As the music director on “American Idol,” Rickey Minor is well schooled on how to sing a Celine Dion song in a competition.
“You don’t,” Minor said bluntly. “You simply don’t. Can you play one-on-one [basketball] with Kobe? No. So don’t do it — you’re gonna lose. Now, you can play with someone else and have a great game and have fun.”
If Minor’s words sound familiar, it’s because he subscribes to the same school of thought as judge Randy Jackson, who has berated contestants over the years for taking on the biggest and best singers of all time.
As Jackson repeats nearly every week, some artists are untouchable. Celine and Whitney Houston are at the top of the list, followed by Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and even Christina Aguilera. Randy has also said the same about Stevie Wonder, even though the show had a Wonder-themed week last season.
So if one of the judges and the leader of the band are advising the “Idol” hopefuls to avoid these singers, why are their songs among the most sung on the show?
Well, the catalogs of artists like Dion and Wonder are so vast that perhaps they are just too difficult to ignore. But the more likely answer is that the contestants just don’t agree — or care.
“I think if you can sing, you can sing any artist,” recently eliminated contestant Stephanie Edwards said. “The only thing is, if you’re going to sing somebody’s song that they sang very well, don’t sing it just like them, because if you sing it just like them, they are going to compare you to that artist. Like with me and the Chaka song ['Sweet Thing']. I didn’t sing it like Chaka Khan, but I still was compared to Chaka Khan. So it kind of didn’t go like I wanted it to go.”
“I think you have to know what you can sing and what you can do,” added LaKisha Jones, who clinched her way into the finals with Houston’s “I Have Nothing.” “Before I learned Aretha and before I learned Jennifer Holliday, I’ve always sung Whitney, so I knew that I could sing a Whitney song. And a lot of people can’t because she has a five-octave range, but I like to challenge myself.”
Another reason so many songs from the so-called untouchables end up on “Idol” is because the singers are constantly being given lists of songs that are available rights-wise, and those by Celine and other untouchables are often included.
“That’s why I don’t agree,” season-six semifinalist Jared Cotter said. “What are the songs there for? What are they on the list for? The fact is, what’s good about those songs is that nobody is going to do them the same. I’m not going to do it like Stevie did it — I tried, but I’m not Stevie Wonder, you know? I’m me. I put my own different twist to it.”
Still, Cotter’s rendition of Wonder’s “If You Really Love Me” got him a disappointing review and sent him home. “As much as [Jackson] said that I didn’t have any originality, I really feel like if he did his homework and went and looked at the videotape, that I did,” Cotter insisted.
Brandon Rogers, who worked as a backup singer for Aguilera before making the “Idol” finals, pointed to this season’s youngest contestant, Jordin Sparks, to prove Jackson and Minor wrong.
“She sang [Aguilera's] ‘Reflection’ and blew it out,” Rogers said. “That’s one of the untouchables and she touched it.”
Contestant Blake Lewis also disagrees that some singers are untouchable and, not surprisingly, said it’s “all about the arrangement.” “That and where it lies in your voice,” he said. “If you think you can sing a song, go for it.”
Debra Byrd, the show’s vocal coach who often sides with Jackson and Minor, agreed that LaKisha nailed Whitney.
“It works when they put their stamp on it,” she said.
As for “Idol” co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, he’s not sure he would put too much stock in anything Jackson or any of the other judges say.
“If I was a contestant listening to everything that’s been said over the last six seasons, I wouldn’t know what to do,” he said. “They tell you one week you’re playing it safe and then the next week they tell you it’s dangerous.
“You just have to go out there and sing and knock their socks off, end of story,” he concluded.Get your “Idol” fix on MTV News’ “American Idol” page, where you’ll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.