My brain has an itch that I can’t scratch: The “edginess” of Phillip Phillips covering Usher

Last night, the contestants on American Idol had to pick a song that was #1 on the Billboard charts sometime after the year 2000.

Phillip Phillips, who is a good ol’ white country boy from southwestern Georgia with a scratchy voice and strange shoulder moves, chose Usher’s “U Got It Bad”:

Here is what Entertainment Weekly said in their recap of this performance:

The supporting band members in their all-black outfits — especially Blonde Sax Player with the Bangs — were a major part of last night’s show, especially in their accompaniment of Phillip Phillips. His manipulation of Usher’s “U Got It Bad” was very exciting for Idol, calling to mind Kris Allen’s acoustic interpretation of “Heartless” or even that Andrew Garcia kid’s Hollywood Week rearrangement of “Straight Up.” (I still love that!) Big, big moment for Phillip, and it was well-timed because he did appear to be losing steam last week. He really came alive in this performance, wrenching his face into that terrifying grimace on “my money or my carrrrrrrrrrs,” gazing around admiringly at different band members, and wiggling his left leg from his perch on a stool. First standing O of the night from the judges!

The fact that EW listed these two other guys’ performances as being similar to Phillip’s is telling, I think.

First, all three are dudes with guitars who changed up the original song to fit their own, laid-back styles.

But I think it’s also that they are specific dudes changing up specific people’s music.

Phillip and Kris are both clean cut white boys from the South taking R&B hits made famous by black men. Andrew was a guy redoing the pop song of the resident cutie pie lady on American Idol.

And when I realized that I was applauding Phillip last night on his “risk” and thinking it was an “edgy” decision, I had to step back and question WHY I found that risky and edgy. And did I feel that Joshua Ledet (who should win this season of American Idol), a black man from Louisiana, doing Michael Bolton’s When A Man Loves A Woman was risky and edgy? Decidedly not (though he didn’t alter it all from the original, just sang the everloving shit out of it so that probably matters). Did I feel like Elise Testone’s mighty takedown of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” was phenomenal because she was a woman singing a song originally recorded by men or just because she sang that song so incredibly well? I think it’s the latter.

David Grossman told me tonight about Ben Folds’ cover of Dr. Dre “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” which I didn’t know was a thing. Grossman said to me, “Did anyone think Ben Folds was being edgy when he covered “Bitches Ain’t Shit”? It was three layers of horrid irony wrapped in a wink.” I would guess the answer to his question is “yes,” because the song got as high as 71 on the Billboard top 100 and Folds performed it for years. Is there an example of this working the other way around? If yes, did it reach that level of popularity? (please tell me so in comments)

White men are often (honestly, almost always) the arbiters of culture, the ones who determine the norm and against which most everything else is defined. So, when men sing songs that are associated with ladies or are seen as feminine, they are taking a risk moving outside what is normal and comfortable (as many people have made clear many times over, it’s much less controversial when women act like men than vice versa). The same thing happens when white people cover the work of black musicians. Their incorporation and interpretation of what is not-white is then, by default, risky and edgy simply because it is outside of the norm.

When ladies cover men’s songs or black people do white people’s music, they are simply participating in what is considered mainstream. Though I wonder if Snoop Dogg reinterpreted Pearl Jam’s EvenFlow, what would we think? Would anyone want to hear that? Would it be “edgy” or simply a joke?

I certainly think in a space like American Idol, where contestants are pandering to an audience that really, really likes to vote for white people from the South, this is all heightened. As I tried to think of a reverse example from the show itself, I couldn’t. This is a possibility because 1) I haven’t seen every performance on Idol (probably not even half of them) and 2) because ladies and people of color are worried about being punished more harshly by audiences when they choose “edgy” arrangements or make “risky” decisions.

I feel my own thesis cracking under the weight of tonight’s elimination: Colton Dixon performed terrible re-interpretations of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “September.” I’m not even linking to that crap. It was so bad, which may be what happened there. He didn’t get the credit for his edginess because what he did was just shitty. *shrugs*

It’s more than possible that I’m just over-analyzing this single scenario.

But there’s something here, something about everyone praising Phillip Phillips last night in regards to his Usher performance that makes my brain itch and I can’t quite find the words or thoughts to scratch it. Someone tell me what it is.

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One thought on “My brain has an itch that I can’t scratch: The “edginess” of Phillip Phillips covering Usher

  1. Pardon my late 90’s lingo…It seems to me that the phenomenon you are describing is simply about the moment on American Idol when the ‘less than cool’ finally becomes cool. The classic story of the underdog. Taking a song that once was wildly popular, performing it in an entirely different way and surprising everyone with how much they like the ‘new’ version. I don’t think it is anything other than that. Singing ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ isn’t a risk. It is a song that shows off vocal talents and in my opinion is a big eye-roller no matter how well it is sung…boring. The song itself has to be of a certain level of popular.

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