After watching the first 12 finalists compete for audience votes tonight, I believe it would serve them well, and the other 24 contestants, to learn from David Cook, if they want to be number one.
Natural talent and charisma aside, Cook had the ability to make almost any song his own. He took a well-known song and made it into something entirely new and modern. For example, he sang “Hello,” Lionel Richie song. Instead of relying on the familiar arrangement, he took the song into a new direction, making it more modern and certainly different from the Lionel Richie approach. Yet, the song maintained some level of familiarity. He looked for different arrangements of the song that fit him well as an artist. I am not sure I observed anyone from the first 12 finalists who took such a risk.
David Cook took risks. Almost every week, he took a risk with the song he sang. Granted, other contestants also took risks but those risks did not pay off. Why did his risks pay off? Because Cook knew himself as an artist. He knew his style. Even if he sang a ballad one week or an edgier song the next, he still sang the song in a way that fit his musical preference. He knew his vocal range and abilities. He didn’t try to sing a song in a key that didn’t fit his voice.
Unlike Cook, Stevie Wright did not give the impression that she knew herself as an artist. She tried to sing something age appropriate. She struck out with the song for two reasons, among others. Two of the judges pointed out the song did not fit her vocal range. Taylor Swift has a soprano voice. Wright is an alto, mezzo soprano at best. Personality wise and voice wise, Taylor Swift looks like she’s a teenager, much younger than 17. The quality of her voice makes her sound younger and giddier than the impression I had of Wright. I am encouraged that she is trying to sing songs that are age appropriate for her and with which she can connect. She needs to stay away from Taylor Swift’s versions of the song to make it work and to stay in the competition.
David Cook had stage presence. He knew how to work the stage and when to make connections with the live audience. His performance was not gimmicky or over dramatic. He also dressed the part. He didn’t wear anything offensive and yet was lovably geeky. This is the eighth season for American Idol. Those who are serious about winning should take a look at how past winners have dressed and what groups of people are voting. Dramatic personalities or looks may get a person noticed but won’t win anyone the competition.
Having musicality will and that is just what Cook had. Musicality is different from just a natural ability to hit the right pitch. For someone to win the competition, he or she will need natural ability and some training to learn breathing techniques and phrasing. To get to the next level, a person needs to know what music style works for them and what stage persona works for them. Take it one step further, a performer needs to find a deep, emotional, and personal connection with the song and the music and understand the song and the music. Some songs are meant to be fun. Others deal with heavier topics. To top it all off, it’s good to be a good sport. Cook never rocked the boat with the judges. He was grateful for the praise he received and discerned what the judge’s were really telling him to improve for the weeks to come.
After the first 12 finalists performed, my vote is on Danny Gokey to be front runner in this year’s competition. Assuming that he makes it through, it will be interesting to see how far he goes and how he develops as an artist over the coming weeks. His arrangement of “Hero” may not have been drastically different from Mariah Carey’s; however, he had stage presence and he connected with the audience. Not only through the vide intro as he shared his story about the loss of his wife, but he emotionally connected with the song. That connection could be sensed by the audience, and in turns, touches them in an indescribable way. Week after week, we saw this happen with David Cook. The same could happen for Danny Gokey.
It is my opinion that if Danny Gokey continues to pick songs that work for him and to which he finds a personal connection, he will go far in the competition. I believe that he has established his biggest motivation for being in the American Idol competition. He now needs to define himself as the artist, Danny Gokey. He needs to find the genre and type of song by which most people will remember him as an artist. Maybe it is an R&B/rock ballad like he sang tonight.
Regardless, if he, and the other American Idol finalists, fails to find his niche and connection with the audience, his American Idol story will end differently from David Cook’s.