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 dictionary.com) 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.


Anonymous said...

Your analysis seems to match mine fairly well. I think several of them will improve during these 'theme nights', as it restricts their song choices and forces them out of genres where they feel comfortable, but don't necessarily sound good. Phil and Haley improved immeasurably by being forced to try something different.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you're back this year. I enjoy your blog so much, and your comments are always spot-on!