songs are amazingly memorable and beautiful, they're fairly simple vocally. It takes a lot to mess up a Billy Joel song. Or so I thought.

Diddy joined Jimmy this week to mentor the contestants, and we also were treated to a ridiculously boring and meaningless "wardrobe advice" session with Tommy Hilfiger and one of the show's stylists. Can you be considered an "advisor" if almost no one takes your advice?

DeAndre started out the night and after prattling with Tommy about his hair and the need for a star-making outfit, met with Diddy and Jimmy about his song, Only the Good Die Young. DeAndre didn't seem to quite connect with the lyrics, which are, in essence, about convincing a Catholic girl to give up the goods (so to speak). Jimmy suggested DeAndre look at J.Lo for the first four lines ("She's a Catholic girl, she'll get it"). Clad in a white tshirt, shiny black jacket, white sleeveless vest, and black jeans, DeAndre whipped his hair back and forth and sang the song while rainbows skittered by. Not quite, but it was totally karaoke and not impressive vocally. The judges seemed to think that the people loudly cheering for DeAndre actually liked his performance and weren't being manipulated by stage hands with "applause" signs. (I've read the behind-the-scenes reports of the show; I know what goes on.) Steven said the song was "A little too happy, but isn't that what the world needs right now?" (Meaning, "I didn't like it, but I don't care.") J.Lo praised DeAndre's "laid-back, islandy, Bob Marley vibe." (Another contestant they're trying to pretend is from Jamaica, like they did with Naima last year. This kid is from San Jose. In California.) Randy gave us his first "I wasn't jumping up and down" of the season and said the performance didn't wow him. Point to Randy.

Erika is a Rhode Islander, but Diddy told her she needed to be a New Yorker in order to sing New York State of Mind. (Kimberley Locke performed this during Season 2.) After Erika told Tommy she likes the kind of style Pink has, he convinced her to get a drastic hair makeover...from blonde with red streaks to a short, jet black, Benatar-esque look. I like it. I really liked Erika's performance; I thought she gave it a little twist of her own while staying fairly true to the melody (as she was told she should). And while the judges really praised her, they once again gave her contradictory advice. ("Don't oversing, but let go." "Respect the song in the beginning, but do runs at the end.") Randy did call her "one of the best singers in this whole thing" because she can (wait for it) "sing the phone book." Steven said she could have "put more character into it" but she "wore it like beautiful." (Anyone with a Steven Tyler decoder ring I can borrow?) Ryan said that "not since the Sanjaya ponyhawk" has there been a transformation so talked about.

Joshua was uncomfortable this week with his choice, She's Got a Way, because it's a pop song, and he doesn't feel comfortable singing non-soulful songs. (Maybe Billy Joel isn't Percy Sledge, Joshua, but the man has soul.) Tommy suggested Joshua wear a tuxedo, but Joshua wore a black suit with a black tie, exactly what Tommy thought he shouldn't do. (Random fact: Joshua wears his clothes a size too small to make them look fitted. Must be nice.) After he blew me away last week, I wasn't too impressed with Joshua's performance this week. He really seemed uncomfortable at the start of the song, and then the gospel choir came in, and all I wanted was for Joshua to stop screaming at me. This is a beautiful, spare song that absolutely didn't need all of the bombast he brought to it. J.Lo said she felt stupid saying anything about Joshua's singing (clearly I don't), but he needed to connect more with the lyrics. (And maybe dial it down to 11, let's say?) Steven said Joshua took a song he didn't know (really, Steven?) and made it memorable, adding that he "sang the sweat out of it." Randy was his usual indecisive self, saying J.Lo and Steven "were both right," but Joshua is one of the competition's best singers.

Gee, of all of Billy Joel's songs, Skylar picked the countrified one, Shameless. (This reminds me of last year, when Scotty picked the one Elton John song that apparently had the word "country" in the title.) Yet when she first sang it for Jimmy and Diddy, they felt it seemed forced and false, but Diddy told Skylar, "the truth will set you free." (Great singing advice, Sean John.) And then Tommy told Skylar they should build her outfit around one of her one million pairs of boots, but Skylar came out wearing heels. (Awesome advice, Tom.) She started out sitting on the edge of the stage, surrounded by four guys, all clapping out of rhythm. (Way to stage that spontaneity, huh?) I thought it started out too low for her, and while she hit some powerful notes when the song built, I'm starting to feel that Skylar is getting a little one-note for me. Randy asked if Skylar was inspired by Brad Paisley's version of the song (Paisley never sang the song), but when Skylar explained it was inspired by Garth Brooks' version, Randy claimed never to have heard that. (That's probably the version you're thinking of, music expert.) J.Lo thought it was pretty good, Steven called it pitchy in places but says he's "amazed every time you hit the chorus with such conviction." He also said "it started out slow, but that's ok."

How will Elise "fight back from two weeks in the bottom three," asked Ryan? By ignoring almost everyone's advice. She chose to sing Vienna, one of my favorite songs off Billy Joel's The Stranger, but Jimmy and Diddy didn't think singing an "unknown" song was wise. Then Diddy said that perhaps singing "the Vienna song" (oh, brother) might work, if Elise gave a great performance. (Maybe we could get mentors who are familiar with the material they're coaching the contestants on?) Then after confiding that she liked the 60s and 70s fashion-wise and Tommy suggested Elise wear bell bottoms with a short jacket, Elise chose to perform in a dress cut-down-to-there and some sort of sleeveless jacket over it. (This is why I recap singing competitions and not Project Runway. Shirt, pants, dress—that's all my fashion vocab can handle.) I thought she gave an absolutely terrific performance that showed off all of her voice's best assets, but the song was utterly unrecognizable from the original. (And I can't decide whether that's a good or a bad thing. Is it better for the contestants to sing slightly varied versions of the songs, like Erika or Colton, or to totally change the song, like Elise or Phillip?) The judges gave her a standing ovation, praising the melody, the runs, everything. J.Lo, clearly demonstrating she needs some anger management counseling, told Elise, "I'm so happy for you, I want to shake you," and added that this was the first time she showed her personality. (Clearly J.Lo forgot Elise's performance last week.) Randy called her "unbelievably talented" and mentioned that every week, he asks himself (along with "Who's in it to win it?," I'll bet), "Who's gonna have a moment? Well, Elise had a moment tonight!" Then, in an effort to connect Elise emotionally to the audience, they brought up two of her teenage voice students, who were crying with happiness over Elise's performance. Let's see if "Project Save Elise" lasts at least one week...

You know what, folks? Phillip is his own person. He's not going to let anyone tell him what to do. (I hope he gets to sing Gavin DeGraw's I Don't Want to Be sometime soon.) He chose to sing Movin' Out (Anthony's Song), but chafed at the advice Jimmy and Diddy were giving him. Diddy wanted Phillip to sing the song without the guitar (he called it "a shield"), told him "you gotta groove," and then brought some random girls into the rehearsal studio for Phillip to sing to. Then Tommy told Phillip that you should never wear gray clothes on stage, because it's not becoming of a star. Cut to Phillip, on stage with his guitar, wearing gray on gray. Awesome. I felt like his rendition of the song also had very little resemblance to the original, and it sounded similar in a number of ways to his renditions of In the Air Tonight and Superstition, but if Scotty can win the entire show singing country versions of songs, why can't Phillip win? J.Lo said, "It felt like you were taking out your aggression on your mentors," but told him, "You are who you are and you are great." Steven called it a "perfect rendition," saying he took the song and "Phillip Phillipsed it." Randy pointed out all of the advice Phillip chose not to follow, but said that was fine, because he shouldn't stop being himself. Randy also called it "one of the best renditions of the song ever." When he talked to Ryan, Phillip explained that his guitar wasn't a shield, and that he wasn't trying to sing only for certain people, but he wanted to put music first. Yeah! Put music first! (At least someone on this show recognizes that should happen sometime!!)

Our little sprite, Hollie, chose to tackle Honesty, a big ballad that the mentors worried she might not have enough grit or life experience to understand. But Hollie took their advice to heart and put a lot of feeling into the song. Plus, she could wear sparkly things! Once again, I really liked her performance. While she is terrific at belting the big notes, the smokiness and richness of her lower register is really terrific to listen to. The judges, however, didn't hear the same performance we did at home apparently, as they called it pitchy, questioned whether she had sung the song enough to know all of the notes, and said while it was good, she was "better than that." (I can't help but wonder if her supposed pitchiness had anything to do with the image of the dandelion puffball breaking apart on the screen behind her. Maybe everyone got hay fever or something.) Hollie explained that she had never heard the song before, so it was tough, but hoped she could stick around another week. I hope so too, Hollie, because if you get voted off before Heejun, I may lose myself, and not in any Eminem kind of way.

Oh, look, it's Season 10's favorite punching bag, Haley Rinehart! Haley will be performing her first single, Free on tonight's results show.

Next up was Heejun. He asked Jimmy and Diddy for advice on how to overcome last week's criticism (my response would have been "sing better," but he didn't ask me), and they explained that the music business was tough and you had to roll with the punches. (Best line of the night from Diddy, "I don't know if he's a comedian or con man, or if he's even Asian." You know what, Diddy? His glasses don't even have glass in them.) In his session with Tommy Hilfiger, he was a little disrespectful, giving really jokey answers to his questions. (Example: "Who's your style inspiration?" "Jessica Sanchez.") Heejun chose to sing My Life (aka the theme song from Bosom Buddies for old folks like me), and he started out wearing a shirt and bow tie (along with one of his knit beanies) and pretended to mess up the start of the song. Then he said, "Sorry, that's much too slow for me. And I want to DANCE!" He pulled off his hat and his shirt (to reveal a tshirt), and proceeded to move all over the stage, even singing to the judges at one point. Interestingly enough, while I thought the performance was ridiculous, it was the best he has sounded vocally since the season began. (Not saying much, but...) J.Lo said his performance was a "breath of fresh air," but that he didn't quite hit his vocals "because you were running around." Steven was not amused saying that while Heejun "took the piss out of the song," the music business "would kick his ass" because he needs to take it more seriously. Randy said that he was happy to see Heejun have a good time, but the performance was "vocally missing something." When Ryan asked Heejun about Diddy's comments, he said "Diddy is confusing himself," and then softly said, "Sean John..." I think it's craps if Heejun sticks around while Elise and Erika get voted out, but you know that's going to happen. Stupid tween voters.

Jessica loves shopping, by the way. And clothes. And singing. She chose Everybody Has a Dream, which is an absolutely fantastic song off of The Stranger. Jimmy and Diddy tried to pass off some BS like they didn't believe what Jessica was singing because she was just belting the notes, so that set up the big drama for when she actually sang. I thought she was really good, and has a voice far beyond her years, but there's just something about her that's a little Jackie Evancho-like, a little too practiced for me. The judges gave her a standing ovation, and Steven said, "You've gone way past my judging. When God gave out vocal cords you were first in line. Thanks for letting me hear you sing." J.Lo called this "a defining moment" for Jessica (although I thought I Will Always Love You was actually more of one), while Randy said she "has a moment every week." (Once again, the judges conveniently forget previous performances when praising the chosen ones, because according to them, Jessica most certainly didn't have a moment last week.) He also called the song "flawlessly perfect," which I think gilded the lily a bit much.

Colton finally got the pimp spot this week, and he was looking forward to playing the piano for the first time in a few weeks, singing (what else?) Piano Man. (Josh Gracin sang this in Season 2, but the YouTube gods don't want to share it.) Diddy was impressed after he heard Colton's version, saying "I want to buy that record." (Hee. He said "record.") Tommy wasn't too thrilled with Colton's hair, but he's an individual, you know? When the performance began, I'd imagine some used car dealer on Hollywood Boulevard went looking for their spotlights, because Colton's red piano was surrounded by every pinpoint spotlight from here to LaBrea. I thought he was fantastic, bringing enough of his vocal originality and (although I hate to use a Randy word) an alt-rock, almost emo-ish vibe to a classic song. I also think he deserved a standing ovation, but the judges are odd with their standing O's as always. J.Lo said Colton sings with "pure feeling," and she (of course) got goosies from the start. (I'd hoped that word had died a horrible death.) Steven called Colton a "great singer and a great musician," adding, "Your choice of chords when your voice resolved was stunning." Randy called him a rockstar. Colton, who apparently has been warned by show executives about "religious tweeting," thanked God for his performance. (Colton has mentioned his interest in being a Christian rock singer after the show.)

My DVR cut off after they re-ran the phone numbers (remember these are 866 numbers, not 800 numbers), so I don't know if they made the judges stall for time by naming who they think will be safe and who is at risk. Here's what I think:

Should be bottom three: DeAndre, Heejun, Skylar
Will be bottom three: Erika, Hollie, Heejun (or DeAndre)

Sadly, I think Erika is going home despite another great performance and the dramatic makeover, although I'm hoping the audience wises up and sends Heejun home. Of course, if the voters don't like Elise no matter what, she could still be in danger. Let's hope not.

So until tonight...remember, in the immortal words of the Dawg, "Those who can, should, those who can't shouldn't, and those who babble incoherently should judge American Idol."

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