Thursday, February 11, 2016

American Idol: Season 15 - February 11, 2016

Top 12 (Group 1): Duet Night

Past Idol contestants Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina (winner and runner-up, Season 10), Fantasia (winner, Season 3), Ruben Studdard (winner, Season 2), Nick Fradiani (winner, Season 15) and Caleb Johnson (winner, Season 14) return to duet with the first half of the Idol Season 15 Top 24 contestants. 

Emily Brooke with Lauren Alania – “Flat On The Floor” (Carrie Underwood)
Although Emily completely bombed her performance last night, she clearly improved with this performance. This duet was full of fun energy and a surprising musical chemistry between the two singers. I was impressed with Lauren’s mentoring of Emily. Advice from someone who has already been through the Idol Machine is invaluable. I’m not sure Emily’s found her lane on the show yet and hopefully Lauren’s advice will push her towards greater success.

Thomas Stringfellow with Nick Fradiani – “Man In The Mirror” (Michael Jackson)
 J. Lo summarized this duet by saying “it felt more Nick than Thomas”. And although this duet wasn’t as great as I’d hoped, I fully agree with her comment. Thomas’s already irritating “indie affect” – his choice to pronounce words with a form of phonics I can’t describe – came into play during this song. “Man In The Mirror” could not be less indie. It’s about a world unifying through individual achievement. It’s “We Are The World” for a solo act. It’s probably a safe assessment to say this was the wrong song for Thomas. Instead of bringing something additional to the song, Thomas made me wish Nick had sang this song solo like he did last season. I’m not biased. I promise.

Stephany Negrete with Ruben Studdard – “Superstar” (The Carpenters)
The best duet so far – it was staged in a dramatic way with Stephany entering after Ruben’s first verse. Their voices blended beautifully together. It was a smart choice strategically to pick a song that Ruben popularized during his season; people already love his rendition of the song so why not? Stephany brought a maturity to the song that I didn’t expect. It was truly beautiful.

Sonika Vaid with Caleb Johnson – “Skyfall” (Adele)
Sonika and Caleb seem like a disaster pairing at first, one that has no chance in hell of getting up off the ground. However, their duet was intriguing and captivating. Sonika reminds me of Vanessa Hudgens (as of late), both in looks and vocal intonation.

Jenna Renae with Scotty McCreery – “See You Tonight” (Scotty McCreery)
Jenna is still blending into the background in this competition for me, for you, and I’ll be surprised if she advances through to the next round. Her duet with Scotty was fun, serviceable, and utterly forgettable.

La’Porscha Renae with Fantasia – “Summertime” (Ella Fitzgerald)
I only wish this duet had been longer in order to really build the dynamics of the song and the two women’s powerful voices. La’Porscha got criticism on social media last night for painting-by-the-numbers in her Tina Turner cover, but I loved it. La’Porscha is a true lock for the Top 10 and I am intrigued to see what she’ll do yet.

Mackenzie Bourg with Lauren Alaina – “I Hope You Dance” (LeAnn Womack)
This reminded me of going to the spring musical back in high school. The quiet, somewhat bland, sensitive artist that it’s oh-so-easy to project whatever you want onto. And the powerhouse, popular girl who comes on strong enough to tempt him out of obscurity. The song was definitely out of Mackenzie’s element but he still somehow made it work. Sweet and sensitive but utterly mismatched. Lauren’s belting coupled with Mackenzie’s softness made it seem like the duet partners were singing two different songs.

Gianna Isabella with Nick Fradiani – “Beautiful Life” (Nick Fradiani)
Gianna isn’t ready for primetime, in my opinion, and something about her just grates on me. “Beautiful Life” was a good choice for a duet between these two, as the listener can see how the song can resonate with both an Idol winner and an Idol hopeful. That said, Gianna reminds me of a 13 year old at a high school slumber party. She’s never made me believe the lyrics she’s singing and I can’t get over the nepotism that tinges everything she does.

Avalon Young with Ruben Studdard – “Flying Without Wings” (Westlife)
Avalon manages to be inexplicably compelling. Maybe it’s the fact she seems utterly natural, or that she doesn’t look like she’s trying too hard, or maybe she seems like the kind of person you’d like to have a beer with. Her duet with Ruben Studdard was one of the best of the night.

James VIII with Caleb Johnson – “Gimmie Shelter” (Rolling Stones)
Where has James VIII been hiding that hair this whole time? Come on now! James and Caleb looked like they could be brothers during their rehearsal footage. While they were matched very well together, I wished for a different song choice. “Gimmie Shelter” builds to a wild finish and the lyrics go the way of passion. The passion wasn’t really there to carry it through to its grand finale.

Jeneve Rose Mitchells with Scotty McCreery – “Gone” (Montgomery Gentry)
It’s truly hard to judge this duet because it was so unlike anything else I’ve seen on Idol. While Scotty had an Idol Moment ™ with this song back in 2010, it was a little strange to watch Jeneve, who specializes in softer emotion, tackle this one. The quick pacing of the lyrics doesn’t work for a duet at all, and I am surprised the Idol producers gave them this one. I hope that Jeneve goes through to the next round based on her unique style and talent. She would truly bring something to the Idol Top 12 that we’ve never seen before. No hyperbole there.

Jordan Sasser with Fantasia – “I Believe” (Fantasia)
Jordan will never be my favorite, it’s true, and I would have loved to see Fantasia sing this one all on her own. Jordan comes off over-wrought on even the tamest of songs, so I knew this would be over-the-top. It fell flat in a way I can’t describe. Jordan sounded light-years better than his Celine Dion cover last night, but it won’t be enough to put him through to the next round in my opinion.

Best of the night: Avalon/Ruben, Stephany/Ruben
Worst of the night: Thomas/Nick, Gianna/Nick

Through to the next round: LaPorscha, Sonika, Avalon, Gianna, Thomas, Mackenzie, Jeneve
Eliminated: Emily, Stephany, Jenna, James, Jordan

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

American Idol Season 15: February 10, 2016

Top 12 Night #1 - February 10, 2016

My first Idol blog post in quite a while but I had to blog about the Final Season!

Tonight's show showed half of the Top 24 performing solo songs, while tomorrow night they will take the stage with a former American Idol contestant.

Stephany Negret – “Mama Knows Best” (Jessie J)
Stephany looks so much like Nicole Scherzinger, former lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls. They both have a similar style, voice, and appearance. Nicole has never been able to make it big as a solo artist in the US though, and I think Stephany might follow in her footsteps. While she is a beautiful girl with a big voice, there is something I feel I can’t put my finger on – it’s that I don’t feel a connection between her and the lyrics of the song. To be fair, I am exhausted of hearing “Mama Knows Best” on reality TV singing competitions. I’ve never even heard the original by Jessie J. But I’ve heard dozens of covers, and none of them have ever really made me like the song.

Mackenzie Bourg – “Say Something” (A Great Big World)
Mackenzie could go on to have a solid singer-songwriter career, in the vein of Kris Allen. He really reminds me of the Season 8 American Idol winner. Maybe it’s the glasses. I love how Mackenzie changed the pace of the song, as well as the melody. Don’t underestimate Mackenzie. I’m predicting smooth sailing to the Top 12.

Jeneve Rose Mitchell – “Angel” (Sarah McLachlan)
There is something entirely captivating about Jeneve. It’s like she is not of this world. 15 years old and so much soul, heart ripped bare, in her voice. I hang on Jeneve’s every note. This girl is a genius musically. I worry about Jeneve because it seems that her “off-the-grid” life works against her, rather than for her, in the American Idol universe. J. Lo has suggested as much. Jeneve is my favorite contestant this season and it will be a true shame if she goes home this week.

Jenna Renae – “My Church” (Maren Morris)
Is it a smart or foolish move for Jenna to pick a relatively unknown song? In this case, it seems like it paid off as the American public won’t be voting in this round and it’s clear Keith Urban loves the song. Sadly, a less-popularly known song can be the kiss of death in a singing competition unless the singer is top-notch & unique. Jenna can’t be classified as top-notch, but she performed the song with a lot of spirit and enthusiasm. She was energetic and fun to watch, but I don’t know that she’ll make it through to the next round.

James VIII – “Love Lockdown” (Kanye West)
If Kanye West met Sly & The Family Stone, we’d have this cover by James VIII. While the judges panned it as nicely as possible, I thought it was cool. No vocal acrobatics, but some pretty solid guitar playing and the ability to take risks with an out-of-left-field song choice. This drew some instant and inevitable comparisons in my mind to Kris Allen’s arguably Idol-winning performance of “Heartless” back in Season 8, before I realized although both those Kanye songs are from the same album, these 2 performances couldn’t be more different. I hope James VIII sticks around because I’d like to see what he can do.

Sonika Vaid – “Safe & Sound” (Taylor Swift & The Civil Wars)
I didn’t realize that I was making the titled head, “listening dog” face until the cameras cut to Keith Urban doing the exact same thing. Sonika vocally wipes the floor with the other contestants. I wonder how “current” she is, knowing that balladeers only make the radio if their name is Adele. Sonika has an absolutely gorgeous voice and is one of my favorites in this competiton. However, she’ll need to connect more with her lyrics and prove she is more than just a beautiful voice.

Gianna Isabella – “I Put A Spell On You” (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins)
There is no doubt in my mind that Gianna would not have made it this far in the Idol experience if not for her mother, 80’s singer Brenda K. Starr. I first heard of Brenda when Mariah Carey’s #1s record came out in 1997. Mariah covered Brenda’s “I Still Believe” as a tribute to Brenda, since Mariah got her career start singing backup for Brenda. Gianna’s voice has never done it for me. There is something vaguely unpleasant about it in my mind. I think her chances of Top 12 are good though due to her “story”.

Emily Brooke – “I Am Invicible” (Cassadee Pope)
Shocked that Idol allowed the most successful winner of The Voice to be sung on this show! Sarcasm aside, this was the worst performance of the night so far. The song was pitched way too low for Emily’s voice. It was the absolutely wrong song choice and by far her worst on Idol in 2 seasons. I think Emily has the talent to make it through this wrong, but she may have just shot herself in the foot in a way she won’t recover from.

Avalon Young – “Love Yourself” (Justin Bieber)
Avalon’s chill style can come off a little too laissez-faire. Turning her back to the audience and opening the song by sitting on the staircase took me out of her performance. I started wondering, ‘can most of the audience even see her?’ I love how real Avalon is and I don’t want the Idol machine to change her in any way. It takes more guts to come out on stage in yoga pants and high-top sneakers than in high heels. She could easily be overshadowed by bigger personalities though. She has a great voice and I see her in today’s musical landscape.

Jordan Sasser – “All By Myself” (Celine Dion)
Abysmal. Jordan is no Celine and Harry Connick Jr. is right that this performance came off as showboating. I’d add “self-indulgent” and “the farthest thing from current there is”. I didn’t like Jordan from his audition on Day 1 and I already know he’s never going to be my cup of tea. I don’t think he should advance in the competition. And I’ll leave you with these words from Randy Jackson: “It was mad pitchy, dawg. It was all over the place. For me for you, it wasn’t your best.”

Thomas Stringfellow – “Creep” (Radiohead)
Thomas comes off as very affected, although his “indie accent” is something he’s learned from Shawn Mendes. There were moments of “Creep” that were beautiful, particularly the way he chose to end the song, showing something quite different from any cover I’d heard before. But he faded into the background tonight.

LaPorscha Renae – “Proud Mary” (Tina Turner)

LaPorscha is this season’s powerhouse vocalist, who also has the stage presence to match. It’s clear why the producers showed her performance last. (With these episodes being taped in advance, it’s hard to know who actually performed in what order.) There is no way on this earth she won’t get a hard-earned pass through to the Top 12 after this incredible performance.

Best of the night: Jeneve Rose Mitchell, LaPorscha Renae
Worst of the night: Emily Brooke, Jordan Sasser

Monday, January 11, 2016

Under The Moonlight: David Bowie

“... And these children
that you spit on
as they try to change their worlds
are immune to your consultations.
They're quite aware
of what they're going through...” 
― David Bowie

It hits me in a foot-to-the-floor urgency, the visceral sadness. The hollowness that starts in fingertips and glows through bone, the despair of secrecy and the eternity of night. His passing makes me wonder what it will mean to live in a world in which his influence is something solidly of the past, no longer the present or the impossible future. 

For all of us weirdos, a leader. Someone who exuded cool in such a casual way, like he knew he didn't need to try. He let us believe there'd be hope for us in the future, that one day we'd triumph. When the apocalypse came and we were left standing, shattered, at the end of the world, we would know what it meant to belong. To humanity, to something greater than the sum of our parts. We would know infinity. 

And now, a footnote in rock history. A musical legacy he leaves behind. It's not the chest-against-the-dashboard sickness of the death of a member of the 27-Club. We can rest knowing he lived a full life, at least in comparison, but it still hurts. 

He let us indulge our 16-year-old selves a decade longer, until we could begin to grow scars over wounds, cloaking our bodies in adult, pretending we can no longer be seen for what we are. The bloody dagger of youth is something we taciturnly agree to outgrow, unspoken promises we all break. But with that music, we let ourselves shed the charade for four minutes. 


David Bowie: January 8, 1947 – January 10, 2016

“I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human. I felt very puny as a human. I thought, fuck that. I want to be a superhuman.” ~ David Bowie

It's not the side effects of the cocaine
I'm thinking it must be love
It's too late to be grateful
Still don't know what I was waiting for
And my time was running wild, a million dead end streets and
Every time I thought I'd got it made
It seemed the taste was not so sweet


Photo collage credit to:

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Year End Recap: The Best of 2015

Social media fueled our nostalgia in 2015, which explains why so many of the new songs on this list sound distinctly like 1980's & 1990's throwbacks. Between #tbt and Buzzfeed Rewind, a myriad of tv show reboots (Full House, The X Files, 24, Boy Meets World), and the resurgence of 90's fashion, not much escaped the influence of the past. Then again, I'm not complaining if today's musicians want to take a few lessons from decades past.

10. The Weeknd - "Can't Feel My Face"

Ominous and haunting but joyous at the same time, this song held a special place in my heart during 2015. First, I saw The Weeknd perform it with Taylor Swift at her epic concert in the Meadowlands in July. A stadium of 70,000 fans dancing with LED bracelets blinking in unison to the beat was ultimately perfect. Second, I was at the taping of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon when Tom Cruise won the Lip Sync Battle with his awesome rendition of "Can't Feel My Face". This song was unescapable and who would want to escape the closest thing we'll get to a resurrection of Michael Jackson? This could have been released in 1984 and it would have been a massive hit. And that's the sign of a true pop masterpiece.

And I know she'll be the death of me, at least we'll both be numb
And she'll always get the best of me, the worst is yet to come
All the misery was necessary when we're deep in love

9. Brandon Flowers - "Can't Deny My Love"

Everything comes back into style someday, and the trend in vogue this year was 80's new wave - Psychedelic Furs, OMD, Dead Or Alive - a synthpop for the new century. The beat could have been recorded on a Casio and the song could have been played on a Walkman, tinny through felt-padded headphones. The song is heavy with Biblical imagery, the lingering effects of a Mormon upbringing, Peter denying Jesus three times and weeping with bitter tears at the realization of the betrayal.

When you close your eyes, tell me what you see.
Locked up in your room is there any room for me?
In the spoils of your mercy
In the reverence of your bed
In the cradle of the morning
What was it that you said?

8. One Direction - "Love You Goodbye"

It's as if MTV's parody boy band 2Gether released a song with a Backstreet Boys earnestness.. The song is on the border of ridiculous with its lyrics about  "I know there's nothing I can do to change it /  But is there something that can be negotiated?" trying to charm an ex into bed for 'one last goodbye'. It's a ultimate guilty pleasure song.

Oh, why you're wearing that to walk out of my life? (Hey, hey, hey)
Oh, even though it's over you should stay tonight (Hey, hey, hey)
If tomorrow you won't be mine
Won't you give it to me one last time?

7. Charli XCX featuring Rita Ora, "Doing It"

Charli's album "Sucker" might just be the best Brit-pop album since the Spice Girls invented Girl Power.  Cut through with a 90s aesthetic and a modern edge, "Doing It" should be an anthem for any girl who's still living in 1996. Both the original and the remixed version featuring Rita Ora are examples of what pop should sound like in 2015.

Locked inside my veins you're in my blood, in my blood
And we united forevermore
We're staying all night, we never slow down
I think we better do it like we're doing it now

6. Ed Sheeran - "Thinking Out Loud"

Ed won me over this year; I have to admit "X" is a brilliant album, sonically adventurous and original. There is no denying this song could be a perfect first dance wedding song (and I've seen it!) and somehow it manages to transcend cloying. "Thinking Out Loud" lands solidly in the classic love song category; something about it is timeless

'Cause, honey, your soul could never grow old, it's evergreen
And, baby, your smile's forever in my mind and memory
I'm thinking 'bout how people fall in love in mysterious ways
Maybe it's all part of a plan

5. Kelly Clarkson - "Piece By Piece"

The best track on Kelly's latest album features the sort of earnest songwriting that simultaneously elevates and destroys. The first verse leads the listener to believe it's about a lover, then Kelly zeroes in on the abandonment that only parents can bestow on their children, the gift that was never wanted. This song is a master class in songwriting: a scathing indictment of her estranged father and a love letter to her husband and daughter. A powerhouse vocal that is even more heartbreaking live.

Piece by piece I fell far from the tree
I would never leave her like you left me
She will never have to wonder her worth
Because unlike you I'm gonna put her first

4. Fall Out Boy - "Uma Thurman"

To everyone who ruled out Fall Out Boy after their 2009 breakup/hiatus, the band proved their naysayers wrong with their 2015 album American Beauty/American Psycho. It's by far one of their best and works start to finish in a cohesive way. It was hard for me to pick a favorite track off this album to include on this list ("Irresistible" [both the Demi Lovato featured version and the original], "Jet Pack Blues", "Fourth Of July", "Novocaine" would all deserve the spot). But I chose "Uma Thurman" because of its chart success (double platinum) and the way it marries The Munsters theme song with a handclap beat and staccato lyrics.

The blood, the blood, the blood of the lamb
Is worth two lions, but here I am
And I slept in last night’s clothes and tomorrow’s dreams
But they’re not quite what they seem

3. Lauren Alaina - "Next Boyfriend"

It's such a shame that the songs on Lauren's 2011 debut CD Wildflower were so paint-by-the-numbers, as the singles she's released since have been clever tongue-twisters in the vein of Carrie Underwood or Miranda Lambert. In a perfect world, she'd knock the bro-country hacks (e.g. Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt) off the country charts and take over arenas. "Next Boyfriend"

It's driving me crazy where I’ve seen you before
Maybe it's the white t-shirt that you're wearing
The danger in your eyes or your fingers in your hair
It's a pretty small town, it's coming to me now
Whoa, I just figured it out
You look a lot like my next boyfriend
I can't believe how much you act like him
You and me, we'd be unbelievable
And I'm available

2. Taylor Swift - "Wildest Dreams"

 "Wildest Dreams" is the most adult of all of Taylor's songs, a hint at a possible future direction in her lyrics.The heartbeat echoes the pounding heart of the girl on the passenger side. Slow and languid, building to a frenzy "burning it down", both a plea and a promise. Faded pages and nostalgia, ambitious and yearning, dancing in headlights in a fog.

I said, "No one has to know what we do"
His hands are in my hair, his clothes are in my room
And his voice is a familiar sound,
Nothing lasts forever but this is getting good now

1. Kitten - "I'll Be Your Girl"

The epic in the arcane, twinkling prom lights across a sea of faces, the love that only a 16 year old can express. A mix of Concrete Blonde, "Metro" by Berlin, OMD's "If You Leave", 70's Swedish disco, and 80's new wave. A song that wholeheartedly deserves the label of "spectacular", and even more so because the band's front woman is talented beyond the measure of it at just 18 years old.

I'll be the connection between you and God 
I'll be your foundation I'll be a mirage 
I'll be there in summer I'll be there in rain 
I'll be the lie that's erased from your brain 
I'll be there to love, I will be there to hate 
I'll be the anchor that ties you to fate

Honorable Mentions:
* Adam Lambert, "Ghost Town"
* Twenty One Pilots, "Tear In My Heart"
* Prince Royce with Jennifer Lopez & Pitbull, "Back It Up"
* Meghan Trainor, "Dear Future Husband"
* Carrie Underwood, "Dirty Laundry"
* Bruno Mars & Mark Ronson, "Uptown Funk"

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Save Rock & Roll: The Perils of Rock in 2015

Rock is dead. Long live rock 'n roll.

Those two dichotomies have existed since Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis but they're even truer now. A "generation lost in space", looking for the next rock n roll hero to lead us out of the recession and into happier times, times before parents' basements and tax returns and the unemployment seminar. We're looking, and we keep looking...

Artists like Nikki Sixx implore us to keep our ears open to new rock music, to give new generations a chance. Sixx straddles the line between old and new: as the bassist of Motley Crue since 1981, he knows what it means to live through changing rock trends. But it's clear to most Sixx fans that Nikki's heart lies with his newer band, Sixx A.M. - a band from a completely different sonicsphere than Motley. Sixx A.M. has more of a pop sensibility, a theatricality in tone, thoughtfulness in lyrics, in stark contrast to Motley's in-your-face brand of sex, drugs, and hedonism.

If a true rock star like Sixx can evolve, doesn't that speak to a promising future for rock 'n roll? In the words of Jake Barnes, "isn't it pretty to think so"?

Truth is, rappers are the new rock stars. The concept of a "rock star" has changed, even become laughable, in the era of anonymous, homogenized rock music. (See: Imagine Dragons, Mumford & Sons, anyone who is not Adam Levine in Maroon 5). The oversize egos and hedonistic excess of the past seem quaint today.

The disc jockeys who once threw records on of their own choosing, the "you-just-have-to-hear-this" urgency, the room for personal expression - all are relics of days gone by. Radio stations in 2015 resemble a computer: programmed with the same 30 songs across the country, the robot voice of Ryan Seacrest booming out across the land to announce the pre-selected Top 20 countdown.

It's undeniable that the ClearChannel/iHeartMedia conglomerate isn't exactly rock-friendly. Their beyond-clueless list of the songs they banned from radio play after September 11th, 2001 shows how tone-deaf they are to anything music related. (Seriously? "Bridge Over Troubled Water"? "American Pie"? "St. Elmo's Fire [Man In Motion]"???) With iHeartMedia owning thousands of radio stations nationwide, how is modern rock music supposed to find a toehold in 2015?

It might be better to turn to streaming chart data to see what rock music people are actually listening to - taking it to the people directly and examining what they listen to on their computers and mobile devices. The most recent Billboard Rock Digital Chart shows a compelling story. Eleven out of 50 songs could be found on vinyl before they were ever released digitally: "Sweet Child O'Mine", "Don't Stop Believin'", "Smells Like Teen Spirit". In 2015, nostalgia extends beyond the 1990's.

So this is the part of the piece where I'm supposed to conclude with a solution - proffer up an offering to our culture, pay lip service to the idea that we can form a grassroots movement to change the music industry, that we can take on all the monopoly conglomerates (see: Live Nation, Ticketmaster, iHeartMedia, Apple, Beats, Spotify) and win. I'm supposed to end on a high note. "The future of music is in our hands."

It's not that easy. The solution can't be found in 140 characters or blind fervor.

The good news is the void exists.

Now we need someone to fill it. And we'll continue to wait.