American Idol: 10th Anniversary — The Hits, Vol. 1
American popular music has reached a sad, sad state when any taxpayer can walk on stage and sound just as interesting as anything the major labels produce. American Idol is still strong after a decade on the air, and it’s spun off a few successful if not groundbreaking acts. I admit I’ve never watched American Idol, but for a decade they’ve combed and culled America’s raw talent pool, put lipstick and push up bras on them, and propped them up with snazzy backing arrangements. Amazingly, they sound just like every other top of the pops mega groups on the radio. Let’s see what our musical overlords have chosen for our SUV sound systems this week:
Let’s start with Carrie Underwood and “Before He Cheats,” a well-constructed country rocker about wandering boyfriends. He’s flirting with a bleached blonde? Ms. Underwood offers this advice. “Out blonde her, and key his ride.” Nothing wrong with this, but Ms. Underwood damn well ought to wear a black hat and sparkly bustier when she sings it. On to Daughtry, a one-name hopeful male singer with a similar country balladeer sound. He might have strayed as well, but he’s really sad about it and so should you be. While I can’t say anything negative here, this guy is smack dab in the gene pool of modern Greatest Hits country pop stars, and good doesn’t equal outstanding. Clay Aiken is a bit more interesting; he took some Ben Folds lessons when he wrote “Invisible.” It’s a 3:05 dose of heartbreak, but his arrangements are stunning.
Looking for some Indie rock? We have that right here with “Live Like We’re Dying” from Kris Allen. Spare guitar, lonely vocals, and a “just a touch o’ rap” backing chorus underlines a lyric snatched from Rent, making him sound like a punk band in a big Hollywood movie: the basic idea is correct, but the implementation is slightly off and it’s hard to pin down why. Jordan Sparks scores a little better with her Lil’ Kim influenced “No Air.” Like many of the classic soul love duets, the male vocal doesn’t overwhelm the female, but it seems more in control and less likely to end up on the short-end of the romance stick. A stronger female force appears on “Since U Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson. Her voice reminds me of the great feminist singers of the ’70s — her range and control are good, but she stays in the broad middle road of “me, too” sound-alikes. A pair of proper covers floats by; Ruben Studdard’s sweetly symphonic “Superstar” has a harp and a tremolo pedal on his vocals. He might be the real star that American Idol uncovered, but his over-modulated vocals need toning down. I’ll wrap-up with a ’70s retro remake of “Takin’ It to the Streets” by Taylor Hicks. His reedy voice does justice to this Doobie Brothers classic, and this version could have charted if the original never existed.
None of these singers is bad, but none of them makes me stop and replay the cut. Everyone here sounds slick and professional, and all work with highly arranged studio musicians behind them. They can stand up against any other pop artist on the market, and frankly they are completely indistinguishable from them. There’s no new and rising Patti Smith or Morrissey coming from this network-filtered collection of talented amateurs. Buy it if you want a time capsule of the 2011 soundscape, buy it if you’re desperate for a holiday gift, but don’t look for anything long lasting here.