Thursday, May 5, 2011

American Idol, Top 5: Lilith rules!

“We want you to be you,” was the Zen-like advice dispensed a long time ago by, of all people, Randy Jackson. Whereupon the seers on the theater floor, in the studios and rehearsal halls, proceeded to give contradictory advice to the Idol wannabes.

Those who tried to please ended up floundering (Jacob, Pia, Haley and Lauren, even if the latter’s never made a trip to the bottom three.) The stubborn ones got adulation (and hate mail) as they proudly flew their banners – James, Scotty and Casey, who went out with a performance that ensures him a career in the jazz/blues field.

Tonight, the Top 5 had two chances to show who they are, what they genre they represent; though really now, with music mixed and matched through the decades, conventions have been broken all around. Zucchero sang with Pavarotti; Willie Nelson, Sting, Eric Clapton have jammed with everyone.

James Durbin has ranged wide, from heavy metal rock, to slow rock, to rock that almost feels like country, to anthems of rebellion and love. Whatever he’s done, whatever the stunt or the time period he chooses to lug onstage, Durbin’s real strength is not his high notes. It is the nakedness of his hunger, not just to win, but also to get love from his audience, his peers and everyone with a beating heart.

Tonight he shows that can be a scary thing. The passion that excites audiences can wreak havoc on artists. The downside of adulation is a deep, deep loneliness, especially for someone who is a big baby, handicapped in ways that have made him the butt of jokes, who early on confessed that it is music that takes him to a safe place. Now he is learning that music can also take away (for days and weeks) from the woman who gave him strength in the first place.

With his buddies gone, life bears heavy on James. He rocked “Closer to the Edge” but there was a strain in his tenor. And there were rough patches in “Without You.” But music history shows that it is never just the voice. Great artists have that but they are above all story-tellers able to show the millions that they sweat, they ache, they suffer – just like us. This James does in so emphatic a manner that we actually feel scared for him.

It is this – the capacity to bare heart and soul – that makes him so much more fascinating than the charming country crooner, Scotty.

Not that Scotty paled beside him tonight. In “Gone”, the young man threw caution to the wind and displayed all the tics and winsome awkwardness and zest – and charisma, and the kind of mad courage that separate him and James from the pack. He’s no devil, despite Steven Tyler’s effort to corrupt him; he’s a most charming, talented kid who loves the crowd and delights in pleasing them – as himself.

In “You Are Always in My Mind,” he reminds us of his uncanny ability to spin a song, to phrase it like a fine, fine actor so that we totally get the story and believe in the message. And again, Scotty shows that what he lacks in wit and smarts he more than makes up for with an intuitive genius that bores down to the core of a song.

Jacob Lusk is destined for ouster tomorrow. There was no rhyme or reason to his choices. “No Air” was indulgent and a disaster. While Jason’s funny moves in past weeks were fun, tonight they were embarrassing. He was a caricature.

You watch Sheryl Crow sing sweetly and then get Jacob whining and then eventually staging a tantrum! It is no way to get any baby of any gender. So he belted out the highest note ever, but a note is not a song.

Lauren Alaina, got some mojo back, and her stylist back in “Flat on the Floor.” She also shows potential as a great stylist. But she is just too young and tentative now, and that face just so blank, that once you open your eyes, it is hard to take her seriously – especially when she is singing “Unchained Melody.” It seemed inappropriate for 16 as she pretended adult passion – and Tyler’s unfortunate adjective, “ripe” didn’t help at all.

But Haley – aaaah, an angry Haley is a woman men from Siberia to the Africa would hunger for – and fear. The judges were unfair in the aftermath of “You and I” – after talking of risks!

And then she showed them with “House of the Rising Sun.” Fierce eyes, fierce vocals and moves that were collectively a giant finger up the you-know-whats of the judges. Rebellion has never been so exciting. If American parents suddenly find in the coming days their girls simmering with barely held contempt for the fairy tales unraveling all around them, they can thank Haley. Best of all, she refused to simper at the belated praise and came back with a sweet sarcasm that children of all ages can relate to.

Haley was the best. Jacob the worst. James will get over his slump and storm back stronger next week – or implode. I am betting it won’t be the later as his angel and BFF will be flying to his side.

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