One of my favorite students is also a gifted soprano. I was fortunate enough to catch her senior recital a few weeks back, and as I was hanging around later, I heard one of her music profs tell someone, “The thing that sets [Student] apart from so many other singers is that she really pays attention to the lyrics — she understands the songs in a way that most singers (especially around her age) don’t.” Now I’m certainly not taking credit for that — this young woman’s gift is wonderfully, beautifully her own — but I do suspect that there’s a connection between this interpretative skill and her talents as an English major.
And this brings us to American Idol. I’ve never watched an entire episode — that’s more the Mad Dog’s kind of thing — but I’ve wandered through the room a few times while Mrs. M might be watching it, and I’ve seen highlight clips on TV from time to time. One of my musician friends tipped me to an article by John Stark, which discusses a recent appearance by Harry Connick Jr. on the show.
Idol‘s theme on Wednesday was “Then and Now.” Each contestant was asked in the first hour of the show to perform a current hit song. They chose newly released tunes by Pink, Bruno Mars, Rihanna and Carrie Underwood, who won American Idol in 2005. In the second half, they were asked to sing a classic from the Great American Songbook.
During the mentoring sessions, Connick would listen to the singers perform the songs they had chosen and advise them how to do it better. He was a kindly coach throughout the “Now” portion of the show, teasing, praising and hugging the contestants. But when it came to the “Then” segment, the joking stopped. His demeanor changed.
As Amber started to sing Rodgers & Hart’s “My Funny Valentine,” Connick stopped her. He asked her what the song is about. “What does it mean, ‘Your looks are laughable?'” he asked her, or “‘Is your figure less than Greek?'” Amber looked blank — she had no idea. She struggled for words. He told her to go do some research on the lyricist, Lorenz Hart, a physically diminutive, closeted homosexual who died of alcoholism at age 48. Before singing the song, Connick sternly told Amber, you need to understand what Hart was writing about.
[…] Kree also got stopped shortly after she launched into Harold Arlen’s “Stormy Weather.” She was singing in a loose, bluesy manner, like she said she’d heard Etta James do the song. But for Kree to do those fancy runs, Connick said, were diluting the meaning of the lyrics. The woman in this song, he explained, is sad and depressed; she’s lost her man. “You don’t sound depressed,” Connick observed. He wanted Kree to do it more like Lena Horne, who introduced the song in 1940. No frills needed.
But even in my limited experience of American Idol and its ilk, I’ve seen that these shows privilege over-the-top cadenzas and extended high notes without regard for the content of the song. And guess what?
Not one of the contestants took Connick’s “Then” advice when they got on stage. Substance was thrown out the window for pyrotechnic vocal tricks. Angie sang Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” an ode to vulnerability, in full-power voice. She hardly came off as “a little lamb who’s lost in the wood,” as the lyric says. More like a John Deere tree cutter.
[…] Connick squirmed in his front-row seat during the “Then” performances.
[…] His breaking point came when Randy Jackson implied that Connick’s advice had hindered Kree’s vacuous rendition of “Stormy Weather,” which none of the judges liked. He thought she should have sung it more like Etta James, as she had wanted to do. As it turned out, her rendition was neither Etta nor Lena, nor even Kree. It lacked any personality or feeling. You could see Connick about to pop his cork. That’s when Keith Urban went into the audience, took Connick by the hand and brought him to the judge’s table. Taking a seat, Connick proceeded to school a very defensive Jackson in the art of singing standards. The point Connick tried to make, which Jackson didn’t want to hear, was that the show’s contestants didn’t know these classic songs well enough to take liberties with their melodies and lyrics. In doing so, they were murdering the music.
Even in an era of stylings over substance, substance matters. Kudos to Mr. Connick — and my student — for understanding that.