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...