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'American Idol' Banter: Neil Diamond in the rough

Syeshamercado I never thought I would have occasion to feel sorry for Neil Diamond, but "American Idol" always seems to introduce me to new and uninvited emotions. Tuesday's show, devoted to the songbook of the estimable Tin Pan Alley rocker, did him a great injustice -- and it didn't do much for the tremulous Top Five Idols, either.

Maybe they're still processing the slaying of Carly last week, or perhaps they'd gotten into whatever made Paula render judgment on Jason Castro's second song before he sang it -- but with one exception, all five contenders seemed a little, well, glazed.

That exception was Syesha Mercado, who used her lovely sense of calm on the Lionel Richie-esque ballad "Hello Again" (Diamond's song predates Richie's "Hello" by three years, by the way) and delivered the jangly 1967 song "Thank the Lord for the Nighttime" as if her mama were Motown royal Martha Reeves.

Syesha's turning out to be as intelligent a performer as David Cook, though it hurts her that her strong spot is where standards meet jazz, since "Idol" generally promotes the idea that pop history begins in the 1980s. To me, Simon's pronouncement that she might be in trouble seemed as loopy as Paula's missteps (the wiggiest judge also called Syesha "Brooke"); but I've also come to accept that, this season especially, America doesn't always vote with its ears.

As least Syesha seemed happy be on stage. David Cook, vocally right on inhabiting Diamond's mid-career persona as the blow-dried PhD of Love, didn't deliver on the emotional front. Eyes mostly closed, body language stolid, he seemed about as excited as a lead singer whose band got the 3 p.m. slot at the KROQ Weenie Roast. I was hoping he'd kick out that crooked grin on "Cherry, Cherry" -- imagine what the ladies in the audience would have done with him singing the line, "You got the way to move me." Show us a little Adam's apple, man!

The other David let his melisma go crazy on "Sweet Caroline," and then sang "America" -- a great choice not because it's patriotic, but because it's an immigrant anthem, and Archie is, after all, the mixed- race face of the New America. But his uplift was predictable. Brooke White bounced around like a cartoon figure during "I'm a Believer," and contrary to what the judges said, was far too mellow on "I Am I Said," one of pop's apexes of inscrutable philosophizing.

As for Jason Castro, after some typical pre-taped giggling about his general ignorance of pop, he set a new bar for timidity, especially during the meditative "September Morn." (In his defense, he had just fallen victim to the Madness of Queen Abdul.)

"September Morn" provides as good a means as any to understanding why "Idol" failed with Diamond's material. The song -- co-written by a Frenchman, Gilbert Bécaud, whose nickname was "Monsieur 100,000 Volts" -- implicitly ponders the bittersweet mood of a morning after connubial bliss. It shares a title with Beaux Arts academician Paul Chabas's 1912 painting of a nude female bather, a work that became hugely popular in America after being condemned by anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock.

This complex back story is typical of Diamond's work, which shows a sense of kinship with the past and willingness to ponder life's long haul that's unusual in "Idol"-friendly pop.  Some deride the 66-year-old showman's oeuvre as overwrought and obvious, but even his haters must admit that his pronouncements are determinedly adult.

Even Diamond's early hits, like "I'm a Believer," bear the mark of someone who's learned from some long days and hard nights. (That's why Mickey Dolenz, a slightly older and sexier vocalist than Davy Jones, sang lead on the Monkees' version of the song in 1966.) His anthems aren't pugnacious, like early Dylan; they're dignified. His love songs are always sung in the voice of someone who's good in bed.

"Idol" doesn't do adult, not in this sense. Only a few of its top contestants have ever been old enough to appear even remotely seasoned, and since this is a family show, they can't express any kind of sexuality beyond the occasional campy flash of leg.

So it wasn't just the confusing decision to truncate Diamond's songs to fit in two for each singer that made his material seem strangely incomplete. The younger Idols had to fake Diamond's aura of maturity, and the older ones, aiming to please younger voters, have already learned how to rein in such threatening personality traits. Diamond wasn't a great mentor, either, despite seeming like a mensch. Unlike Andrew Lloyd Webber, he's not artistically interested in ingénues.

This inability to fully explore the side of pop that isn't about fun, youth or artistic dress-up is a limitation "Idol" has never overcome. Two seasons ago, it came close with Daughtry, who sounded like a man and had a back story that was both adult and acceptable -- he was married with children, and the strain of the show on these relationships became a subtext of his performances.

This year, the one remaining married contestant (oh, how I miss Carly and Michael!) presents herself as a golden-haired girly girl, and the most sophisticated singers -- David Cook and Syesha -- haven't been encouraged to show how their talent reflects their life experience. Early on, with Archie's rise, it seemed that a teen Idol would be this year's gift to America.

But then Cook began to rise. I'd like to see him feed his future performances with more of a sense of whatever he's been through. I'd like him to act his age, which isn't that old -- 25 -- but old enough to have done and felt a thing or two. It wouldn't be a bad career decision, either. Chris Daughtry is living proof that the world beyond "Idol" actually still has some interest in grown-ups.

-- Ann Powers

(photo courtesy Fox)

Comments () | Archives (43)

Syesha is an untalented ham with a huge emotionless fake smile. She is desperate to get a broadway gig out of Idol. Archuleta is just embarrassing. Brooke is a sweet girl, but a performer, she ain't. Castro is a hoot. Cook is the only talent in this entire competition.

A terrific, thoughtful review. One correction: "Last season, it came close with Daughtry" is incorrect. Chris Daughtry was a contestant two seasons ago.

What a well thought out analysis, you would be over-qualified to work on American Idol. A couple of observations:

1. How do the AI producers plan to promote the winner as a contemporary artist when, as of yet, they haven't sung one song in the 21st Century?

2. How funny is it when say, Syesha sings a song that's at least 25 years old (Hello Again), condensed to fit time constrants, only to hear Simon say she sounded "old fashioned" ?

American Idol is a show intended, in part, for a bit of light-hearted fun. The serious aspect of the show is diminished by the off-handed remarks of the judges that don't offer constructive criticism. I think it's good to give some structure to each show and a theme involving polished performers. They've certainly mixed it up with the mentors. Perhaps it would be good to get a younger performer who's riding one of the current waves - like Daughtry.

I agree with you 100%. Excellent comments on the show.


American Idol is a show intended, in part, for a bit of light-hearted fun. The serious aspect of the show is diminished by the off-handed remarks of the judges that don't offer constructive criticism. I think it's good to give some structure to each show and a theme involving polished performers. They've certainly mixed it up with the mentors. Perhaps it would be good to get a younger performer who's riding one of the current waves - like Daughtry.

Daughtry was two seasons ago, not last season.

i miss carly

I love David Cook ......he's got what it takes . his voice is all that .his looks are also yummy.

I have a hard time respecting the commentary of any writer who finds the lyrics to I Am, I Said "inscrutable".

>>>"I am !," I said...to no one there. And no one heard at all ... not even the chair.

"I am ! ," I cried. "I am!," said I. And I am lost and I can't...even say why.

Leaving me lonely still.<<<

What's so damned inscrutable about that? New York songwriter goes to LA and makes it big (ever heard the story about the frog who dreamed of being a king and then became one?) but finds himself enormously lonely nonetheless. Hello? Duh?

My favorite is still David Archuleta (and I am not a teen but a woman in my late 30's). This country has enough loud shouters rockers (David Cook is one of them),country singers and beautiful young men with not a heck a lot of singing talent. David Archuleta not only has the Voice (is consistent every week with his incredible and amazing performances, yes, I agree he can use a few dancing lessons, for the ones that want more out of this young man) but again, none of the rest of them have that either. He has been critisized for having his eyes closed, not sure how Stevie Wonder and Bocelli feel about this, and David Cook has his eyes closed when he shouts with every song, but wouldn't be cool to have a new American Male Teen Idol as a role model not for the younger generation but the older ones that miss having some of the old fashioned teen idols and rising clean cut artists. My prediction will be that Syesha will be eliminated tonight. I loved her performance, but again, I don't think she has enough of a fan base and that is what Seyesha's problem right now. Someone needs to be eliminated and she still made it to the top 5. I say Vote for David Archuleta for the win.

Not sure why the above commentator feels that David Archuleta is an embarassment? That is only your opinion. Some of us do not like creepy looking rockers that shout. Again this is America we all like what we like. If you love loud music and singers with eyeliners that shout, then continue voting for David Cook. Different strokes for different folks. But please do not attack the rest of the contestants on these boards, if you do not like their style of music. It only shows lack of your own knowledge of music, jealousy and mean view of "if you do not agree with me" you are all wrong. This is America folks, these contestants are still in the game, because they all have something to offer. For the ones that think David Cook is God, please go and buy his CD already has been on sale a few weeks. American Idol is not about established rocker artists but new talent that have strong vocals and can grow musically. If you feel David Cook is talented, I say, I don't like his look his arrogance already and his hype. Of yes, and I love rockers voted for Daughtry last year, better voice, if you ask me. Time to bring back the clean cut young teen idols again. And I am not a teen, but a Mom in my 40's who grew up in the rock and roll era and still love rock. Our music industry can't wait to get their hands of clean cut young artists. After all Carrie Underwood and Jordin Sparks won b ecause of their vocals not their creepy shouting at us.

last nights performances were weak. By this stage of the game, there should be a weekly improvement. Jason should definitely go home now. ( I am very surprised he has lasted this long ).The genres this season have been very strange.

Very astute analysis of the problems with Neil Diamond night/songs. I agree with everything you said, and you were able to articulate what I hadn't even realized I was feeling. His songs are about expressing experiences - most of them of a romantic or sexual nature - which is something AI discourages in its attempts to family-friendly-ize the show. Only David C. has the chops to covey the sexiness of ND's songs adequately, and he seemed to be holding back. All in all, a very disappointing night.

It's obvious Ann hasn't gotten over Carly's inability to connect with the audience. It's equally obvious that Ann's commentary is informed by her inability to understand that there is one person in this competition who has exhibited musical genius each and every week. And that would be David Cook.

David may not always win on performance points, but he's smashing the Idol records when it comes to artistic interpretation. His AIRNIY was, as Simon says, brilliant. He interpreted the angst and passion of Diamond's lyrics into a song that bears listening to again and again. That dude knows music, and knows how to sing. His performance alone made the show worth watching (and taping.)

I am so hot for Paula when she's dizzy and forgetful.

"'Idol' doesn't do adult, not in this sense. Only a few of its top contestants have ever been old enough to appear even remotely seasoned, and since this is a family show, they can't express any kind of sexuality beyond the occasional campy flash of leg."

I think this is perhaps why I've never warmed to David Archuleta. Out of all of them, he is the most childlike. I have no idea how old he is, but his earnestness is wearing more and more thin as time goes by. I cannot imagine ever paying money to hear him sing. Syesha, in the right context (a show), yes. Brooke, in the right context (playing and singing at the piano), yes. David Archuleta, although he has a wonderful voice technically, has no credibility behind his songs. I don't see any maturity or even personality. He sings perfectly, but that's not really enough. Where's the humanity, the depth?

The comment posted by Connie Farmer stating that Syesha is untalented, is so far from the true. Syesha is beautiful young lady with a wonderful smile and she has so much talent, and she actually can sing. She will go on and do great things just like Jennifer did. Connie is a hater and just jealous.......

Daughtry was two seasons ago. How quickly we forget the meh that was season 6 and its blah and forgettable teen idol, Jordin Sparks.

David Cook is the only one who deserves to win this. Bring back the crooked smile? Absolutely. The boy can do hot and angsty like nobody's business and I'd like to see that again, too. I have to wonder what's going on in his personal life (the brother with cancer) because he seems to be down a bit right now. Maybe it's just hanging around with all these limp, lackluster children instead of the peers like Michael and Carly whose company he seemed to enjoy. Whatever it is, I hope he can push it down and regain his rockin' mojo, because he has IT when he's on and he's the only one left with even a crumb of that IT.

None of them were good last night. The only ones that are ever any good are the two Davids. But last night, Cook sounded horrible on the first song and lack any spark at all. And Archuleta was cheesy and not great at all. They need to dump these ridiculous themes. I want to hear what they would really like to sing and what they are good at singing. Neil Diamond and Andrew Lloyd Webber songs aren't it.

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