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'American Idol': Grammy-winning songs move front and center

February 17, 2011 | 12:13 pm

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It’s still unclear what the producers of “American Idol” are attempting to teach contestants on group night.

Maybe it is supposed to remind them of those dreaded group projects in high school, where the final grade depended on the performance of the company as a whole? Nope, that can’t be it, considering the judges made it known right out of the gate that hopefuls would be judged individually. 

Regardless of how well contestants play with one or another, group night always proves to be an entertaining staple of the show. "American Idol" is full of personality clashes, outsize egos, frustrations and sleepless nights, and host Ryan Seacrest promised the drama was where “new stars will shine” and “favorites will blow away.”

While group night is excruciatingly brutal for a great deal of contestants, music finally had the chance to begin taking front and center after a few audition cities made the personalities and sob stories the focal point. And with an overwhelming number of 15- and 16-year-olds ready to strut their stuff, the music, naturally, was more youthful.

In particular, three of this year's Grammy-winning songs played a pivotal role in the batch of groups hoping to get through: Bruno Mars’ melodic “Just the Way You Are,” which snagged male pop vocal performance, Cee Lo Green’s Motown-esque “[Forget] You” (urban/alternative performance) and Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In the World), which won for dance recording.

The three tracks were undoubtedly the most recognized singles for the respective artist year's -- Mars’ “Grenade” and Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” got plenty of group love too -- and watching numerous groups take on the hits proved that the “Glee” effect -- television, reality or not, largely remakes current pop hits --  was in full swing. Historically, the preapproved songs for group night have been light on contemporary standards in favor of more traditional material such as the Temptations’ “Get Ready” or anything by the Jackson 5.

But keeping current proved to reward some groups and brutally crucify others -- to be fair, there really isn’t any group appeal to Rihanna’s dance gem, though “Take a Bow” or “Unfaithful” might have treated hopefuls more kindly if it had been an option.

Songs like “Grenade,” “[Forget] You” and “Just the Way You Are” allowed the contestants to harmonize more with one another and build up melodies, though “Irreplaceable” never really ended well for anyone who tackled the R&B kiss-off.

The early favorites have been criticized numerous times by this writer for avoiding the contemporary. Although the original versions of recent hits are fresher in the minds of most -- well, not always, seeing as how a 15-year-old had never heard Duffy's “Mercy” and a twentysomething couldn’t even catch the ubiquitous harmony of “[Forget] You” (even Gwyneth Paltrow and some fuzzy puppets know the words to the song) -- the risks of doing something still on the radio paid off for most.

The judges proved to be less tolerant with contestants who reached into the vault for songs such as "Somebody to Love,” cuts that have been featured on the show year in and year out. 

Ironically, a group of rock-centric adult wannabes failed on the song, prompting "Idol" judge Jennifer Lopez to tell them “it was like a bad ‘Glee’ audition,” while a soulful rendition -- more closely mirroring how the Fox hit comedy handled the song in its first season -- was performed by a group of 15- and 16-year-olds, who elicited the sole standing ovation from the judges' panel.

“Freddie Mercury is up there smiling down,” "Idol" judge Steven Tyler said of the late Queen frontman. “I was bathing in those vocals.”

-- Gerrick D. Kennedy
twitter.com/gerrickkennedy

Photo: Contestants at the Hollywood rounds of "American Idol." Credit: Michael Becker / Fox.

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