American Idol, Miley Cyrus Week: Our Eggheads Debate

Miley Cyrus's mentoring skills on last night's American Idol were no match for the train wreck of vocals that followed. Fortunately, we have assembled a trio of experts who can help Cyrus assess what exactly went wrong with each performance. The panel includes: Susan Fast, a music professor at Ontario's McMaster University and author of "In the House of the Holy: Led Zeppelin and the Power of Rock Music"; Avi Rubin, who studies electronic voting as a professor of computer science at John Hopkins University and was a former research scientist at AT&T Labs; and Richard Drews, a professor of voice at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music. Here's the advice they have for the final 11.

Lee Dewyze sings "The Letter" by the Box Tops
Joe Cocker once covered this song too, and revealing a little of the Cocker in you actually worked. Blues interpretations of pop songs might be a niche for you, given that lovely gravelly tone in your voice—this was one of your best performances. You have yet to divulge a personality, however.
Rubin: I liked the jazzy interpretation and the way the song brought out your soulful voice. You sounded a little like Danny Gokey from last season. However, I think your song choice prevented you from showing us what you're really capable of.
Drews: Lee, you have a very good voice in there, but you don't let it go. You sang this great track with an under-energized vocal, consistently below the pitch with little innovation. The band and the arrangement were heavy handed and one-dimensional. How about some dynamics here and there?

Paige Miles sings "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)" by Phil Collins
Fast: Oh Paige! No, no no! Maybe your nerves got the best of you tonight?  The pitch was way off for most of the performance and the whole tone of your voice was shaky; there's been a real deadness about your performances lately. It's like no one's home.
Rubin: I had high hopes for you this week. You have incredible vocals and a wide range. Against all odds, the song started out weak and went downhill from there. I did not like the arrangement, and I don't think it showcased your voice well.
Drews: You're overwhelmed by the rigors of this contest. My prediction is that you'll be gone this week.

Tim Urban sings "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" by Queen
For me, Tim, the problem with this performance was its whiteness: this was sort of a Michael Buble version of a rock song—all the awful super clean enunciation, the smarmy held notes at the end of phrases. You've taken all the edge out of the song, all of the playfulness and made it sound safe, white and middle class.
Rubin: On the plus side, you were definitely "safe" when you slid home. But that's the problem. The song was safe. You took on Queen, one of the hardest bands to simulate, and now, I think you're facing a crazy little thing called elimination.
Drews: You have a one-dimensional vocal color which is serviceable but lacks a true individual-type quality that draws you in. You have an engaging stage presence, but very modest vocal capabilities.

Aaron Kelly sings "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" by Aerosmith
I want to hear you sing a different kind of song. You're turning every song you sing into....well, the same song.  There's just no stylistic range here—sometimes that can be good, i.e. you've found a sound that works for you—but in your case it's just quite dull.
Rubin: It was fun watching you drool over Miley Cyrus in the pre-performance video clip. You guys make a cute couple. If I close my eyes, your performance makes sense. When I open them, there's a mismatch between your body and that big voice. You are to singing what Doogie Howser was to medicine.
Drews: You have a lovely timbre with a pop-type sweet vocal color (a la Vince Gill). You have clear tonal production, registers which are alligned and a vocal scale which is evenly produced. The result is a very appealing sound. How about taking on some Roy Orbison?

Crystal Bowersox sings "Me and Bobby McGee" by Janis Joplin
Fast: Another great performance—for some reason it's always a bit dicey taking on Janis:  she's so iconic and distinctive and lots of women on this show have not been up to the challenge of singing the work of the one woman in the rock canon. But as usual you did a stellar job, not imitating her, but making it your own. I think maybe you need to lose the guitar next week and step out a bit.
Rubin: I expected it to be good. It was better than the original. Janis would be proud. I got goose bumps. You're definitely in the top two—see you at the finale.
Drews: This song was recorded months before Joplin died. As usual, Crystal you are a seasoned musician with great vocal chops. Your voice is good; however, you use it in a rather predictable small-stage intimate venue. Broaden your vocal offerings, because sometimes your singing lacks real emotion and other times it lacks beauty of tone. When you have both, you are at your best—strive for a balanced combination because you have the talent to do it.

Michael Lynche sings "When a Man Loves a Woman" by Percy Sledge
Fast:  Well, you and Crystal are the consummate professionals.  You are so in control of your voice and of every performance and you're already a great R&B performer (no question what genre you fit into—I'll be surprised if you break out of this at all this season). This is a really great, contemporary sounding version of this song.
Rubin: I would probably say you did a great job even if you didn't—out of fear for my life. But luckily, I don't have to lie. You are incredible. You make every song interesting, and I can't wait to hear what you're going to do each week. Loved it!
Drews: This is a terrific song choice for you. Your tone production is soulful, impactful and anchored with life experience. You're a natural performer. Vocally, the upper and middle and top full voice was ragged and husky this week, although you redeemed yourself with the lovely head voice to end the song, which was a smart choice.

Andrew Garcia sings "I Heard It Through the Gravevine" by Marvin Gaye
Fast:  Wow, like many contestants tonight you've chosen quite an old song—with the field wide open, why not something more contemporary? Your voice kind of got lost in the arrangement—it sounded small surrounded by the band. You played it soooo safe with the melody, too: Marvin Gaye reaches up into his beautiful falsetto to get emotional intensity and to show us some vulnerability, but we didn't get that from you at all, so the melody just sounded confined and uninteresting.
Rubin: I don't understand how someone with such a good voice could make me dislike one of my favorite songs so much. I have to go listen to the original now to get that out of my head.
Drews: This 1966 song has been covered by a veritable Who's Who of great artists from Smokey Robinson to Gladys Knight. This was a lackluster performance as you were looking all over the stage for you vocal identity that you sadly lost in Hollywood.

Katie Stevens sings "Big Girls Don't Cry" by Fergie
Fast: I know you've got a big voice, Katie, but it just doesn't seem to me that you have a lot of control over it. I don't like the quality you get from it and honesty is still an issue for me. There's no sensuality in your performance and this song needs it, especially at the beginning.
Rubin: What you did was try to imitate the original, and you fell a bit short. I think you deserve to be in the top ten, but probably not the top nine. Definitely not the top eight. You have a good voice, and you're talented, but you're overmatched in this competition.
Drews: Your voice has a lovely rich tone center and it's naturally beautiful. Your major problem is aiming the beauty of your tone into the center of your pitch in every register: bottom, middle and top.

Casey James sings "The Power of Love" by Huey Lewis and the News
I just realized that you and Lee have somewhat similar voices—smokey, bluesy.  And you're both also pretty afraid to move your bodies (like so many white guys)! The vocals on this were good, really good, but not a  very distinctive song. I can hear you doing some more hardcore southern blues (Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd) so go for it and get less afraid of putting your body into the performance.
Rubin: Best vocal I've heard from you all year. Sounded better than Huey Lewis. There is joy in Mudville. Mighty Casey has hit a home run.
Drews: I don't agree. Huey's voice had color, character, power and tight rhythmic pulse. Yours does not. Dig deep: this is a singing contest. People listen with their ears—not their eyes.

Didi Benami sings "You're No Good" by Linda Ronstadt
Fast: What an absolutely awful arrangement of this song—unless you meant it to be camp!  It sounded kind of like it belonged in a seedy lounge. Your vocal was  good in the second half—strong and convincing.  It started off pretty rough, though.
Rubin: You're good, you're good, you're good. Baby, you're good. But not great.
Drews: This performance vocally fit right in with the the lackluster stage presence. The pitch was consistently flat and the tone under supported. The arrangement, tempi and the out-of-tune brass playing was matched by the underwhelming vocals. The title of the song could come back to haunt you.

Siobhan Magnus sings "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder
Fast: I was waiting for the high note and yup...there it was!  A really solid performance—this is the difference between contestants like Katie and Didi, who sing with relatively little conviction, and you, who just nails it every time.  It's coming from your soul, not your head, and that's a good thing. This was a little on the safe side, so make it crazier next time.
Rubin: You have been my favorite all year. They saved the best for last. I can't wait to see what you're going to do each week. This is how I felt about David Cook and Adam Lambert. The anticipation for your song is what makes Idol exciting this season.
Drews: You have impeccable natural phrasing. Your vocals are unmatched in this competition. The scat-singing at the coda was the stuff seasoned professionals aspire to do. My advice: be careful that the whistle register is not compromised with over-compressed breath, this results in your tone becoming shrill and then losing its innate beauty.

Who is going home? The predictions:
Paige Miles
Rubin: Tim Urban
Drews: Paige Miles

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