Pity poor Jimmy Iovine. The Interscope chairman inherited the "American Idol" franchise that once belonged to Clive Davis, just in time to get the first season where both the top two finishers were country.
What’s a titan without a Nashville division to do? Look and see if there’s a potential Jennifer Hudson or Chris Daughtry premature-elimination success story to be had. In the case of season 10, the obvious pick for that slot is Pia Toscano, whom conventional wisdom had winning in a shoo-in before America did its shooing out.
Her first single, “This Time,” arrives via Interscope this week, and not a moment too soon to give country-phobic "Idol" fans someone other than Scotty and Lauren to remember 2011 by. It’s a ballad (surprise) full of wronged-woman fury … which, in the best diva tradition, may symbolically mirror what the public knows about her personally.
The lyrics get back at the guy who threw her over, but to her supporters, the subtext may really be about having been unfairly dumped by a massive bloc of Southern voters -- the louts!
But the song is just too much of a dog to let you root for the underdog, however much you might like to. As written by one-woman song factory Ester Dean (who’s responsible for Rihanna’s “S&M" and Nicki Minaj's "Superbass," among other more memorable hits), it’s a compendium of comeback cliches that almost reads like a parody of the whole I-will-survive genre.
“Well, I’m mad as hell and can’t take it no more,” the tune begins, making the double-negative its sole spin on the tired Paddy Chayefsky trope. “Like a butterfly, gonna spread my wings...” It’s hard to imagine that every single line could be as generic as the what's-that-again? title, yet this is songwriter Dean’s feat.
Toscano sings the hell out of it, of course. In a way, that may only compound the problem. Her perceived weakness on "Idol" was her utter perfection, and there’s no lack of it here, either; with nary a hint of a sob or crack in her powerhouse voice, ex-victimhood doesn’t totally suit her. She’s a butterfly, all right, but one it’s hard to believe was ever a caterpillar.
What’s ironic is that “This Time,” which is clearly meant to serve the needs of non-Scotty and Lauren-loving "Idol" watchers, sounds at heart like a contemporary country song (all the way down to its “My bags is packed” syntax). It might well have turned out better with a modern Nashville arrangement instead of the vaguely urban adult-contermporary sheen it’s been given. Not that we want Toscano to go country: Even those of us who love our twang would like to keep hope alive that
"Idol" remains capable of producing a non-heartland star.
Could Pia still turn out to be that pure pop breakout, given less by-the-numbers material? Next time, not “This Time," will tell.