"Idol," Chapter Two: The Girls Can Do It Too, Y'all
by Mark T.R. Donohue
If you're following "American Idol" this season, you've already heard it from people besides me. There is an NBA Eastern Conference/Western Conference-like divide between the talent pool of men and women in the competition this year. There were four performers in Wednesday night's show who were clearly an order of magnitude above any of the male singers who got their feet wet Tuesday. If I wasn't scoring on separate curves for the two groups, I would have to resort to hexadecimal numerals to fairly rate Sabrina Sloan, LaKisha Jones, Gina Glocksen, and Melinda Doolittle against male standouts A.J. Tabaldo and Chris Sligh. I don't think Jones is a shoo-in for the crown as Simon Cowell apparently does, but I do think it would be shocking if the eventual winner isn't one of the ladies, and indeed one of the four I just mentioned.
The women's group was better on its first studio night both by average performance quality across the board and the number of standout performances. However, Wednesday's "American Idol" episode was somewhat less satisfactory as a piece of television. In the wide-open men's field, it's possible to imagine anyone besides the outclassed Sundance Head getting their stuff together and riding on into the finals. Every guy on the men's squad has both strengths and weaknesses, and that makes prognosticating how things will play out in that group a lot more fun. The next few ladies' nights, however, you might as well go watch "George Lopez" if it's drama you crave. Obviously, it'll be worth tuning in to see the gifted four jockey for position. But if any of the group of Doolittle, Glocksen, Jones, and Sloan get booted before any of the eight other (semi?)finalists, it'll be an injustice. The talent gap between that group and the best of the rest (probably Stephanie Edwards) is yawning.
Stephanie Edwards The guys' group almost to a man picked safe, uninspiring material for their first time on the "Idol" stage. Edwards began the women's evening by setting a precedent for contestants biting off more than they could safely chew. She chose the (great) Prince b-side "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore" and performed it in an arrangement that mostly followed the Alicia Keys cover version, although she did win some points with me by throwing in a few Artist-like exhortations to the audience. The trouble is, both Alicia and His Purpleness just completely sing the piss out of that song and Edwards has some very obvious deficiencies that left her take a poor echo. While she certainly has a powerful instrument, she tended to close her throat and sing in sharp barks rather than sustaining and finishing off longer notes as forcefully as they began. Towards the end of the song her inability to really power through and finish each note as strong as she began it led to some nearly ruinous glissandos. Nevertheless, an order of magnitude better than Tuesday's leadoff male contestant Rudy Cardenas. 7
Amy Krebs* While it was worth taking the time to try and break down the strengths and weaknesses of even the fair to middling male contestants, no miracle comeback is in the offing for Krebs. She sang what sounded like a country tune -- well, it had slide guitar in it, anyway -- but in an affectless, generic ballad style. The song was a poor choice for her register, starting off in a low alto band where she could barely work up enough steam to be heard, and then when she did work up into her money range she had already lost the plot. She didn't move around very much either. Randy Jackson said she was "better than the song she chose," so maybe I missed something. There may be two girls more obviously cannon fodder than she, but not many more than two. 4
Leslie Hunt At first it seemed like the story of the first women's show was going to be which pretty good singer would be savvy enough to not shoot themselves in the foot by picking a song they had no business considering. Hunt might have made the most egregious overreach, somehow thinking she could take on "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman." It goes without saying that no one can outsing Aretha Franklin, but I've also always been a fan of Carole King's recording of the song. It lacks the huge fireworks obviously of the Queen of Soul's version, but it has a certain everywoman quality to it that's beautiful. Nobody is going to win "American Idol" singing like Carole King, and maybe that's too bad. For Hunt and the other wannabes who simply don't have the genetic gift to simply wrestle a song to the ground and beat it into submission, they need to reconsider the old aphorism involving the dubious wisdom of remaining in kitchens while overly sensitive to heat. I don't know what their other options might be, however. It seems all too clear even after one studio show apiece that while one or two of the guys might well ride in on their looks and personality to the final four, whomever wins the ladies' division is going to be a singer. Hunt was technically solid but just staying on key isn't enough to win the "American Idol" Western Conference. 6
Sabrina Sloan The first of the real contenders, Sloan was wise enough to not try and scale the face of one of the most famous female lead vocals in history like Hunt. It will take further viewing to try and gain real separation among the fearsome foursome I've already listed. My sense now is that while Sloan has a marginally less impressive instrument than Doolittle, Jones, or Glocksen, she compensates for it with the most self-assured persona on stage. She's not one of the more vigorous physical performers by a long shot, but each of her small movements was forceful and confident. It's impossible to say after only one full performance, but I also think she might be the cream of the class when it comes to selecting and arranging material. Her spin on "Never Loved a Man the Way That I Love You," a song with which I must admit I am not familiar, suited her strengths smartly. Unlike the tendency of the lesser female contestants to weakly whisper a first verse in their head voice and then simply open up and holler from the first chorus on through to the end, Sloan dialed it back a bit for the bridge, a fresh-sounding decision. Looking forward, she can't afford a single mistake with her song choices if she wishes to keep pace with the forces of nature that are Jones and Doolittle. 9
Antonella Barba It wasn't a fiasco on the level of Sundance Head's Hindenburg-like "Nights in White Satin," but Barba gets the booby prize for Wednesday night. Simon Cowell even explicitly informed her that she had blown it and would not be coming back, not that he in fact has any say in the matter. (One of the most amusing subtle conceits of the show is the fact that the imperious Cowell is stuck with the results of the fan voting just as much as everybody else once the studio segments begin.) Yes, well. Barba isn't a good singer and picked just about the direst piece of dreary played-out garbage imaginable ("I Don't Want to Miss a Thing," of course popularized by Aerosmith but in fact written by pop pablum peddler Diane Warren). Sometimes I can get past my hatred for a song, but not this song, and certainly not for this singer. Barba isn't in the same class as any of the others, even her fellow also-rans. I wonder how she possibly made it this far? 3
Jordin Sparks As soon as I heard the intro, I knew Sparks was going to face an uphill battle to win my approval. "Give Me One Reason" isn't just my favorite of all the songs I've heard performed on "American Idol" this season so far, but it's also the only one I've performed on stage myself, with my college band the Johnson Administration. I wouldn't go so far as to say I myself can sing the song better than Jordin Sparks, but the whole time she was doing her thing I was really wishing I was listening to Tracy Chapman. On the plus side, Sparks seems to have a rare gift among "Idol" contenders. She can take criticism and respond to it. During her audition, Cowell said her singing style was far too sugary for his tastes, and she picked a blues song and sang it with some grit. It wasn't the right blues song, alas. 6
Nicole Tranquillo Randy Jackson's response to "Stay" as sung by Traquillo was "too urban." Dude, it's OK, you can just say black. Everyone knows that euphemism by now. I didn't think that was the problem, anyway, but rather a chain of very blue, almost purple notes and an onstage tendency to stay rooted to one spot, vaguely bounding to create the illusion of movement. A lightweight. 5
Haley Scarnato* Once again, a contestant whose song choice reach rather exceeded their grasp. Celine Dion is a truly pernicious force in the universe (which of course is true of all French Canadian people), but if there's anything worse than hearing one of her cheesy numbers sung by the genuine article, it's hearing it sung by a clearly outclassed "American Idol" also-ran. Scarnato in fact did admirably well with her pitch control, but she didn't manage to land a single line in the verse properly on any measure beyond the first. She continued to have timing problems all the way through to the end. Scarnato among the average-to-average-plus girls might have the easiest route to significant improvement. She picked a tune that she could neither sing particularly well nor apparently remember perfectly. That's the trouble with the "Idol" Western Conference though. Scarnato could turn around and give the performance of her life next week and she still wouldn't be able to reach the heavy hitters with a science pole. 6
Melinda Doolittle The first word I wrote down was PWNAGE. Which I suppose is not a word, strictly speaking, but it gets the point across. Doolittle did "Since You Been Gone" and while I waited until the very end to make sure she really earned her 10, she didn't hit a single note sharp or flat and she was the first performer yet to make it past the obligatory end-of-song excessive display of vocal fluidity without errantly producing unpleasant noises here and there. Doolittle was actually able to go out even further with her outro ad-libbing without ever seeming out of control. If Doolittle has a problem it might be that her booming voice comes out too easily; the judges were more impressed by the more clearly straining LaKisha Jones. Doolittle is a pro backing singer by trade (like a lot of the frontrunners on both sides of the gender gap) and she needs to be proactive about shedding her meek supporting-player persona. She is not a supporting player. She is a star, for sure. I honestly don't know if she is my pick to win it all right now. Jones is very close and Sloan and Glocksen are not to be discounted. She simply sang the only flawless piece of music in the whole evening, so she gets the only perfect score. I hope to be able to spread more tens around next week. 10
Alaina Alexander Right before the post-Doolittle break, Ryan Seacrest, the second-most expensive stage prop on the "Idol" set after the jumbo flat screen, announced that the next two artists whose work was to be covered were The Pretenders (yay) and Celine Dion again (nay). The next two singers scheduled to walk out were SoCal mall chick Alaina Alexander and the pink-streaked-haired, tattoo-bearing Gina Glocksen. Of course, it was Alexander singing the classic rock "Brass in Pocket" and Glocksen tackling the dire "All By Myself." Infinite diversity in infinite combinations, it's a beautiful thing, ladies and gentlemen. Chrissie Hynde is just one of the toughest, sexiest rock chicks to ever practice sneering in the mirror and "Brass in Pocket" is her most confident declaration of self. Alexander's deconstruction of it slowed the tempo, un-rocked the guitars, and gave it such a generic karaoke delivery that I'm surprised young Alaina didn't introduce the piece by dedicating it to all her best girlfriends in Ms. Ellis's homeroom. Lame! 4
Gina Glocksen It's odd, but while there are a number of contestants in the men's group who I find to be pretty easy on the eyes, as for the girls, there ain't a real looker in the bunch. I'm choosing Glocksen as my "Idol" crush because she kind of looks like Tina Majorino, she's from my 'hood (Naperville, IL), and...well, she's in my dating weight class. She is definitely pretty enough that I would date her and not so pretty that she wouldn't date me. Of course, soon she'll have a record contract and it'll all be moot, but allow me my fun. (Oh yeah, for those of you who don't know, I'm 26. It's OK for me to lust after any "Idol" contestants except for Sanjaya Malakar and Jordin Sparks, the two minors in the competition.) Okay, and on to Glocksen's actual merits as a singer. Like Chris Sligh, my current favorite over on the guys' side, Glocksen has a voice you'd don't expect to hear based on her appearance. Randy Jackson had the exact same response as I to her performance. We both thought "All By Myself" would chew her up and spit her out, but she really nailed it. In pure ability she lags slightly behind the Jones/Doolittle axis and a little bit out in front of Sloan. She's not super self-assured onstage yet but not insignificantly she's the most glib and charming speaker among the four heavyweights. Oversized paperweight Seacrest asked her how confident she felt about the big finish to "All By Myself" beforehand. "About a 6," Glocksen said. Afterwards? "About a 12." 9
LaKisha Jones LaKisha Jones fits an established archetype -- real big black girl with a even bigger voice -- only she's too obviously talented to start classifying her by her appearance. And, for the record, while Jones is undeniably zaftig, she's still one of the sexier women in the cast. If she ends up collaborating with C + C Music Factory down the line, they won't feel the need to recast her part in the video with an anorexic Asian woman. I think in overall potential Jones is neck and neck with Doolittle and ahead of the other two, but I didn't give her the highest score possible for Wednesday night. While the judges were immoderate in heaping praise on the single mom, I don't know how they managed to miss the horrible creak-wheeze that emerged from Jones' remarkable lungs in place of the last couple bars of "And I Am Telling You, I'm Not Going." She got all the way to the finish line and then collapsed spectacularly, like in that triathlon ad. So that's going to cost her this time around, but the rest of her number, as Cowell said, has "thrown down the gauntlet" for the rest of the "Idol" hopefuls. 8
Well, the results show is tonight! Who's excited? A pointless additional hour of product placements to get to a mere four names! And here are the picks:
Homes (sophisticated analysis): Sundance Head, Nick Pedro, Antonella Barba, Alaina Alexander
Research Department (looking at headshots): Sundance Head, Jared Cotter, Melinda Doolittle, Sabrina Sloan
12-Sided Die: Brandon Rogers, Rudy Cardenas, Leslie Hunt, Sabrina Sloan
I'll get my sister Ellie's picks up soon. Play along at home!