Let no one say I don't learn from my mistakes. After only one week of writing about "American Idol" (and only two weeks, ever, of watching it), I was naive enough to assume that the show's being a singing contest would lead to those contestants who flat-out couldn't sing getting eliminated first. Well, of course not. It's a popularity contest. Singing an entire song flat, forgetting the words, or even falling off the stage and doing a faceplant in Paula Abdul's lap (a scary thought) are not fatal mistakes. The only thing you absolutely cannot afford to do is be boring, and that's what cost Rudy Cardenas and Paul Kim their chance at another week in the pressure cooker. With that in mind, let's take a look at the performances from a Tuesday night show that somewhat redeemed the good reputations of the male semifinalists after a very rough outing last week at this time.
Phil Stacey Every returning male contestant (except Sundance Head, who probably only hoped to spare himself further embarassment) must have spent the whole weekend ruminating about how wide open the field is. Not one of these men is so talented as to make him a prohibitive favorite to advance; not one doesn't have it in him to get into a groove and ride it all the way to the final four. Stacey probably gave the best pure vocal performance of the first week but was saddled with the undesirable closing slot. He also has a handicap about which there's nothing he can really do. He's neither good-looking enough to be a sex symbol nor funny-looking enough to be endearing. Like the whole male cast, tonight he raised his game from last week, opening up nicely in the coda and continuing to showcase his fine mixture of power and control. Stacey has a style that's distinctive and unlike some of the younger contestants he knows what he's trying to do out there, knows how he wants to sell himself, but I suspect he might be a little too middle-of-the-road for his own good. Kind of what you'd expect from the singer in a military band. This week every contestant was supposed to dedicate their tune to someone in their lives and Stacey was the only man not to pick a family member. He sent it out to his unit. Well, he'll be back with them soon enough, through no fault of his own. 8
Jared Cotter Last week the luck of the draw put the guys with really excellent vocal instruments all in a row towards the end of the show. This week, four of the first five singers were blasters -- and then during the second half a number of guys like Chris Richardson and Head revealed previously unsuspected power reserves. Cotter erred big-time with his song selection this time out. First of all, dedicating "Let's Get It On" to your parents is deeply strange. Second of all, Cotter neutralized his advantage as one of the better pure singers in the group by picking a falsetto-heavy number. His falsetto isn't anywhere near as strong as his voice in its natural range, and while straining to get the high notes right, he somehow managed to render the great composition of 70's R&B completely soulless. Simon Cowell compared it to a performance by the cabaret act in a "Love Boat" episode, and he wasn't far off the mark. Jack Black sang this song much better in High Fidelity. 6
A.J. Tabaldo At least Tabaldo wasn't propositioning his folks through song, but I don't see what "Feeling Good" has to do with familial bonds. Of course, there are no more rules to the voting than there are to MVP balloting in pro sports. Viewers weren't instructed to penalize contestants for not successfully executing the dedication concept, and I doubt very many did. Tabaldo is doing everything he can to sabotage his great voice. For some reason he chose an arrangement that began with a very long, very tedious intro where he sang accompanied only by a high-pitched synthesizer. This section was so musically minimal that I couldn't determine the quality (i.e., major vs. minor) of the chords and neither could Tabaldo. He was adrift until the song proper kicked in, after which he was awesome. While Cotter tried to beat us over the head with his mediocre falsetto, Tabaldo flew up two octaves almost casually on one line. With the competition getting fiercer every week, and a number of guys I had completely written off leaping back into contention this time around, A.J. doesn't have as much time as he thinks to work out his personality and repertoire issues. 7
Sanjaya Malakar While the swinging "Steppin' Out" was a brave and eccentric choice for the baby of the male cast, he had neither the life experience nor the instrument to sing it well. He also made a poor decision covering up one of his major assets, his lovely flowing locks, with a silly-looking hat. At least he got the dedication thing right -- it was his tribute to the music of the era in which his late grandfather came of age -- but despite a very unchallenging melody he still couldn't stay in key. Cowell didn't mince words, calling it "ghastly," and while I wouldn't be quite that blunt it sure wasn't very good. Malakar's voice even when on pitch is just very, very thin. Somehow I suspect I will have to listen to it still for many weeks to come, though, most likely at the expense of one of the guys I really enjoy. Sigh. It's just like high school, it really is. 4
Chris Sligh Looking over my notes from last week, I asked myself, "Is Chris Sligh really as good a singer as I think he is?" I talked about it last week, but I still fall into a trap where subconsciously I correct myself. With not a lot of sparkling performances surrounding him last time around, it might have been easy to let Sligh's extreme likability seep into my supposedly isolated evaluation of his merits as a vocalist. Well, this is the last time I'm going to talk about this. Yes, he can sing. Is he as good as Tabaldo or Stacey? Maybe not, but he's #3 with a bullet among the group that remains and he could crush either in terms of both personality and, y'know, by sitting on them. Of course now I have to ask myself whether I am subliminally kicking Sligh's scores up because I want to see more of his hot wife. While watching Sligh sing "Trouble," dedicated to the little missus, I thought he seemed pretty stiff at the microphone for too much of it. But then during the commercial break I reconsidered his strategy. Sligh could bound around all over the place and last a long time in the tournament on the strength of his tweaks of Cowell alone. (To tell you the truth, I'm a little surprised he didn't dedicate his song to Simon, although that might have been a bit much.) If he wants to win, though, he needs people to really listen to his voice, which is great. Or maybe he doesn't. Like I said, it is a popularity contest, and it says a lot that at this point in the competition the contestant I'd most like to hang out with is Chris Sligh. I totally get how he scored that looker of a spouse. That's the big-picture stuff. As far as his song this week goes, although Sligh certainly seemed invested in it, it wasn't overall his best performance in terms of pitch control and animation. 8
Nick Pedro I really nailed Pedro to the wall last week for being generic. He heard me, or at least someone else saying the same thing, and picked the off-the-wall "Fever," which is usually sung by women and is a rhythmically sneaky, difficult song with which to assert yourself. Pedro's attempt at letting his personality shine through was somewhat outshined by the drummer from the house band, but at least Nick knows what it is on which he needs to work. Truthfully he came across more as smarmy than anything else. Smarm might be the lowest form of self-awareness, but it's a step in the right direction. Cowell is right with me, paying special attention to Pedro's "charisma issue." No one is contending that Pedro is a technically skilled singer who hits his notes and the tops of bars properly. If he makes the "Vote for Pedro!" joke one more time, though, I am going to have to have him killed. I think the chances are better than even that the voters will not give him that opportunity, so good luck for us both there. Nana Visitor sang this song much better on "Deep Space Nine." 7
Blake Lewis This guy is playing the game better than anybody right now. On the first night of the semifinals, when he had the least risk of getting voted away, he did a real tough ballad. Now that he comes back with a tune right in his happy place ("Virtual Insanity") it's as if he's come from absolutely nowhere to reach contender status, but in truth he's been planning this all along. Lewis's guile even extended to the outfit he chose. He wore a dippy-hippie ensemble complete with little round hat to deliberately recall the style of Jamiroquai's Jay Kay, but then put a stamp that was entirely his own on Kay's song. When he filled the song's bridge with his skillful beatboxing and vocal scratching, he came back full circle to the talent that distinguished him in the auditions and the Hollywood round. What's more, he has sweet diction -- I never understood half the words to this song back when I was hearing the original version all the time. All right, on the downside he's one of the weaker technical singers among the group that remains and after Malakar he probably hit the most blue notes on the evening but it hardly mattered. I completely disagree with Cowell's assessment that it was a "copycat performance." I wrote it in my notes, and I'll repeat it here: Blake Lewis has arrived. 9
Brandon Rogers I think the vaguely hunky Rogers is fading; "Time After Time" was sort of a softball choice and I don't understand the dedication to his late grandmother. I like Rogers' delivery, which has a bit of a signature hitch to it, but I don't know how many others will feel the same way. He sang the song accurately and ended well, but, like Randy Jackson said, on the whole it was "kinda boring." Rogers doesn't have it in him apparently to stretch a song out on the ground, mount it, and start humping it vigorously the way the judges implore all the contestants to do. I think that's to his credit, but it's not how you win friends and influence people on "American Idol." Ethan Suplee sang this song much better on "My Name Is Earl." 7
Chris Richardson It's funny but not at all surprising that the lily-white Richardson is the most overtly hip-hop-influenced of the male contestants. The judges liked his "Geek in the Pink" a lot more than I did but I will say that Richardson is keeping pace with all of the other males who have improved exponentially since last week. Richardson invested his tweedy little tenor with some unexpected power this time out, and more than anything he impressed with his confidence. He walks up to the mic like he belongs right in front of it, and he barely has to gesture to get the audience to stand up and move their feet. He's reaching still on his falsetto and needs to work in some sincerity and/or vulnerability to round out his stage persona. I was thinking we'd see some separation among the males this week as we did right off the bat with the females, but I'm more confused than ever. 8
Sundance Head He's back from the dead! I could criticize Head for picking the hoariest bar band song in the history of civilization ("Mustang Sally") but after his meltdown last week he needed to knock one out of the park so who's to really quibble with his selecting a freebie. I take more issue with his manipulative attempt to raise tears while dedicating the tune to his infant son. In any event it was night and day from last time and Head succeeded in redeeming himself after getting second chance after second chance from first the judges and then last week the voters. As an enthusiastic but technically limited singer myself I know the secret to karaoke is picking something where you shred your vocal cords to the point where no one can even tell if you are singing in key any longer. Because you're not really singing, you see, you're shouting. (My go-to tune is "Twist and Shout," but "Mustang Sally" works equally well.) Head is a better singer than I am, maybe, but he needs to be at least this good every show from here on out to stay in the game. Either that or he needs to perform with his baby in his arms on stage. I think the latter is probably easier. 7
Tomorrow: We learn whether Antonella Barba's future is as a model or a singer and discuss whether Jennifer Hudson's Oscar is the final proof that whatever you do, you don't actually want to win "American Idol," you just want to have a solid run to the finals.