Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Charity head case

For a show devoted to helping needy children, American Idol's two-hour "Idol Gives Back" special sure had an interesting way of showing it. I may be wrong about this, but I'm thinking that the surest example came at about 9:35 Wednesday, when we witnessed Celine Dion take the stage for a prerecorded duet with a clip/hologram/mirage of Elvis, singing "If I Can Dream," from his 1968 comeback special. Before you even begin to mull that over, let's back up and ask ourselves: Who ever decided this was a good idea? Or, more accurately, perhaps, who swallowed a staggering haul of hallucinogenic mushrooms?
"Now, prepare to be startled, prepare for magnificence, prepare for a duet you thought was impossible," Ryan Seacrest said in his introduction. "Celine Dion is traveling back to the year she was born, 1968, to sing with a man who is and always will be the world's greatest idol." Yes, "thought was impossible" for good reason, because one of the participants is dead. Also, even if Elvis were still with us, would we really want him duetting with Celine Dion? And furthermore, see how we are totally not thinking about underprivileged children anymore?
Awkwardly mixing AI's trademark hyper-commercialism and "results" with genuinely moving material, Wednesday's show didn't so much give back as ricochet all over the place. By juxtaposing its normal, frivolous routine with clips of people in the direst of straits - dying of AIDS or malaria, or struggling to reclaim their lives in the wake of Hurricane Katrina - it often unintentionally dropped reminders that real hardship involves a whole lot more than getting ejected from a popular reality show. To the program's credit, though, it at least managed to involve itself with, and finish off the night with help from, someone who's been credibly wedding pop music with idealism and charity for a long, long time: Bono, who met the Top Six and provided some inspiring words the contestants likely took to heart.
Anyway, I've tried to come up with an equation that could even come close to encapsulating the show that was, and although this may be imprecise, I'll give it a whirl: Live Aid (or Live 8, your choice!) + the Telethon of your choice - most tastefulness + (Ryan Seacrest, Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul) + a dash of the dizzy randomness of last season's "Idol" finale + Sanjaya in the audience + commercials for "Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?" = "Idol Gives Back."
Just like "Idol" itself, the charity appeal wasn't exactly bursting with radical activism. Instead, it approached issues with middle-of-the-road, inoffensive, universal appeal. Throughout the night, Seacrest dutifully credited a list of sponsors that read like a roll call of corporate America, sometimes with ironic results. Was that segment on Hurricane Katrina really brought to us by Allstate, the insurance giant currently battling more than a few lawsuits from Gulf Coast homeowners who argue the company hasn't sufficiently compensated them for their losses? Oh, but it was.
Wednesday also had its own reminder of '80s charity-pop idealism in the new, globally inclined Quincy Jones ballad, "Time To Care," which the contestants sang live. It had Carrie Underwood, Rascal Flatts, Il Divo, and a bizarre laundry list of celebrities lip-synching to "Stayin' Alive." (Why? I'm still trying to figure, too.) It had "Idol" judges meeting with the impoverished. And because of, well, what it was, it ended up with collisions like the night's first celebrity appeal for donations, courtesy of Will & Grace star Eric McCormack: "If every person who voted for Sanjaya gave just one dollar, we could do so much good." Or this Randy Jackson voice-over in a clip that followed clips of jubliant "Idol" auditioners with shots of suffering New Orleanians gathering at the Superdome in the wake of Hurricane Katrina: "August 31, 2004, New Orleans, Louisiana. That day, 9,000 hopefuls lined up in front of the Superdome. Exactly one year later, Katrina would unleash her horror, and another crowd would gather here."
Also present: plenty of abrupt transitions, like, "Hey look, it's Oscar winner Forest Whitaker sending his congratulations from Uganda! Oh, wait, it's Seacrest saying 'time for the results!'" Yeah, about the results, or lack thereof: Even Seacrest, usually the master of suspense, couldn't keep that cat in the bag. After about the first of five times he promised "the most shocking result in our history," I figured the only result shocking enough to fit that description would be for no one to get kicked off. (By the way, Entertainment Weekly's Idol watcher totally called it in his recap of Tuesday's show.) Or, as Seacrest himself put it later, "How can we let anybody go on a charity night?" Ok, point taken, but why, then, did he act like the elimination suspense was necessary to keep people watching, continuing to drag out the "results" charade for two hours? What does that say about the producers' opinion of the Idol nation's charitable impulses?
Ellen DeGeneres also totally gave it away in, like, the first five minutes of the show, when she asked, "There's six people, one's gonna get kicked off, what's shocking?" Oh, foreshadowing, you do have a funny way of rearing your head! Anyway, once LaKisha was safe, it became pretty clear no one was going home. The contestants sure didn't seem surprised by the outcome; when Chris and Jordin were only two remaining, they appeared to be stifling smiles because they were in on the scheme. Once Seacrest announced they were all safe, they convened for a group hug, but they shouldn't get too comfy: All the warm fuzziness of the evening just delayed the inevitable, and so two people will head home next week. Oooh, double elimination! I bet Seacrest is already plotting how to handle that one.

Anyway, let's break it down a bit...

The hilarious:

  • When Jack Black, kinetic and semi-possessed as usual, and looking every bit the scruffy dude who just got off the couch after a nap and a few beers, took to the stage and began to warble Seal's "Kiss From A Rose." (Yeah, that was definitely his partner in Tenacious D, Kyle Gass, in the audience, clutching a rose.) Best line by far: When JB shooed off Seacrest on his way to singing, saying, "No way, Cresty! Get outta here, dude. I've been dreaming about this for so long, I've been trying to do this, and I want to be judged by this jury panel." Second-best line: "(The song) is from Batman Returns, the most sensitive of all the Batmans."
  • When, after Jack Black departed, Seacrest said "Back to the real talent on this stage," and asked about the contestants' fate. Dude, Seacrest, wasn't Jack Black the real talent on that stage?
  • When the animated Simon, playing a contestant in a "Simpsons" parody of "Idol" auditions, fell through a trapdoor, leading Bart to proclaim, "Lions haven't eaten this well since Dunkleman!" (Referring, of course, to the Idol co-host who unceremoniously departed after season one.

The head-scratching:
  • Earth, Wind & Fire starting the musical portion of the show with a medley that included that noted charity classic, "Boogie Wonderland," as well as "Shining Star" and "Dancing in September."
  • That bit with Ben Stiller, who was game, but is usually a lot funnier.
  • That odd transatlantic waver in Michigan native Madonna's voice, as she appealed for donations in a clip filmed in Malawi.
  • So very many of the guest appearances.
The genuinely good and quite possibly moving, despite the show's overall ridiculousness:
  • Josh Groban and the African Children's Choir singing "You Raise Me Up." Even though I would be perfectly content to live the rest of my life without ever hearing that song again, the performance was actually really touching, especially with the sweet-natured children harmonizing. Much to my surprise, I was moved. Curses, American Idol and your expertly manipulating ways!
  • Kelly Clarkson singing a "Up To The Mountain," with Jeff Beck on guitar. The guitar playing? Awesome. Clarkson's singing? Warm, soulful and emotional. (Take that, other "Idols.") And the way the song began with minimal accompaniment and slowly built? Expert.
  • Annie Lennox, because she's Annie Lennox and her voice is just that special, not to mention dignified.
  • The purposefully heart-rending footage from impoverished areas of the U.S. and Africa that the judges and Seacrest didn't intrude on too heavily. No matter how strange the evening was, the show deserves props for shining a pretty huge spotlight on areas of the nation and world that are too often out of sight, among them the slums and orphanages of Kenya, FEMA trailer parks in Louisiana and the Appalachian coal country of eastern Kentucky. "You just had to have a strong back and a weak mind when I was growing up, 'cause you could get a job doing something, but now, it's a whole lot different," an older Kentucky man said in the latter segment. Then, a largely illiterate mother spoke of the pride she feels at hearing her daughter read. If even a small number of AI's 30 million viewers saw that and thought about what it meant, and were moved to make a difference somehow, then perhaps that whole Celine and Elvis thing is worth forgiving after all. ;-)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Less than inspiring

How do you laugh at a charity television show? Moreover, should you?

I must admit, I sort of asked myself that question before sitting down for Tuesday's "American Idol" - or, as Ryan Seacrest called it, simply "Idol Gives Back," the first in a two-night run devoted to assisting the impoverished in the United States and Africa. But then I began watching the program, and the answer hit me: Seacrest! Because, see, wherever Ryan Seacrest is involved, awkward moments - and, thus, incidents worth lampooning - are sure to follow, even if they are surrounded by sacred cows. When a show begins with the host saying "The calls you make will not only save your favorite contestants, they will also save lives," well, you know the game is definitely on, even if multiple instances of fresh-faced youngsters talking about their hopes for changing the world also followed.

In all seriousness, you won't catch me ridiculing the starving children in Africa or the struggling American communities shown Tuesday. No matter how much or little Paula Abdul & Co. can or cannot do to assist them, I hope the show does rake in a ton of dough for admittedly deserving causes. Even if it's sometimes hard to accept Seacrest and Simon as 100% sincere, their trip to Africa - which we heard about for the 100th time Tuesday - appears to spring from noble intentions. (By the way, "Idol" producers, is it just me, or aren't there, you know, countries in Africa? Where exactly were Simon and Seacrest?) Bonus: Instead of ripping contestants' vocal stylings or lack thereof, Simon was shown criticizing something considerably more substantial. "This is just intolerable, this is just terrible conditions," he said while touring a malaria treatment facility.

That said, there was plenty else ripe for the picking, such as: 1) Seacrest repeatedly praising Fox parent company News Corp.'s generosity for offering to donate 10 cents to charity for each "Idol" vote, up to $5 million. The media conglomerate's 2006 profit: $2.3 billion. Not that I'm scoffing at $5 million for charity, but comparatively speaking, especially with all this talk about "giving back"? And News Corp. is profiting from "Idol" as it is. 2) Simon visiting a Los Angeles food pantry and expressing surprise that there were hungry people - and generous volunteers - in the U.S. And, well, of course, 3) the performances themselves, which while no means the worst the show has ever seen, certainly weren't the most thrilling, either. The theme may have been "Inspirational Songs," but the only thing the program inspired me to do was go to bed earlier, because I'm telling you, I was pretty drowsy after that one.

Lord help me, after finding out about Tuesday's theme, I was totally expecting a schlockfest of the epic proportions. The category appeared tailor-made for the sort of bombastic ballads "Idol" winners usually sing when they learn they've won and confetti is fluttering around them onstage, not to mention "Idol" staples such as "I Believe I Can Fly." (No, but seriously, where was the "I Believe I Can Fly" Tuesday? Come on now, people! What kind of Inspirational Night are you running here? Then again, no, no, just kidding, we must be careful what we wish for...) Instead, many contestants (boys, I'm looking your way) opted for laid-back numbers. And the girls largely picked lower-profile songs, shunning blockbuster ballads from recent years. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, because in a way it allowed contestants to be themselves. At the same time, who ever said all inspirational songs have to be ballads? Anyway, perhaps I was off by one night on the whole "schlockfest" thing, because Wednesday's two-hour spectacular promises a packed-to-the-gills guestlist, plus "one of the biggest shocks we've ever had on American Idol." Oh, goodness.

Although Seacrest started off the evening by promising us "six classics," Seacrest is a man who tends to oversell things. So instead, we got Chris Richardson tackling Eric Clapton's "Change The World," which was just fine, if you like Chris Richardson - hey, the judges really did - because he was basically in peak form. He chose an optimal song, then sang it blandly enough, with a few smooth runs thrown in.

Blake, meanwhile, went with John Lennon's "Imagine," a pretty gutsy choice that allowed him to stick to the theme and his guns at the same time, without selling out his ideals and personality. The song kind of dragged along, but then again, that's sort of the kind of song it is: As Simon rightly noted, "It didn't really go anywhere," but also "it's not a song you can belt out." It was a tough tightrope to walk, and Blake didn't fall off; instead, he managed it with sincerity.

And then there was Phil, whose version of Garth Brooks' "The Change" didn't strike me as terribly winning - he can still look so pained up there onstage - even if the vocals stood strong. The judges praised the performance, though, with Randy enthusing, "Two in a row! Two in a row!" after mentioning it was Phil's second decent performance in as many weeks.

The girls headed down a slightly more traditional path. In Faith Hill's "There Will Come a Day," Melinda chose a modern song for the second straight week, which surely must have set some kind of record. Though it didn't quite show off her voice as much as some of the other songs she's chosen, she again proved she can tackle pretty much anything and come away accomplished. The tune's message seemed to resonate with the crowd, too.

Then there's LaKisha. Oh, LaKisha, you're an amazing singer, but are you asking to get kicked off the show? Because that's one of the few explanations I can devise for why, seven days after you sang Carrie Underwood's "Jesus Take The Wheel" and barely survived to sing another week, you picked "I Believe," the song Fantasia Barrino performed after she was crowned the Season Three winner. (Picture me, like, slapping myself in the forehead, uttering the phrase, "D'oh!") Because clearly, there are few other inspirational songs in pop music, and few other songs to sing than those originated by past "Idol" winners.

Which leaves us with the one performance of the night that actually did provide some inspiration - not to mention hope that this season still could turn out just fine. As usual, Jordin sailed in to save us, taking on Rodgers and Hammerstein's "You'll Never Walk Alone," with considerable sensitivity and depth after overcoming some rough patches in her lower register early on, as she attempted to start the song by singing softly. At the end - the end of the night, as it happened, since she was going last - she hit a monster note and just held it, without unnecessary melisma or vocal acrobatics. Though the judges have never really panned her, it does seem that with each week, she's almost forcing them, through her performances, to acknowledge her talent more and more. "I think that's one of the best vocals by any contestant ever on this series, in six seasons," Randy said. And on a night where the contrast between serious matters and "Idol" frivolity sometimes stood out, that sure hit the right tone.

Wait, could that be because Sanjaya's gone? "It kind of feels that the competition starts properly tonight," Simon said after Chris Richardson kicked off Tuesday's performances.

Haha, way to inquire: "You're not gonna look surprised, are you?" Simon asked Melinda after her performance, which he proceeded to lavish praise upon.

"Great song choice"? Only if it's opposites day: "It was another great song choice by you," Randy told LaKisha after she, uh, chose a Fantasia song the week after choosing a Carrie Underwood track, neither of which really vaulted her to the heights of "Idol" glory. Could he really have meant that?

Oh Seacrest, you know "Idol" fame is fleeting: Seacrest brought the awkward late in this exchange with Phil, which came as Phil answered a viewer question that asked what he missed most about home:

Phil: "My two little babies ... they're usually here with me, but they haven't been for the last couple of weeks. They're with their grandparents in Oklahoma. But, you know, even though it's hard being away from 'em, we knew in the long run it'll be all worth it. This is gonna make a better life for them, so - "

Seacrest: "Because Daddy's famous! (correcting himself) Daddy's becoming famous."

Simon doesn't exactly know the feeling: "If you can connect now with (confidence and good tone), you could actually do very well in this show, because I think people like you," he told Phil.

Yeah, definitely more important than that "911" thing, or "The baby was just born!" or "Happy birthday, Mom!": "This could be one of the most important calls you ever make," Seacrest said, explaining that money raised by "Idol Gives Back" goes to help people in need. No, really? A related thought: Oh, Seacrest, master of hyperbole.

Bottom three: Just a guess, but I'm thinking LaKisha, Blake and maybe Phil? I'm not sure about much on that front, except that I suspect LaKisha is endangered following a few less-than-rousing performances.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Bye-bye-a, Sanjaya

Tra la la! It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, "Idol" nation. Heck, just go ahead and cue up "Happy Trails," for Sanjaya - and his ever-changing coif - have hit the road, leaving in their wake memories of wacky performances and hairstylists run amok. (Fare thee well, ponyhawk!)

In plenty of ways, Wednesday's Sanjaya ouster was the event Season Six viewers had been anticipating: Based on singing ability, the sweet-natured 17-year-old from Washington state was out of his depth, and it was clearly his time to go. That'd been the case for weeks - indeed, that he even made the finals was both hilarious and astounding - but perhaps the cumulative effect reached critical mass after Tuesday's performance, causing viewers to finally realize they'd about had their fill of whispery vocals as thin as Sanjaya himself and should halt the joyride before it went any further. Simon, for one, made no attempt to conceal his glee at Sanjaya's predicament Wednesday, grinning ear to ear and holding his hands skyward, almost exultantly, once he saw Sanjaya in the bottom three. "I'm beginning to sense something here," he allowed, looking every bit the cat that swallowed the canary.

Yet even if Sanjaya did overstay his welcome, I was never really able to muster much outrage about his continued presence. After all, he was nothing if not entertaining - ok, well, occasionally just painful, but entertaining, too - a commodity that's been hard to come by in this lackluster season. Because it was readily apparent he'd be gone well before the finals rolled around, I figured there was no problem with a little comic relief. Sanjaya took to that role with aplomb, capitalizing on his big smile and gentle wit. And let's give credit where credit is due, because he was totally in on the joke. Now, with the likes of Phil and Chris left, I suspect the show will be considerably blander, not to mention less buzzed about because its water-cooler phenomenon has departed.

Otherwise, the attempts to fill space Wednesday began early and often - come on, did anyone really think Simon was rolling his eyes at Chris' Virginia-related comment Tuesday? And even if so, did we really need a video-clip filled rehash proving that he was in fact rolling his eyes at something Paula said (a much more logical outcome anyway)? Hello, manufactured "controversy"! Besides, Simon had already clarified the situation verbally, which on a half-hour show surely would have been enough. Despite that, though, for reasons I can't really understand, the whole package proved a whole lot more amusing - and passed far more quickly - this week than last, for reasons I can't really understand.

Seacrest again attempted man-on-the-street commentary, and if his attempts at banter weren't exactly a cut above last week's - seriously, we do not need two straight weeks of you making bald jokes when talking to bald men about Phil - at least he picked a busier street that actually appeared to have, oh, I don't know, people on it, including at least one bearded, neo-hippie-looking guy who advised Chris to "keep smoldering." And the contestants' group sing-along, to Jo Dee Messina's "I'm Alright," was harmonious and full of life, which is far more than could be said for last week's attempt.

Then we were privy to a zero percent surprising peek into the contestants' CD collections - what, Melinda and LaKisha listen to gospel? Blake is digging the new Incubus album? Jordin is likin' Fergie's "Glamorous" (or should I spell it out G-L-A-M-O-R-OUS, as she does in the song, haha!)? Well, Jordin, did Seacrest have a treat for you - a totally not live, pre-taped performance of Fergie singing some song (wait, I've looked it up, it's called "Big Girls Don't Cry") that for the most part lacked a melody. Still, not bad.

But that and much that came afterward was no match for the dizzyingly funny elimination theatrics. (If I may mention a still-notable omission: if we can have a show filled with 50 minutes of filler, is it too unreasonable to expect we'll learn something more about the contestants and their backgrounds along the way, as in past seasons?)

After Seacrest divided the contestants into two baffling groups - Phil, Jordin and Chris in one, and LaKisha, Sanjaya and Blake in the other - Melinda remained standing at center stage.

Being learned in things Seacrest, I figured I knew what was coming next: He'd ask her to walk over to the group she thought was safe, thus forcing a cruel, no-win decision. "Oh, Seacrest, don't make Melinda choose!" I thought. "Jordin cannot be in the bottom three!" But then, Seacrest informed Melinda she was safe, so she didn't have to go to either group ... right? Au contraire. "Now, I'm gonna ask you to do one more thing," Seacrest said, proceeding to ask her the very question I'd feared. "No! No! Don't do it, Melinda! Don't choose!" I urged. And she didn't! For once a contestant stands up to Seacrest! Or, rather, sat down, because Melinda plopped herself cross-legged right in the middle of the stage, causing me to feel definitely more than a little vicarious pride. Seacrest, to his credit, perhaps expecting this, reasoned "That's fair," and proceeded to ask Melinda to slide to the left - toward safety, and Jordin, Phil and Chris, leaving a bottom three of Sanjaya, LaKisha and Blake.

Of that trio, only Blake's presence was surprising, but not for a minute did I or anyone else, I suspect, believe he'd be the one to head home. Sure enough, following Martina McBride's gorgeous performance of her new single, "Anyway" - replete with beautiful, beautiful vocals and inspiring, prescient lyrics she directed at the contestants ("You can pour your soul out singing a song you believe in that tomorrow they'll forget you ever sang/Sing it anyway, sing it anyway") - the show's resident beatboxer returned to safety. Left onstage the odd couple to end all odd couples, a combination that would make no sense in any context but "Idol": Sanjaya and LaKisha, dissimilar in stature, vocal talent and pretty much everything else in life, save for their status as "Idol" finalists. And, well, we all know how that turned out. (Let's hope it serves as a wake-up call for LaKisha, too, eh?)

After Seacrest lowered the boom, Sanjaya received a big, long hug from LaKisha. Then, we all got to relive "Sanjaya's journey," witnessing a clip reel packed with hilarity, including many guest coaches' musings on the Tao of Sanjaya. (If that wasn't enough of a commentary on his singing, I should also point out that his original audition was glaringly absent from the recap.) "Sanjaya, to me, is love," Diana Ross philosophized at the end of the farewell clip. Perhaps, but Sanjaya, to us, is gone - though definitely not soon forgotten, as Seacrest aptly noted. As his fellow contestants looked on, appearing surprisingly stunned and devastated by news of his ouster, he took another crack at Bonnie Raitt's "Something To Talk About," substituting the line, "Let's give 'em something to talk about, other than haaaaiiiiir" for much of the chorus. The look on Simon's face as that transpired? Priceless. Kind of like the whole Sanjaya experience, when you think about it.

That's a mighty long bend of which you speak: "Your results are right around the bend," Seacrest said at 9:05 ... a full 50 minutes before the results arrived.

Melinda's sense of humor, where have you been all this time?
"I gotta get my Jesus on during the day, you know what I'm sayin'?" she said while explaining that she'd been listening to Gospel recently. "Because when I come in here, it's a hot mess with these people."

One of these things is not like the other: That prankster Chris had a trick up his sleeve when he said that lately, he'd been enjoying Maroon 5, Jason Mraz and ... well ... "My favorite thing that's in my CD player right now - check this out," he said, leaning over to retrieve - wait, what's he holding up? Why yes, it's a copy of past "Idol" guest coach Peter Noone's album "Herman's Hermits, Greatest Hits Live." "Watch out for this one, he did, he saved my life," Chris said. Phil couldn't resist piling on: "I've got a couple of extra copies, if anybody wants to contact me."

Wow, that's totally weird, enjoying a musical legend of sorts: Correct me if I heard this wrong, but while explaining that he'd been listening to a lot of Willie Nelson lately, didn't Phil say something like "I know it might sound strange, but he's great." Well, actually, it doesn't sound that strange, precisely because a) he is great and b) Phil, you've said you like listening to country rock. :-P

Oooh, if we team up, we can't lose! "It's a chance for you and Corporate America to give back here and in Africa," Seacrest said, in another of his endless plugs for next week's "Idol Gives Back" extravaganza. Me and Corporate America? Wheee! What an irresistible pairing! But hey, Ry, what about that ever-so-effective middleman we call "American Idol"?

One major case of "American Idol totally topping itself," coming up: If you thought last year's finale - you know, the one with Meat Loaf, Prince, Toni Braxton, David Hasselhoff crying, etc. - was as bonkers and absolutely random as television got, the "Idol" team appears set to outdo itself with "Idol Gives Back." So far, according to the show, the guest list includes Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Annie Lennox, Oscar winner Helen Mirren, Daniel Radcliffe of "Harry Potter" fame - random thought, but have the show's Brits been, like, calling in a host of personal favors or something? Hmm! - Rascal Flatts, Earth, Wind & Fire, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Gwen Stefani, Il Divo, Josh Groban, Borat (what is he going to do?!), Teri Hatcher (even though she's long past that whole weird "making out with Seacrest" phase), Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, Celine Dion (now there's a guest who truly makes sense - no, really) and, according to Seacrest, "a duet you'll have to see to believe, when two of the biggest stars in musical history come together on our stage." Could this be the rumored collaboration with Michael Jackson? But would that really happen on a night devoted to helping underprivileged children? I mean, poor taste alert! And besides, even if so, who would the duet partner be? I mean, the world has already experienced him paired with Paul McCartney, years ago, on "The Girl Is Mine." So many questions, so many opportunities to say "What?", so many of which will, I suspect, be answered in off-the-wall fashion (no Jackson pun intended) on next week's shindig.

Mad for plaid: Even if he was all dressed up like Inspector Gadget in last night's commercial - to A Flock of Seagulls' "I Ran" - Blake's penchant for plaid shone through ... sure enough, he was sporting checkered pants. Hurrah, Team Plaid!

Yes, that was ... Season Five finalist and Rockingham native Bucky Covington, who just released an album, sitting in the audience.

Unintentionally hilarious question of the night: "Paula, your thoughts?" Seacrest asked as the bottom three was revealed. As usual, Paula spilled platitudes until finally sputtering, "I understand why two of you are up there."

Seacrest, points for self-awareness: "I'm sitting here with your bottom three this week, and of course they want me to get on with things, but this is 'American Idol,' so I can't right now," Seacrest said roughly two-thirds of the way through Wednesday's show, making a hilarious gesture that seemed to indicate "stretching things out."

Seacrest, demerits for time management: Wait, how is it that a show that's pretty much all filler starts to run out of time, as Seacrest indicated right after his brief "Shrek The Third"-related interview with Antonio Banderas?

Precociousness in action: Martina McBride's 9-year-old daughter, Emma, who briefly shared the stage with her mom, sure didn't know the meaning of stage fright. "Martina, there is the bottom three over there," Seacrest said. "Yeah, I know," Emma replied. "I was talking to Mom," Seacrest said. "Oh, sorry, everybody's really really good!" the kid cracked back. "Thanks, Paula," Seacrest said dryly.

Seacrest, meet the competition: "Who do you think is headed home tonight?" Seacrest asked Martina McBride. "Well, I can't make that decision," she said uber-diplomatically. "America's already made that decision, and we'll find out after the break." Oh, she totally stole Ryan's line!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

A gang o' twang

About halfway through Tuesday's "American Idol," Simon Cowell had just called Chris Richardson's performance "inconsequential" and Chris, after snottily attempting to defend himself, dropped a sudden reminder of how ultimately inconsequential the whole show is, however popular it may be: Mentioning that he had lots of friends at Virginia Tech and was praying for them. Sure enough, you could see it - the real world, poking its head in, awkwardly pricking the "Idol" bubble, reminding us, however briefly, that there is so much in life that matters so much more.

Like other so-called reality shows, "American Idol" isn't usually that real at all, existing to a large extent in its own peculiar universe where true reality rarely intrudes. But as a live television broadcast that's ostensibly a reflection of all of us, a celebration of normal people and the rare sort of program that brings a huge swath of the country together, the show has to acknowledge an outside event as compelling and horrifying as that at Virginia Tech this week. And so it did, and even if the contrast was often awkward, it was better than pretending nothing had occurred. Seacrest starting the show before a darkened background, somberly mentioning the tragedy, and Simon interrupting his comments to Blake provided further jarring reminders.

Yet as much as national grief made it hard to fully revel in Idol's ridiculousness, the show in a way fulfilled its role more than ever, providing a needed sort of fizzy pop culture escape/communal bonding experience, and reinforcing why we seek such entertainment in the first place. If we can still laugh and get a kick out of teens and twentysomethings attempting glorified karaoke, then I think it's a good sign. Anyway, if you're the most popular TV program in the country, the show must and with few exceptions should go on - hey, there's always cable for all news, all the time, and besides, "Dancing With The Stars" forged ahead, too - and so we ended up with last night's "Idol." If the mood was perhaps tempered slightly, with all those proclamations of "dawg" striking an even sourer note than usual, the theme was totally appropriate: Country. And we're not talking outlaw country and the likes of Johnny Cash. Oh, no. With help from guest coach Martina McBride, the contestants largely stuck to the earnest, unironic, radio-friendly variety, with songs about missing Mayberry and Jesus taking the wheel. Though none of the Top 7 had previously expressed much love for the genre overall, they acquitted themselves surprisingly well, giving us what was probably among the better performance shows of a generally underwhelming season.

Dude, why didn't you say so before? "This is my genre, this is what I want to do," Phil said after his well-received performance of Keith Urban's "Where the Blacktop Ends." Um, refresh my memory, but has Phil previously expressed any sort of interest in country, or performed in a country style? I guess his "Tobacco Road" might qualify, but otherwise...

Speaking of, you're just now realizing? "This is the first time since we have met where I actually believe, based on that performance, you could win 'American Idol,'" Simon told Jordin after her, like, tenth consecutive really awesome performance.

Yep, they totally showed Constantine sitting in the audience before Sanjaya took the stage:
Oh, Season Four's resident greasy-haired, sorta-slimy rocker dude, I have but one word for you: Ewww.

Next up, "My Favorite Things," "I Feel Pretty" and "Walkin' on Sunshine"?
"If you could make one of the judges sing a song, who would you pick and what would you make them sing?" a viewer asked Sanjaya, who was ready with a reply: "Um, I'd make Simon Cowell sing (R.E.M.'s) "Shiny Happy People" so he could show his true personality." The remark, needless to say, prompted major-league grins from both Simon and Sanjaya.

Yep, he's in on the joke, part 56: "I chose this song because I often give a lot of people something to talk about, and I thought it would be fun to actually say that," said the show's Mr. Self-Aware Entertainer himself, Sanjaya, before taking on Bonnie Raitt's, uh, "Something To Talk About."

That'd be the "I'm twice your age, strange child" look: How ridiculous was it when Sanjaya went over to the backup singers and gave the one closest to him a saucy look? Not as funny as the expression she shot back!

I often ask myself the same thing: I give you Randy's comments to Sanjaya, verbatim: "Alright so check it out, dawg, check it out, man, just keeping it most real, you know the dawg always keeps it real, man, that was really just like karaoke, dude. Vocally it really wasn't good at all. It was very bland and boring for me. Just to be honest, I mean, to be honest, come on, what are we doin' up here? Paula, what are we doin'?"

Petulant, meet poignant: One minute, Chris Richardson was trying to make the case to Simon that "I don't know if you knew that or not, (but) nasally is a form of singing." Uh huh. And then he abruptly leapt to the other end of the spectrum, saying that he was sending prayers to Virginia Tech, where he has a lot of friends.

Top of the heap: Jordin. Elegant in a long red dress, with her hair elegantly swept up, she delivered Martina McBride's "A Broken Wing" with total conviction, hitting plenty of huge notes along the way. And, yeah, as Randy is fond of mentioning every week, she's just 17. Melinda. Goodness, all I can say is "about time." Finally, she put it all together and really capitalized on her considerable talent, looking her age with stylin' clothes, hair and makeup, picking a fun, modern song, and singing it with sass. As if that wasn't enough, in his remarks afterward, Simon spoke for many with his priceless admonition: "You have to lose this 'Who? What? I'm a great singer?'" Oh, so very true! My pet Melinda peeve for weeks now! (Anyone else seen the "The Soup" parody of Melinda's many expressions of humility? Please, tell me you have!) She took the comment well, and did appear to contain herself after that, offering a kind smile instead of the usual display of "ohmigosh, this is all so shocking!"

Eh: LaKisha. Though her take on a past "Idol" winner's song - in this case, Carrie Underwood's "Jesus Take The Wheel" - wasn't abysmal and didn't evoke thoughts of "oh, crap," unlike, say, when Lisa Tucker attempted Kelly Clarkson last season, it wasn't the greatest fit. True to form, she really belted out parts of the tune, but there wasn't any middle ground; she was either demure and quiet or on the verge of shouting, with little transition to speak of. So when Simon told her she was once the one to beat, the one who blew everyone away, and now must choose better songs if she hopes to recapture that, well, he hit the mark. Blake. His choice of Tim McGraw's "When The Stars Go Blue" was a good one, and he did try to really sing it (which isn't always the case in the land o' Blake). The problem was, that exposed some of his vocal weaknesses - ooh, those high notes could be mighty shaky - leading to a performance that was just ok. I do love his continuing commitment to plaid fashion, though (this week's entry, a black-and-white sweater vest)!

Bottom three: Seriously, did you remember Phil by the end of the show? Because I sure didn't. To be sure, he was plenty better than last week - in fact, this was probably one of his better nights overall - and actually seemed to have a genuine connection to the song he was singing, even if he did look like an "Addams Family" castoff, with his all-black outfit and gleaming bald head. But on an absolute scale, he's still mired in forgettable territory. Chris Richardson, meanwhile, may also be in trouble after following up last week's surprisingly good performance with a version of Rascal Flatts' "Mayberry" - a decent song, mind you - that mostly served as another reminder of how bland and unimpressive he can be. In the clip before he took the stage, he reminded us he was from Virginia and grew up in North Carolina, "so I have those country roots." But I don't care where you're from - "nasally" is not really a desirable form of singing. And then there's Sanjaya. Dare I say it, but could it be his week to go? "My goal this week is to just do Bonnie Raitt justice," he said. Dude, justice was not served, though I guess it still could be if Sanjaya ends up getting the boot. Even if his performance wasn't quite as poor as the judges described, it in no way fell into the "good" category, either. Try as he might - and he did seem to be trying this week - he has no range. At the same time, based on sheer entertainment value, I still think I'd rather see another week of him than of Phil, but based on singing alone, it's no contest.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Haley clocks out

For a girl who in the semifinals inflicted the schlocky "If My Heart Had Wings" on unsuspecting viewers, later described her performance philosophy as "clock in, clock out" and proved incredibly consistent at donning the shortest shorts available, Haley Scarnato sure did end up sticking around "American Idol" a lot longer - and doing a lot better - than most would have predicted. (Me included.)

That said, was it time for her to go last night? Oh, yes, and she didn't look shocked about her exit, either. As Seacrest delivered the news, she shot him a knowing, "yeah, I kind of expected this" look.

Will she be missed? Like so much else this season, probably not tremendously, but her departure nonetheless made me wonder if she squandered her opportunity. I thought she was lucky to get to the finals, but once there, she stepped up - and yet managed to simultaneously oversell herself by wearing scant outfits and undersell herself by not emphasizing a voice that, while not terribly unique, was better than she usually got credit for. She did go out with class and style, though - wearing pants, even! (Joining her in the Bottom Three, incidentally: Phil, who narrowly escaped elimination again, and Chris Richardson, who after an impressive night undeservedly earned the third-lowest number of votes.)

But as the show began, my thoughts weren't on who would get the boot - kind of strange, considering it was results night, after all. Instead, I wondered "Why - how? - is this going to be an hour long?" Because "Bones" wasn't on tonight? Because it was Just That Important to run an extended version of "'Til Death" in the 8 o'clock timeslot? Sigh. No hint of the results arrived until about 9:30, leaving all of America to endure a master class in Seacrest's skill at dragging things out.

The "Idol" faithful received a random performance by Akon - the second in two weeks, actually. (Aw, come on, and they didn't even ask him to perform his oh-so-tasteful recent hit "I Wanna Love You"?) But at least that gave Seacrest a chance to play Dick Clark, albeit randomly, a task that suits him far better than attempting to play Jay Leno. His lame man-on-the-street interviews were proof enough of that, playing as if he arrived at the Los Angeles Farmers' Market and realized, "Crap, it's 11 in the morning on a Wednesday! There's no one here! I've got to scrounge something from this!" Then, we saw that one of the children set to be helped by "Idol Gives Back" had drawn a chalk picture of Simon, complete with man boobs. Oh, I get it - we're supposed to laugh. Later came Longest Recap Ever, followed by Seacrest toying with the contestants (He makes Sanjaya stand up! And sit down. And stand up! And sit down. And stand up! And finally he tells him he's safe). Yes, viewers, welcome to "A Test of Patience," hosted by - who else? - Ryan Seacrest!

Jennifer Lopez' performance, at least, was a rare bright spot. With its tight choreography, smoke, flames and J.Lo herself providing plenty of stage presence, it was not only, well, actually good and befitting a major star, it also helped me better understand how Lopez can sustain a music career, even with just an average voice. Funny, too, was how quickly she switched out of mysterious semi-diva mode and into enthusiastic Jenny From The Block mode, all without seeming artificial. In a night that contained more filler than a low-priced lunch meat, her presence was refreshing. And, I've got to say, the more I saw of her coaching session, the more I appreciated her.

Bring on the designer jeans! Forget - for a moment, if you can - the blindingly gold, fit-for-a-drag queen shirt Paula was sporting last night and instead consider what's been transpiring this season on the Ryan Seacrest fashion front. Once proudly, scruffily metrosexual - the kind of guy who not only didn't fear fashion silliness, but winked at it - Seacrest now favors gray suits Every. Single. Week. I'm confused! I mean, I don't mind suits, but is he going for Simon-like wardrobe consistency? Or is the show's stylist just using all of his hip male ideas on Blake, leaving nothing for the host?

We are (not) family: An "Idol"-watching friend asked me about this last night, and I think I agree: Why aren't we seeing more of the contestants' families and backgrounds this season? By this time last year, we'd already become acquainted with at least one member of pretty much every finalist's family, an approach that helps viewers understand and connect with them more. This season, I think I can recall seeing Sanjaya's parents and Melinda's family in the audience. So where's everyone else? The other finalists can't all be on hostile terms with their folks, can they?

Lost in translation: For a song whose title means "Let's Dance," the contestants' take on Enrique Iglesias' "Bailamos" sure didn't include much patented Idol choreography, nor a lot of other motion or verve, for that matter. But at least it was a fairly accurate reflection of how the show as a whole has been going this year: As usual, Jordin provided the most interesting part.

For those who've been living under a boulder recently: "Coming up in two weeks, our charity special - have you heard about it? - 'Idol Gives Back'," Seacrest said partway through the hour. What? "AI" is doing a big charity blowout? How'd word leak about that?!

Because no one else really provided it? "Last night, our top eight turned up the heat, with Jennifer Lopez providing all the Latin flavor!" Seacrest said, introducing the recap of Tuesday's show.

Ah, but how to justify the other weeks' apparel? After saying she wasn't really offended, but was still hurt, by Simon's snide remarks about her clothing and talent - or lack thereof - Haley attempted to explain her oft-skimpy wardrobe: "I'm not gonna feel like I'm gonna wear anything that's gonna be completely inappropriate," she said, later concluding her remarks with "it was Latin Week!"

"Surprisingly?" What?: "After the nationwide vote, LaKisha, surprisingly ... you are safe," Seacrest said in announcing the results. Um, what exactly was he trying to say about the kind of Tuesday LaKisha had?

Honesty, still the best policy: After learning that they were the week's bottom two, Phil and Haley reacted in drastically different fashion. Haley, with great frankness, confessed to being incredibly nervous. Phil, smiling as usual, was like, "We're just blessed to be here, man, seriously." OK, yes, in absolute terms, he's right - he and the rest of 'em are lucky to be on the No. 1 TV show in the nation, singing in front of 30 million viewers. But blessed to be standing in the middle of the stage, on the brink of elimination? Not so much; 100 percent diplomacy, 100 percent of the time can ring pretty false.

Yet another compelling argument for keeping the Sanjaya train rolling: "I definitely hope Jennifer Lopez felt our passion," Sanjaya cracked in the outtakes from the coaching session, making a sly face at the camera. "And maybe I'll get her number later, and we won't have to tell Marc Anthony about any of that." Whatever your thoughts about his singing, dude sure does know how to amuse.

Next week: "Idol" goes down-home for country night, with guest coach Martina McBride. Last year, the theme was tailormade for Kellie Pickler and Bucky Covington, among others; the year before, Carrie Underwood staked her claim. This year, it doesn't seem to fit any of the contestants - which could make things interesting. All I can say is, I can't wait to see how large a cowboy hat Sanjaya's gonna wear.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Ocho is enough

Ay caramba! Tuesday, as "American Idol" attempted Latin Night, the beat wasn't the only thing that got turned around and upside down. More like the whole show: How else to describe an evening when Chris Richardson and Sanjaya (!!!) delivered the best performances?

On a certain level, "American Idol" and Latin Night go together like Seacrest and Dunkelman - that is, really awkwardly. I can't remember the show's powers that be even attempting the theme since Season Three (oh gosh, excuse me while I shudder, remembering John Stevens attempting to feel the rhythm) and after that excruciating evening, who could blame them? That said, last night wasn't so much flat-out bad as just...weird.

I was not at all prepared to like guest coach Jennifer Lopez, but she totally won me over with with her enthusiasm (she watches the show at home!) and surprisingly down-to-earth demeanor - both qualities that put her head and shoulders above Gwen Stefani as far as Idol appearances are concerned. (Even though I praised Gwen's coaching stint a few weeks ago, in hindsight, she came off as kind of cold.) Given that I like Stefani's music about 100 times better than J.Lo's, that was a strange position to be in - an argument for remaining open-minded, I guess. That said, the reality of J.Lo - no great singer, by anyone's definition - advising contestants in a singing competition was, uh, interesting. (Good thing a lot of them asked her for dancing advice!) But at the same time, you don't necessarily have to be an amazing singer to be able to advise people about songs, so...

On a related note, I confess, my knowledge of Latin music isn't exactly prolific, but I'm thinking the genre must include albums beyond Santana's "Supernatural" and "Gloria Estefan's Greatest Hits" - something only Melinda, Sanjaya and Blake appeared to comprehend. As a result, the night ended up a less-than-compelling argument for the richness and variety of Latin sounds.

Melinda managed to choose a song that again made her sound old, boring and incredibly proficient, all at the same time. LaKisha at least displayed more personality, and looked vibrant in a saucy red dress, but, I mean, even Paula called her take on "Conga" "very safe" - which it was. "I feel like it's now time to really bring out the very best, because it's getting down to the wire there," Paula said, making a surprising amount of sense. If LaKisha continues sort of coasting, she might end up coasting right off the stage, which would be unfortunate, given the quality of her voice.

Haley, meanwhile, continued her unrelenting quest for shorter hemlines, storming out onto the stage amid synthesizer riffs and flashing lights, as if prowling a catwalk, and then strutting about in hot pants and towering heels as she performed "Turn The Beat Around" in rapid-fire fashion. The girl already appears to be single-handedly keeping the Daisy Duke industry afloat; if her pants got any higher, she'd be wearing underwear. Is it too bold to suggest she might just try wearing, like, a leotard and tights next time? After all, she does have experience, given her past in gymnastics. Anyway, the whole charade just keeps on inviting comments such as this one, from a laughing Simon: "I think you have a very good tactic at the moment, Haley: Wear as least amount of clothes as possible, because look, I'll be honest with you you can't do well in this competition based on your voice because there are much better singers." Afterwards I think I noticed her shoot the judges the look of death, but, um, given her own conduct, I'm not sure she's really entitled to be pissed when the likes of Simon critique her based on her looks. Did I mention I missed Gina this week?

As has become his pattern, Phil turned in another vocally competent yet unoriginal, emotionally staid performance - this week to "Maria Maria." To be fair, he was a lot better than he was last week (and he sported a nice cap!), but that still wasn't enough. Even though he's a nice enough guy, I guess I'm just not a Phan. Nor is Simon, apparently, considering he said Phil evokes "nothing I can get too particularly positive or excited about." Joining him in the "eh" bin this week was Blake, semi-surprisingly, whose version of Marc Anthony's "I Need To Know" earned raves from the judges, for reasons I had a hard time comprehending. Never before had I stopped to contemplate or appreciate Marc Anthony's range, but Blake's performance made me do just that; although it wasn't a bad choice of song, it sure did expose the fedora-wearin' beatboxer's limited range.

In the end, the only three performers who really appeared to deliver were Chris, Sanjaya and Jordin. The latter's infectious energy didn't come as a surprise, nor did her warm, fairly assured version of "The Rhythm is Gonna Get You." And though I kind of groaned when Seacrest promised that "after the break, Chris Richardson gets Smooth" - when hasn't the guy been smooth, after all? - his firing-on-all-cylinders version of Santana and Rob Thomas' "Smooth" was probably the performance of the night, from the song choice on down.

Which leaves us with - well, really, two different people. Let's call them "Ponyhawk Sanjaya" and "Actually Trying Sanjaya." In an uber-meta moment that would have caused the spontaneous combustion of thousands of Idol watchers everywhere, Ponyhawk Sanjaya would have chosen to perform Ricky Martin's "She Bangs," looking as absolutely outrageous as possible. Actually Trying Sanjaya, however, finally showed his face, and selected the lovely part-Spanish/part-English ballad "Besame Mucho"- which he sweetly sang sitting down, with his hair kind of done normally, accompanied by flute. The performance was kind of hard to reconcile with visions of Sanjaya The Water Cooler Phenomenon, but once I put that out of mind and realized Sanjaya wasn't leaping about like a teen possessed, I began to, uh, appreciate it. Could it be that Sanjaya was, yes, still entertaining, except this time in a sane way? Could it? I wasn't the only one who pondered that point: The judges praised Sanjaya, too - yes, even Simon, with all-too-apt remarks: "Right, I couldn't undestand a word of it, you sang like a 14-year-old, and - I'm gonna hate myself for this - it wasn't horrible." And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the joy of "Idol."

Seacrest's got your number: Oh no, he didn't start the night by calling the contestants the "top ocho"...did he? Oh, but he did.

Beatboxing to the, uh, rescue? "I totally need a beat," Haley said as she practiced "Turn The Beat Around" with just J.Lo and a piano. "Why don't we get Blake? Where's Blake,?" an amused J.Lo asked. And then, as if on cue, the beatboxer himself arrived from the wings. And, yes, beatboxed as Haley sang.

Fill in the blank: "Alright, yo, you know for me man, just keeping it honest and real dude, that was really karaoke for me tonight. I'm sorry. I just didn't get that one at all. I could have been anywhere. Any bar, any whatever," Randy informed Haley. So, wait, by "whatever," did he mean "pageant"? Or "strip club"? Or...well, you know, as the man said, whatever.

So he approved of her coaching? "I'm sittin' there trying to sing this song, and I keep glancing over and it's like, Jennifer Lopez is sitting there watching me or something. then I'm like, wait, it IS Jennifer Lopez, so all of a sudden I'm like, wait, what am I singing?" Phil observed, rather hilariously. And, I mean, he was right. She was sitting there, watching him.

More endearing adorableness, coming up: Responding to a viewer question, Jordin said that if she could pick next week's theme, she'd choose '80s music, "because I love it!" As a connoiseur of '80s music cheesy and serious alike (haha, or, given some '80s songs, both, all in one tune) and fan of broad "Idol" theme weeks, I agree wholeheartedly. Producers, take the girl up on the suggestion!

Now, how would she know that? "This week I'm singing 'I Need To Know,' by Jennifer Lopez's husband, Marc Anthony," Blake knowingly cracked as he introduced his performance, putting J. Lo in the interesting position of having to judge some punk kid's take on her husband's big English-language hit. Among her comments: "When you're listening to Marc Anthony sing this song, it's like he has this different type of voice, it's like really big and everything..."

Inkin' a (great) deal: The prize* for "most tattooage ever displayed on the Idol stage"goes to Blake, or more specifically, his right arm, if last night was any indication.
*(What is the prize, you ask? I don't think I'll be giving away too much if I disclose that it's a mention in a blog produced by a large North Carolina newspaper. I know, a highly coveted reward! Competition was fierce!)

Signs...of the apocalypse? The audience definitely came up with some gems Tuesday, including "Shake 'n' Blake" and "Don't be fooled by the votes that he's got, he's still...he's still Sanjaya and he rocks."

Bottom three: As much as I'd love for Haley to get kicked off, I fear she may have punched her ticket to next week just by being, well, her. That said, I'll offer two bottom threes, the one I'd like to see, and the one probably more likely to materialize. I claim no powers of prediction, but I nonetheless give you... My ideal Bottom Three: Haley, Phil and some high-flyer (Blake? LaKisha?) who did poorly, with Haley sashaying on home. The Bottom Three we have a better chance of actually seeing: Phil, Sanjaya, LaKisha. And not that I'm saying it will happen, but wouldn't it be just a cruel fate if Sanjaya bids adieu after finally deciding to take a performance seriously and doing well in unironic fashion?

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Gina: Not smiling after that

As a wildly successful program featuring Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and repeated use of the phrase "yo, dawg," "American Idol" consistently defies logic, so I suppose the unfortunate results of Wednesday's elimination show shouldn't have come as a surprise, or a blow, for that matter. Shouldn't have, but nonetheless did, considering a shaken Gina was sent packing after a night when Phil personified morose, Haley didn't so much carry a tune as sell it on a streetcorner, and Sanjaya was, well, Sanjaya. Heck, it was a results show so underwhelming even the guest of honor didn't show up. (Ok, so Tony Bennett had the flu - according to Seacrest - and couldn't perform, but still.)

True, Gina could have bettered her chances by choosing a more upbeat song than Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" and a less extreme wardrobe - speaking of, didn't she look 1000% improved Wednesday? - but that alone shouldn't have been enough to sink her so early in the season. Even though she wasn't always the most consistent, she was interesting, and her voice was good enough to make you think she'd continue improving if she managed to survive. Indeed, she proved that again Wednesday, even as she tearfully sang lyrics all too appropriate for the circumstances: "Smile, though your heart is aching/Smile, even though it's breaking." Ouch. Fellow contestants also looked visibly moved and surprised by the news of her ejection; Jordin and Melinda both appeared to be crying.

Gina's exit - coming just one week after what was probably her best performance of the season, by the way - also takes away more than a bit of the scarce spirit the already personality-challenged Season Six possessed. But there could be at least one unintended benefit: The fact that someone undeserving has gotten the boot - unlike the past three castoffs - may wake people up a bit, thus spelling the end for Sanjaya or some other hilarious/sympathetic/but ultimately unworthy character. If Gina's fellow bottom three-ers Phil or Haley had been kicked off instead, people could have continued feeling secure in the knowledge that all the decent contestants survived, but not anymore - so, we'll see.

Packed only as in "well padded"? "But as always, we have a packed half-hour for you," Seacrest said, introducing a program that, as ever, contained about 29 minutes of filler.

Well, you're still on the show, so maybe that's a start? :-) "I danced with Paula Abdul! How much better can it get?" Sanjaya enthused in a clip filmed after Tuesday's performances.

Seacrest, International Man of Not-Quite-Mystery: You had to know something was up with Tony Bennett's planned performance when Seacrest failed to tout Tony and instead kept mentioning that an unnamed "special guest" was coming up. Before he announced it was his pal (apparently?), young crooner Michael Buble, my imagination - well, didn't exactly run wild, but at least broke into a jog. At first I hoped we'd see a choreographed dance routine featuring the contestants (I mean, one can hope), but then Seacrest said "guest," singular, so I wondered whether we'd see Paula take the stage (with Randy on bass, haha)! But, oh, wait, no. Too bad, though, because that would have been so un-Tony Bennett as to blow viewers' minds.

Although it did crack me up, thinking of Taylor with such a nickname: "I don't come up with the questions," Seacrest said apologetically, after asking viewers to respond to another hopelessly lame piece of "Idol" trivia. (The question, incidentally: "This American Idol finalist was jokingly referred to as 'Chicken Little.'" The choices: Kevin Covais, Bucky Covington and Taylor Hicks. I don't think I'm spoiling it for anyone to mention the correct choice is Kevin.)

Oooh, he totally didn't get the "don't bring her up" memo: Among the "Idol" world's cardinal sins, it seems, is mentioning discarded and, particularly, controversial, yeah, that definitely added to the awkwardness when Michael Buble attempted the following joke after his performance: "Am I wasting my votes by still voting for Antonella Barba?" After stiffly and hurriedly responding "No, I do the same thing," Seacrest helpfully clarified that Barba is "no longer with us" (I think I heard that correctly?) and cut to commercials in record time. Crap, there goes my plan to send shoutouts to Corey Clark, Frenchie Davis and Mario Vasquez!

Hemlines, going up (again): Why yes, the skirt Haley wore over, well, nothing was in fact shorter than the one Gina was wearing over jeans.

Maybe Melinda can give her voice lessons! If I heard Seacrest correctly, next week's guest is Jennifer Lopez. Multifaceted though she may be, as a singer, J.Lo is, er, a great actress.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Higher "Idol" standards

What is it about standards week that tends to lift "American Idol" to a higher plane? Give the contestants tunes from their own lifetimes and they'll just as soon crash than soar. But stick to the classics - or, as Tuesday's guest coach, Tony Bennett, described them, "the best songs that were ever written in America" - and something just clicks. That type of timeless music doesn't rely on gimmicks, and so neither can the finalists, when it comes to performing. Songs from that era also better lend themselves to interpretation, allowing more of the contestants' talent to shine through (if they possess talent, that is). It all makes for the type of evening that, more than others, can surprise: Way back when, the theme signaled the emergence of Kelly Clarkson.

Tuesday's show offered only one really lackluster performance, courtesy of Phil, which was more than offset by Bennett's excellent presence. Seriously, everything he said made sense. And though he didn't sing one note, he still conveyed the same kind of laid-back warmth that's helped him move audiences for half a century, looking every bit the kind older next-door-neighbor in his yellow sport coat. Even Paula, bless her heart, was on - on what, I'm not sure, but she was shockingly coherent and at times even catty, spitting out words with amped-up fervor. She told Blake he "personified PIZZAZZ," proclaimed she was "just so frickin' proud" of Jordin, and responded to Haley's performance by saying "Did I mention green's a good color for you?" Burn!

She definitely didn't have the same reaction to a pair of performances that showed The Divas are back in force. Given the theme and Melinda and LaKisha's tendency to favor old songs, I guess that wasn't terribly surprising, but both turned in spunky, crackling performances full of big notes. Despite her technical prowess, Melinda usually leaves me pretty cold, so I wasn't expecting to love her "I Got Rhythm." But, uh, goodness gracious. She was absolutely in her element, schooling everyone else with incredible control and phrasing - and an energy missing from her other recent songs. That said, she can still come off as too practiced; for instance, you learn a lot about the contestants' personalities based on their reactions to the judges' remarks, and Melinda this week held firm throughout with the same smile plastered on her face, maintaining the pose even as Seacrest read off her phone number. And though LaKisha's "Stormy Weather" was by no means the best I've ever heard - it started a little strangely for me - it proved a sassy enough return to form to calm my fears that she'd lost the plot. But ladies, know that we're still waiting for something contemporary in the weeks to come.

Blake's "Mack The Knife" was smooth and charismatic, if not nearly as expansive and memorable as Clay Aiken's version four years ago. I know, I know, Blake and Clay are totally dissimilar, so it's not really a fair comparison, but still, watch enough "Idol" and you'll tend to recall these things. Blake did have at least one advantage, though: He was sporting plaid pants again. Yes! Even better was the usually-bland Chris Richardson (I know, who'd have thought, Chris Richardson outdoing Blake?), whose on-point "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" sure struck me, as it did the judges, as his best performance to date. For once, his kind-of-limited style wasn't a hindrance; he chose a great song and then managed to give it a contemporary feel while remaining true to its melody and feeling, which couldn't have been an easy task.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Phil, who came out looking beatific, as always. Though he mentioned how excited he'd been for this week - "Tony Bennett is my hero," was the exact quote - it sure didn't show in his stultifying take on "Night and Day." "I think it had all the joy of somebody singing in a funeral parlor," Simon told Phil afterwards, as Phil proceeded to smile. A few minutes later, Phil said he was just trying to focus on his wife as he delivered his dire performance. Talk about a backhanded compliment: "Hey, honey, look what heights you inspire me to!" And that's totally aside from the pinstriped suit that made him look like a wedding guest of some kind, and the unwelcome reemergence of his distracting, gleaming chrome dome. Surely, he would have been better served by some kind of dapper haberdashery, or could have, you know, stolen Chris Richardson's fedora as a last resort.

Whatever Phil's crimes of fashion, however, they were mere misdemeanors compared to the felony Gina's look suggested: Specifically, robbing a Hot Topic store. Oh, that awful, slitted dress! Those fishnet tights and black boots (again)! And worst of all, that hair, with that pink protrusion on top! And it's not as if it's impossible to look edgy and classy at the same time - in fact, Gina herself did it in the semifinals. The clothing distraction was also a shame because it clashed with her restrained, competent-but-not earth-shattering take on "Smile." Jordin Sparks, meanwhile, suffered no such problem, managing to sing the tough "On A Clear Day" with admirable control and characteristic spirit, leading Paula to dub her "a magnet of joy."

Which leaves us with the two contestants who more than any others do their utmost to distract viewers from the singing: Sanjaya and Haley. After weeks of bonkers hairdos and off-the-wall performances, Sanjaya toned things down Tuesday - in deference to the esteemed guest coach, perhaps? "My goal this week is to make America see that I actually can sing," he said with a smile, and if he didn't exactly accomplish that with his "Cheek to Cheek," he does deserve credit for trying. "What I like about him is that he dares to be different," Bennett said, pretty much explaining Sanjaya's continued appeal. In a season where contestants' personalities are, for the most part, fairly vanilla (or at least well-masked), Sanjaya strives to entertain - and I think he did Tuesday, sporting a white suit and slicked-back hair and singing in a voice that was far from the world's worst (even if it seemed to sort of lack spark). That's not to say he didn't have his, uh, moments: "Welcome to the universe of Sanjaya!" he exulted after Simon told him he was "Um, uh, incredible."

Then there's Haley, who vamps her way through every performance, banking on winning a game of "How short can my skirt go?" instead of concentrating on, oh, I don't know, singing. Ok, we get it, you've decided you're The Hot Girl, but since when has anyone won "American Idol" based on that? The fact is, Haley has a nice voice, but the judges rarely talk about it or provide constructive criticism because they're always distracted by her borderline trampy wardrobe. As long as she continues to objectify herself, she's undermining any credibility she may otherwise have been able to accumulate.

This week, the pattern continued, with Haley practicing the intimate, wonderful "Ain't Misbehavin'" as if it were "Santa Baby." "I'm savin' my love for you, and you, and you - oh, and you!" she sang saucily. Tony Bennett was not impressed, noting that such an interpretation made no sense and destroyed the story of the song. "The premise of the song is there's only one person she's in love with," he sagely advised. "She should just sing to one person, and if she does that, then it'll be a better performance." (Note that he never said "a good performance.") Given how loudly and frequently Haley has talked about pining for her fiance during the course of the show, one would think that singing to one person would have been be an easy enough task, and yet her all-flash, no-substance rendition suggested she just didn't get what the song was about at all. Beyond that, she disregarded Bennett's advice and sang "savin' all my love for you, and you," which was still just wrong, even if it did contain 50% less "you" than the rehearsal. But, yes, anyway:

In other words, not due for beatboxing anytime soon: "This song is pre-rap, you know, Mack the Knife being this very sharp gangster, so think of that when you do it tomorrow," Bennett counseled Blake.

Yes, of course, in that bald, lifeless way: "The good news is, you're reminiscent of a young Frank Sinatra," Paula told Phil after his performance, prompting an aghast "What?!" from Simon. "Which Frank Sinatra are you referring to? Seriously?" he asked a few sentences later. "My opinion," Paula answered smugly.

Apparently you got hyperbole, too? "Not only you got rhythm, you got CDs, you got number ones, you got concert halls!" Paula raved to Melinda following an admittedly fine performance. But, come on, being able to sing "I Got Rhythm" does not a career make.

Get out! "I don't think we're ever going to be able to criticize you," a clearly amused Simon told Melinda after her performance. "This is a problem." But wait, Seacret asked: Why is that a problem? "Because we like being mean to people occasionally," Simon replied, grinning.

This must be the kind of moment TV hosts live for:
"Now, two legends collide: Tony Bennett meets Sanjaya," Seacrest said, introducing you-know-what.

Surely, they mustn't mean the produce? "SANJAYA is my PAPAYA," read one sign spotted in the audience.

The Other Show That Must Not Be Named: I don't think it was my imagination - did Randy really try to shush Paula after she mentioned ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" during her comments to Sanjaya?

Oh, but nothing else standard does: "Sanjaya. Standard text messaging rates apply," Seacrest said in what had to have been a mock monotone. This, just moments after Sanjaya shouted "Lucky number seven!" as Seacrest recited his "Idol" phone number.

Bottom three: Based on performances, it ought to be Phil, Haley and Sanjaya, and to be sure, I wouldn't be bummed if any of them headed for the hills. But unless Sanjaya's comparatively normal look and actual attempts at singing last night completely killed his mojo, I'm thinking Gina might end up in this group instead, though not off the show altogether. Though Phil has demonstrated he can sing, he hasn't really connected with songs or the audience on a deeper level, and I can't see him having enough support to survive after a night like Tuesday...