”American Idol”: The kids rock the classics
I didn’t think it was going to be possible, but crazier things happened during tonight’s episode of American Idol than Randy’s BeDazzled-skull-sleeved shirt and Paula’s rodeo monkey garb. Chris Richardson gave a terrific performance. LaKisha Jones put Melinda Doolittle on notice. Sanjaya Malakar did not make me feel the rage. Gina Glocksen squandered the bulk of her Gwen Stefani-week momentum. And Blake Lewis might’ve gotten himself in a spot of trouble.
Who knew Tony Bennett night would be packed with so much drama?
So let me begin with Chris, a contestant who only three weeks ago I accused of using a ”dull, reedy, nasal blade of a voice…to hack and kill every beloved note” of Diana Ross’s song ”The Boss.” And while I still stand by my assessment of that particular performance, I’m not so mulish that I can’t give the guy credit for showing vast (and surprising) improvement. Sure, his choice of Duke Ellington’s swingin’ ”Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” bordered on foolproof, and yeah, I noticed a couple wobbly notes in his lower register, but as the judges pointed out, Chris managed to do something that’s been very rare on the Idol stage this season: He added unexpected spice to a beloved standard without defiling its classic recipe. (The song is 65 years old!) Maybe Chris was born to play the role of hipster with a broken heart, but suddenly, his vocal runs made perfect sense, his line readings were infused with emotion, even his dance moves were fly. In fact, I was grooving to the dude’s performance so much that my initial notes consisted of one word only: ”Wow!”
Chris’ surge in momentum this week (combined with last week’s not bad ”Don’t Speak”) could present a problem for this season’s other blond-haired hipster heartthrob. Indeed, Blake Lewis’s in-tune but disappointingly safe cover of ”Mack the Knife” was the kind of performance that isn’t good enough to inspire viewers to vote but also isn’t bad enough to make fans worry that their favorite is in danger. (Anyone remember La Toya London’s ill-fated ”Love You Inside and Out”?) Maybe Blake believed Simon’s assessment last week that he’s the front-runner on the men’s side, but I thought the cranky Brit’s remark about Blake scoring a ”7 out of 10” this week was far more telling. Blake has yet to deliver a jaw-droppingly good, rewind-the-DVR vocal — and after seven weeks of live performances, I’m starting to wonder if he’s capable of one.
If I’m right that Chris and Blake are appealing to some of the same voters, LaKisha and Melinda are likely in a two-way battle of their own as well. And while the judges were more effusive tonight in their praise of Mindy Doo’s ”I Got Rhythm,” I actually preferred Kiki’s ”Stormy Weather.” Mind you, I’m not saying Melinda hit a single bad note during her performance (or at any point this season), but as the judges lauded Melinda for teaching another vocal master class, it hit me: I don’t want to feel like I’m at school, with Miss Doolittle giving a PowerPoint presentation on various details of pitch, phrasing, and rhythm. I want an Idol whose performances are throbbing with joy and pain and life experience, who’s not afraid to get ugly, who makes me believe that she’s got rhythm, music, and her man — and that she could not ask for anything more. The crazy thing is, Melinda proved capable of exactly that with her semifinal takes on ”My Funny Valentine” and ”I’m a Woman,” but her shtick has become too push-button, too bloodless these last few weeks.
LaKisha, on the other hand, came out kicking and growling tonight on ”Stormy Weather,” like a woman who was smack in the middle of living the line ”everything I have is gone” — her man, her fortune, and, yeah, her competitive momentum on season 6 of Idol. Were there a couple wonky lower-register notes? Sure. Did she ignore Tony Bennett’s advice to drop that ”ain’t no sunshine when he’s gone” tag at the end (probably because she couldn’t manage to hold that big note for as long as he wanted)? Okay, yeah. Did any of it detract from the raw emotional power of the performance? Not one bit. Don’t let the rockin’ chair get you, Kiki!
Oh, and furthermore, a memo to Haley Scarnato: You are not the only woman in the competition who’s capable of taking the ”girls” out for a walk with a plunging neckline. You do, however, appear to be the only one who’s running the risk of an FCC violation if your hemline goes any higher than tonight’s gam-tastic green sequin number, which, along with an energetic (if utterly rote) take on ”Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” might just carry you to the top eight on Wednesday. Also, Haley, I have to say, the bile-soaked look-daggers you shoot at Paula every week when she patronizingly comments on your good looks? They’re kind of turning me into a Haley fan — or not a Haley hater, anyway.
In fact, Haley might not even end up in the bottom three this week, given the big steps backward taken by Gina Glocksen and Phil Stacey. To be fair, Randy was correct that Gina displayed nice vocal control on her rendition of ”Smile,” but if I pulled two perfect pieces of Wonder Bread out of my fridge and put them on a plate, would you consider that an acceptable lunchtime option? In other words, where was the meat, the condiments, the chipotle aioli? Or any kind of flavor at all? It sure didn’t help that the chef’s poofy hair and ill-fitting black dress made her look like Megan Mullally dressed up like Vampira for Halloween.
And while we’re talking about scary characters, was I the only one who kept imagining Phil standing outside a stranger’s bedroom window with a flashlight shining up his face as he delivered a particularly moribund ”Night and Day”? I mean, I know the song is all about longing and torment, but there’s a difference between bringing the heartache and making me want to take out a restraining order. Why didn’t this season’s most underrated vocalist listen to Tony Bennett’s advice and put a little bit of swing into it? Alas, I fear the lines ”This torment won’t be through/Till you let me spend my life making love to you” will not be tolerated by viewers — not the way Phil sang ’em, anyhow.
Thank heavens there was Jordin Sparks’ ”On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)” to return the telecast to its regularly scheduled mood of newborn baby ponies, pillowy piles of cotton candy, and Fourth of July fireworks. Yay, Jordin! Okay, so it wasn’t quite as emotionally devastating as her ”I (Who Have Nothing),” but clearly, the kid has a knack for tunes with parenthetical titles — and big notes, too. Did you hear that astonishingly clear and powerful one she used to close tonight’s number? Slow clap — Jor-din! Jor-din! Jor-din! Stop fighting it people!
For my part, I’ve reached a place of calm resignation when it comes to Sanjaya, because deep in my heart I know that this too shall pass, my friends. His rendition of ”Cheek to Cheek” may have been weak and insipid, but it was no worse than what John Stevens did to ”Music of My Heart” or Camile Velasco did to ”Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” back in season 3. Outrage is one of Idol‘s sources of energy. And if that doesn’t help, think of it this way: If Idol is a horse race, then Sanjaya Malakar is the colt who loses his jockey coming out of the gate. Sure, he’s loping around the oval — out of control, occasionally messing up his competitors’ game plans — but technically speaking, without a rider, he can’t be declared the winner, he can’t pick up a paycheck, and none of the folks who bet on him can cash a ticket. So when the field rounds the turn and enters the homestretch, we’ll be too busy cheering on Mindy Doo, Little Miss Sparks, and Spikey Blake to notice Crazy Hair Boy heading back to the barn — and that’s something on which I’m willing to bet the farm.
What did you think of ”American classics” night — and Tony Bennett’s coaching skills? Which singers gave the best and worst performances? And who’s going home on Wednesday?