Wednesday, May 23, 2007

No surprises

As the season goes, so goes the finale - or at least, that's the conclusion I reached after watching Wednesday's two-hour and ten-minute sendoff to "American Idol" Six, which ended with Jordin Sparks beating out beatboxin' Blake Lewis for the "Idol" crown, to the surprise of pretty much no one. Their Tuesday showdown drew 74 million votes, so clearly someone cared about the outcome - and the results show leading up to the big announcement was entertaining enough, offering more humor and high spirits than most the rest of the season's results programs. After Seacrest cracked open the envelope, confetti and tears fell, and everyone cheered, and 17-year-old Arizonan Sparks - the youngest "AI" winner yet - performed the "Idol" single in typically excellent, powerful voice. And yet the evening is already fading from my memory, making it both an extremely fitting metaphor for Season Six as a whole, and a far cry from last year's schizophrenic finale spectacular.

Now, granted, it's hard to compare anything on television with last year's finale, which was so off-the-wall it deserves its own category. (Hello, it made David Hasselhoff cry!) But all the same, it proved an "Idol" conclusion doesn't have to be suspenseful to be memorable: Even if it was clear Taylor Hicks would emerge victorious, the rest of the show was wacky enough to be entertaining through and through, full of bits about the contestants themselves. In short, it was, appropriately, a celebration of the season that was. (Also, it featured Prince. I mean, just with that alone, you've got a spectacle that's pretty hard to top. But I digress.)

On Wednesday's show, the contestants - the show's reason for being - often seemed like accessories when they should have been the main act. Even the visiting previous years' Idols got at least as much time to shine. "When we come back, your top 12," Seacrest said early in the show. "Your favorites are back with more than a few surprises." Surprises? What could they be, I wondered. Would Chris Sligh sport straight hair? Would Chris Richardson start singing in a rich baritone? Would Sanjaya take the stage wearing a dress? Oh, but no - the surprise (though likely not one Seacrest was referring to) was, in fact, how forgettable so many of the Final 12 turned out to be. Seeing the finalists take the stage reminded me of how the days of, say, Stephanie Edwards seemed eons ago. As easy as it would be to heap scorn on the contestants, though, I don't think they were really responsible for that problem - after all, we never got to know them in the first place, and that's the producers' fault.

But then, why tell us a bit more about the top 12, or reminisce about their "journeys," or pair more of them with an established artist when you can just pack the show with random performances by other singers? Not that all of these were bad Wednesday - I'm definitely not going to gripe about watching Tony Bennett deliver "For Once In My Life," with spare piano, bass and percussion accompaniment, and unexpectedly big notes at the end. Pure class.

But what purpose did such intrusions really serve? Just a few minutes in, Seacrest cut to the season's least enthusiastic guest coach, Gwen Stefani, performing her new single "4 In The Morning" from the road (seriously, did she, agree to be a coach if they agreed to show her on the finale? some sort of deal must have been cut here). The song's excellent, but if I wanted to hear it, I'd go to the concert or download it. Same with Green Day (whose former punk selves, I've got to believe, would have been at least slightly more hesitant about appearing on the most mainstream of TV programs). The African Children's Choir, meanwhile, was adorable, but did we need another reminder of "Idol Gives Back"? At least Bette Midler sang "Wind Beneath My Wings," one of those big, uplifting ballads that are readily at home in "Idol" land.

That said, the show offered glimmers of the "Idol" charm that's wooed viewers over the years. Blake and Jordin's duet to the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There," at the very beginning of the night, is what "American Idol" is all about - two fresh-faced young people cheerfully singing a classic tune. I thought the Top Six guys also harmonized rather beautifully, wearing white suits and singing with Smokey Robinson. The Top Six girls' performance with Gladys Knight wasn't quite as seamless or as interesting, but also went off decently.

As is perhaps in keeping with his personality, Blake's majorly energetic beatbox session with veteran rapper Doug E. Fresh was definitely one of the strangest, least melodic and yet still successful performances in "Idol" history, and Jordin's duet with Ruben Studdard showcased her rich voice. It didn't take long for Melinda to return to her gospel roots, as she sang with BeBe and CeCe Winans. And, well, what can a sane person - a category I sure hope I fall into - really say about Sanjaya performing "You Really Got Me," with Aerosmith's Joe Perry on guitar (the kid's not exactly Steven Tyler, eh, Joe)? Do you mention the wind machine blowing hair? The rock-god pose at the end, when he flung out his arms? Or do you just smile a little and shake your head? I'll leave it up to you, but add - what does it say about this season that only Melinda, Blake, Jordin and Sanjaya got to perform separately?

In winning, Jordin joins a franchise that's already become strangely self-perpetuating - as we saw on Wednesday's show, which featured performances from four of the five previous "Idol" winners. Kelly Clarkson - who was waaaay perkier the last time she strode the "Idol" stage - performed her hard-edged current single, "Never Again," in fine blues-rock voice. Carrie Underwood reprised her rather lifeless cover of "I'll Stand By You," making Wednesday the third time this season someone on "Idol" has performed the song. (I must say, I preferred Gina Glocksen's version, which possessed an urgency Carrie's lacked.) And then, later in the show, out onto the stage popped Taylor Hicks, who captured the crown on that very stage the year before. Unlike Carrie and Kelly, who received glowing introductions that detailed their many accomplishments, Taylor just sort of arrived, performing his current single, "Heaven Knows," with the same strong voice and soul influences that helped him win last year - but haven't helped him much as far as sales are concerned. Not that he appeared terribly bothered by that as he shimmied and twirled and leapt around in typically entertaining Taylor fashion, and then whipped out a harmonica. I was sure glad to see the gray-haired dude, but unlike last year, the crowd didn't really seem to be terribly into him, and he also left the stage with fairly minimal fanfare.

As the night wore on and 10 p.m. neared, I wondered when Seacrest planned on getting around to the results. Instead, the past year's Idol's slogged their way through a Beatles medley that had become pretty boring (special thanks to Carrie Underwood for that, on "She's Leaving Home") until this year's finalists joined the proceedings, arriving to sing "With A Little Help From My Friends." In an endearing moment of genuine happiness, the likes of which often proved elusive this season, the Top 12 and the former "Idol" champs joined together to sing the classic tune, finishing together - and, perhaps, pointing the way towards the show's future.

Random celebrities/Idol types spotted in the audience: Teri Hatcher and her daughter, Jerry Springer (?!) sitting in front of Jeff Foxworthy, Jennifer Hudson, Ace Young. I also think I saw Justin Guarini and Brittany Murphy (not together, I mean), but I can't be sure. (I know there were others, but I'm currently drawing a blank.) Alas, though, I saw no signs of The Hoff (or his tears) this time around.

Now, that's not very nice for the "nice" judge: Did Paula really make the "L" for loser sign with her hand when Seacrest introduced her? I could have sworn I saw it...

Seacrestian wit and wisdom (if you don't consider the very idea oxymoronic, that is...): Say what you will about Wendesday's show, but at least Seacrest represented in top form, tossing off one-liners with aplomb. Among them:
Randy, about five minutes into the show: "Who's gonna (win), Ryan? Call it!"
Seacrest: "If I do it now, I'll be in big trouble!"
A few minutes later...
Seacrest: "Simon, you already look bored."
Simon: "That's because I'm listening to you."

Seacrest, after Kelly Clarkson performed her current single, the pissed-off "Never
"Would not want to be that 'Never Again' guy."

Seacrest, to Margaret Fowler, the heavyset audition-week novelty who dressed in more yellow than Big Bird, said "ye-eah!" like Lil' Jon's cousin and took home the "Golden Idol" statuette for "Best Presentation": "What's that in your hand?"
Fowler: "Just a little poem, 'cause you know I'm a poem writer, don't you, Simon?"
Seacrest: "Also known as a poet."

Seacrest, right after Blake and Doug E. Fresh's beatboxing extravaganza: "Ah, yes, just like the days of Justin and Kelly."

"Golden Idol" winner Sholandric Stallworth, a.k.a. the guy who sings really loud and extremely out of tune, as he received his trophy: "Does this have my name on it?"
Seacrest: "Sorry, it's a low-budget show."

Very nice, very nice! "High-five, I like that," Blake said Borat-style, as he and Jordin grinned and exchanged, yes, high-fives after receiving the keys to their new Mustangs.

(*cough*) Surely just a coincidence (*cough*): Oh, the producers so did not cut to a shot of BMG Music head honcho Clive Davis - who reportedly voiced harsh words and skepticism about Kelly Clarkson's upcoming album - after Clarkson performed "Never Again." But wait - they did.

Speaking of a Clive Davis smackdown: In a somewhat rambling speech that led up to his presenting Carrie Underwood with a framed photo commemorating the fact she'd sold 6 million albums, Davis mentioned all of the previous Idols and praised the teams that had helped them transition to the real world of music. But he doled out the highest praise to Carrie and Chris Daughtry. "So here's this year's report card for the 'American Idol' album franchise. The big news has been the huge explosion of Chris Daughtry," he said, going on to mention that Daughtry had sold 2.5 million albums, making the self-titled disc the best-selling of the year. Oh, Taylor Hicks, I know, I know, I feel for you, too.

That's achievement for ya: Kenneth Briggs, a.k.a. the, uh, strange, wide-eyed Seattle auditioner Simon ridiculed as a "bush baby," was back Wednesday and said he was fine with Cowell's criticism. "You know what, Simon, if you hadn't said what you said, I wouldn't he where I'm at," he said. Yes, standing on the American Idol stage accepting a meaningless award...after appearing on Jimmy Kimmel, and at the Super Bowl and Grammys and then returning to obscurity. Incidentally, I had no idea there actually was such a thing as a "bush baby," but apparently there is, and it's a jungle creature with, yes, really huge eyes. According to Seacrest, the show has sponsored one in Milwaukee on Briggs' behalf, and yep, it's named Simon.

Not exactly Luke Skywalker:
"In a world where men fade into obscurity, true visionaries seize the day and shape our future," the "Idol" voice-over said as that song from "2001: A Space Odyssey" played and photos of historic world leaders flashed on the screen. "Now, another comes forth. One with the courage to embrace his destiny. One who stands firm in the face of adversity. There's been hysteria, but never like this. He is, in one word, Sanjaya Malakar. Sorry, that's two words. And here he is, performing live with Joe Perry of Aerosmith."

How can the "Idol" powers that be improve the show for next year? This year, "AI" in part fell victim to inflated expectations - and, perhaps, an overly confident sense of self. Though I'm no television wizard, as a longtime "Idol" watcher, I'd definitely offer these suggestions to restore viewers' confidence:

  1. It's the contestants, stupid. At its heart, "American Idol" is a sort of narrative that lives and dies on the strength of its characters - that is, the contestants. People watch to follow their journeys, their transformation, their singing, their personalities. So cut the gimmicks, rein in the product placement and limit the times established artists take to the "Idol" stage to hawk their new songs or albums. Then, pick an awesome Top 24 and help us get to know them.
  2. Cut the filler. See above, to an extent. For instance: Hourlong results shows? No thanks. Hourlong results shows where we learn nothing about the contestants and have to watch pre-taped performances by random, current pop stars? Quadruple no thanks.
  3. Expand the themes. "AI" themes ought to give contestants room to roam, not a straitjacket. But with narrowly constructed performance shows devoted to such hard-to-sing artists as the Bee Gees and Diana Ross, what's an "Idol" contestant to do? This year's crop had a hard time figuring out, and our eyes and ears can vouch for us there.
All of this aside, I also wanted to thank you for reading my "Idol" musings this year - I hope you've enjoyed them, and I've appreciated hearing from many of you, too. So until our "Idol" paths cross again...farewell for now!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Sparks afire

Poll: Who should be 2007 'American Idol'?

Probably the least truthful moment of Tuesday's "American Idol" finale came midway through, after Jordin Sparks emoted the heck out of Martina McBride's "A Broken Wing," then held out a gigantic note at the end. "This is a battle tonight!" Ryan Seacrest exclaimed, with Jordin nearby, towering over him. Maybe by that point the Season Six still looked like a toss-up to Seacrest, but Blake Lewis's efforts had begun to remind me of a thoroughbred entering a NASCAR showdown: Graceful and skilled as that horse might be at the event he's trained for, he just wasn't meant for a race dominated by loud, flashy power. That isn't at all a bad thing; Blake may not be for everyone, but I like him, and I suspect coming in second on "AI" - a very likely possibility - could help him a whole lot more than winning ever could. But more on that in a bit.

Overall, "AI's" weirdly perfunctory battle of the beatboxer vs. the teenager passed fairly quickly, coming off as more of a normal performance show than the penultimate night of television's world-beating ratings juggernaut. (Or, to - shudder - paraphrase Randy, it was just a'ight for me, dawg.) Where was the electricity in the air? Where was the special-occasion vibe? Where was the choir exultantly accompanying our two finalists as they hurtled toward a dramatic finish, performing this year's requisite sappy "Idol" single, "This Is My Now"? Not at the Kodak Theatre on Tuesday, that's for sure. Perhaps the giddiness is on hold until Wednesday's two-hour results extravaganza (which, after all, will likely include some form of Sanjaya, unlike Tuesday's show), the show that last year delivered jaw-dropping amounts of both the random (Meat Loaf? Prince?) and the insane (a Clay Aiken wannabe? Also, Clay Aiken's hairstyle?). Or perhaps it's decided to just not show up at all.

Even if not all previous years' "Idol" finales were major cliffhangers - honestly, only Season Two's Ruben/Clay ending was what you'd really call a nail-biter - they still all contained their fair share of tension, and a sense that something big was afoot. Tuesday, neither contestant seemed to fully seize the stage. Indeed, I was ready to write the night off until about 45 minutes in, when finally the moment came when the finale began to feel like The Finale: Jordin Sparks took the stage to take a swing at a big softball headed right down the center of the plate, the "Idol" single. Wearing a black dress and clearly taking the tune quite seriously, Jordin infused the song with soaring feeling and mature phrasing until the very end, when her age (all of 17 years, in case you hadn't heard it the first million times the "Idol" folks mentioned it) took over - and she broke down just a little, crying her way through the last few lines. Game over. Advantage, Jordin.

Of course, that wasn't the only sign she wanted to win more than Blake did (and needs it more than he does, too). Even though Blake won the "Idol" coin toss, he opted to go first, leaving the show's money position - the closing spot - for his putative competitor, Jordin. And while she talked about how excited she'd been about auditioning for the show, he freely admitted he tried out on a whim. Beyond that, the 25-year-old with a passion for rhythm and beats doesn't really have a reason to win - he's already established himself as a talented, likeable guy with his own fan base and musical vision. What could the "Idol" crown add to that, beyond heightened baggage and expectations? (And since when does "AI" know how to deal with unconventional winners, anyway? Ahem, Ruben, Fantasia, Taylor...) Jordin, meanwhile, could use the "Idol" help. Though her musical instincts seem pretty sound, the 17-year-old could surely benefit from guidance and assistance in shaping her style, and with her big voice and smile, she's certainly better suited to making the well-crafted pop music that characterizes the most successful "Idol" winners.

Indeed, she proved that again Tuesday, though her past few weeks have been somewhat rocky. She took on the challenge of Christina Aguilera's aggressive, guitar-heavy "Fighter" - kind of a curious choice, given that her previous forays into rock-esque songs fell flat - and mostly succeeded, even if she veered dangerously close to shriek city at times and struggled a bit to keep up with the wordy, fast-moving lyrics. Then, she moved in for the kill, expertly reprising one of her finest songs of the year, "A Broken Wing," and finishing with the "Idol" single - a major reminder of her strengths, not to mention a performance that spurred the judges to fall all over themselves to shower her with praise. "Last week I didn't think you were good enough to make the finals, and I want to say to you publicly now, I was wrong," Simon said. "It's a singing competition, and you just wiped the floor with Blake on that song."

If that was the case, Blake nonetheless proved a worthy mop, looking sharp and starting the show with an energetic, entertaining, unconventional, beatbox-heavy version of "You Give Love A Bad Name." His earlier rendition of the song was unquestionably one of the season's highlights, and Tuesday's take on it was just fine, too. But to me Blake's performing it seemed an attempt to make lightning strike twice: Though when we first heard it, the song was strikingly original, by this point, we'd heard it before, and it was drained of much of its magic. And though his second track, Maroon 5's "She Will Be Loved," would have been a perfectly acceptable choice under normal circumstances, it wasn't exactly up to finals par - if you're trying to win "AI," that sort of low-key tune (one that strains your upper register, too) isn't a song you win with. Simon agreed, saying, "I actually wouldn't have chosen that song in the final, because I don't think it makes that much of an impact." (Beyond that, Blake just sang another Maroon 5 song last week, so it also failed in terms of variety.)

But - perhaps a bit strangely, as it was the one song that wasn't his style or his choice - the performance that best exemplified Blake's situation was his take on the "Idol" single. Watching the seemingly quirky, cool guy up there on the stage, sitting on the edge of the giant video screen, leaning against it, and then walking toward the audience, doing what appeared to be his utmost with his thin voice to sing a rather treacly ballad about seizing the day and wanting more was so wrong, so ill-fitting and so un-Blake that it made clear that the guy not only shouldn't win "AI," it'd be kind of a tragedy if he did. Although he could quite possibly handle it, he doesn't deserve what for him would be a ball and chain - and for Jordin would be a blessing. The ability to connect with grade A schmaltz is a sure sign of an "Idol" contender. But thriving on the show without that? Well, it just might signal something more interesting.

Here's one "prize" we can already award: Ugliest fashion item of the year, hands down, goes to Randy Jackson for that hideous, hideous jacket trimmed with chains and random gold buttons. Oh my gosh, I'm still recoiling at the thought of it! I wasn't feeling it, dawg, I wasn't feeling it at all.

But man cannot live on beatboxing alone: "I'll give you a 10 out of 10 on the beatboxing...the singing for me was just alright," Randy told Blake after his performance of "You Give Love A Bad Name."

To think, if only he'd just saved up and bought himself a drum set: Although it was presented as this inspiring, life-affirming tale, it was a tad melancholy when Blake said he began beatboxing his senior year of high school, in part because he asked for a drum set every year for Christmas and never received one. "I remember driving into the garage and hearing drums, and I went, 'Oh no, somebody bought him a set of drums,'" Blake's dad said. "And I opened the door, and he was beatboxing, and I thought it was a set of drums when I walked in the house. He's still doing it." Oh, Blake's dad, is he ever.

But why didn't he ever say that to Jordin? "You should sit down because you're too tall, you're making me look small," Seacrest joked after introducing the larger member of the songwriting duo that penned the "Idol" single. Speaking of, what'd you think of the tune? For me, it falls kind of in the middle of the pack as far as "Idol" singles are concerned - it's definitely not the worst, but right off the bat it didn't strike me as the most memorable, either. Perhaps the radio-ready version will boast more charm.

Hyperbole, thy name is Randy: "It's the best singing competition ever in the history of television!" he exclaimed, in the midst of reminding viewers that "AI" is, in fact, a singing competition, and that Jordin deserved to win.

Also, every day is sunny, you're independently wealthy and there's a box of free puppies waiting for you outside: "You know how it goes, you know how it goes, they all end up winners, as you will see," Paula said somewhat drowsily, summing up the finalists' performances and alluding to Chris Daughtry, who was on stage in front of her, thought TV viewers couldn't yet see him. Simon then proceeded to say that Blake offered the best performance, with his first tune, but Jordin won out based on overall singing. "And they are all winners!" Paula continued. "And they are all winners, because you always say that," Seacrest said, totally mocking her.

Rock god posturing...that worked? "Cool" and "American Idol" generally don't go together, well, at all...and yet even amid those poor odds, I did think it was, yes, pretty cool to have Chris "Why, I was wearing eyeliner" Daughtry and his band on the Idol stage, performing "Home."

How was it for you? For all the talk of how this season was a letdown, I didn't think its finalists were the worst ever - for me, that dubious distinction still goes to the mostly-dreadful Season Three, even if it also gave us Jennifer Hudson and Fantasia. Instead, I think Season Six suffered in part because its semi-bland roster of finalists followed one of the best "Idol" years ever, the full-of-characters Season Five, and because those who run the show appear to have misjudged quite a bit this year - a sign, perhaps, of a show coasting on its laurels.

The Seattle auditions, which were pitched to viewers as some kind of wacky carnival freak show set nominally to music, turned out to be where both finalists auditioned. And I found it awfully hard to believe that the producers' choices for this season's Top 24 were really the best 24 undiscovered singers in the country, out of the, what, 100,000 or so who auditioned. Add to that a predilection for bland theme weeks that left considerably less room than usual for creativity or variety, and a lack of features that in past seasons helped us get to know the contestants better, and you've got this season. Plus, it's time to face the reality that even the most successful formula can go stale. Really, how many more times can we really stand to hear Randy prattling on about blowing things out the box, or endure Paula's utter loopiness (speaking of, she was in rare form last night, eh? it was almost as if she'd tripped over her Chihuahua and broke her tenuous sanity, not her nose)? And what does all of this mean for the show's future?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The resident pro ... goes

Melinda Doolittle survived and thrived week after week on this year's "American Idol," unspooling strong, technically adept and (more recently) often thrilling vocals - and never finishing in the bottom two.

But on Wednesday's results show, the 29-year-old Tennesseean definitely did not live up to her long black dress, which was emblazoned with the phrase "death cheaters." Instead, the former backup singer is headed home, guaranteeing a Blake-Jordin "Idol" finale that's already a landmark no matter how it turns out: For the first time in its six-season history, "AI" won't have a Southern winner (if you count Oklahoman Carrie Underwood as Southern, that is).

Melinda's lengthy stint on the show was proof of both the transformative power of "American Idol" even in one of its off years, and of how picks that seem a sure bet in March don't always hold up in the end. In this season's early weeks, conventional wisdom almost went so far as to promise a Melinda-LaKisha final. But just as a baseball game doesn't end after the second inning, the "AI" finals are 12 weeks long, and part of the (theoretical, at least) joy of the show is watching the contestants grow, change and, if they're lucky, win you over. Thus, even though Melinda and LaKisha were strongest in, say, the semi-finals, there was plenty of show left - and talented as both are, neither is in the finale. It was almost as if people had so set themselves up from the beginning, expecting to see Melinda in the finale, that they didn't leave open the possibility that she wouldn't be there. I mean, although I was kind of surprised by her ouster, it's not like "AI" voters haven't previously ousted respective seasons' most technically proficient singers before the finale.

Indeed, that fact makes it strangely fitting that the performer on Wednesday's show was none other than last season's third-place finisher Elliott Yamin, a nice guy and excellent singer who was hampered by the lack of strong personality that also, I think, affected Melinda's bid. (And Elliott continues to have that problem, judging from the vocally excellent but distraction-inducing, generic R&B slow jam he performed.) Throughout the season, it seemed that Melinda's consistency and perfection worked against her in a way, as she hit her notes but wasn't always able to deepen performances with more personality and emotion. (As I believe Kelly Clarkson herself mentioned in a recent interview, sometimes there's more truth in an imperfect note.) That said, Melinda had really been growing on me in recent weeks, showing more personality and less of that faux "I can't believe it! Lil' old me!" humbleness. And, she appeared headed in the right direction (as previous golden child Jordin, who donned a weirdly dowdy, long dress Wednesday, has been flagging, I should note). In fact, kind of to my surprise, I was a little let down that we wouldn't receive a Blake-Melinda finale.

Otherwise, we got to enjoy what turned out to be a pretty decent night of television, unlike most of the rest of the season's results shows. Hey, it's funny how time flies when you, oh, try to fill an hour of television with material viewers might actually want to watch. This week, when Seacrest said, "Maroon 5 is here," he meant it, and not in the Fergie-Akon-Pink way. Nope, considering how Seacrest hugged lead singer Adam Levine, it sure looked like they were there in the studio, live! Considering Maroon 5 is a Los Angeles band, that shouldn't have been so unfathomable, except that previous weeks' pre-taped performances had lowered our expectations. And, oh my gosh, we were finally relieved of having to endure Seacrest's man-on-the-street interviews - and instead actually got to know more about the contestants and their lives. (Why, I ask, did it take us so long to get to this point this year, when in previous seasons we met the contestants and their families throughout the show's run? For me, that's always been a major part of the "Idol" charm.)

First to head off on a hometown visit was Jordin, who cried and smiled her way through the Phoenix area, all the way back to the posh suburb of Glendale. Was it really necessary to track her progress toward the local Fox affiliate's morning show from a helicopter? I doubt it, but that's just part of the good ol' "AI" spectacle. Really, what other show would provide the sight of a 17-year-old singing "I Who Have Nothing" - an old-fashioned, weepy ballad of love and loss - at what appeared to be one of those new-fangled, brightly colored suburban "lifestyle centers" (think Birkdale), in a plaza surrounded by a chain multiplex, chain ice cream shop and parking garage. Yep. "American Idol!" (Also, Jordin: We all agree you sang that song beautifully, but don't you think it's time to, uh, switch things up a bit with some new material?) Somewhat hilariously, Jordin went back to her high school not as a graduate, as is the case with most returning "Idol" finalists, but as a student, because she's, uh, definitely young enough to still go there.

More emotionally buoyant and less bizarre was Blake's insanely high-spirited jaunt to Seattle - which, in all seriousness, was one of the most enjoyable things I've witnessed on "Idol" all year. Did Blake really need police escort at any point on that journey? Did he really need to take a seaplane from Seattle to his hometown of Bothell - which, according to MapQuest, is a full 25-minute drive away? Did a crowd on the streets of Bothell really need to dash after Blake as if he were all four Beatles combined? Oh, hell no. But such excess is what "Idol" journeys - and over-the-top entertainment - are made of! (Also, I'm wondering: Why was Jimi Hendrix' foreboding "All Along The Watchtower," sample lyric: "There must be some sort of way out of here/said the joker to the thief," playing in the background during the first half of that clip? Anyway.)

The clip of Blake taking in the Space Needle, and then, later, hugging his proud mom and dad in their driveway was priceless (and in contrast to Jordin's seemingly aloof parents). After singing to a vast crowd in Bothell, surrounded by some lovely Pacific Northwest greenery, Blake shouted "I love all you guys!" And after watching him tackle the national anthem at a Seattle Mariners baseball game, wearing a jersey that said "Blake" and the number 1, well, my reaction was about the same as his: "Best day ever! Whoo!"

Meanwhile, my Melinda appreciation meter continued to rise when she answered "Sweet tea" after Seacrest asked her what the best thing about her trip home to Nashville had been. Oh, Melinda, I think I'd be with you on that. Her trip itself, too, was heartwarming and a little quirky. For instance: Even though the clip showed Melinda pulling up in a stretch SUV limo with no police escort, you could hear sirens blaring in the background. All right, then, producers! After Tennessee's governor proclaimed it "Melinda Doolittle Day" in the state, she was filmed outside, joking that, "Apparently, it's Melinda Doolittle Day, so we do what we want to do." And as Melinda visited her alma mater, Belmont College, they unveiled a street sign reading "Melinda Doolittle Way." Yes, a street named after her! Then again, you know what they say about the South being "Idol's" most devoted part of the country...

After that and the Maroon 5 performance, the results arrived. I was ready for anything, and boy, did we get it: First, Jordin learned she'd made it to the finale, and Blake and Melinda reacted exuberantly, cheering generously. The crowd reacted similarly - but then, no one had been kicked off yet, so it was safe to revel in unadulterated joy. Not so with the next Seacrestian proclamation, in which Melinda stepped forward and was informed she'd been voted off. Ever the composed, kind professional, Melinda reacted with a gentle smile, but the news set off a stunned silence and a mix of booing in the crowd, as people uncertainly thought about how to react - a strange dilemma given that Melinda's ouster also meant Blake was moving on, and they wanted to celebrate him, too. Blake, too, appeared at a loss. But Seacrest helped smooth all that over. "Here she is, one of our best singers ever, Melinda Doolittle," he said, introducing a clip of her time on the show. Though the video spanned many months and many performances, Simon, as is so often the case, summed it up best, saying to Melinda: "You are one heck of a singer."

Now that's a question we don't usually have a reason to consider: So, after watching Wednesday's animated intro...whose "AI" opening do you prefer: Seacrest's, or Homer Simpson's?

Subliminal messages, anyone? Coming, as it did, the week after LaKisha exited to the strains of "Stayin' Alive" and two weeks after Phil Stacey left singing about "going out in a blaze of glory," Melinda's "death cheaters" dress did not bode well for her fortunes. And given that she mentioned in a previous week how she modified a song's lyrics to avoid singing about losing on "AI," we know she was aware of the issue. Perhaps it's a tall order, but I'm thinking contestants might want to avoid any potentially negative/cursed lyrical or fashion connotations in the future...

"Challenge" with a side of poor timing: Ok, yes, I've already made it exceedingly clear how I feel about the weekly "American Idol Challenge" trivia quiz (*coughlamecough*). But not only was Wednesday's edition ridiculously easy, as usual, didn't you think it was also a bit (perhaps unintentionally) mean-spirited...given that it asked viewers to identify which member of Season Five's top three hadn't made it to the finals, when the answer himself - Elliott Yamin - was about to perform live on the "Idol" stage? Way to bring a man down, Seacrest & Co. :-P

But Seacrest, "Blake time" doesn't mean "your cue to sing": Not sure what it is about Blake that so inspires Seacrest to beatbox, sing and otherwise express himself in wholly inappropriate ways - is it that he's sort of a cool guy prone to banter anyway? are they buddies now? - but boy, we so did not need to hear Ryan attempt Maroon 5's "This Love" while sitting with Blake, introducing Blake's trip home. (And Blake, dude, you're not getting off scot-free, either: You didn't need to encourage Seacrest by joining in with some beatboxing!) Fortunately for America's ears, the whole experience was practically over before it began.

Been there, spent time with early '90s rappers: Surely I wasn't the only one totally amused when Blake mentioned that he'd previously "done a couple of shows" with Sir Mix-a-Lot, in response to a Seacrest question on whether it had fulfilled a lifelong dream for him to beatbox onstage with the "Baby Got Back" rapper onstage in front of an adoring hometown crowd?

Then again, he's a better Seacrest partner than Dunkleman: "Well, I watched that show, and I wondered, did you really like big butts?" Seacrest asked Blake, in reference to his Seattle performance with Sir Mix-a-Lot. "I cannot lie," Blake replied, seamlessly taking his cue from the lyrics of the ridiculosuly derriere-obsessed rap tune.

Yeah, that was not the truth: When the clip of Blake's clip home ended, both Blake and his dad were shown standing onstage with Seacrest. Blake's dad was sort of lingering, not necessarily getting that he was supposed to cede center stage, when Seacrest told him, "Seriously man, you're gonna have to take a seat, we have to get to these results." So he departed, only for Seacrest to deliver the real results - not the fake results he intimated after each contestant's trip home played - half an hour later. Uh huh.

Oh, but you are: "We're not that predictable here, are we?" Seacrest quipped after not telling Blake a thing about his fate during the early "results" segment.

Makin' hay over a makeover: "We are going to bring out a guy I don't recognize," Seacrest joked, introducing the much-made-over Elliott Yamin, who recently released his debut album - and now sports a mop of curly brown hair and, rather glaringly, a mouthful of big new teeth brightened and straightened to Hollywood-orthodontia-perfection. "He's getting great reviews, Seacrest said a minute later. "So is his hair."

The perks of third place: As a third-place finisher on what's widely regarded as one of the top "AI" seasons, Elliott found himself in kind of an interesting place Wednesday. Though he'd done well enough to perform his new song on the show, in front of an audience of millions, he hadn't achieved an exalted enough position to keep him from having to "go before the judges" after his performance, albeit for some good-natured compliments. But, still - could you really have pictured Seacrest asking the judges to offer their reactions to, say, a Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood performance?

I can almost hear the "get off the stage" music swelling! After Elliott performed, he thanked a litany of people, including the "American Idol" crew and the guy who'd written the song he'd just finished singing. After some gentle Seacrest jesting about also thanking the show's sponsors, Elliott was like, "I'd like to thank Coke, Ford, Porsche. I love Porsches," he said excitedly. But in a hyper-sponsored "Idol" universe where car companies other than that one founded by a guy named Henry - what was his last name, again? - Seacrest couldn't let that one go. "That's a no-no on this show," he said.

Here's to historical accuracy: I loved how in last night's music video/commercial, to "Everybody Wants You," the girl playing the younger Melinda had two little puffs of hair pulled up on her head - just like in the real childhood photo of Melinda's we saw last week.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Top three, without glee

As a certified Mariah-Celine-Whitney zone, "American Idol" tends to evoke thoughts of 1990s rock only when the likes of Blake Lewis or Chris Daughtry take the stage. Yet watching this season's top three contestants during Tuesday's performance show, I couldn't help but consider a mid-'90s alt-rock song that resides somewhere on my iTunes playlist - a seriously jaunty, poppy tune with a chorus that consists solely of one phrase, repeated: "Who sucked out the feeling?"

Indeed, as Season Six limps to a conclusion, I'm having a hard time figuring who I'd prefer to see in the finals next week, mostly because all of the remaining contestants are competent but none are overwhelmingly compelling. If last year's top group was electrifying, this year's crop is suffering from a power outage - if not altogether vocally, then certainly in terms of the other intangibles that determine whether "Idol" flops or flies. As an "Idol"-watching friend rightly pointed out, this season has lacked the crucial "rewatch factor" - that is, it hasn't provided much of anything you'd really want to go back and watch again. With shows like "Idol," that's important: If I'm recalling correctly, my mom still has a videotape containing some of Clay Aiken's Season 2 highlights. This year's show has offered only a few isolated contenders, including LaKisha's "I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," from the semifinals.

At this point, it's hard not to feel at least somewhat over "AI." Why wonder whether Blake took the cake, Jordin made sparks fly or Melinda did a lot when you can contemplate "Is it time for bed yet?" or "What's going to happen on the season finale of 'Desperate Housewives'?" Given that ratings are trending down a bit, I guess I'm not the only one with such thoughts. And maybe I'm reading way too much into this, but is it a reflection of this season that music mogul Clive Davis, who has shown up on previous seasons to guide the last few contestants - and pick one of the songs they perform - was nowhere to be found Tuesday? Hmmm. Instead, the top three each sang a producers' choice.

Anyway, left to their own, ever-questionable devices, the judges mostly heaped praise on Blake, Melinda and Jordin. And to be fair, all three contestants acquitted themselves decently enough considering the limitations they face. But that's the problem: Tuesday's show may have been "all about threes," as Seacrest put it - with the top three singing three songs each before "AI's" three judges - but when it came to the performances, none of the finalists convincingly checked all three boxes that count: Personality, vocals and song choice.

Jordin's toothpaste commercial smile, effervescent demeanor and powerful, emotional vocals were present and accounted for Tuesday, but some off-base songs hampered the 17-year-old Arizonan when she should have been soaring. She kicked off the proceedings with Rose Royce's "Wishing On A Star," which Simon chose for her and then proceeded to criticize anyway, arguing that the "weird jazz arrangement" was poor. Even amid that, though, she managed keen rhythm and phrasing and classy vocals. (Hey, random musical tidbit: Rose Royce also did that oh-so-'70s classic "Car Wash"!)

The producers' choice, Donna Summer's "She Works Hard For The Money," also proved an awkward fit, and Jordin struggled vocally during the verses before ripping some killer notes at the end. Not that the judges acknowledged that. "You know what's funny right now?" Randy said afterward. "It doesn't really matter what song you do, you're working it out up there whatever song it is."

Well, um, actually, it kind of does matter what song you do, but hey: Randy's only a supposed musical expert paid very, very well for his opinions. Then, after Jordin closed her set by successfully reprising the soul-searing ballad "I Who Have Nothing," which she nailed earlier in the season, Simon again criticized her, this time for choosing a song that was too old and old-fashioned. Although I agree she could have at least balanced her aged selections by choosing a more current song with the one pick she did control, it's also kind of hard to fault her for sticking with what had worked. Standing on the stage with Seacrest, Jordin awkwardly but kind of correctly mentioned that Simon hadn't exactly kept things current himself, considering the very song he chose for her dates to the 1970s.

Meanwhile in BlakeLand, Mr. Beatbox himself again tried to overcome his limited vocal range through spot-on song choices and sheer, energetic force of personality. After a miserable showing last week, he sure needed to succeed, and to my ears, he did, ending up - through luck and his own choosing - with far fresher, more appropriate and interesting songs than Melinda or Jordin. (Will it be enough to carry him into the finals? That's another question, I'm afraid.)

Paula's choice for him, the Police's "Roxanne," wasn't exactly original, but it was still kind of fitting, both in terms of delivery and, well, I guess you could argue that Blake has a bit of a Sting-like look going on. His lack of a lower register dragged him down, as it has before, but he remained utterly committed to the performance, holding the mic stand and commanding a stage bathed in red light. (So, um, I guess someone did have to put on the red light, then?)

His next two tracks worked even better; I must have some kind of weird psychic connection with the "Idol" producers, because I swear that last week, while listening to another Maroon 5 song, this thought occurred to me: "Hey, 'This Love' would be a great song for Blake to do on 'American Idol!' " And what song did Blake do, pray tell, what song did the producers choose for him? Why, the insanely catchy "This Love," of course, which fit with Blake's style 100 percent. Even if his rendition was wholly unoriginal, coming off like the Maroon 5 version with less powerful vocals (oh Blake, your voice did not hold up during that whole "Repair your broken wing" bridge), he confidently recovered and made it to the end with energy. Then, he continued along the whole white-boy funk vein with his own and final selection, Robin Thicke's "When I Get You Alone." Though because of his vocal limitations, Blake can't really seize notes as much as he ought to, rhythm and the well-chosen song carried him along. Randy appeared mighty skeptical afterward, but Simon was swayed: "I actually really liked that," he said, leading Seacrest to crack that he had "a musical crush."

Which leaves us with the judges' overall musical crush, Melinda Doolittle. Her vocals are uniformly excellent and Tuesday, she had decent material to work with. And to an extent, her personality has emerged in recent weeks, after laying dormant early on this year. I like her and appreciate her adept, skillful singing. But heaven help me, I just can't muster any real interest in or enthusiasm for her. Perhaps it's because her performances tend to be perfect, in a way, without the emotional depth that distinguishes more affecting versions. That said, after weeks and weeks of excellence, are the finals her due? Randy, Paula and Simon sure seemed to think so, and her three performances helped make the case, too.

Though the judges commended Melinda's rendition of Whitney Houston's "I Believe In You and Me," a terrifically challenging song that she delivered with admirable precision and restraint, I much preferred the performances that followed. As competently as Melinda handles ballads, she's better when she's fired up, as during Bon Jovi week or, Tuesday, on her earthy, bring-down-the-house version of Ike and Tina Turner's "Nutbush City Limits," which showcased her voice and ability to ride a groove, and on her final number, "I'm A Woman," which she delivered with sass, sauciness and a bit of what Simon dubbed a striptease (really, just a chastely suggestive drop of the gray jacket she'd had slung over her right shoulder).

So what did it all resolve? Most weeks, it's not hard to make an educated guess on that front. This week, I'm totally baffled. Randy said he thought the finals would feature two girls. Paula, taking a page from the usual Randy playbook, refused to say who she felt would make it through. And Simon made his loyalties screamingly obvious, saying "I want to see my girl Melinda in the finals." As for me, I guess Blake is probably the likeliest candidate for elimination, simply because he's the weakest singer remaining, but as we all know, singing's only part of the game in the "Idol" universe. Before Tuesday's show, I might have wagered Melinda would go home; now, I'm not too sure. I still think Jordin is the most viable "Idol," but a lackluster Tuesday night did her no favors. Perhaps this dilemma means we'll end up with a rarity Wednesday: A genuinely suspenseful results show.

Who knew the lingo migrated to the printed word, dawg? "I don't get many faxes that start, 'Check it out,' " Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen remarked after being handed a piece of paper that contained Randy's song choice for Melinda. Then, he slightly misread the closing of the fax as, "Rock on, Randy Johnson. Jackson, sorry" - an excellent correction, given that the "Idol" judge is far from a tall, fearsome major league pitcher. "Thank you, Randy Johnson," Melinda joked afterward.

Love means learning to spell your Idol's name correctly? "Grand Rapids Michigan loves Malinda," a fluorescent pink posterboard in the audience read Tuesday.

Straight outta, um, Georgia, it's gangsta Cresty: I'm beginning to think Randy is only, like, half-in on the joke when Seacrest toys with him, particularly when they're bantering about his oft-used phrases, as in this exchange that followed Melinda's first performance: "You wanted her to accept the challenge, step up and deliver, and yo yo yo, she did did did!" Seacrest said. "She blew it out the box!" Randy enthused. "Yeah yeah yeah, I want you to get up outta your seat, Randy, one of these times. Soon he's gonna get out of his seat, I promise you, America," Seacrest responded, leading to this priceless, cutting remark from Simon: "Are you drunk?" ("No, I'm totally sober," Seacrest replied a bit later, before saying, "We are going to take a quick break right now, get a cocktail ...")

And I cannot lie: Blake isn't exactly cheese-averse, as that clip of him beatboxing as Sir Mix-A-Lot segued into "Baby Got Back" demonstrated, somewhat endearingly...

Mmmno, we mean "favorite" loosely: At one point, Seacrest said the contestants would be finishing the evening by singing their favorite songs - but apparently not their favorite songs of all time, as it turned out. If that'd been the case, we'd have gotten to witness the joyous spectacle of Jordin attempting Hanson's "Mmmbop," which she'd identified as her favorite song in response to a viewer question earlier in the evening.

A woman of not-so-many thoughts: "What else can we say? We love you, we love you and we love you," Paula told Melinda after she sang "Nutbush City Limits." "That's why we hired you for this show, Paula," Simon replied dryly.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

I am telling you, Kiki's going

After all this talk of shocking eliminations from "American Idol's" final four - where, as conventional wisdom puts it, contestants who seemed a sure bet for the top two were unceremoniously, outrageously dismissed before their time - perhaps we should also consider the now-equal number of Final Four Non-Shockers.

I'm talking about the contestants who may have had a good run, perhaps even a better-than-expected run, but whose time it nonetheless was to go. For every Tamyra Gray (Season One), you have a Josh Gracin (Season Two); for every LaToya London (Season Three), you have an Anthony Fedorov (Season Four, and yeah, I totally had to look up the fact he'd finished fourth that year). After Wednesday's elimination show, you can also say that for every Chris Daughtry (Season Five), there's a LaKisha Jones. Which is not meant to take away anything from Kiki's Season Six run. Rather, it fits the pattern, and sure enough, it was her time to go, as plenty of us were able to predict. In a way, the predictable result was totally fitting, given the abysmal performance show it followed.

Ever humble and self-effacing (with, I think, more personality than she let on), LaKisha was totally prepared to leave, too, even fessing up during some Ryan Seacrest questioning that she'd been giving herself a bit of a pep talk during the break, hoping that she wouldn't forget the words to "Stayin' Alive," her "sing us out!" tune, and wouldn't cry. Ultimately, she batted .500, because the tears definitely began flowing the minute she learned she was headed home. As the clip of "her journey" played, I realized I'd forgotten just how ferocious her semi-finals performance of "I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" was, as if she was singing for her life. Though she also had some decent nights in the finals, nothing afterward compared. Though that in and of itself didn't spell the end for her, it was nonetheless a bit of a letdown to see her falter as the season wore on, picking lackluster songs and delivering some performances that were just kind of off, in spite of her tremendous voice. Nonetheless, the bank teller and single mother went out with dignity and a deserved sense of accomplishment. "You should be very proud of yourself," Seacrest said, without sarcasm, and he was absolutely right.

LaKisha's departure leaves us with what's probably most appropriate top three the show could have expected this year, not to mention a trio any avid "Idol"-watcher could have called weeks ago: Melinda, Jordin and Blake. Mind you, if contestants could be ejected for crimes of fashion, not just singing, we would now have just a top two, because the hideous tuxedo T-shirt Blake sported Wednesday would have gotten him bounced in record time. Not even cool in an ironic way, the grayish tee looked even more out of place amid the presentably-dressed ladies, further emphasizing the contrast between Blake, the remaining guy, and everyone else.

The "one of these things is not like the other" effect proved even more hilarious during the contestants' mostly-dead-on-arrival Barry Gibb medley, as they attempted to make their way through smooth '70s chestnuts such as "Emotion," then picked up the energy level toward the end. "The Lewis Sisters, ladies and gentlemen," Seacrest said afterward, presumably likening the Final Four to a '40s singing group of sorts. Despite the group performance's lack of a pulse, it was nice to hear Gibb's hard-to-sing tunes delivered with harmony. And the medley also delivered another lesson: Blake singing lead vocals is a non-starter. The guy obviously possesses musical ability, but his range is limited; in a way, it's to his credit he's made it as far as he has, particularly given AI's tendency to favor big belters. But at the same time, I'm not sure what it says about the show as a "singing competition" if he moves on.

Even with the flat medley and (argh!) yet another Seacrest foray into man-on-the-street territory, though, Wednesday's results show largely redeemed itself by finally, finally giving us some insight into the contestants' backgrounds. This, dear friends, is what "Idol" cheese is all about, and we've been deprived this year! Why, why has it taken us so long to get to this point? (Now, I'm hoping the show will continue to make up for it when the remaining contestants head home next week.) Anyway, the whole sort of "childhood nostalgia montage" provided plenty o' revealing nuggets, such as: LaKisha, Melinda and Blake are all only children. Younger Melinda favored a Minnie Mouse-type "afropuff" hairdo. Younger Jordin totally did look the same as she does now, just smaller.

Appearances weren't the only things that have remained constant: "I was one to never ruffle feathers," Melinda said in a statement sure to qualify for least shocking of the entire season. And, really, has anything all year summed up Blake better than his admission that he got kicked out of his choir class for being too rowdy? Paula can call him a rebel all she wants, but he's also the dude who would have been in choir class in the first place.

Dump that salt right in the wound, Seacrest:
"Picture the eyes of the country watching your every move. Consider singing live for over 30 million people. Imagine being cut after getting this close. It's happening to someone tonight," the host intoned, introducing the show (as Blake smiled in an oh-so-nervous/fake way). Oh, Seacrest, your kindness and penchant for melodrama both know no bounds.

Modesty in action...from Simon? "It's not just about me," Simon said after Seacrest bizarrely complimented him for being brilliant the previous evening (and said something like "I really enjoyed watching you"). "These two little people have a little role as well," he continued, extending his arms toward Randy and Paula. Um, that aside, how was Simon any different Tuesday than in previous, oh, years? Seacrest, what gives!

Speaking of: Seacrest was in sardonic top (or lame, depending on how you feel about him) form Wednesday, dropping one-liners left and right. "Sanjaya, live on stage," he said after running a promo for the upcoming Idols Live tour. "Lock up your daughters."

Meanwhile, back at Seacrest's Wacky Farmers' Market: "Ah, you can tell we have an hour to fill tonight," Seacrest observed after another trip to Man-on-the-Street Land, albeit that same street that always seems to have no one on it on a Wednesday morning. (Seacrest, seriously, you're in the second-largest city in the country - I know it's L.A., where people love their cars, but surely there must be a more, uh, populated venue for your banter.) He's padded the show with the segment so many times, it might actually - unfortunately - qualify for inclusion in the "Results Show Staple" category by season's end. That said, Seacrest's "Oh gosh, can't you see how hard I'm trying at this!" exchanges did yield a few gems, such as:

  • Seacrest, to woman on street, in an "um, this could be misinterpreted" question: "How deep is your love?" Woman: "It's very deep. It's very deep for 'American Idol.' "
  • Seacrest, to women on the street: "These kids have come from small towns and next thing you know, they're famous and they're household names and now they've met Bono and Barry Gibb..."
  • Seacrest, to a woman with long, blonde hair: "You kind of have a Blake look." Woman, staring at him with extreme skepticism, clearly aware that Blake has short, dark hair: "No." Seacrest: "You know, the, uh, the hair."
Obfuscation 101 with your professors, Ryan Seacrest and the "Idol" producers! Early in the show, Seacrest promised Pink "right here on this stage," but as anyone who's watched an "Idol" results show lately knows, "right here on this stage" doesn't mean live. Nope, instead it means, "We'll show you a random, pre-taped performance by a current pop star." Sure enough, Pink didn't appear to be there in the studio live, even though the producers have apparently gotten a bit more clever about their editing, as they immediately cut to shots of audience members clapping after Pink's "performance," then spliced in a shot of Pink reacting to the applause (genuinely, but not from that night) and cut to Seacrest standing at the side of the stage, with the stage itself not visible. Right.

Was it just me, or... Was the Final Four's version of "You Really Got Me" (in this week's commercial) blander than the one Sanjaya unleashed earlier this season?

Maybe you just need to eat better? "Blake makes my knees shake," read one sign in the audience Wednesday.

Yeah, that'd make anyone nervous...especially that last part: After Seacrest suggested she seemed a little nervous the night before, LaKisha launched into a detailed explanation with a wry kick at the end. "I had a lotta things that happened earlier in the day, and I didn't have on what I was supposed to have on, and the key change, and I was thinking and overanalyzing everything and, I dunno, hoping that Simon would kiss me again," she said. "His girlfriend's in the audience tonight, so let's be careful," Seacrest responded.

Modesty not exactly in action here (although admittedly, she can sure sing): "I didn't get my singing talent from anybody in my family," Jordin said with a bit of awe. "It's just a gift."

The set-up, the pitch...and now, for more insightful commentary from Randy "Broken Record" Jackson: "Randy, I'm gonna put you on the spot," Seacrest said as Blake and LaKisha stood center stage, waiting to learn their fate. "How do you think this is gonna go?" Ever afraid of, oh, directly answering a question, Randy dithered. As usual. "God, I dunno, it was a tough night for both of them last night. I dunno, man, I don't know, Ry, I dunno, dude."

And yet he and Paula will criticize this: I guess Paula and Randy banding together to "criticize" Simon has, by this point, become just some kind innate, unthinking reflex...because how else can you explain how they took issue with his decision to guess who'd be going home? I mean, the votes had already been tallied; it's not like it'd sway the outcome anyway, nor is it really all that mean, so what's so wrong with having an actual opinion? "One of 'em's got to go," Simon noted. "There's only two people up there." (For the record, he correctly predicted LaKisha would exit.)

Next week: Who'll make it to the final night? It's pretty unclear, except that Jordin will probably be there unless she completely self-destructs next week, on a night when, thankfully, the contestants won't be hemmed in by a majorly constricting theme. Blake will likely still benefit from being the lone male finalist, but can he survive another week as truly awful as this one? Can he overcome his limited vocal range and prove he's not out of his depth? Can he sell Clive Davis on beatboxing? And Melinda presents the biggest dilemma of all. On a superficial level, that seems ridiculous; she's been wowing people with her vocal prowess all season long, and general sentiment has long pegged her as a sure bet for the finals. But her inability to really connect on a larger level has left her in a strange spot. It's easy to say she should have recognized her problem earlier, but on a weird level, it's kind of the judges' fault, too, because they could have begun tempering their praise of her with cautionary words weeks ago, but didn't until now. "Well, it was kind of a wake-up call for me," she told Seacrest Wednesday, "because my goal coming into this was to be consistent in the midst of all the different genres. But I realized last night that I have to bring more to it, so, I mean, I hope I get the chance to." Well, she's getting the chance, but she's been getting the chance all season, too, and hasn't ramped it up will she do so at the last minute? I know I'll be watching to find out...

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Barely stayin' alive

In his introduction to Tuesday's "American Idol," Ryan Searest rhapsodized about guest coach Barry Gibb and the Bee Gees' musical contributions. They revolutionized '70s dance music! They helped define a generation! But as the final four contestants', uh, contributions made clear, the line between a leisurely groove and a plain ol' drag is indeed a fine one - and it takes talent to remain on the right side. As a result, a night that was supposed to celebrate the power of "boogie music" (as Seacrest so artfully put it last week) just sputtered along to its merciful end, stopping dead in its tracks my hope that, after last week's surprisingly entertaining Bon Jovi night, Season Six was gaining momentum and might snowball toward an exciting conclusion.

Instead, we endured an hour in which the only redeeming factors were Gibb (who rose above the overall snoozefest with kindness and good humor, sporting a silver mane and the same facial hair he did 30 years ago, judging by the clips) and that part at the very end where Seacrest proclaimed, "Seacrest, out!" And, well, that's about it. Honestly, as I sat there on my couch watching the show, it occurred to me that a night like that was enough to make a person - ok, more specifically, me - long for the wild and crazy times of, perish the thought, Sanjaya and Haley (who, by the way, looked to be in the audience), and heck, even the not-too-distant days of Chris Richardson. Last year at this time, the problem wasn't that no one was good enough to win, it's that everyone was. Now, perhaps I just have "Idol" fatigue, but it seemed to me that, more than anything, this final four's performances succeeded mostly at bringing back to the fore the weaknesses that have dogged them throughout the season, as if they'd reverted to the worst versions of themselves. Blake overrelied on beatboxing. Melinda couldn't add personality and life to her technical proficiency. LaKisha's performances veered toward the odd. And Jordin came off largely as more of a teen pageant contestant than a soaring, world-beating potential pop star. (I should have known early on something was amiss, because I found myself agreeing with even Paula's comments.) It all made me want to listen to the still-incredible "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack to cleanse my mind and dull my memory, except that, much to my chagrin, I don't actually own it. (Note to self: Borrow mom and dad's record the next time you're home.)

The evening began promisingly enough, with the 75 percent female Final Four singing "How Deep Is Your Love" with Gibb. "I've made lots of records with ladies, so this was a perfect scenario for me," the prolific producer cracked. Then Melinda took the stage for "Love You Inside and Out." Fashion and lack of her over-the-top, "what, me?" humility largely aside, she returned to unfortunate form, which is to say, technically proficient but boring. Of course she was in tune. Of course she was on pitch. Of course she was in rhythm. But Paula, providing shocking insight, said we now need more to impress us. "That was a backing vocalist's performance," Simon said. "You are better than that." Word. Her second song, "How Can You Mend A Broken Heart," was better but still boring and, frankly, old-fashioned in a bad way. She finished strong, dropping some huge notes that she really dug into, but as (again, I can't believe I'm citing her, but) Paula cautioned sometimes vocals aren't everything, and people need to be surprised. Will it be enough to keep her out of the bottom two for the gazillionth straight week? I'm not sure it is, but then again...

If we were judging by last night's performances alone, could it be Blake's week to hit the trail? He'll probably benefit from being the only guy remaining, and truth be told, I'd rather see him survive than enter a final three populated only by ladies with similar singing styles. But oh, as the judges also lamented, it was so not his week. With white streaks in his dark hair, he soft-shoed and beatboxed his way through "You Should Be Dancing." Even though it looked like he was throwing everything he had at it, it remained on life support throughout (although I did kind of enjoy the part where he sort of scatted). The only benefit of that performance was that, afterwards, the producers finally decided to identify his family in the audience. (Yes, he has a family! And the unidentified guy shown last week who looks like his dad probably is his dad!) To his everlasting credit, Randy was not exactly feeling the beatboxing. "It actually made it very corny for me," he said, delivering probably one of the best Randy lines of the year (admittedly, the pickings are slim, but still): "I felt like I was at some weird discotheque in some foreign country." Paula praised Blake for being unique, but then negated any enthusiasm she may have shown by following her remarks with a plodding clap. Simon, unsurprisingly, hated it. And Blake's next choice of song? Egads! Believe me, I'm not opposed to obscure songs if they're, you know, good, but where did Blake unearth "This Is Where I Came In"? And why, when he had the Bee Gees catalog to choose from, would he pick something so generic, so "completely tuneless," as Simon put it? Blake's weirdly transfixing top - what was it? A sweater? A vest? A t-shirt? - held my attention far more than the singing/mugging/whatever. Afterwards, I was torn about Blake's fate: Should one bad night doom him, or has he done all he can do, meaning last night's cheesefest was a symptom of a larger problem, not an aberration?

Given that she was in some ways lucky to survive to this week in the first place, though, I suspect LaKisha may be the one heading home. That's kind of a shame, because her voice is undeniably powerful, but then again, it's not like Melinda and Jordin are really slouches in that department, either. Even if she had delivered the Bee Gees equivalent of last week's electrifying "This Is Not A Love Song," Kiki may not have been able to stave off a trip to the bottom two. Without such a performance, she's a lock to at least go there. Though she took the stage with confidence, strutting out and attempting to seize possession of "Stayin' Alive," the arrangement dragged, and she also trotted out a weird hop mid-song and broke up the melody with bits of gospel-flavored belting. She chose her second tune, "Run To Me," because she thought it was a beautiful ballad, but her lower range proved an issue, and toward the end, her voice cracked. In and of itself it wouldn't be a deal-breaker, but cumulatively, it could well be a deal-sealer.

Which leaves us with Jordin, probably the person least likely to get the boot. Not because she delivered showstopping performances amid the overall drudgery, mind you, but because if we had to grade on a curve, she'd come out on top. She said she came into her practice session determined to show Gibb how much emotion she felt in "To Love Somebody" - the best song choice of the night, incidentally - and she must have succeeded, because he responded with effusive, hyperbolic praise. "I know a couple hundred people have sung this song, but I haven't heard a greater version than Jordin's," he said. (What, he wasn't familiar with the Clay Aiken version from Season Two, which was, to my mind, at least as good?) When Jordin took the stage, she invested the tune with similar feeling, adding a soulful breakdown midway through (something that sounded a lot better in practice than it does in print, I must admit). And even if the overall performance didn't exactly take flight, it was at least cleared for take-off - which was enough to make it the nominal highlight on a night when everyone else was still docked at the gate. But on her second song, "A Woman In Love," she turned back around and headed toward Dullsville, wearing a flowing turquoise dress and performing with all the passion and fervor of a bored '50s housewife about to start in on some vacuuming. Simon criticized it as being too old-fashioned and pageanty, and though Jordin hit some pretty excellent notes toward the end, the overall song dragged - a description that, unfortunately, could just as easily applied to the whole dispiriting night.

So it's not just in terms of performances? In that clip toward the beginning of the show where the final four gathered 'round the piano, singing "How Deep Is Your Love" with Gibb, did anyone else notice how tall girl Jordin totally towered over everyone else? Hello, pronounced height differences! LaKisha was maybe up to her shoulder. But anyway...

Actually, to answer your question, Seacrest... "As you know, this show lives and dies by the strength of the songs, and tonight we've got eight of the best," Seacrest said before introducing the first performance. "Can we fit all this in?" Seacrest, you asked, and I'm here to deliver: Well, uh, let's see, if you just removed the viewer questions, the cell phone commercial/forced banter with Randy inserted early in the show and the five million hours of commercials, then, yeah, maybe you wouldn't have had to, say, totally blow through LaKisha's second segment, hardly leaving the judges a moment to get a word in edgewise. But hey, just a hint!

Painful yet amusing host-related moments, volume 427: When Seacrest tried to beatbox his way through the word "text," telling numbers you could dial for Blake, who totally cracked up at the remark.

He's still got it: Unlike some of Idol's other retro guest coaches, Barry Gibb still seemed to be in decent voice, demonstrating his falsetto for LaKisha. That can't be (easy for a 60-year-old).

Eh, she's probably grateful: "Well, LaKisha, no kiss tonight, baby!" Simon said after LaKisha's lackluster "Stayin' Alive," referring to the lip-lock he laid on her after her crackling performance in last week's Bon Jovi night. "Clearly, Simon not the type who calls back after a first date to see how you're doing," Seacrest quipped afterward.

Graduating with a degree in "Idol" savvy, it's Melinda:
Talk about self-awareness (not to mention having learned from, say, Phil's prophetic song choice from last week, where he went on and on about going out in a blaze of glory and then, well, you know)! Instead of singing "how can a loser ever win," Ms. Doolittle very consciously recycled a verse about rain. "You know what, I'm very careful about words, so I've been very careful not to sing about being a loser on 'American Idol,'" she said. "I was like, maybe I'll just go back to the part that says, 'How can you stop the rain from falling?' because I'd rather be wet than a loser," she said. "If I was her, I'd probably want to leave that line out, too," Gibb said, smiling.

And by "gifts," we can also mean "overused tics": "It does give him the chance to explore those extra little gifts that he has," Gibb said, after expressing shock that Blake chose to perform the relatively obscure "This Is Where I Came In" as his second song of the night.

It may keep waiting: "I love the idea that he's performing it," Gibb said in reaction to Blake's choice of "This Is Where I Came In." "We thought it could be a hit, but we were wrong," he said, laughing. "It still has the ability to be a hit record, even if not by us, and here it is. It's been waiting for its time, and maybe Blake will bring it up to date right now."

But no, really, cut the beatboxing: "Just remember, you don't have to do the beatboxing on every joint, dude. You don't have to do it. We know you can do it," Randy said rather emphatically after Blake's second beatbox-intensive performance of the night. "But if he can, he can," Paula said, interjecting in a tone of voice that suggested "I've just emerged from heavy sedation." "Yeah, but he ain't gotta do it every time," Randy volleyed back. "It gets old."

The verdict? Feisty! "Look, it is Simon's evil twin," Seacrest teased toward the end of the show. "Judge Judy is with us!" After a quick exchange, he offered, "All right, let's tell the truth, they've been dating for three months now." "You troublemaker!" the judge replied in mock offense.

Just wondering: After watching the final four not exactly do justice to the Bee Gees' catalog on Tuesday's show, I'm wondering how an artist like Gibb feels after being a featured part of an "Idol" show on which the contestants totally bellyflop. In this case, the phrase "stick to the originals" occurs to me...

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Elimination? Make that a double

Last week's "Idol Gives Back" blowout may have been American Idol's go-for-the-gusto attempt at heartfelt, charitable sentiment. But for my money, Wednesday's double elimination show was just as possessed with the warm fuzzies, if not more - albeit on a less grandiose scale.

Even if the episode did contain 100% more elimination than usual "Idol" nights, it also offered two group hugs, heartfelt proclamations of best-friendship, highly visible displays of contestant camaraderie, Seacrest actually expressing regret at the way he treated a contestant on a previous elimination night and generous farewells to Phil and Chris, two kind Top Sixers who, to be fair, most warranted a trip home. As edgy as a trip to church, as dangerous as milk and cookies at grandma's house, Wednesday's show may have been the follow-up to Rock Night, but it might as well have come on the heels of "A Celebration of Doris Day, Puppies and Kittens." Which, I mean, was fine, except for...

The horrible, horrible filler. OK, yes, on one level, complaining about filler on "American Idol" results shows is like whining about fat in a Big Mac; we expect it. But even given the already-low bar the show has set for itself, Wednesday's installment was pretty dismal. "Once again, we'll be stretching this show into a full hour, and I promise no filler," Seacrest said at the beginning of the show, making a "yeah, right" face that conveyed just the opposite. "Sure."

I can tolerate the falsettoed, attempted blue-eyed soul of Robin Thicke (son of Alan), who with his v-neck sweater, looked like he'd escaped from boarding school, and Bon Jovi's consummately professional version of their new single, the ballad "(You Want To) Make A Memory." (By the way, wasn't Jon Bon an awesome guest? I loved him!) But are the "Idol" producers really so desperate for content to occupy one of the most valuable pieces of prime-time real estate going that, while continuing to deprive us of those dear group singing numbers AND any information about the contestants' backgrounds, they can:

1) Repeatedly send Seacrest out for inane man on the street segments. If there's a reason for this beyond filling space, I'd be interested in knowing; this week, we were treated to Seacrest shoving a microphone in the face of a skinny, scared-looking little girl, in an attempt to get her to sing the chorus of "Livin' On A Prayer," and the likes of two ladies who call themselves "Blaker Girls." And really, if the Idol powers that be are going to make Seacrest head out to talk to folks, couldn't they at least send him to a street with people on it, not the World's Emptiest Farmers' Market?

2) Broadcast an extended recap of "Idol Gives Back," a program that aired week earlier and was in and of itself a bit of a results show.

3) Ask people to send in "answers" for the least challenging "American Idol Challenge" trivia question in the history of mankind, which is definitely saying something, given the ineffable lameness of previous weeks' questions. (Even Seacrest mocked it. Riiiiight.)

Anyway, as far as results were concerned, Phil was the first to get the boot, receiving his dismissal about halfway through the show. In delivering the bad news, Seacrest praised Phil's character twice, calling him "a very, very good man." Then, true to the self-fulfilling form of the song he'd chosen for the week, Phil then proceeded to go out in, yes, a "Blaze of Glory," or at least as much of one as a genuinely nice, friendly-seeming sort of married father of two could. He made the most of his last chance, too, working it on the runway, walking through the crowd as he sang, hugging the judges, kissing his wife and then heading back to the stage, where Group Hug No. 1 enveloped him.

In the next round of eliminations, Seacrest actually took pity on Jordin for psyching her out the week before and acting as if she'd been eliminated, and ordered her to sit back down immediately. (Yay, sigh of relief!) Left standing were Blake and Chris, and from the looks of Chris's smile, he immediately concluded he was the one headed for the exits. Later, with Blake and Chris center stage, the two embraced and spoke of their friendship, noting that they're "best friends." (Hey, they're this season's Ace and Chris!) "Why you gotta do this, man?" Blake jokingly asked Seacrest, before he and Chris concluded that the outcome didn't really matter, because "we're going on tour together."

The congeniality continued even after Seacrest informed Chris he'd been cut, leaving the show with the top four it both needs and deserves: Blake, Melinda, Jordin and LaKisha. "This is not easy, is it?" Seacrest asked. "It was worth it," Chris said. "Thanks for keeping me in this long." Then, he launched into another pleasant-enough rendition of "Wanted Dead or Alive," leading to ... well, on this night, you guessed it: Yet another group hug.

But feel free to spare us: In response to a Seacrest question, LaKisha pronounced kissing Simon Tuesday "good," adding "I'd do it again." The show then cut to the man himself, who I could have sworn mouthed, "I would, too."

That's "with us" as in "on that big screen there": "We also have R&B superstar Robin Thicke with us tonight," Seacrest said while introducing the show. As per the template set out by previous weeks' chart-topping random guests, he sure didn't appear to be there live.

He gets that all the time? During the man-on-the-street segment, Seacrest interviewed a girl who said she liked Chris Richardson in part because he "looks like Justin Timberlake." Judging by Chris's reaction to the whole Justin comment when Seacrest brought it up Tuesday, I'd say that Girl On The Street just officially struck out, thus ruining her (imaginary) shot with him.

Not exactly a classless society, eh? While the two most commercially successful "Idol" winners - Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood - performed on last week's "Idol Gives Back," the other three champions - Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino and Taylor Hicks (Side note: How awesome was it to see Taylor Hicks again?!) were consigned to soliciting "Idol Gives Back" donations in clips shown during Wednesday's show.

Sure about that past tense, Jon? "I dug up this old photograph/Look at all that hair we had," Bon Jovi sang while performing his band's new single, "(You Want To) Make A Memory." Granted, I know it's not the poodle-like 'do he sported back in the '80s, but it sure looks to me like Mr. Bon Jovi still has quite the fine head of hair, haha!

Leave the heavy lifting to Seacrest: "It's gonna be a tough choice," Jon Bon Jovi said as he surveyed the night's second bottom two, Chris and Blake, after performing. "You wanna call it?" Seacrest inquired. "Not on your life, buddy," Bon Jovi said with a laugh.

Next week: Blake and three ladies - Jordin, LaKisha and Melinda - take on the presumably disco-oriented theme of "boogie sounds," with the Bee Gees' Barry Gibb guest-coaching. Is it just me, or can you already hear Blake revving up his computer in anticipation, ready to cook up some beats? ;-)

Givin' rock a good name

"American Idol" is in plenty of ways the antithesis of rock music. Nor are any of its remaining six contestants natural rock singers. So go figure that, contrary to how it may have appeared at face value, Tuesday's Bon Jovi night ended up as of the best shows of the season - if not in terms of pure singing, then certainly as far as creativity, personality and entertainment value were concerned.

Perhaps that's what happens when the nation's most popular television show recovers from its bout with inspiration and charity and starts being its sly self again. As impressive and kind-hearted and noble as last week's "Idol Gives Back" was - and as awesome as it was that the show raised $70 million for people who desperately need it - "Idol" is at heart a talent show, not a telethon.

And so the show was back where it belonged: Scaled down and focused on music, with anthemic, crowd-pleasing pop-rock and tornadic performances from Melinda and LaKisha, an inventive Blake arrangement that actually amused guest coach Jon Bon Jovi and a barnburning vocal from Phil. Even Jordin's flameout occurred on a grand scale, not in a whimper of Sanjaya-style meekness and weakness. The tone extended to the rest of the evening. Last week, it seemed like half of Hollywood made notable guest appearances. This week? Antonella Barba (Hey, she's from New Jersey! Bon Jovi: Also from New Jersey!) and Gina Glocksen (Hey, she likes rock! Bon Jovi: Also likes rock!) were both shown sitting in the audience at the beginning. Even a Seacrest more like the Seacrest of old decided to show up, boldly revealing more chest than Simon this week (ok, that's only because for once, Seacrest wasn't wearing a tie, and Simon decided to switch things up with a crewneck sweater). And while last week's clip reels showed scenes of poverty from across the world, this week's intro brought us mostly-vintage shots of the handsome, majorly permed Jersey boys in the band leaping around arena stages in tight pants.

The only potentially discordant note appeared right at the end of the show, in a pre-taped message where the President and First Lady thanked Americans, celebrities, contestants and Bono for their "Idol Gives Back" generosity. Not that they shouldn't have done it, and props, I guess, to the Idol producers for aiming big, but it was nonetheless a bit jarring to see the President Bush joking on "American Idol," especially as the remarks arrived four years to the day after his now-infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech (the one on the aircraft carrier). But, anyway, on with the show:

Phil kicked off the proceedings with a totally committed version of "Blaze of Glory," offering a vocal with a huge note at the end that sparked what seemed to be the loudest cheers he's ever received, at least to my ears. "This is the best opening I think we've had all season long," Paula gushed. But I fear all Phil's singing about going out in a blaze of glory may end up being as self-fulfilling as the time when, last year, Elliot Yamin sang about "going home" or some such and then ended up getting voted off that very week. As unquestionably strong as Phil's vocal was, the performance still suffered from his consistent flaw - a lack of personality, and thus, issues with believability. Not that Randy and Paula noticed, of course, but Simon pointed it out - "I don't think you've done enough to last next week," he said. As usual, his honesty was rewarded with a chorus of boos, but I know that in a week where two people have to go, I'd rather lose Phil than pretty much anyone else...especially because LaKisha, the woman who after a string of poor showings figured to be a sure bet to join Phil in the bottom two, reclaimed her former glory with a performance that blew the roof off the studio.

"Are you gonna take it to church tonight?" Seacrest asked LaKisha before she took the stage. "I'm gonna give you a little somethin' somthin'," came the reply. More like a lotta somethin' somthing: Looking sharp in a black tank top with a red waistband, she soulfully pled, belted, stormed and otherwise emoted her way through "This Ain't A Love Song," displaying her talent in a way not seen since her "I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" hit like a thunderclap during the semifinals. Tossing aside memories of recent weeks' derivative performances, she took possession of her song, accompanied by very Bon Jovi instrumentation that served as an appropriate reminder of its roots. "LaKisha, I actually could kiss you after that," Simon said afterward. And then HE DID, providing a sufficient helping of sketchy along with it: "Nice lips, loved it!" he said afterward, after wiping lipstick off his face.

But as the previously-foundering LaKisha took, uh, two steps forward, to paraphrase one of Paula's biggest hits, the usually reliably excellent Jordin took a flying leap backward - hopefully not so far back that it propels her right off the show, but in a week where two contestants will say farewell, nothing is certain. For some reason, she chose "Livin' On A Prayer" and was an uncharacteristically nervious, blubbering mess from the get-go. Yes, "Livin' On A Prayer" is a fantastic song that pretty much everyone knows, but unless you're Jon Bon Jovi himeself, it's also a tune best sung by drunk people in bars. A few other signs an "Idol" performance is doomed: The vocal coach politely says, "Um, this is a very difficult one to sing," as Jon Bon Jovi did, and the clips show the contestant struggling to make a go of it in practice. Jordin expressed optimism she'd be able to get it together for the show, but that didn't happen. Instead, she took to the stage clad in all black, her hair straining for Diana Ross puffiness - an homage to Bon Jovi's old hair, perhaps, haha! - and careened off the rails almost immediately, veering all over the place vocally, offering a plethora of bum notes and borderline screechy tones as loud guitars wailed and bright lights flashed. Whoa. Self-effacing and gregarious as always, she admitted she knew it was a disaster. Paula gave her credit for picking the song even though she knew it was "a little bit out of range," which is basically like commending someone for choosing a totally inappropriate song. Oh, Paula, Queen of Logic! And as much as the judges tried to make excuses for the fact that she's not really a rock singer, that didn't hamper the other contestants. Can you imagine if she'd attempted, say, "Always" instead? It would have been amazing! I'd hate for one bad night to ruin her chances, and I'm sure hoping it won't, but goodness me.

Blake, who has about one-fifth of Jordin's vocal capacity, made up for it in his traditional fashion: With creativity. After announcing he was tackling "You Give Love A Bad Name," he said, "The game plan for it is, uh, I kinda don't even wanna say, 'cause it'll give it away." The strategy left Jon Bon Jovi extremely amused, much to his credit. "Now, I gotta tell you, this is an adventurous rendition," he said. "There's great charm in it, but I gotta tell ya, this is the one that, to me, is rollin' the dice. Sixteen measures of him not singing on a show that's supposed to highlight singers makes me wonder." Yeah, me too - I mean, we'd already seen a clip that incidated there'd be beatboxing involved - but Blake was ready to roll. With hair newly dyed black, he began by pretending to take a record down from a shelf and put it on, interacting with the percussionist and mixing normally sung portions of the song with suspended, electronic/computerized-sounding vocal blips and skips, and, yes, beatboxing. Finishing on a bit of a sultry note, he sent the crowd into a frenzy, including an older fellow in a yellow Hawaiian shirt who totally appeared to be his dad. (Yes, because this is Season Six, any sightings of contestants' immediate families remained unconfirmed, but perhaps we'll see more in the weeks to come.) Improbably, it worked; afterwards, Simon called him "a brave young man" who'd done what it took the stay on the show another week and Randy commended him on "the most original version of a song ever on 'American Idol.'"

At the opposite end of the originality spectrum, meanwhile, sat Chris "Nasally" Richardson. "I know Chris Daughtry did it last year, but you can't go without doing 'Wanted Dead or Alive" on Bon Jovi night," he said, laughing. "Someone had to do it, and if I have to take the rap for it, I'm down." While I admit that's not the world's worst rationale for choosing a song, the music was absolutely unsuited to his usually smooth, high, thin voice. He appeared to be giving the performance his all, but added little, if anything, of note to the original. The first "only the names have chaaaaaanged" was utterly painful, and it didn't exactly improve from there. Though Randy made excuses by saying it was hard to sing rock, "you did your thing" and "that was nice, baby," and Paula advised him "you don't have anything to worry about taking the rap," I'm thinking that this may well end up being the week that on a steel horse he rides...right out of town.

Fortunately, Melinda galloped in to the rescue with the unapologetic "Have A Nice Day." "I am so bad at rock, I'm just now learning," she admitted at the beginning of her practice clip. But as Jon Bon Jovi sweetly noted, "You've already got the soul, you've got the pipes - just gotta own it!" So, ever the apt pupil, she did, taking the stage as if on a mission to kick ass, sort-of grinding with the guitarist, and fiercely declaring lines like "I ain't gonna do what I don't want to" with major-league soulfulness - or, "Tina Turner attitude," as Randy described it. Even if the tune didn't exactly show off her voice as some of her more old-fashioned song choices, it gave her an opportunity to show a completely different side of herself, and it absolutely succeeded. "You're a rock star!" Paula bubbled. And if that may not be true at the moment, at least she showed a lot of people it was possible - which is a whole lot more than could have been said for her just a month ago.

Boyish enthusiasm 1, hard-edged rock cred, -5! Not that anyone could have accused Phil of being sullen or moody in the past, but his excitement about this week's theme made his previous weeks' demeanor appear positively morose. "Holy moly, I'm jammin' with Bon Jovi!" he exclaimed before his performance. "I was the kid who sang this song in the mirror with my comb in my hand, you know. I've practiced this song for 15 years," he said, stating a fact evident not only in his words, but also in the fact this season's bald wonder doesn't appear to have had use for a comb in nearly as long. :-P

And hey, did he ever mention that he played in Journey? Oh, wait...
"I actually recorded that song for Jon Bon Jovi, I played bass on that," Randy told Phil after he sang "Blaze of Glory." "That was the problem with that song," Simon interjected.

Thanks for rubbing it in, Seacrest: "Gina is back with us, she'll be on the (summer tour), and it's rock week - that must be killing you," Seacrest told a smiling Gina Glocksen as he stood in the aisle next to her seat. Fortunately, this season's prematurely booted rocker girl took it in stride, burying her head in her hands in what appeared to be mock angiush.

Greetings from the land of "That's gotta make him feel old": "Oh my gosh! My mom is gonna flip out! She got me into y'all, so I'm just - " 17-year-old Jordin blubbered as she met Bon Jovi.

So, does "a lot of people" also include Jon Bon Jovi? "He has to sell his interpretation of a song that a lot of people know and don't want messed with," Bon Jovi said, describing Blake's revamp of "You Give Love A Bad Name."

Er, so which is it? Audience members Tuesday sure did like their signs that rhymed "Blake" with something, such as "Blake Takes The Cake," or, more divertingly, two identical hot pink signs reading "Blake Is The Cake." Is the cake?

Yeah, must have been tough to "endure":
"An artist like the band Bon Jovi, they've endured monumental success," Paula said after Blake's performance.

Hey, he could have compared you to Joey Fatone: "Welcome back to 'American Idol,' it is Ryan Seacrest here with Justin Timberlake," Seacrest said as he sat with, uh, well, unfortunately not JT, but Chris Richardson, who looked 100% unamused at the remark. (Hey, he could have taken it as a compliment...JT's no slouch, dude!) Seacrest must have also picked up on that vibe, because he quickly added, "Say hi to Chris, say hi to Chris!"

Jinx avoidance, anyone? "What do you say to yourself before you walk out on that stage in front of the millions watching," a viewer asked Chris Richardson. "Just have fun. Make it like it's the last - you know, just have fun, man, it's all about - just have fun," he said. Funny how a guy as familiar with the bottom three as Chris opted not to complete that thought about "make it like it's the last," haha!

Jon Bon...gospel singer? "Just testify, it's church!" Bon Jovi advised Melinda as he coached her on "Have A Nice Day." Her reaction was probably one of the funniest occurrences of the night: "He was like, honey, take it to church. And I was like, 'Ok, I like church!'"

Results: On a normal night, I'd cross my fingers and hope we bid adieu to Chris or Phil. But because two people are set to head home this week, based on the combined total of this week's and last week's votes, the results could get very screwy indeed. For instance, what will happen to those who were great this week and lame the last, a la LaKisha? Or vice versa, like Jordin? Ultimately, based on both weeks' performances and chances for future improvement and potential, it should be Phil and Chris getting the hook. But somehow, I can't picture "Idol" results being that logical (or in accordance with my personal wishes, for that matter). Wednesday should be interesting, but let's just say I'm hoping to avoid a binding repeat of last week's fake-out, where Seacrest made Jordin think she'd been eliminated...