Last night's American Idol saw the top 10 female contestants perform in an episode that felt a lot like its male counterpart from the evening before: Although there were some bright moments and clear talents, most of the singers inhabited a nebulous region of bland vocals and uninteresting performances that sounded like something you'd hear at Starbucks. That's not a random comparison, either. Katie Stevens' sang "Put Your Records On" by Corinne Bailey Ray, a song I've only ever heard over loudspeakers as I patiently wait for a chai latte. (Yes. I drink chai latte.)
Much the way Big Mike kicked off the show and owned the night with his James Brown song, Crystal Bowersox performed first and set the bar for the rest with her version of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Long as I Can See the Light." Crystal had spent the previous night in a hospital because of complications related to her diabetes, but you wouldn't know it the way she sang. The judges were right to praise her, as they did later in the episode to a lesser degree with Lilly Scott, who did "A Change Is Gonna Come." The similarity is the singer-songwriter sensibility between the women and their ability to play guitar; it's looking more and more like instrumentalists are the ones to beat this year.
As for the rest of the singers, it was hit or miss. Siobhan Magnus' "Think" had some good moments, notably a strong high note toward the end, but that's it. Katelyn's version of "The Scientist" was so slowed-down it made Coldplay sound like Green Day, though it couldn't compare to the train wreck acoustic arrangement of Creed's "With Arms Wide Open" that Michelle sang. For some reason, Kara liked it, which made me feel like I was taking crazy pills. Here is some math:
Hip-hop song - beats + acoustic stylings + self-aware humor = good (Jenny Owen Youngs' "Hot in Herre").
Bombastic rock song/cheesy pop song * half-speed + guitar + self-aware humor = good (Andrew's cover of "Straight Up").
Terrible rock song * half-speed + guitar - any sense of self-awareness or character or any idea what the hell you are even trying to do = torture (Staind).
Most of the girls were lucky to avoid the lower rungs of failure and instead land somewhere in the middle, sounding like generic karaoke performers, as was the case with Didi's rendition of "Lean On Me." The song's range's conflict with her own led to some weird melodic reworking at the beginning, but then she just started belting and sounded like everyone and no one. The judges hit her with a good point: If you can play an instrument, why not do it? Take every chance you can to distance yourself from the crowd.
It's not a coincidence that the best singers in the group are also choosing older or less known songs. The classics they select are stronger than newer tracks (I didn't even pretend to care enough to remember the name of the Miley Cyrus song that Haeley sang), but performers at their level are also willing to look beyond the last 10 years for inspiration. And the judges know a lot more than they let on, or than some of the singers think they need to know; Randy Jackson can barely form a complete sentence, but he can tell when a hint of Lucinda Williams slips into someone's performance. Maybe some of the weaker singers should look to classics or deep album cuts to get a leg up.