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Guest Blogger and 'American Idol' Alum Siobhan Magnus: 'Bring on the Pyro and Smoke Machine!'

siobhan magnus 2011 headshot
Barry M. Miller

We forced Siobhan Magnus to face her fears. For the first time since competing on American Idol, the Barnstable, Mass. native, who made it to sixth place on season 9, watched the show as a spectator, which, as she describes it, is not unlike having an out-of-body experience, or entering the Twilight Zone.

It's understandable. The Idol experience can be traumatizing. And drudging up all those feelings of "will I make it or am I going home?" can bring all kinds of insecurities bubbling to the surface. Then again, Siobhan Magnus was one of the most comfortable-in-their-skin contestants that Idol has ever had, which is why we're thrilled to hear that she's releasing a solo album in the coming months (Halloween, anyone?), with a single that could be out as soon as May! Siobhan has been writing and recording in Nashville, of all places (her pre-Idol band, Lunar Valve, also has new songs up on iTunes), while simultaneously working on a book and planning for a run of summer shows. And we could see some therapy in her future. Kidding!   For the latest on Siobhan, check out her official site, and read on for her no-nonsense take on Elton John night: the good, the great and the pitchy.    I'm not going to pretend, this was the first time I tuned into American Idol since being on the show. I'd seen the contestants’ faces on the commercials, because I watch a lot of Seinfeld on Fox on our basic cable TV, but hadn't heard any of them yet.    It was mainly because I’ve been super busy working on my music, but also, I was kind of apprehensive of how it would make me feel to watch Idol again. Just hearing the theme music in the ads caused a sensation in my belly that put me right back in this mental state of panic -- like it’s my turn and I'm about to go on the show. So that crazy feeling of performing kept me away and also the fear of watching and getting mad, bitter or bratty about it. Like if the judges are really nice to somebody who made the same mistake I did, I would have to cry, “No fair!” And I'm all about justice.    That said, I really like the idea of Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez being there because finally, there are singers on the panel! That makes sense to me, but Steven said a lot of things on Wednesday that had me going, “Huh?” Like when he told one of the finalists, “The first half of that song was amazing! And the second half was amazing, too.”  I was expecting to hear him say, 
“You blew it in the second half,” or, “It was all amazing!” But he separated it. Go figure. It seemed like they could've tried a little harder to give the contestants something to work with so they know what they need to improve. Instead, they were just really, really nice.     Watching Idol on this Elton John night is like when Dorothy finds Oz behind the curtain and he's just this guy. I know the tricks, but as much as there's a certain magic and mystery that's gone, there's a new magic because you know how much goes into it. So it's like having a whole new respect for the show.    Scotty McCreary (“Country Comfort”): I might not have been extremely impressed with Scotty’s performance, but after watching everybody, I realized how important that tone is – it’s so perfect for the mainstream country route and he’s got it down. If you closed your eyes, you'd think it was an actual country star. Out of everybody, I thought Thia and Scotty had the most mature voices, then I learned they're also the youngest! I can't even fathom… Idol was the hardest thing I ever did and I was 20. Godspeed, child.    Scotty thanked his grandma and that’s just syrup on the pancake. I did it when my grandma came. You have to. I was only there because of her support. You can't really top that feeling of having your grandparents be so proud of you.    Naima Adedapo (“I’m Still Standing”): Because I’d never heard her before, my first question to my mom was "Did she always have that accent?” I was told it was just for the song, but I've heard people try to fake an island accent before and it's so easy to sound like you're an idiot, but Naima did it so effortlessly it almost sounded natural. It wasn't the most vocally astounding thing, but it was comfortable and it reminded me of something you do on an awards show, like say Teen Choice. I wanted Shaggy to come out or something.   But I thought it was a really cool version. I know that they ragged on her turning it into a reggae song, but that's a big part of being a musician. I feel like whenever people really change the arrangement, they go after them. But all it really shows me is proof of musicianship. I thought about when Todrick Hall sang Kelly Clarkson’s "Since U Been Gone" last season and totally changed it up. They were like, “It wasn't even the same song, what did you do?” And he was telling them, " I thought you told us to make it our own?" For that reason, I liked what Naima said afterwards. "I like my thing, you like your thing..." I've been in that spot before.   Paul McDonald (“Rocket Man”): I was thinking before the episode started about how you can look at Idol in two different ways: are we trying to find the best singer stylistically or the best singer technically? Because if it’s stylistically, which it’s pretty much been for the last two years, then it’s just a matter of opinion. But take these people completely out of the American Idol context, then ask who is the best “singer,” and there is no question that it’s Jacob Lusk, from what I saw I saw last night.    But Paul has a unique style to his voice. It's this indie, eclectic, almost like a likes a Belle and Sebastian sound. As if he’s trying to say, "I don't sing like the guy in Nickelback." But I wish he would just sing. I want to hear his real, honest voice in its purest form, like you're five years old singing along with Barney and just shouting it out! To me, it seemed forced to sing a song like “Rocket Man” and be whispering through some of it. In the context of his own concert, that could be really cool. It's odd to say that because I heard it about myself and my own Idol peers. Like, “If that was the middle of your set, it would be cool,” but Paul’s wasn't a standout performance.    Pia Toscano ("Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me"): Good for her! She was the first person to come out truly powerful. No one else really belted with that strong a voice. And I was waiting for it. I thought her performance was fantastic. And I know it's really scary when everyone wants to show their softer side. It's easy to get lost among that trend. That's why James Durbin stood out. But it was important that Pia belted the way she did because if she hadn't, her performance could have easily been overlooked. Still, it was it was a lot more Fergie than Axl Rose to me.   Stefano Langone (“Tiny Dancer”): He got off to a bit of a rough start and no one said anything. All I could think was, If Simon was there, he would’ve mentioned that Stefano was a bit pitchy at first, but he pulled it together. With his voice, I want to see him hold out a long note without running off the end of it. It sounded to me like he wasn't breathing properly and he was running out of breath. I want to hear him hold a power note without the run at the end. But he does have a very nice tone.    And, of course, we all know it's good to get brownie points from the judges. He clearly was thinking about having to get more into it and “connect.” I can imagine that moment: reminding yourself of all the things that [vocal coaches] Dorian [Holley] and [Debra] Byrd said, like, "Don't do your best during dress rehearsal," while you’re there thinking "OK, sell it, milk it, connect, baby!”   Lauren Alaina (“Candle in the Wind”): First, a side-note about Lauren’s performance: I cannot believe that they get in-ears! I was outraged, furious and wanted to cry. We did not have in ears. You couldn't hear yourself for shit sometimes! That was the hardest part of watching the show -- seeing all the things they got to do that we didn't get because told us “No” all the time. Oh well, like my mom says: "Life's a witch and then you fly."   So back to Lauren, I felt a significant lack of connection in her performance. The look on her face didn't convince me. I don’t know if she was really scared, because it can be really intimidating taking on a song by a legend like Elton John -- you don't even go there most of the time. And being so young, I understand that terror of responsibility, where you better not mess it up or all those purists will be mad. I think it got to her because it just wasn’t convincing. Honestly it was probably the least memorable song of the night to me. That's not saying that she doesn’t have a good voice, but as they tell you at this point, it’s not just about being a good singer.    James Durbin (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”): It was funny, because obviously that's the one that my mom likes, and I knew that going into it. It’s pretty obvious why: he's one of the only people who was really having fun tonight. It wasn't the most vocally impressive song, but there were moments when it was like, “OK, you don't need to serenade me with a ballad for me to know that you can sing.” Not to mention the piano on fire! Again, frustration. [The producers] would tell us that you can't have pyro around minors and that's why I couldn't have any. I would say all the time, “Let's get a smoke machine!” and they'd be, like, “Ha ha,” but I meant it. I wanted a smoke machine! Also, it was refreshing to see someone really use all the space, the whole stage and the crowd because so many of the performances were pretty mellow songs and the singer really stationary.   The comparisons to Adam Lambert are pretty obvious. I'm sure I'm not the first genius to pick up on that. And it just goes to show: Adam left such a footprint on the show that no matter the season, whoever really stands out as an individual, be it with their appearance or being really theatrical in their performance, it’s always going to come back to Adam's time on the show. It’s an inevitable comparison. As the show grows, people leave behind a stamp, they're part of it. It's amazing for Adam that he's been without a doubt one of the most influential contestants the show has ever had. There aren't really that many other people that contestants get compared to as immediately, but if you’re someone, like James, who’s bombastic and theatrical, they say Adam.    Now, there were some parts of James' movements that didn’t look as comfortable as Adam seemed on the stage. There were times when he looked the slightest bit apprehensive, like when he jumped off the piano. To me, that was like he wanted to slide on his knees and at the last second went, “Maybe not.” I was just thinking of Tim Urban at home going, “Why didn't I jump on the piano?!”    Thia Megia (“Daniel”): I was a total sucker for Thia’s performance. First, there’s that rich tone to her voice, and I loved in her package how she dedicated the song to her brother. I can totally relate because I miss my big brother all the time, and so I was excited that she had some inspiration behind it. Still, it connecting so much until the very end. There was the last verse, which repeats, and it was as if she just remembered exactly what she was singing about and who she was singing for. It was like a switch turned on, and yes, she was singing literally to 22 million viewers, but really, it was to her brother. It felt different and I was so pleased that she got to that before it was too late. It made an impression on me, especially that she’s only 15. I couldn't believe it!    Casey Abrams (“Your Song”): When it comes to Elton John, “Your Song” is one that everybody knows. And as scary as it is to do an unknown song, because everybody warns you, “Oh, people don't like what they don't know!” It's just as scary to do the most popular one because it's like, bring on the comparisons. But one of my first thoughts was of a new version of “Your Song" by Ellie Goulding which is a hit in England. Her voice is not big or that powerful but her delivery and the sweet video is almost enchanting. So I wondered if he was aware that someone else has a hit with this song right now? That makes it even scarier. Regardless, he made it into his own thing, and my favorite part was the note he ended on. I think Randy called it out as a major nine, something for the music nerds, and I  thought back to my music theory classes. A lot of the time, people want the safe ending or the home stretch, but Casey’s was very jazzy way to end and I thought it was so cool. It's details like that which make you stand out -- that musicianship.    Jacob Lusk (“Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word”): Jacob is such an amazing singer and his delivery is like no one else's, really. You can't even describe it. There's like this sadness to it. And, though I hadn’t seen his previous performances, I took note of what they in his video package when Jimmy [Iovine] warned him against being too dramatic or over the top. So watching him physically as he sang, it looks like he was holding back his body -- like his arms wanted to come up, but he was so aware of doing to much. It kind of killed me a little. I just wanted to scream, “Come on, let those arms fly!” Because I remember my first audition at the stadium when they told me, “That was good, but can you sing something with your eyes open, please?” I never had somebody tell me to try to restrain my own emotion as I sang. To tell someone to hold back seems so wrong. Maybe his past performances were a little much, but there has to be a healthy medium because it was almost like he was held down in some invisible force field – like he wanted to break loose, but his body was stiff. Jacob’s very last note was a little much, he could've cut it a little shorter, but I can understand that he was into it and a little out of breath. Honestly, in the moment, there's no reason to stop singing until you absolutely have to.    Haley Reinhart (“Benny and the Jets”): Haley was probably the most comfortable girl tonight. She has this easy, relaxed, cool vibe going on. The only bad thing about that is the ending was a little sloppy. I felt like she wasn't taking it completely seriously with the way she held the "S" out in “Jets” and kind of smirked. I could see you ending it like that in your rehearsal, but for the show, you have to really be in it. She's having fun and that definitely played very well on stage. Being on top of the piano was cool, because most of the other singers didn't move very much. I think she need to apply that to a song that really means something to her, but not necessarily in a sad, dreary way. – even an upbeat song that has a very strong message she can attach to. Like, convince me that you really love what you're singing about.    But she has a strong voice and my dad made a comment about the growl, which she did an awful lot of. You have to be careful not to hurt your throat. Also, you don't want to do it too much where it’s like, “OK, you've been growling at me for a while…” It was a little much.   I have to say, Paul, Stefano and Lauren were my bottom three, but just like any of us would say after being there, you never know. I hope Naima is safe because I'm really intrigued by her. I know some people weren't crazy about it, but I think it was really brave. She's refreshingly creative.    These guys are all going through hell right now. This point is the difference between having your life completely changed or just kind of. At this moment, any one of them could grab onto this and run with it. That's the amazing part about the whole Idol experience --  it's almost as though it's up you and how bad you want this right now. You could have it all. It’s right here, you’re tasting it everyday.    But it’s more than just about singing. At this point, you’re being really conscious of every move you make. It's a crazy balancing act because you’re having to maintain this calm, cool, collected attitude and you're meeting new people every single day. At the same time, when they dump you off at you  apartment or a hotel at the end of the day and you're actually alone by for a minute, you’re like, “Oh my God.” You manage to make one phone call home before you pass out or you have to practice your song more. This is definitely the turning point so my heart is with all of them. I know what it was like: it's the biggest challenge and the weirdest, hardest, loneliest but most exhilarating thing I've ever done.