Last night, the Top Four began the show by singing songs that "inspire" them, and thus we witnessed the first genuinely disturbing moment in the tenth season of American Idol. It came courtesy of the barritonal teen pinup Scotty McCreery, who sang Alan Jackson's "Do You Remember (When the World Stopped Turning)."
That song so perfectly suited the mood in 2002, in those raw early days of easy empathy. It was hard not to feel bad for the bewildered singer, who responded to the horror he'd witnessed on television in September with his simple, crushed melody. It was a good song then, but it's monstrous now. Consider the couplet: "I watch CNN, but I'm not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran/But I know Jesus and I talk to God, and I remember this from when I was young..."
There probably are differences in Iraq and Iran, but they're a little less salient than the differences between them. And at a remove of ten years, perhaps it's OK to ask of Alan Jackson: Why the hell didn't he understand those differences already? In his adulthood, his country had already been to war with one of those countries. How deep must incuriosity go before it undermines and makes irrelevant the song's automatic patriotism? If he really loved his country, wouldn't he know a thing or two about its enemies?
In any case, it wasn't the song itself that was so creepy on last night's Idol. It was the performance. Here's a breakdown:
James Durbin sings Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" and the Clovers' "Love Potion No. 9." Here
was the rule: Having sung the songs by which they were inspired,
contestants trotted out ditties from the songbook of Jerry Leiber and
Mike Stoller. Inevitably, these songs were superior to the inspirational
ones, because the meaningless ditties of Leiber and Stoller have no
pretensions to high art. Durbin rocked "Love Potion," metalizing it,
having a blast. But he was atrocious on "Don't Stop Believing." He and
Journey's Steve Perry have similar instruments, but James' is far weaker
and less agile in its middle register. Didn't matter. The judges loved
Haley Reinhart sings Michael Jackson's "Earth Song" and Shirley Bassey's "I Who Have Nothing." The
original "Earth Song" captured Jackson-the-songwriter at his preachy
worst, and Jackson-the-singer at his larynx-shredding best. But even
though Jackson's voice was a superb, almost superhuman instrument, it
was much smaller than Haley's, and Haley did herself a disservice by
adhering precisely to Jackson's melody. (Plus, the big falsetto swoops
on the chorus were too quiet in Haley's rendition. Jackson's falsetto
was big and loud; Haley's head voice is rangey but quiet.) After Haley's
crucifixion by the judges, she reconquered the stage with a terrifying
"I Who Have Nothing," which was so much better than anything else sung
last night that it might -- might -- have won her the whole competition.
There's just something creepy about someone sitting on a stage and
singing feelingfully about not knowing the difference between Iraq and
Iran but asserting that it's OK because he talks to Jesus. That's the
way we'd all be talking if the terrorists won, isn't it? "Screw your
fancy geography. Allahu Ackbar!" Bango. Scotty's solemnity during
all of this was the most terrible thing -- that, and the way it was
mirrored completely by the audience. As though this song expresses
something essential about our shared American identity. No thanks, guys
-- in my corner of America, we like geopolitics. Anyway: Scotty
cried during the Jackson ditty and mugged all through the Coasters bit,
doing his usual eyebrow waggle. Fine stuff. The judges gave him the
so far. Massive, soaring, sensuous waves of sound. The latter just
sucked. Lauren Alaina, that sweet faced little thang, is no Elvis
Presley, and she's not "evil" regardless of how many times she insists
so in song. The sheer naughtiness of the thing seems to have stressed
her out: Her voice collapsed momentarily halfway through the song.
Who should go home? Scotty,
for being an ass. James, for reliably ruining most of his favorite
songs while doing a kickass job on the throwaways. Lauren, for her
-- has Haley going home tonight. But she won't. It's gonna be Lauren.
Even though Haley's been in the bottom three more than anybody, she seems to
be gaining popularity each week, while Lauren seems to be slipping. Last night's performances won't alter either trend.
Which means next
week will see Haley, the show's sole remaining woman, squaring off
against two guys. Haley will get the votes of everyone inclined to vote
for a girl to counteract the boy-crazy teenyboppers who so thoroughly
control the eliminations in the earlier rounds. This might put her in
serious competition with James. If she wins, she'll go to the finals with
Scotty -- and once there, she'll command the whole anticountry vote,
which is probably more than 50 percent of AI's audience. I note Randy told Haley
for the first time last night that she's "in it to win it." He says that a lot, but I think he meant it this time.