Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Showstoppers

After Kelly Clarkson sang Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" on American Idol, judge Randy Jackson said, "I didn't know you had all of that!" He was stunned by the former cocktail waitress's performance.
I know that everyone and their grandmother has made their own version of this list by now, but no American Idol tribute would be complete without it. So without further ado, here are my 15 favorite performances from the show’s phenomenal run. These are the ones that stayed with me after their original airing, and will continue to do so for years and years.

1. Kelly Clarkson – “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”

Before Kelly covered this Aretha Franklin song on the first week of season one’s live shows, no one—not even Simon Cowell himself—thought of her as a real contender. This performance changed people's minds. With that jaw-dropping high note towards the end, Kelly made Simon and America sit up and take notice of her.

2. Kelly Clarkson – “Without You”

By the time Kelly broke out this Badfinger single on the show, she was the clear favorite to win it all. Kelly’s original performance of this was good enough, but her reprise on the results show was even better. It was the moment Kelly established herself not just as a frontrunner, but as a real star who could go far in the music industry post-Idol.

3. Tamyra Gray – “A House Is Not A Home”

Everything about Tamyra was perfect—her choreography, style and especially her vocals. Maybe that’s why the American public never really got behind her like they should have. Tamyra eventually placed fourth in season one, but many believed she deserved to go further. This best exemplifies why.

4. Jasmine Trias – “Inseparable”

Contrary to popular belief, Jasmine actually wasn’t the first Filipino to compete on Idol. (That honor goes to season two semifinalist Jordan Segundo.) Anyway, Simon said this performance of Jasmine’s was “superb,” and I so agree. She didn’t always get it right on the show, but when she did, she was dazzling. It was after her season that Idol became a major thing in the Philippines. After she placed third, she went on to have a big acting and singing career here—her album even went platinum!

5. Fantasia – “Truth Is/I Believe”

I wasn’t a fan of Fantasia’s during her season. But that changed when she released her debut album Free Yourself. It made me appreciate her unique vocal stylings, so by the time she guested on Idol in season four, I was already on board the ‘Tasia train. It’s impossible to avoid getting goosebumps when you watch this. It’s that good. Fantasia really took us all to church on this one.

6. Carrie Underwood – “Alone”

Earthshaking. Enough said.

7. Katharine McPhee – “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”

In a season marked by strong performances from every member of the Top 12, Katharine’s take on Judy Garland’s signature song was one of my favorites. I remember being totally amazed that she sang the first verse a cappella. But probably the most important thing I learned from Katharine that night was that the smallest details can make or break a performance. Check out the ruby-red high heels she wore. Remind you of anything? Hehe.

8. Blake Lewis - "You Give Love A Bad Name"

Blake will go down in Idol history as one of the show’s bravest contestants. He took a really big risk when he chose to beatbox on his cover of this Bon Jovi classic. Even Jon Bon Jovi himself wasn’t sure it would go over well on the show, but Blake proved him wrong. I remember thinking this was an electrifying performance, and looking back, it paved the way for future Idols to be more daring in terms of arrangement and song choice.

9. David Archuleta – “Imagine”

This was a total lightning-in-a-bottle moment for ickle Archie. Paula Abdul wasn’t the only one who wanted to squish him, squeeze his head off and dangle him from their rearview mirror after this. I was a fan of his already—I saw that video of him singing to Kelly Clarkson and company way before the season began—and this performance further cemented my love for him.

10. David Cook – “Always Be My Baby”

When I learned that the season seven Top 7 were set to pull from the Mariah Carey songbook, I was very scared for Cook. I wasn’t sure what someone like him would do with a classic from one of the foremost divas of today. But in the words of Randy Jackson, Cook took this 1990’s pop hit and he worked it out! His studio version of this went on to enjoy heavy rotation on Philippine radio.

11. David Archuleta and David Cook – “Hero”

Season seven was the first year in which I could honestly say I didn't care who won because I’d still be celebrating either way. I loved both Davids so, so much, which is why I cried when they sang this together.

12. Kris Allen – “Heartless”

I believed in Kris from the first time I saw him perform on Idol. It was during Group Day, and he sang a couple of lines from the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” as part of the White Chocolate quartet. I found Kris captivating for some reason, and I championed him even though everyone else I knew—including my own mother—was obsessed with Adam Lambert. I believed Kris was special, and he proved me right when he did this song.

13. Pia Toscano – “I’ll Stand By You”

Pia was my original pick to win season 10, primarily because of a video I saw before the season began, in which she took on a Kelly Clarkson song with relative ease. I was horrified when she was eliminated. I think Pia is one of the best singers in Idol history and deserved to make the finale. I was thrilled when The Powers That Be invited her back for the series finale to reprise her cover of “All By Myself,” which was as good as this one.

14. Jessica Sanchez and Jennifer Holliday – “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”

Vocally, Jessica Sanchez was probably the best Filipino to ever stand on the Idol stage. Jessica had performed this by herself earlier in the season, but when she reprised it at the finale, Jessica joined forces with Jennifer Holliday, who originally sang it in the musical Dreamgirls. The result? A diva-off for the ages that had everyone in the Kodak Theater on their feet by the time it ended.

15. Dalton Rapattoni – “The Phantom Of The Opera”


I really wasn’t planning on getting invested in any of the contestants on Idol’s farewell season, as I wanted the show’s last hurrah to be more of a nostalgia tour for me than anything else. But Salty Dalty had to go and blow me away with this acoustic cover of an Andrew Lloyd Webber song. I had never heard this song sung that way before, so I couldn't help but root for Dalton. Darn him, his eyeliner and of course, his talent!

The American Idol stage has witnessed a lot of showstoppers, so it was very hard for me to make this list. I only reason limited it to 15 so the number of performances on it would match the number of seasons Idol was on the air. If I hadn't, I would have ended up with a considerably longer list, seeing as how I love the show to bits.

All videos courtesy of their respective YouTube channels.

Word nerds

My favorite performance of David Cook's from his run on American Idol is definitely "Always Be My Baby." It was just so original. This is a photo of him singing the song he called a "huge pop hit" in his pre-performance video.
When I first met Khalil Ramos, I thought he was kind of a tough nut to crack. It took American Idol and rocker David Cook, the winner of its seventh season, to turn us into friends.

In November 2011, a trade event was held at ABS-CBN, during which upcoming shows and stars were presented to advertisers. Khalil, who had just begun his showbiz career at the network, was part of it. I went to the dressing rooms that served as the artists’ holding area to visit some of my friends, including Ejay Falcon and Enrique Gil. I didn’t know that Khalil would be there, so I was pleasantly surprised to find him sitting in a corner with his mother and handler.

Me and Khalil Ramos in his dressing room before the ABS-CBN trade event in November 2011. This was our first photo together. We may be smiling here, but at the time I actually thought Khalil was sort of standoffish. Hehe.
My friends and I decided to include Khalil in our conversation, but I got the feeling that he wasn’t interested. Sure, he was nice enough, but he also struck me as a little aloof for some reason. Come to think of it, that was probably just because Khalil didn’t have much energy for meaningful social interaction. After all, he was fresh from his own stint on a reality-based talent search at the time, so he must have had quite a packed schedule. That would make anyone cranky and tired.

Back then, though, I just thought Khalil was a huge snob. I didn’t think we would become friends.

It wasn’t until I worked with him that I changed my mind.

We were doing a photoshoot at his old house in the South, and we got to talking about music and Idol. Khalil revealed that David Cook was one of his biggest musical influences.

“While I was watching David Cook on the show, I was nakatulala lang sa screen. His performance of 'Billie Jean' was my favorite,” he said. “Big impact siya sa life ko.”

I wasn’t surprised to hear that, since two of the songs Khalil sang on Pilipinas Got Talent were from David Cook’s Idol songbook.

Turns out, Khalil was also a David Cook fan. When he wasn’t busy posing for our photographer, we would talk about our common Idol. It was then that we realized we were both at David Cook’s show at the Mall of Asia Concert Grounds in 2009.

Khalil admired the winner of season seven as much as I did. In fact, he remains the only Kapamilya artist I know who has not only listened to Analog Heart—the pre-Idol album by David Cook—but knows the songs on it well enough to analyze them with me for hours on end.

But the most meaningful David Cook moment Khalil and I shared took place on my birthday in 2012. I threw a karaoke party for myself and some friends, and of course I invited him. At first I wasn’t sure if he would make it because he had an important gig in the South and the venue of my party was in Quezon City.

I so didn’t expect Khalil to make the effort, but he did. He even sang David Cook’s rock version of Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” when he arrived. (I told him before that that was my favorite of all David Cook’s Idol performances.) Watch Khalil's take on that song below.



Like a true Word Nerd, Khalil put his own spin on the song and managed to stay true to the original at the same time. Methinks David Cook would have been proud.

Me, Khalil and his father Lito Ramos at my birthday party in 2012. It was held at a karaoke joint near ABS-CBN, hence Khalil's performance. Trivia: Khalil inherited his love for classic rock from Tito Lito.
Because Khalil and I discovered we were both Word Nerds (the name all David Cook’s fans called themselves because of his love for crossword puzzles), we bonded. As author C.S. Lewis once said, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What, you too? I thought I was the only one.”

American Idol is over now. In the fifteen years it was on the air, it produced Grammy Award-winning artists, who in turn have produced countless chart-toppers. But if someone asked me to make a list of the best things to come out of the show’s historic run, my friendship with Khalil would top that chart for sure.

First photo courtesy of American Idol.

Hope floats

When American Idol season seven winner David Cook and his runner-up David Archuleta played a show at the Mall of Asia Open Concert Grounds in 2009, they spent the days leading up to it doing press. This was taken during a presscon.
In 2008, I had a depressive episode that made me feel like I had been swept out to sea. In my mind, I was frantically treading water, trying to stay afloat while waves crashed down on me. I know that may sound melodramatic to some, but it’s the truth. When you’re mentally ill, your bad days tend to be worse than the ones of those who aren’t—and they tend to go on for much longer than twenty-four hours.

Luckily, American Idol season seven came along and gave me not just one, but two emotional life preservers in the form of rocker David Cook and balladeer David Archuleta—who viewers like me affectionately dubbed “Cook” and “Archie,” respectively.

Before I tuned in to Idol that year, my depression had caused me to lose interest in things that I used to love, like music and singing. But Cook and Archie changed all that. Following their journeys from week to week gave me something to look forward to.

They gave me a reason to live.

Post-Idol, I continued to keep tabs on both their careers. When I heard that they would be coming to the Philippines to perform at the Mall of Asia Open Concert Grounds, I knew I had to watch them. But my heart sank when I found out how much even one ticket would cost. At the time, my mother was struggling to support us both. I felt too guilty to ask her to buy me a ticket to see the Davids when we had other, more important expenses like food and rent. So I didn’t.

This story would’ve ended there if it wasn’t for some girls I met online who were also fans of both Davids. Hoping to catch a glimpse of their Idols, they checked into the hotel in Ortigas where the Davids were billeted and invited me to join them. At first I was extremely hesitant to do so, but when I realized the cost of a hotel room, split several ways, was much cheaper than a concert ticket, I accepted their invitation.

That turned out to be the best decision I made that year.

My friends and I with Jeff Archuleta. This photo was taken before he got in an elevator to go up to his room. Seconds later, my friends pushed me into an elevator with Jeff so I could talk to him one-on-one and tell him my story.
During that hotel stay, the girls and I got to see both Davids in person, and we hung out with some of the members of their entourage. Everyone we met was really nice, but Archie’s father Jeff—whom the American media had portrayed as a strict stage father—turned out to be nicer than any of us expected.

I had a conversation with Jeff one night, during which I told him my story. He was very touched. So much so, in fact, that when he discovered that I wasn’t going to watch the concert because I couldn’t afford to, Jeff gave me a VIP ticket. Yes, for free!

The poster promoting the Davids' concert. I didn't include concert videos in this post, but you can find some on YouTube. I remember rhapsodizing over someone's channel because they uploaded Archie's full set after the concert.
The Davids’ concert passed by in a blur of sight and sound. I don’t remember much about it except that I danced and sang along to every song. So “energetic” was my dancing that I shattered the plastic chair I stood on to get a better view. Oops.

But as fantastic as my Idols were live, what happened next was even better.

Cook, Archie and their entourage were set to leave the Philippines the morning after to fulfill some commitments back in the United States. Some fans, including the girls and I, gathered in their hotel’s lobby one last time to see them both off. Cook left for the airport at the crack of dawn, but Archie and Jeff didn’t come downstairs until around noon.

When they did, Jeff made a beeline for our group to say goodbye. I started to thank him for what he did, but he silenced me with a hug and whispered into my ear at the same time. Watch a video of that moment below.


When Jeff let go, I stepped back and tried not to bawl as I watched him and his son walk away.

I did manage to get Archie’s autograph (watch the video below; he signs my notebook at the 0:51 mark) but what his father said to me before they left had the greater impact on me.


“You’re a good kid,” Jeff said, patting me on the back. “Keep the hope up.”

They say that hope floats—which basically means that when it’s all we can do to keep our heads above water, hope will keep us afloat. Before Cook and Archie competed on American Idol season seven, I was in a pretty dark place.

They saved me from myself, and for as long as they keep making music, I will keep the hope up.

Gone country

During the American Idol series finale, Carrie Underwood returned to the stage where her dream came true in 2005. This photo was taken when she sang "Something in the Water," the lead single from her Greatest Hits: Decade #1 album.
Before American Idol hit TV screens, my taste in music was limited to whatever was in the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100. The show’s varied theme weeks changed that by exposing me to genres I might never have paid attention to otherwise, like country music.

It was season four of Idol. Hollywood Week was almost over, and the contestants were preparing for their final solos. I had yet to pick a favorite then, so I was focusing more on my potato chips and soda than any of the performances.

But when Carrie Underwood began to sing, her blond hair gleaming under the stage lights, I forgot about my food. A potato chip fell from my open mouth as I stared at the screen, but I made no move to brush it off my lap. I didn’t know the song Carrie chose, but that didn’t matter. I was still entranced by the way her voice made the lyrics come alive.


Even after the show ended, the lyrics of Carrie’s song were still ringing in my ears and heart. I felt compelled to identify it, so I rushed to the nearest computer and ran an internet search.

I opened a browser window and typed in what I could remember of the lyrics: “Let freedom ring, let the white dove sing. Let the whole word know that today is a day of reckoning.”

I discovered that the song was called “Independence Day” and it was originally by country singer Martina McBride, who Carrie named as her favorite during her first audition. When I read the song’s lyrics in full, I realized they told a story that hit close to home.

“Independence Day” is all about how a woman responds to domestic violence as seen through the eyes of her little girl, and the lyrics brought back many painful memories from my own childhood. I looked for Martina’s version of the song online, and when I found it, I listened to it for days on end, with tears rolling down my cheeks.

That served as my introduction to the country music scene, to songs that told heartfelt and vivid stories, tackling subjects beyond booty-shaking and popping bottles at the club.

Carrie sang “Independence Day” two more times during the competition. Here's her performance of it during season four's 90s week:


She reprised it when she made it to the finale:


“Independence Day” just really struck a chord within me, and I was hooked—not just on Carrie, who became my favorite contestant that season—but on the genre of music she lived and breathed. I started listening to more country songs and discovered artists like Kenny Chesney and his older namesake, Kenny Rogers (who I realized was the voice behind the songs my parents would play during long road trips to the province when I was a kid).

Some weeks after Idol’s season four finale, I was browsing in a record store when I saw Martina’s face staring up at me from a rack of CDs. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I snatched up the album and it turned out to be Timeless, a collection of 18 old-school country songs covered by Martina. That album turned me on to some of the genre's greats, like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.

Some people made fun of me for liking country music. They couldn't understand why I was totally enamored by artists practically no one else in the Philippines had even heard of. But I didn’t care. I had gone country thanks to Carrie, and no amount of teasing would stop me.

Country music touched something deep inside me, and at the end of the day, that’s what music—and American Idol—is all about.

All photos courtesy of American Idol; all videos courtesy of their respective YouTube channels.

Idol-ized

The OBB of American Idol's final season namechecked its more successful alumni, including Carrie Underwood, Daughtry, and the inaugural Idol Kelly Clarkson. I thought it was a nice way to remind viewers of the show's legacy.
American Idol means a lot to me. As funny or strange as it may sound to some, it gave me a musical education and many good memories. Let me tell you how.

Before the show began its now-historic run, my taste in music was limited to whatever was in the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 at the time. But the House That Kelly Clarkson Built changed that through its theme weeks. They exposed me to different genres of music, including some I might never have listened to otherwise, like big-band songs, country and even heavy metal. All that and more landed in my iPod.

Idol made me a music aficionado and influenced my career goals as well. Watching my favorites perform week after week inspired me to try my own luck as a singer and songwriter.

I’ve been singing since I was a kid, but I lost confidence in myself after I bombed a talent-show performance in high school. So when I signed up for voice lessons with world-renowned singer and stage actor Cocoy Laurel (the uncle of Kapamilya actress and singer Denise Laurel), I half-expected our first session to be an utter disaster.

Me and world-renowned singer and stage actor Cocoy Laurel during one of our sessions at the Laurels' former family home in Wack-Wack. I wouldn't have had the guts to sing for him if it weren't for American Idol. I miss learning from him!
Imagine my surprise when, after leading me through a series of vocal exercises, Tito Cocoy said I had a (and I quote) “great range.” His words emboldened me to pursue music. Since then I’ve had more voice lessons and even started writing songs myself—which I wouldn’t have had the courage to do if it weren’t for Idol.

Before I started training in earnest, most of my early lessons on performing, I learned from Idol. When season three champion Fantasia returned to the show during season four to sing a mashup of her debut single “Truth Is” and her coronation song “I Believe,” she offered some advice to the current crop.

Fantasia said, “Just come out here and act ugly.” It sounds strange, but it makes sense when you think about it. As a singer, you shouldn’t focus on looking good for the camera because you’re not a model. Your job is to communicate an emotion through your voice, so you need to push past what makes you self-conscious so you can “act ugly.” I apply Fantasia’s advice not just when I’m singing, but also when I’m putting up a scene in acting class. It has helped me immensely.

I also have severe stage fright, which is ironic considering I want to perform in front of thousands, maybe even millions, someday. I just deal with it by pretending to be a contestant standing on the Idol stage. When I imagine myself singing for the three judges and all of America, my stage fright disappears. I guess that’s because watching the show puts me at ease, so pretending to be on it has the same effect.

But like all relationships, my love affair with Idol wasn’t perfect. I was extremely invested in it from seasons one to 11. But during season 12, when judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj’s catfights got more media mileage than any of that year’s contestants, I stepped away. I felt that the show had become something else at that point, and I wasn’t feeling it at all.

I did give seasons 13 and 14 a chance, but I found them to be largely unexciting, with the only bright spot in the latter for me being a spine-tingling “Georgia On My Mind” by its eventual runner-up Clark Beckham. Clark sang that Ray Charles classic during the Showcase Round in season 14. Watch his performance below.


It wasn’t until Dalton Rapattoni came along in season 15 that I returned to the fold, but I’m glad I did.

Although I wasn’t surprised when I learned that Idol’s fifteenth season would be its last—since it’s no longer the ratings juggernaut it used to be—the news still broke my heart.

It’s been two weeks since the series finale as of this writing, and yet I still haven’t accepted that I’m not going to hear the show’s theme song blaring from my TV come January 2017. Nor can I fathom that I’ll no longer be able to follow someone’s journey from unknown to superstar like I did for more than a decade.

Yes, there are other singing shows, but there’s nothing quite like American Idol, and I don’t think there will ever be. It will always have a special place in my heart.

I have been “Idol-ized” for good.

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Кларк Бекхем: “Georgia on My Mind” video courtesy of this YouTube channel.
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