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'Idol' Banter: Copy Cats' Cradle

March 5, 2008 |  7:54 am

Davidcook Am I really going to have to dwell on this point every week?  Let’s get it over with: hairdo-challenged would-be Daughtry David Cook’s “brave,” grungy version of Lionel Richie’s dirge “Hello” was borrowed. The Calabasas-based band Incubus has been covering the song in a similar fashion since at least Lollapalooza 2003.

I am not a huge Incubus fan. I’ve never seen the band perform Richie’s song in concert. However, I do have this little tool of democracy called Internet access. “Hello” shouldn’t be that easy to search (it’s a common name, like “David Cook”), but I found Incubus’ version in about two minutes.

In literature, we call this plagiarism. In singing it’s obviously a different thing. Judging from the still-flowing hate mail I received after questioning David Archuleta’s take on “Imagine,”  many  “Idol” viewers really don’t care where the contestants get their ideas. They just want them to sing competently, with a little flourish, and emanate adorableness.

After all, one of the gifts “Idol” has given pop is the resurrection of the interpretive tradition, a welcome corrective to the rock-era fallacy that only artists who pen their own material can be authentic.

But if we believe interpretation is a form of authorship, then borrowing someone’s phrasing, tone and vocal embellishments without acknowledgement is wrong. How hard would it be to utter the simple phrase, “I was inspired by so-and-so?”

Maybe that’s too much to ask. After all, “Idol” presents itself as a sealed universe, attached to the larger world of pop through well-chosen reference points that can be closed at will. Consider tonight’s episode –- 1980s night for the boys. As the show began, I couldn’t help but wonder how the producers would deal with the scandal threatening to undermine the night: the revelation that lush-voiced David Hernandez has a past as an exotic dancer.

The answer is, they didn’t. Though the local Fox affiliate teased an upcoming news story on the subject, on “Idol” it wasn’t even mentioned. Hernandez got through his ponderous Celine Dion hit on the strength of his pipes and his overactive eyebrows. Luckily he hadn’t chosen a song that required him to shake his hips.

As a Hernandez fan and a supporter of all kinds of pride, I’m delighted that “Idol” didn’t punish David for his previous career choices. Yet the show’s inability to address the matter reflects a strange flaw I can’t stop talking about: “Idol’s” silence about anything outside social or musical norms, even when its contestants embody it.

Tonight’s song choices did invoke some outsider identities or world views. Jason Castro did beautifully with Jewish Zen master Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”; Chikezie offered the Luther Vandross version of a Whitney Houston hit, showing his affinity for quiet storm, a style embraced by African Americans but scorned by many whites. Luke Menard played his Wham! song straight, but Danny Noriega was so flouncy performing the Soft Cell take on “Tainted Love” that he might as well have been in drag.

Still, the judges barely acknowledged the world of difference these choices represented. For Simon, Chikezie’s deep soul turn was “cabaret.” Randy thinks Wham! is “corny.” At least they couldn’t deny the greatness of Cohen, or lost artistic maverick Jeff Buckley, whom Castro’s version inevitably recalled. 

I get the feeling “Idol” might implode this season, under the weight of pop’s realities. We live in a world where Jimmy Kimmel can broadcast his faux lust for Ben Affleck on late-night prime time, and enlist an A-list of celebs to help. Why can’t an “Idol” publicly admit to being gay? And as far as the music goes, why can’t a self-described “rocker” like David Cook honor other, more groundbreaking rockers, instead of goofing around with a Lionel Richie song? Notables from the 1980s include R.E.M., the Replacements, Husker Du, the Pixies, even Prince. But covering those artists would require sweat and unbridled emotion.

In this light, David Archuleta’s inward-looking musical focus really does stand out. Solemnly intoning the Phil Collins sermon “Another Day in Paradise,” he was like a teetotaler in a roomful of closet drunks. He may be a child of the stage (have you noticed that every personal anecdote he offers involves performing?) but at least his impulses are transparent. Pure theater: that’s “Idol” for honesty.

-- Ann Powers

(Photo courtesy of Fox)

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