American Idol Week Three: "Hallelujah" and Bullshit

American Idol Week Three: "Hallelujah" and Bullshit

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If you're still on the fence about whether you should be watching American Idol, this would've been a pretty great week to start. In the two hours of singing-competition shows that have run on Fox primetime this week, we've been treated to exactly one great performance and then two hours and fifty-eight minutes (commercials included) of mind-boggling trainwreck fuckery, which is pretty much all you can ask for from this show. First, the great performance: Jason Castro's version of Jeff Buckely's version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." i've liked Castro since the show launched into its competition stage, mostly because I've never seen such an obvious and total stoner represented anywhere on TV outside the medium of stoner-comedy, and even then nowhere near this convincingly. I knew about ten Jason Castros in high school, and they were all good dudes. He's breezed through the last couple of weeks doing doing amiable and unassuming folk-pop ballads, but "Hallelujah" is the first indication that he's capable of something more. Castro's "Hallelujah" was poised and assured and nimble, but it's not like it really added a whole lot to Buckley's version. What really amazed me about it was that this song, one that's got all sorts of deeply entrenched personal associations for me (mixtapes from ex-girlfriends, rain-soaked road-trips, that sort of thing) was getting serious burn on the highest-rated TV show in America.

Various versions of "Hallelujah" have already appeared in all sorts of TV shows and movies; its not like this guy was doing, like, Liz Phair's "Explain It to Me" up there. But in a context where kids get two minutes per week to let a vast voting audience and a jarringly glib panel of judges decide whether or not they should be stars or not, it strikes me as a particularly brave and graceful move to sing such a wound-up, complicated song, a meditation on religion and sex that still doesn't altogether make sense to me know matter how much I love it. To put things in perspective, the previous week's most talked-about performance was David Archuleta's stage-kid R&B version of "Imagine," a vaguely powerful moment that nonetheless felt stage-managed and telegraphed and manipulative. Next to that, "Hallelujah" was all ambiguity, but it managed to hit all the same crowd-pleasing power-ballad pleasure-centers just as hard, if not harder. Even more interesting: Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson both recognized the song immediately and called it one of their favorites, the first sign I've seen that these people occupy a pop-music universe even marginally related to my own. (For context: in the same episode, Randy Jackson seemed to think that "Don't You Forget About Me" was an INXS song. Rob Harvilla: "To be fair, that's a pretty understandable mistake for a black dude to make.")

Part of what made Castro's song work was its arrangement: acoustic guitar, nothing else. And that's not an endorsement of that whole unplugged bullshit; it's an indictment of the show's fucking horrible session-hack backing band, which is getting worse every week. Ricky Minor and company have the supernatural power to reduce any song to soft-rock nothingness, so Castro won by removing them from the equation altogether. The only other times those people showed any fire over the past two shows were their post-grunge power-ballad version of Lionel Ritchie's "Hello" for David Cook (which almost ruled, actually) and their vaguely countrified version of Journey's "Faithfully" for Kristy Lee Cook (which wasn't great but was a whole lot better than the judges said). I suppose I should also mention Amanda Overmeyer's version of Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself for Loving You" here as well, since it had some bite, but for some reason I find myself getting enormously annoyed whenever I think about that chick. The biggest casualty was Soft Cell's version of "Tainted Love," which the band turned into godawful watery strut-funk for Danny Noreaga, who at least is funny. Everyone else is going to have to start picking death-metal songs or something; it's the only way they'll stop those fools from falling asleep on those arrangements.

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The other big story from this week was the total humiliating degeneration of Paula Abdul, who's barely speaking English at this point. Throughout last night, she bickered weirdly with Simon, came close to slapping him a couple of times, fell out of her chair, slurred her words, and generally came off like a cautionary tale in the making. If they keep throwing her on live TV, something awful is going to happen sooner or later. I've seen bands break up onstage a couple of times, and the way the other two judges reacted to her warning behaviors reminded me a whole lot of that. Simon Cowell may think Whitney Houston is the untouchable apex of popular music and make more money than God, but I feel sort of sorry for anyone who has to sit next to her on TV week in and week out. This won't end well.

My crystal ball says that David Hernandez, Luke Menard, Kady Malloy, and Syesha Mercado all go home tonight, but maybe I'm just hoping that's what'll happen.

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