Even the Sanjaya Malakar peformances are growing predictable at this point. He'll have done something with his hair, it'll be awful, and we'll all feel a little uncomfortable. This week it was some kind of facial thing instead of his head hair, but other than that, no big surprises.
The trouble with the guest coach format is that the longer a contestant stays alive, particularly one who's been running on fumes for a month like Haley Scarnato, the more it's in the cast member's interests to just grab a niche and hold on to it for dear life. So Jennifer Lopez's salute to Latin music was about as authentically Latin as Lopez herself, with multiple contestants picking songs from Santana's crossover duets album. Big night for Gloria Estefan, too. I smell a comeback.
Melinda Doolittle No surprises from the frontrunner, as we've come to expect. Melinda sang "Sway" nicely and I was happy to see her manage to restrain herself from launching a long series of runs at the end as she seems to always manage to do. She still moves around on stage as if she was in a full-body harness, and no matter how much she slightly changes her hair, she still looks old-fashioned and square. It seemed to me as if she was aware of some of her shortcomings and was trying to address them, but her performance didn't really get it done for me. Lopez warned Melinda and Simon agreed, she needs to show what's going on inside. At least I think that's what the judges mean when they refer to the elusive "wow factor." It would be unfair to give Melinda and her technical mastery a real low score, but I wish she gave me more reasons to give her high ones. 8
LaKisha Jones Why did "Latin" to all of the female contestants translate as "sing really fast and move your arms like you're powerwalking?" Jones sang "Conga" and while her dance lessons with J-Lo were cute to watch and seemed even to do a bit of good, the delivery of the song itself was a shouty mess. All of the rapid verses just sounded like word salad and the choruses relied too heavily on the backing singers. A number of the "Idol" final eight tried leaning on the band this evening, and not many of them benefited from the tactic. I don't think LaKisha made a very good choice of song. The combination of the rapid-fire words and beginning the song walking rapidly, like Chris Sligh a few weeks ago, left Jones breathless. The real trouble was that the tune left LaKisha no real opportunity to show off her chops. 7
Chris Richardson I'm not a real big fan of any of Rob Thomas's work, and his bland, unimaginative single with Santana, "Smooth," bugs me the same as his solo and Matchbox 20 stuff. Making a song "Latin" by adding a wood block part is very Thomas, and soulless blue-eyed soul is Richardson's whole stock in trade. But the song was far more than he could handle. Chris sounded quite ghastly in his lower register during the verses, and it wasn't until a series of trademark Richardson runs at the very close of the song that he sounded in his element. His feel for the song was all wrong. I don't know whether to fault Richardson or his choice of song. How about both? 5
Haley Scarnato Even though she's been called out multiple times for it by the judges, Haley is determined to find a shorter skirt to wear each and every week she stays alive in the competition. I thought it was very revealing that in the coaching footage Lopez called in Blake Lewis to beatbox while Haley practiced "Turn the Beat Around." J-Lo, like me, is so bored of Scarnato that she brought in the infinitely more interesting Lewis so she could tolerate Haley's crummy singing. The bigger the band and the production values behind her get, the more Scarnato seems like an imposter. Her vocal wasn't good either in pitch or style and she wore too much makeup. I'm either too interested in the actual singing competition element of "Idol," or less shallow than I thought I was, because despite the wardrobe choices at this point I find Haley more annoying and distracting than anything else. 4
Phil Stacey Here is a good point to mention that the usually unconscious "Idol" band was somewhat off their game Tuesday night. The electric guitar playing on Stacey's "Maria Maria," another tune from that lame Santana album, was pretty glitchy. Everyone singer and player alike seemed to take Latin as a signal for "over-loud percussion." Sometimes they seemed to mistake playing loud for playing in an actual Latin rhythm. For that I blame the singers more than the musicians. If Phil had been on his game last night, then I wouldn't have been thinking about what the band was doing. I'm surprised he's still around, but Phil is a good singer and his flailing efforts to define a personality for himself are compelling week after week. I couldn't read him at all this week. He seemed like a bit of a faker, he had another silly hat on, but nobody really felt the Latin thing all night. His voice cracked several times when he went to his falsetto at the close, which was a first for the normally technically proficient Stacey. What really put me off the performance was Stacey's lack of immediacy. He needs to be excellent every time out just to stay one of the bottom three who doesn't get the boot each week. I couldn't parse whether he thought the way he sang "Maria" was a safe pick or a huge risk. Could this finally be his time? 7
Jordin Sparks Like Jones, Sparks should have picked a more singer-friendly number. "The Rhythm's Going to Get You" has a repetitive chorus and more of those rapid-fire verses that didn't do any of the contestants any favors last evening. Still, Sparks is beginning to grow on me as the only legitimate challenger to Melinda's assumptive throne. Though spottier than it could have been, she's clearly no joke. She found more room in her arrangement to show off her chops than LaKisha or Melinda could this week. The slight drop in tempo included to afford this changed the feel of the song rather dramatically, but this is "American Idol." It's the singer, not the song. Sparks lost momentum coming out of the verses as the backing singers joined her to sing the song's title over and over again, but on a night with a lot of people either faking badly or completely mailing it in, she alone among the females imprinted her own stamp of style on the performance. I like her a lot better, as I've said, when she dresses and poses as a grown-up. 8
Blake Lewis I didn't recognize the song Blake chose, "I Need to Know," but I did recognize the contending Blake of old in his performance. Lewis has a knack for making his limitations strengths that the last few themes haven't really flattered. If his outfit made him look more like a Miami Beach retiree than a smooth Latin lover, at least Lewis moved convincingly and made the song his own. He had a bit of a vulnerable tone in his voice that I quite liked, the sort of vocal waver that could be the exact right counterbalance to his somewhat smug stage persona. The judges make too much of the need to modernize the numbers sometimes, but Lewis is a good example of what they mean. He's not the best singer in the draft, but he might be the best musician. 8
Sanjaya Malakar There's only one Sanjaya! I still don't know whether he's a shooting star we should all enjoy while it lasts or the harbinger of the end of "Idol," but with my homegirl Gina out of the running I can't name anyone whose performances I look forward to more. What's Sanjaya going to do next with his hair? It's the question of the moment. Like Simon Cowell, I really stopped observing Malakar critically about a month ago, since he so obviously exists in a universe entirely of his own compared to everyone else in the competition. He could ride his energy all the way to the final four, with Cowell finally joining the bandwagon with a pained "It wasn't terrible!" following Sanjaya's sleazy/creepy "Besame Mucho." His voice was a little less effeminate than usual. As for his goatee look, not so much. Sanjaya never goes for the obvious pick with his songs, I'll grant him that. I also quite enjoy his long smoldering looks directly into the cameras. He must be imagining that little girl watching on the other end. 5
Homes: Phil Stacey
Lobes: Melinda Doolittle
8-Sided Die: Jordin Sparks