I initially thought of writing a "closure" piece of sorts for Jason Castro, the one AI contestant I rooted for the whole season. But it wouldn't be fair. Not when he's just starting to rocket into the stratosphere of the music industry. So I'll just call this a "thank you" piece to Jason - singer, songwriter, guitar player, fellow music fan. Maybe, after more than two weeks since the AI Finale, I will "bump" up Jason and remind everybody of his accomplishments, and what a fantastic person he is. Here's my own version of the "Castro Bump".
It has been two weeks since David Cook was crowned American Idol of Season 7, but I find it hard to let go of some fantastic performances during the many weeks the show was on air. And even harder to let go of a certain phenomenal performer who captured my attention and held it for far longer than any AI contestant ever had. Jason Castro, with his trademark hairstyle and vocals, was the show's singular breakthrough performer. Forget about David Cook's "originality", or David Archuleta's "talent beyond his 17 years". Forget the fact that Carly Smithson and Michael Johns were the frontrunners leading up to the semifinal weeks due to relentless camera time. To me, Jason Castro was the true discovery of Season Seven after all was said and done.
Jason, whom I have NEVER heard about prior to the first semifinals week, became my instant favorite the moment I heard him sing "Daydream". Sure, he had a smidgen of airtime during the "Chair" round (where Ryan called his reaction to moving on to the semis as "understated", and his dork dance reminded everyone of Bob Marley on high) and there was that one fleeting shot of him rehearsing with his guitar backstage during Hollywood Week. But here was a guy who never had any screen time whatsoever, and yet he succeeded in drawing people to him. His voice was raw yet beautiful, his camera presence solid. For a guy without a lot of stage experience, he certainly knew how to work the camera. He was the first contestant to accompany himself on a musical instrument, which allowed him to stand out even more. And needless to say, his appearance was definitely an eye-catcher – dreads, jeans, rolled up sleeves, and eyelashes all. "Daydream" seemed like the perfect song choice for him. In a musical generation that bordered on the raw and the punk, he managed to find a song that could capture his essence in 90 seconds – that of unabashed optimism and sentimental quirk.
And his stock peaked when he sang "Hallelujah" the week before he was voted into the Top Twelve. To me, anyone who sings Jeff Buckley automatically gets my heart. And his version, in my opinion, was the one on which ALL the other versions that followed are based. I don't think anybody can top the original, or even try to. Jason went after Buckley's version but made it his own and was simply WONDERFUL. It was the first performance of his where he wore his heart on his sleeve, and it showed. Botched ending be damned – the power in the performance was all in the emotion that he displayed. Jeff Buckley, the man who always sang like his heart was on fire, would have been proud of Jason that night.
That performance was also the first in a series of "Castro Bumps", where he would help bump up sales of the original on the iTunes charts. Jason Castro proved that he was radio-ready AND relevant. And his raw emotion that night also proved that there was more to the quirky essence that "Daydream" provided. He could carry stronger themes, and he had the maturity to understand them (something David Archuleta and Syesha Mercado sorely lacked).
Over the following weeks, I found myself rooting for him and following his performances closely. And time and time again, he was consistent. Too consistent to some, in fact, that some thought he was merely coasting. But the fact could also be said of many other Idol contestants in the past. Bo Bice and his rock song choices, Ruben Studdard and his R&B vocals, and Blake Lewis and his constant need to be hip, to name a few. And even some season seven contestants were guilty of not moving beyond the box as well – David Archuleta and his ballads, David Cook and his emo covers, and Carly and her constant need to shout something to the high heavens. The thing with Jason is that his consistency stands out in its restraint. He did not have the loud rock grit that Cook possessed, or the vocal runs of Archuleta, or the white soul sound of Michael Johns. He was not a belter like Syesha or Carly or Ramiele. But he had his own special niche that demanded a different kind of musical skill, a different sort of gravitas. And what was most impressive about it is that, in spite of his musical restraint? He could still draw listeners to him. Say what you will about his inadequacies, but Jason needs no more than what he already has to command a crowd. Did you see how, while singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", he enraptured the Swaybots so much that they forgot to throw their hands in the air? Jason is commanding in his quiet presence, and he doesn't need to belt or flail about onstage in order to captivate an audience.
In a way, he is much closer to fellow contestant Brooke White in terms of skill and musical inadequacies. They both have a limited vocal range, a vulnerability whenever they were onstage without an instrument, and a tendency to eschew the bells and whistles of a song. Instead, they let their vocals do the talking, and their emotions do the convincing. Both are throwbacks in a sense. They reminded us of that era in music when the vocal was just the medium, that it was the lyrics themselves that wielded the power, that music had the ability to transport, and sincerity was the platform on which the artist stood. A time when it was just the artist and his music and his listener, and that musicianship was not a production but a creative journey. The folkies embodied it the most, which is why these two were lumped into that category. And people are now saying that Jason and Brooke have forged a commercial path for all the young folkies and troubadours out there. But the truth was that Jason and Brooke can encompass any genre of music and still sound like themselves, and not just as folk artists.
Take Jason's performances of "Fragile" and "September Morn". He did not deviate from the originals so much, and yet it sounded very different from Sting's and Neil Diamond's. "I Don't Want To Cry" was another – an R&B song that Jason twisted into an almost-stripped down reggae-pop sound. And can anyone forget "Memory"? Neither can I. And it's a good thing. It was stripped of its raw anguish, and replaced with muted desperation. And usually, it's that quiet air of hopelessness which makes it more deeply troubling, and Jason, hampered by his own private illness, did the song even more justice than Andrew Lloyd Webber could achieve. And truly, none of these examples sounded like a folk song. And while the vocals had much to do with it, I would also like to say that attitude and sincerity plays a large role with it as well, which certainly encompass musical genres. As Paula Abdul said again and again, Jason was that contestant whom you could easily distinguish vocally. Given any type of music, you get Jason every time. (And for Brooke, I've listened to her "Songs from the Attic", and I must say, I am genuinely surprised and pleased.)
This consistency and lack of tricks are why his performances have been criticized as lackluster and uninspiring. But can you fault a performer who has been wonderfully consistent every time? Or would you rather get a Courtney Love or a Damon Gough, interesting artists though they may be, but have been woefully unreliable performers at most? Give me Jason any day, and it will never feel like a waste of time. They said Jason is unexciting to watch, as opposed to, say, Carly and the strained vocals, or David Cook prancing about the stage with a guitar, or Michael Johns gyrating with the microphone. But Jason is exciting in a different way. His song choices alone – being the only contestant who has sung Leonard Cohen, Sting, Bob Marley, and Bob Dylan (Rock and Roll Hall of Famers ALL!) in one season – has impressed the heck out of me, and keeps me tuning in to find out what he is going to sing next. The fact that he is radio-ready and musically relevant makes him exciting. His offstage persona makes him even more doubly exciting, and triply adorable. The mere fact that he gives his all in every performance, no matter what people think, means that he has the passion for the business and has the potential to come up with something intriguing. Who can call that blasé? Many artists have tried to veer off from their original sound, in the hopes of becoming more "exciting", but most of the time, in the end, they go back to the old sound. In time, I suppose Jason will do that, too. He is too much of a multi-faceted performer to stick to one musical direction. Plus, he is still evolving and still discovering who he is musically. In time, he will surprise us, and he will keep us on our toes. But in the meantime, he is cherishing the sound he has now and he will only get better before he moves on to something bigger.
As much as I appreciate American Idol for giving Jason the musical opportunity of a lifetime, and for giving us music fans an artist to feel excited about, I am also disappointed at how the show treated him, and the other contestants as well. He was burned out, and admitted that his inexperience caused him to falter. The judges were also unforgiving (Paulagate, anyone?), and seemed to trample on his spirits. Many people thought he wanted to leave, when all he really wanted was to just make music. Really, all he ever wanted was to make music, and the show disappointed him in that regard. But the upside? Is that Jason now knows how much hard work is required to succeed in the business, regardless of whether or not it is even related to the music itself. Which is why Adam Levine has given the best advice thus far: "Get ready to work, baby. It's gonna be really tough, you'll have to work a lot. And then you're gonna get jaded, and then you're gonna say, 'God, I hate this'. But you really love it. So try to remember that." Jason now knows it firsthand. All he has to do is learn from it. The reassuring thing is no matter how much the show may have disappointed him, his passion for music is still alive and that he now knows that he loves it, warts and all.
Despite speculation, I don't think the show ever broke Jason. He sang what he knew and loved, which meant that he sang from the heart. And nowhere was it more evident than in the week when he was eliminated. He sang Dylan, the foremost troubadour of our time, cementing the image in our heads of Jason as a folkhouse progressive. And he sang Marley, which was the strongest sentiment he could possibly give about himself and his universe. Almost saying, "Here, this is what people think of me and I embrace it. Not because they are right, but because I am right about myself and the people have caught on." On the one night that he simply performed as himself, he was eliminated. Irony much? That aside, he went out on a high note. He went out as himself. He never followed the dictates of the AI machine, never fit the mold of the usual Idol. He was no fool, and was as anti-establishment as they come, but in the sweet gentle package that is Jason. He followed his own artistry, and emerged happy as he sang the Marley song in the end that some people hated but he loved in his gut. He refused to give in to criticism, and continued to follow his heart. If he displays that same kind of passion and bravado in his career, there will be no stopping him. (And if you ask me, I thought "I Shot The Sheriff" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" were inspired song choices and were performed brilliantly. Because – seriously! – how can you judge the vocals on these two songs? The former required a certain kind of attitude and pluck to pull off, and the latter required emotional sincerity – all of which Jason displayed that night, despite forgetting some words. So, ask me about these two performances and I will say that they were AWESOME.)
I trust that he will follow his own path and just have a grand time with his music. And seriously, I cannot WAIT to see where his music takes him. Right now, there is a slew of online non-Idol material that does his talent justice. He has drummed for a rock band, sang Christian contemporary in church, and performed reggae and folk and pop songs in clubs. And I'm sure there is so much more out there that he has done that will serve to take my breath away some more. At the moment, he is a one-man musical variety show, and now, as his hometown visit shows, he is taking a more acoustic and sentimental approach to his music. Meanwhile, on a personal level, he has already earned my deepest respect and profound admiration for being the spiritual and gentle person that he is. His interviews made me realize that he is an even better and lovelier person than what he chooses to publicize. I commend his family for keeping him grounded, and for letting him loose to find his passion. I also thank his parents for raising him to be the person that he is now. I can only hope that the universe conspires to give Jason his moment in the sun.
It might take some time before we find him at the mic again, guitar or drumsticks in hand. But it doesn't matter to me. To me, good music is good music and is timeless. I have eclectic tastes of my own, and Jason's sound fits in comfortably within my musical universe (and it is a very forgiving and appreciative one!). Follow your own music, I say. Discovering where all this takes him will only make him a better artist. And it will only mean sweet music to my ears.