''American Idol'': Judging the also-rans
This week, we're down to 20 contestants on American Idol, but in eight days, only 12 will be left. Love 'em or hate 'em, 6 performers have all but guaranteed their spot in the finals: Bo Bice, Mario Vazquez, and Anwar Robinson on the guys' side, and Mikalah Gordon, Nadia Turner, and Carrie Underwood among the women.
On the flip side, a couple of singers have proven so utterly unremarkable that they really ought to be polishing their résumés for that inevitable return to the world of normal jobs. I hope Joseph Murena, David Brown, Celena Rae, and Lindsey Cardinale have brushed up on their typing skills, because I've certainly heard enough of them, and I'm betting America has too.
Which leaves us, of course, with the Christina Christians and George Huffs and Kimberly Caldwells of the competition 10 contenders stuck in the middle and duking it out for six coveted positions.
Since we'll be spilling plenty of ink on Bo (fabulous!), Mikalah (flawless!), and Mario (fierce!) in the next couple of months, I decided to dish the worthiness of this season's potential Idol dark horses, singers who've got a chance to creep up Kimberly Caldwell-style and outlast more heavily hyped competitors. (They're listed from most likely to succeed to least; in the spirit of the semifinals, I've divvied up the contestants by gender.)
Nikko Smith Okay, so he's no Marvin Gaye, as his tepid growls on ''Let's Get It On'' proved, but when Smith exercises a little vocal restraint, he's got a silky-smooth instrument and an ability to hit the notes that puts most of his rivals (Mario, cough, cough) to shame. Bonus points for a slick, slightly retro fashion vibe that seems to be 100 percent Nikko, not the product of some pushy Idol stylist.
Anthony Fedorov I want to root against Clay 2.0, I really, really do. I mean, the kid's rendition of ''I Want to Know What Love Is'' was so wildly overwrought that he nearly popped a blood vessel. But, really, is there any other way to sing Foreigner's cheese-coated pop ballad? Okay, I admit it, I waved a lighter in the air at the end of Fedorov's performance. Sue me!
Constantine Maroulis After he slaughtered Otis Redding's ''Hard to Handle'' this week, leaving no good note unpunished, I wanted to predict the screamingly awful Maroulis's automatic elimination. But every Idol fan knows that some contestants (John Stevens, Nikki McKibben . . .) are just too terrible to rule out. With all the ridiculous flashing of his bedroom eyes and his wispy chest hair, the smart money's on Maroulis to draw enough pre-bedtime votes from the tween set to stay around at least a few more weeks. Phooey!
Scott Savol Scott himself admits he's no Brad Pitt, which breaks my heart a little bit, if I'm being honest. But while Paula and Simon praised his ''Never Too Much,'' I thought the most interesting thing about his performance was his pair of rose-tinted glasses. Bottom line: If Scott is going to inspire viewers to speed-dial on his behalf, he can't let his falsetto get all wheezy and he needs to pick a song with a pulse.
Travis Tucker He's got the most obvious sex appeal among the men, so why drape himself in a yellow sack to sing the world's dorkiest Lionel Richie track, ''All Night Long''? And as for the voice instructing us to ''raise the roof and have some fun''? The goal, Mr. Tucker, is to leave your audience panting, not to be panting in front of your audience.
Vonzell Solomon Vonzell seems like a sweetheart, and she's certainly got some pipes, but I'm not entirely convinced she knows what to do with them. When she dropped the melody midway through ''If I Ain't Got You,'' Vonzell made the song her own in all the wrong ways. Still, she's got enough stage presence and talent to get a free pass on this week's misstep.
Janay Castine You just know that despite her deer-caught-in-a-train-wreck performance on the age-inappropriate ''Hit 'Em Up Style,'' somehow Janay Castine is going to live to fight another week. Watching her knees knock together in those ridiculous brown boots, I could almost understand the urge viewers might have had to cast a couple of sympathy votes her way. At least Janay did what she set out to do: Be herself. Too bad that person happens to be a really terrible singer.
Aloha Mischeaux Before you remind me how mediocre Aloha sounded this week on ''You Don't Know My Name,'' I'd like to remind you how fabulous Aloha sounded last week on ''Work It Out.'' With that in mind, I am crossing all my fingers and toes that Ms. Mischeaux makes the final 12, because Lord knows Idol needs contestants who bring unpredictable sass to the stage and aside from Aloha, how many of this year's semifinalists do exactly that?
Jessica Sierra Simon called Jessica's rendition of ''A Broken Wing'' the best female vocal of the competition so far. By which he actually meant Jessica had delivered the best totally off-key and emotionless female country vocal in a hideous teal taffeta top and white pants. Seriously, if this woman outlasts Aloha, it's going to be like Jasmine Trias outlasting Jennifer Hudson all over again!
Amanda Avila When it comes to ''Turn the Beat Around,'' there's the legendary Vickie Sue Robinson version and the passable Gloria Estefan remake. There's even Diana DeGarmo's bursting-with-conviction rendition from last season's Estefan week. Poor Avila, she's not quite Diana DeGarmo. She barely turned the beat sideways, let alone all the way around!
What do you think? Which middle-of-the-road performers could break from the pack?