The last time Elton John’s mammoth catalog was used during one of their infamous theme nights provided one of the Idol’s most memorable musical moments and three worthy ones, scattered amongst some of the most abysmal in its ten year history.
Season 3 was the cycle that future Grammy and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson was booted off in arguably the show’s most controversial moment after a luminous Top 7 recital (Barry Manilow’s “Weekend In New England”). But not before, two weeks earlier, she (and the Top 9) covered Elton in a vast yin-yang division of talent/hack. Hudson incandescently covered John’s “Circle Of Life” and blew the roof off the joint, and it remains a seminal Idol classic. LaToya London (“Someone Saved My Life Tonight”), Fantasia (“Something About The Way You Looked Tonight”) and George Huff (“Take Me To The Pilot”) also gave thrilling performances. But the rest was an almost surreal fright-fest, a night permeated with detestable debacles (John Stevens’ infamous “Crocodile Rock”, Camile Velsaco’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”), lunk-headed lunacy (John Peter Lewis’ ludicrous “Rocket Man”, Jasmine Trias’ gruesome “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me”) and head-scratching curios (Diana DeGarmo’s “I’m Still Standing”). It’s a night that still sends shivers at the mere mention.
That was then and this is now, of course, so postulating another “Elton” meltdown – let alone diversity – might’ve been premature if we didn’t know these kids as well as we do. There isn’t a Fantasia, LaToya, Jennifer – and let alone, Huff – in the whole bunch. But there’s also not a Velasco, Trias or Stevens either. Though, the ghosts of Lewis and DeGarmo are another story.
But if Season 3’s Elton John songbook is the prototype, then Season 10’s theme “Elton John” renders a chilling foreshadowing; John has recorded some of the most dismal, vapid, dreary and sappy songs in the history of music – and, some of the most thrilling, brilliant and memorable. It’s that dichotomy that portends, nothing more, nothing less.
If I had to imagine a 1970s Mount Olympus of musical gods and goddesses, Elton would be canoodling with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Stevie Nicks, and Al Green, to name a few off the top of my head (it is my Mount Olympus, after all…). Along with his songwriting partner, lyricist Bernie Taupin, Elton’s 1970s hegemony was unparalleled. ELTON JOHN, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC AND THE BROWN DIRT COWBOY, MADMAN ACROSS THE WATER, HONKY CHATEAU, GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD…the gamut is indescribable.
Then came the 1980s. Then the 1990s. While a surefire classic would emerge here and there throughout the post-70s crop (“Sad Songs (Say So Much)”), “Empty Garden (Hey Hey Johnny)”, “I’m Still Standing”), the majority of that tenure was subpar.
While his waning musicality could be justifiably reviled (for the most part) since the halcyon days as the zeitgeist of our times, his permeation into pop culture was solidified and fortified. Monetarily, he benefited more in the 1990s than any other decade, thanks in large part to his ascent (or descent, depending on who you ask) into the land of Disney, but his revolting stock was forgivable, as a major portion of his wealth was given to AIDS charities. His Elton John Foundation remains one of the preeminent charitable organizations in history.
Come the 2000s, Elton was, at least aesthetically and artistically, resurging. His three early-to-mid-Aughts releases (SONGS FROM THE WEST COAST, PEACHTREE ROAD and THE CAPTAIN & THE KID) harkened back to his 1970s sojourn, and his 2010 THE UNION album with Leon Russell is a near-classic.
What does this all mean? Well, really, nothing, I surmise, to these Idols. John’s catalog is an open book, and what matters is song selection, of course. And just how far deep into that massive catalog did our Idols spelunk?
Surprisingly, and thankfully, the Top 11 decided, save for Naima, to stick to John’s 1970s classic canon, forgoing most of the muck and mire that permeated much of that aforementioned later output, with his influential masterpiece, GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD getting the bulk of the, uh, love. Sadly, though, in a night filled with great songs, no one transcended the John songbook, though there were a few notables amongst the mediocrity.
Song: Country Comfort (From 1970s TUMBLEWEED CONNECTION)
My grade: B+
Oh, get over your highfalutin selves already and admit it, you multitude of haters – to loathe Scotty is merely to loathe the genre – and it all depends on your tastes. He’s as good – or not – as any recent modern Country singer you hear every year on the CMAs. And he can sing his little ol’ country heart till the cows come home…but it will be a thrill when (if) he reaches his full potential. The texture of his drawl is sinewy and while many might think of McCreery as a “one trick pony”, he’ll be laughing all the way to Fort Knox when this season is said and done. Win, or lose. And I’d rather listen to the catch in his drawl than any gruesome Rascal Flatts or Lady Antebellum sham any day.
Song: I’m Still Standing (from 1983s TOO LOW FOR ZERO)
My grade: B+
Adding a Reggae flavor to the most ‘current’ John hit of the night, “I’m Still Standing”, Naima once again twists and turns a well-known melody into something new and definitely compelling, if not exactly perfectly executed. She gets an A for effort, of course, to overuse an already overused cliche, as she’s this years instinctive impresario, but while her vocals were once again relatively spot on, the arrangement too closely resembled a Tide commercial, and the faux-Patois distracted from the otherwise exuberance. The results rarely live up to the underline with Naima, but I hope the voters see the distinction between her skill and, say, Haley’s dubiety.
Song: Rocket Man (from 1972s HONKY CHATEAU)
My grade: B-
He sneers, he slurs, he whimpers, all in confounding percolated hiccups. Though I’m often guilty of it, I’m usually loath to utilize the term “awful”, as it conjures up “full of awe” (though, not the actual definition), and despite what you’ll probably hear, Paul’s reading of “Rocket Man” (my absolute favorite song, of all time…OF ALL TIME!!!) just halts before sheer awfulness. It could have been unintentionally hilarious, and while it would be silly to deny the lure of his charisma, let’s chalk this up as ‘accidental amusement’. William Shatner would be proud.
Song: Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me (from 1974s CARIBOU)
My grade: B+
Predominant Idol fantasies are just that. No, not fantasies; predominant, so I’ll give her her dreams and let her fly. Chances are, super-stardom for Pia – and most of this years Top 11 – are the real fantasies, not realities. But still they reach. What is it that I’m just not getting? Is it an err in my critical thinking that the histrionic alleluias for her ‘otherworldly’ instrument from the panel is wishful thinking? Of course she sings it well – damn well, too, at that. But she tends to fabricate dramatics that aren’t inherently within her. All that’s missing is her soul. (And, note to judges – and Elton – can we add “Don’t Let The Sun…” to the long list of Idol moratoriums?)
Song: Tiny Dancer (from 1972s MADMAN ACROSS THE WATER)
My grade: B+
The euphoria of “Tiny Dancer” is in its pace…it’s lilting balladic opening, its deliberately paced momentum, and its eventual crescendos into the chorus. And a major key factor is John’s youthful, octave-jumping falsetto at the opening – and within – each of those choruses. It’s always an anomaly when an epic work (John’s runs nearly 6 1/2 minutes) has to be cut into a 90 second showcase, and Langone does a fitting job. If there’s any criticism in his version, it’s the same weekly exegesis – his unnecessary coloratura of the melody and forced vibrato vitiates the beauty of his reach. But when he’s flitting his diaphanous falsetto, it makes more than the little girls swoon.
Song: Candle in the Wind (from 1973s GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD)
My grade: B
Sucker for accuracy that I am, I first have to correct the prodigious blunder that Ryan stated and to set the record straight: “Candle In The Wind” is NOT the “best selling single in the history of Billboard”. That would be Elton’s treacly “Candle In The Wind 1997″, his tribute to Princess Diana, and the only single in America’s history to be certified Diamond (sales of 10 million). Moving along, Alaina’s reading is pretty enough, I guess, if shrill in her head register, and passionless – there’s no emotional range, no pathos, which shouldn’t be too foreign for a solid 16 year old (ask the great Allison Iraheta about passion). To a neophyte like Alaina, passion is merely a dream.
Song: Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting (from 1973s GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD)
My grade: B
The performance I was looking forward too, yet somehow Durbin transformed John’s blistering, rollicking “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” into a mid-tempo, anti-climax – albeit, entertaining in its own Lambert-on-welfare ways. His rock star posturing is becoming an endurance test, though; there’s an almost sententious apathy to his aloofness – as if his ascension is a gift, as opposed to the underpinnings of a cad seeped in self-aggrandizement. Perhaps, that arrogance befits a more protean subject, lest his haughtiness gets blindsided by cold, hard reality.
Song: Daniel (from 1973s DON’T SHOOT ME I’M ONLY THE PIANO PLAYER)
My grade: B
Thia’s main problem is her almost deliberate sotto voce – and that’s a shame because hers is an instrument of such promise. It started lovingly, and I wish she stayed with the solo piano, to accentuate the undeniable beauty of her tone. Once the chorus kicked it, she somewhat descended in defeat, and the emotional depth she felt, which was dedicated to her brother, was being lost in her meanderings.
Song: Your Song (from 1970s ELTON JOHN)
My grade: B+
Previously, I’ve pondered if Casey would eventually lose the flexibility of his voice as the weeks of this competition progressed, and how he needn’t bulwark his softer side with his inclination to vociferate, as if a blues growl is synonymous with such. I was wrong. A quiet, mostly curtailed, predominately tic-less take on “Your Song” just might prove, unfortunately, that the Emperor has no clothes. It was understated, tender even. But it was reminiscent of Blake Lewis insomuch that once Lewis stopped his weekly beat-boxing and vocal ornamentation, the reality hit: there’s nary a voice. But I upped a grade for his asceticism (this week, anyway) – and his lovely phrasing of an overworked standard.
Song: Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word (from 1976s BLUE MOVES)
My grade: C
His claque be damned, I say, and to hell with this panel. Forgoing the sage advice of Jimmy Iovine (who alluded that Lusk’s overdramatic’s rarely work), with his face contortions, histrionics and blatant pride, the Lusk I love to loathe was back in all his overstated, baroque hamminess. Like a hurricane through a city of pixie sticks, Lusk gusts his way through Elton’s melodic apologetic-cum-apologia, ripping it to shreds without mercy – decimating nuance, let alone emotional correlation. That Randy yearns for more of the “Jacob spirit” alludes to almost certain nightmares to come.
Song: Bennie and the Jets (from 1973s GOODBYE YELLOW BRICK ROAD)
My grade: C+
Despite what some have suggested, I don’t find Haley at all offensive as you might think; more bemused, than anything. She’s merely a singer or intolerable banality. No color, no nuance, little demonstrative skill other than a Mariah minstrelsy. She merely patters along with bogus fortitude, pretending she’s something she’s so clearly not. Perhaps it reflects an innate prejudice I can’t seem to let go of, but this was cringe-inducing. With a voice that diddles the gonads, her purring-cum-growling signifies nothing but what it is – or what it effects/affects. Which might depend on just whose gonads we’re talking about. Despite the detestable grunting, she’s got the smokey sonority down, but she’d rather permeate it with an unctuous teenage sexuality I’m not sure she’s aware of. That she’s twenty makes it all the more depressing. The most affected performance of the year. So far.