We say it's Fantasia's contest to lose. Agree?
It's not in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary just yet, but I'm willing to bet that within, oh, 15 years, the term ''bobo'' will be a new entry, sitting right there between ''bobcat'' and ''bobolink,'' a portrait of one Ms. Fantasia ''Bobo'' Barrino to its side. What does it mean to bobo, you ask? Well, heck if I know, but Fantasia -- a longtime favorite of mine -- blurted it out with all of her might at the beginning of the show, and I didn't know whether or not to take it as a rallying cry (as in, ''Let's take it to the top!'') or a threat (as in, ''Say your goodbyes, Diana!'')
In any case, the spirit of Bobo loomed large over the penultimate episode of this kooky third season of ''American Idol,'' which has sent just about all of us who love and, yes, simultaneously loathe this show into conniption fits on a weekly basis. Thank you, America, for saving us from weeks of Amy Adams' honky-tonk torture. Screw you, America, for voting off my beloved Jennifer Hudson in favor of horrid John Stevens back in the dark days of late April. Those are the sort of schizophrenic feelings you've inspired in this ''Idol'' watcher, and I'm not sure that I'll ever quite recover.
Recover I have from last night's episode, which lacked the first-season suspense of Justin vs. Kelly or the physically hilarious sight of last season's Clay vs. Ruben showdown. Still, Fantasia vs. Diana comes with plenty of baggage, most notably the endless charges of racism, the seemingly backward fall of fellow contestants (La Toya before Jasmine?! Heresy!), and the constant allegations that nobody except, well, everybody in Hawaii has been able to get through to ''Idol'''s always-jammed phone lines. So what did we get last night? Well, we got two plucky, cheerful young Southerners -- one a child star whose performing background seems eerily like young Emily Tye's on ''Showbiz Moms and Dads,'' and another whose gospel-infused upbringing has included plenty of hardship -- and a 2-year-old daughter.
Diana kicked things off with the Tamyra Gray-penned ballad ''I Believe,'' basically a Mariah Carey retread that asks, ''Have you ever reached a rainbow's end?'' in its first line. (Oh, gag me.) In her second ballad performance, ''Don't Cry Out Loud,'' Diana immediately displayed the vocal glitch that's plagued her throughout this season. Randy called her on it too: Why does Diana seem to be straining so hard to sing from her lower register? Ask girlfriend to blow forth with a fabulous, far-reaching high note and she can belt with the best of them, but when she reverts to singing a simple verse, she's wobbly and unsteady.
(Speaking of wobbly and unsteady, could somebody please explain to me who let John Peter Lewis back into the building to choreograph that gospel choir that sang behind both Diana and Fantasia during ''I Believe''? Anybody?)
Things did pick up a bit when Diana took on Donna Summer's ''No More Tears (Enough Is Enough),'' and if I'm going to offer one piece of praise for that performance, it's that Diana has never, ever shied away from taking ballsy, brassy music and trying to make it her own. (Whether she succeeds, of course, is an utterly different story.) Still, I'm going to have to chide her once more for kicking it off with an ever-annoying ''Come on, y'all!'' One of Simon's earliest criticisms of Diana was that her routine was just too damn cutesy, and while I'm not sure that cutesy and disco diva can truly exist side by side, I will say that her infectious smile has been a real highlight of the season.
But it hasn't been highlight enough to outshine my Bobo, who proved yet again last night that this competition is hers to lose. I have to agree with Simon that her first performance, K-Ci and JoJo's ''All My Life,'' was far from her strongest and, frankly, a bit of a mess. But I also have to agree with Randy and Paula, who rightfully blamed that sorry musical arrangement for Fantasia's aural woes.
Fantasia quickly remedied the situation with her last two songs, giving performances that were among the best in ''Idol'''s short history (and Simon, apparently, agrees -- he told her that she was the best contestant from any of the worldwide ''Idol''s). It was a stroke of genius to choose ''Summertime'' as her second number, especially since it's quickly become her signature song. (Can't you see it now? Thirty years down the road when she's playing casinos, Bobo's gonna rip into ''Summertime'' in exactly the same way that, oh, Patti Labelle still appeases audiences by breaking out the ''Lady Marmalade.'')
If Bobo wanted a leg up last night, then there was no way she wasn't going to sing this fabulous song, and as she sat on the stage floor, red dress flowing around her, I had to admit that her performance of ''Summertime'' added a new dimension to ''Idol'' this season. In a strange way, despite accusations that she's crude or exploitative (and I've never been too crazy about the way she drags her child onstage), Fantasia brings a depth and maturity that I'm not sure existed before. It's the heartache and the conviction in her soulful singing -- and it was present in her far superior version of ''I Believe'' -- that makes Fantasia Barrino this season's strongest, wildest, and most deserving contestant. You go, Bobo!