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.


Anonymous said...

I'm interested to hear more about the fallout of Elliott's "Porsche" comment. Was he scolded afterwards by the Idol producers? Will there be a shinny new Carrera delivered to Elliott's house today?

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, and this show is all about opinion, Melinda is the best singer ever to be on AI. Ever. By sending her home last night, America proved to me that this is not, as Simon so often says, "A singing competition." I wasn't shocked; when I called to vote for Melinda, I had no trouble getting through. America has (not) spoken. I don't even care who wins now. It is meaningless.

Anonymous said...

"American Idol" seems to not mean "best singer" but more "best entertainer" which would include much more criteria.

Anonymous said...

This show suck. To vote off the best singer was just ridiculous. I agree it’s not worth watching anymore.

Victoria said...

"Posh suburb of Glendale"? LOL have you ever been there? Glendale is on the west side, where all the rednecks and lower middle class live. The downtown is only two steps up from being a slum! You're probably thinking of Scottsdale, where the IN people live.

The mall where Jordin was honored was Arrowhead Town Center, ironically built far away from the real Glendale "town center," and it does NOT have a parking structure (more's the pity, the shade would be welcome in the scorching Arizona sun).

You're right about Melinda though. Now I don't care who wins... I just want to know when Melinda's first album is coming out, 'cause I'm buying it!

Jen Aronoff said...

Hey, thanks to everyone for commenting - it's good to hear from you. And yes, I agree that Melinda's ejection again demonstrates that the show isn't strictly about finding the best singer, though if "AI" (and its viewers) are lucky, it can unearth someone who's both an excellent singer and compelling entertainer. As this and other "AI" seasons have shown, that's a difficult combination to find! That said, I do think that the ability to entertain a crowd ought to count for something, because it does in the real world. So I guess even with Melinda gone, I'm not entirely disconsolate over this year's final 2 - the show could end up being pretty enjoyable, though with this season, you never know.

I hope I wasn't too off in my impression of Glendale - I've never been there, so I was going on what a friend who used to live in the area told me. And though what I saw on TV looked like a parking garage, it was hard to tell for sure.

Anonymous said...

Melinda is not the best singer ever. Do you people listen to yourselves at all? I bet most of you complaining are the ones that voted for that all time great idol Taylor Hicks, whose initial CD was a dud. Has anyone heard from him lately? Melinda would be another Taylor. You all say she is great, but would you really buy her record. Look at Carrie Underwood, she has sold 6 million CDs in the US and a total of 12 million world-wide. Melinda could never surpass that.