Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Sligh goodbye

What happened to Chris Sligh?

Not literally, of course, because we already know the answer to that: He got kicked off "American Idol" Wednesday night, on the heels of a pretty shabby version of the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic." But for someone who entered the "Idol" fray so promisingly, so hilariously, struggling through the finals and then ending up in 10th place seemed a diminished, too-brief coda. It was as if he lost himself somewhere along the way, and never got comfortable in the finals.

The show was the worse for it. As the farewell clip montage reminded me, the curly-topped Greenville, S.C. resident was supposed to bring chubby back (back farther, that is). He was supposed to make David Hasselhoff cry! Instead, all he got to do was "sing us out." (Related thought: As the number of contestants dwindles, I guess we'll be seeing more of that from now on. Argh.) But at least Chris left us with one final nugget of humor. As he sang and hugged his fellow contestants, he interrupted himself to settle a score with Phil, who also ended up in this week's bottom three, but survived. "You owe me 5o bucks," he said.

Though I'm not sure exactly what that wager was, I can guess. Another safe bet? This week's bottom three of Phil, Chris Sligh and Haley, a pretty appropriate group, for the most part. A grateful Phil was sent back to the stands first, though I still maintain he's biding his time there. Then, as Chris and Haley (like the cheese) stood alone, Seacrest made the mistake/purposefully time-wasting move of asking the judges who they thought was going home. As usual, the noncommittal twins hemmed and hawed: "I dunno man, it's really a tough call at this point, Ry, I dunno dawg, it's a hard call, I dunno," Randy elucidated. "Uh, never a fun time, never a fun time," Paula said. "I think you both deserve really great warmth from the audience, love --" At this point, Seacrest completely cut her off (a skill he ought to continue practicing, by the way). "Here comes some candor from Simon, I'm sure," he interjected. But of course: "I think it's bye-bye curly," Cowell said, presumably meaning Chris, although Haley was also sporting curly locks at the time. Dependably enough, he was right.

Oh, and there's got to be something I'm forgetting. What could it be? Ah, yes. Not only is Sanjaya (sans fauxhawk last night, mercifully) still with us, he wasn't even in the bottom three. At this particular point in time, it's useless to get all indignant about that fact. Voting for Sanjaya is like getting a drunken tattoo (I figure, though not from personal experience), then waking up in the morning to discover it contains a misspelling: At a certain point the novelty is bound to disappear. Similarly, Sanjaya's day o' reckoning will come - perhaps even pretty soon, if the tepid applause news of his survival received is any measure. There are, after all, only so many more hairstyles the guy can audition, or at least one has to hope.

Was it just me, or... did Chris Richardson look a lot more attractive all decked out in Old West bad-boy mode in this week's commercial, "I Fought the Law"? And while we're on the subject, how was it he was the one person who (from the looks of it, unless it was 100% a stunt double) got to ride a horse? Eh well ...

Sweet indeed: No offense to my beloved choreographed "Idol" group routines, but I think I could actually get used to the guest performances if they were all as first-rate as Gwen Stefani's "Sweet Escape." What with costumed backup dancers circling, arms waving, Akon (of, among other things, "Smack That" infamy) psyching up the crowd and contributing backup "whoo-ooo," and pop's golden girl at the center, it was a sunny display of star power.

It must have been with her: Gina looked mighty crestfallen when Seacrest delivered the news that either she or Chris Sligh was in the bottom three, but she - and her T-shirt reading "GFORCE" - pulled through. As they should have, considering her fab performance Tuesday.

"AI," now with added mega-corporate affiliation! If "American Idol" is indeed the Death Star - hey, not my words; rival TV executives said it - then you could say they've just recruited a new storm trooper of sorts, what with Seacrest announcing a big, big oil company is now on board the whole "Idol Gives Back" train. What big oil company? Aw, now you know answering that would just be playing right into their hands. ;-)

Next week: It's Tony Bennett time, which bodes well; the show always seems to rise to the occasion on such nights.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Idol's mad tea party

In the video for her debut solo single "What You Waiting For," Gwen Stefani ends up in a Alice In Wonderland-type universe. Tuesday, the No Doubt frontwoman and chart-topping r&b/pop/rock style icon fell down a rabbit hole into an even weirder world: American Idol. And hey, it even has its own Cheshire Cat! His name? Simon Cowell.

Unlike most "Idol" guests, Stefani came with a bonus: She's actually making successful records right now, and her career trajectory serves as a pretty admirable template for modern pop stardom. Though her "Idol" role was more reserved than that of, say, last week's hyper-ebullient guest coach Lulu, she still succeded just by being, well, herself: Sweet, but not irritating; hip and creative, but not aloof; chilled out, and still an enthusiastic Orange County girl at heart. Take her remarks to Haley, who stood before her in the rehearsal room wearing a weirdly Stefani-like outfit of a cropped camouflage jacket and cap. "She started out really great, but then she started doing this other kind of melody which I think is so unnecessary for the song." Or this sage, sage wisdom regarding Blake: "He needs to be really careful about where he chooses to do the beatboxing..." Amen to that!

The week's theme was far more nebulous, described to us only as "the artists and bands who inspired" Stefani, plus her own back catalog. Because Stefani's music draws largely on spirited '70s and '80s pop, rock and r&b, that held considerable, if strange, promise, and would have been helpful to know who those artists and bands actually were, so we'd, uh, have had a better idea of how Donna Summer, the Police and Cyndi Lauper ended up as part of the same "theme." As for the contestants, well, if, their, er, stuff wasn't totally b-a-n-a-n-a-s, it wasn't exactly rock-bottom, either.

Melinda and LaKisha both chose Donna Summer tunes, and ended up delivering another pair of well-sung but, frankly, kind of boring performances. Although I was glad to see both big-voiced gals dressed their age and singing uptempo tracks, they seemed to lack urgency onstage, not to mention a desire to surprise the audience. Everyone and their second cousin twice removed knows Melinda and LaKisha are vocal powerhouses - Melinda, for example, is the most technically skilled singer on the show - but as past seasons of Idol and indeed, pop music as a whole has shown, skill is only part of the equation, and they can't expect to coast on that alone. I mean, Donna Summer is awesome. But when faced with a choice between her - i.e. their comfort zone - and something more unexpected, Melinda and LaKisha opted for the familiar path. (I mean, I wasn't exactly expecting they take on, like, the Specials or Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, but choice says something about a person's musical judgment.) As a result, I suspect many who anointed them the front-runners early on will have to eat their words come finals week. As other contestants evolve, improve and carve out niches with their personalities and song choices, Melinda and LaKisha can't risk standing still.

Gina, meanwhile, delivered a strong, heartfelt rendition of the Pretenders' "I'll Stand By You," a song that's not only excellent overall, but was perfect for her - even if she did sing it looking like she was trying to join the Goth division of the Haley Hot Pants/Miniskirt brigade. Jordin branched out yet again, displaying youthful vigor and a winning, refreshing personality in taking on a risky choice, No Doubt's part-spoken "Hey Baby. And Blake had what could best be called a Daughtry moment, smoothly performing a cover of a cover - in this case, an arrangement of the Cure's "Love Song" that sounded just like the version 311 recorded in recent years. Considering that a few weeks ago he described 311 as his favorite band, I guess that should have come as 0% of a surprise. (Similarly, last year Chris Daughtry basically covered Live's version of Johnny Cash's "I Walk The Line.") And he didn't even have to beatbox! Hurrah!

Chris Sligh's fortunes, meanwhile, appear to be fading every week, as if he's losing his grip on his nerves. After cracking to Seacrest that he spent his "Idol" downtime "knitting, crocheting, maybe playing the bongos in my boxer shorts," Chris and his night went downhill - although I didn't think that his version of the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" was as bad as the judges said it was, with Randy calling its rhythm or lack thereof "a trainwreck." Chris's vocals were decent, and yet: "It just didn't feel right, and I don't think that represented you," Simon said. But what will represent Chris, and can he rebound? I mean, last night, he was left saying "Please" after Seacrest asked "Will you vote for Chris?" And speaking of polite young men named Chris, Chris Richardson helped his case by choosing an strong song, No Doubt's hit breakup ballad "Don't Speak," and then proceeded to squander that advantage by yet again sounding like a midafternoon cut from a "listen at work!" light rock station. The sense of loss so palpable in the original failed to translate to Wannabe Timberlake's version; even if he hit a few good notes, the overall effect was underwhelming.

And of course, where would we be without, well, you know. Each week, Sanjaya sets the crazy bar a little higher, and the fact a) we're talking about it and b) he's still on the show proves that Idol is definitely not all about the singing (Melinda and LaKisha, take note, although by no means imitate Sanjaya). This week's starring role went to Sanjaya's terrifiying, towering mohawk of ponytails (Season 4's Nadia Turner, eat your heart out, because this was by far the most unique coif the Idol finals have ever witnessed). After sitting there staring at it a good few minutes, racking my brain trying to figure out the ideal animal to compare it to, I finally gave up. So then, I contemplated something even more shocking: This week, Sanjaya chose an interesting, more obscure No Doubt song, "Bathwater" (from 2000's "Return of Saturn") and for that he deserves (gasp, I know, it's hard to get the word out) credit, especially given that a number of his more formidable competitors failed at the whole song choice task. Ok, yes, the execution was less than competent. (Oh, how he bobbled his words after singing the line "wanted and adored by attractive women," haha!) He continued to display no range, even if he finished with some marginally improved notes. But somewhere between the gentle fawn put-on and hilarious faux-rocker edge, there's something ticking. I mean, Sanjaya amps up the sweet and naive, but the look he shot the camera at the end of his performance screamed "Getting away with it!"

The thing that cracks me up even more than Sanjaya himself is that Randy and Paula, while laughing, continue to try to offer constructive criticism, as if all of a sudden he's going to hunker down and become some amazing singer. Surely, Sanjaya is better than he's letting on. But is he so much better that going serious would help him succeed more than he is now, in his patented role as Wacky Dude? I mean, why change course? Better to go out in a blaze of "Idol" glory and be remembered, I suppose, than go out, like, Brandon-style. In a way, Sanjaya is this year's Kellie Pickler, surviving more on his overall persona and banter more than his singing (although to be fair, Kellie Pickler is a much better singer than Sanjaya). "Look, Sanjaya, I don't think it matters anymore what we say, actually," Simon said, getting it absolutely right. "I genuinely don't. I think you are in your own universe, and if people like you, good luck." So, until Sanjaya runs his course, we can sustain ourselves with the likes of:

Return of the footwear fixation: Thanks to his, uh, enthusiastic interactions last season with Mandisa and Kellie Pickler, we already knew Randy was fond of mentioning/noticing/leering at ladies' shoes. Thanks to his banter last night with LaKisha and Gina, now we know that was no passing fad. Ah, "Idol," consistent in formula, even when we don't really need it to be.

Eyesore, or earache? "It becomes like an eyesore for the audience," Paula told Chris Sligh after his slightly off-balance performance. That's Paula "I sometimes forget it's a singing competition" Abdul, for those of us keeping track.

Ain't that the truth: "It's not the Oscars!" Simon snapped as the "Idol" music struck up in the middle of his remarks about Chris Sligh. Indeed, unlike at the Oscars, the music actually did go back down to allow him to finish. The two shows have at least one thing in common, though - well, two, I guess, if you count Jennifer Hudson - the "Idol" finale is held in the same venue as the Oscars.

Meanwhile, in the "This just needs to be reproduced for posterity" category:
: "Now, we're disappearing, but we'll be right back with Sanjaya and Haley."
Seacrest raises his eyebrows. Why? We soon find out: Cut to a shot of a smiling Haley and - oh my gosh, stop, stop, what IS this hair? oh my gosh - Sanjaya's hair is sticking straight up. He's sticking his tongue out and raising his amrs in some kind of supposed-to-be-rockin' gesture? I guess he's thinking because this type of posturing worked for him last week, it...oh, there are no words. Cut back to Seacrest, whose eyebrows remain raised to the max. Zoom in on his face, as if to say, "Oh, viewers of America, I know. I know."

Not much, except sheer entertainment value? "Let's see what Sanjaya has for us, apart from the hair," Seacrest said as he introduced (his) segment.

Speaking of said hair: "Well, I presume you had no mirror in your dressing room tonight," Simon told Sanjaya, using one of those patented one-liners you just know he strives to dream up as the contestants perform. "You're just jealous you couldn't pull it off," Sanjaya volleyed back. Truly, that's a point there's no arguing, as even Simon had to admit. "I couldn't," he said. "I agree."

Hey, that is about the right ratio! According to Seacrest, there were eight reasons to vote for Sanjaya this week - one of them music and seven of them the mini-ponytails that made up his terrifying "pony-hawk." Hmm, the reason people vote for Sanjaya is only 1/8 music? Yep, that sounds about right!

Wait, who sang that, again? "There was nothing to remember, really," Simon said after informing Haley that thousands of other girls around the country could have done at least as good a job as she had with Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors." "Too safe, and you're gonna have to do better than that." Yeah, so, pretty much...

But the real question will be, how does it feel to go back? "How does it feel to go from an unknown to a household name in a matter of weeks?" Seacrest asked Phil during a "viewer question" segment of the show.

So, we're trying to say we thought it would suck! Gwen, Randy and Simon all found themselves pleasantly surprised by Phil's competent take on the Police's "Every Breath You Take," hilariously enough: "Wow, I didn't know it was gonna be that good!" Gwen said during rehearsal. "You know what, man, I actually kind of liked that, man," Randy remarked after the performance. Even ol' grumpy was moved. "This may surprise you, Phil," Simon said, "but I actually thought that was very good."

Make that Junior Olympics: "I've seen Chris (Richardson) on the show before, and I've noticed that he likes to do this kind of vocal Olympics thing," Gwen perceptively noted.

Now, for the week's "um, ew" Paula moment: Chris Richardson's version of "Don't Speak" apparently sent Paula into some kind of reverie. "You're good, Chris, you're good," she said dreamily. "Just good." (To achieve the most realistic re-enactment, insert a really big pause here, and then let Simon's remarks begin.)

Bottom o' the barrel: After Tuesday's brand of weirdness, it's hard to say, but I do predict Phil will be there.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Steph in the wrong direction

So "Idol" Nation, what'll it be? Aside from a few standouts this season, it looks like the choice is largely between bad and boring - and based on the results shows so far, bad is winning. How else to explain that the talented but tentative Stephanie Edwards got the boot last night, disappointingly but none too surpisingly, and was joined in the bottom two by Chris Richardson, he of mild handsomeness and smooth vocal stylings as exciting as plain oatmeal? Meanwhile, Mr. Off The Wall himself, Sanjaya Malakar, will grace us with his presence at least one more week. Go figure.

Although most members of the wholesome "Idol" nation probably aren't on drugs, Sanjaya's continued survival suggests they want to be, or at least want to feel like they are for a few minutes each week, when this dude takes the stage and vaults all things "Idol" into the realm of the surreal. Second-last last week, the 17-year-old will o' wisp wasn't didn't even have to make the "you're in the bottom" walk of shame to the middle of the stage this week, despite a performance that cried "worst high school talent show of all time!" And oh, did you hear the way the crowd cheered for him when Seacrest told us he wasn't in this week's bottom group? Kevin Covais and other past Jokes of the Top 12 never experienced that kind of adulation. Now, thanks to his showing, Sanjaya has at the very least guaranteed himself a place on this summer's "Idol" tour. Eardrums of America, you've been forewarned.

Granted, I'm thinking that people voting for Sanjaya know he's no "Idol." Instead, it's as if they've decided they want a humorous distraction amid some of the other contestants' less-than-memorable contributions, and so keep Sanjaya up there in spite of himself. Accordingly, his vote totals have thus far varied inversely to the quality of his performance. Merely abysmal? Bottom two! Epochally bad? You're safe, safe, safe! Sanjaya is the clown of this whole three-ring circus, there to provoke laughter while the likes of Jordin and LaKisha sail above it all on a trapeze (with, say, Blake balanced on a tightrope nearby). Clowns have their place and all, but when it comes down to it, they aren't worth the price of admission alone (and before irate clown-lovers consider deluging me with complaints, let me stress I mean this metaphorically and am not suggesting the painted, bewigged entertainers are anything like Sanjaya, except maybe when Sanjaya sports a perm).

Amid this, Stephanie departed the "Idol" stage, perhaps prematurely, although both she and Chris Richardson were bound to be eliminated at some point, probably sooner than later. To be fair, Steph had just as much of a chance as any other contestant to make an impression, and she didn't exactly do it. She shed a tear after Seacrest informed her of her fate, but fittingly, it seems, time ran out, and she didn't even get a word in edgewise, even to say thanks, leaving us with silence.

That aside:

On second viewing (courtesy of the recap): Paula's attempted-deadpan suggestion that contestants should "picture Simon not dressed" to relieve performance jitters...still not funny! But Jordin's performance? Still really, really good.

Blake, you may be onto something here: "Seacrest dancing and beatboxing made my night," Blake enthused in a clip presumably recorded after last night's program, where Seacrest, indeed, danced and beatboxed. That Blake could appreciate the sheer riduculousness of that is a good sign.

Wait, there's another side? "Chris (Richardson) showed us his tender side," Seacrest's voiceover informed us during the recap.

Carrying the '60s torch not just musically...was guest coach Peter Noone, who definitely sported a blue paisley blazer as he sang. With "sang," for him, not exactly meaning what it did in the 1960s, although his performance was warm and spirited.

Sandy, is that you? As a friend and fellow "Idol" devotee pointed out in a phone conversation last night, the utterly delightful guest coach Lulu didn't just look like Olivia Newton-John, she underwent a transformation much like the one Newton-John's "Grease" character did, going from a fairly demure and age-appropriate look Tuesday to a tight, black, skin-baring, off-the-shoulder number as she performed Wednesday. And because I adored her as a coach, I'll also reserve comment on the last few big notes she attempted. Oh, my.

Aw, gee, I think we'll find a way: "How are we gonna fit this show in?" Seacrest joked at one point - you know, after 15 minutes of filler, and before the other 13 minutes of filler that were sure to follow.

Dude, I wouldn't get too comfortable: After learning he'd live to see another week, Phil Stacey - who was in last week's bottom three - acted way excited and more than a little too relieved, releasing multiple, louder-than-Taylor Hicks "Whooooos" and continuing to "Whooo!" and high-five every living thing in sight even as Seacrest read the next batch of results.

Rife with meaning, eh Ryan? "This week, we want to send out a message to Corporate America: We need you," Seacrest said, soliciting donations for the "Idol Gives Back" charity extravaganza that awaits us in the weeks to come. American Idol? Reliant on Corporate America? Knock me over with a feather!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Cruel Brittania?

The wave of music that became known as the British Invasion stormed our shores starting in 1964, shaking up a stagnant scene - and indelibly altering and influencing later artists' work - with addictively catchy, tuneful, blues-influenced rock and pop from bands such as the Kinks, the Animals, the Who and, of course, the two giants who still loom largest: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Ask "American Idol" contestants to take that on, and what do you get? Based on Tuesday night's show, less an invasion than, say, a medium sized, mildly aggressive ship drifting into harbor.

"If these people have the same kind of enthusiasm as the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1964, nothing can stop them," co-guest coach Peter Noone, the lead singer of '60s popsters Herman's Hermits ("Mrs. Brown, You've Got a Lovely Daughter," "I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am") said a few minutes into the program. But oh, Mr. Noone (looking toothily handsome in your old-ish age, I might add), surely something could stop them, as we discovered during a night that, while largely better and more varied than last week's Diana Ross show, still ran cold at times.

I was excited about the theme's potential. After all, the show tends to do better on nights that don't revolve around one artist's work, and this one in particular offered witty, helpful guest coaches (Noone and '60s songstress Lulu, who Melinda Doolittle correctly described as a firecracker) and wealth of good songs from bands and solo artists (i.e. Dusty Springfield) alike (even with the Beatles, presumably, excluded because they wouldn't clear the rights to their tracks). It even had an at-least-halfway-compelling extra motivating factor: Whoever avoids elimination Wednesday wins a spot on the "Idol" tour this summer. But would you want to go see any of these people? Ah, well, therein lies the big question.

I'm not quite sure what this says about her role among, and importance to, this season's crop of contestants, but when LaKisha is off, the whole night loses a highlight and ends up suffering. LaKisha was off Tuesday, even if she was sporting a smashing green dress. Shirley Bassey's "Diamonds Are Forever" is dark and mysterious, as befits a James Bond theme. Given the power of her voice, LaKisha's version of it could have been, too. Instead, she drained most of the life from an arrangement that already sounded fit for "The Lawrence Welk Show" or some dreary chain-hotel cocktail lounge. "I didn't feel enough LaKisha in it," Randy said. Yeah, neither did we. Among the other girls, Haley didn't totally embarrass herself delivering a spirited but fairly superficial take on "Tell Him" ("There's room for you in this competition," Lulu told her, and she's right: Haley's voice may not be huge, unlike so many past "Idol" belters, but it can be pleasant). Stephanie failed to really connect yet again, despite her obvious talent and maturity ("I think you are losing your edge...losing your soul," Simon told her, adding that she was "becoming far too old.") Jordin, meanwhile, delivered what I thought was the performance of the week, a well-arranged, controlled and emotionally convincing take on Bassey's "I (Who Have Nothing)." Adorable and personable without being cloying, cute without being skanky, she's definitely on her way up. And Melinda, as usual, delivered another intelligent, technically superior performance, choosing a song from a musical - in this case, "Oliver" - for the second week in a row (why, Melinda, why? clearly, you're a nice person. there's so much better for you out there! I'm waiting for you to truly move me).

Blake Lewis again looked like pretty much the only viable guy in this thing, taking on the Zombies' "Time of the Season" with beatboxing (oh gosh, will it become the "Ace Young Falsetto"-type crutch of season six?), a hip getup (plaid pants? oh, yeah!) and half-dancing swaying beneath multicolored lights that resembled something out of "Austin Powers." Though his voice actually seemed to me to crack or go out of tune at a couple of points, the crowd and judges didn't seem to notice, and rewarded him with plaudits and applause. And indeed, the performance did work.

Meanwhile, could there be anything more innocuous than Chris Richardson, who's to this point displayed the vocal depth of a Dixie cup? Based on last night, Sanjaya is more dangerous (more on that particular insanity in a bit). The judges praised Chris's version of Gerry and the Pacemakers' "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying," and to be sure, it was way better than his performance last week. But I couldn't decide whether it was plain boring or a sort of understated success I could picture from someone such as (alas, I am making the comparison), Justin Timberlake. Phil's take on "Tobacco Road," while vocally decent, left me cold (as it did Simon, who called it "a third-division bar band performance" that lacked vocal grit). And his asking the audience afterward whether they had fun after struck me as desperate.

Then, as before, we had Sanjaya, a special case in every sense of the word. Why is he still around? Because he's loopy and strange and thus endearing to some, or so I imagine, and because Brandon forgot his words, that's why! Before The Break Seacrest promised a performance that would unleash "the wild side of Sanjaya," a thought as terrifying as, like, Pat Boone's metal album. Sure enough, that was the only front on which it didn't disappoint. (Although I guess you have to have expectations for something to disappoint in the first place, and let's face it, I didn't go in with any expectation Sanjaya would be amazing all of a sudden, or even merely competent, for that matter.) "As soon as I heard it was British Invasion week...I had no idea what I was going to sing," he said in his spacey, trippy voice. After some debate - and encouragement from Noone - he opted for the Kinks' "You Really Got Me," which turned out to be hilarious, but only because it was probably the absolute worst thing I'd ever heard on any "Idol" finals show, and because the producers kept cutting away to shots of that exceedingly weird young-ish girl crying as Sanjaya sang. Performing/screaming/underenunciating wearing an oversized gray blazer with the alphabet printed on it, the 17-year-old flung himself around the stage with abandon. The hair, at least, was tolerable this week. Little else was. His range? Impossibly small, though that didn't stop Randy - with tongue in cheek, one has to hope - from calling it Sanjaya's "best performance ever." "Man, you came out of your shell tonight," Randy said. Well, yeah, I guess that's one way to put it. Oh, and by the way, was it just me, or did the dude hold up nine fingers during the post-performance Seacrest session, even though his Idol phone voting number clearly ended in eight? So...

Lechery, thy name is Cowell (again): "You naughty little thing," Simon purred after Haley's semi-clothed, flirtatious take on "Tell Him." Hey, didn't we hear him offer a virtually similar opinion on Kellie Pickler last year? Ah, we did. And wait, there's more. After calling the performance fun, young and "a bit shrieky in the middle," he concluded, "I think people are going to be talking about a lot more than your singing tonight."

Meanwhile, in the potential double standard department: Simon wasn't nearly as forgiving to Gina, who wore significantly more. (Is there a connection? Probably not. I'm just throwing it out there.) Admittedly, she sounded pretty rough trying to rock the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black," but the performance wasn't nearly as bad as Simon made it sound (the phrase "moments of complete torture" comes to mind). And though I'm usually quick to agree with the one judge who, well, tells it like it is, his curt dismissal of Gina - "vocally, not just good enough, sweetheart" - reeked of rudeness, not honesty.

Or, there might not be: "Chris Richardson looks like a star to me, but I didn't hear much of Chris's voice, so there may be a lot more to it. I mean, he keeps singing these songs that are ahaaaahahaha," Noone said before Aspiring Timberlake took the stage.

Bring your umbrella! "I tell you, if you become a big star, I don't want to sit in the front row," Noone cracked to the ever-beatboxing Blake.

Things I need to forget immediately, volume 675: As part of his post-performance banter with Blake, Seacrest attempted to dance Blake-style, singing the line "Who's your daddy?" from the song Blake had just performed. Wrong on so many levels, that.

Do we call that a slight? "Coming up, it is LAKISHA JONES...andphilstacey," Seacrest said, putting a whole lotta emphasis on the name of the contestant people probably would endure commercials to see.

Not exactly a shock! OMG! "Name a song that describes you best," Seacrest asked Jordin, relaying a viewer question. "'I'm So Excited,' by the Pointer Sisters," the bubbly 17-year-old replied in a snap.

Understatements of the week: "The only problem is, he doesn't have a lot of experience to sell what he's got," Noone said of Sanjaya.
"I don't think I'm the best singer in the competition, but I'm just going to work on both (songs) and hopefully it'll hit me," the San-man himself said.

Trust us, the chance of the latter are slim indeed:
"Singing either 'You Really Got Me' or 'Something Good,' here is Sanjaya Malakar, Seacrest said.

Yeah, what with the audience and band and singing and all, it does to be kind of like that: "Chris, man, everyone's performing tonight! You coming out in the crowd, man, it's like a concert in here, dawg," Randy said after Chris Sligh sang the Zombies' "She's Not There."

Well, if Paula says so, surely there's something he could do! "Feel free to be more personable with the audience," Paula told Chris Sligh after a performance that began with him walking through the crowd, as people tried to give him high-fives. Afterwards, Simon, speaking for a lot of people, wondered out loud what more, exactly, Chris could have done.

Bottom three: I'd be fine with Sanjaya and Sanjaya alone in this category, but what with it being the bottom three, I suppose I'll venture a guess: Sanjaya, Phil, and maybe Haley? I'm not sure. It's possible Stephanie will make an appearance here, too...

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Brandon: back to backup

For a show regularly derided as middle-of-the-road and white bread - which it is, although not as much as non-viewers think - Wednesday's "American Idol" elimination program sure did end with a triumph of dizzy weirdness.

OK, perhaps "triumph" isn't exactly the right word, considering Sanjaya "Is Love" Malakar lives to see one more "Idol" week, while Brandon "Forgot His Lyrics" Rogers got the hook. It's like watching the Cleveland Browns play the Arizona Cardinals - yes, one team has to win, but neither is going to advance very far in the end. So, yeah, viewers chose "memorable in a strange way" over "forgettable," meaning that Brandon is, presumably, headed back to anonymity and his job as a backup singer.

As far as singing - and related concepts such as range and pitch are concerned - I would have preferred to give Brandon another shot, just to see if he could have improved. With him, that was at least a possibility. With Sanjaya, well, you decide. But - and I'll probably regret saying this if he persists beyond next week - having the totally-out-of-his-depth Sanjaya around will definitely make the show more interesting in most other aspects, in much the same way that the wacky types run roughshod over the audition rounds. (For starters: We get to hear the judges critique Sanjaya again. Oh, man.)

Following a group medley of Ross hits (yes! with halfhearted choreography!) and trademarked Seacrest Delay Tactics, we learned that fifty percent of the guys on the show were in this week's bottom three. I can't say I really disagreed with that, or was terribly surprised, although I'm glad Phil returned to safety. Brandon, meanwhile, who sometimes emanated a hint o' smugness, kept up his polite, blandly professional front 'til the end, smiling too widely and giving too many thumbs up (I only saw one, but that was one too many) for someone who just got denied. And people who wanted him gone - judging from the results, there were plenty of 'em - got another treat, too: There wasn't even enough time left at the end for Brandon to "sing us out."

Fro't on: I'm still debating whether hearing Chris Richardson attempt the beginning of Modest Mouse's "Float On" in last night's commercial irrevocably marred the song for me, but right now I'm leaning toward no, mostly because the original is excellent enough to overcome that. Fortunately, the rest of the "Idol" comrades helped redeem the rest of the ad, especially the sight of A) break dancing and B) Chris Sligh in a 'fro and '70s sunglasses.

Behold the power of blogs: In case you were searching for further proof of the tremendous sway "American Idol" bloggers hold over the show, witness that Jordin Sparks straightened her hair one night after I begged her not to. The pen is mightier than the sword, etc.

And yet, he still made them wait 'til after the break:
The filler-heavy, overlong "American Idol" show is as much a tradition as Randy barking "dawg," and about as enjoyable. But with the large number of contestants this week, the elimination show had to operate in rapid-fire fashion to beat its 9:30 deadline. Seacrest hardly had time to breathe as he informed the top 12 of their fate, along the lines of "You're safe!" (moves on to next contestant) "You're safe!" Don't worry, though, I'm sure he's already scheming of ways he'll drag out the "drama" in weeks where he's got a half hour to fill and only, like, four contestants remaining.

So this is what a star looks like: Yes, Diana Ross' voice, was, uh, a little uneven as she sang "More Today Than Yesterday." But for all intents and purposes, the Detroit native's 40 legendary years in the music business rendered that moot - after that kind of career, you're pretty much entitled. And yet her performance wasn't lazy, by any means. Instead, it was energetic and remarkably down-to-earth (yes, even with the backlit, diva-appropriate stage entrance, flowing, off-the-shoulder red dress and huge frilly scarf/cape/boa thing wrapped around her arm). She practically skipped around the stage smiling, exhorting people to sing along and putting her arm around Melinda. Admittedly, it was unusual to see her performing in front of Randy, Paula and Simon ... but I guess that's the case with any of the seasoned guest performers, who are obviously well past the point in their lives where they'd need or even be willing to subject themselves to that.

Ross 1, Seacrest 0: When you're Diana Ross, you can also feel free to ignore Ryan Seacrest's questions, as this exchange indicated:
Seacrest, to Ross: So, who's going home?
Ross: "I just want to say something. This entire show is such an inspiration to American young kids ... I am so happy to be here."
Seacrest, not giving up: "Who's going home?"
Ross, laughing: "I don't know - me!"

If applause is anything to go by...then Blake and Melinda, especially, have nothing to worry about. For now.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

A Semi-Supreme Dozen

Oh "American Idol," where did our love go? Perhaps it's my fault; perhaps last season spoiled us, what with its musically diverse and personable contenders. But watching this year's top 12 debut Tuesday on Diana Ross night, I confess I pined a bit: For a strong male singer (calling Elliott, Taylor and Chris to the stage!), for everything Sanjaya to disappear, yes, even for Kellie Pickler to come back and crack a joke. Despite the rules that result in an even number of guys and girls in the "Idol" finals, right now this year is shaping up to be a whole lot like the female-dominated season three - the series whose talent imbalance and all-girl top four caused the show's producers to revise the path to the top 12 in the first place.

But it's possible I quibble too much. Even in less-than-top form, "American Idol" is like a cozy quilt or a plate of fried chicken and biscuits: It's just so darn comforting to sit down with, and I'm glad the finals are here. (Hey, speaking of, hope you're pleased I've returned, too!)

Besides, I'm optimistic future weeks will top this one; after all, last season started slow with another difficult theme, Stevie Wonder. As is often the case with "Idol," the theme itself posed part of the problem Tuesday, too. Diana Ross has achieved staggering success both as a Supreme and as a solo artist, racking up some of pop's most memorable hits with classic tunes like "I Hear a Symphony" and "Stop! In The Name of Love." But Ross' voice is high and delicate and her range not terribly wide, which presents a challenge for the prospective Idols faced with performing her music. Nonetheless, as a judge, the coolly regal Ross - who, yes, now that you asked, does have a new album out and will be performing on Wednesday's show, totally coincidentally, I'm sure - dispensed at least a few morsels of useful advice, a good portion of which the contestants proceeded to disregard once they hit the stage. At age 63, she looked great, too, and at least one Idol finalist got a kick out of her explosion of curly black hair. "I see we have similar hair," cracked Greenville, S.C.'s Chris Sligh, whose own fans in the studio audience cheered him on with signs reading "Fro Patrol."

Speaking of hair, I'd be remiss to let this moment pass without mentioning the evening's peak fashion happening: Sanjaya and his terrifying curly locks. Just when I thought I'd seen the 17-year-old's hair at its most abominable, shiny and straightened last week, he went for the Diana Ross look on national television. I also mention Sanjaya now because, with any luck, his one-of-a-kind-in-a-bad-way performance of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" will ensure he won't be around to mention in future weeks. The fact that Sanjaya is even in the finals is, well, kind of funny, if you choose to look at it that way, and says a lot about the caliber of male contestants this go-round. Without question (in my mind, at least) the quirkiest "Idol" finalist of all time, the sweet, spacey, stick-thin teen with the brilliant white smile has pulled off the heretofore impossible feat of making Kevin Covais, last season's "Chicken Little," look manly by comparison. "Sanjaya to me is love, I mean, you care about him," said a charmed Diana Ross. Sanjaya returned the favor. "Being able to have Diana Ross mentor you is like having Van Gogh teach you how to paint," he said with awe. Even though Sanjaya lacks vocal range, I should note that his paper-thin, high tone isn't terribly unpleasant. The problem is that it's best suited for, say, a coffeehouse, not the "Idol" mainstage, home to all manner of Whitney-wannabe-style belting and melisma. I mean, hearing backup singers as they overpowered Sanjaya was just totally comical, as Randy noted. Lest you think I'm piling on cruelly, incidentally - which is not my intention - let me offer this from the "Most embarrassing moments?" section of Sanjaya's bio on the official "Idol" Web site: "I don't get embarrassed." Oh, don't we know.

To the surprise of no one, then, the girls completely showed up the guys when it came to singing. LaKisha - or, uh, "Kiki," to her mom and Diana Ross - was, as ever, sweet, soulful, powerful and restrained at the same time, and displayed an admirable control of her voice, even if it did strike me as a bit of a thematic cop-out that she performed Billie Holiday's "God Bless The Child," which Ross sang when she played Lady Day in 1972's "Lady Sings The Blues." Jordin Sparks was utterly adorable closing out the night with "If We Hold On Together." (PS: Jordin, don't straighten your hair - learn from Lisa Tucker's mistakes!) And although she sort of let "Love Child" get away from her, even after Ross advised her to "pronunciate" (which is a real word, according to before taking on the wordy song, Gina Glocksen continued to display a winning personality and admirable spark that helps set her apart. The judges also lavished Melinda Doolittle with praise following her version of "Home," from "The Wiz," a boring song that, as Simon rightly noted, Melinda made fantastic, or at least as fantastic as a boring song can be. Stephanie Edwards, though, risks getting lost in the pack after squandering the individuality she showed in her first semifinal performance. As it seems now, she looks to be headed to La Toya London territory - that is, talented, but doomed by her lack of distinctiveness - if she even makes it that far. Still, there are three months to go, which is what helps make "Idol" interesting...(And by the way, I haven't forgotten about Haley - more on her at the bottom.)

The boys, meanwhile...oh, the boys. Right now, Blake Lewis - Idol's first-ever skater-punk-style finalist, unless my memory fails me, and one who professed a love for underground hip-hop, electronic music, Prince and Michael Jackson, no less - appears to be their best hope. Attractive, personable and creative, he also boasts a decent voice, though his arrangement of "You Keep Me Hanging On" drowned it out with keyboard blips and bloops. Still, a brief clip of him singing a capella during his session with Ross drew shrieks from the audience. Surely, this must be a sign of what lies ahead. Chris Richardson tries to operate in a similar vein, although not as successfully. "Take you out of the equation, with your charm and personality, I thought it was dreadful," a spot-on Simon said after Chris danced around the stage to "The Boss" Tuesday. (I know Chris said people tell him he looks like Justin Timberlake, but I think he looks a lot like someone else. I just totally can't think of who right now, so any help would be greatly appreciated.) And the promising Chris Sligh has chosen and arranged songs poorly in recent weeks, blandly updating "Endless Love" Tuesday into something that Randy said sounded like Coldplay's "Speed of Sound" (or to me, "Clocks," or some late-1980s light rock ballad). "You murdered the arrangement," Simon said, later adding that "I would keep your glasses on, because I think it's you." Oh, it so is! I'm not sure why said glasses were absent this week, but let us resolve to never see Chris without his eyewear again. Perhaps the power of spectacles will help him recapture his mojo, or whatever it is that compelled him to sing with heart and soul earlier on.

Anyway, moving on:

The Abdul TearTracker, volume I: Paula's waterworks, which apparently operate on a hair trigger, made at least two appearances during Tuesday's show, most notably in the uncontrollable bawling that followed Melinda's performance. That was only 22 minutes into the program, mind you.

Insult elevator, going up! Time was, an Idol judge could call a contestant "a background singer" and it meant something - something negative, that is. But with Brandon Rogers, who actually IS a background singer, it would have just been the truth. Worry not, though: Simon ratcheted his criticism to the occasion: "You came over, if you don't mind me saying, as a background singer for a background singer," he said after Brandon's unmemorable take on "Can't Hurry Love" - so unmemorable that Brandon himself apparently got distracted by his lame choreography and ended up forgetting a big ol' chunk of words in the middle of the song.

That'll do that to ya: "I thought it was going my way until I forgot the words," Brandon said after his performance.

Let's try that first impression again: "My first impression of Chris (Sligh) is that he was a little bit nervous," Ross said. "I don't really have the nervous bone in my body," Sligh replied.

Yeah, that'd begin to cover it: Ryan Seacrest, a man who apparently knows how to craft a phrase with dual meaning, teased to one interminable commercial break by saying, "Coming up, Sanjaya has a mountain to climb."

If you think that's uplifting, wait 'til you hear the Marilyn Manson back catalog! "It's such an exciting song, that song is like a feel-good, you can't help yourself, you want to get up," Paula said after Gina sang "Love Child," which is about the obvious, as well as themes such as poverty, guilt, doubt and shame.

We agree about the hair, and suppose the ingredient isn't his voice, either? "There's something in his spirit that is the winning ingredient, and it's not his hair," Ross said cattily, raising her eyebrows as she described Sanjaya.

Ryan, you have no idea: "The courage of Sanjaya Malakar," Seacrest intoned. "I think we're dying to know what's going on in your head when you're listening to (the judges) give you feedback."

Bald ambition: I've nothing against follicularly challenged "Idol" contestants. After all, look at Chris Daughtry. But see, Daughtry teaches a valuable lesson - there's good bald, and then there's, well, Phil Stacey bald. His voice is decent, as was his Tuesday performance, but his gleaming, pointy head posed a distraction during the singing. We don't care if your hairline is receding - dude, you just need something up there.

Fearsome Seacrest teasers that actually panned out slightly better than expected:
"When we come back, it is Haley live on Idol!"
"Coming up, we've got a modern spin on a Motown classic - Blake Lewis is on!"

Even she knows it can ring hollow: "I'll start by saying you look lovely tonight, but Haley, that's probably not what you want to hear right now," said Paula, using her patented technique to preface or altogether avoid unkind remarks by complimenting a contestant's appearance.

And by artist we mean...something: "Paula, you're an artist, what did (Melinda) feel when she was up there in front of all those people?" Seacrest inquired. "She's feeling like she had an out-of-body experience," Paula replied, speaking about an experience that, judging by her frequent incoherence, she knows well.

Seacrest, that noted literalist: "It is just so fun to watch you grow on this show," Seacrest told Jordin as he stood next to her after her performance, looking up - because, yeah, the 17-year-old had a good three to four inches of height on him.

Bottom three: It should be Sanjaya, Brandon and Haley, with Sanjaya heading for the door. Although Haley's clearly the weakest girl and thus probably not long for the competition, Simon was right in saying that her voice isn't all bad - just inconsistent, mostly - and she exuded a surprising amount of stage presence, at least compared to what we'd seen from her previously. I haven't been exactly what you'd call a fan of hers, and indeed, I wished she would have exited instead of Sabrina. But when the worst girl is still more interesting that several of the guys, it's a sign things might be out of whack. At the very least, Haley's showing Tuesday helped erase memories of the saccharine, excruciating rendition of "If My Heart Had Wings" she inflicted on viewers last week. And yes, of course, we know she misses him, but she might also do well to lay off on the constant mentions of her fiancee back home, considering that she could easily end up back there with him in the near future.