Guest mentor Quentin Tarantino can't stop the top 7 contestants from choosing a (mostly) tired collection of sappy soundtrack ballads

By Michael Slezak
Updated April 14, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT
Michael Becker/FOX

We’re 28 episodes into American Idol‘s eighth season, and the show still hasn’t lost its ability to surprise. Who’d have thought, for example, that the sound of two judges yapping would turn out to be more annoying than the standard four-windbag formation? How could anyone have guessed that redheaded teenager Allison Iraheta is filled with/fueled by ”special sauce”? And when did the show institute a new rule making female contestants ineligible to receive credit for rearranging their songs? These are the burning questions being asked tonight by a speed-dialing Idol nation (or, at least, me). Still, if there’s any takeaway head-scratcher from tonight’s ”Extreme Treacle: Soundtrack Edition” episode, it is this: How come no matter how low one sets one’s expectations, Randy ”Yellow Stripe” Jackson can always find a way to disappoint?

Yes, Dawgs, let’s take a moment to talk about the fourth wheel on the busted shopping cart that is Idol‘s judging panel — you know, the one that makes a relentless squeaking sound and keeps locking up at odd angles, thwarting any possibility of smooth, forward momentum. And no, I’m not talking about Kara ”The Terrible” DioGuardi. You see, my rage this year against Idol‘s newest judge has sprung from my long-since-abandoned expectation that she’d be using her knowledge as a recording artist, a producer-songwriter, and a label insider to champion unique voices that wouldn’t typically be heard in this Auto-Tuned, focus-grouped world. But not even if Kara had had her head slammed repeatedly against Paula’s bejeweled/metallic bustier-thingie (an homage to the just-canceled Sarah Connor Chronicles perhaps?) could she have offered up a critique as inarticulate and wrong-minded as Randy’s review of Kris Allen’s ”Falling Slowly” tonight. Let’s roll the tape (transcribed word for word…I kid you not):

”Yo, Kris. All right, so check it out man. Uh, dude, for me…for me, for you tonight dude, I gotta tell you somethin’ man, I don’t know, I didn’t — it never quite caught on — for me. And I love, and yo, I love…I love that song. But for me it was pitchy from note one for me. For me!

Seriously, Randy? Seriously? I’m so mad right now that I’m falling back on two-year-old Grey’s Anatomy-isms. I mean, let’s look at a description of your multimillion-dollar job: You sit at a table for an hour or two each week and half-listen to wannabe pop stars singing their guts out, then you (theoretically) offer critiques that will help guide America’s vote and help the contestants improve their performances the following week. And yet tonight you managed to use the phrase ”for me” a total of six times in 24 seconds? Dude, the ”for me” is freakin’ implied! Who else do you think we think you’re speaking for? And to make matters worse, if your critique was any more wrong-minded, it’d be lobbying for the return of Nikki and Paulo to Lost!

NEXT PAGE: Kris can’t catch a break, Adam walks the high wire, and Allison stumbles

At least Kara had the sense and the courage to disagree, even if her observation that ”Falling Slowly” was one of Kris’ ”best moments ever” was a little too muted for my taste. I mean, what does the puppy-eyed crooner have to do to get a ”best of the night” or a ”you have a chance to win it all” critique from someone (anyone!) at the judges’ table? (Maybe if he stands in line at the Post Office tomorrow and gets Paula, Simon, Kara, and Randy’s taxes postmarked?) Kris certainly deserved more praise that his six rivals tonight, for starters because he chose a delicate flower off the Once soundtrack rather than the industrial-floral bathroom air-freshener most of his competitors seemed to fancy. Admittedly, the opening line or two of the ballad seemed a little low for Kris’ range, but he quickly recovered, and proceeded to deliver a nuanced performance in which emotional depth won out over hollow vocal acrobatics.

That’s not to say, of course, that I can’t appreciate it when an Idol attempts an audacious high-wire act, which is about the best way I can describe Adam’s perfectly ridiculous but intermittently thrilling ”Born to Be Wild.” I knew we were in for something over-the-top the minute that Frankenstein crackle of ”lighting” flashed across the jumbotron, and Adam kicked into the full banshee wail we’re getting used to hearing every other week. But as much as I found myself giggling delightedly during the performance, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed by Adam’s selection of a song that, much like his ”Top Downloads” night choice of ”Play That Funky Music,” lives squarely within the borders of Karaokeville. Also disappointing? Paula’s backslide into verbose non-critiques: That ”dare to dance in the path of greatness” shtick made me wonder if by year’s end there’ll be a Paula Abdul line of fortune cookies coming to a shopping-channel near you.

Meanwhile, I’m a wee bit concerned about Allison’s fortune for Wednesday’s results show, thanks to her surprisingly lackluster take on Aerosmith’s ”I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” Bad enough that the song was performed on previous seasons of Idol by David Cook (good), Lindsey Cardinale (not so good), and Antonella Barba (ugly), but Allison struggled with the lower notes of the verse, went horribly flat on the bridge, then seemed to make a series of strange interpretive calls as she attacked the final chorus. Mind you, I’ve never been a huge fan of anything relating to Armageddon, but I know it’s a bad sign when my favorite contestant is singing, and all I can focus on is the shiny patch on her chin (An unfortunate lipstick snudge? An encounter with a delicious Krispy Kreme donut? A moderate case of the sweats?).

Stranger still, after weeks of berating Simon for failing to put his preordained pecking order aside and recognize Ms. Iraheta’s awesome natural ability, I found it jarring to hear him finally feel the love after what was hands-down her worst live performance to date. I can almost imagine Simon paying attention only to the opening verse — on which Allison’s voice was little more than an impassioned whisper on a bed of soft strings — then beginning to formulate his critique (and perhaps his grocery list) while ignoring the latter (and lesser) two-thirds of Allison’s vocal performance. Either way, here’s hoping that America judges Allison on the body of her work, not on a single rocky effort; after all, as Paula pointed out, Allison (as well as Adam) possesses ”special sauce.” And that’s been enough to keep the indigestion-creating Big Mac near the top of the fast-food charts for several decades.

NEXT PAGE: Two who deserve to face elimination tonight

If voters forgive Allison’s one-week detour into the land of pitch problems and mossy consonants, then either Matt Giraud or Lil Rounds is likeliest to suffer the indignity of getting booted on a results night telecast that will feature ”vocalist” Miley Cyrus as a guest performer. Which is a shame for Matt, considering his jaunty piano playing almost made me forget the utter insipidness of Bryan Adams’ ”Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?”

Actually, in a perfect world, Matt would get another week in the competition just for omitting the lyric ”if you can see your unborn children in her eyes/ then you know you really love a woman” (which runs only second to selected portions of Heart’s ”All I Wanna Do Is Make Love to You” for the most blush-worthy lyric of all time). But on the negative side, the visibly nervous piano man saw his Bryan Adams cover go from heartfelt to passable to ”OMG nooo!” as he traversed from verse to chorus to (burning) bridge. As Matt’s voice crumbled under the weight of his melismatic aspirations, so too did his dream of half-drowning in confetti at the Kodak in late May.

Side note: Anyone care to venture a guess as to the meaning of Simon’s ”coughing up hairball” gesticulation as Kara critiqued Matt tonight?

As for Lil, well, hmmm…what to say? I mean, the woman’s Idol season has contained more awkward missteps than Elisabeth Hasselbeck at a Gay Pride parade. But tonight, I actually didn’t totally agree with Simon’s vehement disapproval of her cover of ”The Rose.” Did Lil have pitch problems? Well, no more or no less than Allison or Matt experienced tonight. Was Lil’s look — a black, belted vest over a cow-print top, and straightened, asymmetrical hairdo — consistent with her season-long effort to have her Idol wardrobe resemble a Schizophrenic’s car trunk after a frenzied tour of a low-rent outlet mall? Alas, it was. But I respected Lil’s effort to Gospel up Bette Midler’s haunting soundtrack classic, and that made me somewhat sympathetic to Lil’s not-at-all-charming ”I put my own twist” response to Simon’s song-choice criticism.

How come Idol‘s judges never seem to give props to female contestants when they reimagine a song (see Carly Smithson’s ”Here You Come Again,” or even Syesha Mercado’s ”Yesterday”)? Even though, at this stage of the game, Lil’s overall body of work is the weakest among the seven remaining season 8 contenders, and even though she’ll be walking the Idol plank if there’s any justice tonight, she deserved better than Paula’s whiff of a non-critique (”the road is long”) and Simon’s standard-issue ”song choice” rant. Put me in charge of the live feed that goes into Randy’s headset, and this is what I’d have said: ”Lil, I respect that you took a decades-old ditty and gave it an injection of R&B flavor. The problem is, your vocal wasn’t completely on point. And given your downward trajectory over the last five weeks, it was gonna take nothing less than a showstopper to keep you in the competition.”

NEXT PAGE: Danny gets the soft focus, Anoop nails the song

Whether or not Lil deserves to go home this week, however, keep in mind that as one of the two women still standing in season 8, it’s less likely she’s splitting votes, and that may be enough to help her crack the top 6, at poor Matt’s expense. If Simon’s praise helps Allison avoid traveling to the bottom three with Matt and Lil, that could spell trouble for Danny Gokey and/or Anoop Desai.

Hands down, Danny’s ”Endless Love” trumped Anoop’s ”(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” as the better composition, but Anoop outscored his rival on every other count tonight: Song arrangement, emotional connection, technical proficiency, and originality.

If Anoop finds himself in trouble with voters again, it may be because he’s taken one too many trips to the down-tempo well, performing tender ballads in four of his past five weeks, while failing to take a risk in the fashion department (tonight’s letter jacket, plaid shirt, striped tie, and jeans was a variation on the same theme we’ve been seeing since Anoop arrived at the big Idol stage). It didn’t help, either, that while Danny benefited from soft-focus cutaways and through-the-harp-strings cinematography, Anoop was shot from behind the judges’ table, where conversations between Kara and Randy, as well as Simon and Paula, indicated it was okay to turn your attention away from the guy who was hitting every note of his performance, and in no way conjuring up images of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in a cloak in the misty woods. But, really, shouldn’t the judges be backing the guy who could be a latter day Brian McKnight or Babyface vs. the less charming, less energetic reincarnation of Taylor Hicks?

Indeed, Danny’s big risks tonight included pulling out a harp (!), growing out some stubbly facial hair, taking off his trademark glasses, and glancing heavenward in the closing moments of ”Endless Love,” the first overt reference to the singer’s late wife since the Idol semifinals some eight weeks ago. (Granted, some Gokey detractors will be crying foul over the latter move, but from Danny’s vantage point, those folks were never going to vote for him anyway, so why pay ’em any mind?) Me? I’m over the back story business, but I can’t get past the way Danny’s performances all seem to follow the same exact template: Understated and sporadically flat on the verse, heading directly into loogie-hawking, violent vocal strain on the chorus. Music appreciation is a subjective pursuit, I know, but I can’t understand why this guy has never taken a trip to the Silver Stools of Doom. Heck, maybe a close encounter with Carrie Underwood’s ”Home Sweet Home” will teach the guy there’s more to artistry than some strategically sculpted stubble and a frequent-shopper card at LensCrafters.

And now, our grades of tonight’s performances:

Kris Allen: A-
Anoop Desai: B+
Adam Lambert: B
Matt Giraud: B-
Lil Rounds: C+
Allison Iraheta: C
Danny Gokey: C

What did you think of tonight’s telecast? Were you as annoyed as me that the producers only allowed two critiques per performance, but still allowed for all that unfunny banter during the judges’ intro at the start of the show? Anyone else notice no one said out loud the name of Tarantino’s new film, Inglorious Basterds? And could Simon please stop referring to Paula and Kara as ”girls”? It’s 2009, and they are grown women! Thank you, that is all.

Idolatry: Simon’s evil agenda?