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"Idol" Tuesday: I Had No Idea Diana Ross Had So Many Crappy Songs
2007-03-14 00:13
by Mark T.R. Donohue

Having not watched a moment of "American Idol" before this season began, I didn't know what to expect from the first "mentor" show, where the producers bring in some publicity-seeking has-been to give the contestants useless advice for their back catalog sales-boosting performances of the has-been's old material. Boy, wasn't Diana Ross a perfect fit? Ross strikes me like the 60's version of an "American Idol" winner. She wasn't the most talented female Motown vocalist nor the most creatively adventurous, but she managed to sustain a long career with an impeccable sense of which way the pop winds were blowing. She left the Supremes just as girl groups were going out of style, she embraced disco at precisely the right time, and her career even extended far enough into the 80's for her to make an imprint on the burgeoning yacht rock scene. On Tuesday night, her wishy-washy advice and effusive praise for all 12 of the "Idol" finalists (particularly the ones not at all deserving of it) got on my nerves, but not nearly as much as the contestants themselves.

Sure, it might seem like forcing the guys to do Diana Ross songs would put them at a disadvantage, but remember, Ross was in the Supremes. This means that virtually the entire Holland/Dozier/Holland catalog was at the contestants' disposal. If you can't find a Holland/Dozier/Holland song that suits your style, you're beyond repair in my view. And yet no "I Hear a Symphony," no "Come See About Me," no "My World Is Empty Without You." Instead we got a number of tepid disco rehashes, way too much representation from Ross's "Endless Love" period and beyond, and to add injury to insult, seemingly no one could remember the words. The low point was Blake Lewis's brain-dead techno reconstruction of "You Keep Me Hangin' On," which erased the HDH melody and tried to hang most of the song on a two-finger, one-chord synth drone. See, that's the trouble with "Idol" these days -- these contestants all know they've as good as made it already. We're getting to see the whole rise-peak-indulge-decline arc of pop stardom all in the course of a couple of weeks. Which is pretty cool, I guess. But I sure wish one of these singers was music-savvy enough to have heard the Afghan Whigs' Uptown Avondale EP and know that Holland/Dozier/Holland doesn't freakin' need modernizing, thank you very much. Even the poodle-coiffed, barely sentient Ms. Ross seemed to despair of convincing any of the finalists to actually read the lyrics they were singing. That might explain why so many of them choked on their words.

Brandon Rogers Rogers started weak on "You Can't Hurry Love" (which when sung by a male of course immediately recalls Phil Collins, not a good role model for Rogers) and reached what I thought would be a low point when the "that" in "that keeps me hanging on" came out sounding like vocal flatulence. Don't we both wish. Brandon completely forgot the words to a whole chunk of the bridge and was unable to recover. Even without the two huge screwups it was a nightmare performance. Rogers' dance moves were stagey and silly-looking. He looked very much like he didn't belong on the giant stage the show moves to beginning with the round of 12. I pegged him to go once before, and I certainly wouldn't be surprised if this was finally his time. If he does hang on, he has it in him to completely recover next time out. It's not like it could possibly have been much worse. 4

Melinda Doolittle First of all, Doolittle is overplaying her hand, big time. Her line about preferring sneakers and sweats to gowns and heels sounded like it was fed to her by her team of coaches, perhaps subcontracting Bruce Vilanch. Her take on "Home" was not at all what I expected to hear from the current "Idol" favorite. It was a terrible choice of song that went directly from a too-hushed part to a shouting marathon, leaving Doolittle no space to demonstrate her superior instrument in its most flattering range. I don't know how many other viewers will have this reaction, but if she doesn't buck up and sing better, her act is going to start wearing mighty thin on me. That said, she didn't totally lose the plot -- she was in key and she did some nice things, particularly her fly-up on the word "real" at the end of one early line. 7

Chris Sligh Sligh's disastrous decision to try and create an on-the-fly mashup of Ross's biggest solo hit, "Endless Love," and Coldplay's HBO commercial song had one kind of positive outcome. That was Randy Jackson displaying amusing cluelessness by naming the Coldplay song incorrectly as "Speed of Sound," not "Clocks" as the syncopated drumbeat should have made patently obvious. Well, most Coldplay songs do sound more or less the same. While Sligh claimed in his taped intro to "not have a nervous bone in [his] body," actions speak louder than words, and he seemed tiny and terrified on the big stage, especially without his trademark glasses. Sligh didn't get a hold of his vocal until the very end of the song, and by then it was too late. A very, very curious choice. I admire his ambition, but I lament his instincts. I bet he could have sang "Come See About Me" really well, too. 5

Gina Glocksen What sick game are the producers playing here, anyway? The judges let Gina have it week after week for not playing up to her image, praised her immoderately for a relatively tame Evanescence song last week, and then with the craven Ross tie-in they forced her to go against type again this week. Ross told her she needed to enunciate better (actually, the word she used repeatedly was "pronunciate," which was pretty entertaining) and yet I could hardly understand a word in Glocksen's interpretation of "Love Child." Then again, I can't really understand most of the words in the Supremes' recording, either. At the very least Glocksen was the first contestant of the evening to look at all comfortable in front of the bigger crowd. Her vocal was pretty typical of her established level, inconsistent with a few pitch howlers here and there but some quite nice bits mixed in as well. 7

Sanjaya Malakar Simon Cowell's strategy to get rid of Malakar, whom he clearly loathes intensely, switched to reverse psychology this week. He was actually the least harsh of the three judges on Sanjaya this time out. And he was right to do so, in a sense, because this was the best Sanjaya has sung since the auditions. He's still terrible, don't get me wrong; unlike anyone else still left in the competition he is an absolute lock to completely lose the melody for entire verses at a stretch. But he did get a little bigger on the big stage and there were a few random pieces of his "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" that I liked. He isn't going anywhere, still, which should inspire some interesting contortions on the part of Cowell next time. Unless his powers are truly contained entirely within his hair and America reacts violently to the perm he sported on Tuesday. 4

Haley Scarnato Ah, here's our cannon fodder. Scarnato changed her hair from last week and honestly when she first started singing I couldn't remember who the heck she was. Simon sarcastically put undue emphasis on her name while critiquing her just to demonstrate that he had indeed made a point of learning it, although I'm not sure why he bothered. Scarnato's voice would be completely overwhelmed by some of your more elaborate windchime assemblies, to say nothing of the expanded "Idol" band with big horn and string sections. She forgot some of the words to "Missing You" and compellingly collapsed into the best waterworks since the Hollywood cuts after her performance mercifully concluded. As far as her technical merits are concerned, after starting out wispy when she tried to slip into high gear the piece...well, I can't put it any plainer than what I wrote in my notes, which is "it started to power-suck." Only two good things to say about Haley, really. One I mentioned already: Cowell definitely knows her name now. The other? Well, it never pays to underestimate the power of appropriately deployed cleavage. 3

Phil Stacey "Idol" critics have plenty of grist for their mills, to be sure, but if they ever say the show is predictable, you know they're not really watching it. Phil -- creepy, bald, owl-eyed Phil -- was the standout performer of the show Tuesday. He did "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me," appropriately enough, and while I don't know if I'm quite ready to declare my love for him, I can at least say that I find him substantially less unsettling now. Getting rid of the bowler hat helped a ton. The song Stacey chose had a real tough melody for his range, with a lot of the verses drawing him dangerously near to a growl. He pulled it off admirably, though, and when he moved into the obligatory no-holds-barred vocal chord blowout in the coda he became the first and last performer of the night to really get me moving in my seat. I'm not as soft a touch as Paula Abdul, you see. I really like Stacey's little falsetto pitch-ups; nobody else in the male cast has that kind of control. 8

LaKisha Jones Jones did "God Bless the Child," which Ross sang "as" Billie Holliday in the film Lady Sings the Blues. It was a bad choice. Jones, like Ross, has no clue how to sing jazz, and her instincts were all over the place as she and the band at times appeared to be performing entirely different songs. LaKisha's ad-libs were uniformly lousy and she was noticeably off-meter at the beginning of every line. Yes, I'm a bit of a jazz snob, but what of it? The four-on-the-floor computer rhythms of modern commercial R&B have made it really difficult for even talents like Jones to feel their way through tunes with the old-fashioned conceit of not having every single accent land flatly on the 1 and the 3. This is why I really miss the sane Lauryn Hill sometimes. Talk about wasted talent. Well, as far as Jones is concerned, she's safe, and the cross-section of people who watch "American Idol" and really dig Billie Holliday is probably so tiny that I'm the only person who thought she was less than perfect Tuesday. The judges sure ate it up. She was on key throughout, I guess. But there's more to it than that. 7

Blake Lewis As I mentioned earlier, Lewis arrogantly transformed "You Just Keep Me Hangin' On" into a synthpop monstrosity, chucking out a timeless melody for no good reason and irritatingly reminding me of the late-90's electronica fad. Given the rare opportunity to sing a Motown classic in front of an enormous band with full string and horn sections, why would you make a big show out of the radical new arrangement you worked out last night using Garageband? Lewis's whole package, from his checkerboard vest to his obnoxious rattling-off of the names of underground rappers the "Idol" audience had no chance of recognizing, came across as way too self-satisfied on Tuesday night. Clearly Blake has been reading his press clippings. In the early rounds Lewis's strong sense of self was a plus because he moved confidently and chose distinctive material. Now it's coming back around on him because he's losing sight of the fact that he's not one of the better vocalists left in the game and needs to dial back all of the other stuff and concentrate on singing as well as he can. It's not that he's untalented. I think as do the judges that for all the beatboxing and breakdancing Lewis has an original and commercial singing voice in him somewhere. But his "Hangin' On" like his dance moves were too much style, way too little substance. He's got some work to do to get back his contender status. 6

Stephanie Edwards I drifted off midway through Edwards' performance and almost started fast-forwarding when I finally snapped back to attention. I must have thought I was still in the commercials. More than any of the other female contestants, Edwards was exposed on the big stage. Her "Love Hangover" was shallow and imitative and at the same time managed to excise the song's most memorable parts. Technically, she was fair to fair-plus but no one on the evening was more uninspired or boring. She's losing me. It's like the judges told LaKisha, you either have "it" or you don't. Jones despite the poor song choice demonstrated again that she's got "it" in spades. Stephanie Edwards, I am becoming increasingly convinced, does not. 5

Chris Richardson Richardson has a knack, like his obvious role model Justin Timberlake, for making every melody he gets a hold of sound like the same song. It's not a bad song. It's a bit funky, it has elements of blue-eyed soul, and you wouldn't run screaming from the dance floor if a DJ mixed the hook into his set one night at the club. But to win "Idol" he's really got to demonstrate some more range one of these days. Richardson tried to wake up the crowd during his rendition of "The Boss" by taking his performance beyond the stage's usual boundaries, but with all the running around his vocals kept dropping in and out. His falsetto only approximately located its intended pitch at best. 6

Jordin Sparks An appropriate ending to a dreary evening. Faced with the whole panoply of Motown composers from H/D/H to Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, Sparks chose...a soppy ballad from a forgotten non-Disney 80's animated film. Say what? I guess Sparks' wispy, sub-sub-Whitney vocal stylings are best suited to MOR fare like "If We Hold on Together," but pick a four-consonant word. Schlocky, schmaltzy, you see where I'm going with this. Every high note Sparks reached for sounded pinched, and her too-literal attempts to heed Ross's advice to engage the audience resulted in these impossible-to-describe little half-points half-salutes that just blew Brandon Rogers' pelvic thrusts out of the water on the Unintentional Comedy Scale. Well, at least at this point the misery was over. Next week, please let these poor kids make their own career mistakes instead of having to replay all of Diana Ross's. 4

And here are your picks:

Homes: Haley Scarnato
Lobes: Melinda Doolittle
12-Sided Die: Blake Lewis

2007-03-14 10:41:49
1.   Inside Baseball
I think Stephanie Edwards will be eliminated. Brandon and Haley will be saved by sympathy votes (for Haley two weeks running).

I'm glad I wasn't the only one who was surprised for the judges' extreme praise for Jordin Sparks last night...

I thought all the performances were underwhelming. This season's talent pool is much shallower than last year's.

2007-03-14 10:42:40
2.   Inside Baseball
I think Stephanie Edwards will be eliminated. Brandon and Haley will be saved by sympathy votes (for Haley two weeks running).

I'm glad I wasn't the only one who was surprised for the judges' extreme praise for Jordin Sparks last night...

I thought all the performances were underwhelming. This season's talent pool is much shallower than last season's.

2007-03-14 13:06:46
3.   Mark T.R. Donohue
1, 2 Agreed. That was worth saying twice, even.

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