"Idol" Recap: Not a Little Bit Country, Not Even a Little Bit
by Mark T.R. Donohue
Standards week on "American Idol" I sort of understand. Any reasonably good professional vocalist ought to be able to sing "As Time Goes By" and seeing as that all of the contestants are in more or less the same age bracket, it doesn't put any one subgroup at an unfair disadvantage. But why even bother with a country week? Forget the performances by the final seven for a second. Just go download the original versions of some of these songs. What's the difference between modern country and Top 40 besides the grafted-on fiddle and steel guitar and slightly different standards for dress and facial hair? Not that I was expecting a bunch of Carter Family tunes or anything.
These last few weeks of "Idol" have closely parallelled the last month or so of play in the NBA, except that none of the singers are deliberately tanking. It would be more entertaining if some were. At this point writing about the thing is becoming as difficult as predicting the results. I actually started to put together a lead about the opening credits before I thought better of it. That said, they are pretty chintzy for the highest-rated show on American television.
Phil Stacey I thought that country might be the right theme for Phil, who has a little tiny bit of goony everyman appeal that he usually spoils with poor song and wardrobe choices. "Where the Blacktop Ends" was a song with a pleasant straightforward melody, which is just what Stacey needed. When he goes over the top trying to get attention, as he did with "Tobacco Road" a few weeks ago, those are the shows where I think he's sure to get sent home. I think Phil might have a few more appearances in the bottom three without getting the hook left in him. He definitely doesn't deserve to get booted on his performance last night, which was solid. He looked far more comfortable working the crowd than I ever remember seeing him before, and he admitted afterwards that Country Phil is the real Phil. If that's so, why hasn't he gone country more extensively before now? Nothing Stacey could do at this point would slingshot him to contender status, but he certainly could outlast Chris and maybe even LaKisha. If he makes it to the final four that would be a farther-fetched underdog story than Sanjaya's, because I have been sure that Phil was gone more than a couple of times before now. 8
Jordin Sparks I have more of a disconnect with Jordin than any of the other remaining contestants. Melinda bores me and I think Blake gets too much credit for being "edgy" only by "American Idol" standards, but I understand the source of their appeal. Why do people like Jordin Sparks so much? She's a very good singer, but Melinda and LaKisha are miles better. She has a personality, but it's a really annoying one. Her song choices are usually tin-eared. Even without having seen them I feel confident that in most earlier seasons of "Idol" she would have been a meek and unremembered early-semifinal exit. Sparks sang "Broken Wing" with the fierce intensity of someone mounting a serious campaign for an "Idol" crown, but to me her strategy backfired. Jordin had more problems with pitch than she usually does and some of her blasting during the obligatory Melinda section was unpleasant. I think she had a good understanding of the subject matter and was feeling the song, but that kind of leads us back to my basic problem with Sparks. I just don't think she's very smart, and she sang the tune with an enthusiastic and telling lack of shading. It wasn't as stupid as the "Hey Baby" catastrophe from the Gwen Stefani show, but she should be performing at the Wilson High commencement ceremony, not on the "Idol" stage. But remember, she's only 17. 6
Sanjaya Malakar Is there any chance we can get Morrissey to come in as an eleventh-hour guest coach and work up a Sanjaya version of "That Joke Isn't Funny Anymore?" It is worth mentioning however that when I took a break during "Idol" to run out to 7-11 for a deadline special (case of Diet Coke, sunflower seeds, and Sour Patch Kids) there was a picture of Malakar on the cover of Us magazine. Headline: Sanjaya Finally Gets a Haircut! Is there anybody else in the "Idol" cast, this year's or any other's, for whom a haircut merits a magazine cover? So let's see. Malakar did Bonnie Raitt's "Something to Talk About," which is actually a song I really like. Well, I used to really like it. Everything about Sanjaya's performance, as we have been conditioned to expect, was disconnected and weird. He flubbed lines, his tempo was ghastly, and any resemblances between the song's key and his vocal's were merely incidental. I am convinced he is a mortal lock for the final four. 4
LaKisha Jones Couldn't tell you why exactly, but I just didn't connect with Kiki's "Jesus Take the Wheel." Perhaps it was my discomfort with the meta-, snake-eating-its-own-tail phenomenon of a current "Idol" contestant singing a song made famous by an earlier one. I don't really care for the "Idol" industry primacy such cannibalization posits. It's a goofy television show, and while I may be in the shrinking minority on this one, I don't consider anyone who's been on "Idol," ever, as a legitimate artist. I would suggest that the music industry develop a separate chart system and awards program for "Idol" spinoff products, but the charts and the Grammys have been overflowing with gunky commodity since before anyone presently eligible for "American Idol" was born. Maybe I'm making too much of this. After all, Carrie Underwood didn't write "Jesus Take the Wheel," she just sang it, and if it hadn't ended up on her record some other blue-jeaned blonde would have. I have a bad feeling about LaKisha this week. Her decision to sing the song more or less straight rather than adjusting her delivery to suit the arrangement or vice versa really killed her. While technically swell, the whole thing felt broken. LaKisha singing a country chart-topper just wasn't meant to happen. It wasn't the worst of the evening, more middle of the road, but it might have been just bad enough to make LaKisha the first really shocking ejection of the season. Phil's good night compounds the danger. 7
Chris Richardson You could see this one coming from a mile away. Richardson as I have often noted has a bit of a knack for making every song he sings conforms to the same basic melody. Trying to mash up "Señorita" and Rascal Flatts was quite beyond his modest talents, however. From outfit to tone, Chris just seemed like he was a fish out of water from the start. A weak post-perfomance shoutout to Virginia Tech sounded more like a farewell dedication than a crafty appeal for votes. Richardson also showed Sparks-like obliviousness in picking the tune "Mayberry." It's a song about that most hallowed of country subjects, missing the slow pace, Bible Belt values, and lack of indoor plumbing of your ol' Dixie homestead. Richardson might be from a state that once seceded from the union, but he's a slick modern city kid and he wasn't fooling anybody last night. The "Idol" contestants sing words without any inkling of their meaning all the time (notably Haley Scarnato's hysterically feather-brained "You! And you! And you! And you!" tags in "Ain't Misbehavin'") but this was a little too obvious of a contradiction. I think the bell tolls for thee, Mr. Richardson. 5
Melinda Doolittle Melinda was slightly more interesting than usual. For one thing, her version of "Trouble Is a Woman" used a real country arrangement instead of just shuttling in a hirsute violinist. Maybe my mind is already made up that I just don't want Melinda to win and I won't like anything she does from here on out, but I didn't think her vocal fit at all. Doolittle is certainly skilled at finding material that shows her in her best light, but I'm confident that an entire album of her singing would be dreadfully dull. She's a really good professional singer who was making a living as a backup. What was wrong with that? If she wins, Ruben Studdard better watch his back. The title of Least Relevant Former "American Idol" Winner will be up for grabs. 8
Blake Lewis Was that even a country song? Weird. I don't know if I had heard Tim McGraw's "When the Stars Go Blue" before, but I know now that I don't like it. What a cheesy, obvious song, lyrically and structurally. Doing some research, I discover that it's a Ryan Adams composition. Well, that comes as no surprise. The lazy, self-indulgent, inexplicably popular Adams is kind of McGraw's alt-country opposite number. It was an okay number for Lewis, a little trickier of a melody that he usually tries. In turn his vocal was a little troublesome in parts but I appreciated that he made the effort. A safe sign of a contender is the ability to go out on a night where the theme is completely antithetical to your image and come out of it not very much the worse for wear. Indeed, Lewis was better than a lot of the others. I feel like it's been a long time since he's really wowed us, too long to think he's in it to win it at this point, but if there was a clear tripping point for Blake this was it and he didn't trip. 7
Homes: Chris Richardson
Lobes: Melinda Doolittle
8-Sided Die: Phil Stacey