What the heck happened to tonight’s episode of American Idol? My digital-cable channel guide said something about how the top 10 women of season 7 would be performing songs of the ’70s, but instead, Fox pulled a fast one and aired a ”Worst of the Worst: Ladies’ Edition” special. And to get all Paula Abdul on you for a second, it was every color of awful.
There were gray, gloomy, and off-key ballads. There was beige karaoke. There were bold and daring combinations of hues that may have looked good on paper but in practice turned out just plain ugly. There were kaleidoscopic meltdowns of pitch, styling, and general good taste. There was even a blood-red tongue. (Scary!)
But, to be fair, there was also Carly Smithson, and thankfully, the tattooed Irish lass delivered a cover of Heart’s ”Crazy on You” so strong and tuneful it (almost) made me forget how much the show’s producers have been promoting her. In fact, after Carly’s performance tonight — especially when it’s compared with those of her nine female competitors — Nigel Lythgoe & Co. can quit pimping. The woman’s voice speaks for itself (and her hair went from ”before” to ”after” in a mere seven days).
Indeed, ”Crazy on You” is a high-octane, banshee wail of a number, the kind of song that puts middling singers at risk of going off the rails. But Carly, amazingly, controlled every note like Supernanny herding an unruly group of toddlers into a perfect line formation (even if Randy couldn’t hear it). Not only that, she proved especially winning in her interviews; any woman who can sculpt a shamrock into the head of a pint of Guinness can’t be all bad, and she’s one of the few contestants who accept the judges’ critiques without resorting to the kind of behavior that demands a trip to ”the naughty chair.”
From a vocal standpoint, however, it looks like Idol could use an entire ”naughty bench” on which to punish the likes of Ramiele Malubay, Kristy Lee Cook, Alaina Whitaker, Syesha Mercado, Kady Malloy, and, alas, three of my favorite gals this season: Asia’h Epperson, Alexandréa Lushington, and Amanda Overmyer.
The only woman aside from Carly who gets a gold star this week, in fact, would be Brooke White, who may not have done anything inventive or unique with ”You’re So Vain” but at least had the decency to sing one of the world’s great songs with confidence, conviction, and respect for the notes as they were initially written. I’ll admit, I howled when Paula tried to turn into high praise her contention that Brooke’s number was a carbon copy of Carly Simon’s original — ”what you brought to it was familiarity!” — but there’s no denying the G-rated nanny gave a very enjoyable performance and delivered the night’s best interview package. (Maybe in her spare time, the self-proclaimed ”beauty-school dropout” can turn her attention to the busted coifs of David Cook, Robbie Carrico, and Jason Yeager, among others.)
And that concludes our discussion of tonight’s high-quality performances. Now onto the remaining eight!
Of that group, Ramiele deserves the least bashing, considering she managed to hit the majority of her notes while covering Thelma Houston’s disco classic ”Don’t Leave Me This Way.” The only problem for me was that for the second week running, Ramiele seemed a bit lost and emotionally disconnected, like she was busy looking around for a big screen with lyrics and a bouncing ball instead of delivering the central theme of her number: ”Only your good lovin’ can set me free!” It certainly didn’t help that Ramiele’s underwhelming gray jeans and purple tank top looked more appropriate for a Saturday-morning trip to the drug store than a place on the stage of America’s most popular talent competition.
Kristy Lee suffered similar problems tonight tackling Linda Ronstadt’s ”You’re No Good,” hitting most of her musical marks while missing most of her emotional ones. The good news for Kristy Lee was that whoever programmed her internal computer this week didn’t set her facial expressions to ”intermittent freak-out,” but there’s still something deeply rote and soulless about her performances. It’s almost as if Kristy Lee had met all the requirements of a major-label focus group (Attractive figure? Check. Long blond hair? Check. Perfect teeth? Check. Solid vocals? Check.), but somehow the parts don’t add up to an artist whose album you’d ever want to buy. (Also, can anyone tell me why K.L.’s tongue looked like she’d been sucking on a bloodsicle?)
While Alaina seems at first glance to come from the same blond-singing-star factory — she’s sort of the Skipper to Kristy Lee’s Barbie — on further inspection, I’d say it’s unfair and unwise to dismiss her so casually. Yes, her voice ran the gamut of problems during ”Hopelessly Devoted to You” — opening with Carmen Rasmusen-style bleating, disappearing on the lower register, cracking like a fault line on the big notes — but I think Simon is right in calling Alaina this season’s dark horse. In spite of her problems, the kid’s got a nice tone to her voice. Now all she needs is a little more confidence and something to distinguish her from the pack (an eye patch? the elimination of Kady Malloy?), and she might start gaining some buzz.
So let’s assume for a second that Carly, Brooke, Ramiele, Kristy Lee, and Alaina are all safe this week. You’d also have to include Asia’h on that list, even though her voice strained, shredded, and shrieked throughout her cover of ”All by Myself.” Simon made the point perfectly when he said the deeply depressing Eric Carmen ballad is a musical Moment of Truth, so to speak, and it proved the point that Asia’h, while possibly a very good singer, is not a truly great one. This, of course, doesn’t mean she doesn’t deserve a shot at being the next American Idol — after all, Asia’h has enough personality that she can do an interview package about the importance of cheerleading and still seem completely endearing — but she’s going to have to choose her songs more carefully (and avoid dressing like she’s competing for the title of World’s Sexiest Secretary) if she’s gonna step with the Archuleta and Smithson for the next 13 weeks.
NEXT: Who’s at risk of going home?