The same week NBC attempts to take on American Idol by launching the loud, flashy The Voice, Idol makes one of those baffling decisions that only Idol can make: Devoting an entire 90 minutes to saluting the deeply, overwhelmingly annoying singer-songwriter Carole King. I had a hard time with this one. Carole King has one of those voices that just causes immediate shudder-winces in me, and that was true even before I had a kid. Since then, things have gotten worse.
There’s a kids’ song that King sings called “Alligators All Around,” from a soundtrack she made for a 1975 kids’ musical called Really Rosie. Before my daughter turned one, “Alligators All Around” was one of the few things that could keep her from crying on any car trip that exceeded 10 minutes. I don’t know why. But that meant I heard “Alligators All Around” about one bazillion times in the space of six months. I suppose I should be grateful for Carole King; she saved me from having to hear my kid cry a bunch of times. Except I’m not altogether convinced that the sound of “Alligators All Around” is really all that better than my own child’s bawling. If I ever hear that song again, it’ll be too soon. Even typing the title sends me into a state of dread, sort of like how I get flashbacks to my freshman-year roommate trying to teach himself guitar by playing along to the “Tears in Heaven” mp3 over and over every time that song comes on in Walgreens or whatever.
In any case, a video package at the show’s opening did its best to convince me that King is more than the horrible person responsible for “Alligators All Around.” She’s written a ton of songs for pop artists in a gun-for-hire career that spans decades, and she also spent a few years as the Alanis Morrissette of 1971. It’s a career reminiscent of Paul Simon or Neil Diamond, except that Simon and Diamond both had good songs when they started writing for themselves. Babyface, who has very, very little to do with Carole King, sat in with Jimmy Iovine as a guest mentor for reasons that would only confuse and annoy me if I tried to think about them, so I’m not trying to think about them. It’s hard. He refrained from saying much of anything.
Jacob Lusk started things off by singing something called “Oh No, Not My Baby,” and Jimmy Iovine made very clear in his video package that he thought little of Lusk’s ability to sing the song. Lusk did all he could, giving it a bouncy and churched-up reading, but halfhearted midtempo dentists’-office fluff does nothing good for him. I liked his dancing, though. Randy had this to say: “The scatting was incredible.” When someone’s using that as a compliment, this whole enterprise is in danger of running off the rails. I’m worried for this guy.
I’d completely forgotten that the Gilmore Girls theme song was a Carole King song, but it was, and I guess that’s a check in the pro-Carole King column. (I ride for Gilmore Girls.) That’s what Lauren Alaina picked to sing, anyway. Jimmy Iovine has had this weird running thing in the weeks since he called Lauren a better singer than Miley Cyrus, almost playing mind games with Lauren just because he was bored or some shit, and they reached a predictable climax this week when Miley emerged to hug Lauren and lightly rib Jimmy. I have no idea how any of this is supposed to improve Lauren’s performances–it really all just scares the shit out of her, as far as I can tell–but I guess I don’t run Interscope Records. (Yet.) Turns out Lauren did pretty much the same performance she’s been doing this whole time, complete with fake-sassy nose-wrinkles and vaguely flirty interludes; this time, in a not-spontaneous-at-all moment, she pulled some tool out of the audience and danced with him for about two seconds, then stood near him while he looked at her adoringly.
This show apparently needed to be longer, so all the contestants also paired up to sing duets. I’d been hoping I’d make it through all 90 minutes without hearing “I Felt the Earth Move,” a song that rivals “Alligators All Around” for annoyingness, but no, Casey Abrams and Haley Reinhart took it on. According to the TMZ emails I don’t remember signing up for, these two are dating, so aww. They can also harmonize pretty well, which is nice for them. This song was still terrible because it’s a terrible song. Afterwards, Steven Tyler called Casey “Weird Beard,” and that guy should really take a long, hard look in the mirror before he makes fun of anyone else’s appearance.
I guess Carole King doesn’t have any songs with “country” in the title, so Scotty McCreery sang “You’ve Got a Friend,” a song I saw Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon fucking slay a few weeks ago. And to Scotty’s credit, he actually tried for once, perching in between the two halves of a massive string section and filling the song’s empty space with a succession of deeply impressive soul-style runs. He also, for once, held the microphone like a microphone, not an injured baby bird that he was attempting to resuscitate through CPR. I’m pretty sure this was Scotty’s single best performance on the show; he’s finally stepping up to his frontrunner status. I wish Simon Cowell was still on the show for moments like this, when someone actually tries for something new and succeeds massively. These moments don’t have the same impact this season, since the judges routinely praise the hell out of everything and then damn some of the legit big moments with faint praise.
James Durbin sang “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?,” King’s big girl-group classic, and there was a really nice moment at the beginning where he sang the chorus a cappella. And he generally did a nice job with the song, taking all sorts of opportunities for big-note runs that his beloved cheese-metal doesn’t often afford him. I don’t know if it’s his choice or what, but the band is always straight-up plodding whenever they’re backing Durbin. That’s a delicate song, and it did not need a halfhearted strum-rock arrangement. The performance gave Randy Jackson the second chance to say a contestant “turned the other cheek” by switching up his style, which proves that Randy has no idea what that phrase means. Can you imagine what might happen if this guy thought about the things he was saying before he said them?
For the millionth time, Lauren and Scotty teamed up for a duet. This time, it was “Up on a Roof,” one of the great songs that Carole King wrote for other people before she started writing shitty songs for herself. Their version was some utterly boring MOR country bullshit, and the melody of the song barely showed through at all. For shame, children.
Casey Abrams sang “Hi-De-Ho.” You can’t even pronounce that song title without scatting. Clearly, nobody is giving this guy the leash he needs. He gave it a deeply silly Broadway-blues reading. I mean, there was a fucking part where he threw his porkpie hat like a goddamn frisbee. I like it when this guy is in crazy-eyes mode, and he did that for the whole song, but his whole shtick is wearing very, very thin.
Before singing, Haley Reinhart used the word “Beatlesque,” so she can always launch a career as a rock critic if this whole singing thing doesn’t work out. Her take on “Beautiful” wasi straight-up Brooke White (remember Brooke White?), and it worked OK. Of all the contestants left on the show, Haley is easily the best-suited to sing Carole King songs without doing crazy things to them, so she sounded fairly natural on it. I just happen to hate this particular kind of song, so: Fuck that shit. Nice try, but fuck that shit.
James Durbin and Jacob Lusk sang “I’m Into Something Good Together,” since they were the only two left after the two natural pairings. Unsurprisingly, these guys had zero onstage chemistry, but they tried. There was a silly moment where they both sang directly to Jennifer Lopez, and she sold it nicely, but something tells me Jacob is into a completely different kind of something good. Steven shit on their performance harder than I’ve ever heard him shit on anything, so that, at least, was something.