DivaRank: Welcome, Joshua Ledet!

Back in 2004, the members of the Diva Committee were living in New York City in an apartment above a Dominican chicken shop. Nothing was going up except our collective debt to something called an “MFA program,” which, in retrospect, was just a very expensive excuse for the insistently creative alumni of the various super private schools of America to sit around in coffee shops and bitch about one another. And because the Committee’s inferiority complex precluded it from really engaging with anyone who very quietly informed you of the magical education they had received at St. Ann’s, Sidwell Friends, or any of the other factories of self-esteem and WRITERDOM, we just sort of sat in our apartments and watched TV. When things were looking their bleakest, a young woman named Fantasia Barrino entered our living room and gave us reason for hope. She, like several members of the Committee, hailed from North Carolina. Like the Committee, she found herself surrounded by “prodigies” who had received years of training for their respective art form. How could we not love Fantasia?

Since then, she’s been the People’s Champ, the standard by which we have judged every subsequent singing-competition contestant. Over the past seven years, only Crystal Bowersox and Jacob Lusk have ever really challenged Fantasia’s throne. Though we loved Crystal’s power, her fucked-up teeth, and her reticence, she never threw down a performance that elevated her to those sublime Fantasia levels. Lusk’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” ranks in our top three Idol performances of all time, but he quickly devolved into three or four separate hot messes and flamed out of our hearts.

Enter Joshua Ledet, a.k.a. “Mantasia.” There has been a long history of Idol contestants who wowed America in their first live performance, but couldn’t really follow it up. This happens because singers tend to get rutted into songs that fit their voices, especially in this era of Olympic-styled karaoke. If you can bust out, say, “I Have Nothing,” and everyone applauds and tells you about whatever recording contract that you should be getting, there’s not much incentive to sing anything else. Paris Bennett had that problem with “Midnight Train to Georgia,” Lakisha Jones couldn’t ever get past “And I Am Telling You.” With those types of contestants, it’s always smarter to save the big song for later in the competition, preferably just after making an appearance in the Bottom Three.

We’ve now seen Joshua Ledet sing five times. None of the songs were gospel/soul standards. He didn’t sing “Change Gonna Come” (although, Joshua, PLEASE sing “Change Gonna Come,”) he didn’t sing “Think,” he didn’t sing “What a Wonderful World.” What this proves, at least to the committee, is that Joshua Ledet, like Fantasia before him, has the talent to sing pretty much anything and, in the parlance of Idol judges and MFA “professors” alike, “make it his own.”

He’s already the most promising contestant since Fantasia and has an outside chance at supplanting her as the Greatest Idol contestant of ALL TIME! (GICOAT)

Let’s take a look at his best performances to date.

We discussed this in the last podcast, but “Jar of Hearts” is the worst pop song since that Goo Goo Dolls song about not wanting the world to see me because I don’t think they’d understand. The fact that Mantasia could turn this song into something so listenable, something that can completely be excerpted from the inanity and clumsy internal rhymes of the original … well, hot damn.

Here’s how he fared in Group week. Fast-forward to 1:40.

And in Vegas, doing Elvis:

So, for those keeping track, he can do Blu Cantrell, he can do Elvis, and he can do putrid angst? And this is a church star who hasn’t even busted out with anything squarely within his comfort zone?

Finally, in Vegas he took a pitch straight in his wheelhouse and knocked Patti Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain” straight out of the park.

Let me comment a bit more in Randy Jackson mode here.

0:20: WHAT?
0:26: Seriously, dude?
0:34: That softness there after the ridiculousness, the ability to seamlessly shift into that tender note … I mean, who are you, Joshua Ledet? And when can I buy your album? And hey, recording industry, how about we don’t fall to the easiest stupid racial calculus and turn this kid into a modern-day R&B singer? There’s a market, strong among thirtysomething bloggers, who would love nothing more than for the Retro R&B movement to take over all this Chris Brown nonsense.
0:41 WHAT?

Ledet’s choice of song gives the committee a unique opportunity to compare him head-to-head with his competition. Bowersox, in the Idol finale, sang that very song. And while the committee understands that Bowersox’s version might come closer to the original Patti Griffin, we’d like to remind the Diva community that this is a song titled “Up to the Mountain” and it was written as a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We love the Bowersox, but Joshua Ledet’s fireworks version pays better tribute to the lyrics and the importance of the song. No, not everything needs to be blown out to its raspy, gospel core, but this song does.

And finally, there was last night.

0:54: Goose bumps. My God, that note! For those counting, Joshua Ledet has the screeching high note, the tender swing down notes, a serviceable “heh,” the honeyed low notes, and a hand-gesture maturity that extends far beyond his 19 years. Other Idol contestants have had some of these tricks, but only Fantasia could ever string them together into something resembling an emotional journey.

1:12: A lesser singer would just scream through the end of that note. Ledet pulls it back into something even prettier. This instinct is pretty rare, especially in the forum of vocal athletics. How do you have the confidence to not just go for the long big note and play to the crowd? How do you know everything about how to sing, Joshua Ledet?

For all Diva-related news, follow @divarank.

Filed Under: American Idol, Joshua Ledet

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Jay Caspian Kang is a Grantland contributor. His debut novel, The Dead Do Not Improve, is on sale now.

Archive @ jaycaspiankang