Monday, May 06, 2013

Giving Harry the Runs

It was a real treat to see and hear Harry Connick Jr on American Idol last week. He was mentor to the four remaining contestants - all female - on Wednesday. On Thursday we got to hear him perform.

His mentoring was balm to the afflicted, the afflicted being we older viewers who have to try to adjust our expectation of melody and meaningful lyrics to what modern popular music accepts as being good stuff. On Wednesday the four gals (left to right in the photograph: Angie, Amber, Candice, Kree) each had to sing two songs on the theme Now & Then, which in Idol speak meant a song of 2013 and a standard - could be a Great American Songbook standard or any song that has stood the test of time.

I can't say anything nice about the 2013 songs chosen so I'll refrain from commenting. The standards are a different matter. I've lived with all of them for decades, know them note for note and variation by variation. Thank goodness the Idol powers that be had engaged an appropriate mentor to coach these young divas in the art of a) understanding what the heck they're singing about, and b) respecting the beautifully crafted melodies by refraining from embellishment with those dreadfully superfluous runs and riffs beloved of many modern vocalists.

I felt for Harry when, on asking Amber if she understood what My Funny Valentine is all about, she took a wild guess and was quite wrong. Like the artist he is, he patiently explained about a "figure less than Greek" and how the song's lyricist Lorenz Hart, had self confidence issues about his own appearance, possibly reflected in the song - and how a person can love someone who is nowhere near perfect. Amber sang the song well, but sadly fell into the all too common trap on American Idol of thinking every song is an anthem and every venue an arena. She has a good voice and range, but just because she can hit and hold a note for ever at the end of a song doesn't mean she should! Harry pointed this out later in the show - said that in this case that long last note just "didn't make sense".

The other three girls fared little better on the riffs and runs issue. They just don't seem able to kick the habit, and it really is frustrating - so much so that I (and himself) frequently jumped up or waved arms shouting!!! Aghhh!! Adding runs and riffs and shouty long notes all over the place is like pouring ketchup on a cordon bleu dish, or gravy on apple pie, or expressed in more classical mode, gilding the lily. The other three standards sung in the "Then" category were Gershwin's Someone to Watch Over Me; You've Changed, written by Bill Carey and Carl Fischer; and Stormy Weather by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. All four songs are intimate, wistful, filled with melancholy, or downright dark. They call for a sense of vulnerability, tenderness, warmth, quiet sensitivity, not oversung shouty vocal acrobatics.

Candice, as always, sang well, but even she couldn't resist a few runs and vocal acrobatics towards the end, but I think she came nearest to doing her song justice.

Perhaps the American Idol people are to blame for expecting late teens and twenty-somethings to appreciate music from what is to them ancient history - it's from their grandparents' day....or older.

Amber was eliminated on Thursday evening. Candice, Angie and Kree became the final three to continue fighting for the title. They can all sing - at this stage in the game that's a given, but to be honest, good as they are, none truly inspires me with enthusiasm; from Harry Connick's face in the audience on Wednesday evening, after the set of standards, and judges critiques of the performances and of his views, I think he felt the same.
(Photo credit: Michael Becker/Fox)


anyjazz said...

The youngsters have been immersed in the "run" divas for so long they think that it IS how to sing. It's not.

Peggy Lee does a small run on the word "pain" in her recording of "Just for a Thrill" but it only makes the word more convey more pain.

The runs that the modern day vocalists warble come not as accents but as melody embellishments that seem incongruous sometimes. Always superfluous.

Good post. Right to the point.

Twilight said...

anyjazz ~ Thanks! Yes, I don't understand how they cannot see the incongruity of it - they sing everything as though they're doing some kind of set vocal exercise instead of painting a picture in lyrics and melody.

Not all contestants have been like this through the years on Idol though. There have been some
more sensitive and naturally musically artistic individuals, who voices and ranges may not have been anywhere near as good as these gals' but a voice ain't everything.