American Idol Problem – The Song’s the Thing

by | Jun 1, 2013

Originally published April 2011.

The Internet is abuzz that this year’s contestants may be the weakest in American Idol history. The feeble field is actually good news for the stronger-voiced competitors, who can further differentiate themselves through deft song choices that compliment 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 can prove to be even more important 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 there are some battle-tested tactics that 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 doing a reworked “Hello” by Lionel Richie, Kris Allen 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┬ásuggestions.

  • Pick songs with Familiarity. The chosen song has to be something people are familiar with; a song they’ve heard before. 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 just has to be familiar. Songs recently featured in popular movies or TV shows are a good place to look. The mash-up youth comedy Glee, has been mined for several songs 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 paean to himself, “The Singer Not the Song”). In a singing competition, the best way to show your ability is in the presentation of a memorable melody. If the melody 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 song 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 a great, 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 great vocal performances of highly nuanced singers. Stay away from Sam Cooke, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Freddy Mercury, and Bono. The number simply won’t be improved upon and singing one of their songs will surely only draw unfavorable comparisons. The exception to the rule is if you can pull it off like 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. This year, Andrew Garcia floored the judges with an acoustic take on Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up.” Since then, for Garcia and everyone else, it’s been, “we need more arrangement like Straight Up!” Good luck with that. Rearrangements are a tricky business 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 re-arrangements that had been previously recorded by other artists. These contestants then made modest (if any) changes to the re-arrangements and when they presented them to a bigger audience they looked like geniuses. If not entirely original, using established re-arrangements is smart because re-arrangements 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 was an improvement on the original – a guy singing a Donna Summer classic? Strangely satisfying. In a way, re-arrangements 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 is one that has a memorable melody, familiar song structure, and a lyric that connects the audience to the singer. A smart contestant will only sing songs that meet those criteria and are undeniably great. A great song by definition will take the singer and listener places through the virtues of the song itself – that’s precisely what makes them great songs. Plus, if you sing a bad song poorly, you’re stuck singing a bad song poorly. On the other hand, if you sing a great song that hasn’t been heard for awhile, and do it poorly, people just 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 great 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 single best piece of advice I can give is this: find a familiar song with a great melody, make sure it has a strong structure and the memorable lyrics were originally sung by a not-so-great singer. Do this and the judges will fall over themselves about what a great song choice you made.

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

In the end, what’s really required is a deep knowledge of the American Songbook, and I dare say, some artistry. Too much to ask from a 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 up winning songs to sing.

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