Monday, February 23, 2009

Has American Idol Found Its Best Singer Evah?

American Idol is back, which means that my only co-worker who still watches the aging juggernaut and I have something to discuss other than potential budget cuts. She is a fairly mainstream fan of Bo Bice, Chris Daughtry, David Cook and classic 1970s hard rock. We seldom agree on who should win AI, but we share important dislikes about the show – for example, the new top 36 format for season 8 that is easier than ever for the AI crew to manipulate to achieve their desired outcome.
"So," I said tentatively, after we discussed the bland performances that aired during the first top 12 of 36 week. "The guy I really, really like is Adam Lambert." Then I waited for her reaction, remembering how she considered my season 4 favorite Constantine Maroulis too flamboyant for the AI audience.
"Adam Lambert?" she repeated, searching her memory bank. "Oh, you mean the guy with all the dark hair?"
I nodded.
"I love him!" she exclaimed, as close to shrieking as I ever heard her – well, at least since David Cook's ascension last season, anyway. "He reminds me of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury and … who else?"
"Robert Plant?" I prompted. "Axl Rose?"
Before I could name my preferred Lambert soundalikes, Jeff Buckley and Matt Bellamy of Muse, she affirmed loudly, "Yes! Axl Rose! That's the one I was thinking of." Dreamy-eyed, we nodded in unison while enjoying separate fantasies of Adam bringing some tasty new music to the show.
Adam Lambert is a vocal virtuoso with video proof aplenty on the internet that he excels in enough diverse genres to attract a broad fan base – rock, cabaret, soul, and of course musical theatre. In my fantasy, he could be the most gifted and polished performer to grace the Idol stage. If he plays the AI game smartly, he could win big and so could the show.

As of this writing, Adam appears to be the only contestant with the chops and charm to rescue what portends to be another disappointing season following a high watermark year (see also American Idol 3 and American Idol 6). But, hey, no pressure! The very fate of the AI franchise and its ability to stimulate the economy may be resting on Adam's powerhouse pipes.
American Idol is a competition with predictable patterns that contestants ignore at their own peril. Here are three seemingly simple and obvious rules to achieve AI success – not just for Adam, but for any other prodigal superstars lurking among the top 36:
1. Be a genuine original. Wow us.
The AI winners – and those runners-up who parlayed their AI exposure into a viable recording career – without exception revealed an appealing musical identity unique to their competition. After eight seasons, viewers can take only so much of the same old same-old – the endless blur of pop, R&B and even country singers desperate to be the next fill-in-the-blank. Use your natural talent and persona to distinguish yourself from other contestants instead of resorting to a gimmick with a limited shelf life. Take the time to create an intimate connection with the audience. Charm us with your endearing humility, but most of all impress us with that special something that nobody else has.
2. Be consistent, but don't be boring. Surprise us, but don't confuse us.
Viewers and prospective record labels want to know who you are as an artist. However, viewers feel more invested in your success when they get to discover who you are and then watch you grow week after week. If you are already a masterful singer on day one, you need to give the audience other reasons to root for you. Show us the versatility of your potential, the richness of your lower register, and the varied dynamics of your voice. Introduce us to other genres without losing your essential musical identity. Accept Simon Cowell's criticism with good humor and incorporate it to improve your next performance. Simon is the viewers' proxy and challenging his authority is preventable suicide.
3. Always select the right song. No exceptions – ever.
Adam, do you believe in life after Cher? Believe may be an example of the type of dance track you want to record, but a song remembered for its vocal distortion isn't necessarily the best showcase to impress the audience with your chops – especially at this early stage when your musical identity isn't established and your success is far from assured. The upside of Believe is that you picked a song that is A) familiar to viewers and judges alike and B) new to the competition. This helps us understand your musical identity and concentrate effortlessly on your performance skills.

Believe this. If you cannot resist the temptation to introduce a cherished song unfamiliar to the top 40-oriented AI audience, at least pick one that the judges would know and appreciate as Jason Castro did with Hallelujah. But don't actually try to sing Hallelujah or any other sacred cows associated with prior contestants. You risk alienating fans of those contestants plus countless more by eliciting an unflattering comparison from the judges in front of millions. Better to sing a familiar Buckley hit, Last Goodbye, which would display your vocal range to its ultimate advantage – in fact, I would consider it a personal favor if you do.