'American Idol' recap: Summer lovin'
Despite the predictability of three contestants selecting Donna Summer tunes, Disco Night winds up as one of the season's more enjoyable telecasts
I’m no math whiz — although, unlike Kara DioGuardi, I can count into the double digits — but I couldn’t ignore some of the intriguing numbers jumping out at me during tonight’s disco-themed performance episode of American Idol. (And nope, I’m not referring to the frequency with which I may or may not have dialed 866-Idols-02 and 866-Idols-04 while I was supposed to be writing this TV Watch.) Let’s do a quick rundown:
Number of Donna Summer tracks performed by the seven remaining finalists: 3.
Number of times Randy Jackson attempted to pass off the phrase ”you can sing” as a legitimate critique of contestants in what’s still ostensibly a singing competition: 4.
Number of times Kara obviously rephrased Randy’s critique as part of her own feedback: 3.
Number of times the word ”artist” was uttered by the judges and/or Lil Rounds following her cover of ”I’m Every Woman”: 5.
Number of performances we’ve seen during this year’s Idol finals: 65.
Number of times Kara confused Saturday Night Live with Saturday Night Fever: 1.
Now while that final stat is worthy of its own article — and we’ll certainly get back to the subject of what my pal Annie Barrett refers to as Kara’s “pop-culture dyslexia” in just a bit — the penultimate piece of data from my list is perhaps the most significant when it comes to dissecting and judging the performances we saw on the Idol stage tonight.
Think about it: With seven performance shows behind them, and only four left before the finale, the remaining season 8 contestants are fighting against that terrifying old adage that ”familiarity breeds contempt.” Indeed, as we obsess week in and week out over Allison Iraheta adding random ‘h’ sounds to her consonants (i.e. ”dialed about a thousand h’numbers”), or Anoop Desai sporting excessive perspiration over his upper lip, or Lil never knowing when to shut her trap, it becomes all the more imperative for these singers to make us forget what’s not important and to fill us with the kind of pulse-pounding, speed-dialing enthusiasm that makes us gather around the water cooler and bark ”If he/she goes home this week, I’m never watching Idol again. Or, um, at least I’m not gonna watch it for the rest of the season. Not live anyway…only on my DVR. Yeah! That’ll show ’em!”
The tough part about being an Idol contestant, however, is figuring out the proper strategy when the judges, fans, and producers reserve the right to move the target on a season-by-season, week-by-week, even minute-by-minute basis. Ryan Seacrest may insist twice a week that ”This…is American Idol.” But oftentimes, it can also be a game of ”Song Arrangement Idol” or ”Song Selection Idol” or ”Emotional Connection Idol” or ”Good Old Fashioned Singing Idol” or even ”Good Luck Outsinging the Band Idol.” Oh, and lest we forget, there’s also the all important categories of ”Fashion Idol,” ”Personality Idol,” ”Sound Bite Idol,” and ”Let’s Analyze Your Every Last Facial Tic Idol.”
Tonight’s episode drove that point home in a profound way. The coveted confetti shower may be visible at the end of the tunnel, but there are still perilous miles left in the ”journey.” What’s the point of singing with pitch perfection if you’re merely coloring inside the lines of a well-known song arrangement? Conversely, why bother upping the degree of difficulty with a quadruple jump when you know you’re going to end up face-down in the ice?
NEXT: Kris’ triumph
Thankfully, though, Top Seven Night (Take Two) proved vastly more enjoyable than last week’s Quentin Tarantino debacle. The song choices were slightly less obvious, the arrangements were decidedly more daring, and the bum notes were kept to a merciful minimum. But hands down, the Best in Show ribbon went to Kris Allen, which almost caught me by surprise, since, in his pre-performance interview with a flirty Ryan Seacrest, the congenial Arkansas fellow could barely articulate why he chose Donna Summer’s ”She Works Hard for the Money.” Of course, seconds later, Ryan lobbed a spoiler at the audience by announcing: ”I think you’re gonna like this.” When was the last time the impish host hyped a performance before a note had been sung?
Now mind you, as far as I’m concerned, ”She Works Hard for the Money” isn’t technically a disco track, but more of an uptempo pop tune released in 1983 by a woman known primarily for dominating the disco era. (Anyone remember that awesome video with the hodgepodge collection of women workers dancing in the streets?) But, hey, it’s not as if Kris made as egregious a violation of the evening’s theme as, say, Bo Bice did when he performed ”Vehicle” on ”Seventies Dance Night” (uff da) back in season 4. But I digress — big time! — and will now devote myself to praising Kris’ performance in the way I wish Simon had when he instead chose to delve into a ridiculous back-and-forth with Paula about whether he and/or Kris enjoyed the look and feel of women’s underwear. (For the record, I understood, and was amused by, Paula’s remark that ”not many men are willing to shop in the women’s department,” even though Danny, Scott, Anoop, and Matt have all sung major hits by female artists this season.)
You knew we were in for a non-disco arrangement the minute the camera cut to Kris at center stage, flanked by a couple of percussionists (including a bongo player). And indeed, the acoustic guitar line Kris played as part of his arrangement reminded me much more of the Doobie Brothers’ ”Long Train Runnin”’ — a song I always think should be titled ”Without Love (Where Would You Be Now)” — than the synth-driven ditty he was covering. Said transformation in tone and tempo allowed me to focus on the timely lyrics about (as Ryan noted) ”a woman that has a great work ethic,” and better still, the guy who never gets labeled a front-runner by the judges once again proved he knows himself well enough as an artist not to over-sing the melody. The beauty of Kris, aside from his obvious physical attributes, is that he’s more interested in telling a story with his music than he is in showing off with vocal gimmicks — and that’s all too rare a quality on the Idol stage.
NEXT: Adam predictably goes unpredictable
Side note: Did anyone notice that Randy tried to stop Kara from going first in critiquing Kris? From what I could tell, the newest and shrillest judge didn’t get the memo that the producers were returning to a left-to-right judging format tonight, and after she ignored Randy’s signals and kept on yapping, Simon appeared to scratch his face using his middle finger, while making a knowing glance in Randy’s direction. (Thanks to PopWatch reader JulieM for catching that sneaky latter maneuver!) The plot, as they say, thickens! But from Danny’s performance onward, Randy went first for the rest of the night.
Funny enough, while I’d spent much of Tuesday afternoon hoping and praying the evening’s theme wouldn’t translate into the ”Donna Summer-Bee Gees Songbooks,” my other favorite performance tonight was Allison Iraheta’s cover of Summer’s disco-rock classic ”Hot Stuff.” I’m not sure what exactly Randy and Kara didn’t like about the way Allison slowed down the tempo and pumped up the guitars for her performance — ”overindulgent,” Randy? Really? — but aside from a few problems with enunciation, I thought this was one of the teenage belter’s strongest performances of the season.
To be fair, Allison’s outfit — a black leather dress with a silver sequined bust, paired with black leather pants, and a white leather shrug — looked like it had been born from the collision of a Hell’s Angels biker and a wayward contestant from the Miss La Curacao Department Store Pageant. But I loved the way she completely owned ”Hot Stuff,” making me forget it’s a track that’s been sung into millions of hairbrushes, under suffocating clouds of Aqua Net. Bonus points for starting out sitting on those glowing red steps. Rock n’ Roll Teenager 4EVA! And thank you, Simon, for calling it a ”brilliant performance.”
The evening’s most radical song retooling, however, came immediately after ”Hot Stuff,” in the form of Adam Lambert’s balladic rendition of ”If I Can’t Have You.” In theory, I liked the idea of what Adam was going for: By stripping away the song’s disco façade, he’d be cutting to the heart of the sad-sack lyric — ”If I can’t have you, I don’t want nobody baby.” Unfortunately, Adam also washed away much of the gorgeous melody written by the Brothers Gibb and sung by Yvonne Elliman for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, and the performance had the slightly dissatisfying quality of an otherwise tasty meal that was pulled out of the microwave about 30 seconds before it should’ve come out. Sure, the vocals were immaculate, as Simon noted, and Adam looked great with his shiny black suit, mile-high pompadour, and giant snake ring, but the experience wasn’t entirely satisfying.
I’m wondering if (and secretly hoping that) next week (since he’s clearly not going home this week!!!) Adam will choose to shake up his now predictable pattern of manic one week, tragic the next. Sure, it’s impressive that the guy can go from zero to 100 in three bars or less, but I’d like Adam to keep challenging himself, and show us he’s capable of reaching the gray areas of tempo and emotion — not just the black and the white.
And that concludes (hopefully forever) my flirtation with channeling Paula Abdul at her fortune-cookie wackiest. Let me distract you with a Vince Neil sighting (eep!) and this soon-to-be-legendary quote from Kara: ”You look like the guy from Saturday Night Live meets Clark Kent.” I wonder if she came up with that zinger while standing in line at Studio 57. That’s so Kara!
NEXT: Lil’s weaknesses
The other radical retooling that didn’t quite gel for me tonight was Anoop Desai’s attempt to turn Summer’s ”Dim All the Lights” into a midtempo R&B shuffler. It didn’t help that ‘Noop Dawg, who was rocking a stylish new hairdo, some Easter-themed baby pink and baby blue duds, and the beginnings of a goatee, repeatedly messed up his lyrics. First, he repeated ”gonna dance the night away” on the first verse when that line was supposed to rhyme with ”cause tonight it’s all the way.” And on the last verse, Anoop again subbed ”gonna dance the night away” for ”cause tonight it’s you and me,” and then a muttered run of indeterminate origin for the line ”cause it’s for eternity.” No wonder the dude gave such a defeated look toward the judges after he’d finished his number!
It’s a shame that Anoop’s lyrical blunders seemed to shake his onstage swagger, considering that his vocal was pitch-perfect tonight (except for that last collapsing note). Whatever the case may be, though, I didn’t think he earned Simon’s ”your worst by a mile” criticism, nor Ryan’s truly unseemly dig about his eyebrows resembling Groucho Marx. True, it all plays in to Anoop’s status as the Rodney Dangerfield of Idol‘s eighth season — he can’t get no respect, no matter how beautiful his voice may be! — but I fear he’s at serious risk of joining Lil as this year’s co-sixth-place finisher.
Yes, that’s right, if there’s any justice in the phone lines and text-messaging paraphernalia of the nation, Lil Rounds will be the first one to walk the plank on Wednesday. Look, if I was out drinking at a karaoke bar, and Lil got up and performed ”I’m Every Woman” like she did tonight, you bet I’d applaud, because hitting 75 percent of your notes and singing like you own the joint is 99 percent of the battle. But let’s be real: If superior Idol divas like Carly Smithson, Vonzell Solomon, Syesha Mercado, Trenyce, Tamyra Gray, Sabrina Sloan, Felicia Barton, Paris Bennett, and Jesse Langseth are all without major-label deals, then there’s no way Lil — who has yet to give a single show-stopping performance during her Idol run — is going to be the next Daughtry or J.Hud.
As Lil blasted her way through ”I’m Every Woman” tonight like a stick of dynamite through a boulder, all I could think was…”you may be every woman, but you are not a woman with the vocal dexterity to handle this tricky rhythm. And you are not a woman who is able to outsing the not-particularly fabulous Idol backup singers. And you are definitely not a woman who knows that silence is golden, especially when the judges are giving you negative feedback.” Literally, I suppressed a scream when Lil swatted away the judges’ harsh criticism by declaring ”I actually had fun tonight. I really did.” Newsflash: This is not the primary goal of American Idol. You need to make sure we the audience are having fun first. Then you need to make sure you’re singing in tune. Then maybe, just maybe, you can think about having fun. Okay?
Matt Giraud, on the other hand, looked like he was having the time of his life with his slightly hip-hop take on ”Stayin’ Alive,” and I couldn’t really begrudge him, seeing how he’d cheated death last week and, as a reward, received Simon’s ”you have no chance to win this thing” pep talk. (Nice!) Much like last week’s ”Have You Really Ever Loved a Woman,” Matt’s Bee Gees cover started off strong. Heck, as Kara correctly noted, the guy was bringin’ disco back to disco night, twisting the arrangement without losing the song’s upbeat edge. But then, as Matt so often tends to do, he went for a grand falsetto moment, and the whole performance started to crumble, like when you’re making a homemade pie crust, and you roll it out one too many times, and before you know it your tasty dessert treat is all holey and crumbly and unworkable. Which kind of describes the last 30 seconds of Matt’s performance.
NEXT: The grades
In all fairness, Matt really ought to go home on Wednesday, if only because he squandered his second (or rather, third) chance from the judges with a so-so performance, but I have a feeling the momentum from the judges’ save will keep him safe till next week. And while that could spell a Lil-Anoop double ouster, I wouldn’t be shocked if we get a ”shock” elimination of Lil and Danny Gokey.
Consider this: In season 4, one-time front-runner Anwar Robinson got booted to a seventh-place finish after a tepid rendition of Earth Wind and Fire’s ”September” — the same exact number Danny tepidly delivered tonight. I can’t fathom why none of the judges pointed out how Danny began his performance with the kind of horrible howl that should be reserved for slamming ones knuckles in a car door, or how Kara came up with the idea that Danny’s pitch was right on, tonight and always, or why Paula hooted ”see you in the finals” when he was done (thereby insinuating Danny outshone Kris Allen!), but all I could think while the bespectacled dude lumbered around my screen was: ”WHY IS THE MAN YELLING AT ME?” I mean, seriously, listening to Danny sing is like going bowling with someone who throws the ball overhead. So what if he knocks down all his pins? He’s all brute power and no finesse. Not to mention that at this stage of the competition, Danny has yet to truly have a ”moment” in which he reinvents a song, not structurally, emotionally, or otherwise. Kara ended her critique by saying she hopes we remember Danny’s ”September.” By the time I finish this sentence, I assure you, the whole shebang will have slipped my mind.
And now, tonight’s letter grades!
Kris Allen: A
Allison Iraheta: A-
Adam Lambert: B+
Matt Giraud: B-
Danny Gokey: B-
Anoop Desai: B- [downgraded from a B due to botched lyrics]
Lil Rounds: C-
And finally, a quiz. Pair each of the following Randy Jackson critiques with the name of the contestant he said it to. (Answer key at the end of this article.)
1. ”Dude, you can sing also!”
2. ”You can really sing”
3. ”You definitely can sing”
4. ”You can really sing, dude.”
What did you think of tonight’s show? Was Disco Night better or worse than you’d anticipated? Which two contestants will go home? And which ones should get the boot? Do share your answers to these very important questions, and your thoughts on the rest of tonight’s show, in the comments section below. Also: If you missed signing up this week for EW.com’s Idol Prediction Challenge, please do it now! Even if you missed scoring on Songs of the Cinema night, we keep tabs on week-to-week winners on our leaderboard, and hey, how often do you get to simultaneously face off against Lisa Rinna, The Insider’s Ross Mathews, and my upcoming Idolatry cohost Jessica Shaw? And if you’d like to be a call-in guest on Idolatry, shoot an email with your thoughts on this week in Idol (along with a daytime phone number) to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Randy Quiz Answer Key: A-3; B-2; C-4; D-1.