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2 'Idol' high fliers get strapped down

October 01, 2008|Ann Powers | Times Pop Music Critic

What do Jennifer Hudson and David Cook have in common, besides attention-grabbing new singles and an "American Idol" past? They're famous -- fashioned into celebrities before our eyes within reality television's metamorphosis machine -- and yet vividly human, with edges most "Idol" alums lack. Their charisma comes from a rare combination of assertive vocal talent and an underdog mystique.

You root for Cook and Hudson because they are Little Engines That Can: imperfect, homey people with extraordinary gifts. Cook, triumphing over the adorable David Archuleta last season, came off as the show's first truly accidental winner, a fashion-clueless barkeep-for-life whose competitive streak developed in tension with his desire to maintain a nerdy notion of rocker cool. And "Idol" turned Hudson into everyone's favorite outsider. Eliminated from the show far too soon, she found her role of a lifetime as Effie in "Dreamgirls" -- an earthy rebel whose beauty radiated from her throat and her heart.

When these singers really let go, their voices smash through the limits imposed by their bodies and personalities, making them golden. That's what we once wanted from great singers -- fat or scrawny, pimpled or aging, they could blow away our prejudices. Imperfection is highly discouraged in corporate pop now, but for Hudson and Cook, it helps; more glamour would dampen the wonder of their performances. That's why it's sad to encounter so much airbrushing in the new musical products meant to secure their places as pop stars.

Hudson’s self-titled debut album, released this week, has been so long in coming that it's no surprise how focus-grouped it feels. Ten producers over 13 tracks does not make for a strong artistic identity. If this were Hudson's fifth or even third album, the variety might have worked: Hudson's helmsmen would have had a strong persona to embrace or oppose. As it is, she's the one bending to adapt, pleasing everyone but receding at the same time.

As a singer, Hudson can meet every challenge, whether taking her place alongside Whitney and Celine on ballads like Robin Thicke's lovely "Giving Myself," blowing the roof off like a soul mama on a duet with Fantasia or finding her rhythm within Stargate's production, Beyonce-style, on the hit "Spotlight." But becoming an artist, a real force to reckon with, demands commitment and self-awareness. Too often Hudson sings like she's just doing a (great) job; she projects conviction, but there's no depth behind it.

Where are the startling high points a vocalist this athletic could deliver? Where does a little ugliness seep in, a little bit of fun? Not on her duet with T-Pain, that's for sure. There's some fizz on the one track produced by Timbaland, the sassy "Pocketbook." And Hudson certainly pushes herself where you'd expect, in the retro-gospel cry to Jesus that closes out the set. Mostly, though, she's taking instruction.

Hudson can take comfort in knowing that Aretha Franklin, whose throne she strives to inherit, made many albums before hitting on the Alabama soul stew that made her a national treasure. The pop industry now blesses very few with that kind of time to develop, but Hudson's truly exceptional voice and proven appeal might buy her some time.

David Cook's new single, on the other hand, might be a very bad sign of his personal taste. "Light On" is a vigorously commonplace power ballad that's already reminding critics of all that's come before.

Co-written by former Soundgarden/Audioslave stud Chris Cornell, who's in the midst of an aggressive career makeover, "Light On" packs a mighty wallop and little else. Cook's biggest vocal gift is a flexibility uncommon in rock singers: He can nail those hard high notes, but he's good with transitions too. But "Light On" sends him to the ceiling 25 seconds in, and he barely returns until the song's end.

There's something cynical in the relentlessly arching choruses of this song. The generic, simple imagery of the lyrics is one thing; rock ballads often have silly words, which can be saved by a great hook and passionate delivery. But "Light On" feels mechanically generated from top to bottom.

Cook can do better than this. His personal picks for "Idol" were always quirky -- songs by rock bands like Our Lady Peace and Switchfoot and, of course, his savvy borrowing of Cornell's cover of "Billie Jean." Plus, his love of musicals, confessed during Andrew Lloyd Webber week, could make his brand of modern rock unusual, if not unique.

But so far he's pulling heartstrings to make bank. That's not the way to become a real rock hero, if such a thing even exists anymore. It's not even the way to be the next Daughtry -- that dude has a real marriage and real neuroses he's not afraid to confront in his songs. Whoever thought the bald messiah would start to seem like "Idol's" biggest advocate for truth?


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