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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Idol musings

We watched and enjoyed American Idol tonight. It was about half an hour too long and spent too much time indulging a few wackos (the glittery woman who Simon said looked liked Willem Dafoe, the guy in the Princess Leia slave girl outfit, etc.). But it was fun and we didn't fast forward through much. I'm simultaneously looking forward to and dreading the Dallas auditions, wondering what kind of picture they'll paint of the Big D.

Dina and I didn't start watching the show until toward the middle of season five (the one with Daughtry, Katharine McPhee, Taylor Hicks, Elliott Yamin, etc.), so I'm probably not quite as jaded as other viewers (I also missed big chunks of last season because I was working on revisions on Devil's Cape). Anyway, as a fan of the season and a particular fan of McPhee and Hicks, I picked up their CDs when they debuted, and recently got Yamin's CD for Christmas. As much as I liked McPhee and Hicks, their CDs were... not very good. A few good tracks on each (and "good" is pretty generous). Yamin's was even worse. I think I like maybe one song on it. And recent Idol winners and near-winners are getting dropped quickly by record labels.

So what's the deal? They're enjoyable on the show. We root for them. They're solid entertainers. Why are their CDs mediocre?

I guess it's kind of obvious, at least to me, but the songs are just bad. Yamin's CD even has a track ("A Song for You") with a line that says "I've sung a lot of songs and I've made some bad rhymes." Buddy, if your CD contains a slew of bad rhymes, and yours does, you sure as hell don't want to bring additional scrutiny to that fact.

I'm not sure how much of the blame goes on the singers (I'd guess a little) and how much on the producers (I'd guess an awful lot--the buck should stop there), but the musical choices are just awful. Let's think about American Idol a bit. It showcases talented singers (at least by the time you get to the end of the process) singing familiar songs. Good songs. We get used to Katharine McPhee or Blake Lewis or whoever lending a personal voice and vision to songs that are generally familiar to us. So why make their CDs so different. Why make Katharine McPhee's first album be filled with a bunch of crappy songs we've never heard before that don't showcase her talents particularly well?

Keep in mind that I don't know anything about the contracts these singers end up with or what the rules are for licensing songs. But if I were producing a CD for an American Idol winner, I'd pick maybe a couple of new songs, if there was something that really showcased the winner's style. But I'd fill the album with music more like what the American Idol fans are used to hearing from the show. Katharine McPhee's "Over the Rainbow" is great. I downloaded the MP3 from iTunes. But it's not on her album. Why not? Why not have her sing some standards? Why not track down some songs that she didn't sing on the show, but that are available and known and that work for her voice?

I'd look for songs that lended themselves to interpretation by the singer, rather than just straight reproduction of how earlier singers had done the songs. If my star had a country style, I'd look for some decent rock songs and make slightly country versions of them. And vice versa.

I'd take good songs that you don't hear very often anymore and have our star make them new again (I'd love to hear "Dumb Things" more often).

New songs are fine, but they're not what we're used to hearing from the Idol contestants and they have to be catchy and good if the singer is going to succeed. What bugs me is that these very talented and charismatic singers end up getting reps as failures when the fault really lies with the people making the song choices for their albums.

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