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.


Anonymous said...

Regarding last year, what was so spectacular regarding Mr. "Soul Patrol"? Ms. McPhee was OK. The whole season sank after Daughtry left.

As for this year, it has been haphazardly crippled by a lack of male talent.

Anonymous said...

Whole season was mediocre..and anyway, how can anything top the magnificent Clay Aiken from Season 2. He set a standard by which all others fail! Idol Found-Game Over!