Okay, no surprise here: The rush-released American Idol Season 2: All-Time Classic American Love Songs, one of the worst albums in recent memory, debuted earlier this month at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. There's plenty to scoff at here, from the laughably heart-stricken rendition of Journey's "Open Arms" by Corey Clark to an awkward take on Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" by Trenyce. Not to mention the frightening group renditions of Lee Greenwood's smug "God Bless the U.S.A." and an insufferably saccharine Burt Bacharach production of Burt's own "What the World Needs Now Is Love." The production, meanwhile, sounds as hasty as the release itself, splattering on a tacky Muzak lacquer.
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On the other hand, the Season 2 record does seem almost rebellious in spots, as if the producers know their credibility may be wilting in a made-for-morons effort. How else to explain the inclusion of "Groupie," sung here by the amazing Ruben Studdard? The song, a country-rock gem penned by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell in 1969, is better known as "Superstar," renamed after the Carpenters struck gold with it in the early '70s. A story of an obsessed, isolated fan recalling a one-night stand with a star and whispering sweet sentiments to the radio, the song is at once cheeky and chilling. Studdard, one of those rare R&B singers with range to his falsetto, puts a straightforward spin on the song, singing it with Luther Vandross sincerity. Studdard's take, perhaps unintentionally, soaks it in a sadness that eclipses even Karen Carpenter's.
But after "Superstar," placed as it is up front, the record goes downhill immediately, and in a way makes the song emblematic of the whole American Idol phenomenon. The U.S. worships celebrities, burying the unfulfilling nature of our lives in the pure escapism of television and music. The 11 singers on Season 2 are the lucky ones who get to fill the void, and with that comes the pressure of living up to their audience's preconceived notions of stardom. Like the lost soul in "Superstar," these may just be the loneliest singers you'll ever hear.