''American Idol'' turns into a surprising birthday party: Singing hits from the year they were born, some gifted contestants blow it, but lesser ones may get their wish

By Michael Slezak
July 03, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT
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”American Idol”: A surprising birthday party

This week’s American Idol nontheme forced the contestants to choose songs first recorded during their respective birth years, but the producers could have called the evening ”Freaky Tuesday.” What else am I to make of an episode during which Paula Abdul made more sense than Randy Jackson? Where Carrie Underwood finally dug deep into her aluminum hull and pulled out something vaguely resembling a soul? And where Constantine Maroulis began performing like this season’s front-runner, while Bo Bice suddenly turned into a bottom-three prospect?

You want to know just how freaky this week was? So freaky that I wouldn’t be outraged if my favorite contestant, Nadia Turner, found herself eliminated.

But let’s channel Paula for a moment and focus first on something positive: Constantine’s spot-on cover of ”Bohemian Rhapsody.” Putting aside the weird Gene Simmons thing he did with his tongue midway through the performance, the Artist Formerly Referred to as Smeagol took a risk on a difficult song, and it paid off handsomely. Randy completely missed the point when he gave Constantine a 10 for showmanship and a 7 for vocals; dozens of singers could hit every note of Queen’s operatic rock chestnut, but how many could sing it with enough gusto to make you, if only for a brief moment, forget Freddie Mercury’s blistering original? (An additional five points to Constantine for well-executed hair flipping).

Surprisingly, it was Paula who assessed the situation with lucidity: ”You’ve now proven you’re the one to beat in this competition,” she told Constantine, and for once, she was right, especially on the heels of his solid ”My Funny Valentine” a week before. I may never call in a vote for Idol‘s skeeviest contestant, but the less Constantine concentrates on his hideous camera mugging, the more he’s able to stay on key — a true win-win scenario for the singer and viewers alike.

The producers have made a big point of trying to stoke some rivalry between Constantine and Bo, and while I reject the notion that the pair of ”rockers” is competing for the same core voting base, the latter will nonetheless need every phone call he can get after a tepid take on ”Free Bird” that sounded like something you’d hear at a state fair side stage. (No, I don’t mean that in a good way.) Yes, Bo works the stage well (although he practically landed on his face during his final microphone-stand-clutching leap), but Bice Squad members would be lying if they said their man didn’t drop half the notes in his lower register and maim the trickier high ones this week. Yes, Randy and Paula, that list of fibbers (or, at best, tone-deaf buffoons) includes you.

Heck, even milquetoast Carrie beat Bo at his rock game. Simon was right that the blond farm girl’s gravelly version of Pat Benatar’s ”Love Is a Battlefield” was akin to a kitten wanting to be treated like a tiger, especially with those awkward dance moves she seemed to have picked up half-price from Lindsey Cardinale. But while Carrie badly messed up her lyrics and missed a couple of notes to boot, I thought it was her best week ever — at least she finally got her claws out and dug into the full meaning of a song (and a darn good song at that).

Now that Carrie’s set a higher bar for herself, of course, she’s going to have to keep taking risks to avoid falling into LaToya London mode (see: technically flawless contestant who fails to connect on a more visceral level with audience); to that end, song choice will remain especially important for her and the contest’s other remaining women, Nadia Turner and Vonzell Solomon. Neither of those ladies was pitch perfect on Tuesday, but Vonzell, whose ”Let’s Hear It for the Boy” had more sharps than a diabetic’s wastebasket, still vastly outperformed Nadia’s lethal cover of Crystal Gayle’s deservedly obscure ”When I Dream,” mostly because the former song is catchy, while the latter sucks.

The judges were correct in pointing out that Nadia (who looked gorgeous in her red micro-dress), is at risk of finding herself back in the bottom three again this week, which is depressing when you remember Nadia is the same spirited songstress who reinvented ”Try a Little Tenderness” and ”You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” so brilliantly just a few weeks back. She coulda been a contendah — and I hope she gets another week to prove it.

(On a side note, how come Simon keeps acting like there’s room for only one black woman in the competition now — as if Nadia and Vonzell were an either-or proposition, even though their musical styles couldn’t be more different? Just askin’.)

Vonzell, meanwhile, ought to be safe this week, but she’s still not coming across like a performer with a legitimate chance to win Idol. Maybe if she could master the fine art of singing while walking down steps in heels? Either way, she was a lot better this week than Anwar Robinson and Scott Savol. While the judges went gaga for Anwar’s ”I’ll Never Love This Way Again,” as usual, I found his lethargic, nasal delivery unbearable. Sure, in his brown velvet jacket and a shirt unbuttoned down to South America, the guy projected mad levels of confidence, but ask yourself this: Did his performance make you believe the lyrics? Are you convinced Anwar will truly never love this way again? Not me, but maybe that’s because I’ve hit deeper levels of emotion reading my grocery list out loud.

Scott, meanwhile, was wildly off-key for the third consecutive week. Okay, okay, he hit the chorus on ”She’s Gone,” but is that enough at this stage of the competition? Simon was correct in his assessment that Scott — whose blah denim shirt made him look as if he were about to go out to the A&P, not perform for some 25 million viewers — had more ”bum notes” than good ones. If being consistent counts in this competition, Scott will go home this week, as he’s been consistently awful. I know he argued that ”millions of people at home wouldn’t have the nerve to do this,” but unfortunately for him, he’s competing against seven superior people who do.

That’s good news for Anthony Fedorov, who erased memories of last week’s horrendous ”Climb Ev’ry Mountain” with a unique, bell-clear rendition of Paul Young’s ”Every Time You Go Away.” There’s something inherently dorky about Anthony’s delivery — it’s as if his Eastern European inflection throws off the meaning of every other phrase he utters — but if the kid avoids breaking out any leather newsboy caps like the one he wore in his pre-performance video, he might have a dark-horse chance to make the final three in a season where it seems almost anything can happen.

Who do you think? Who will be this week’s bottom three? If you could give any contestant a free pass into next week’s show, who would it be? And was I the only one rolling my eyes when the intolerable Ryan Seacrest called Anwar ”brotha”?

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