On ''American Idol,'' none dare call it disco: In a baffling night of dance music, the show refuses to pronounce the d-word

By Michael Slezak
July 03, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT
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”American Idol”: None dare call it disco

This season’s hottest scripted series — Lost and Desperate Housewives — are shrouded in mystery, and tonight American Idol jumped on that bandwagon.

Granted, the ” ’70s dance classics” theme was a welcome jolt of energy after two weeks of listless ballads (most sung listlessly, I might add), but how come everyone seemed afraid to utter the word ”disco”? Why were the backing vocalists so amped up? Have Fox execs received calls of complaint after Anwar Robinson’s mini-wardrobe malfunction? And how come none of the judges seemed capable of offering consistent constructive criticism?

While those are just a few of the questions sure to plague me till next week, the night did have at least one certainty: Bo Bice was back in the driver’s seat. His soulful, sexy rendition of the Ides of March’s ”Vehicle” re-established the silky-tressed Alabamian as the one singer left in this competition who’s got the charisma, the originality, and the chops to be a worthy successor to Fantasia Barrino. And on a night when the contestants were supposed to be getting down with the get-down, Bo was the only one who took ‘Tasia’s advice from the results show two weeks ago: Act ugly. Granted, ”Vehicle” stretched the definition of dance music, but as Simon put it, Bo gave the night’s ”only authentically good performance,” and that in itself should be enough to erase memories of his lackluster ”Free Bird” and bottom-two appearance from last week.

The two contestants who pose the biggest threat to Bo’s dominance tried tackling songs by the disco-era legends Donna Summer and the Bee Gees, and they not only made me nostalgic for the originals but also left me wondering if ousted contestants like Aloha Mischeaux, Nadia Turner, and even Mikalah Gordon (God forgive me) wouldn’t have had a lot more fun with the evening’s theme. As a result, don’t be surprised if either Carrie Underwood or Constantine Maroulis makes a ”shocking” debut appearance in the bottom three on Wednesday.

Carrie rather amazingly pointed out her own fatal flaw right there on the Idol stage, admitting she had no idea what she was singing about during her performance of Summer’s loopy disco gem ”MacArthur Park,” a fact that was painfully obvious from her blank line reading. This far into the competition, what’s with the fembot picking songs that hold no emotional relevance for her? Just askin’.

Even more important, how could all three judges praise Carrie’s performance when her voice disappeared without a trace on the verse’s lower notes, her body language was stiffer than a CSI cadaver, and her final note literally brought the number to a screeching halt (emphasis on screeching). Do the judges have some kind of sinister pact to pave the marketable blonde’s way to the final three? Weirder things have happened.

Unfortunately, Constantine wasn’t much better. His sleepwalking rendition of ”Nights on Broadway” drew a variation of Simon’s bizarre ”waiter in a ghastly Spanish nightclub” metaphor, but I wonder if the average Madrid food-service worker wears quite that much eyeliner, or sports a neckline with such an extreme plunge. The Artist Formerly Known as Smeagol was one of several contestants drowned out this week by the overzealous backup vocalists, but in this case it probably worked to his benefit, as the confident, on-key voice he showed off during last week’s spot-on ”Bohemian Rhapsody” was nowhere to be found.

Watching Carrie and Constantine’s misfires, I was reminded of one of Paula Abdul’s few sage bits of advice all season: Every performance, act like it’s the last time you’ll ever take the stage. Aside from Bo, only Vonzell Solomon and Anthony Fedorov seemed to heed the master herself.

Vonzell, gorgeous as ever, picked a played-out tune in ”I’m Every Woman,” and spent the first half of the number trying to wrest control of it from those wayward backup chicks. Yet by the time she got to the free-flowing wailing toward the end, Vonzell looked like a performer who should be making Carrie and Constantine very nervous indeed.

As for Anthony, I’m going to admit up front that I may be biased toward him for proving that really white, really dorky guys of Eastern European descent can indeed shake their bon-bons Ricky Martin-style. Sure, Old Navy’s ”Bust a Tunic” ad campaign had more funk than Anthony’s rendition of Tavares’ ”Don’t Take Away the Music,” but the kid didn’t miss a single note — and he sang with an earnestness that was oddly refreshing. Not only that, but Anthony was the only contestant who actually broke out the disco moves without sacrificing his vocals, and let’s also give him credit for an unexpected song choice.

With Vonzell and Anthony on the cusp of top-three contention, that leaves Scott Savol and Anwar Robinson on the flipside of the heap, alongside either Carrie or Constantine.

Anwar wasn’t exactly bad singing one of the evening’s more interesting selections, Earth Wind and Fire’s ”September,” but he was a bit of a bad boy when he flashed half his pectorals to the viewing audience during his performance. Worse that that, though, Anwar hurt his prospects by botching more than a few notes in the first verse and opting out almost entirely during the chorus (during which the melody was picked up by — you guessed it — those busy background gals).

Anwar’s only saving grace is that rival Scott picked an overplayed song with a singsongy melody even Ashlee Simpson could follow. While Paula was right to observe that Scott ”seemed to be on pitch” during his rendition of ”Everlasting Love,” the only correct critique for Mr. Savol would be a giant shoulder shrug. Thanks to performances by Bo, Vonzell and Anthony, though, this particular episode didn’t provoke the same reaction.

What did you think? Why did Paula offer ”right song” praise more than half the contestants? Did Anwar earn himself a good kick in the pants, or simply the boot? And is Carrie Underwood a robot?

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