Singing selections from Stevie Wonder's brilliant but overplayed songbook, some of the ''American Idol'' finalists soar, others bore

By Michael Slezak
Updated July 02, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: American Idol: Ray Mickshaw/FOX

”American Idol”: A mixed bag of Motown

No disrespect to Stevie Wonder, a man who’s written and recorded many a great song (”I Just Called to Say I Love You” notwithstanding), but when I heard last week that American Idol‘s producers planned to build an episode around his music, I considered it more an act of overt sadism than a loving tribute. Seriously, I can’t think of any other artist whose songbook has been more abused over the course of Idol‘s five seasons than Wonder’s. Keeping that in mind, then, it’s practically a miracle that half of this evening’s contestants turned in performances that were, at worst, above-average karaoke and, at best, reasonably inspired.

Of course, as Simon Cowell noted, tonight’s 12 performers seemed to be participating in two very different competitions, meaning six of them might be better off spending the next couple of weeks mailing head shots to their local cabaret lounges and dinner-theater directors.

If you can wait just a sec for me to dole out some praise, let’s start with the bad news. Now, I’m not arguing that tonight’s low moments wouldn’t sound tuneful played alongside the bad acts of previous Idol hopefuls such as Leah LaBelle, Matt Rogers, and EJay Day, but isn?t it actually worse to listen to a flaccid, disconnected vocal than one that’s akin to a subway train screeching to a sudden halt? In other words, if you’re going to be bad, be awful. Give viewers something to LOL about with their pals when they log on to Instant Messenger during their lunch breaks.

Only Kevin Covais (bless his adorable, off-key heart) crossed that line tonight, and that’s why I think we’ll be seeing him survive for at least a few more weeks. I’m not sure whether Kevin’s choice of ”Part Time Lover” was a knowing wink at the absurdity of a cartoonish, barely postpubescent kid singing about juggling two paramours or an act of total artistic cluelessness, but I bet it won him more than his fair share of votes. Hey, if it was good for Randy and Paula (who again proved their irrelevance by praising Kevin), you’ve got to expect at least a chunk of home viewers agreed. Of course, if Kevin’s vocals pass for must-see TV, then Fox execs had better be prepared to shell out the big bucks next week when I send them home-video footage of me cutting my toenails.

Kevin’s popularity, however, is bad news for Melissa McGhee, Bucky Covington, Kellie Pickler, Ace Young, and Lisa Tucker, all of whom look a lot less Idol-licious after wrestling with the Stevie songbook tonight. Apparently, Melissa never even opened it, what with the way she mangled the lyrics to ”Lately.” Not only did her repeated substitution of ”recognition” for ”premonition” show the streaky-haired chick’s total emotional disconnect from the song’s meaning, but it also showed disrespect for hard-working Idol semifinalists like Ayla Brown and Gedeon McKinney (yeah, I’m still bitter), who’d never have been so unprepared for their trip to the big stage. When Simon declared it was Melissa’s ”best performance so far,” I’m convinced he was holding back the vitriol to trick marshmallow voters into thinking that Melissa wasn’t at risk — thus encouraging them to send their votes elsewhere.

Even if America does the right thing for the next two weeks and denies Top 10 placings to Melissa and Kevin, let’s be honest, Bucky and Lisa are most likely competing for No. 9. Despite choosing the night’s best song, ”Superstition,” Bucky made almost no impression on stage. His disquietingly groomed tresses, on the other hand, are sure to cause severe flashbacks for millions of viewers every time they pass the VO5 hot-oil treatment in their local drugstore.

The only fashion statement less convincing than Bucky’s goldie locks was Lisa’s floppy belt and garish leather shoulder doodad, a look that hasn’t been trotted out on stage since Tiffany’s mall tour finally ended in the early ’90s. I tried to keep an open mind as the smiling teen-bot mugged her way through ”Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” but with Fantasia’s explosive season 3 rendition of the righteous number still fresh in my brain, Lisa came off like some kind of weary pageant contestant who gets on the stage every week because that’s all she’s ever known. For once, I agreed more with Paula and Randy’s faint praise than with Simon’s unenthusiastic assessment that Lisa had ”absolutely taken control of the stage.”

Vocally, Bucky and Lisa might actually be stronger than Ace and Kellie, but the latter two have something that may prove far more important to some voters — traditional good looks, backed by the Idol producers’ commitment to force their front-runner status and charming interview clips down our throats.

Still, how much longer can Paula listen to Ace and declare his vocals ”fantastic”? The emperor is naked — and he needs a freakin’ haircut! Ladies? Gentlemen? Are any of you still drooling over this dude after hearing him screech his way though a listless ”Do I Do”? And if you answered yes to that question, did you not notice the unintentionally hilarious bit in his preperformance interview when he pointed out that Stevie Wonder not only had to battle blindness but also had to battle ”the same thing as all of us — life.” Oy!

Kellie’s ”Blame It on the Sun,” meanwhile, had more crazy notes than a seventh-grade study hall, and yet I’m finding it hard to feel good about maligning her. At the very least, the girl gives a halfway decent interview, and with 120 minutes of airtime to fill, Kellie’s ability to poke fun at her false eyelashes has to count for something, doesn’t it?

On a more positive note, while two of my personal pets, Elliott Yamin and Mandisa (who didn’t quite earn an exclamation point tonight) both hit a couple of rough patches during their respective takes on ”Knocks Me Off My Feet” and ”Don’t You Worry About a Thing,” they’ll almost certainly sail through to next week, hopefully with time to work on their Achilles’ heels — Elliott’s being a lack of confidence and Mandisa’s a penchant for going sharp whenever she’s not full-on belting her numbers.

Paris Bennett clearly didn’t have self-esteem or pitch issues delivering a tasty rendition of ”All I Do” (the night’s least exciting composition), but if she listened carefully to Simon’s praise, she might also have detected his not-so-hidden critique of her one glaring weakness, the fact that she comes off something ”like a performing little doll.” (Well, that and the spaniel-esque weave she was sporting during rehearsals: Thank heavens Stevie didn’t throw a ball and ask Paris to fetch.)

That means this week’s top three slots go to Taylor Hicks, Katharine McPhee, and Chris Daughtry. I was filled with dread that the gray-haired dude would turn into his alter ego, Taylor Tics, when he grabbed the mike and started belting ”Living for the City,” but for once the nattily attired funkmeister kept the crazy in check, leaving the focus on the night’s most emotionally engrossing performance.

Katharine, meanwhile, cleaned up nicely, tossing out her housecleaning duds in favor of a stylin’ blue dress, and finally lived up to her early front-runner status with the most technically proficient vocal of the night, a jazzy-sexy take on ”Until You Come Back to Me.” (I must confess I had no idea that was a Stevie Wonder original!) I haven’t been Katharine’s biggest fan to date, but I’m man enough to admit she outsang Mandisa tonight and proved there’s more than one woman in contention for the season 5 crown.

Still, as of this moment, there’s no denying Chris has pulled away from the pack. He may not quite have Katharine’s control, or Mandisa’s personality (loved the shoe moment), or even Taylor’s passion, but as his smokin’ ”Higher Ground” proved tonight, he sure comes close in all three categories. What’s more, despite having the world’s most unfortunate sideburns, Chris was the only contestant tonight who passed my litmus test for a great Idol performance: He made me want to immediately go back and watch it again. Give the dude a razor, and we might be able to call the whole game next week.

What do you think? What was your favorite performance tonight? Which contestant do you think deserves to end up at the bottom of the voting barrel? And is there a long-shot contestant you think could surprise everyone next week?

Episode Recaps

American Idol

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

  • TV Show
  • 16
  • 574
  • ABC