Trainwreck of Sin and Misery: Why I Started Watching American IdolPosted: March 26, 2012
“There’s going to be a couple of trainwrecks. Haley Reinhart is going to be a trainwreck.” – Michael Slezak, TVLine, March 1st 2011
I don’t watch American Idol.
I mean, I didn’t.
Oh, I knew it existed. I mean, I wasn’t THAT far under the rock. But my parents didn’t believe in TV, and they especially didn’t believe in reality TV.
Neither did I. In my teenager idealism, I thought American Idol was a “commercialized, manipulative, exploitative piece of garbage” (I had a thing for adjectives). And I patently refused to support it. No, I would sit in my room and blast my African Pop, feeling virtuous. Youssou n’Dour was the sound of my adolescence, not David Archuleta or Jordin Sparks.
Yet American Idol crept up on me. Based on seeing his youtube performances, I became an Adam Lambert convert, though I still refused to watch show. And then I discovered a fantastic commentary writer called Michael Slezak. Unfortunately for me, Slezak wrote American idol reviews. But since he was fun and smart and snarky, I started reading his recaps anyways. Sometimes I’d go on youtube to see a performance – but usually Slezak’s writing was more interesting than the singers.
And then Slezak convinced me to watch season 10 contestant’s Haley Reinhart’s performances. One song later (“You and I”), it was all over for me; I was madly in love with her.
And I shouldn’t have loved Haley. I mean, she’s a jazz vocalist (I don’t like jazz). She picks weird songs to cover (I don’t like weird songs). She was on a show called American Idol (I don’t like American Idol). The entire production did everything it could to send her home early (I am usually easily manipulated by producer tricks).
But I loved Haley Reinhart. And I still love Haley Reinhart. In fact, I go all kinds of fangirl when I listen to her. I have listened to her new single “Free” approximately 20 times today. It’s a bit embarrassing.
But why? Why do I love Haley?
Well, I always love the underdog. And there’s rarely been as big an underdog as Haley Reinahart.
She was in the bottom three for her first two weeks on the show. The judges consistently trashed her performances. The producers hated her. She was, in other words, “cannon fodder” – someone who was never, ever, ever supposed to get into the top 10 of American Idol.
But miraculously, Haley didn’t go home. And she started getting better. Much, much, much better. She began at the bottom of the pack of contestants; she ended as someone who turned in the best performance almost every week. She began as someone no pundit could see winning; she ended in third place, knocking out early favorites like Casey Abrams, James Durbin and Stefano Langone.
And she did it without any help.
Even as Haley morphed into a genuine contender, the producers continued to ignore and sabotage her. The judges refused to give her any credit. In a season where the judges were notoriously easy on people – where they almost never called contestants out on pitch problems, missed notes and bad singing (and when I, with my complete lack of expertise, notice that someone is off-pitch, or singing badly, they’re REALLY singing badly) – where everyone got a “in it to win it” and a “gold star” – Haley Reinhart’s treatment was shocking. As she survived elimination after elimination, Haley became the one and only contestant the judges would critique – despite her noticeable improvement, and the fact that she always stayed on key.
Even when the judges finally acknowledged just how incredible Haley was – she did get the most standing ovations of the season (3 in a row, not counting her standing ovation from her duet with Casey Abrams) – it was always more muted than with other contestants. The others were so good that there was “nothing to judge here.” They were “in it to win it.” They were “the one.” On the other hand, Haley was, at most, “the best performance the night.” Or she had a “good, good, good, good round.” No judge ever discussed her as a potential winner. No one ever said she could make the top three or the top two. No judge ever discussed her appeal as a potential recording artist. There’s actually a recording of Randy Jackson saying of Haley (during top 5 week, before the cameras were on him) “I’m not rooting for her.”
If you want proof of the blatant favoritism, look no further than top four week. After the first round of songs, all the contestants – Haley, James Durbin, Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina – were called back on stage. Ryan Seacrest, the host, asked the judges who did had done best. Randy Jackson said – and I quote – “Uh, I think it’s a tie between Scotty, James and Lauren.”
(notice someone missing?)
I almost threw my coffee at the TV screen on that one. Seriously? Seriously.
When I say Haley was the underdog, I really, really mean: she was the underdog. No one was on her side. Not the producers. Not the judges. Not (initially) the voting public. And usually, when you don’t have all three of those guys in your corner, you are dead in the water. But not Haley Reinhart. And that’s why I love her.
Most contestants would buckle under the pressure; not Haley. Even when it was clear that no one thought Haley would win, she refused to play it safe. She pushed her vocals. She took risks. She choose songs that no one in their right mind would choose – a Led Zepplin song, an unreleased Lady Gaga track, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”, the completely unknown jazz ditty “Moanin’.” And as Haley was doing everything a contestant should not do, she was also single-handedly destroying the producer’s genius plan for the final five.
Which is what’s so incredible about her: by throwing out every rule in the book (except for: sing like a queen) Haley Reinhart single-handedly destroyed the producer’s genius plan for the top three.
With all of those things – the judge’s riducata, the production’s sabotage and Haley’s own grit and spunk – it was basically impossible for me NOT to root for her.
But even though I love an underdog – and I do always love an underdog – I wouldn’t love Haley nearly as much if it weren’t for that aforementioned quality: her talent.
And her jaw-dropping singing.
When Michael Slezak erupted with outrage at the Judge’s refusal to praise Haley’s “You and I,” I went to youtube, and watched it. And started laughing. Not because it was bad, no – but because of how ridiculous her voice was. The growl! The passion! The grit! The clarity of her tone as it hit the higher register!
And then I flipped to Haley’s “House of the Rising Sun,” and had a full scale meltdown of hilarity. I didn’t even know singers could do things like that. She looped her voice between low and high notes with a timing that left me gasping with laughter. She slid between champagne-velvet smoothness, and a powerful growl like a DJ flipping tracks – effortlessly.
One of the reasons I don’t watch idol is because I’ve found that, no matter how good the singers are, they don’t do anything I can’t find on my iPod, or in the current crop of recording artists. They’re fine, sure, but other people are fine too, and I don’t have to watch a whole seasons worth of a TV show in order to get my hands on their music. Adam Lambert is of the few exceptions to this rule – Haley Reinhart is the other. She does things that I didn’t even know were vocally possible, like go from her rich, bluesy, simmering lower range to the stunning clarity of her upper register in seconds. I’ve never heard a voice like hers before. It’s a medley of elements that shouldn’t go together – a warm, smooth velvet tone; a passionate growl; a rocker’s intense, sugar and alcohol-laced rasp; a yodel and a haunting, whispery register. Yet somehow, under Haley’s direction, all those different edges combine into utter perfection.
Haley was a convincer. She transformed Michael Slezak, who hated her at the beginning of the season, into an obsessive fanboy. She got the American public to vote for her all the way to the top three. And she convinced me. I didn’t think an American-idol singer would ever top my list of favorite musicians. I didn’t think I could ever love a jazz vocalist. I didn’t know I needed a singer like Haley Reinhart in my life. But I need her now. She convinced me.
And in honor of the fact that she did the impossible, and made me, an utter music-phobe, care about American Idol – and also because her first single “Free,” just came out (it’s FANTASTIC) – I’m celebrating my favorite Haley Reinhart performances. Please pardon my utter fangirlness.
1. “House of the Rising Sun”
The best performance of season 10, hands down, and probably in the top ten performances on American Idol, ever. The a Capella opening sends chills down my spine. The way her voice loop up and down. The “breaks” in her smooth melodies. The way she handles her notes. Some of them are straight lines; others slide sharply around the edges of bubble, like she’s curving them, drawing a perfect 360 with her voice.
And then she rips into the melody with determination in her eyes and raw power of her tone, and it’s just incredible, especially as she draws back into the haunting stillness of “oh mother” before her voice explodes on the final few lyrics. She felt every word of the song. She, a 21 year old woman, embodied the mood, the power, the despair of a male Louisiana drug addict. Well played, Ms. Reinhart. Well played.
2. “What is and What should Never Be”
My favorite Haley Reinhart performances are the ones where she goes between her creamy velvety register, and her rock-and-roll rasp. And her “What is and What should Never Be” vocal exemplifies that: it’s blues and rock and jazz; it has elements of both ethearality and grit. There’s a magnificent, controlled-yet-raw sense to the vocal.
And you gotta love a girl who can fall down and still deliver one of the best performances all season, right? You also gotta love a girl who performs an obscure Led Zepplin song after being trashed two weeks in a row for bad song choice. Haley “I don’t care about your terrible advice” Reinhart.
I’m going to quote Beyonce on Haley’s song choice (because everyone should quote Beyonce at least once in their lives): “It shows her guts. It shows her *bleep*. It shows her strength and her fearlessness. She is a risk taker, because she didn’t pick a pop song or something that everyone knows. She has conviction. She makes you believe in what she believes in – which is a huge part of being a superstar.”
Oh, by the way? The guy on electric guitar? Her dad. The look that lights up her face as she comes down the stairs and sees him? Priceless.
(I am a total sap, and the first time I saw Haley and her father playing together, I MAY have teared up. Or I may just have had REALLY BAD ALLERGIES.)
3. “Bennie and the Jets” (exit)
Haley’s original performance of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” on Top 11 week put her on the map. It was a stunning vocal from a contestant who everyone had already written off – in the space of ninety seconds, Haley the inevitable loser had transformed into a bonafide dark horse.
When she reprised “Benny and the Jets” as her exit song, right after getting cut from the competition, it was even more incredible.
And this is after she’d been cut. AFTER.
I know some people think the performance shows Haley’s arrogance. I don’t get that. I think it shows her passion for singing; her love for her music. And that’s not something that always came across with other contestants. That’s not even something that comes across with professional singers. But with Haley – yeah. You can tell. She’s just living inside every single on of those notes, burrowing deep within, enjoying every second of being up there. And it’s almost impossible not to enjoy it right along with her (which is why I’ve watched this performances approximately eleventy five billion times)
The moment when she leans back and slides down the stairs, and her voice flies up to the rafters like a helium balloon on “magazine” is incredible. And when she changes the lyrics to include the names of the judges, softening into a lovely soprano for “Steven,” – I got chills. Or when she starts rocking out with her fellow booted contestants. Or that final run of notes, right before the end. And then her “This end of this! Shindig!” and hug with her parents was just –
I almost wasn’t upset that she’d been cut anymore.
4. “Moanin’” (duet with Casey Abrams)
I have nothing to say. Because it’s just too wonderful for words.
Oh, I’ve got something to say after all. Whoops. When Haley comes in to the song, her voice it so light and soft and lovely it barely touches the lyrics. And then she scats! SHE SCATS! (so does Casey, who I think is pretty fantastic here).
But the moment I fell out of my seat (figuratively) is at the 1:37 mark of the video. When her voice emerges from nowhere and hits that series of ridiculously high notes – How do you even…
Just watch it.
5. “I (who have nothing)”
Let’s take a scenario here. You sing your song. You are the only contestant out of the four who is criticized. You are then brought up on stage where you are told that EVERY SINGLE OTHER CONTESTANT is beating you. The camera pans to you, and it’s clear that you’re on the verge of tears.
And then you have less than five minutes to pull yourself together before you perform again.
See, this is when it’s completely justified to be a trainwreck. Seriously.
Haley, though? Not having it. She comes back with a theatrical, bluesy, bordering-on-the-psychotic version of “I (who have nothing).” The performance oozes with longing and pain and is threaded with viciously powerful vocals.
It’s also proof that Haley doesn’t need her signature growl to sell a song. She only uses it once in the entire song, and it’s still one of the best vocal performances of the season.
6. Oh, what the hell.
Like I could decide on the rest of them! I’m just throwing in her Top 3 rendition of Rhiannon, which is dreamy and cool and lovely in all the right ways. She puts the slightest hint of her growl into her creamy upper register, which gives the performance an undertone of the ghostly. And the way she pulls back her final note into the whisper? Girl’s got skills.
Oh, and her top 5 performance of “You and I,” which the judges hated. And which, conversely, made me fall in love with her. Judges: Go jump in a lake.
I will end with Michael Slezak, who says it all:
“Like a salmon swimming upstream and dodging the vicious claws of grizzly bear Randy Jackson and the gallons of pollutants dumped by toxic she-beast Jennifer Lopez, Haley made what has to be the most sensational (and artistically satisfying) come-from-behind run in Idol history. I’d also argue she scored more “Idol Moments” than any other contestant this season: “Bennie and the Jets,” “Moanin’,” “You and I,” “House of the Rising Sun,” “I (Who Have Nothing),” “What Is and What Should Never Be,” and “Rhiannon. And in what felt like a love note to the fans who watched her grow from awkward, slurry cannon fodder to a poised and confident musical risk-taker, Haley turned what could’ve been a tearful exit performance into a moment of pure triumph.” – Michael Slezak, TVLine, May 20th 2011
You go, girl.
So apparently, the internet has found this post – my blog traffic suddenly spiked around two in the morning when someone posted this on the idol forums Which is great, if a bit overwhelming (this blog is two weeks old – I have no traffic yet)! Hello, fellow Haley fans! Nice to meet you!
I’m assuming that if you’re enough of a die-hard Haley fan to find this post, you’ve probably heard every song Haley’s played off of her album, but just in case anyone hadn’t, I thought I’d put a collection of links below. I’m going by least-to-most trafficked on youtube.
“Now that You’re Here” – this is the newest I’ve found online, and it’s fantastic. I had the chorus stuck in my head after two listens, and my roommates kept asking me what I was humming while I was cooking.
“Hit the Ground Runnin'” (at House of Blues). My fingers are crossed that this will be her second single. As much as I love “Free,” “Hit the Ground Runnin'” is my favorite song off her album (that I’ve heard so far), and I think it would sell extraordinarily well to radio. Also: lyrics= win.
“Wasted Tears” (at Hard Rock Cafe). Apparently she sang this while sick. Which is ridiculous. When I’m sick, I usually curl up in a ball and die.
The lead single, “Free.” If you have not bought it, buy it. Because it’s incredible. I also highly recommend listening to her performance of it on the American Idol results show – her phrasing of the “let it be/let it be/just a beautiful memory” gives me goosebumps.
If anyone knows of other new videos and leaks, let me know and I will put them up!
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