Despite the show's good intentions, many of the performances on ''Idol Gives Back'' week are less than inspired

April 25, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

”American Idol”: Not quite giving their all

Can I be brutally honest for a moment? I’m not so sure about this whole ”Idol Gives Back” thing.

Now before you start yelling, let me clarify: I’m not saying I oppose having America’s No. 1 television show raise money and awareness in the fight against global poverty. I’m not a monster — or at least I like to think I’m not.

But all good intentions aside, you’ve got to admit that Idol‘s producers have created an uncomfortable juxtaposition this week: On one hand, we’re being asked to focus on an escalating musical battle in which one of six young singers will see his or her dreams of superstardom go the way of the Dunkleman. On the other, we’re preparing for tomorrow night’s star-studded benefit concert — Kelly Clarkson! U2! Borat? — to raise money for needy kids in the U.S. and Africa. Which means we’re likely to see LaKisha or Phil or Chris or Blake go to the guillotine in the middle of the festivities. Way to harsh on all the good vibrations, no? I mean, wouldn’t it have made more sense to hold ”Idol Gives Back” during the May 23 Idol finale, when the worst thing that happens is someone gets crowned runner-up and still scores a juicy record deal? Or perhaps the ”Idol Gives Back” theme will extend to the competition itself, with the benevolent Fox overseers granting immunity to the entire sextet? Could that be the big shock Ryan referred to at the end of the episode?

Anyhow, let me take a deep breath for a second and put a cease and desist on my non-performance-related griping. (I won’t even mention my puzzlement over the fact that whenever Ryan introduces footage of Simon and himself touring Africa, he never specifies which country they’re actually in — as if the entire continent were all just one big border-free entity.)

So, turning to the good news: The closest tonight’s episode came to an actual catastrophe was the plunging neckline on Simon’s shirt. And the judges were right when they said that it finally feels like the real competition has begun, with the shadow of Sanjaya’s seven-ponytail fauxhawk no longer looming over the Idol stage. Still, ”Songs That Inspire” night (previously dubbed ”Life Anthems” night in an official Fox press release) left me with decidedly mixed feelings. Why is it these kids are so adept at delivering Miss America-worthy sound bites, and yet not one of them has mastered the art of rolling a stellar song selection, artistic flair, emotional connection, and perfect pitch into one grab-the-Kleenex number?

That said, three out of four ain’t bad, Jordin Sparks. Indeed, the contestant who’s most likely to improve the bottom line at 19 Entertainment won top prize in the song-choice category for ”You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a Rodgers and Hammerstein ballad that proves unapologetic schmaltz can be a beautiful thing. Better still, she imbued it with such fierce emotional commitment that I can completely understand why the live audience seemed to be overcome with a revival-esque frenzy by the midway point of her performance. But I’ve got to take issue with Randy’s comment that Jordin delivered ”one of the best vocals by any contestant on any season” of the show. Seriously, it wasn’t even her personal best — that would be ”I (Who Have Nothing)” — given the sandpapery lower-register notes in the verse and that big closing note that felt just a wee bit wonky.

Of course, it doesn’t take a music-marketing major to understand the judges’ enthusiasm for Jordin, but it did seem a little unfair to Melinda Doolittle, who hit every single note in her rendition of ”There Will Come a Day” and who’s finally looking like a viable headliner with her sleek, longer hair and a stylish gray dress that showed off a surprisingly enviable figure. The problem with Melinda’s rendition, though, was that it lacked the immediacy — and dare I say the gospel fervor — that Faith Hill brought to it during the post-9/11 Tribute to Heroes concert. Granted, it’s not an easy task to overcome dreary ”issues”-ballad lyrics like ”the old are forgotten, children are forsaken,” and the band’s fussy, horn-heavy arrangement didn’t help, either, but Mindy Doo delivered a B when she really needed to get her A+ on.

Still, Jordin and Melinda ought to head into Wednesday’s results show with confidence, because if a woman is going to finish season 6 in sixth place, it will not be either one of them but rather LaKisha Jones. It would be too obvious for me to write the words ”You are no Fantasia Barrino” after hearing Kiki tackle the song that sealed the season 3 champion’s victory, but that wouldn’t make it any less true. So to put it another way, ”I Believe” may be a dispiriting piece of treacle, but it’s also like Excalibur; Fantasia is the only one who should ever be allowed to handle it, and she’s the only one capable of releasing its magic. (Just ask Diana DeGarmo.) I’d call out LaKisha’s hubris in tackling ‘Tasia and Carrie Underwood two weeks running, but I don’t think her song choices sprang so much from pride as they did from a total lack of musical imagination — and therein lies her problem. There’s a difference between being a woman with a big voice and being an actual musical artist, and after 10 weeks of live performances, LaKisha Jones has not yet crossed into the latter category.

Blake Lewis, on the other hand, has already proven his artistry by successfully taking ownership of tracks as varied as ”Time of the Season,” ”Virtual Insanity,” and ”You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” which made it all the more disappointing to hear none of his ”isms” on John Lennon’s glorious ballad ”Imagine.” Sure, it was hands-down the best song of the night, and Blake was in tune from beginning to end, but to complete the thought that Paula seemed to start, then get scared to verbalize, ”Imagine” is something of a double-edged sword — a study in wonderful melodic simplicity that can also expose the limitations of the person who’s singing it. And indeed, Blake’s ”Imagine” was both vaguely disconnected and overly cautious. It may be enough to help him survive the week but not to take home first prize.

I’m not giving up on Blake, though, because I still think he’s the only candidate who could bring a sense of suspense and excitement to the top three along with mortal locks Melinda and Jordin. Otherwise, that task would fall to Chris Richardson (a scenario my ears refuse to accept) or Phil Stacey (a possibility that deeply upsets my stomach).

To be fair, Chris brought an unexpected swagger to Eric Clapton’s ”Change the World” and was vastly more on key than he’d been over the last two weeks, but dude’s opening few notes were so brutal they’d make Jack Bauer flinch, and he gets a case of the pitchies whenever he isn’t in ”full-on belting” mode. What’s more, how come it only took Simon and Randy seven days to convert to the Nasally School of Vocal Performance?

Likewise, I’m not quite sure how Phil avoided getting called out on the hoarseness he brought to Garth Brooks’ song ”The Change.” On a couple of the big notes, I was worried the genial bald guy might suffer a repeat of the voice crack that derailed his ”Maria, Maria” during Latin week, but even weirder was the way he put a vaguely lounge-y twist on a country ballad. Take the odd shift in direction, couple it with his frequent-flier status in the bottom three, and stir with the complacency his fans might experience from seeing their man avoid that fate last week, and I think we might be looking at a recipe for Phil’s surprising ouster.

Who do you think is most at risk of going home Wednesday night? If Idol pulls a shocker and doesn’t eliminate anyone, do you think there’ll be a double elimination next week, or will the producers then make the finale a three-person showdown? Share your thoughts below! (If you’re a Mac user and are having problems viewing or posting on the message board, try using a browser other than Safari.) Finally, if you want to weigh in on this episode for our next installment of Idolatry, send us your loves, hates, and burning questions to

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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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