Karaoke night on ''American Idol'': With most of the contestants' versions of No. 1 hits, it was the same old song
Carrie Underwood, American Idol

”American Idol”: It’s karaoke night!

I love karaoke. I’ve been known to occasionally grab a microphone and sing a little David Bowie or Neil Diamond or even Christina Aguilera (although I have to warn you, ”Dirrty” is not an easy song, people). I love watching my friends do karaoke too. Heck, I even enjoy watching complete strangers howling their guts out over a cheesy synth track while desperately trying to follow words on a screen. (No, no. I’m not making fun of Constantine Maroulis. Not yet anyway.)

But as much as I love karaoke, there’s one place I don’t like seeing it performed — and that’s on American Idol. In my mind, the very best contestants on this show have always been able to give even the most played-out song a fresh reading. Think back to Fantasia’s transcendent ”Summertime,” or Kelly Clarkson’s gut-wrenching ”Without You,” or Ruben’s soulful ”Superstar.” These Idol performances erased any memory of previous recordings — zigging where you expected zags, emphasizing lyrics in unexpected ways, packing every note with fresh emotion.

To my ears, tonight’s Idol episode contained few such surprises. Sure, we had the judges dishing out praise with tooth-clenched gusto, but Simon and Randy lost all credibility for the evening when they challenged each other to a shirtless modeling contest (insert the taste of bile here), and Paula, well, if she had any credibility to begin with, it left the auditorium when she broke out the new-wave moves during the night’s up-tempo performances. (Didn’t this woman used to make a living as a choreographer? Okay, she apparently choreographed for Heart, but still . . .)

Anyhow, judges’ comments aside, the best that most of these performers deserved for their renditions of Billboard No. 1 hits (the night’s loose theme) was a shoulder shrug.

Take Vonzell Solomon’s ”Best of My Love.” Did she look gorgeous in her pink tank and olive Capri pants? You betcha. Did she hit the exuberant disco track’s tricky notes? Well, most of ’em. But would you really have been surprised if you found out Vonzell had a plug in her ear feeding her note-for-note the Emotions’ definitive version?

Now I don’t mean to single out Vonzell for criticism. Hands down, she’s got the Miss Congeniality award in the bag, but she’s got to stop following the bouncing ball and think about what she’s supposed to be conveying to the audience. I had the same problem with Carrie Underwood’s pitch-perfect but emotionally bereft take on Heart’s ”Alone.” While the song’s lyrics suggested Carrie’s romantic anguish was so intense that it chilled her to the bone, her blank stare and Heart-lite delivery suggested that, at best, her biggest emotional crisis in life was something along the lines of burying a pet hamster in the back yard at age 11.

Why, then, has Simon prematurely crowned Carrie season 4 champ (especially when she didn’t exactly rule last week with ”When Will I Be Loved”)? Maybe it’s the same reason Carrie got such bombastic backing-vocal support while other competitors had to stand on their own: She’ll probably sell a lot of records. After all, what better client for a team of music marketing execs than a completely blank slate?

Speaking of blanks, what’s happening to Anwar Robinson? In the semifinals, he seemed able to turn decades-old ditties into fresh, modern numbers. But the last two weeks, he’s been a pale imitation not only of the original artists he’s covered but also of performers from previous Idol seasons. Anwar’s ”Ain’t Nobody,” for instance, was in every way inferior to LaToya London’s slinky season 3 version, and even more so to Chaka Kahn’s original. With his stiff-limbed choreography and forgot-the-Claritin whine, Anwar’s suddenly looking like a serious contender for the bottom 3.

Nikko Smith and Bo Bice were also guilty of less-than-inventive takes on Sisqo’s ”Incomplete” and Jim Croce’s ”Time in a Bottle” respectively, though for my money, I’ll take Bo’s mercifully restrained vocals over Nikko’s off-key histrionics. At least these two get credit for picking numbers that haven’t been Idol-ed to death.

Nadia Turner also did something fairly original — molding her fearsome Afro into a gloriously absurd fauxhawk. So mesmerized was I by her tantalizing new ‘do that she got halfway through ”Time After Time” before I realized her rendition was severely off-key. Still, Nadia’s been so stellar the last few weeks that she could’ve covered ”Macarena” (that hit No. 1, didn’t it?), and I’d still be digging her like an old soul record.

But you want to know who I’m really digging this week? Jessica Sierra, Anthony Fedorov, and (God help me) Scott Savol, all three of whom delivered their No. 1s as if the songs were written specifically for them. Jessica had the biggest challenge, squeezing the bloated beast called ”Total Eclipse of the Heart” into the seconds-long slot allocated to each contestant. But just as she packed her ample cleavage into a strange-fitting orchid baby-doll top with random orange bow, Jessica managed to pack her performance with perfect pitch and raw emotion, and without doing a cheap impression of Bonnie Tyler.

Anthony’s song choice, ”I Knew You Were Waiting for Me,” was perhaps the only one cheesier than Jessica’s, but his voice was potent as always, and he was the one performer who showed there’s more to commanding the stage than walking down a couple of steps and standing on a platform behind the judges. (See, we Eastern European boys do know how to bust some moves!)

As for Scott, he overcame his tired selection (c’mon, Jessica covered ”Against All Odds” just a couple weeks ago!) with a fiercely felt vocal and an oddly moving toss of his spectacles. The guy has zero stage presence — as punctuated by his odd metronomic sway throughout much of the performance — but this week he proved that vocals trump choreography every time. (Sorry, Paula!) And thanks to the Idol phone screw-up, this week his fans get to vote for him twice.

Sadly enough, though, two contestants had neither of those weapons in their arsenal. Constantine Maroulis’ shout-sing interpretation of the Partridge Family’s ”I Think I Love You” proved there’s not a melody so appealing that Constantine can’t ruin it. Please, someone bring back David Cassidy! And I’d rather pass the mike to Susan Dey than hear Mikalah Gordon mangle another ballad in front of a live TV audience. Don’t get me wrong, I have a real soft sport for the spunky Vegas teen’s schtick, but her ”Love Will Lead You Back” led me right to my happy place for a good five minutes.

Still, even though either Mikalah or Constantine will likely be sent packing this week, they can keep their chins up. Neither one can really carry a tune, but as any karaoke bar regular knows, it’s better to get laughed off the stage than not have anyone notice you’re up there at all.

What do you think? Which is the worse Idol offense: being bad or being boring? Did you think Simon jumped the gun in predicting Carrie as a future hitmaker? And can Anwar get his groove back?

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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