American Idol: Lacking Inspiration

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It feels a little wrong to bash American Idol after “songs of inspiration” night—which was held on the eve of Idol Gives Back, no less. It just seems a little like saying, “Yo yo, Cantor Birnbaum, you got a bit pitchy during Aleinu last Saturday.” Or like questioning Sister Bertrille’s song choice at the Easter pageant (“I don’t know, ‘Veni, O Sapientia’ made you seem kind of old-fashioned.”)

Somewhere out in the audience, Capt. Sully Sullenberger was probably seized with the same quiet panic he not doubt experienced over the Hudson River when he first noticed the smell of roast goose. No, none of the contestants crashed and burned. But certainly nothing on the show could compare to the inspiration of Sully splashing that plane down and still getting the passengers to the King Cole Bar before the end of happy hour. the build and drama one would anticipate from inspirational music just couldn’t happen.

But things got off to a shaky start as the increasingly tone-deaf Ryan sought to inspire the contestants by declaring, “Let’s have a good one, let’s rock!” And as the night wore on, it seemed that neither the contestants nor the judges seemed to know just what a “song of inspiration” was supposed to be. Casey James was criticized for picking “Don’t Stop”—which, if nothing else, inspired Tipper Gore and Hillary Clinton to try and dance back at the 1992 Democratic Convention. Lee DeWyze received all sorts of praise for singing Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” a work that he said inspired him to “get into guitar.” Fair enough: It’s a terrific song.

But if you actually listen to “The Boxer,” it’s a rather brutal story of loneliness that hardly qualifies as inspirational. Even Paul Simon said, “I think the song was about me: Everybody’s beating me up, and I’m telling you now I’m going to go away if you don’t stop.” But because the format of Idol at this stage of the competition dictates that only portions of songs to be sung, Lee’s version was so truncated that the real story never emerged—and the takeaway became the “lie lie lie” refrain, which inspired the girls in the audience to wave their arms over their heads. Apparently that makes “The Boxer” a song of inspiration for Idol, at least.

The big winners last night proved to be the members of Idol’s hired-gun string section; they got a pretty heavy-duty workout. As for the contestants, here’s how things looked.

Crystal Bowersox: People get ready… for your next Idol. She took on a legend in Sam Cooke and gave the single genuinely inspiring performance of the night.

Lee DeWyze: I doubt he'll have a chance to upset Crystal, but among the other contestants, he’s the only one with any momentum right now.

Siobhan Magnus: She went all Boho wood sprite with her costume and her vocal moments on “When You Believe,” had the kind of musical pabulum that Idol considers inspirational: I’m sure I’ve heard this song before, I just don’t remember it. Siobhan is more original and spirited than “When You Believe,” and it came across flat.

Michael Lynche: He had his near-death experience a couple weeks ago and played it safe on “Hero.” After a quiet opening, everything else about the song was huge; it was definitely a number that would have benefited from more build. During an "Inside Idol" moment, we learned that Simon likes Spider-Man, although he doesn’t consider him particularly inspirational.

Casey James: He was solid and professional on a version of “Don’t Stop” that neither enhanced nor hurt his chances.

Aaron Kelly: Ryan said that Aaron has been singing “I Believe I Can Fly” since he was five, which by my calculations means he has sung this number for at least three or four years now. Aaron was barely on the Planet Earth when Space Jam came out, and apparently Simon is more of Spider-Man fan than a Michael Jordan man because he didn’t refer to the former in his critique. Aaron worked his now-patented wide stance and handled the song, but hardly soared.

Tim Urban: Emboldened by improved performances on more manageable songs, Texas T opted to go big on “Better Days” by the Goo Goo Dolls... and got swamped by a tsunami of an arrangement. Keep working that smile, dude. It’s the only thing you've got.

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