Friday, January 21, 2011

Golden Idols

In honor of the start of American Idol season, (like hunting, but without the bloodshed violence shellshock orange vests license), The Inky Jukebox would like to draw your attention to some of the success stories that have emerged from this otherwise hideous exercise in entertainment mean-spirited voyeurism. True, in recent years the “winners” have consisted of average dudes whose names escape me and who, after their closing performance of the obligatory victory song du jour have never been heard from again. There was the dude who beat out Adam Lambert, for instance. Was it even a dude? Can’t recall. And the one the year before that, and last year’s one. The last time an obvious frontrunner actually won the thing it was back when voter fatigue and apathy was in its nascent, haunting youth: technology has made the ability to vote a hundred zillion times pointless. It used to be that when Ryan Seacrest announced the number of votes someone got, it drew gasps, because, like, wow—that many people watched the show and cared about the outcome?

Let's begin with hands-down the best Idol winning performance bar none. It don't get better than this. What a classy outfit. Oh, and at the time, she couldn't read. WTF!!!!

So it is that this year’s run opens with a good measure of even more virulent cynicism than before, especially now that the exceptionally prescient Simon Cowell is gone, leaving the judge’s table manned by a carwreck in the form of Mrs. Jenny Lo, Steven Tyler (mad as all-get-out) and Randy “The Dog” Jackson. So far, after the first two audition shows, I say new life has been breathed into it. I do not pretend to be anything other than a pathetic sucker for the show; I love watching the terrible auditions, get all caught-out by the red-herring focus on good-seeming but unlikely candidates (I too cheer them on despite their patently obvious unsuitability for the kind of fame being a contestant brings).

Ignore the sparkles. It's a singing contest, y'all. 
Every time he came onstage, he came onstage. 

I watch to catch the unexpectedly awesome performance that every so often crops up and restores my faith in highly-staged TV talent contests. (OK: this one of the only one I have ever seen.) These bright lights remain in the memory long after the drivel of an entire season has dissolved back into the dust from whence it came.

This is a masterclass in how to make a memorable exit. I couldn't do this at 17, could you? 

Were there any good Idol winners? Sure: Kelly Clarkson. Carrie Underwood. Even Fantasia Barrino before she sort of imploded. Far more numerous have been the almost-rans: Chris Daughtry and Jennifer Hudson are obvious examples, but let’s not forget that Adam Lambert, who seems to be on tour permanently, and a whole slew of AI alumni who have found a home in country music: Kellie Pickler, Danny Gokey, Bucky Covington, Bo Bice, even Josh Gracin.

Up until this point the sly Carrie Underwood pulled the wool over our eyes with her Oklahoma farm girl schtick. Like this. Then this came out. It was the closest indication to the power diva she immediately became. 

Here are some of those performances. Enjoy.

He kicked it every single time. Then, this:

Kellie Pickler. The girl is as backwoods barbie as you can get but Lordy, can she sing her ass off and command a stage! She's made herself a heck of a career in Nashville, and this was one of the early indicators why. (Watch till the end.)

And finally, the BEST SINGER THAT HAS EVER BEEN ON THE SHOW. The audition was the tip of Jennifer Hudson's incredible iceberg of glory. And you know what? She did, in fact, sing her behind off as predicted. Have you seen girlfriend nowadays? Weight-Watchers, aloha!

See Also:

Kelly Clarkson setting the bar back in Season One.

Danny Gokey "I Will Not Say Goodbye" (I know he was one of the plain dudes, but listen at the end: this guy can sing!)

Clay Aiken: Had to pick this clip because it is the most genuine example of nerve-rattling puppy love you are ever likely to see! "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me." Also, it reminds me that Clay was SOOOO Broadway. How come we couldn't see that?

Bo Bice: "I Don't Wanna Be." The most overused song on Idol: the best version of it. Everything Bo picked was a great song. His new single is actually quite good. Like everything else, it's on Country radio.

Elliot Yamin: "Song For You." The best song in the world, he hits it! All these years later you forget how good Elliot was.

Finally, my favorite American Idol commentator is this guy, Joe Crisco, who goes by the name of HotelAngel. I've been following him for years. He is entertaining, even when he's not talking about Idol.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

OK, Taylor, You Can Speak Now

Or Forever Hold Your...

One of the songs from Taylor Swift’s new album Speak Now is called “Never Grow Up.” Here’s why it is a perfect example of why The Inky Jukebox likes its writer.

It’s the kind of songwriting where not a single word sounds out of place; it cleverly shifts two thirds of the way through from future to past tense; it sounds like a song that has existed for eons; she sings it as if she’s been singing it forever; you only have to listen to it once and you already know it; and it serves as a metaphor for Taylor Swift’s career as a whole. She is growing up. What this song (and the whole album) proves is that growth can be a good thing.

At The Inky Jukebox, we like artists who write their own material, and can really sing and really play their instruments. Taylor Swift is obviously, clearly pop; her work clearly and obviously appeals to young girls (my 8 year-old daughter is still hyperventilating because I promised her I would take her to a Swift concert this summer). But a Taylor Swift record is pleasant to hear. It is charming. The songs are smart and catchy. I wonder if it is possible for the human animal NOT to like Taylor Swift. I understand that I could possibly be writing from under some evil spell – (how can one like both Lemmy AND Taylor Swift??) – but it’s been years now and I’m still under the spell.

I first heard of her (as did most folks) because of the human interest story: she’d written a song about famous heart-throb singer Tim McGraw and posted it to her MySpace page; a zillion fans later, she got a contract with the newbie company Big Machine Records. They released that song as a single and it became a legit hit. She was brought up on stage at an awards show as a gangly 19 year-old to perform her song, accompanying herself on her guitar in front of everyone in the business — including Tim McGraw (and his wife Faith Hill). As soon as the song ended, she introduced herself to them: “Hi, I’m Taylor.” It was almost nauseatingly cute. Imagine the balls to do that, though. It's become a classic country music moment.

That moment is ancient history now. Today, Taylor Swift is a music business phenom; bestselling artists two years in a row; world tours under her belt; awards galore; Saturday Night Live gig; Tim and Faith are best pals; Big Machine records have become industry leaders (having recently signed the veterans Rascal Flatts), their empire owing itself entirely to their young find. I don’t know why I am telling you all this because it must be completely redundant. You already know this. Consider it context.

Taylor Swift has capitalized on mesmerizingly ambitious live performances in front of huge audiences. The last of these was to deliver what is now the second hit off her third album, “Back To December,” which has the added teen interest factor of being about studmuffin Taylor Lautner, with whom Taylor has a brief fling. I thought it was stunning: what an accomplished performance to deliver sitting at a piano in a ball gown with an orchestra at your back! Wow! (Here's the official video.)

Other notable performances include her being drenched in water at the end of “Should've Said No,” the video lingering to include her open-jawed look of disbelief that she’s just done that (and that George Strait was giving her a standing O from the front row).

In “Love Story” she whips off one dress to reveal a very frothy wedding dress to match the ending of the song, something only a girl with her figure could pull off. "You're Not Sorry" is pretty darn awesome too.

The album was born in its own legend: while on a place to Japan, Taylor’s team heard that what they’d planned for the first single, “Mine,” had been leaked and was going viral. They made a snap decision to release it then and there, two weeks ahead of schedule. By the time the plane touched down in Japan, the song was a Number One hit.

I’m going out on a limb and calling Speak Now for Record of the Year at the Grammys. And, when it’s eligible, “Back To December” for Best Song. I thought her song "Fifteen" was one of the best of that year too. 

Oh, and I cannot tell you how glad I am that my dughter’s pre-teen years have coincided with such a clean-cut, polite and scandal-free role model. Of course, the drawback of this is that she thinks all boys arrive on white horses and look like Taylor Lautner and all girls wear ball gowns. Mind you, she’s also obsessed with drawing unicorns leaping over pink mountains, so who knows.

Go, Taylor, Go.

She just turned 21. Grow up, but never grow old.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Ain't Nothing Like The Sound of Ashton Shepherd

Look It Up

Ashton Shepherd has just released the first single, “Look It Up," from her forthcoming second album to be released April 1st 2011.  

Who? You ask. Never heard of her. That’s OK. Ashton Shepherd is the best singer you’ve never heard of. But now you have, so there’s no excuse.

I have been eagerly awaiting the release of this record; her 2008 debut, Sounds So Good was an album rich with vibrant songs and powerhouse singing. Every song on it is a winner, and the ballads take your breath away.

But it wasn’t until I started looking up YouTube clips of her singing on the fly – at radio stations, in caf├ęs, in the studio – that I really appreciated what an enormous talent she is. This gal can SING.

Maybe you’ve never heard of her because the native Alabama twang is thick, or because she has not been given the gift of a sweet spot on a major tour. In many of the videos you get to see the unaffected young mother simply running at the mouth in a way that more seasoned artists rarely do, and I must admit that this was the quality that I feared would get buried as and when she hit the big time.

Not to worry. The clip of her singing her new song to studio executives has plenty of that. I will not provide a link, however, because for some reason her guitar is out of tune and does her no justice.

Here’s the video of her new song instead. The new song is OK. It’s your typical song about cheating. Whatev. And, by the way, it sounds an awful lot like Eric Church’s “Smoke A Little Smoke.”

I won’t beat about the bush: girlfriend looks good in it, but the video is rubbish. Listen up, you folks who manage her: stop it. Stop trying to make the girl Hollywood. The video is asinine: are we to believe that this country girl with a thick accent dressed in a plaid shirt and (obviously brand new) designer flares lives in an LA suburb with tennis racquets and a goof for a husband? Oh COME ON. Here’s an idea: Simply film her singing. That’s enough. Take a lesson from her first video, the sublime “Sounds So Good.” (Compare this to a live version at a radio show.) No auto-tune there.

Here’s Ashton Shepherd doing what she does best. Do yourself a favor: Look it up.