American Idol’s Motown Misfire

On Wednesday, March 23rd, “American Idol” gave a tribute to Motown’s soul-infused pop songs, and its many stars. Most of the 11 remaining contestants presented their own spin on these classics, however, one contestant missed the mark. James Durbin, who sang, “Living for the City,” gave a rousing, over-the-top performance of Stevie Wonder’s 1973 sad song about racial inequality.

For their part, the American Idol judges had high compliments for James Durbin. Granted, he’s a talented singer, and has quickly become a national role model for those with Tourettes and Asperger’s Syndrome. However, the show’s advisors should have told him to demonstrate some respect for the original song about a young black man growing up in “hard time Mississippi.”

Some of the lyrics include:

“His father works some days for 14 hours/ and you can bet he barely makes a dollar.”

“His brother’s smart/ he’s got more sense than many/ His patience’s long/ but soon he won’t have any/To find a job is like a haystack needle/Cause where he lives/ they don’t use colored people.”

Why would James sing a song about black unequality in such a rousing way?  That night, it was all about the great beat, and his personal showmanship, and nothing about the lyrics.  If James was empathetic about their plight, it didn’t show. He did a peppy dance move while singing, “His father works sometimes for 14 hours/and you can bet/he hardly makes a dollar. And he mugged for the cameras while singing, “His mother scrubs the floors for many/and you can bet/she hardly gets a penny.

For a white guy, singing a song happily about black inequality was a risk that he should not have taken.

Jennifer Lopez, an outspoken judge, continually tells the other contestants to “tell a story with their songs.”

The story told in “Living for the City” would clearly resonate with everyone in today’s recession. But James Durbin didn’t sing it with empathy, compassion or even a hint of sadness. He just sang it with his signature bravado.

For their part, the audience gave James a standing ovation. They liked the way he sang the song.  Shortly afterwards, still reveling in the afterglow, James had to be brought back to reality by JayLo.

Yet, I didn’t hear any criticism from Randy Jackson, the black judge, about James’ bravado take on the song. Did he not feel the slap in the face? Or is he just working from Idol’s “happy script?” James Durbin is popular with Idol fans, so don’t criticize him.

In my opinion, “American Idol” should be less about a popularity contest and more about retaining some musical integrity. If not, just take the “American” part off the title because I don’t want any part of it.

For the true spirit of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” visit You Tube. Stevie’s version. Its 70s-era video showcases inner city poverty, police brutality, and violence.

Copyright 2011 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.

One Comment to “American Idol’s Motown Misfire”

  1. After praising his cover of the -led band Steven made a crack about Durbins wardrobe telling James to stay out of his closet.