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''American Idol'': The guys step up, slightly

On ”American Idol,” the ten remaining men step up, almost compensating for last week’s wack performances

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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”: The guys step up, slightly

Yeah, dawg, that was great, oh my God, you did your thing, you really brought it, you’re in it to win it, that was the bomb, baby!

Oh, wait. Scratch that. I forgot for a moment there that, unlike Randy, Paula, and Simon, I’m not on the Fox payroll and therefore have no vested interest in trying to convince the world that anything particularly special happened during tonight’s American Idol telecast, the aiight-at-best second round of the men’s semifinals.

Now mind you, I’m not disagreeing with the judges’ assessment that the guys improved dramatically over last week — I mean, unless the dudes were planning on tormenting a litter of newborn kittens, they couldn’t have done much worse. And I’m not denying there might potentially be a star (or two) in the bunch. But let’s get serious for a second: Whether or not I’m smarter than a fifth grader (sorry: Fox’s relentless ads for its Jeff Foxworthy game show seem to have hit a subliminal nerve), I’d like to think I’ve got more discriminating musical taste. So you’ll forgive me if I refrain from squealing like a ten-year-old girl at a High School Musical concert after listening to Sundance Head scream the words ”Ride, Sally, ride!” at the top of his lungs for a minute and 30 seconds.

Okay, to be fair, ”Mustang Sally” is a crowd-pleaser, but it wasn’t exactly a vocal showcase for Sundance, either, even though that was the impression that Randy and Paula tried to leave with their respective declarations of ”You dropped the bomb!” and ”I didn’t know you had range like that!” Were the judges so distracted by the hedgehog woven into the guy’s goatee that they couldn’t hear his voice give way pitifully during that aborted attempt at a showstopping final note? And where was the much deserved criticism that Sundance did nothing inventive or playful or unexpected with the vocal arrangement?

Sundance wasn’t the only one to get off easy. Maybe there’s something about the frequency of Chris Richardson’s singing voice that hits my ears the wrong way, but I couldn’t grasp the judges’ adulation of his flimsy, occasionally breathless cover of Jason Mraz’s ”Geek in the Pink.” Then again, maybe I’m just a prude who gets creeped out hearing a guy dedicate his performance to his grandmother, then take the stage and deliver a song about performing oral sex on a woman. Even Paula, in a moment of lucidity, had to incredulously ask Chris if his grandma knew what was the song was about.

And the ”ewww” factor didn’t end there, either, not with Jared Cotter wiping the palm of his hand over the length of his own face in a not entirely successful attempt to achieve an arousing climax to ”Let’s Get It On.” Granted, Jared’s a good singer and a handsome fella, and he looked especially dashing tonight with the way his crisp white shirt and white pocket hankie set off his dark suit jacket. The thing he doesn’t seem to realize, though, is that karaoke, by its very nature, is not sexy; you can competently trace Marvin Gaye’s smokin’ original as many times as you like — it’ll only leave folks pining for the real thing.

If the judges’ enthusiasm for Sundance, Chris R., and Jared catches on with viewers, that will leave four guys — Phil Stacey, Nicholas Pedro, Brandon Rogers, and Sanjaya Malakar — as the most vulnerable men heading into Thursday night’s eliminations. Phil was on key for the duration of John Waite’s ”Missing You,” but the last note I scribbled on my notepad during his performance kind of sums up the guy’s biggest problem: ”Where’s the star quality?” Similarly, Nicholas showcased a soothing tone and didn’t experience too many pitch problems with his rendition of ”Fever,” but at no point during his performance would he ever have been mistaken for a future music superstar — especially if you consider that, as Simon noted, the guy was dressed like he’d just spent the day working in a cubicle.

Still, the fact that Phil has yet to be ear-curdlingly awful, combined with his heartfelt dedication to his fellow Navy comrades, ought to keep him in the competition for at least another week. I’m thinking Nicholas, on the other hand, is going to have to hope America gets it right and sends home the two weakest performers, regardless of moving backstories or ability to rock a form-fitting pink T-shirt.

Certainly, Sanjaya’s tentative take on Irving Berlin’s ”Steppin’ Out With My Baby” ranks as one of the most uncomfortable performances ever in an Idol post-Hollywood round. His Gayle King hair pulled back into a ponytail and obscured by an unfortunate fedora, Sanjaya treaded the stage as meekly as a seventh-grade math geek trying to survive a vicious game of dodgeball with a high-school football team. I know the kid’s got the Mom Bloc of voters on his side, but at this point, anyone who feels for Sanjaya knows the right thing to do is to send him home.

Brandon, meanwhile, was nearly as uninspiring delivering a cover of Cyndi Lauper’s ”Time After Time.” On paper, I can sort of understand what the former Xtina backup singer was going for: ”Time After Time” is a lush, evocative ballad that’s best delivered in a restrained, straightforward fashion. But Brandon’s vocals were rockier than a limestone quarry, and his squabble with Simon about the merits of his performance wasn’t really a star-making turn.

In fact, the only singers tonight who looked like serious contenders to me were my three favorites from last week: A.J. Tabaldo, Chris Sligh, and Blake Lewis. Now, in the back of my brain, there’s a nagging little voice (which sounds suspiciously like Simon’s) telling me A.J. might not make the final 12, but I think that would be a real injustice. His exuberant, jazzy spin on Nina Simone’s ”Feeling Good” made him the evening’s only convincing crooner, but for some reason, the judges seemed hesitant to show him any love; it’s almost as if Paula, Simon, and Randy decided back in Hollywood week that they were putting A.J. into the top 24 as mere cannon fodder and they can’t quite accept the fact he’s a legitimate contender.

Blake, on the other hand, clad in a sideways, slate-blue-print puffy cap so hideous it looked as if it had been looted from a storage unit containing Aaron Carter’s 2002 tour wardrobe, deserved some of the criticism he took from Simon after a rousing, if slightly shrill, performance of Jamiroquai’s tricky-beautiful ”Virtual Insanity.” But even though tonight was a small step back from last week’s flawless Keane cover, the spiky-haired singer still looks more natural on the big stage than any of his competitors.

Right behind him, though, is Chris Sligh, who, despite a somewhat distracting lisp, packed more emotional heft into his version of Ray LaMontagne’s ”Trouble” than Taylor Hicks did with the song early last season. I’m still not 100 percent convinced Sligh has the vocal chops to get through another 13 grueling weeks of competition, but he’s, well, different — in a good way — and the competition is the better for having him in it. At least till he’s got to go head-to-head with the ladies.

What do you think? Which of the male contestants impressed you most tonight? Which two do you think will be going home? (I’m hoping it’s Sanjaya and Brandon, but I’m guessing it’ll be Sanjaya and Nicholas.) Was Paula’s exchange with Randy over Jared’s hand-over-sexyface dance move the first time in Idol history that she’s been deliberately funny? And will you ever be able to erase the image from your mind of Ryan caressing Sundance’s beard?

(And be sure to click here and check out our new, twice-weekly Idolatry Webcasts for even more obsessive discussion of all things Idol.)