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'American Idol' Banter: Neil Diamond in the rough

April 30, 2008 |  1:47 am

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)

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