You know that Busta Rhymes song where he's babbling about switching it on flipmode style at the beginning? That's a good song. Week two of the studio round of "American Idol" completed an unexpected reversal that began on Tuesday night. During the first week, the male contestants were underwhelming to the last man, and except for a few stragglers the women really impressed. Wednesday night's live show wasn't quite as brutal as the first week's guys' show, but it didn't hold a candle to the surprisingly entertaining second men's night. A lot of the really good female contestants must be feeling too secure, because every one of the Big Four I identified last week -- LaKisha Jones, Gina Glocksen, Melinda Doolittle, and Sabrina Sloan -- declined from the last time out. At the same time, no one from the field really stepped up to fill the void. It was a pretty dull evening on the whole, although the number of contestants who flat-out can't sing is getting lower. It might take a cut or two more before the serious contenders start to feel the icy grip of fear and things get interesting.
Gina Glocksen My sentimental favorite among the women, Glocksen did "How Do I Get You Alone" in unsuitably bipolar fashion. She whispered the verse and then immediately went 0 to 75, oversinging the heck out of the chorus. Her outfit didn't match the song and while this shouldn't really be used as ammunition against her, when they showed her boyfriend (to whom she dedicated the performance) he looked like a total shemp. How come Chris Sligh has a smokin' hot wife and the comely Glocksen is attached to some no-neck? Weird. Then again I myself look like an emaciated marionette version of Bill Gates and I do just fine with the ladies, thank you very much. This is my way of saying that I don't have a ton to say either positive or negative about Glocksen this week. Simon Cowell offered that he was confused about what image Glocksen was trying to present, and I see some merit to that. She's safe for now. 7
Alaina Alexander Boy, Wednesday night had a lot of performances that were neither particularly good nor bad enough to be worthy of special notice. I wish that the voters could eliminate four women instead of two this week. Alexander would be one of them. She sang "Not Ready to Make Nice," the Dixie Chicks' sassy anti-Bush number, but in a typically airless SoCal fashion that drained whatever Dixie still was left in the Chicks. Not that I am saying Alexander needs to adopt a Nashville style. I would be impressed if she managed to evidence any kind of style at all. Like a lot of the other less gifted female contestants, she operates in that cruise ship cover band kind of territory where all personality and edge is left on the shore. I thought Alexander was at times overpowered by her backing singers (which happened a lot last night), but at least she was trying with her movement. I think her best bet to save a sagging campaign might be to appropriate some Latin rhythms and phrasings into her stuff. I don't know if she's actually Latin (her mother appeared to mouth something to her in Spanish at one point, but I'm no lip reader), but she definitely needs some kind of angle. She's not talented enough to play it straight. 6
LaKisha Jones By contrast LaKisha Jones is absolutely dripping with talent, even if her ill-chosen ensemble made her look like a giant rubber eraser with two tiny pushpins for legs. Jones did "Midnight Train to Georgia," a song I've always disliked because of its antifeminist sentiments. (Travis Morrison noted this brilliantly in the lyrics to the Dismemberment Plan's "The Ice of Boston." Man, I am having a fantasy about an "Idol" contestant singing a Plan song -- that would be so amazing. Now I guess I'm going to have to audition for the show, I guess, because who else is going to do it?) Jones stayed right in the pocket for her "Midnight Train" and on the whole the effect was kind of wishy-washy. That's surprising, after last week I wouldn't have thought Jones capable of being this ordinary. I guess I hold her to a higher standard because she's so obviously the cream of the class. 7
Melinda Doolittle I don't know about her chances to win the title, but Doolittle is rapidly becoming one of the more fascinating characters on the show. She has a gift for seeming unassuming, but don't think for a second that she isn't aware of it. She's a pro and knows completely what she's doing. Her dedication video revealed that she has a stylist and vocal coach who plan out her outfits top to bottom to make sure she gives off exactly the right vibe. I wonder how Doolittle's practiced act strikes other people. Personally, I couldn't be more conscious of how contrived "American Idol" is and I say give all available credit to those who play the system rather than allowing the system to play them. Will it dawn on most voters that Doolittle is manipulating them a bit? If so, will their reactions be positive like mine or negative? I don't know, but I am interested to see. Wednesday Doolittle did "My Funny Valentine" and while she couldn't have been better technically the performance simply didn't reach me. I'm used to Elvis Costello's brave, straining version and hearing it sung by a superior vocal talent it felt like it lacked the vulnerability and weirdness I've come to associate with the tune. It's a strange song, when you think about it, which I guess you don't since it's such an established standard. A title like that doesn't really suggest a slow, mournful dirge in a minor key. Doolittle sang it without any subtext and I felt from the first line that I knew exactly where she was going with it. Huge risks and surprises wouldn't fit with Doolittle's whole self-managed image, but that's just where I'm coming from. 7
Antonella Barba Barba has built a voracious fanbase in all the wrong ways, but who's to say she isn't playing the furthest-out game of them all? Wouldn't that be a trip, if she deliberately leaked sex photos of herself to artificially prolong her "Idol" stint? I think that might be too Machiavellian even for this show. In Season 6 anyway. Wait a cast or two and see what happens now that the idea is out there. Going in to last night's show I wanted to offer Barba every opportunity to give me something to write about besides her holiday snaps, but no luck. I think she sang "Because You Loved Me" as well as she possibly could, but that's not saying much because she's not a good singer. She's more obviously unmusical than any of the other ladies, seemingly having difficulty negotiating the distinction between major and minor scales and wandering all over the map in terms of balancing her head voice and her chest voice. She needs a vocal coach; she'll probably get a movie career. 5
Jordin Sparks Maybe I'm too cynical, but I felt Sparks' tearful dedication to her brother was a bit of an act. Whatever, I love my sisters too, I'm not going to go all into hysterics about it. Sparks is the youngest of the female contestants and this week singing "My Reflection" she used her youthfulness and vulnerability to her advantage. I don't think she's the best singer in the cast by a wide margin but in a night marked by missed opportunities her solid and emotional outing was a standout. It was a poor performance technically but she sold it well and it was nice to see some passion on a stage more accustomed to attention-getting stunts. Eight seems high when I look at my scores all in a list, but then again I honestly can't think of anyone who was better than Sparks last night. That speaks more to the disappointing quality of the evening overall than it does to Sparks' talent or lack thereof. 8
Stephanie Edwards The judges, especially Simon of course, didn't care for her song choice but I thought it was great. In a field full of ladies stretching notes over eight measures and three keys at a time, Edwards' "Dangerously in Love" had a quick, rhythmic vocal which was refreshing. Thumbs down on the prom dress, Stephanie, but I love your diction. She fell apart just a little bit at the end but for competently handling a smart song pick on a night where nearly everyone seemed off their game she earns a tie for the highest score of the show. 8
Leslie Hunt I hated it. She did "Feeling Good," which A.J. Tabaldo sang just the night before, and it was a crummy regional theater-level performance with a just plain dreadful scat section at the close. She's doing her thing, but she just doesn't have enough vocal weaponry to hang on in this field. On the other hand, she should feel lucky that she even made it this far. Do you occasionally get the notion that the final 24 contestants are selected less on pure talent than on making sure all of the proper demographic bases are covered? There must have been a below-average selection of winsome white girls this time around. 3
Haley Scarnato Boy, I am really stretching to find things to say about the cannon fodder girls this week. Scarnato did "Queen of the Night." I think she oversang it by a wide margin, although the initial notion of doing a rocker was a good one after three shows of mostly ballads and dance songs. One thing I can say in her favor, Scarnato is very sure of who she is and she does a good job of projecting her personality while she's up on the stage. However, I don't like her personality. 6
Sabrina Sloan Last week after giving it much thought I named Sloan as one of my four favorites among the females, although she was the one about whom I had the most doubts. It's no basis for fair criticism in a singing contest, but Sloan just strikes me as a little off-putting for some reason...I don't know what it is precisely. She's just a little off both in her appearance and her movements. She sang "All the Man I Need" and while she was all over it technically and displayed well her impressive power, it was a perfomance utterly devoid of emotional investment. It just sounded like she was singing along the record. Singing along well, but it takes more than that. She also screwed up the ending pretty badly. The judges and I are alike in that we both tend to be harsher about pitch mistakes made at the beginning or the end of a song rather than in the middle. Paula Abdul called Sloan a "big contender" last night, and while that is the way I felt last week, I'm less sanguine about it after Wednesday night. Going last is risky; your performance can fall completely out of the viewers' minds if you don't seize the day. Last week LaKisha Jones topped off a solid evening by nearly bringing the house down; I wonder if her being slotted much earlier this time didn't weaken her performance a bit. This time Sloan had a golden opportunity after a very unimpressive series of outings to make a big impression. She didn't seize it. She will get more chances, though, she's not out of her league here by any means as some others are. 7
How are our experts doing with their picks so far? Not so great. The first week was obviously kind of a crapshoot, with way more than four contestants richly deserving to be sent home. I went for Sundance, Nick, Antonella, and Alaina and was 0 for 4. Looking back at my notes from last week I'm stunned I didn't pick Amy Krebs. For future reference, I must remember when deciding between two contestants of equal lack of merit like Barba and Krebs, sex appeal is the obvious tiebreaker. Now we're going to be stuck with Barba for weeks to come. Ugh. Anyway, the research department went Sundance, Melinda, Jared, and Sabrina and he wore the collar too. He doesn't watch the show; I just had him look at headshots and single out the ugly ones. At this point we're both getting schooled by the random dice throw, which correctly predicted the demise of Rudy Cardenas. So after Week 1 the scores are Dice 1, Homes 0, Lobes 0. I guess we'll see if I've learned anything with my picks this time around.
Homes: Leslie Hunt, Alaina Alexander, Jared Cotter, Brandon Rogers
Lobes: Melinda Doolittle, Stephanie Edwards, Sundance Head, Chris Sligh
10-Sided Die: Sabrina Sloan, Leslie Hunt, Jared Cotter, Nick Pedro