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'Idol' Banter: Emotional rescue

March 26, 2008 |  6:25 am

David Cook “Idol” watchers, it’s time to talk about our feelings. I don’t mean your fanatical devotion to David Cook or my nervous hopes for moody Carly Smithson. It’s time to consider one of the key decisions every aspiring Idol must make as the competition narrows: which emotional state to call his or her own and cultivate.

Last night, the most memorable contestants -- Syesha Mercado, Michael Johns (whew!), David Cook and, heaven help us, his evil cousin Kristy Lee -- made emotional choices as they repped for the years of their births. They planted a flag in the region of the heart where they’ll be hanging out in the coming weeks.

Syesha committed to the sob in her voice, casting her lot with heartbreak. Michael returned to the macho (if, thank you, Freddie Mercury, slightly androgynous) sexuality that got him on the show. D. Cook kept us feeling sinister, reinterpreting yet another R&B hit in the minor key of grunge. And, K.L. Cook, like a Barbie-fied refugee from Robert Altman’s great country music satire “Nashville,” called on patriotism, a fervor that’s worked in America since the days of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Unlike the other contestants, all competent but personally lost, this quartet has recognized that “Idol” ponies should not try too many tricks. Versatility may be a value the judges tediously uphold, but what people really want from their favorites is connection: that first-date feeling of getting to know someone really cool, gazing into his eyes, discovering what’s under her skin.

Music turns the enchantment of such a crush into an art form. That’s not to say it’s a simple equation: Singing does not equal emotion. On the one hand, the intensity of a raised voice suggests a direct line to one’s inner reality. But singing is also very artificial; except in Dennis Potter movies, nobody really breaks into song when angry or yearning, or during the act of love.

Kristy Lee Cook Instead, the gifted singer explores the nuances of a particular feeling by shifting her dynamics, teasing out phrases, chasing a tempo or dragging behind. She recognizes what the theorist Wayne Koestenbaum meant when he wrote in his book-length meditation on opera, “The Queen’s Throat,” that “the act of intense, grounded listening blows to pieces the myth that we can know precisely where an emotion or an experience begins.” Emotion is inherently unstable -- passion never lasts, sorrow dips and floats. Singing, also slippery, creates a physical analogy for our ever-changing moods.

The singers we remember often find one or two effects to dig into and explore. Think of the slow curl of Billie Holiday’s vocal lines, tapping the essence of melancholy. Or Janis Joplin’s howl, tracing the line where pain meets desire. Or the cool murmur of the later Willie Nelson, our oracle of equanimity.

No Idol, in this season or any, comes close to these greats. But I’m happy to see several reaching for that higher level, where interpretation turns into self-definition. These attempts signal more than just than settling into a merely evocative groove, as Brooke White had done before starting to stumble in recent weeks. (The stumbling is a hopeful sign; now she has to think about what she really stands for beyond her vintage 1970s look and voice.)

Emotional commitment is what made Melinda Doolittle so great, despite her eventual and unjust loss last season. Her humility when not singing may have struck many as dull and forced, but when she performed, she instantly located an undercurrent of passionate belief -- what religious folk call "faith." That was her emotion. Her gospel music upbringing taught her that every song can be a prayer, and she powerfully applied that directive.

So far this year, David Cook is the only Idol achieving that emotional consistency. His grounding in post-Nirvana alt-rock is as thorough and stabilizing as Doolittle’s background in the church. I find his reinterpretations gimmicky, like lounge versions of punk songs; but there’s no denying that he delivers his heart’s message, every time, on point.

Can any of his competitors begin to do the same? David Archuleta could, of course, but he’s in a downward spiral of terrible song choices. Run back toward wistfulness, Archie: It’s you. Michael Johns still hasn’t figured out how to be sexy without donning imaginary leather pants; his limited imagination will hurt him during Dolly Parton and Andrew Lloyd Webber week.

I’m not going to go through the other Idols, but I will say this for the suddenly, horrifyingly effective Kristy Lee: She’s no dummy. All these years of George W. Bush wouldn’t have happened if plenty of Americans weren’t still stumping for Old Glory. I can’t wait to hear what she tries next. Maybe she’ll go for a Toby Keith cover -– “Shock 'n' Y’all.”

-- Ann Powers

Photos: Fox

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