TV Recap

Original Sins

On ''American Idol,'' the finalists are stuck with subpar songs written for the show: Taylor makes us proud, while Katharine's destiny looks like second place

HICKS AND ''THE CITY'' Taylor scored by reprising a Stevie Wonder classic
Image credit: American Idol: Ray Mickshaw/FOX
HICKS AND ''THE CITY'' Taylor scored by reprising a Stevie Wonder classic

''American Idol'': Taylor outperforms Katharine

Hey, I've got an idea: How about for the season finale of next year's American Idol, the two finalists get to perform original songs chosen by the show's viewers? Fox could get some ratings mileage out of the process by scheduling six or eight episodes of a parallel reality series, American Songwriter, in which unknown composers would compete to write the first hit single for Idol's season 6 winner. Certainly, some aspiring Diane Warren or Jermaine Dupri should be able to pen something, anything superior to ''My Destiny,'' the indescribably awful opus that got foisted on poor Katharine McPhee tonight, or ''Do I Make You Proud?,'' Taylor Hicks' marginally less hideous selection. C'mon now, when even Paula Abdul is complaining about substandard song selection, you know something's not right at the Kodak.

Then again, perhaps Idol's producers shouldn't tinker with a ratings-proven formula. What better way to test prospective singing superstars, really, than by forcing them to turn painfully schlocky ballads into get-out-the-vote triumphs?

Unfortunately for Katharine, she performed no such magic on ''My Destiny.'' Clad in yet another my-stylist-hates-me concoction — a constricting foam-green dress with a pleated bottom that looked like the trim on Aunt Frida's curtains — the California girl struggled with the song's too-low opening verse, then tried to compensate by shrieking her way to an all-over-the-place, off-key conclusion. I wonder if the judges' reluctance to offer any real criticism (aside from Randy kicking off his spiel with that old backhanded compliment, ''You look amazing'') had anything to do with 19 Entertainment's fiscal stake in the release of a ''My Destiny'' single, or if Simon & Co. simply wanted to ratchet up the suspense level for Wednesday night's results.

Not that the identity of the season 5 champ should be much of a mystery after Taylor overcame some opening-note wobbliness on ''Do I Make You Proud?'' to turn the song into an Up With People-esque showstopper. Whether or not his goofy dancing and ''Soul Patrol!'' shtick drives you wild or drives you to distraction, it's hard to deny the man has two huge advantages over his competitor. For starters, Taylor's able to feel the lyrics of his songs in a way that Katharine almost never does. Even singing trite lines like ''My heart is full of endless gratitude/You were the one, the one to guide me through,'' Taylor infuses his songs with pain and passion that make his audience believe him. What's more, the gray-haired dude has an instantly recognizable voice, a characteristic he shares with all four previous Idol winners. As Paula so succinctly put it, no matter what Taylor sings, he brings his own personality and nuances with him (no small feat on the ''Idol single.'')

Still, the evening's general lack of suspense can't be blamed entirely on ''Do I Make You Proud?'' and ''My Destiny,'' as the format for the entire hour drained any lingering sense of drama from the showdown. By forcing the singers to choose their two greatest hits from earlier in the season, it meant a full two-thirds of the finale was essentially a rerun — not that I'd object to hearing Taylor's ''Living for the City'' or Katharine's ''Somewhere Over the Rainbow'' again.

Indeed, Taylor's rousing rendition of the Stevie Wonder joint, which served as his opening number, was the evening's high point, and underlined the Alabama native's soulful vibe and smart commercial instinct (well, aside from the purple velvet jacket, that is). Whereas Katharine chose her two encores from weeks 8 and 10 of the finals (the May 2 and 16 episodes), Taylor dug further back to week 1 of the semifinals and week 1 of the finals (Feb. 22 and March 14), making his selections feel far fresher.

Katharine's peak performance, ''Somewhere Over the Rainbow,'' was every bit as strong as Taylor's ''Living for the City'' but lacked the same emotional impact — mostly because she'd delivered an almost identical performance of the Wizard of Oz chestnut a mere seven days before. Even though I went into the evening rooting for Taylor, I found myself hoping Kat might surprise me and perform the entire number a cappella, and not just the opening few bars. That kind of bravura effort could've carried her to victory.

Similarly, Katharine's ''Black Horse and the Cherry Tree'' was, as Simon noted, ''good with a small g,'' but certainly not as lively as the last time she'd performed it. And that, my friends, gives her a one good, one bad, one so-so score for her final performance episode, not nearly enough momentum to carry her past last week's massacre of ''I Believe I Can Fly,'' let alone carry her to a season 5 crown. Or at least that's how I see it.

Meanwhile, Taylor's somewhat underwhelming (though not bad) cover of ''Levon'' (a song that, no matter how many times I hear it, makes about as much sense to me as my high-school physics class — not much) still leaves him with two splendid performances to end his Idol run. That statistic, coupled with the fact that Taylor suppressed his (very energetic) inner wedding singer for the entire hour, should, if there's any justice, result in the naming of a spastic, prematurely gray, not thin, harmonica-playing, non-sequitur-shouting former bar singer as the next American Idol. If that's not enough to make us all proud, I'm not sure what is.

What do you think? Who deserves to be crowned the next Idol? Did you find the camera crew's obsession with the waving hands in the audience as distracting as I did? And for the love of Ayla Brown, who else is sick to death of hearing Daniel Powter's ''Bad Day'' at the end of every episode?

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Originally posted May 23, 2006
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