I don’t want to be too cynical about “Idol Gives Back”, the big annual charity-drive American Idol episode, because God knows the thing does more good with ten minutes of on-air banalities than I will ever do with anything in my life. But every year now, the thing is just sitting in the middle of the season, waiting to fuck up my night through sheer obliterating boringness. Because every time there’s an “Idol Gives Back” special, we have to endure an hour of contestants doing “inspirational” songs, whatever that’s supposed to mean. And what it turns out to mean is always, always boring, drippy power ballads. Always. And American Idol doesn’t need any help being boring.
And even though the show is largely free of absolutely worthless trainwreck contestants by this point, this was still the first episode of the season where I had to pause it in the middle to get up and do something else just because I could not pay attention. I was just gone. One of the big problems was the judging: Ellen DeGeneres has never been worse (“I believe you can fly” after Aaron Kelly sang “I Believe I Can Fly”), and Simon Cowell has never been more blatantly bored with the whole process. And then there was guest mentor Alicia Keys, whose advice was bland to the point of absolute uselessness. Actual words she spoke: “Let people feel inspired by that.” Shut the fuck up, Alicia Keys.
And I guess this is where I have to talk about Crystal Bowersox doing “People Get Ready.” She sang at the end of the show, and everything about her performance seemed staged to create one of those patented Idol Moments, something the show badly needed after the previous six contestants collectively did their best to put the world to sleep. I wanted to love it. I really did. Bowersox is the show’s only sure thing at this point, and the producers want her to win as obviously as they wanted Adam Lambert last season. And “People Get Ready” is, simply put, one of the greatest songs ever written by a human being. Bowersox started belting it out a cappella, which sounded amazing, and then the band and string section crashed in to turn it into subtlety-free mush, which is what they do. Bowersox can usually find ways to shine through that, but here, she tried to chew scenery like Gladys Knight or Mary J. Blige, and she could just not manage those big swooping monster notes. Her voice went sharp, her timing fell all off, and she shanked her final note because she was crying, which, come on. The judges all predictably fawned, except maybe Simon; I can’t tell because my DVR cut off.
So if that was the show’s big moment of the week, we had problems. Further problems: Michael Lynche, usually canny and smooth, sang the Chad Kroeger hackfest “Hero,” the sort of song that cannot be used to convey human emotion, and the band pushed him even further into anonymity. Siobhan Magnus did some neat Northeastern over-enunciating, fun to hear on a Whitney Houston/Mariah Carey song, but she’s completely lost the perverse yowl-y streak that once made her fascinating. Casey James tried to do Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” as a Bob Seger song; it didn’t work. Tim Urban tried out his best impression of the guy from the Goo Goo Dolls, and it sounded ridiculous because nobody really pronounces their vowels that way. And Aaron Kelly did a serviceable, Nashvilled-up version of “I Believe I Can Fly,” and I did not believe that he could fly.
The best of the night turned out to be Lee DeWyze, who rose to the top pretty much just by bulldozing his way through the la-la-las on Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” and just generally not fucking it up. When the best guy of the night is the one who just didn’t fuck up, it’s time to forget the week ever happened.
Mercifully, that won’t be hard. Every year, they make a big thing out of not sending anyone home during “Idol Gives Back,” and every year we’re supposed to act all surprised at their magnanimity. So this was just a zero-stakes week, one that could suck without repercussion. Next year, can’t the producers just give an assload of money to charity and spare us this whole spectacle? Because I don’t know if I can make it through another one of these.