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Warhorses Make `Idol' Fly
We Have An Insatiable Need To Hear Great Tunes
January 12, 2007
By MATT EAGAN, Courant Staff Writer
Katharine McPhee may not be the "American Idol" champion, but
her sultry take on "Over the Rainbow" shows up in nearly every breathless
promotion for the upcoming sixth season.
The reasons for this are not hard to comprehend.
groups wait a lifetime for a moment like this - a beautiful young woman sitting
on a stage wearing ruby shoes and cooing the iconic American song before a rapt
audience of teenagers and their grandparents.
The producers want you thinking of McPhee as a star and wondering who the next
McPhee will be.
But the real stars of that sequence are Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg, who
trapped magic on sheet music all those years ago for another teenager: Judy
Garland's Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz."
If "American Idol" has proved anything in its first five years, it's that the
singers' faces can change but the songs must remain the same.
Your new show of shows once billed itself as the search for a superstar, but it
owes as much of its success to songwriters, both celebrated and forgotten, as it
does to those who do the singing.
"When all is said and done, to be able to write a song that can stand up after
20 or 30 years is the most difficult thing," says
Bill Pere, head of the
Connecticut Songwriters Association. "One of those is worth more than all of the
mediocre songs we hear combined."
The career path of "Idol" champions conspires to prove this point. Carrie
Underwood, who has the best-selling debut album of any "Idol" alum, has been
helped because Nashville remains a songwriters' town.
Other Idols, stripped of the quality words and music furnished by past giants,
struggle because Motown and the Brill Building, which buoyed the careers of so
many singers in the past, closed up shop long ago.
None of this is a concern for the show, which has remained a durable ratings
gorilla, because it remembers a most basic lesson: Few want to watch unknown
singers - gifted or otherwise - sing unknown songs. But as "Idol" will prove
again, until it reaches Hollywood, Americans will watch bad singers torture
familiar songs as the series opens Tuesday.
There was William Hung, of course, though it would be stretching things to
include "She Bangs" on any list of great songs. But there was also the poor
fellow in the first season who, not content with the traditional arrangement of
"Silent Night," offered a stylized version with the immortal first line, "Silent
night, I said a silent night."
And there are endless over-heated, off-key attempts to master the Stevie Wonder
This is what makes the show an easy target for cynics wary of how it lets
singers skip the dues-paying portion of their careers. They are also wary of the
machine behind the show's theme nights, which are as much about attempting to
sell the back catalog of once-popular artists as celebrating music legends.
But there is no denying that "American Idol" celebrates great songwriting and
introduces songs to a new generation of fans who might become curious about the
work of Burt Bacharach or Motown's Holland-Dozier-Holland.
When Fantasia Barrino scored with "Summertime," in the third season, it was no
doubt the first time much of the audience had ever been introduced to George
"Back in the days before television, people would sit around after dinner and
sing songs," says Guy-Michael Grande, a singer-songwriter who lives in
Connecticut. "You leap forward to 2007 and maybe the way we pass along some of
these great songs is through the television. Kids have so much music available
at their fingertips because of the iPod that they can hear a song on the show
and go look up everything ever written by those songwriters."
Each week the show argues, however subliminally, there are more people who can
sing than there are folks who can write great songs.
Nothing illustrated this better than the finale of the fifth season, which
featured a host of established artists joining the final 12 to sing, for the
most part, covers of seminal songs more than a decade old.
Toni Braxton showed up to turn "In the Ghetto," somewhat inappropriately, into a
flirty romp with Taylor Hicks.
Mary J. Blige joined Elliot Yamin to sing U2's "One."
And when Clay Aiken showed up it was not to sing "Invisible" or any of the tepid
tunes he has belted out as a solo artist but to take another run at "Don't Let
the Sun Go Down on Me."
The evening concluded with a Bacharach medley that celebrated his genius even
more than the elegance of Dionne Warwick.
"There are only so many really great songs," Grande says. "A song like `Over the
Rainbow' is perfection because there are no wasted words and no wasted melody
but there aren't many of those. Maybe `American Idol' does convince people that
it's as much about a great song as it is about a great performance - the two
things together. If the show makes people pay attention to songwriters, then
that's a great thing."
appeared January 12, 2007 , Hartford Courant
PO Box 511 Mystic CT 06355 -- info @ ctsongs.com