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''American Idol'': A bumpy country night

It’s a bumpy country night on ”American Idol,” as guest coach Martina McBride helps some contestants soar while others crash and burn

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American Idol

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Ryan Seacrest
Reality TV

”American Idol”: A bumpy country night

The top three finishers of American Idol‘s sixth season may be something of a foregone conclusion, but that doesn’t mean the next six weeks — heck, the next 24 hours — will be void of suspense. In fact, unless a benevolent butterfly delivers a tablet of Lunesta to my medicine cabinet in the next couple hours, I’ve got a queasy feeling I’ll be up half the night, pondering (among other things) the following questions: Could Phil Stacey actually make the final four? Have I heard and seen the last of LaKisha Jones’ growl-grimace combo? Did Chris Richardson pull an unseemly vote-getting ploy tonight, or am I just a horribly cynical human being? How does Sanjaya Malakar get his hair to do the things it does? And is there any way for Randy Jackson to land in the bottom three?

That sure is a big mound of uncertainty for one Idol-addled brain to process. Then again, at least I don’t have to spend much time worrying about the fates of Jordin Sparks, Melinda Doolittle, and Blake Lewis, all of whom seem guaranteed to sail into the top six on Wednesday and, barring a misfire on a par with Nadia Turner’s momentum-crushing, ‘fro-hawk-sporting season 4 take on ”Time After Time,” ought to be with us well into May.

What’s more, I can rest easy with those contestants as the top trio. But who’s going to win? All of us know that’s a brutally tough question. I guess if someone were to pin me to the wall and demand an answer under threat of having Haley Scarnato come back to pinch-sing for Melinda next week, I’d have to go with Jordin. Apparently, Simon’s attention was elsewhere during Jordin’s front-runner-worthy renditions of ”I (Who Have Nothing),” ”Heartbreaker,” and even the slightly wobbly ”Hey Baby” in earlier rounds, seeing as he told her tonight’s cover of ”A Broken Wing” was the first time he could imagine her winning the whole enchilada. But if you’re going to come to the party late, you might as well arrive as Jordin, clad in a luminous red and gold goddess gown, her hair long and wavy, soars through a mighty Martina McBride ballad with equal parts passion and proficiency. I might’ve heard a sharp note or two heading into the chorus, but those incredible final notes erased ’em, not to mention the painful memories of what Diana DeGarmo and Jessica Sierra did to the song in the show’s third and fourth seasons, respectively.

As for Melinda, Jordin’s main foe in the battle of the big voices, I’ll give her props for her choice of Julie Reeves’ kicky (and thoroughly country) ”Trouble Is a Woman,” a song I’ve never before heard on Idol — or anywhere else for that matter. (Thankfully, I don’t have to feel totally dumb, since McBride, tonight’s sweet but not terribly insightful mentor, wasn’t familiar with it either.) How nice to hear Melinda, who (at last!) sported appropriately youthful hair and clothes, choose a contemporary number and, as Simon noted, get back in touch with the inner Tina Turner who’s been dormant since her semifinal rendition of ”I’m a Woman.” (Should all her future song titles include the word ”woman”? Discuss!) Better still, Melinda kept alive her extraordinary Idol streak: Nine live performances, and not a single note out of tune.

That’s more than I can say for Blake, who seemed to be traveling along the border of Sharpsville (without ever quite crossing it) on an otherwise very purdy rendition of ”When the Stars Go Blue.” No doubt, Paula was right that the guy’s got ”the whole package” — the charisma, the ”isms,” the ability to single-handedly make me want to see if I can pull off an argyle sweater vest (unlikely) — and he never fails to select a song that’s at once contemporary, appropriate for his vocal range, and consistent with the week’s theme. Which leaves me torn: Do I root for the contestant most likely to make a CD I’d actually want to purchase, or root against the dude whose best vocal performance is only a B+? Thankfully, I’ve got a few more weeks to decide.

Speaking of a few more weeks, are there any Phil phans in da house? Because if so, I am happy to tell you that the King of the Bottom Three should be going to the couch — directly to the couch, without visiting center stage, and without collecting $200 — after an enjoyable rendition of Keith Urban’s ”Where the Blacktop Ends.” Mind you, I wasn’t as taken with the number as the judges — especially the way Phil drifted aimlessly through the audience, doling out hugs to friends as if he were doing the closing number at a local roadhouse bar — but then again, he didn’t exactly benefit from some bizarre camera angles, including an extended shot of him from behind while he sang on the platform between the judges and the audience. I can’t imagine Jordin or Blake getting such shoddy treatment from the producers, but perhaps, in some odd way, that’s a plus for the Rodney Dangerfield of season 6. Despite his inconsistency, his sartorial woes, his dorky sound bites, and the way he occasionally struggles to keep his breath on extended notes, I can’t really root against the bald-headed nice guy. Also, if you’ll allow me a momentary tangent: How is it that Randy Jackson, a man who is pretty much paid to do nothing but ineloquently critique the contestants’ weekly performances, has only just this moment realized that Phil is most likely to make his mark in country music?

Phil’s upward momentum leaves me thinking this week’s bottom three will (rightfully) consist of LaKisha Jones, Chris Richardson, and Sanjaya Malakar. Oh Kiki! I-I-I-I-I-I-I-I…will always…love yooooouuuu…for not choosing ”I Will Always Love You” during country week, but ”Jesus Take the Wheel”? Seriously? Maybe you should have asked Jesus to take over the song-selection process for you. Also, just a guess: Jesus would like to see you smile. You’re not digging a ditch, girlfriend — you’re supposedly doing what you love to do! But all kidding aside, while I initially grinned at LaKisha’s chutzpah in selecting a massive hit single by one of the show’s most successful alumni, the minute she reached the chorus, it was pretty clear the car was screeching off the embankment — and I do mean screeching. And sharp. And lethargic. Like Martina McBride, I was feeling a little verklemmt from LaKisha’s performance, but only because it’s pretty clear my early favorite will be lucky to make it into the top five.

Not to say that she didn’t manage to outperform Sanjaya and Chris. Despite Ryan Seacrest’s ridiculous objections, I thought Simon was being rather gentle when he described the increasingly (and annoyingly) self-aware teenage crooner’s ”Something to Talk About” as ”utterly horrendous.” Indeed, the last note of nearly every one of Sanjaya’s lines evaporated like water on a frying pan — only there was nothing remotely hot about his interminable, listless performance, which lagged behind the beat, contained scads of flat notes, and worst of all, showcased the teenage crooner’s attempts at riffing on the beloved Bonnie Raitt hit. If a melody can be choked to death, then tonight ”Something to Talk About” is fighting for its life in the musical ICU. The potential good news is — and maybe it’s just wishful thinking — Sanjaya was so joyless tonight that I believe he’ll be going home on Wednesday.

Then again, we could just as easily be bidding adieu to Chris, whose rendition of Rascal Flatts’ ”Mayberry” was an exercise in utter discord. No exaggeration — as Chris kicked into the song’s chorus, I had to fight the urge to press rewind on my DVR and make sure my cable wasn’t somehow distorting his vocals, which seemed to be completely at odds with the fiddle player and the backup singers. And the ”na-na, na-na”s, embarrassingly, disappeared into nada. Chris should have taken Simon’s stinging critique in stride, but his snide retort — ”Nasally’s a form of singing; I don’t know if you knew that or not” — was both obnoxious and laughable. I mean, the cats that occasionally mix it up in the alley behind my house are engaging in a form of singing, too, Chris, but that doesn’t mean anyone wants to hear it.

Even more troubling, though, was Chris’s abrupt change of subject from mouthing off to Simon to extending his thoughts and prayers to the victims of the Virginia Tech shootings. Mind you, I’m not saying the Virginia resident’s remarks weren’t sincere, but the timing felt way, way off. By sniping at Simon first, realizing he was in a losing battle, then turning the subject to an unspeakable national tragedy, Chris created the season’s most uncomfortable moment. And seeing that Sanjaya’s had nine live performances to date, that’s a tremendously unfortunate accomplishment.

What do you think? Will Chris’ exchange with Simon hurt or help him with voters? Was the fact that the cameras caught Simon’s eye-roll reaction the reason he offered his sympathies to the victims’ families later on? And who do you think is going home on Wednesday? Let us know in the comments section below, although we admit that you may have trouble viewing them. EW.com is working hard to fix the glitches on the TV Watch message boards. We apologize for the exasperating experience, but hope you’ll click the refresh button a few times and bear with us. Thanks again for your patience.

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