American Idol Song Selection

by Carl Wiser

Matt Giraud took a beating when he sang "Viva La Vida," and Anoop learned the hard way that no one should sing "Beat It." The judges keep bashing the song choices, and it's clear the selection can make the difference between going home or staying another round. So what should the contestants sing? Here, songwriters and Karaoke experts offer some advice.
Make It Your Own

Whether you make a new arrangement of a well-known song or choose something more obscure, the trick is to pick a song that people will identify with you, and not the original singer. Try to pick songs with unique character that people will identify with you. Last season, when Kristy Lee Cook wowed the judges with "God Bless The USA," it helped that most viewers didn't picture Lee Greenwood singing it. You probably know these songs, but don't know who sang them:

"I Can Dream About You"
"Baker Street"
"Dancing In The Moonlight"
"Fooled Around And Fell In Love"
"Counting Blue Cars"
"Don't Dream It's Over"

Pick Something Different
George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam of Boy Meets Girl wrote Whitney Houston's hits "How Will I Know" and "I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)." Says Shannon: "I want to see surprising song choices, and of course song recognizability is a big factor because people want to compare a vocalist to the original to determine their versatility and level of talent."

Take a chance with these songs:

"Walk On The Wild Side"
"Different Drum"
"Beth"
"China Girl" (punch the line, "I'll give you television")

Futz With The Arrangement
George Merrill of Boy Meets Girl puts it this way: "I love it when I hear a song in a different tempo, with a new cool rhythm, and clear melodies with less vocal pyro... usually simpler instrumentation seems to turn out the best in these live moments."

Brooke White had a big moment with her stripped-down rendition of Love Is A Battlefield. Holly Knight, who co-wrote the song, says: "I thought it was interesting, because the way she did it is really how it was originally done. It's not that she changed it, she just tapped into the vibe that it was supposed to be. The song was never meant to be a fast upbeat shuffle."

Even though he poached it from Chris Cornell, David Cook's spare version of "Billie Jean" was a great call, and Jason Castro drew high praise for his ukulele "Over The Rainbow," which he got from the Hawaiian singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole. Here are some gems that haven't been used yet:

"Bizarre Love Triangle" - Listen to the Frente! version. A very sweet song when you strip the beat.
"I Want It That Way" - Vanilla Fudge proved that you can wring out the emotion of this song in a way the Boys Bands can't.
"Torn" - Use the original Ednaswap version as a template.
"Short Skirt/Long Jacket" - Tweak the Cake arrangement and you'll give the judges something to remember.

Which brings up a good point:

Don't Try To Be Whitney
Songs made popular by distinctive singers like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey or Janis Joplin will inevitably lead to unfavorable comparisons. Says Shannon: "A Whitney Houston song could be done with an entirely different styling. For example when we performed 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody' at a songwriter's concert long ago we did it as a ballad, and it transposes nicely... as many songs do. Whitney does set the bar higher than most can reach though. It's easy to forget how good she was (hopefully still is) with the plethora of newer young singers who were raised on vocal gymnastics, until you hear her previous recordings."

Adds George: "The folks that choose to sing like Whitney inevitably come up short, because she did it better than anyone ever will! So, fiddle with it, make it work in a ska rhythm, or break it down to an acoustic guitar folkie version... much more exciting to hear a song you know so well with a unique twist. Simon likes that too!"

Learn From Karaoke
You would think that Karaoke offers a great way to field test the songs, but they're different beasts. Kimberly Starling of Karaoke Informer says: "The typical good karaoke songs tend to lack the uniqueness needed for an Idol contestant to stand out. Also, good karaoke songs are often less challenging musically."

According to Kimberly, here are some songs that can sound great with Karaoke Joe on the mic, but Idol contestants may want to avoid:

"Crazy" (Patsy Cline)
"Sweet Caroline"
"Santeria"
"Friends In Low Places"
"What's Up"
"I Wanna Be Sedated" (works every time, anyone can sing this)

Steve Douglas of Ultimate DJ and Karaoke in Kansas City adds: "I have found that American Idol actually influences what songs Karaoke singers choose to sing. They expose TV viewers to songs that they normally wouldn't hear on their normal radio station. American Idol contestants also have help from knowledgeable music and or vocal coaches."

Avoid The Overdone
Some songs have been performed on the show so many times that judges and viewers are numb to them. You're looking to stand out, so don't sing these:

"Unchained Melody"
"Against All Odds (Take A Look At Me Now)"
"Crazy Little Thing Called Love"
"Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me"
Anything by Journey or Stevie Wonder

Lighten Up
The viewers vote, and if you sing something fun, there's a good chance they're going to like you. Not every song has to be a heartfelt scorcher. Try one of these:

"Vacation"
"Lump"
"Bad, Bad Leroy Brown"
"The Longest Time"
"Mickey" (or "Kitty" if sung by a guy, which is how the song was originally done)
"Keep Your Hands To Yourself"
"Float On"

November 16, 2009
More Song Writing

Comments: 39

  • Barbara Conte from Akron OhioI would like to see Laine Hardy sing ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon
  • Diane Likens from Tigard OregonLove Michael J! Would love to hear him sing mr. Cellophane, from the movie Chicago
  • Michael Campbell from Missouri I think Cade should sing wild world by Cat Stevens
  • Julie from Normandy TnCaleb Hutchinson should sing Long Black Train.
  • Owen from SyracuseDalton should sing "Disarm" by the Smashing Pumpkins. It's right in his wheelhouse, powerful with lots of emotion.
  • Bets from ConnecticutTrent should sing Helpless by Neil Young.
  • Bets from ConnecticutMackenzie should sing Tangled up in Blue by Bob Dylan.
  • Makayla from Bakersfield, CaliforniaDalton should sing a song by Rod Stewart or Ryan Adams
  • Scott from Tallulah, LaDalton should sing a Greenday song!!!
  • Gabriel Bosch from Kansas CityLa Porsha should do "Do You Realize?" By The Flaming Lips!
  • Caryl Kay from Peoria, IlI would like to hear Dalton's rendition of "Yesterday" by the Beatles!!
  • Julia Vice from OhioDalton should sing Boulevard of broken dreams by Green Day
  • Courtney Sheppard from Leland, North CarolinaI would love for La Portia to sing "I will always love you" by Whitney Houston.
  • Lara from CaliforniaDalton please please sing Telescope by Cage the Elephant. Your story last week could make this song realistically and beautifully yours. Please sing it with all the pain and love your heart has.
  • Erin from TexasDalton should sing These Eyes by The Guess Who!
  • Tonya from Amarillo Mahila Jackson for la Portia
  • Jonathan Linsider from Atlanta Dalton should sing Check Yes, Juliet by We the Kings!
  • Kailey K from IllinoisMacKenzie, Dalton, or Trent needs to sing Gavin Degraw! I Don't Want to Be, Soldier, Belief, More Than Anyone.
  • Jessica Malise from New York Tristan needs to sing Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton OR Nobody Knows by Kevin Sharpe and she needs to do it on a piano because she is Alicia Keys
  • Janelle from OregonI think Tristan should sing This Burning House by Cam
  • Jeanette Wishart from Toronto, CanandaSuggestion for Dalton.... how about Green Day "HOLIDAY".... he would knock it out of the park.
  • Jeanette Wishart from Toronto, CanandaI have so many ideas for the contestants. May I suggest the following:
    Id' Rather Be by Jesse Glynn for La Portia
    MacKenzie to Sing Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears
    Avalon to Old School sort of... CC Penison "Finally" or Lauren Hill or Erica Badu songs
    and finally maybe Lee Jean can try On Broadway by George Benson to show his guitar talents and energy.
  • Olivia Mooney from Temple, TxI would love for LaPorcha to sing when a man loves a woman but the Better Midler version from The Rose. THAT Would Be Awesome.
  • Jenessa from ArizonaTristan needs to sing How do I Love by Trisha Yearwood
  • Leah Blondeau from Elko, NvI would love to hear someone take on "Down So Low." Tracy Nelson sang this song years ago with raw emotion. Linda Ronstadt performed this song a few years later and delivered a strong message. It's the perfect song for a blues/country rock voice. I realize it's old school but such a powerful song.
  • Hailee from West Jordan UtahHi, I am Hailee and I think one of the contestants should sing "Hello" by Adele
  • Bryce Garges from Tulare, California American Idol, my name is Bryce. I've always wanted to be on your show but looks like I'll never get that chance so I would like to suggest for your last show, the song, "Time of Our Lives". I feel that it would be a perfect song for your show. Thank you
  • Anonymous from Lexington KyWhy is it that the singers on the British and Canadian shows get to sing better songs? Do they have better tastes, or is it that the shows only allow them to sing what they want? The American shows (American Idol) just really suck.
  • Ken from MinnesotaI am getting VERY tired of listening to so many slow ballad type songs on Idol. I wish they would have some nights when only uptempo songs would be allowed. Last night I was hoping to hear several of the Beatles uptempo songs (e.g. I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Daytripper, Twist & Shout, Please Please Me, etc.), but most were the slow ones that I don not enjoy nearly as much.
  • Chris F. from Albuquerque, NmIs this supposed to be a joke? An article about covering others' songs on one of the many TV shows that keep people docile and uncreative, on a website about songwriting -- whose writers often (rightly) disparage those who don't write "real music"? Quit pandering to the lowest common denominator, please. It's unnecessary. Thank you.
  • Banks from NynyLump or Float On would be funny but great, I'd vote for whoever sung those two, FER SUR
  • AnonymousYou do realize they only have like 10 songs to choose from right?
    And, no one will never be nearly as epic as Adam Lambert
  • Emma from BrisbaneLook to Britain for some great songs - "Keane", "Coldplay" and "Elbow" have some stunningly beautiful melodies and upbeat tunes. That's what peolel want to hear
  • Alex from UtahHave Aaron sing "do it for you" by Ballas Hough Band
  • Mara from Long Island/nyI would love to hear Andrew Garcia sing "sign your name
    across my heart" by Terance Trent Darby, I think he would
    be awesome.....
  • Anna from Hopatcong,new Jerseyi say pick a song that is in your range! if you do not do that, you will have a bad time!
  • Evan from Illinois I think the best idea is to sing something with a lot of vocal runs in it. That's why people sing ballads as opposed to uptempo songs. They're mostly slower, and give you the chance to "flex your pipes."
  • AnonymousThe article also neglected the fact that there are a whole lot of artists who don't want their songs on American Idol. If you choose a song that doesn't clear you're pretty screwed. You might have spent 3 or 4 days rehearsing something you can't use, then have to pick something else in a hurry- meanwhile, the other contestants now have those 3 or 4 days of practice on you.

    This is a MAJOR reason you see a lot of the same songs year after year.

    Also, some of those song choices really aren't exactly great choices for showing off range. If I had a voice like Adam Lambert's I wouldn't pick a Lou Reed song in a million years :).
  • RonSomething this article neglected is the old, tired reasons the contestants often use for choosing a "bad" song for them. So many of them say things like, "it is my mother's favorite song", "it was on the first CD I ever bought, or "my uncle's, cousin's, brother thought I shoud do it", rather than the answer that makes sense, "It does an excellent job of displaying my vocal talent". But then again, I guess if it did an excellent job of displaying their vocal talent, no one would be asking why they chose that song.
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