On Gwen Stefani night on ''American Idol,'' several performers are good or bad enough to make us question the conventional-wisdom rankings

By Michael Slezak
Updated March 28, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Frank Micelotta

American Idol

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”American Idol”: Beware the dark horses

I came to a startling realization while reading EW.com’s Idol Power List readers poll this afternoon: There may be 10 contestants left in the season-6 finals, but there are only four with a Hasselbeck’s chance in Rosie-ville of winning this thing. Melinda (33 percent), Jordin (25 percent), Blake (20 percent), and LaKisha (10 percent) were the only contestants to capture more than 3 percent of the vote. In other words, Phil, Haley, Sanjaya, Gina, and the two Chrises are making do by feeding on the same measly 12 percent of your leftover ballots.

Not a pretty image, is it? But thankfully, Miss Glocksen doesn’t appear to have read that dire information before her performance of the Pretenders’ ”I’ll Stand by You.” Or if she did, she chose to ignore it. Because tonight, for perhaps the first time in six weeks of live performances, Gina sang like she truly believed she deserved to be the next American Idol. Sure, it didn’t hurt that she picked the most gorgeous ballad performed on the show this season, or that she was pitch-perfect from both a technical and an emotional standpoint. But it was Gina’s confidence that transformed her into something resembling a true contender. And not even her unfortunate pink and gold top, which looked as if it were stitched together from old blanket ribbons, could block her newfound mojo.

Of course, one performance does not a Kelly Clarkson make. Heck, it doesn’t even make a Paris Bennett. But Gina’s strong showing serves notice that it’s too early to call this season a four-rabbit race — or for any of the hares in question to take a nap midway through this Idol season, lest some underestimated tortoise sneak right past ’em.

As much as it pains me to say it, LaKisha Jones, if not getting the full 40 winks, has certainly broken out the cot, the pillows, and the comforter. It’s not that I’m not rooting for LaKisha. (I kind of am.) Or that I don’t enjoy her big, supple singing voice. (I do! I do!) But think about it: Tonight was Gwen Stefani night, or more specifically ”Gwen Stefani and Her Inspirations Night,” and those inspirations apparently included the Police, Cyndi Lauper, the Cure, and the Pretenders, not to mention the No Doubt songbook. So LaKisha goes out and picks…Donna Summers’ ”Last Dance”? A song that’s already been done on Idol by Brenna Gethers and Ryan Starr? Booo!

Sure, with her shoulder-length red-streaked locks, that patterned kimono-top dress, and those knee-high black boots, LaKisha finally looked the part tonight. But I just can’t shake the fear that she has very little musical imagination, that she’ll never be comfortable covering a song by anyone other than an iconic black female vocalist. And even worse, that compared to said vocalists — who thus far include Jennifer Holliday, Gladys Knight, Whitney Houston, Shirley Bassey, and Ms. Summer — LaKisha is merely presenting a Xerox, and her cartridge is running low on ink. Oh, what I wouldn’t have given for Kiki to surprise me by choosing the Pretenders’ ”Middle of the Road” or Lauper’s ”I Drove All Night” or even the Police’s ”Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”

Of course, that last statement could apply to Melinda Doolittle, seeing as she also trotted out a Summer number (”Heaven Knows”). Yes, Mindy Doo delivered it with her usual technical proficiency, but she somehow managed to leave me feeling just a little bored, something I’d never have imagined back in the days of ”My Funny Valentine” or ”I’m a Woman.” Did Melinda set the bar too high too early? Was there maybe a little too much vibrato in da house tonight? Was her disco-era spirit somehow not quite believable? Am I just nitpicking about the hands-down best voice in the competition?

Maybe all of the above. And maybe I’m holding Melinda and LaKisha to a higher standard than their rivals. But on the other hand, my heart don’t lie. And tonight, it was Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis who had me dreaming ahead to fall 2007, wondering what exactly their debut albums might sound like, what producers they might work with, and what they’ll wear in their respective videos.

Admittedly, Jordin’s outfit — a mashup of Britney Spears’ naughty schoolgirl fantasy and a tablecloth from the local trattoria, paired with (gasp!) bulky gray kneesocks — did not exactly flatter. And No Doubt’s ”Hey Baby” would not crack my list of the 10,000 Best Vocal Showcases in Pop Music. But I could not stop smiling from the moment the infectiously enthusiastic teen took the stage to the moment Chris Richardson replaced her. In other words, at some point in the month of March, I unwittingly joined Team Jordin — and I’m pretty sure it’s not as much fun in anyone else’s clubhouse.

Yeah, okay, so it’s cooler to root for Blake. Dude never uses a Pointer Sisters lyric to describe his emotional state, knows how to rock an ’80s-style black patterned sweater with controversial zippers, and would not be caught dead with a copy of the Mulan soundtrack. Not only that, his rendition of the Cure’s ”Love Song” was as tender as a perfectly cooked filet mignon, even if, in terms of technical difficulty, nailing the song’s simple melody is akin to walking on stage and hitting the Staples Easy Button.

What Blake lacks in power, though, he makes up for with finesse and texture, something Phil Stacey might want to study if he hopes to Glocksen-ize himself into contending status. The guy’s got a rich, lovely tone, he appears to have tamed his eyebrows, and (wonders never cease) I didn’t even mind the somewhat random vocal runs he inserted at the end of ”Every Breath You Take.” But Paula (lucid again!) nailed it when she told Phil he’s got to put personality and color into not just the chorus but also his verses. On the plus side, the Idol stylists seem to have discovered that Phil is an actual contestant, not some omnipresent new stagehand, and (hallelujah!) are dressing him accordingly.

At this point in the competition, I’d actually rank Phil as the season’s second best guy. I’m still not sure he’s got the heartthrob factor to outlast Chris Richardson or the ”love me, I’m snarky!” patter to overtake Chris Sligh, but I’m actually thinking he deserves to do so. Then again, Chris R.’s rendition of ”Don’t Speak” was pretty solid — at the beginning and end, anyway. And while those ghastly runs on the bridge could’ve benefited from a soothing glass of Pepto-Bismol, and while I don’t think the line ”maybe it’s the seasons” ever made it into Gwen’s rendition, Chris R. still doesn’t deserve to be in Wednesday night’s bottom three, which I’m guessing will comprise Chris Sligh, Sanjaya Malakar, and Haley Scarnato.

Poor Sligh guy! There was something a little cruel about the producers’ playing that clip of Gwen saying how he needed to work on nailing the tempo of ”Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” seconds before he took the stage; sure enough, dude was behind the beat throughout. Sadder still? Hearing Chris deliver the line ”my love for her goes oooooon” while, alas, his ability to hold the note did not.

Chris’s vocal performance was actually significantly weaker than Haley’s tonight, but I’ve got the feeling she’ll be the one going home Wednesday night. Randy and Paula had nothing good to say about her rendition of ”True Colors,” aside from the latter’s patronizing footnote (”pretty girl!”), and Simon branded her ”forgettable” instead of commenting on her tight black minidress. Oh, Haley, I see your true colors, and they will earn you a sash and crown in the Miss Whatever pageant.

Sanjaya, meanwhile, earned a place in my nightmares with his seven-ponytailed fauxhawk, his botched lyrics, and a chorus that conjured up the image of him splashing around in a bathtub. (Ew.) He also apparently earned the wrath of Gwen, what with her cutting ”he chose it, so good luck for him” remark. I’m not exactly sure if the No Doubt frontwoman did much coaching with any of the contestants (it didn’t appear that way from the backstage clips), but if she was able to react to Sanjaya’s ”Bathwater” with anything more than stunned silence, well, she’s a stronger person than me. Let’s just hope Crying Girl was too busy fielding reporters’ phone calls tonight to make time for speed dialing. Hey, if I’m gonna insist Gina have hope, I better practice what I preach.

Now it’s time for you to holla back. Who gave your favorite performance, and who is heading home this week? What did you think about Gwen Stefani’s range of influences, Ryan’s mention of her ”toned tummy,” and her brief interaction with the contestants? And are there any words that capture your feelings about Sanjaya’s hair? (If you’d like to take part in our next Idolatry webcast, e-mail your comments or questions about this week’s show — share your conspiracy theories and secret pet peeves! — to idolatry@ew.com, along with your full name and a phone number where we can reach you between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. EDT on Mondays and Thursdays.)

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American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.
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