TV Recap

Risk-Free Business

In the second week of ''American Idol'' semifinals, too many of the women played it safe, a dangerous strategy when competitors like Ayla, Kellie, and Mandisa! are around

American Idol | FAITH-BASED INITIATIVE Mandisa!'s ''Cry'' was the night's best performance
FAITH-BASED INITIATIVE Mandisa!'s ''Cry'' was the night's best performance

''American Idol'': The safe and the sorry

Wait just a minute here. We're only on the second week of semifinals for season 5 of American Idol, and already the contestants are hedging their bets? Not a bad strategy, perhaps — if you're the kind of singer who's content with merely making it to the final 12. But in a season where at least seven or eight wannabes look like potential champs, safe really ought to be added to the list of banned four-letter words.

Indeed, of the 10 women who performed tonight, I'd argue that half — Paris Bennett, Katharine McPhee, Lisa Tucker, Kinnik Sky, and Melissa McGhee — left a little something in the kitchen cupboard, to paraphrase the increasingly incoherent Randy Jackson. That may not pose an immediate problem for the first three (all of them early front-runners), but I'm betting Kinnik and Melissa's trepidation will result in a reprieve for either the insufferable Brenna Gethers or the depressing Heather Cox.

And seriously, if there's even a chance we'll have to endure another week of Brenna's vocal poison, then Paris and Katharine had better come with the antidote. To be fair, Paris's ''Wind Beneath My Wings'' showcased another powerful vocal this week, but the gifted teen's previous showstoppers — including last week's buoyant ''Midnight Train to Georgia'' — have set the bar so high that it's no longer acceptable just to hear her color within Bette Midler's pre-established outline. What's more, Paris should be careful about looking skyward and declaring, ''I have favor,'' before she takes the stage; you don't have to be the pet student in Bible study to know that pride goeth before a fall, mmkay, kiddo?

Katharine, on the other hand, might as well have waved a white flag to wrap up her listless (though at least on-key) take on Stevie Wonder's ''All in Love Is Fair.'' I'm not sure what her problem was this week, although I'd like to think she was regretting her decision to wear that unflattering halter top, which made it look like her waist started just beneath her cleavage. Egads!

Come to think of it, maybe the Idol producers assigned the same stylist to Lisa, whose overlapping yellow and pink tank tops seemed better suited to a slumber party than to a wobbly live performance of the Jackson 5's ''Who's Lovin' You.'' Good thing for the human doll, she's got enough fans from the audition rounds — and enough love from the judges — to get a free pass into next week.

Kinnik and Melissa have no such luxury, however, which makes their forgettable renditions of ''Here for the Party'' and ''Why Haven't I Heard From You'' all that much harder to understand. If either is lucky enough to last another week, might I suggest a nonstop soundtrack of Eminem's ''Lose Yourself''? The song's chorus pretty much drives home a crucial Idol lesson that seems to have escaped both women: ''You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow/This opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo.'' (Yes, I know there's something kind of unseemly about quoting Eminem in an American Idol TV Watch, and I promise never to do it again.)

Oh, and speaking of unseemly, how about that Brenna? Yeah, they say that disco never died, but it sure as heck received a knee to its groin tonight in the form of her abysmal ''Last Dance.'' You'd think the girl who survived elimination last week on pure chutzpah would've at least brought the attitude this week, but I think deep down she realized she was in no position to tackle a legend like Donna Summer. In some ways, it was the musical equivalent of pitting a toy poodle against a pit bull; one of 'em had better drop to the floor and recognize its inferiority — even if its nifty hammered-metal earrings kinda looked like disco balls.

I could use the same analogy for Heather's attempt to sing Mariah Carey's ''Hero,'' but what would be the point? The big-eyed blonde is never going to make the final 12 anyway, so let's save ourselves the painful trip down memory lane and, instead, ponder the three performers who took some risks and, at least to a certain degree, succeeded.

While Ayla Brown's ''I Want You to Need Me'' was probably my least favorite of these three, I had to completely agree with Simon and Paula's assessments that she works harder and seems to want to win as much as or more than any of her competitors. Indeed, choosing a Celine Dion song proved the kid is ambitious; choosing one of her lesser-known hits (and skipping the played-out ''My Heart Will Go On'') showed she's savvy too. And best of all, by discussing her tomboy roots (and the fact that she only recently discovered what foundation is), Ayla came across as winningly real. That's more than I'm willing to say for Gosh-Golly Pickler, who's coming off a bit too wide-eyed by half, but I'll be darned if her gritty ''Something to Talk About'' wasn't one of the evening's best performances. (Extra points for actually working the stage, Pickles.)

Still, any way you slice it, this ladies' night belonged to Mandisa! and her unflinching reinterpretation of Faith Hill's ''Cry.'' Like Randy, I heard a couple of rough notes from the plus-size beauty, but I also heard something that's all too rare on the Idol stage: an artist who's able to erase a well-known hit from my brain and make me feel as if I were hearing it for the very first time. Add to that Mandisa!'s genre-spanning comfort zone, as well as her megawatt personality (''dog jaw!''), and it's clear why playing it safe simply won't cut it for her competition.

What do you think? Who gave the best performance tonight? Which two contestants should start packing their bags on Thursday morning? And speaking of moving, would you agree with me that the Paula-Randy seat swap yielded considerably more intriguing comments from both?

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Originally posted Mar 01, 2006