This week's ''American Idol'' musical genre causes many of the better singers to give the kind of middling performances that could send them riding off into the sunset

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

American Idol

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”American Idol”: Warning! Good singers at risk!

Brace yourselves, Idol fans: I’ve got a sinking feeling that Wednesday night’s results show is where season 5 will start to get painful. You know the drill: There’ll be one, or more likely two, shocking first-timers in the bottom three. Paula will quickly turn on the waterworks. There’ll be something like 17 minutes of commercial breaks. And then Ryan Seacrest will dole out the Tamyra Gray Memorial Award, presented to a talented performer who sees his or her Idol dreams crushed while some middling karaoke singer is allowed to continue on for a minimum of three more excruciating weeks. Simon will remind us that it’s America’s choice. Randy will say something nonsensical. And we’ll all be buzzing angrily around the watercooler come Thursday morning.

What’s different about this year, however, is that whoever gets eliminated pretty much has it coming. I mean, tonight’s country theme certainly afforded the nine remaining contestants hundreds of terrific song choices — and I’ll jump in the steel cage with anyone who wants to trash-talk guest vocal coach Kenny ”The Gambler” Rogers. So how come when the tumbleweeds settled, only three contestants — Chris Daughtry, Kellie Pickler, and Katharine McPhee — earned themselves a restful sleep, free from nightmares of becoming just another ghost of Idol past?

With an understated take on Keith Urban’s ”Making Memories of Us,” Chris did exactly what he needed to do: help fans forget last week’s screechy, scary-serious rendition of Creed’s ”What If.” Now whether or not the bald-headed hottie is your cup of tea, there’s no denying he’s this season’s polished pro — every week Chris owns the stage, works the right rock-star look, and ignites the live audience without ever hitting a truly wonky note. So maybe Chris is bound to falter if Fox execs push for another ill-advised evening of show tunes, but is that going to stop the guy’s fan base from supporting him?

Kellie, meanwhile, will never be the singer Chris is, as evidenced by the numerous lower-register notes that went missing during her spirited take on Reba McEntire’s ”Fancy.” Still, the girl carries a tune as well as many a current chart-topper — and she’s also got better taste in music than most of her competitors this season. Simon might’ve hated Kellie’s number (about a girl who overcomes her hardscrabble life through somewhat dubious means), but it fit her like marinara sauce fits fried calamari. My only pang of regret was that the abridged version of ”Fancy” left the central story only half told, and omitted the classic line ”I shivered as I watched a roach crawl across the toe of my high-heeled shoe.” Ah well, that’ll be a little something to look forward to in this summer’s Idol tour.

As for Katharine, while her bottom-three placement during last week’s results show is sure to motivate her supporters to vote, tonight’s sexy, powerfully sung rendition of ”Bringing Out the Elvis” is likely to win her new fans, too, almost guaranteeing her safe passage to the round of eight. For once, Katharine was one of the few performers who looked like they were having fun on the Idol stage — this despite the fact that the show’s stylists seem hell-bent on frumpifying her undeniably scorchin’ bod.

That leaves six contestants vulnerable for elimination tomorrow, and I’m hoping viewers will grant pardons to the four most consistently entertaining among them: Paris Bennett, Taylor Hicks, Mandisa, and Elliott Yamin.

While Simon liked Paris’ version of ”How Do I Live,” Paula and Randy felt she struggled with it. And while I hate to side with Team Gibberish, I can’t tell a lie: For the first time in the competition, Paris’ voice sounded trembly and tentative for at least half the number. Worse still, even at its most soaring moments, was Paris’ performance any more than adequate karaoke?

Mandisa, meanwhile, seemed far more comfortable tackling Shania Twain’s ”Any Man of Mine,” but unfortunately, the fleet-tempoed song was a terrific showcase for all of her vocal shortcomings. As I’ve worried in previous columns, whenever Mandisa takes a break from belting a big note, and instead tries a softer touch or attempts a tricky turn of phrase, she tends to collect more sharps than a diabetic’s trash can. And while Randy’s critique about only enjoying the last four bars was a little unkind, Mandisa may be about to learn the harsh reality of not having a Melissa McGhee or a Kevin Covais to cushion your fall from atop the Idol heap.

That said, I enjoyed her performance better than Taylor’s ”Take Me Home, Country Roads,” which, as Simon astutely noted, sounded as if it had been selected and rehearsed only 10 minutes earlier. Was I the only one shocked to see quirky, charismatic Taylor frozen at the mike, ripping into the John Denver number with all the enthusiasm of a kid opening a hideous holiday sweater from his great-aunt Frieda? Which got me wondering if perhaps the gray-haired dude is having second thoughts about his Idol future. Think about it: Can you really imagine him recording ”A Moment Like This” or ”Inside Your Heaven” under the watchful eye of Clive Davis? Maybe he can’t either.

Yet of all the front-runners at risk this week, I’m most worried about Elliott. Not because his version of Garth Brooks’ ”If Tomorrow Never Comes” was especially bad (although Elliott’s got to learn to cut back on the vibrato, especially during country night), but because it wasn’t bad enough to scare his fans into a speed-dialing frenzy. Which would break my heart, really. Elliott is the most naturally gifted contestant this season — certainly more so than faux sex symbol Ace Young and dreary Bucky Covington.

In defense of Ace, the Bambi-eyed crooner’s ”Tonight I Wanna Cry” was a vast improvement on his last two performances, but we’re too far into the season for a contestant to run out of air every time he’s asked to carry a non-falsetto note for more than a few seconds.

Likewise, while none of the judges really called him on it, Bucky’s voice went ”poof!” and disappeared every time he reached for a low note on Gary Allan’s ”Best I Ever Had.” And maybe it was the power of suggestion, hearing Kenny Rogers express some hesitation about Bucky’s enunciation only seconds before he took the stage, but I was only able to decipher maybe one in every three words that fell from his mumbly mouth. Considering the evening’s country theme was supposed to play to Bucky’s strengths, I expected him to be more dazzling than adequate, and for that reason alone, I’m hoping tonight was his final Idol performance.

Funny enough, I may not be alone, either. Simon’s ”it sounded okay to me” reeked of the exact kind of faint praise he offers when he’s trying to lull a contestant’s supporters into a false sense of security, only to have them see their favorite eliminated. For the sake of four especially endangered (but worthy) wannabes, let’s hope that’s exactly how it all plays out.

What do you think? Who will be in the bottom three this week? Who should be? And are you as tired as I am of Randy and Paula’s constant interruptions when Simon is talking?

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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