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Thursday, March 10, 2011

‘American Idol’: Few Hits, Mostly Misses


We were promised hits, dammit. The ruthless Interscope executive Jimmy Iovine, now a significant member of the “American Idol” team, indicated that this season, he and his famous producer friends would treat contestants like future recording stars, not just as TV-show contestants.
But if Wednesday night’s performances, on the first proper competition night, revealed anything, it’s that the institutional memory of this show, and the tentativeness of its performers, will for now easily trump any early efforts to mold new stars.
Contestants were paired with a range of producers, from the R&B sensation Tricky Stewart to the teen-pop maestros of Rock Mafia to the longtime rock hand Don Was. And yet their collective decades of experience largely failed to convince the top 13 to go out on stage and do anything besides sing plainly and try to hit the notes as if they were season 1 novices.
Only two of the finalists, wild card selections both, appeared to have listened to the radio any time in the last decade. Naima Adedapo infused Rihanna’s “Umbrella” with a perplexing, but at least modern reggae breakdown, and Stefano Langone resisted the urge to treat Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” with kid gloves and turned the second half into uptempo dance-R&B.
But of course Thia Megia sang the Charlie Chaplin version of “Smile” – even Lex Luger couldn’t have talked her out of that one. And Haley Reinhart sang LeAnn Rimes’s “Blue,” which already sounded about half a century old when Rimes released it in 1996. Lauren Alaina’s version of Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine” was less edgy than the original. Even mighty Jacob Lusk dared not meddle too much with R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” adding just a couple of runs and melodic changes to his enthralling performance.
Lusk and Casey Abrams were the standouts, each continuing their stunning, unlikely runs on “Idol” by sticking close to what they’ve done to date. Abrams performed Joe Cocker’s “With A Little Help From My Friends” with all sorts of clever tweaks and, for the first time, not appearing as if his hair had gone unwashed for days.
Letdown of the night: Scotty McCreery, whose take on Garth Brooks’s “The River” revealed him to be almost completely without vocal power. Deep waters run still.

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