On ''American Idol,'' despite Jennifer Lopez's help, the contestants mostly fail to create any heat in their covers of Hispanic hits, and the judges misjudge almost every performance

By Michael Slezak
Updated April 11, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

”American Idol”: No heat on Latin night

Bring on the Idol Wild Card Round!

Yeah, maybe that’s a harsh assessment of the eight remaining season 6 finalists, but come on, you’ve been fantasizing about it for the last two or three weeks too, haven’t you? And even if that’s not the case, you’ve got to admit it would be kind of awesome if Idol‘s producers took a page from the show’s first couple seasons and gave previously eliminated contestants a second chance to get back in the competition. Think about it: Next week could feature head-to-head matchups like Sanjaya Malakar vs. booted semifinalist A.J. Tabaldo, or maybe Haley Scarnato vs. lip-ringed rocker chick Tami Gosnell, who was kept out of the top 24 by the crazy judges.

And I do mean crazy. Mind you, I’ve seen more exciting performances from Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones than tonight’s respective takes on ”Sway” and ”Conga,” but the fact that Simon & Co. rated both of them below Chris Richardson and his heinously off-key rendition of ”Smooth” is proof positive that the judging panel is in serious need of a spa weekend (Hungarian ear-wax treatment, non-negotiable). What kind of game are you playing, Mr. Cowell?

Ugh, okay, so clearly I am invested in the fates of the season 6 Idols in spite of myself, and even though I feel they’ve all been going out of their way to disappoint me. And since Randy, Paula, and Simon were all way off their respective games this week, too — campaigning for the worst, berating the (relative) best — I think tonight’s episode needs a complete reevaluation. So without further ado, here’s how I’d categorize the underachieving octet’s ”Latin night” performances.

Good…compared to everyone else, anyway As usual, Melinda chose a song that’s more than half a century old (ugh!), but in her defense, ”Sway” has also been covered this decade by Michael Bublé and the Pussycat Dolls (seriously!), and at the very least, this season’s undeniable front-runner delivered it with her usual technical proficiency. Shockingly enough, though, it was charming guest mentor Jennifer Lopez who articulated Mindy’s main problem on ”Sway” — an inability to infuse the flirty number with any kind of sex appeal. I’m not talking about Mindy’s oft-maligned physical appearance, either — her sassy black dress and wavy ‘do looked great — but rather that internal meek mouse that she brings to the stage every week, the one that needs to be trapped, snapped, and tossed in the trash. In her pre-interview, she said, ”I’m so not sexy,” which became a self-fulfilling prophecy, reverberating in the emotional disconnect Mindy brought to lines like ”Only you have that magic technique/When we sway, I go weak.” How can I cheer for this woman when she won’t even cheer for herself?

Possibly (and unfairly) at risk after giving solid performances of truly, deeply insipid songs Okay, so I knew deep down that tonight, somebody was gonna trot out Miami Sound Machine’s ”Conga,” a track that passed its sell-by date back in the mid-’90s, but I’d never have paired it with the season’s sauciest contestant, LaKisha Jones, even though I should’ve seen it coming. I mean, every other week, girlfriend breaks my heart by choosing a played-out song or a truly frightful outfit, but tonight, as she worked the stage in that plunging, red and black tie-dyed number, I actually found that, lo and behold, I actually could not control myself any longer…I had to (what’s happening to me?) shake my body…do the conga beat! Indeed, Kiki’s full-throttle growl upgraded ”Conga” from ”song that creates shameful group-dance memories at family weddings” to something unexpectedly more contemporary and fun. So why did Paula and Simon have to go and tell her that she’d taken the safe route by choosing what’s essentially ”not a singer’s song”? Are they trying to create that watercooler-y too-early ejection that makes headlines and re-energizes speed-dialers? I tell you, if Miss Jones gets sent home Wednesday night — before Legs, Baldy, and Creepy — I will smash my vinyl copy of Forever Your Girl on Friday’s episode of Idolatry.

In fact, I’ll carry out the same act of anti-Abdul protest if Jordin Sparks gets booted on Wednesday, seeing as how Paula made no comment on the effervescent teenager’s vocals (only some nonsense starting with ”You’re so authentic, and you’re you”) after her performance of ”Rhythm Is Gonna Get You.” Again, it was a case of a dopey number performed with winning doses of power and personality. Bonus points for Jordin’s funky blouse, which looked like the top half of a trench coat (in a good way), that little hand-in-the-air spin during the drum breakdown, and that undeniable final note. Teeeeeam Jordin!

Best of the night…if you like karaoke! First, the good news: Blake Lewis was almost totally on key during his performance of ”I Need to Know.” Also, I liked his red tuxedo shirt. But is that really enough to earn ”best of the night” honors from Simon? Come on! Blake’s vocals were so ripped off from Marc Anthony’s original, such an obvious case of ”follow the bouncing ball,” I won’t be surprised if J. Lo hits him up for twenty bucks on her hubby’s behalf during Wednesday’s results show. In fact, the only difference between Blake’s copy and the original was the total absence of heat; if Anthony is the jalapeño, Blake is the Vlasic baby gherkin.

That dude’s voice totally cracked…and so did his Idol chances He might not go home after an emotionally empty take on ”Maria Maria,” but this much is clear: Phil Stacey has about as much chance of winning American Idol as I do of winning an Olympic medal in downhill skiing. (No, I will not discuss my near-death experience on the bunny slope two winters ago, so don’t ask.) Which is a shame, because I still contend that Phil’s instrument is as good as or better than that of any other man in the competition. It’s just that, as J. Lo pointed out, nobody’s gonna get goose pimples if Phil’s not concentrating on the lyrics and telling the audience a story. Or if he’s wearing a peach shirt and a black jacket with metal appliqués on one lapel.

They should totally be the bottom three, but you know they won’t be Yes, Haley Scarnato, Chris Richardson, and Sanjaya Malakar, I am speaking to you. What can be said of Haley’s take on Gloria Estefan’s cover of Vickie Sue Robinson’s ”Turn the Beat Around”? That it had as much Latin flavor as one of Newt Gingrich’s appearances on Hannity & Colmes? That she started half a beat behind the band and continued to flail about like a goldfish discovering it’s landed on the living-room carpet? That her lipstick was too red, her outfit too streetwalker-y? That I could not suppress a laugh when she gasped ”with a rat-tat-tat-tat-(gulp) on the drum”? Or that my irony buzzer sounded as she ad-libbed the gem, ”Somebody won’t you tell me if you feel the beat?” No, I will not say those things! It would be far too cruel, especially because I suspect this is the week that Haley will finally head back to obscurity, and because Simon’s call-out of her hemline strategy probably caused her enough embarrassment.

And speaking of embarrassment, I’m certainly feeling it myself, seeing that in a Monday-morning PopWatch item, I’d actually lobbied for Chris Richardson to cover ”Smooth,” a position I immediately regretted after the dude missed every single note in the opening line of his number. I guess you could say Chris gets points for originality for reinterpreting the Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas hit in such an atonal way, and for ignoring J. Lo’s advice on the correct pronunciation of ”muñequita,” but after two pretty solid weeks (”Don’t Speak,” ”Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”), I’m back on the Hater Express.

As for Sanjaya, well, let’s just say my emotional vehicle for him has no name. No, that doesn’t make any sense, but neither did the judges’ praise of his lackadaisical cover of ”Bésame Mucho.” Okay, I’ll give him this — it was mostly on key, but the performance had no excitement or power, the end of every other line dissolved into a whisper, and his attempts at making sexyface into the camera made me yearn for the gentler days of Jared Cotter’s patented ”palm over face” move. Even Sanjaya’s new hairstyle (shorter! permed?) and goatee lacked the ”Wha?” factor of the seven-ponytail fauxhawk. Now I’m just bored, but if the kid outlasts Kiki, that could easily turn to rage.

How did you feel about tonight’s show, and the judges’ evaluations? Did you enjoy Melinda’s retort to Simon: ”He really wanted to say something bad, and I’m glad he got the chance”? Did J. Lo do better or worse than you’d expected as a mentor? And who should and will go home on Wednesday?

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