Simon wants beef
I’ve spent most of my music-listening life studiously avoiding Mariah Carey. Her debut album came out when I was first starting to realize that this stuff existed, but I immediately figured out I’d be better off sticking with Bobby Brown and Faith No More and DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and I’ve been making similar decisions ever since. The only Mariah songs that really crossed my radar were the totally inescapable monster hits: “Fantasy,” “Honey,” etc. I basically only started paying attention a couple of years ago when she released The Emancipation of Mimi and scaled back on the virtuosic melismatic runs that will be her primary pop-music legacy. From my limited vantage point, Mariah’s always been a technique-first singer, one more concerned with showcasing every last one of her octaves on every track than with conveying anything resembling human emotion. And so last night’s Mariah-themed episode of American Idol must’ve been something like playing Guitar Hero on expert level for these contestants; it’s hard to have fun or communicate anything about yourself when you’re pushing yourself to the breaking point just to hit all the damn notes. Since those runs are such a fundamental part of virtually every Mariah Carey song, none of the candidates could do away with them altogether. This season of Idol is heavier on niche singers than any season in the show’s history, and virtually all the singers did what they could to transpose these songs into their respective home-genres, but even though the songs mostly survived the change, they remained songs about technique.
Weirdly enough, the show only has one pure R&B singer left in its ranks, and Syesha Mercado had home-field advantage last night. She sang the hell out of “Vanishing,” apparently a first-album deep cut (as if I’d know), using it to show that she’s one of these post-Mariah singers entirely happy singing crazy runs all over the place. She might’ve been my favorite of the show, but I also liked Brooke White, who turned “Hero” into a fragile adult-contempo piano-ballad. The judges jumped all over Brooke for missing notes and for generally looking like a scared baby deer onstage, but those flubbed runs and that fully visible stage-fear actually account for a good bit of her appeal; she’s this show’s Cat Power or something, and I’m guessing viewer protectiveness will keep her safe for another week. The other niche-singers mostly did well. Jason Castro stayed firmly in his lane, making “I Don’t Want to Cry” over into pleasantly forgettable mellow-dude beach-folk. David Cook dove into full-on strings-and-gnarly-moans lighters-up territory with “Always Be My Baby.” I missed this when I was watching the show, but I guess he dedicated the song to his brother, who has cancer. That’s a really touching thing, even if calling your brother your baby is weird.
Now that I think about it, pretty much every remaining contestant is a niche-singer with a particular target demographic, right? Are scenery-wolfing power-ballads a niche? If they are, they’re Carly Smithson’s niche, and she made a total mess out of “Without You,” managing to be simultaneously boring and cringey. She’ll probably go home on it. Kristy Lee Cook couldn’t quite make a country song out of “Forever,” ending up with a boring end-credits Diane Warren sort of thing instead. David Archuleta, meanwhile, picked the most obviously Jesusy song he could find, and he did pretty well with it, appropriate considering he’s the closest thing the show still has to an R&B singer besides Syesha. He didn’t screw up, which means he continued his long, grim death-march to the finals. He’s going to win this thing, and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. I’m bored just thinking about it.