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''American Idol'': We call the final two

On the final-three episode of ”American Idol,” Blake and Melinda outperform Jordin

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Blake Lewis, Melinda Doolittle, ...

American Idol

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

”American Idol”: We call the final two

Well, that made it easy enough. Melinda Doolittle and Blake Lewis in the final two — with Jordin Sparks going home.

Sorry, Sparks pluggers. I’ve cheered on the effervescent Arizona teen when she was really, really good. I’ve even done the slow clap on her behalf. And, yes, I’m aware that a year from now, Jordin might end up as the season’s ultimate champ — on the Billboard charts, where it matters most. But tonight, when the pressure was on, the kid dropped the ball. That’s a tough break for the daughter of an NFL cornerback, and an unforgivable fumble in what’s arguably the tightest final three in the show’s history.

But before we get into the whole matter of who will and who should make the final two, allow me to go all Elle Woods for a moment. Which is to say, ”I object!”

Specifically, I object to Jordin and Melinda’s decision to turn part of tonight’s show into a rerun. The next-to-last performance episode each season features a ”contestant’s choice” number, but not until Jordin’s and Melinda’s respective renditions of ”I (Who Have Nothing)” and ”I’m a Woman” has a contestant taken this opportunity to reprise a song he or she had already performed on a live episode. Such encores have always been reserved for the grand finale.

If Taylor Hicks, Katharine McPhee, Elliott Yamin, Carrie Underwood, Bo Bice, Vonzell Solomon, Fantasia Barrino, Diana DeGarmo, Jasmine Trias, Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Kimberley Locke, Kelly Clarkson, Justin Guarini, and, yes, even Nikki McKibbin all managed to avoid duplicating their performances up to and including top-three week, how come Jordin and Melinda could not? I mean, that’s akin to a budding pop star releasing a greatest-hits compilation on the heels of his or her first record! And it also breaks an implicit promise that we Idol fans will get fresh songs every week till the finale. Uncool!

Still, it would be folly to suggest Blake had earned himself a spot in the final two just by avoiding the dreaded do-over. Instead, he did it by choosing ”When I Get You Alone,” an obscure single from Robin Thicke’s commercially ignored debut CD, nailing its tricky rhythms, adding an appropriate splash of his scat-cat signature, and delivering it with the kind of endearingly lecherous vibe that, when he’s on, reminds you that Blake isn’t a contender only on the Idol stage but also in the world of Justin, Usher, and the aforementioned Mr. Thicke (who, I might add, was stupendously bizarre during his Bon Jovi-week performance).

So I guess the reason that (after weeks of waffling) I’m buying a ticket for the Blake Train (even if I’m not fully on board) is this: Although the guy has definitely derailed more than a couple times (”You Should Be Dancin’,” ”Imagine”), he’s been consistently fly and joyously daring when he’s not trapped by a narrow, ill-fitting theme week. And while, to be fair, he doesn’t pack the sheer vocal firepower of Melinda or Jordin, he’s certainly a fine singer in his own right. Take his straightforward rendition of the Police’s ”Roxanne” tonight. While Simon was right that it wasn’t Blake’s most original performance, it’s also the kind of iconic song that doesn’t really lend itself to wholesale reinterpretation. And Blake’s cover of ”This Love” — while sullied by some truly silly dance steps — was as strong and clear as anything sung by a male contestant all season.

If I’m not alone in thinking Blake has earned a place in the final two, then that leaves Melinda and Jordin battling for just one position. And while the latter singer has probably provided more ”wow moments” this season, she’s also been trending downward ever since Simon told her she was a true contender for the top prize following her glorious rendition of ”A Broken Wing” during country week. From then on, Jordin has delivered (in order) a decent but overhyped ”You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a truly awful ”Livin’ on a Prayer,” a very good ”To Love Somebody,” and a shrill, lethargic ”Woman in Love.”

And as she kicked of the show tonight with ”Wishing on a Star,” it was painfully clear this would not be Jordin’s big return to form. Right from the opening notes, her voice sounded wispy and disconnected, overpowered by the band’s strange, smooth-jazz arrangement. And her attempts to sway to the rhythm looked more like an unfortunate tic. I know the judges used phrases like ”in it to win it” and ”sang it brilliantly,” but far more telling was that post-critique exchange where Jordin made what came off as a mildly dismissive remark about Simon’s song choice, and the British judge shot back a look-dagger and an acid-tinged ”Pleasure.” Ouch!

Still, there was no greater act of aggression in tonight’s episode than what the producers did to Jordin by selecting ”She Works Hard for the Money” as her second number. Rhythmically, lyrically, and musically, I can’t imagine a more inappropriate song choice. For starters, Jordin has barely had a chance to work hard for her allowance — what does she know about working-class angst? Even worse, all season long, she’s struggled to maintain vocal control on uptempo numbers where she’s forced to work the stage. Watching her clunk about like a lumberjack in a log-rolling contest, her lower register showing signs of late-season strain, her final notes falling flatter than a day-old glass of ginger-ale, I found myself thinking she’d have been better off going with ”Mmmbop,” which, as we discovered in tonight’s viewer-question segment, is her favorite song.

Funny, I’d have guessed it was ”I (Who Have Nothing).” Okay, all right, let me get past my dislike of reruns and discuss the performance on its own terms. Technically speaking, ”I (Who Have Nothing) (Part II)” was even stronger than what Jordin delivered on British Invasion week. There wasn’t a note out of tune, and that jump upward midway through the glory note on ”window-paaaaaaaane!” was nothing short of astonishing. That said, the contestant who used to make me feel giddier than Paula Abdul during a QVC segment seems to be running out of her, for lack of a better term, inner sparkle. What Jordin gained in technical proficiency, she lost in emotional impact. And her response to Simon’s critique that she’d chosen a decades-old song — ”Wasn’t Rose Royce in the ’70s?” — while accurate, also came off as petulant.

That kind of attitude stood in direct opposition to Melinda’s magnanimous gesture of sharing the spotlight with her backup singers on ”I’m a Woman.” I’m not going to pretend I haven’t rolled my eyes a few times this season at Mindy Doo’s ”who, me?” attitude, but if the joy on the former background vocalist’s face as she howled, ”Let’s show ’em how it’s done, girls!” wasn’t genuine, then Hollywood had better get ready for its next Idol turned Oscar winner. Perhaps it was Melinda’s generosity, or maybe it’s the fact that her previous ”Woman” cover took place in the much smaller confines of the semifinal weeks, but I found her decision to double-dip a little more forgivable than Jordin’s.

And I’m not the only one playing favorites. Melinda got far and away the best of the ”producers’ choice” round with Tina Turner’s ”Nutbush City Limits,” which once again proved that Melinda’s ”I’m sooo bad at rock” hooey is merely a case of the woman protesting too much. Watching the divinely dressed diva stalk the stage, clutching the mike stand as convincingly as Daughtry or Bice ever did, I got the notion that Mindy’s inner meek mouse was now roadkill on the shoulder of Highway No. 19. Considering that there’s been so much talk of the contestants’ potential ”marketability” — and Melinda’s alleged lack thereof — let me go on the record as saying I would pay good money for a rock & soul record from Miss Doolittle.

In fact, as long as she avoids bombast in the vein of Whitney Houston’s ”I Believe in You and Me” (yo yo yo, Randy, dawg, what were you thinking?), I’m thinking a Blake-Melinda finale could be the most nail-biting episode Idol has seen since the Ruben-Clay showdown of 2003. And in a season that’s all too often been defined by the noncontenders like Sanjaya and Antonella, are there two better performers than Blake and Melinda to right the ship once and for all?

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