American Idol: Ray Mickshaw
Nicholas Fonseca
July 04, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Barry Manilow night was — surprise! — good

Are there really only five more weeks until we choose our latest American Idol? Because frankly, people, every time I hear John Stevens slaughter another classic song, I have to run to the calendar and pinch myself to make sure we’re not back at the beginning of this season (you know, the land of the ”Uncut, Uncensored & Untalented”).

Stevens — along with the other six remaining contestants — was given a chance to redeem himself with some mellow music by Barry Manilow last night, and while the night was a bit heavy on ballads (again!!), it also turned out to be one of the strongest of this season’s shows, and there were plenty of strange surprises sprinkled throughout.

Let’s start with Diana DeGarmo, who kicked off the night singing ”One Voice” in what appeared to be a pantsuit that was once worn by her great aunt, a bank teller named Midge. The judges made a bit of a fuss last week about Diana’s tender age of 16, and she apparently listened, because she aimed for an older, more mature look and feel last night.

Did she succeed? Eh? too often Diana sounded like she was belting out a Broadway ballad, and while her voice definitely improved heaps over its sad state a week ago, I’m still not sure that Diana has the natural soul required to truly blow away the Idol audience. May I humbly offer up a suggestion? My best friend thinks that Diana needs to disappear for five years, stumble upon some sort of grand, outlook-altering tragedy (addictions, illegitimate children, and/or a fight with managers always work), and come back with a deeper, meatier sound.

I’m disappointed in George Huff and his all-over-the-map rendition of ”Trying to Get That Feeling Again,” if just because he no longer proves my contention that he has been the show’s only consistent performer. For once, it felt like George was trying too hard to make the song his own, and it showed in his exhausted, worried face at song’s end. I’m hopeful that Huff can stick around until next week, when he’ll (God willing) return to his normally enjoyable (and strong) self.

Jennifer Hudson remains this season’s ”Idol” success story, emerging from weeks of harsh criticisms courtesy of Simon to become a real contender alongside fellow divas (and early front-runners) La Toya London and Fantasia Barrino. Gone are the pink satin dresses that fit her like a burrito and that annoyingly precious attitude of superhumility that was really starting to get on my nerves. Wasn’t she rocking last night? Aren’t you eagerly awaiting the three-way showdown between Jennifer, La Toya, and Fantasia? And aren’t you happy that we are all privileged to live in what Miss Hudson called ”Jenny’s World”?

Jasmine Trias finally skanked it up a bit (okay, she moved the flower). And like Diana, who’s wisely ditched that silly pink-and-black clothing motif, she’s probably figured that the recent criticisms targeting her age will only continue to hinder her as the competition enters its final weeks. So what did she do last night? Well, for starters, she sang circles around her past few appearances, and she also utilized the stage more than she ever has.

But she didn’t quite hit that note with the force and power that comes so naturally to the likes of La Toya and Jennifer, so I’m going to predict that if America doesn’t come to the last of its remaining senses and vote creepy John Stevens off, Jasmine’s going to be the one saying aloha after this week’s voting.

I’m starting to feel a bit like a broken record when it comes to La Toya London, and since she gave another flawless performance last night, I’ll take the opportunity to say something else about the coming showdown between London and her fellow divas, Fantasia and Jennifer. (Soak up my obsession, people!) Since it’s pretty unlikely that ANY of these headstrong and obviously competitive women will falter in the next few weeks, it’s really going to be their personalities that make or break their chance to become the next Idol.

La Toya is in the unique position of cutting both ways, because to some, she’s slightly aloof and seemingly disdainful of the entire process (ever noticed how she barely bats an eye during the judges’ comments?). To others, though, she’s classy and humble, and by keeping her eye on the prize, could ultimately prove to be the sort of unobtrusive, noncontroversial contestant who can take the prize with little to no argument from the peanut gallery.

Speaking of noncontroversial, it’s John Stevens time!! Yay! My favorite part of each week! But seriously, can I ask a question of you hawkeyed viewers before I lay into John? Did anybody else notice that Simon placed his hand atop Ryan Seacrest’s as the poor guy was trying to introduce John? Was I dreaming this or did it actually happen? It occurred when Ryan was resting his hand on the back of Paula’s chair? and I know that it could NOT have been Paula’s hand because she’s all up in some cast for some inexplicable reason. (And how sad is it that I don’t care to find out?)

Back to John: ”Mandy” was the obvious and inspired choice for our resident Dean Martin, and while he put a serviceable spin on the treacly hit, was it strong enough to consider keeping him in the competition for another week? Absolutely not. That said, I recently heard that a young lady called a morning radio show in Dallas to inform the DJs that she voted for Stevens more than 350 times on a recent Tuesday evening. I hope that this poor, sad soul has been found by the proper authorities and dealt with to the fullest extent of the law. Watching ”The Swan” is sad; holding out hope that John Stevens will be your next American Idol is way, way sadder.

Fantasia Barrino livened up the night with her gospel-infused version of ”It’s a Miracle.” What did you guys think of this song choice? It seemed so out of its element on a night filled with slower jams, and I certainly take issue with the fact that it seemed to have edged out the always welcome (in my house, at least) ”Copacabana.” Fantasia didn’t really do anything wrong last night, though I’m going to take a page from Simon’s playbook and announce that my initial reaction was, ”So what?” You know, thousands and thousands of women all over the country do this same sort of thing every week — on a smaller scale, of course — and I don’t see them as deserving of a spot on ”American Idol.”

So why does Bobo continue to inspire such goodwill among viewers? Well, can you turn Gershwin’s ”Summertime” into one of the most magical musical numbers on the entire planet? Can you run around and sing your butt off in spike heels without so much as stumbling? Can you handle a microphone, your 2-year-old daughter, and the heat from an entire row of stage lights without batting an eye? I didn’t think so. Leave Bobo alone. We need her around for that three-way diva showdown I mentioned earlier.

A final note (and a rare opportunity for me to actually engage in some moral grandstanding): I’d like to implore ”Idol”’s producers to please, please cool it with the special guests in the audience. I saw Matthew Metzger and his cheesy smile beaming out from the audience, folks. I also saw the Australian Idol strategically moving his head to be in the camera frame at all times, and it was distracting me from Paula’s heinously ugly cast.

And I most certainly did not need that gratuitous crosspromotional appearance by three of the vain ladies who were sliced and diced into unrecognizable shells of their former selves on ”The Swan.” The fact that ”American Idol” — a show that is a huge hit with young girls — would willingly promote a show that reinforces beauty-related stereotypes and treats plastic surgery as a quick solution to poor body image is irresponsible, ironic, and beneath the standards of anybody who wants to see the next generation of females grow into strong, dignified women. There. Now let’s get back to the business of making fun of everybody!

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