It began as one of several breathless promises of a season of increased spectacularity by the “American Idol” producers earlier this year. Then it fell off the radar completely until Ryan Seacrest mentioned it in the most perfunctory, seemingly contractually-obligated way a few weeks back. And last night, it finally came to fruition. Ladies and gentlemen, this … is the “American Idol” songwriting contest.
For years, “Idol” has been plagued with criticism that the coronation songs given to the winners and runners-up are flavorless pieces of quasi-inspirational schlock, mushy ballads with banal sentiments and showoffy, unmemorable melodies. What better way to respond than to announce, “If you think you’re so smart, why don’t you write one”?
Somewhere between the contest’s pre-season announcement and the finale, though, the show’s enthusiasm cooled considerably. By the time the winning song, Jeff Peabody and Scott Krippayne’s “This Is My Now,” was introduced, it was a good bet that most viewers had forgotten about it entirely.
In a twist that both validated the contest and made it irrelevant, “Now” is the very model of an “Idol” coronation song. It sounds vaguely familiar (the chorus, for instance, is a watered-down retread of Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn”), clips along at a tempo slow enough not to bog down a choir (if one so chooses) and would never be sung anywhere other than an “American Idol” finale.
That last part is important. Without exception, the subject matter of every coronation song in the six seasons of “Idol” is the glory of being the winner of “American Idol” and singing the coronation song. From the title on down, “Now” honors the tradition. It looks back ruefully on those wretched early days of being a mere football player’s daughter or a happily gigging musician before finding the strength to consign such misery to the past.
Better still, “Now” is peppered with enough “Idol” buzzwords to hold its own in any coronation-song drinking game. It throws down “There was a time when I packed my dreams away” right out of the starting gate and gains extra points for evoking the mother of all coronation songs by including the word “moment” prominently in the chorus. (The soon-to-follow “I can’t believe” directly contradicts Coronation Song 3, however.)
Where it diverges from tradition is in its shocking negativity. The first verse (the only one performed on the show, though the demo of the entire song can be heard on the official “Idol” ) wallows in the emptiness and gloom of the pre-“Idol” days. Even the allegedly uplifting chorus can’t help focusing on the fears, shadows and doubt that it claims to have vanquished.
Musically, meanwhile, “Now” fits snugly into the coronation song mold. The arrangement, in fact, is a dead ringer for last year’s “Do I Make You Proud?,” from the piano intro to a full-boil bridge that drops off into a quieter, stripped-down chorus before the band cranks it all the way up to 6 for the rest of the song. Frankly, all that’s missing is a key change.
“Now” would, in short, be the best song on a Backstreet Boys album and the worst song on a LeAnn Rimes album. In a telling edit, 5th/6th place contestant Phil Stacey was seen in the audience with a big, yearning look in his eyes during Jordin Sparks’s performance. You could see him aching for an opportunity to wrap his big, bland voice around this big, bland song.
Unfortunately for him, he never got the chance. Unfortunately for Blake Lewis, he did. In previous finales, singers with dramatically different styles had separate songs selected specifically for them. The results weren’t always pretty — Katharine McPhee’s “My Destiny,” for instance, was spectacularly wrong for her range — but it was, in theory, the fairest solution.
But whether by accident or design, Blake didn’t have the same luxury, and “Idol” forced a song on the beat-addicted pop-rocker that was completely at odds with his strengths. It wasn’t a disaster, surprisingly, and his performance harked back, in a squint-your-eyes way, to his first-round performance of Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know.” But the one thing that was conspicuously absent was any opportunity for Blake to add any of the Blakeness that got him this far to begin with.
Jordin, on the other hand, couldn’t have been better served by a coronation song if she had been handed “Song Written For Jordin Sparks To Sing.” As much as the melody and arrangement resist reinterpretation by an idiosyncratic stylist like Blake, they reward the big, showoffy voices like Jordin’s that typically find themselves in the top two. And she fully bought into the quasi-inspirational lyrics, so much so that the raw emotion of this being her now overwhelmed her by the end, when the tears started to flow.
“Now” is hardly the worst coronation song; both of season 5’s entries are still fighting for that title. But no “Idol” winner has yet embarked upon his or her new career with a song that is actually, truly good. And despite “Idol”-izing the selection process, that’s not about to change with season 6.
Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.