American Idol vs. The Voice

I knew I was going to do an American Idol column, but I thought it would have been closer to the finale.  Since the top 3 mostly suck, I may as well do it now.  Warning: this may turn out to be a rant.

Here is my issue:  “The Voice” matters.  No, not the other singing competition reality show starring Christina Aguilera, but the actual vocal ability of each contestant.

People were blowing up facebook crying about James Durbin going home because they liked him.  I politely (as ever) pointed out the boy’s routine trouble hitting the proper notes.  Some folks seem to think notes don’t matter because he can go through the motions on stage.  That’s like saying spelling doesn’t matter when you write a novel.

There are those artists I would call “vocalists:”  Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, George Michael, Whitney Houston (until Bobby Brown got a hold of her) and of course, Barbra Streisand, to name several.  (Don’t be offended if I skipped your pet diva.)

Then there are those I would call “performers,” people who can sing well enough to cut a record (but may require a smidge of studio enhancement) and are carried more by their music, writing, personality, style, videos, or some other je ne sais quoi: Britney Spears, Madonna, Janet Jackson, etc.

As I mentioned last week, there is plenty of room for the Britneys of the world, and I still get all into it when I hear “Circus” on the radio.  (It’s better than anything on her latest CD.)  But would Britney have won American Idol?  Maybe…perhaps more for being cute and likeable (when she was) than for her singing ability.  Should she or someone with comparable vocal ability win it?  I guess that depends on how you interpret the intent of the show.

Simon Cowell always used to remind fellow judges, “This is a singing commm-petition.”  Simon is gone (although returning via “The X-Factor” with Idol alum Paula Abdul in September) and apparently his mantra has been forgotten.  The judges on Idol this year have been overly gushy, and very short on constructive criticism by comparison.  This has not served the contestants or the show well.  By not placing enough emphasis on the voice, better contestants have gone home before their time, and the top 3 are lackluster at best, left to get by on their personal appeal or their barely-honed showmanship.

I have great respect for Steven Tyler as the frontman for Aerosmith.  But more often than not, his “advice” is 100% pure fluff, a la the aforementioned Abdul’s first few years on Idol.

J-Lo, while I like her, is not a “vocalist.”  She is a “performer.”  So when she hears someone like Pia Toscano (who many thought was wronged when she got the boot) on some level she has to think, “Wow, I can’t even sing like that.”  But here is where the less-focused-on-proper-notes crowd have a point: it’s not JUST about the voice.  The delivery is equally important.  That means stage presence and emotion – which does not mean dancing or growling or raising your eyebrows while holding the microphone like a flute.  Pia was technically good.  She would be great to lay down demo tracks or sing backup for someone with more personality who puts BALLS into a song; since she doesn’t do that herself.

On the other hand, people who are pitchy all over the place but deliver with conviction do not carry equal validity as “singers.”  You have to have more than just the voice, but you have to have at least the voice.  James acted more like a teenager jumping around his bedroom and mimicking his favorite bands than an actual artist.  He did have at least one solid performance: during Carole King week, his take on “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was uncharacteristically error-free.  But most of his songs were very uneven.  He and the recently discarded Jacob Lusk (who I wanted to like and reminded me of Sylvester) seemed to have the same formula: pick a great song, sing it all pitchy throughout, hit a big (but off-key) note really loudly and hold it (to inexplicable applause) and then take the lack of correction by the judges as a sign to do it again next time.

Even Seth Rogen – I mean, Casey Abrams with the big fat bass (hi, Britney!) – who I liked and appreciated for his musicianship, risk-taking and odd charm, was overrated in my opinion.  He was not vocally consistent.  When he was off on a riff, he could tear it up.  But when he was trying to nail a particular note, it was hit-or-miss.  A baseball player can’t just keep hitting foul balls, he (or she) has to really connect to be considered “good.”  (Whoa, did butchie just make a sports reference?  Happy anniversary, Sidelines!)  I did enjoy many of Casey’s performances, and especially his few duets with Haley.  Haley has emerged as the one I would find least offensive as the winner.  She, like Casey, needs to stop the stupid growling, or at least minimize it.  She is the most consistent of the finalists (oh come on, I don’t even count the country people anymore.  But that’s a whole other column.  However I will predict, if the two country singers make the finale, it will be the lowest rated finale ever.)

Aretha Franklin doesn’t dance.  She doesn’t have a gimmick.  She doesn’t need either.  When you can really sing, when you convey emotion with your voice, when you possess natural stage presence, you don’t need enhancements.  You don’t even need backup dancers.

No matter who wins, American Idol has lost “The Voice” this year.

If you agree, or if this pisses you off, all feedback is welcome at, and we may even quote you in a future column.


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