Barry Gibb Week on American Idol: Not Particularly Great TV
I kind of shot myself in the foot last week when I sort-of promised that I'd write about American Idol every week until the show ends. For one thing, the simple act of watching the show this week turned out to be something of a challenge. I'm in Virginia this week to set stuff up for my wedding, which means I'm away from my trusty DVR. And I didn't watch the show when it aired, either; I was out with dinner with Bridget and her family instead. So that left me with the frustrating challenge of trying to absorb last night's show through the grainy YouTube clips that people posted this morning. I got to see all the actual performances, but I didn't get the intro video montage or the closing clip-show summary or any taped messages from President Bush that may or may not have closed out this week's show. (Blissfully, though, Judge Judy's cameo remained intact.) All those complaints might seem like quibbles, and maybe they are, but the experience really drove how just how much of American Idol's appeal is entirely extramusical: the drawn-out suspense, the strategic placement of commercial-breaks, the reassuringly formulaic pacing. When all that's left is the actual performances and the judges' comments, there's not a lot of show there. And that's a further reinforcement of something I've already written: a whole lot of people don't care about music. Or, rather, a whole lot of people need to be made to care about music, and it takes AI's meticulous plotting to turn what's become a niche obsession back into a hysteria-generating mass-culture phenomenon. Another thing that made this week's show a tough assignment: Barry Gibb week fucking sucked.
When Ryan Seacrest announced last week that Barry Gibb would be this week's guest coach, I was hoping we'd get a full-on disco-theme week, sort of like how the show drafted Lulu and Peter Noone to coach British Invasion Week. Those guys were happy to stand in for an entire era; after all, the idea of a Lulu Week or a Herman's Hermits week was pretty much ridiculous. A Bee Gees Week made a little more sense, considering that the group did have an enormously deep catalogue of great songs. But it was telling how nobody actually used the word disco in any of the clips that I saw; I wonder if Gibb's management forced the omission. Of the eight Gibb songs that the contestants performed last night, only three of them came from the Bee Gees' disco-era peak, and even then they were euphemistically referred to as "dance music." In turn, three of the songs came from the Bee Gees' late-60s/eary-70s snoozy MOR folk-rock stage, one came from an already-forgotten 2001 comeback album, and one was a blown-out ballad that Gibb wrote for Barbara Streisand. The whole appeal of the disco-week idea is that it should rip the four remaining contestants out of their Dianne Warren comfort-zones and force them to figure out how to fit rhythm and swagger into their styles. When the show's producers allow those contestants access to Gibb's entire back catalogue, though, they're a whole lot more likely to fall back into tired orchestral-ballad tropes, which is exactly what happened.
The show's producers were probably right to program those three disco-jams before everything else, but kicking everything off with Melinda Doolittle's yawnsomely competent and genteel read of "Love You Inside and Out" was maybe not such a good idea. Still, Melinda was basically genius compared to Blake Lewis, who is becoming more unendurable every week that America inexplicably refuses to vote him off. Blake is going so deep into his beatboxing/scatting gimmick that he's forgetting to actually sing; every time he returned to the words on his twin massacres of "You Should Be Dancing" and failed-comeback gem "This is Where I Came In," his voice was completely flat and defeated. My greatest nightmare is that Timbaland is watching Blake this season and rubbing his hands together, thinking that he's going to turn this fuckface into the next Justin. That's probably what Blake is banking on if he knows anything about Tim's avowed love of beatboxing and of maudlin sub-Coldplay whiteboy moan-merchants. I have a lot of nice things to say about Marylander soul-shouter LaKisha Jones, but this week her showy displays of gospel-runs prevented her from actually singing the goddam songs the same way Blake's beatboxing did. LaKisha always strains to Mary J. Bligify her songs, but I wish she would've noted the one time that MJB herself tried her hand at a disco-era club-banger: the cover of First Choice's "Let No Man Put Asunder" on 1999's Mary, wherein Mary just straight-up howled the song without dipping into her ad-lib arsenal. And LaKisha's version of the ballad "Run to Me" was just as soul-crushingly boring as anything Melinda's done in recent weeks. And so the only contestant to emerge relatively unscathed was Jordin Sparks, the only one who's figured out how to sing those big ballads in a remotely compelling way.
The only real bright spot of the show was Gibb himself, who looked like he was spending every moment calculating ways to avoid coming off like the coked-up egomaniac Jimmy Fallon played on the Barry Gibb Talk Show skits on SNL a couple of years ago. His features have aged in a distinctly deranged-homeless-man way, but he remained impressively mellow even as the contestants were slaughtering his songs in front of his face. And the one time he busted out his "Stayin' Alive" falsetto, he showed exactly what these kids were doing wrong.
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