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"American Idol" And Other Notes (Updated)

By Rich Heldenfels Published: April 5, 2012

Teddy Pendergrass, dammit. We will come back to that.

This week's mailbag is here..

An advance look at my Sunday Channels cover column, on Jennifer Love Hewitt and the awful "Client List" series, is here.

Later today I expect to have a few words about the perplexing new series "Scandal," premiering tonight on ABC. I liked parts of it, the cast is for the most part good, but I didn't buy into it. And I am working out my very mixed feelings about "Magic City," which premieres tomorrow night on Starz.

UPDATE: I have watched 2 1/2 episodes of "Magic City" and just don't have enough to say for a complete, separate post. Set in the '50s in Miami, it's a combination of "Mad Men" and "Casino" (think of Jeffrey Dean Morgan and DeNiro and Danny Huston as Joe Pesci). But it's slow, and not in a good "Man Men" way, and aside from Huston -- who makes a very good Pesci -- the characters are blah. And even Huston's was in a rut by the time I quit. It does understand that, for Starz, you must include not only nudity but make it as gratuitous as possible. But I won't be watching more.

As for "Idol," Wednesday was '80s night and it didn't feel right, on "American Idol." (Update: The "Scandal" review is above, and I will get to "Magic City" early Friday.)

Opening rant: I know that there's little sense of history from "American Idol" contestants (and sometimes the judges), and the need to shoehorn songs into the weekly theme. So the insistence on couching "If You Don't Know Me By Now" in terms of Simply Red's 1989 cover should be understandable. Even more so when  Joshua Ledet  admitted that he did not know the song at all before the show. But he was so much closer vocally (and in arrangement)  to the 1972 version by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (lead singer: the immortal Teddy Pendergrass)  that SOMEONE should have expressed love for TP. Snargh.

But that rant goes to the deeper "Idol" problem of trying to create categories that will be comfortable for the older people in its audience (those who associate the '80s with their high-school proms, apparently) and suit contestants who have no emotional connection to those songs. The emotional connection is especially problematic for Hollie, who doesn't seem to connect to anything she sings; her idea of when to go big and when not often seems read-off-sheet-music rote; the issue also arises with Jessica, but she is apparently able to connect with other singers, at least. The best duet of the night was her and Joshua, and a big reason was that they were listening to -- and responding to -- each other in a way that neither Colton/Skylar nor Hollie/DeAndre did. I would like to see Jimmy explain to them all that singing a duet involves more than singing at the same time as someone else. In the two performances I mentioned, harmony was almost nonexistent.

Anyway, a singer-by-singer discussion ensues.

DeAndre led off the night, and I find myself liking him more each week. The cover of DeBarge's "I LIke It" showed him less wedded to his falsetto than he has been, and showing off some gruffness reminiscent of Terence Trent D'Arby. In the duet with Hollie on "I'm So Excited," he came off far better -- although ithe dance hit's lyrical redundancy didn't help either. (UPDATE: DeAndre was eliminated on Thursday's show, with Hollie and Elise in the bottom three; Jennifer wanted to save DeAndre but Randy and Steven outvoted her.)

Elise's "I Want to Know What Love Is" was awful. I admit to not being an Elise fan, and cut short my listening to her ragged duet with Philip on "Stop Draggin' My Heart Around" because, well, "Idol" was already dragging my ass in this two-hour bloatfest and the first few bars of "Stop" told me all I needed. Still, I think Elise's skills are extremely limited, and she never recovered from a bad start -- or a song whose sublime cheesiness would have been better suited to Hollie or Jessica.

Philip has that gravel thing all the time, but this week he sounded hoarse -- as if he has been trying to shake off illness, or the effects of too much time in cold studios. He never got a handle on the song. (For his duet work, see above.)

Joshua's "If You Don't Know Me By Now" is noted above. While I like him as a singer, and he finds the drama at some point in his performance, this was -- as the judges like to say -- not his best performance. But he and Jessica had the best duet of the night (on "I Knew You Were Waiting for Me") for reasons already mentioned.

Jessica's "How Will I Know" was serviceable but, as happens with her, was more about giving a precise performance than a touching one. She was much better on the duet -- I can see Joshua and Jessica on a Vegas stage now -- because there was someone else there to push her. She is not as technique-prone as Holly, but she still is holding back. Or, again, is so young and so performance-driven that -- teen alter ego aside -- she just doesn't have a lot of emotional experience on which to draw. It's not as if this is a difficult song to feel, either; try to be happy, Jessica!

Hollie had a real mess of a night. She has absolutely no comprehension of a song as basic as "What a Feeling" so her performance is a series of poses jammed together.

I liked that Colton made clear that he was recycling a band's arrangement of "Time After Time" (since "Idol" in the past ran into criticism for not noting others' ideas) but wasn't that crazy about the performance itself. His nasality was especially pronounced. Maybe the more-blond hair has weakened him? The duet with Skylar (on the Kenny-Dolly "Islands in the Stream") was another case of people singing beside each other but not with each other.

Skylar closed the show and all concerned treated her "Wind Beneath My Wings" as a big finish. After all, it's one of those can't-miss big songs (by the way, check out Lou Rawls's wonderful version) and the cameras gave her closeups that, with her dress and makeup, made me think they were about to crown Miss America. But the performance still left me cold; I wasn't' convinced, again, that she felt anything -- or could at least simuiate feeling. And in the duet, I thought Colton was the more impressive vocalist. I am just not a Skylar fan; please don't tell her when she's got her guns.

A final note: Gwen Stefani and her No Doubt bandmate were a step down compared to recent mentors.  And on we go.




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