American Idol Problem – The Song’s the Thing

She was initially published in April 2011.

The Internet is abuzz that this year’s contestants may be the weakest in American Idol history. The feeble field is good news for the stronger-voiced competitors, who can further differentiate themselves through deft song choices that complement their vocal capabilities.

The finalists can’t improve the technical components of their singing now – it’s too late for that – but they can make strategic song choices that prove even more critical than their vocal calisthenics. In other words, on Idol, connecting with the audience requires artistic song-selection chops. It’s easier said than done, but some battle-tested tactics can prove invaluable when the pressure mounts.

Well-timed and creative song choices have been the storyline for the most successful contestants in the past few Idol seasons. Think David Cook is doing a reworked “Hello” by Lionel Richie, Kris Allen is doing an acoustic version of Kayne West’s “Heartless,” and virtually every tune sung by last year’s runner-up Adam Lambert. These choices added surprise and excitement to the performances and set the winning contestants apart from singers that, in some cases, were better than them.

The judges, too, have hopped on the song choice advocacy bandwagon, eschewing the catch-all critique of “pitchy-ness” that dominated the first half-dozen seasons. While the judges are quick to point out, “wrong song, dog!” they are slow to offer any direction or specifics in choosing a proper tune.

So what’s a finalist to do? Here are some suggestions.

  • Pick songs with Familiarity. The chosen theme must be something people are familiar with, a song they’ve heard. Obscure chestnuts from a contestant’s pet artist aren’t going to carry the day. The right vehicle doesn’t have to be a wildly popular number-one either (though that can be OK). The tune has to be familiar. Songs recently featured in popular movies or TV shows are an excellent place to look. The mash-up youth comedy Glee has been mined for several pieces this year. The Charlie Chaplin theme song “Smile,” Queens’ “Somebody to Love,” and the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What you Want” have come from this show which is, no coincidence, also on the Fox network.
  • Pick Songs with Strong Melodies. Surprisingly, many hits don’t have hum-able melodies. These songs became hits because of a catchy arrangement, rhythmic content, or lyrical connection. Sometimes, a great performer doesn’t even need a good tune (witness Mick Jagger’s tribute to himself, “The Singer Not the Song”). The best way to show your ability in a singing competition is to present a memorable melody. If the piece isn’t in the song, most singers can’t resist the urge to over-sing – a common mistake on Idol. The litmus test for this is as follows: can the music be played on a piano with one finger so that it is instantly recognizable? If it can, it’s a good bet to be a winning choice.
  • Pick Songs NOT made famous by Divas and Icons. Contestants should never sing songs that have previously showcased an excellent, iconic vocal performance. This is a consistent mistake, and the judges always point it out. No Aretha, no Whitney, no Mariah, not even Celine. Men, too, should avoid the great vocal performances of highly nuanced singers. Stay away from Sam Cooke, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Freddy Mercury, and Bono. The number won’t be improved, and singing one of their songs will surely only draw unfavorable comparisons. The exception to the rule is if you can pull it off as Michael Johns did with “Bohemian Rhapsody” and this year’s Siobhan Magnus did with Aretha’s “Think” – by all means, go for it – but only once a season.
  • Be careful with Rearrangements. Andrew Garcia floored the judges this year with an acoustic take on Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up.” Since then, for Garcia and everyone else, it’s been, “we need more arrangements like Straight Up!” Good luck with that. Rearrangements are tricky, and viewers are fortunate if we get more than one memorable re-swizzle per season. Interestingly, many of the previous years’ buzz rearrangements, like Jason Castro’s “Hallelujah,” David Cook’s ‘Billie Jean,” and Adam Lambert’s “Mad Word,” were rearrangements that other artists had previously recorded. These contestants then made modest (if any) changes to the rearrangements, and when they presented them to a bigger audience, they looked like geniuses. If not entirely original, using established rearrangements is smart because rearrangements can backfire if they don’t provide a novel alternative to the original. Kris Allen’s “She Works Hard for the Money” succeeded because it improved the original – a guy singing a Donna Summer classic? Strangely satisfying. In a way, rearrangements are like the three-point line in basketball – hard to resist taking the shot – even though the odds are against scoring. But if you must, find an arrangement that’s been done before but hasn’t found a big audience.
  • Let the Song do the Heavy Lifting. There are hundreds of GREAT songs out there. A great song has a memorable melody, a familiar structure, and a lyric connecting the audience to the singer. A brilliant contestant will only sing songs that meet those criteria and are undeniably great. A great piece, by definition, will take the singer and listener places through the virtues of the music itself – that’s precisely what makes them great songs. Plus, if you sing a terrible song poorly, you’re stuck singing a lousy song poorly.
  • On the other hand, if you sing a great song that hasn’t been heard for a while and does it poorly, people might remember your song choice as being brilliant, allowing you to stay another week. The movie “Young at Heart” features an octogenarian singing Coldplay’s “Fix You” to significant emotional effect. The listener is taken on a journey that connects the singer to the audience in a novel and unforgettable way. The song itself made that possible.

So you’ve got to pick a song by tomorrow night or go home crying? The best advice I can give is this: find a familiar theme with a great melody, make sure it has a strong structure, and a not-so-great singer initially sang the memorable lyrics. Do this, and the judges will fall over themselves about what a great song choice you made.

Sound tough? Not really. Hundreds of songs fit that bill, and the best place to look is for singers/songwriters who don’t have the most incredible voices. It’s also not a bad idea to mine the one-hit wonders where the song, not the singer, carried the day. There are scores upon scores of candidates.

In the end, what’s required is a deep knowledge of the American Songbook and, I dare say, some artistry. Too much to ask after 16 years old? Perhaps. It may also be too much to ask of the judges. Maybe that’s why they’re so slow to offer winning songs to sing.


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