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'Idol' Banter: Guitars gently weep

March 19, 2008 |  2:32 am

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Simon thought it was weird. Randy kept babbling about how great the songs were. Paula compared Jason Castro’s performance to a polka. The surest bet in which “Idol” has ever invested -- the songbook of the most popular and influential rock band in history -- was generating flop-sweat all around. The second week of Beatles covers plunged into an abyss the first had only anticipated. What was it about the Fab Four that threw the Idols -- and the judges -- off their game?

It all comes down to one word: spontaneity. That attribute has often been overvalued since the rise of rock. It’s a musical movement wrapped up in notions of rawness and rebellion, developed in opposition to the polish and craft of glittery pop. At its best, rock’s free attitude has made stars of beautiful freaks, including four messy lads from Liverpool.

It has also resulted in much overindulgence: a drunken Jim Morrison dropping his pants on-stage; a paranoid W. Axl Rose screaming bigoted epithets; dozens of drug casualties and scandalous sex addicts. Classic rock is dirty, it’s teenage, it’s fun and it's risky, partly because it unleashes improper impulses -- including the rough rock star’s desire to just happen upon a genius performance.

That’s the opposite of what “Idol” values. The show promotes the standards of the Broadway stage: grace in hitting your marks, spot-on pitch, the ability to simultaneously project one’s voice and dazzle with a smile. Even its swelling number of rockers mostly follow the razzle-dazzle style of Jon Bon Jovi.  David Cook’s perfectly competent rendition of “Day Tripper” was quintessential: the KROQ-ready rocker hit every note of the arrangement (nicely attributed to Whitesnake), even the ones distorted by a voice box. But never did he exhibit the primal frustration of a song whose key lyric is: “She took me half the way there.”

On “Idol,” rock is a sleek replication. There’s no room for real excess. How could there be in a minute and a half, as Amanda Overmyer, who keeps trying to inject some healthy sleaze, has noted? Michael Johns has it even worse, because he has musical ambitions. He chooses difficult songs because they interest him. Such subtle thinking is rarely a good strategy on a show where high notes are everything.

The Idols’ well-marketed character development also defies rock’s defiant stance. Each singer progresses incrementally by taking in the judges’ etiquette lessons and working to become more marketable. Imagine Morrison the Lizard King dutifully nodding as Simon tells him to not be so maudlin, or Eddie Vedder grinning as Paula says he’s unique.

It’s also impossible to imagine any of the Beatles winning “American Idol.” Neither Ringo nor George had the vocal skills to pass Round One. Besides, George was too shy, and Ringo’s still too goofy. John Lennon? No way. His jewelry-rattling irreverence wouldn’t have made first pass with Simon, who freaks when Idols talk back. What about Paul? He’s the cute one, after all, the author of tear-inducing ballads like “Yesterday” and “Let it Be,” which offered the Idols their only chances for success (Chikezie did defy the odds with his nutty but memorable uptempo turns, but that was pure pluck.) Yet Paul’s songbook actually provides the example that best illustrates why the Beatles failed the Idols -- or the other way around.

The song in question is “Blackbird.” Carly Smithson delivered a lovely rendition Tuesday, her wine-dark vocal tone capturing the somber mood of this ballad inspired by the American civil rights movement, and her octave jump providing the Celine-like high point the judges crave. It was definitely the night’s best turn. And yet, it somehow lacked.

Go back to the original version to discover what’s missing. It starts with an upward-drifting chord progression, slightly tinged with a bluesy semitone. McCartney’s fingers squeak against his guitar strings as a metronome clicks time. It’s one of the most intimate and solitary moments in the Beatles catalog. It’s the sound of the saddest kind of daydream.

And the vocals couldn’t be more casual. McCartney hits every note, but he never strains or goes for theatrics. He’s basically singing to himself, adding a little hum to help him get through, musing on the words he’s written to help him meditate on a drama that’s bigger than he’ll ever be.

McCartney could sing this way in 1968 because he believed that the music he made for fun and love was what the world wanted to hear. “Blackbird” comes fairly late in the Beatles catalog, but you can hear that same easy confidence in Paul’s whoops on “I Saw Her Standing There,” or John’s sighs in “Girl,” or Ringo’s adorable hum-de-dum in “Yellow Submarine.”

The Beatles were obviously ambitious. They were also totally pop. The band covered show tunes along with R&B songs; their songbook came from the same place “Idol” does. But the nature of their dreams was different. They and their peers in rock’s pre-corporate adolescence made choices that felt right just then; nearly every good moment from this era involved a refusal to over-rehearse or second guess.

I think people love the Beatles, still, because their music helps them let go. “Idol,” on the other hand, teaches viewers to judge and be judged. I kept wondering Tuesday how the judges would have responded to John’s quip after the band tore it up on “Get Back”:  “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.” Would they have made it to the next round?

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Fox

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