Wednesday, May 02, 2007

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...


Anonymous said...

Ya'know. Do you have to politicize everything. It's getting to be a real joke with the Bush thing. At least come up with something original to blame the guy with. It's his fault that AI had him to a promo shot on the night they aired and it coincided with his famous comment. He's the president for Pete's sake, this is the type of thing a president does. What did you want him to do, demand the day he wanted to show. Not show at all, or better yet make a polictical statement on the war. It has been no surprise of the mix of support for this fundraiser in relationship to It has pulled together both sides of the political parties, actors, musicians and diversity. How about pointed that out. It could of read....
Pres and Mrs. Bush appeared congratulating Americans of joining together to end poverty hear and abroad. If you ever understood the group. You would realize that BONO has spent considerable time pulling all together despite allegiance and trying to apoliticize the movement and it's attack on poverty.
Which I say Bravo and for once forget the politics.