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Singers who wouldn’t have made it on ‘Idol’

Ever think that the "American Idol" singers sound a bit too generic. Singers with unique voices, such as Neil Diamond and Michael Jackson would have probably never made it through auditions.
/ Source: contributor

Neil Diamond

Image: Neil Diamond
08 Feb 2009, Los Angeles, California, USA --- Neil Diamond arrives at the 51st annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles February 8, 2009. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok (UNITED STATES) --- Image by ? DANNY MOLOSHOK/Reuters/CorbisDANNY MOLOSHOK / Reuters

Plenty of other iconic singer/songwriters would have problems convincing the judges to advance them far enough to reach the voting rounds. Bob Dylan is an obvious example, of course, along with Tom Waits, Neil Young, Elvis Costello and probably even Billy Joel and Carole King. But Diamond stands out by virtue of two facts. One, he managed (against all odds, really) to transform himself in the 1970s into an honest-to-goodness sex-symbol pop star. And two, last season featured an episode devoted to his songs, with the man himself serving as a mentor. Obviously, “Idol” thinks that he’s got something to teach the contestants about singing, which is surprising considering the strained baritone that Diamond seems like he’s pushing out of his stomach rather than his chest. It’s gotten him exceptionally far in his career. On “Idol,” it wouldn’t take him past the audition round.

Fred Schneider

Image: Fred Schneider
NEW YORK - MAY 26: Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson of the music group The B-52's performs live on NBC's \"Today\" Show on May 26, 2008 in New York City. (Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images)Brad Barket / Getty Images North America

As the first (and only) band to have ever seen the genius in combining Z-grade sci-fi, Yoko Ono, surf rock and Ethel Merman, the B-52s were a perfect novelty act to come out of the anything-goes ethos that reigned during the mid-‘70s punk explosion. A funny thing happened, though: they stuck around and flourished, turning what probably seemed like a preposterous hobby at the time into an honest-to-goodness career. Unlike, say, bandmate Kate Pierson on her high-profile appearances on R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” and Iggy Pop’s “Candy,” there was no way that Schneider could simply drop his quasi-spoken sprechgesang blare (almost as fun to say as it is to imitate Schneider) and slip quietly into the background. He’d be a foghorn in the “Idol” group sings, though Simon would probably be too horrified to ever let it come to that.

Michael Jackson

Image: Michael Jackson
05 Mar 2009, London, United Kingdom --- Michael Jackson attends a press conference at London O2 to announce a final show of performances. --- Image by ? Rune Hellestad/CorbisRune Hellestad

Lord knows that Jackson was familiar with the experience of being put through a show-business meat grinder at a tender age by a stern male role model capable of withholding his love at the slightest displeasure. But just because he could endure “Idol” doesn’t mean that “Idol” would necessarily have wanted him. His voice is too watery and nasal for the show’s purposes, and unlike, say, Stevie Wonder, who could pull off both tough and tender, Jackson generally sounded wildly unconvincing when he tried to be a badass. (“Beat It” was the lone exception, but even that shouldn’t have worked.) In a way, “Idol” seems to know this, since David Cook’s “Billie Jean” notwithstanding (rearranged as far away from the original as possible), no contestant has ever distinguished him- or herself by singing an Jackson song. There’s no reason to think that Jacko himself would have done any different.

Donald Fagen

Image: Donald Fagen
Musician Donald Fagen of the band Steely Dan performs at 'Collaborating for a Cure' the Samuel Waxman Cancer Research Foundation Benefit Concert on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2008 in New York. (AP Photo/Evan Agostini)Evan Agostini / R-AGOSTINI

Rarely has anyone taken such an imperfect natural instrument and found ways to both exploit its flaws and transcend them. Steely Dan’s Fagen must have been aware that his voice would be a hard sell at the outset, but when singer David Palmer exited midway through the band’s second album, the keyboardist gamely took over the microphone on a full-time basis regardless. Applying the wiry edges of his voice to his group’s academic and knotty jazz-pop songs, he could express biting cynicism, openhearted vulnerability and any number of shades in between. But the hollow, strangled tone that came out of Fagen’s throat was so extreme and violated so many assumptions about what a “good” singing voice is supposed to sound like that the judges would never be able to get beyond it to hear the delicacy and venom with which he could dispatch it.

Cyndi Lauper

Image: Cyndi Lauper
NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 23: Singer Cyndi Lauper attends Defying Inequality: The Broadway Concert at the Gershwin Theatre on February 23, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)Amy Sussman / Getty Images North America

It’s easy for most of the previously mentioned singers to get away with their vocal peculiarities and flaws: they’re songwriters, which gives them an instant connection to their own material. There is, after all, a reason the judges always talk about contestants making songs their own. But with a handful of exceptions, Lauper’s best-known material comes from others, making her singing (and persona) far more important to her success. And Lauper would be a textbook terrible “Idol” audition: a garish sense of style, a voice that alternates between Betty Boop girlishness and piercing banshee power and a delivery that retains her thick Noo Yawk accent and adds all sorts of seemingly unnecessary chirps and hiccups (not to mention a deep confidence in all of the above). It’s a testament to Lauper’s talent that not only survives those debits, she uses all of that to her great advantage. On “Idol,” she’d be considered the worst of the season.