Okay, okay … dawg … I’ve become obsessed with American Idol.
I know, it’s an embarrassing shame and I tried to resist, just like I tried to resist Sex and the City, but the siren song of popular culture proved too powerful. S. spent a few weekdays with her parents who have been fans for a number of seasons and she came back transformed. The damn show is two nights a week and they draw it out like Who Wants to be a Millionaire and there are way too many chirpy and inspirational types breathlessly disgorging their fame-whore dreams to Ryan Seacrest. But it’s on and our apartment is small.
But that wouldn’t be enough to turn me into the crazy fanatic that I have become. For that, what was required was contestant David Cook (American Idol | Wikipedia). At numerous points in my life I have been aware that some local talent — a fellow college student playing around the venues of the college town, that ensemble band playing at the dark, crumbling and sticky performance spaces — was more than just an amateur like the rest, but something totally amazing. I think that Mr. Cook is such an act and somewhere in Tulsa is a cadre of small time fans lamenting that they are about to lose their intimate treasure to mass popularity.
His command of the physical and emotional repertoire of rock and roll is as developed as any presence I have ever seen. He knows how to make out with the mic, he knows the seductive tough guy expressions and he knows all the dramatic gestures designed to leave you with the impression that rock and roll is an elemental force and the performer some sort of conjurer (hence the concert special effect of the pillar of fire). Taking his queues, I remember his performances as bigger than they were (wasn’t the wind blowing in the performance of “Eleanor Rigby“? Did he pull some Neo maneuver?).
The outstanding thing about Mr. Cook is that he’s doing covers and even then his arrangements are lifted from someone else — his version of “Day Tripper” is lifted from White Snake. His arrangement of “Billie Jean” is Chris Cornell’s. But almost without exception, he does a way better version of the song than either the original or the cover he is using. As Lionel Richie said of Mr. Cook’s performance of “Hello” — a creepy song rendered acceptable — “David just played it as if it was his song from the beginning — there was no Lionel Richie involved.”
I have been going through an anti-Beetles phase for some years now — too much of the sock-hop sound that preceded them, too trite of subject matter, guess I’m a Stones man — but in Mr. Cook’s versions of “Day Tripper” and especially “Eleanor Rigby” instead of a whining barbershop quartet, I hear the darkness of the lyrics of Paul McCartney and John Lennon, but sung in a style that maps it into the field of such songs by Depeche Mode or Nine Inch Nails or stuff from the dark side of the singer-song-writer tradition, songs about foundering and folly.
I have always thought that Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean was one of the best dance songs ever recorded, but I have also had to overlook the sleazy lyrics. In Michael Jackson’s hands it’s a song about a man trying to avoid the responsibility of parenthood, an effect magnified by the video. In Jackson’s version “the kid is not my son” is a lie told to a paternity inquest.
In Mr. Cook’s version (I have bought the complete studio version from iTunes) the drama of the love affair comes to the fore and the issue of paternity becomes a subordinate part of the narrative. It’s a song about the irresistibility of desire and that old cliché, the femme fatal. The narrator wakes to his senses from the intoxication of sexuality too late, with his future having receded from his grasp. The pregnancy and the child aren’t shirked responsibility, so much as the crushing consequences of fate and the inescapable demands of animality and the body. “The kid is not my son” becomes the primal psychological denial of a man who knows the truth (“My baby cried / his eyes were like mine”) contending with his powerlessness before the forces of his own nature.
Mr. Cook emphasized the ambiguity of having been designated “the one” under vastly different circumstances and plays with the timeline. The second line of the song he asks “What do you mean ‘I am the one?'” The first time it is disbelief at having been singled out by someone desirable beyond his attainability. The second time around it means he is the father of Billie Jean’s child. Possibilities open, possibilities are foreclosed. And the song plays with the chronology, one time leading the listener to believe that they met at the dance, had a brief affair and now she has caught up to him with the baby in tow. In a second telling is seems more as if she seduces him on the dance floor and there confronts him that she is no stranger, but someone with whom he has a past. In the face of seduction and desire and our wildest emotions, how tenuous is our grasp on reality? The absurdity of the song’s admonition to “Always think twice” is underscored by Rashomon, confusion and the loss of a linear, fixed point of reference in any sort of timeline.
Al this was always in the song, but in Michael Jackson’s version it is lost amidst the dance beat. By making it a ballad and adding his cataclysmic voice to it, Mr. Cook has exposed the previously obscured aspects of the song.
Anyway, here’s his Idol oeuvre:
Happy Together (The Turtles)
All Right Now (Free)
Hello (Lionel Richie)
Eleanor Rigby (The Beatles)
Day Tripper (The Beatles)
Billie Jean (Michael Jackson)
Little Sparrow (Dolly Parton)
Innocent (Our Lady Peace)
Always Be My Baby (Mariah Carey)
The Music of the Night (Andrew Lloyd Webber)
It’s not all great. He botches the performance of “Innocent,” but the studio version has become a favorite of mine. And nothing is as good as his rendition of “Billie Jean.” S. and I have investigated some of his pre-Idol stuff and it’s pretty pedestrian. Too much typical harlequin romance songs. Hopefully after his run on American Idol he has the good sense to find his way to a decent producer (may I suggest Trent Reznor) and avoid signing a contract to do a Ford commercial.
This week is going to be Neal Diamond. If only they were taking requests. Actually, nevermind, I wouldn’t know where to start.
Ryan Seacrest’s little trick during week eight of initially sending Mr. Cook to the bottom three only to correct himself later and swap Mr. Cook into the safe group almost killed me. It’s driving me so crazy that I may have to text “vote” to whatever number they throw up on the screen. I just hope they don’t start dispensing commands to run off a cliff because with my case of the screaming meemies I just might do that too.