Though the songs in this week's ''American Idol'' were new, most of the contestants turned in boring, cheesy, or just plain bad performances

By Michael Slezak
Updated July 03, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT
American Idol: Ray Mickshaw/FOX
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”American Idol”: Something from this century

After last week’s superlative American Idol, I know it was greedy of me to hope for an equally entertaining follow-up, but even without the burden of comparisons, tonight’s ”Songs of the 21st Century” episode was a colossal disappointment. In fact, I’d say it was pretty much everything I’d hoped it wouldn’t be. Potential rock-god Chris Daughtry slumming it with a Creed cover? Check. Fashions ripped straight from a Kajagoogoo video? Check. The rampant use of contestants’ fingers to remind viewers of their toll-free phone numbers? Well, sadly, you can count on that every damn week. But still, with arguably the deepest talent pool in Idol history, how come a tight 60-minute episode felt interminable?

Well, you can start by blaming Ace Young, Bucky Covington, and Lisa Tucker, who might want to consider forming some kind of atonal New Age act known as the Bottom Three. Now admittedly, I’ve never been an Ace fan, but is there anyone left in America who still sees this guy as a potential Idol after his rendition of Train’s ”Drops of Jupiter”? Why didn’t he just microwave a giant vat of Velveeta and hurl it into the cameras, because boyfriend definitely brought the cheese! Forget the middling vocal performance — what really pained me was the way Ace opened his shirt mid-performance to show his ”sexy” scar, the way he gently stroked his overstyled locks while mewling the words ”in her hair,” the pathetic way he used two hands to encourage fans to dial ”IDOLS-03.” (Dude, even my four-year-old niece can do it one-handed.) Still, I think Ace deserves safe passage into next week, if only because he inspires such flagrant fawning from judge Paula Abdul. Despite her increased lucidity levels tonight (granted, anything had to be an improvement on last week), she still couldn’t resist purring to Ace, in reference to his old wound, ”One day, you’ll have to explain to me how you got that one.”

Bucky and Lisa, on the other hand, will most likely and most deservedly be this week’s two lowest vote getters on account of their being utterly forgettable. In fact, when I sat down to write tonight’s column (some 15 minutes after Idol ended), I had to check my notes to remember what song Bucky decimated this week. (For the record, it was Tim McGraw’s ”Real Good Man.”) But can you really criticize me, what with the way this season’s poster boy for karaoke swallowed every note in his lower register?

Would that the same could be said about Lisa, whose every off-key note came through my TV set with painful clarity. Granted, it takes a certain level of audacity (or cluelessness, maybe) to attempt a number by the original American Idol winner, but with her soulless, pageant-level abuse of Kelly Clarkson’s ”Because of You,” Lisa, possibly weighed down by seven pounds of turquoise eye shadow, staggered into the territory of former Idol scourges such as Janay Castine, Camille Velasco, and Jim Verraros.

The fact that there are three clearly outclassed singers remaining in the competition is great news for Chris Daughtry, Kellie Pickler, and Katharine McPhee, all of whom gave the kind of subpar performances that have been known to put front-runners in temporary jeopardy. (Lest we forget, eventual Idol winners Fantasia and Ruben both did time in the bottom three.)

I know a lot of Chris’s detractors have complained that he’s a one-note wonder, and while I’d vehemently disagree, tonight’s performance certainly added, um, Fuel to their Creed-o. (Sorry.) I say this from a place of loving fandom, but Chris, preserving your musical integrity doesn’t have to involve selecting painfully obvious tracks like ”What If.” I mean, what if, instead, you had turned Britney Spears’ ”Toxic” into a pungent rock track? Or what if you’d decided to surprise everyone and get a little funky? Or at least tried to crack the occasional smile? It’s American Idol, after all, not Frontline.

Not that Chris needs to worry about elimination for the next six or seven weeks. But Kellie is another story altogether. Is it just me or does it seem like the air is slowly streaming out of the tires on her Idol wagon? Say what you want about her choice of Sara Evans’ ”Suds in the Bucket,” but it should’ve been a slam dunk for this season’s polarizingly flaky contestant. Instead, though, Kellie looked uncomfortable and detached, as if she weren’t really sure how she’d ended up on a massive stage performing for a national audience.

I’ve had that very same complaint about Katharine in recent weeks, but tonight, it was her vocals and not her commitment level that failed her. I don’t know why all three judges were so full of praise for her rendition of Christina Aguilera’s ”The Voice Within”; to me, it was Katharine’s worst performance ever, both shrill and slightly off the beat throughout. If you’re gonna go near Xtina, you better sung what you brung! And what? Nobody bothered to mention that Katharine was wearing quite possibly the most regurgitastic outfit in Idol history? I know I’m going to have a nightmare about that bizarre beige contraption, with a center panel that looked like it belonged on a bargain-basement bathing suit. Mommy?

Paris Bennett and Taylor Hicks had wardrobe issues tonight, too, but at least I can say theirs were two of the four performances that I’d actually play back on my TiVo tomorrow. Simon was right that Paris looked like ”a precocious little girl pretending to be Beyoncé” — and let’s be real, her hair was definitely styled by someone who would like to see her go home immediately — but the kid nailed the tricky rhythms and intricate riffing of the funk workout that is ”Work It Out.” As with last week’s ”Fever,” though, there’s something incongruous about seeing someone who’s clearly so young delivering decidedly adult lyrics like ”Can’t wait for the bedroom, we just hit the floor.” And Paula, um, maybe not so much with the suggestion that a 17-year-old girl aspire to a position as a Pussycat Dolls dancer, okay?

Taylor Hicks (also a victim of this week’s Stylistgate) was a lot more convincing singing Ray LaMontagne’s ”Trouble,” but really, of all the tunes written since 2000, this is the best he could do? The guy definitely has a pleasing voice, but I’m worried song selection is going to be his eventual downfall.

The judges were split on my two favorite performances of the night. Mandisa! almost earned a second exclamation point from me for her joyous rendition of Mary Mary’s ”Shackles (Praise You).” She not only caused some danceration in Casa Slezak but also elicited a sharp, funny comment from Paula about 40 million folks joining the church of Mandisa! Still, I knew Simon wasn’t going to say anything nice about the performance because I think he looks at Mandisa! and wonders if her full figure and gospel-tinged vocal stylings are a marketable combination. To which I say, ”Heck, yes, they are!” I know I’m not the only one who can’t wait to buy a Mandisa! record. Can I get an amen?

Likewise, I’d pay good money to download Elliott Yamin’s ”I Don’t Want to Be,” an R&B-flavored take on Gavin DeGraw’s addictive piece of ear candy that may have transformed this season’s lovable long shot into a contender for first prize. Think about it: Is there anyone else in the competition whose voice is as clear, controlled, and evocative as Elliott’s? And as the guy with the goofy grin grows in confidence each week, he’s looking more and more like a pop star, too, providing the kind of come-from-behind story that keeps me glued to my set when Idol is on — even during a lackluster night like tonight.

What do you think? Were you a little underwhelmed by ”the songs of the 21st century”? Are you predicting any surprises in the bottom three? And based on tonight’s performances only, who do you think deserves to be the next Idol?

Episode Recaps

American Idol

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