''American Idol'': Bo and Carrie turn up the heat
Hey, did you hear the one about the Tin Woman, the beauty-pageant contestant, and the rock superstar?
In my mind, that'd be an accurate depiction of Carrie Underwood, Vonzell Solomon, and Bo Bice as they duked it out this week for a place in the final two of this season's American Idol.
But before you accuse me of taking another fembot potshot at Carrie, keep in mind what happened at the end of The Wizard of Oz: No, the Tin Man never got an actual heart, but The Wizard did award him a ticking watch that was a close approximation of the real thing.
Is it any coincidence that, in the same week she paid a visit back to her hometown, Carrie infused two of her three songs with a passion that we had never witnessed before? (Maybe there's no place like Oklahoma?) It didn't hurt that she had legendary producer Clive Davis in her corner. The season's first final-12 guest judge picked a song for each of the contestants, but he gave Carrie the choicest selection, Roy Orbison's glorious ''Cryin'.'' That said, a song is only as good as its interpreter, and Carrie not only captured the tender ache of the lyrics but also managed to put her own twist on the melody (a rarity among this season's contestants). Maybe she merely did a double axel where Orbison hit the quadruple with his trademark falsetto ending, but since her rendition was lacking in neither emotional gravitas nor artistic merit, why deduct points?
For her second number, Carrie had considerably less song to work with, but again, she dug deep into her Swiss Army ticker and made something worth listening to out of Air Supply's ghastly ''Makin' Love Out of Nothing at All,'' the kind of Velveeta-coated ballad you'd expect out of recently departed finalist Anthony Fedorov. While Carrie's eyes filled with vague hesitation each time she approached one of the song's tricky riffs or octave changes, she needn't have worried; although Simon accused her of pushing the melody too much in the song's midsection, to me it sounded like her air supply was more than adequate. In fact, the only time Carrie didn't sound vibrantly alive this week was the one time she openly denied her robo-roots, singing ''Man, I Feel Like a Woman.'' (Funny that Vonzell booster Randy picked the wispiest of Shania Twain's wispy hits as his ''gift'' to Carrie.)
Speaking of judges, while I've railed against Simon all season for favoring Carrie, no one was unjustly tougher on her tonight. The cynic in me suspects a May-sweeps ratings stunt: After all, who needs to tune into the Wednesday results show if a Bo-Carrie showdown is a foregone conclusion? Why not hurl some out-of-left-field criticism at the blond farm girl and some unearned praise at Baby V., just to keep the masses guessing about how this week's voting will all play out?
Surely this theory explains Randy's laughable depiction of Vonzell's neutered take on ''Chain of Fools'' as ''one of the best vocals that's ever been sung on this show.'' Huh? I mean, the potential Miss Florida's smile sure lit up the screen as she sashayed her way through the number, but just because you're singing a soul classic doesn't make you soulful, mmmkay? Don't take my word for it, either: To quote Mr. Davis, Baby V. ''missed the soulful essence of the song.'' And this is a man who's championed the careers of Janis, Whitney, Alicia, and Fantasia, which trumps playing bass for Journey the last time I checked.
With all respect to Clive, however, I must disagree with his praise of Vonzell's ''I Know I'll Never Love This Way Again.'' When Paula describes a final-three performance as pitchy, and when I start feeling wistful for Anwar Robinson's early-season rendition of the same song, you know a vocal is badly off-key.
Alas, I couldn't even get behind Vonzell during the judges'-choice round an adequate but far from overwhelming rendition of Donna Summer's ''On the Radio,'' astutely chosen by Simon. There's no doubt the Vonz has a pleasant enough singing voice and a winning look, but somewhere in the last two weeks, it's as if her pilot light went out. That mail-carrier spunkiness has been replaced by an overprocessed enthusiasm that, while it might win her a Miss Congeniality award in a state beauty pageant, simply isn't going to inspire folks to speed-dial her past the suddenly inspired fembot.
Oh, and while we're on the subject of pilot lights, can I just say that the resident rock god's has turned into something of a five-alarm fire? Bo's a cappella rendition of Badlands' ''In a Dream'' is seriously making me rethink the story I wrote earlier this week about the 10 best 'Idol' performances of all time. Bo's decision to toss caution and backing instruments to the wind paid off more than I'd have ever expected, as the Alabama native showed off his ability not only to hit listeners' guts but also to hit even the trickiest notes with total authority. Much like Fantasia's season 3 ''Summertime,'' it was the kind of star-making turn that renders the results of the competition irrelevant for Mr. Bice.
The one time this week I agreed with Randy (who's thisclose to overtaking Paula as Idol's loopiest judge) was the fit of nerves I got when Clive Davis announced he'd picked Elton John's ''Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me'' as Bo's opening number. But not to worry, Bice Squad, your man is in such a zone right now that not even a soaring power ballad can bring out those occasional vocal imperfections that crept into his early-season performances.
If, somehow, Bo gets eliminated this week, it'd be a virtual deathblow to the show's momentum heading into the finals. And while I grudgingly admit that Carrie is more deserving of advancing to the finals than Vonzell, I've somehow got the feeling that fans of all three contestants should keep their heads up. After all, given that Britney Spears' career in music may have completely imploded sometime around 9:37 pm over on competing UPN, there might be a little more room for Bo, Carrie, and Vonzell on the charts as early as this summer.
What do you think? Do you mostly agree with the judges, or do you think they're trying to build interest by making the contestants seem more evenly matched? Did Bo pull so far ahead that he's a shoo-in? If so, which woman is going to the final two?