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May 20, 2009 at 7:48 AM

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A critic's take: It was a deflating final, but a thrilling season

Posted by Misha Berson

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This eighth season of the deliciously cheesy talent-thon "American Idol" has been even quirkier (and more obviously manipulative) than usual. But after the excessive load of cringy audition episodes, the gimmicky new tricks of cuts and saves, and despite the infantile antics of the judges, the show eventually offered some genuine thrills and chills and spills.

And it tracked the absorbing story of two very likable and promising young performers from different backgrounds, with contrasting styles and an inspiring affection and respect for one another, as they sung their way into viewers' hearts -- and busted up some divisive blue state/red state, gay/straight myths along the way.

Why then, was Tuesday night's highly anticipated final showdown between the low-key charmer Kris Allen and his gutsy and flamboyant competitor Adam Lambert, rather deflating?

One reason was a final format that gave neither singer a chance to work up a new number of his own, and get an opportunity to show off his best stuff. Even worse, both had to perform a "coronation" song co-penned by Idol judge Kara DioGuardi that's perhaps the most tuneless, hackneyed earful of "inspirational" junk that any American Idol has been saddled with in their last chance at victory -- and as their first post-Idol single.

Neither Allen nor Lambert could make "No Boundaries," which DioGuardi co-wrote with Cathy Dennis and Mitch Allan, sound like anything but the tripe it is.

But Allen, who has risen in the ranks despite stingy praise from uber-judge Simon Cowell and measured kudos from cheerleading judge Paula Abdul, was especially undercut by this song, which makes David Cook's Idol coronation tune "The Time of My Life" seem thrilling by contrast.

The caterwauling, confusing melody for "No Boundaries" demanded the sort of stretchy vocal range that's one of Lambert's greatest strengths, and which Allen has never had or traded on. And the words, about scaling mountains to reach your dream, or whatever, were a jumble of cliches.

That said, Allen used his superior arranging skills to at least make the tune sort of comprehensible. But he couldn't get his voice (or his heart) around it.

Nor could he totally remake the Marvin Gaye classic, "What's Goin' On?" into the pow-bam showstopper Cowell wanted from him. The Gaye song was the pick of "Idol" producer Simon Fuller, and I believe it was well-intended. But when both Cowell and fellow judge Randy Jackson dismissed Allen's sincere, cogent performance as lightweight (despite the powerful lyrics decrying war and hate), you wanted to ask: hey, what was the alternative? "What's Going On" rearranged for a brass band and hula dancers?

Meanwhile, Lambert was tossed a big, juicy pitch by Fuller with "A Change is Gonna Come," Sam Cooke's impassioned anthem. And I give Lambert props for making the most of that fat fastball. If he didn't smack a homerun (those screechy high notes still set my teeth on edge) it was at least a solid double, maybe a triple. He understood the song's plea for justice and civil rights, and he stirringly conveyed it.

The two singers' face-off began on a promising note, with each making a wise choice of an encore number from earlier in the season. Lambert exhibited his more sensitive side and supple middle range on Tears for Fears' "Mad World." And Allen's soulful, searing "Ain't No Sunshine" was a beauty, even better than his previous take on it.

Though he had the roughest night, I still prefer Allen. Partly it's just what my ears enjoy. But its also for reasons why he might not win on "Idol" and was never likely to.

Unlike Lambert, Allen doesn't project a big stage presence, nor is he an actor who pours himself into a role in a mini-drama with each song. He also isn't a singer who'd qualify for what Jamie Foxx deemed "the throat Olympics." And let's face it, most Idol winners have been vocal athletes, to some degree.

Allen was both praised and panned throughout the season for being exactly who he is: an unassuming guy, with a very pleasing and tender voice, a flair for making tasty and vital arrangements, and a beautiful, organic way of bringing listeners deep into the soul of a song he loves and believes in. When that happened -- on his renditions of "Falling Slowly," "She Works Hard For His Money," "To Make You Feel My Love" etc -- he cut right through all the hype and overkill of "Idol." And he reminded us that the best music can be the most intimate, unstudied and least flashy.

Adam, by contrast, has talents that seem tailor-made for "Idol" -- and I'm not being facetious. He has shaken the show up, knocking it out of a complacency and smugness that was beginning to set into the franchise like rot. And he didn't make his sexuality an issue -- he left that to others, and in doing so rose above the fray.

If Simon has used the term "cabaret" as a sneering insult in seasons past, he didn't dare do that on this occasion. Lambert came up through the musical theater. And through the gay cabaret scene, which rewards performers for full-throttle performances, high-wire emotionalism and expert showmanship. Coupled with his ability to rock out, and the impressive elasticity of his voice, Adam was definitely ready for prime time.

I wish him the best -- without having a clue what sort of records he'll make, or whether I'll want to hear them. With Kris, I know I'll give a listen -- because what you see is what you get with this guy. Given the tenderness, tastiness, and, well, the delicacy of what he has to offer, he might be lucky to avert the commercial pressures and compromises that face the winners of Idol. Something tells me that Adam, given his musical temperament and ambition and ability to adapt without great compromise, will be far better equipped to handle them.

And so another season of "Idol" ends, after Wednesday's big blow-out full of mismatching stars and confetti. May both Allen and Lambert live long, and prosper. And may the show shed its stupid new gimmicks, and get back to the basics next season.

-- Misha Berson, Times arts critic

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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