"Idol" Recap: With Inspiration Like This, Who Minds These Exorbitant Text Message Rates?
by Mark T.R. Donohue
Hey, no celebrity guest this week. Instead, we get to watch Randy, Paula, and Simon smiling benevolently at the less fortunate. Paula seems the most natural at it... wonder why.
Chris Richardson The charity theme this week is almost a license to pick the most hoary, obvious sentimental tripe available. Chris Richardson did the dire late-period Clapton tune "Change the World" and it sort of fit, Clapton is an instrumentalist who has been trying to pass himself off as a real singer for ages; Richardson is a boy-band pinup who has been trying to prove his solo artist bona fides since the round of 12 began. This was less nasal than the standard Chris performance, perhaps responding to Simon's criticism last week. It was one of Richardson's more exciting outings, with some successful adventurous vocal runs in his falsetto range and some other excursions that didn't work nearly as well. His manipulations of the straightforward melody showed unusual musical sophistication for this contestant. On the whole, everyone has been improving, but Richardson was starting from a point further back than almost all of the others remaining. I thought Blake was much worse than he last night, but Chris seems to be less enduringly popular so it could be either he or Phil, who was also good but not great, who gets the hook. 7
Melinda Doolittle The evening's theme also had its positive effects. Melinda really went for it on "A Time Is Gonna Come" in a way she has strategically avoided for several weeks now. It was a nice change to hear her really try and get out of her comfort zone, since she can so easily sing rings around everyone else in the field without straining very hard. However, in doing so she did open herself up to criticisms that normally Doolittle seems to hover above. Her pitch continues to be reliable but there were certainly sections of the tune that sounded harsh and oversung. At times Melinda was hair-raising, and that hasn't been the case for ages, but at other times she was as bad as she ever gets. Which is still very good. I don't think her instincts for positioning going into the endgame are very good. Jordin seems to have outmanuevered her these last few shows, and she was miles better last night. For once, though, next week I will be curious as to what Melinda is going to do next. 8
Blake Lewis The judges seemed to like it, but I felt like "Imagine" was a very poor choice for Blake. It's a very famous song with a melody almost any American can sing and it's been covered many, many times without ever once justifying revisions to the Lennon original. It put Blake between a rock and a hard place, since trying to echo the original John vocal would necessarily make him look like an amateur by comparison and altering the composition even a little would probably just make people mad and/or confused. His little end-of-line falsetto "a-ahs" sounded absolutely terrible. It was unusually honest and earnest for a Blake performance, but that doesn't make up for the overall hit to his image as the slick self-manager of this year's "Idol" cast. I felt as if Lewis loved the song, but didn't really have an enduring connection with the words. Simon was much nicer than usual in his critique of Blake. I wonder if he took the evening's charitable theme to heart. With no Sanjaya remaining to make everyone else look like seasoned professionals by comparison, it doesn't take much to fall to the back of the pack. Blake's vocal Tuesday was easily the least good in terms both of technical quality and emotional relevance. I think he has the fan reserves in place to withstand ejection, though. 6
LaKisha Jones Formerly the alternate favorite behind Doolittle, Jones is fading fast. She simply hasn't been able to find an identity for herself. Doolittle's modest-at-all-times personality isn't exactly fascinating, but it's consistent and memorable. I still don't really get a handle on who LaKisha is, and it doesn't help that she tends to use her song choice each week as a costume rather than picking material that lets her promote herself. Her "I Believe" was a very poor choice, with a limp melody and blandly inoffensive lyrics typical of trends in the modern pop ballad. It was apparently first a hit for a former "Idol" as well, and that ought to be the first thing new "Idol" finalists are taught to stay well away from. This was a night where every contestant basically had a blank check to overemote as ridiculously as they cared to, because who could possibly question the purity of motives for "American Idol Gives Back?" Nobody! Jones did her best to raise the poor material into an electric performance, giving us the full effect of her roaring instrument, but it all simply failed to cohere. By the tone of the judges, I suspect they all feel like LaKisha is a lost cause and they might as well see her taken out of the way this week. Simon, in particular, I felt could have been much harsher on Chris Richardson and much more lenient with LaKisha. I mean, she's still got an amazing voice, she just needs an image coach. 7
Phil Stacey It took Phil months to "come out" as a country singer, but when he did last time out he suddenly seemed to have new life. No surprise he picked a Garth Brooks tune this time around, but it is a bit shocking that he elected to sing it in a rather stodgy AAA style. I wasn't familiar with Brooks' "The Change," but I have to ask, who writes these songs? What a tacky melody and lyric. Phil was on key but he seemed adrift from the arrangement. He and the band felt like they were working against each other rather than together. At this point in the contest, miscues like that ought not to happen, unless it's Sanjaya up there. Pretty unthrilling stuff from Phil, although it would no longer be a huge surprise if he outlasted LaKisha or Chris. 7
Jordin Sparks After some internal debate about my views on Sparks last week, this was the performance I was really waiting for this show. Boy, did Jordin deliver! As Simon said, she took a sixty-year-old song and made it 100% chart-relevant to 2007. I like Jordin much better when she picks wardrobe and material that ignore her young age rather than trying to exploit it. She seemed both youthful and experienced while singing "You'll Never Walk Alone," and I do believe those were tears of pure sincerity she shed. Jordin doesn't need to overplay her hand when it comes to the whole seventeen thing, since the judges are perfectly willing to do it for her. However, when her eyes starting moistening up in the middle of her performance, my immediate reaction was to feel for her, because I know how young she is and how deeply you can feel things when you're 17. I feel like I have a much greater insight into her popularity now. It doesn't hurt that she also went out and just sang the hell out of the song. She was perfectly on message and she never got shouty the way both Melinda and LaKisha did. I don't know whether the effect stemmed from her better understanding of her song or a more empathetic sense for performance, but Jordin was vastly more rousing than the other female belters on a night that was by design supposed to be all about sympathy. She had a couple of pitch moments in the early verse but on balance her tone was very sweet. I want to see her maintain this level of excellence (we saw it, but too infrequently, earlier on in the semifinals as well) for every show from here on out but I think I am right with the judges in shifting the favorite's mantle over from Melinda's shoulders to Jordin's. 9
Homes: Blake Lewis
Lobes: Melinda Doolittle
6-Sided Die: LaKisha Jones