Last week I thought that the "American Idol" conceit of beginning the final round with a series of "theme" nights where all the contestants are forced to choose songs from the catalog of some has-been was unfair to the contestants. After one week with Diana Ross and one week with the British Invasion (represented by someone called Lulu and the singer from Herman and the Hermits), I've changed my mind. This device might be harsh on the finalists, but the real losers are we the American viewing public. The currently vogue strategy among the heavyweight singers in this year's "Idol" cast is to seize a hold of some narrowly defined image and cling to it with genre-obliterating tenacity. This has led to such blasphemies as Blake Lewis's beatboxing the Zombies and Chris Sligh attempting to fuse "Endless Love" and Coldplay. It's also led to my downgrading Melinda Doolittle, despite no apparent dip in the quality of her performances, from "prohibitive favorite" to "MOR annoyance I wish would go away."
We're not privy to the exact list of songs from which the contestants had to choose this week, but it seemed to me like everyone in the final eleven left the risky choices on the table. I felt like Chris Sligh probably had the biggest advantage this week with his crisp, slightly gritty delivery, and indeed he was the best among the men, although he certainly didn't knock it out of the ballpark. I have to say, it's nice to have only people who can sort of sing left in the competition. Except for Sanjaya Malakar, whose obvious limitations have become borderline comedic now that Sundance and Antonella aren't around to make him look good by comparison. Accordingly, I'm being a harsher judge now. None of these singers should be safe, and the only ones who seemed to detectably raise their game this time out were the ones who were justifiably desperate -- Sanjaya, Haley Scarnato, and Phil Stacey. Even so, I expect it will be one of those three to take the plunge tomorrow night. Except not Sanjaya. That would be too logical.
Haley Scarnato She can't sing that powerfully, so she tarted it up, rocking a micro-miniskirt and stopping just short of giving Simon Cowell a lapdance. I don't know, Haley, I might have gone for the gusto there. Scarnato's vocal on "Tell Him" was barely audible. It sounded like they forgot to turn her microphone on. Compared to the Paula Abdul-like Diana Ross last week, Lulu was pretty coherent. She actually gave Scarnato some good advice about retaining the staccato quality of the original recording. Like every other contestant on the evening, Haley ignored the advice and instead spent her practice time perfecting her streetwalker moves. Sashaying like a hooker does not equal stage presence, and Scarnato's performance while leerworthy (Simon got in a few good ones) wasn't very good. Technically, it wasn't bad for Haley's established standard, but I still think she's a lock for the the three lowest vote-getters. 6
Chris Richardson Finally Richardson's knack for making every song he sings sound exactly alike caught up with him. Peter Noone attempted to warn Chris that a vital part of performing "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying" would be to learn its melody, but Richardson blithely went ahead and sang it like it was "Bye, Bye, Bye" anyway. Chris is usually pretty good about staying on pitch, but he had some real problems in that area Tuesday. Is he incapable of singing without applying a steady vibrato to every sustained note? Noone called Richardson out on that as well, but hey, he's an "American Idol" finalist, he doesn't have to listen to anybody. I did very much like the Spanish guitar-led arrangement of the song that the "Idol" band delivered. The group that is voting for Richardson every week surely doesn't know and wouldn't in any event care that he hardly even bothered to learn the song he sang this week. He's safe. 6
Stephanie Edwards All the commentary you read on Edwards, be it positive or negative, can't help but stress the word "modern," I guess because she has short hair. More than any other contestant, she seemed adrift in the British Invasion idiom. Her overly powerful vocals ran roughshod over the arrangement, and she seemed at a loss as to how to sing "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" with even a modicum of subtlety. Her bright blue dress and big black boots didn't really suit the mood either. Cowell speculated that Edwards might be "losing her edge," but I would lay the blame for that more on the producers than on Stephanie herself. They're the ones who have dictated that the last two shows have wholly belonged to 60's and 70's has-beens. 5
Blake Lewis No finalist is feeling his oats more than Blake Lewis. Ask and he'll you. He thinks he's the favorite, and his performances have an air of confident bombast that isn't hurting him at all. On the other hand, he has to watch his smugness. He seems impervious to the judges, and I don't know how that will pay off with his popularity among the voters. Lewis piled it on too heavily with his take on "Time of the Season." Everything from the psychedelic lighting to his peculiar vest/plaid pants/punk rocker T-shirt ensemble to the part Phil Spector, part beatboxed arrangement screamed "Look, ma, I'm mixing old and new!" This is unnecessary. Lewis's singing style and unadorned appearance are modern enough on their own. He doesn't need to pile it on week after week. His Zombies interpretation was a little effeminate and put the actual singing a distant second to all of the arrangement's bells and whistles. His stiff breakdancing schtick could stand to take a week or two off, too. That said, the choice of song was obvious and while all the drastic stylistic shifts definitely put pressure on Lewis to stay on key, he carried it off with aplomb. I'm very impressed by his falsetto control. He'll be around for a while. 7
LaKisha Jones I would have liked to see even more of the footage with Lulu and Noone tutoring the contestants. While Ross was an airheaded cheerleader, it seems as if the Brits actually had some disagreements with the would-be "Idols" this week. Lulu tried to convince LaKisha to do "You're My World" instead of "Diamonds Are Forever," but unsuccessfully so. I'm not familiar enough with the former song to judge, but I thought Jones did a pretty good job with one of the best of the Bond themes. I liked how her vocal paid a little bit of a tribute to Shirley Bassey in the verses and then freed themselves to do Jones's own thing during the disco-flecked choruses. While the busy arrangement was a good showcase for LaKisha's range, it also made it harder than usual to get into. Bedecked in a million dollars' worth of actual diamonds, Jones was a vision in green on Tuesday night. She was totally in the moment during her performance, too, which was nice to see because LaKisha can occasionally become beset by her nerves. Cowell grumbled that the whole effect was "too old-fashioned," but Jones had the last word when she confidently told decaying meat puppet Ryan Seacrest "I think I look GOOD." Preach on, sister. 8
Phil Stacey Stacey was undeservedly one of the low three last week and he reacted by seizing ahold of "Tobacco Road" like it owed him money. He went high, he went low. He wiggled and waggled and waved his mike stand like Axl. It might have been a little too showy. It wasn't necessary to drop into basso or swoon up into falsetto at the end of every single line. Stacey is already the most technically gifted of the remaining male vocalists and he didn't need to blast every line in order to prove it. That said the doo-wop/metal/honky-tonk stew of the arrangement was one of the few really electric performances from the band all night, and no one besides Phil could possibly have pulled it off. He seemed a little desperate and defensive after the judges' breakdown, and that more than anything else may sign his death warrant. That and the fact that Stacey unlike Scarnato didn't have the option of dressing like a slut to prolong his "Idol" run. Well, I suppose he did have the option, but thank heavens he elected not to exploit it. 8
Jordin Sparks Sparks did "I Have Nothing" and frankly the song was too big for her. Lulu and the judges kept repeating her age (17), arguing over and over again that it didn't really matter, but I think they doth protest too much. Sparks really hasn't lived long enough to invest the big ballads with real understanding, and I would much rather have seen her continue playing up to her cheerful, chipper chipmunk image. And while I'm at it, she never should have straightened her hair. She seemed stiff at the microphone Tuesday, her diction was awkward, and the high notes came over way shrill. It also didn't help matters any that in the pre- and post-song interviews she came across like a complete and utter ditz. 6
Sanjaya Malakar The band's arrangement of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me" deliberately recalled the classic Van Halen cover, but I doubt Sanjaya has any idea who David Lee Roth is. More's the pity. His outfit, with a massive shoulder-padded jacket and fingerless gloves, made Malakar look like a subcontinental cross between Michael Jackson and Elaine Benes. His vocal kind of reminded me of the oldies covers on the Sex Pistols' Great Rock and Roll Swindle, with such a pitchless, artless gracelessness to it that it almost came all the way around from bad back to good again. Unhinged screaming is almost never bad, and you just don't get enough of it week to week on "American Idol." Sanjaya didn't quite make it all the way, however. Simon Cowell continued his Sanjaya freeze-out campaign by simply pointing to the young girl near the front row whose face streamed with tears for the entirety of Malakar's performance. Any criticism of Sanjaya's singing as is pointless as it has been for the last several weeks; he guaranteed himself at least one more week on the big stage where he gave the poor little girl (who reminded me of the "GEORGE!!!!!" girl from A Hard Day's Night, speaking of the British Invasion) a great big bear hug. 4
Gina Glocksen Gina, oh Gina, wherefore art thou, Gina? I feel embarrassed for ever pegging Glocksen as a contender. She's supposed to be the rock chick of the group, but her persona is more gum-snapping mallrat than class-cutting, smoke-bumming bad girl. (This would be a good time for her to leak some smutty photos to the Internet.) While most of the singers stayed away from the real history-makers of the 60's UK scene, Glocksen tried to take on the Stones and it was a huge tactical mistake. Her "Paint It, Black" sounded like a lowlight from one of those ghastly tribute albums, like Sheryl Crow singing Zeppelin. Not only was her pitch awful, but she seemed to have little to no understanding of the song. I heard all of the words (many more clearly than Jagger ever sang them), but where was the venom? "Paint It, Black" needs hiss and spit and menace and all of that good stuff and all Gina could really do was vamp and shriek. Simon wasn't buying it: "Just not very good, style over content." 5
Chris Sligh A safe comeback pick after his "Endless Clocks" train wreck last week, Sligh miscalculated by beginning his "She's Not There" by walking through the audience. He was paying more attention to not stepping on anyone's feet than getting his vocals correct. Once he arrived on the stage, though, bam! He really knocked the song's bridge right out of the park and I loved his playful swipe at Cowell with the mike stand. Lots of use of mike stands as props this week, and a lot of wandering around off the stage. Next week I'm sure everyone will be sitting still. For someone who tries to affect a self-deprecating, above-the-muck vibe, it's funny how close the attention Sligh paid to the judges' advice from last week was. His glasses were back, and he was back to dressing in the accustomed Chris Sligh fashion. As Homer Simpson once said, if you're going to wear a Hawaiian shirt, you better be a big fat party animal. I would totally party with Chris Sligh. 8
Melinda Doolittle It was fine I guess. I've just had it with Melinda Doolittle. Every single week, it's the same thing, a wishy-washy ballad that starts slow and then she just rips it for two minutes straight. Surprise me, Melinda. Do anything different. I won't be at all shocked if she keeps working the dreck angle and one of these weeks, boom! she gets the hook from seemingly out of nowhere. Or maybe she'll win, I don't know. If so America deserves the absolute snoozer of a debut album that will be the ultimate result. 7
Homes: Phil Stacey
Lobes: Melinda Doolittle
12-Sided Die: Jordin Sparks