*On the evening of March 23, 2011, Jacob Lusk had his Moment.
In just one minute and fifty-six seconds–the length of his compact, impassioned rendition of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s 1968 soul classic, “You’re All I Need To Get By”– Lusk, a 23 year-old church boy from Compton, California, had the kind of moment every performer dreams of.
Like many young singers today with chops, he tends to oversing. But on this night, Lusk, who, on occasion, sounds uncannily like gospel singer Rance Allen, exhibited the artful, stylistic restraint of a gifted veteran.
He turned on his vocal ingenuity in just the right places (like the crowd-pleasing ad-lib cadence toward the song’s end that tossed gas on the fire), the whole time seducing the TV viewing audience with subtle facial antics that exuded everything from wistful sentimentality and sheer joy to sexy flirtation.
Lusk’s Moment, arguably one of “Idol”‘s greatest performances ever, left the studio audience in stunned shambles. They and millions more watching at home knew that whether or not Lusk wins “Idol,” they’d just witnessed a star.
Then again, there are more than a couple of potential stars on this year’s “Idol.” Breathing down Lusk’s back is 16 year-old Lauren Alaina from Rossville, Georgia, a big-voiced singer in the tradition of past “Idol” winners Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood.
Alaina, like Lusk, could take it all. She has a penchant for pop/country, but can sing other stuff just as well and possesses an aw-shucks sassiness that is infectious. And, she hails from the South. Statistically, most “Idol” winners and front-runners come from the South.
However, that’s the thing with “Idol”–you never know in what pattern a fickle public might vote. In any case, in its tenth season, the world’s greatest amateur music competition has found redemption.
Who would’ve thunk it, considering the hideous talent pool that was season nine? If two big, nattily dressed men with broad shoulders grabbed me at gunpoint, drove me to an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town, tied me up in a chair and told me the only way I’d see tomorrow would be to give them the name of the winner of last season’s “Idol,” I’d be one dead MF. The lineup was that ho-hum.
When the program’s star judge, the inimitable Simon Cowell, left to helm the American debut of his competing TV talent creation, “The X-Factor,” critics put the final nail in “Idol”‘s coffin.
However, the departure of Cowell, dreaded by “Idol” producers, only served to make it clear that a talent show’s success is not about judges but ambitious, budding talent. This year’s “Idol” has plenty, including 22 year-old Pia Toscano, a Big Ballad belter from Howard Beach, New York; dreamy-eyed, pop/R&B singer Stefano Langone, 22, from Kent, Washington; raspy-throated Haley Reinhart, 20, of Wheeling, Illinois and screaming rocker James Durbin, 22, from Santa Cruz, California.
And, turns out, the unlikely appointment of new judges Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, joining show stalwart Randy Jackson, give “Idol” new life. I don’t recall ever hearing a Lopez recording all the way through, but she actually has some good advice for the performers, while Tyler’s funky charisma and zest for keeping it real has made the rock star a TV star.
Why, you ask, am I all up into this corny TV show? To me, the inclination is natural: I grew up watching pop music on TV. Back in the latter 20th Century, before the advent of the music video and MTV, popular recording artists reached their public exclusively through top 40 radio, concert tours and network television.
It was during weekly ’60s TV variety programs belonging to legendary entertainers and impresarios such as Ed Sullivan, Mike Douglas, Andy Williams, Carol Burnett and Sonny and Cher, among others, that America tuned in to see, sandwiched between comedy skits and post Vaudeville performances, the Beatles, the Supremes, James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Lil’ Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Aretha, The Who, Sly and the Family Stone and the Jackson 5. Influential icons today, back then these acts were all scratching for their own TV Moments.
Meanwhile, hip rock and roll network shows of the era–“American Bandstand,” “Shindig,” “Hullabaloo,” “Where The Action Is” and “Music Scene”–paved the way for “Soul Train,” “The Midnight Special,” “In Concert” and “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” in the ’70s. An ardent pop music lover, I lived for all these shows. Today, it seems surreal that songs which debuted on those old programs are now cultural classics performed by “Idol” contestants who never heard of the original version or the act who made it famous.
That’s okay. I’d rather listen to a gifted young amateur sing a pop relic than watch most of today’s so-called professional “artists” strut and howl their way through new half-baked grooves. “Idol”‘s current lineup can out sing and out perform many of the acts currently in Billboard’s top 40. It figures that some of the record execs who signed those video vamps now shamelessly raid the TV talent shows for fresh blood.
Truth of the matter is that, left to some of those guys, “Idol” alumni Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia and Chris Daughtry might still be waiting tables to finance demos to submit to aloof, tone-deaf label execs
who don’t return calls. Current “Idol” contenders Paul McDonald, 26, of Huntsville, Alabama–with his peculiar gravel and weird onstage moves–and eclectic 20 year-old singer/multi-instrumentalist Casey James, from Wilmette, Illinois, would not have gotten past a label’s security desk.
To be sure, “Idol”‘s concept of launching stars is nothing new. Renowned soul singer Gladys Knight was just seven in 1952 when she appeared on the popular “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour;” Beyonce, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and
Le Ann Rimes all competed on the syndicated “Star Search” in the ’90s. Some of them weren’t even in their teens.
But it doesn’t matter to me that new “Idol” contender Scotty McCreery, a straight up country crooner with a delightfully crooked smile from Garner, North Carolina, is only 17. I don’t even care that his family and I most likely voted for distinctly different candidates during the last Presidential election. All I know is whenever that white boy takes the mic, he’s bringin’ it. And I love it.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected].