American Idol is building up to its second big annual Idol Gives Back charity bonanza thing, so this week’s theme, such as it was, was “inspirational songs.” I’m not altogether sure it’s possible to conjure a vaguer theme. Any song, in the right circumstances, can inspire: “Me So Horny,” “Raining Blood,” the DuckTales theme song. In some circles, “inspirational” is a code word for songs with overt Christian messages, but that thankfully wasn’t the case here. In Idol-speak, “inspirational” apparently means “power ballads,” albeit usually power-ballads about something other than failed relationships. It was sort of weird for me to see how many of the contestants sang songs this week about overcoming personal adversity and achieving dreams, like their struggle to win this singing-competition TV show had something to do with the survival struggles of the poor Americans and Africans that tonight’s big telethon show is going to benefit. There’s something just so self-absorbed and off-putting in that. “Dream On” and “I Believe” and “The Show Must Go On” are songs about internal triumph; none of them are particularly invested in the existence of people other than the songs’ singers. And yeah, the assumption is that we’ll identify with the singers and work harder toward our own goals after hearing those songs, but all those songs coming in such quick succession really only served to make this year’s lineup of contestants look narcissistic. The one competitor who sang a song explicitly about other people was burly-voiced rock dude David Cook, who, unfortunately, sucked. Idol contestants should really refrain from telling us who their favorite bands are; I don’t know that Cook is going to make himself too many friends raving about Our Lady Peace. And his performance was a big pompous mess, all swallowed verses and bombastically overdone choruses, capped off with a ridiculous moment where he raised his hand to the camera to show the words “Give Back” sharpied on his palm. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to take this guy seriously again.
Cook aside, this was a pretty good week for the show. Idol pulled out all the stops in preparation for tonight’s big celeb-fest, bringing in a string-section and a gospel choir, and I really hope they keep them around for the rest of the season. And even the middling performances were better than usual. Michael Johns resorted to a straight-up Steven Tyler impression, and it was distracting to hear the band cram that song’s slow, cathartic build into a minute and a half. But I can’t imagine ever being unhappy to hear that song, and you probably have to resort to a straight-up Steven Tyler impression to keep from sounding completely ridiculous singing it. David Archuleta isn’t a belter, and so Robbie Williams’ cheap-seats tearjerker “Angels” probably wasn’t the best pick for him; he had to sing little runs around the melody rather than wailing it out full-on. But, again, the song itself saved the performance; “Angels” is a serious jam and not one I ever expected to hear on a show like this one, at least not in a country where it never had any impact whatsoever. Simon Cowell called Brooke White’s “You’ve Got a Friend” pleasant and unoriginal, which about sums it up, but there’s a place for pleasant and unoriginal songs. Likewise, the judges were right that Carly Smithson’s icily ferocious take on “The Show Must Go On” was probably wrong for a good-vibes show like this one, but I’m liking the unhinged version of Smithson more and more. She’ll probably go home this week, and I won’t be especially sorry to see her gone, but there’s something refreshing in seeing a contestant whose naked determination to win is so totally undisguised.
And the show had a couple of really, really nice moments. Jason Castro took on Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s breezy ukulele-driven version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which made for a really simple and pretty performance. Castro’s had a sort of tremulous Bright Eyes quaver in his voice early on, and when he got around to squeaking out a few R&B runs later in the song, they felt earned. And the arrangement was near-perfect, starting out with an unadorned ukulele and then delicately adding in strings, keeping the hacky Idol house band out of it the whole time. Syesha Mercado, meanwhile, might not have been able to match Fantasia’s charisma on “I Believe” but her take on the song was stately and professional, and the gospel choir behind her turned it into something powerful. I’ve gone back and forth on token country contestant Kristy Lee Cook, but she really had her defining moment this week. Martina McBride’s “Anyway” is a near-perfect melodramatic monster-ballad, and completely owned it. I was pretty sure I caught her looking directly at frequent critic Simon Cowell when she sang the bit about how you can pour your heart out singing and they’ll forget it tomorrow but you should sing it anyway. Defiance becomes her, and I guess we’ll still have Kristy Lee Cook to kick around another week.
Tomorrow I’ll do a big running diary on the Idol Gives Back thing, so check for that.