On the ''American Idol'' vintage-song episode, the judges caught McPheever, but we'll always have Paris

By Michael Slezak
Updated July 03, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: American Idol: Ray Mickshaw/FOX
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”American Idol”: A hot Rod Stewart episode

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Katharine McPhee can sing. But I’m not drinking Simon’s (or anybody else’s) Kool-Aid and saying she separated herself from her fellow American Idol contestants during tonight’s Rod Stewart-Great American Songbook episode, or had any kind of Big Moment that ranks among the series’ best performances.

What Katharine did do was choose a lovely standard, ”Someone to Watch Over Me,” and sing it with grace and restraint, while sporting perhaps her least unflattering outfit of the season. I say ”perhaps” because we home viewers got only a few glimpses of Katharine in full — most of the performance was shot as if it were part of a pilot episode of a new series called American Idol: Extreme Close-up Edition. And I guess that’s what’s irking me a little bit. Why have the show’s producers developed a case of McPheever so severe that they flattered her with special lighting and camera angles? Why are the judges suddenly so enamored of the raven-haired beauty that they overlooked the occasional wobbly lower-register notes she sang? And why does my beloved Elliott get tarnished by Simon with the no-personality label, while Katharine isn’t charged with three counts of making Ace Young-esque googly eyes at the camera in the third degree?

Anyhow, if Simon & Co. are guilty of giving Katharine too much credit, I’m probably guilty of overcompensating by not giving her enough. In all honesty, I’d rank her as the evening’s co-second-best performance — equal to Elliott and behind a singer who tonight (finally!) lived up to the huge promise she showed during her initial Idol audition. Of course, I’m referring to Paris Bennett, whose rendition of ”These Foolish Things” was so spectacular that I don’t think it would be a stretch to compare it to some of the all-time greats (not to mention that it almost erased an entire season’s worth of irritation that I’ve been storing up against the tearful/perky/occasionally disturbing teenager). Sure, Paris was dressed as if she were about to embark on a final interview for an office-manager position in Anytown, USA, but as Paula astutely pointed out, if this kid were to cut an album of jazz standards tomorrow, she’d top the charts with it. Yes, you’re allowed to hate this 17-year-old for possessing confident phrasing, perfect pitch, and emotional range, but you can’t deny she possesses these gifts.

Elliott’s ”It Had to Be You,” meanwhile, was one of the night’s few performances that sounded truly contemporary and daring (as well as totally on-key). I don’t know what Simon was talking about when he said the performance ”lacked a degree of personality” — actually, scratch that, because I fear that, in fact, I do. If I’m being honest, I think that in this case, Simon is equating lack of personality with crooked teeth, protruding ears, and a general lack of hunkaliciousness. And I don’t blame him for that, because the guy is looking for a pop superstar in an age that favors video-friendly faces over concert-friendly vocals. But that doesn’t mean America can’t reject everything that’s shallow and crass about the music business by voting to keep Elliott in the competition. Because not only did Elliott sing beautifully tonight; he made me believe the words flowing tunefully from his mouth — and in his tux jacket and purple pinstripe shirt, he looked damn fine doing it, too.

Since I’ve already revealed my personal top three for the night, I might as well continue that theme by placing Chris Daughtry at No. 4, and express my hope that he’ll avoid an embarrassing trip to the bottom three on Wednesday night’s results show. His ”What a Wonderful World” contained a couple of vocal wobbles, but if you weren’t already familiar with Chris’s ”rocker dude” persona, I bet you wouldn’t have realized the Louis Armstrong standard stretched him far beyond his comfort zone. (And it might have been even more effortless had somebody killed the whole cheesy orchestral arrangement and let Chris sing with only simple acoustic accompaniment.) Either way, at the end of the day, Chris has got incredible chops, almost always chooses a song that showcases them (except for that Creed misstep), and possesses an unassuming charisma that makes everything he does look easy. At this point, not even a disco theme can stop his march to the final two.

Alas, that leaves Taylor Hicks, Kellie Pickler, and Ace Young in my own private bottom three. Taylor gets the dubious distinction for a rendition of ”You Send Me” that played out like it was performed by a guy with a split personality. Part 1: a dreary take on the Sam Cooke classic that sounded like something designed to be drowned out by the sound of a dentist’s drill. And then there was part 2: a spastic crescendo that played as if Taylor, suddenly realizing he was bored by his own performance, decided to make up for it by throwing his heart, soul, and kitchen sink into the final 30 seconds. File it all under too much, too late — and hopefully, a learning experience the gray-haired dude can take with him into next week.

The way Idol works, of course, one performer won’t be able to use this week’s episode as a learning experience, since he or she will be watching next week from the comfort of his or her living-room couch. My best guess is that person will be Ace Young, but I wouldn’t blame the voting public if instead they picked Pickler. (Believe it or not, I think I’ve managed to avoid that phrase all season, up until now).

Objectively, Ace’s ”That’s All” was vocally superior to Kellie’s ”Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” Yet the former performance, which once again showcased Ace’s difficulty with notes in low places, ended with a quavering note that’s still nagging at me the way a piece of popcorn between the teeth distracts me from a movie that’s really not all that good to begin with. And for the love of Samson, cut your hair already, Ace! No, don’t use a tub of Crisco to slick it back into a nauseating ponytail. Just get out the scissors and start chopping!

Which is the exact opposite of the advice I’d give to Kellie: Keep working those blond locks and big eyelashes, as well as that aw-shucks attitude. Because honestly, they’re the main assets keeping Kellie in the competition right now. When you’re in the finals (and final seven, to be exact), there’s no excuse for anybody to wander off key, and wander ahead of the band’s arrangement for the last third of her song. To her credit, Kellie admitted she ”butchered” it. (Was that a lamb I heard screaming toward the end?) Lucky for Kellie, though, the judges were pretty nonspecific in their critiques, and way kinder than she deserved. Their leniency, plus the power of sympathy votes, should help this season’s can-do Southern belle avoid paying the ultimate price. After all, we heard a lot worse from Jasmine Trias during season 3, and she outlasted Jennifer Hudson, George Huff, and La Toya London. Plus, you have to admit, it’d be kind of poetic for Ace to end his Idol run with a song called ”That’s All.”

What do you think? Which contestants did justice to the classic songs? Do you think the judges are being completely fair at this point in the competition? And who are you expecting to see in the bottom three?

Episode Recaps

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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