"Idol" Tuesday: Take That, Great American Songbook!
by Mark T.R. Donohue
I guess I'm an "American Idol" fan now, because now that the judges have run out of useful things to say and the celebrity guests grow more vacuous every week, I still find the competition compelling. I still have to reluctantly name Melinda Doolittle as the obvious favorite, but at this point, I'm desperately looking for someone else in the crowd behind whom to throw my support. Doolittle is so safe and predictable that on the rare occasions when her weapon of a voice rouses me (and her "I've Got Rhythm" yesterday was the first time that has happened in a few weeks) I resent it more than anything else. The second-best singer in the group, LaKisha Jones, has the same problem as Doolittle only worse. Her song choices couldn't be more middle-of-the-road, and LaKisha tends to inhabit other people's musical personas rather than sheepishly bust through the way Melinda does.
Blake Lewis might be the only male contestant in the field with even an outside shot, but it's getting increasingly hard to ignore the fact that he can't really sing. I really like Jordin Sparks when she behaves like a grown-up, but if the judges' promptings are to be believed her only chance of winning is to continue acting like Miss Teen Airhead USA. Who is left? Chris Richardson is better than you think he is but he's never really built a head of steam past his initial "boy, he's cute" fanbase. Phil Stacey and Haley Scarnato are only still around thanks to the mistakes of others (notably Brandon Rogers and Chris Sligh). Gina Glocksen has more personality than LaKisha or Melinda but she can't consistently sing at their level. Once or twice she's gotten close enough to make a case for herself, but she inevitably retreats the next week. So what's left to do but go ahead and jump on the Sanjaya bandwagon?
Blake Lewis Usually going into each one of the theme shows you can form a pretty good idea about which contestants will do well and which will hit roadblocks. For Tony Bennett week, I wasn't sure about Blake. On one hand, he's got confidence to spare and a huge voice isn't required to sing in Bennett's style. On the other hand, whenever Blake takes on old-timey songs, he feels compelled to do weird things to them. As it turned out, Lewis resisted the urge to modernize "Mack the Knife" but he just didn't sing it very well. The lyrics were muddy, Lewis seemed less self-assured on stage than is the norm, and when the horn section turned it up, his voice got lost in the mix. It was an audition-quality vocal at best. I never would have guessed this would be the show that would expose it, but Lewis's voice sounded terribly weak in this setting. I imagine however that he has enough fan goodwill in reserve to slide through this week. 4
Phil Stacey A lot of the contenders this week, male and female, tried to sing jazz songs in four-square pop meter. Stacey actually sang "Night & Day" properly, and for his efforts he finally might get the hook. Stacey seemed to really inhabit the tune and he seems a lot less creepy to me when that is the case. I thought he did beautifully except for a couple of pitch hiccups, but the judges seemed disconnected from reality this week. Simon said the song reminded him of a funeral parlor. I liked the darkness! I liked the subtle shadings! There is absolutely no place for subtlety on "American Idol," evidently. One of my favorite Phil performances, and I suspect it may well be his last. Too bad. 8
Melinda Doolittle The same thing every time with this girl. She starts out and you think, "Oh, man, another blah song," and then she gets to the coda -- which for "Idol" purposes we might as well rename "the Melinda section" from here on out -- and, kablammo. I'm as sick as can be of Doolittle's gobsmacked act, but as I said before, this is the first time her sheer talent got me up and moving in my seat for some time. Her stiff movements on stage still make her appear as if she's wearing some sort of harness, and whatever changes were made to her hair, they weren't enough. The first half of the tune was not great. Melinda should avoid very rapid lyrical passages in the future because they almost tripped her up this time. Great night for the band, though. I guess Melinda is more deserving of the "Idol" crown than Lewis or Sparks, but this season would be a lot more fun to watch if she'd take a chance. Ever. 8
Chris Richardson This was a perfect theme for Chris, who has good pitch control but not a lot of vocal power. He was the best of the men with "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." The judges were going on and on about how he put a modern spin on it, but besides his torn-jeans couture look, it sounded like a pretty straight songbook performance to me. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Richardson was kind of due for an outing where he stuck to the melody as written and really let the song do the work. Like almost the whole cast, his tempo was iffy (these kids just don't know how to feel jazz) but the small liberties he took from time to time with the melody were well-chosen and welcome. While normally it's Blake who sets the cues that Richardson ought to follow, this week the script flipped. Chris was miles better than Blake. He had the correct approach, an understanding of the song, and came across as honest, earnest, and not at all smarmy, a recurring C-Rich problem. Loved it. 9
Jordin Sparks If you haven't heard, Jordin Sparks is seventeen years old. She was born 17 years ago. Her age is 17. She's a 17-year-old woman. I am 27, so Sparks is 10 years younger than I, making her 17. Jordin sang "On a Clear Day." Her look and her style were both markedly adult this week, which for me was hugely welcome after her jarring and obnoxious "Hey Baby" the last time out. She lost the pitch badly a few times in the song's midsection but on the whole I liked it. Her ability to sing songs with a mature understanding contradicts her dippy behavior the rest of the time. But of course the judges just want her to go the jailbait route every time out. Even when she dresses like a grown-up and sings a song intelligently, Sparks has a (if you'll excuse me) spark that Melinda doesn't have and LaKisha seems determined never to reveal. She doesn't need to play up her age, but I feel that bad advice from the panel will end up knocking her out one of these weeks, perhaps after donning a cheerleader's uniform and singing "I Want Candy." It won't be for a while longer, though. But she is only 17. 7
Gina Glocksen Here's another one I was curious to see during Tony Bennett week. While her designation as "rocker chick" seems increasingly the product of the "Idol" producers' "Real World"-like pigeonhole casting system, Glocksen's best performances have all been ballads. This could have been her moment, but she didn't seize it. Gina sang "Smile" and while it was technically solid, it lacked the power of a Melinda and the attitude of a Jordin. She ran roughshod over the arrangement. I wonder, have three decades of drum machines completely ruined the ability of young music fans to listen and react to a real drummer? A nice controlled close for Gina, but it's only a matter of time for her. She's had ample opportunities, but she just hasn't rocked hard enough or crooned croonily enough. Even her fashion choice this week seemed confused, and while her coy eyebrow raises seemed to pass for personality the first time I saw them months ago, she needs a new move. She should go consult with whomever it is that's dressing Haley. 6
Sanjaya Malakar "Different tactic this week," says Simon. "Incredible!" In his exasperation Cowell failed to notice that for the alternate dimension in which Sanjaya resides apart from the rest of the field, this was actually a not-bad performance. I felt right from the start that this was going to be a good week for Sanjaya, who can actually sort of carry a tune so long as he doesn't have to raise his voice above a whisper. I don't know what was creepier, his empty look right into the camera or his stiff dancing with Paula Abdul. At times it sounded as if he wasn't even listening to the band while singing "Cheek to Cheek." His microphone seemed turned up so loud you could hear his hair growing. He can indeed sing, a little bit, as the moments where he wasn't "making show" indicated, but the singing is so far past the point with Sanjaya at this juncture that I kind of side with Simon. "Incredible!" 6
Haley Scarnato Tony Bennett, who scarcely had an unkind or useful word for a single member of the cast, reasonably told Haley that while singing a song, "Ain't Misbehavin'," about a woman embracing monogamy, she ought not to tell multiple faces in the audience she was all theirs. Tony, haven't you been watching these last few weeks? Haley has saved her "Idol" campaign by graciously displaying her legs (Simon is a fan) and bosoms to the full extent that network TV allows. She might not be a real smooth operator, but at least she knows what side of the bread the butter goes on, and her act gets more Cinemax-like with every passing week. To be fair, it was one of her better vocals, but we already know what side of the talent divide every member of the cast is on by this point. For those in the shallow end of the genetic pool, the only hope for survival is to pick a gimmick and work it, and give Haley all credit for figuring this out quickly and deploying her assets rapidly. For the Sanjayas and Haleys of the world, the judges ran out of constructive things to say about a month ago, and I suffer right along with them. 7
LaKisha Jones Boy, it's a weak "Idol" night when Phil Stacey and Chris Richardson are the standouts. There was nothing wrong with LaKisha's "Stormy Weather," which added a sensual angle she hadn't really worked up to this point. It's nice to see her growing in confidence in that area. However, where is Jones's originality? She sounds more like she's just miming the record each time out. LaKisha and Melinda are absolutely the best singers in the field, but I don't look forward to their performances at all. They have to win me over anew each and every week. Melinda seems like she's eminently capable of being toppled, but I doubt LaKisha can do it. Which is too bad, because for some reason I find her humility a lot less of an annoying, overplayed put-on than I do Doolittle's. I hope it's not because she's plus-sized. 8
Homes: Phil Stacey
Lobes: Melinda Doolittle
10-Sided Die: Jordin Sparks