On ''American Idol,'' good enough isn't good enough: With their cautious performances, the final 10 contestants show they need to take some risks if they want to win it all
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Vonzell Solomon
LIONEL RICHIE, KATY PERRY, RYAN SEACREST, LUKE BRYAN

”American Idol”: Good enough isn’t good enough

I have a confession to make: I miss Jennifer Hudson. Yeah, I know I’m probably one of five people on the planet who still fondly recall the seventh-place finisher from American Idol‘s third season (and her intense ”Circle of Life”), but Hudson brought something to her performances last year that many of the show’s 10 current finalists aren’t quite delivering — the thrilling possibility of the unexpected.

Now I’m not saying J.Hud, with her big, bombastic instrument and wild, vaguely angry eyes, deserved to beat Fantasia, or that she’d win this highly competitive fourth season. But even when she missed her mark, Jennifer always managed to surprise you.

By contrast, this season’s final 10, while undeniably more talented than last year’s (how did Jon Peter Lewis, John Stevens, and Camile Velasco even make it to Hollywood?), seem to be content to play it just this side of safe, in terms of song selection, vocal performance, and stage presentation. But with the competition so intense, not even front-runners Bo Bice and Carrie Underwood can afford a misstep, not with Vonzell Solomon, Constantine Maroulis, and Nadia Turner all within striking range.

Still, while none of those five should be ashamed of their ”Songs of the ’90s” performances (well, except maybe Smeagol), they’d be wise to heed the words of Kenny Loggins and ride into their personal danger zones over the next few weeks.

This week found Vonzell really tearing into Whitney Houston’s ”I Have Nothing,” and (mostly) nailing it, but if she’s got an Achilles’ heel, it’s her lack of imagination: For four of the last six weeks, she’s picked songs performed on previous seasons of Idol. What Vonzell really needs to do now is to try out her megawatt smile, powerhouse range, and increasingly sophisticated wardrobe (is this the same woman who dressed in cowgirl drag three weeks ago?) on some more offbeat numbers.

With a gruff and passionate interpretation of Melissa Etheridge’s ”I’m the Only One,” Nadia Turner was back in form this week. But although I thought she was one of the few singers this week who actually owned the material, Nadia will have to take the greatest risk of all if she’s going to have any chance of winning: conquering a ballad with a complex melody and proving to everyone that while she may not have the best voice in the competition, she might just be its best singer.

The Black Crowes’ ”Remedy” is pretty far down the list of best songs of the ’90s, but Bo remedied the melody-free song’s shortcomings with a charismatic, spontaneous rendition. If Bo wants to widen his appeal, though, perhaps he should consider occasionally mixing up his bar-band peasant gear with a tailored suit or a V-neck sweater. Just ask Cher — every Idol deserves a costume change (or ten).

During her post-performance interview, I thought I caught Carrie playfully mimic Ryan Seacrest’s odd head-bob motions: It was the first glimmer of a personality I’d ever seen from the technically proficient but emotionally numb songbird. Which got me thinking, maybe Carrie ought to take a few weeks off from all these gal-done-wrong anthems like Martina McBride’s ”Independence Day” and show us her playfully sexy side instead. If that side exists, anyway.

And what about Constantine Maroulis? Well, let’s just say it would shock me if the guy managed to string together three good notes before hitting a bad one. Still, while he massacred one of my favorite songs, ”I Can’t Make You Love Me,” I bet most of his fans were too busy watching him slide his precious locks behind his ear while delivering the lyric ”turn down these voices, inside my head.” Intense, dude. Intense.

That leaves Jessica Sierra, Nikko Smith, Anthony Fedorov, Scott Savol, and Anwar Robinson vying for the bottom three. Even though Jessica’s one of my favorites this year, I do understand what Simon meant when he said she doesn’t have the ”likability factor” enjoyed by some of her competitors: She comes off more like a girl you’d throw back a couple beers with than a full-fledged pop star, at least when she’s singing dreck like Leann Rimes’ anemic ”On the Side of Angels,” a track that Aretha herself would’ve had a hard time breathing soul into. But don’t give up on Jessica; when she chooses muscular anthems like ”The Boys Are Back in Town” (and doesn’t straighten her wild curls), she is truly among the best in this competition.

I really don’t believe Nikko or Anthony deserves to go home yet, either. I couldn’t tell from Nikko’s ”Can We Talk” if he has the ability to stay in tune, since he abandoned the melody after about three notes in exchange for shrill howling. Still, he has the most refreshingly contemporary taste of all the contestants, and some serious stage presence to boot. Meanwhile, although Anthony’s ”Something About the Way You Look Tonight,” paled in comparison to versions by both Elton John and Fantasia Barrino, I can’t help rooting for him. I guess there was something about the way the spectacles-free wonder boy drained his emotional well on the power ballad, and stayed on key throughout, that took my breath away.

That’s more than I can say for Scott Savol and Anwar Robinson, one of whom ought to be sent packing on Wednesday night’s results show. While I found Scott’s wildly off-key rendition of ”One Last Cry” to be 8 percent more painful than Anwar’s wobbly-then-bombastic ”I Believe I Can Fly” (perhaps the treacliest song ever written), Anwar has been much more consistent since reaching the final 12 — consistently awful that is — and I don’t think even a barrel of puppies could save him.

Which singer impressed you most this week? Who do you think will be in the bottom three? Who should be there? And did Bo borrow his floppy cow-print hat from a two-year-old J.Lo photo shoot?

Episode Recaps

LIONEL RICHIE, KATY PERRY, RYAN SEACREST, LUKE BRYAN
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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