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...


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