”American Idol”: A one-woman show
It’s a good thing for Fox that the American Idol semifinals end on Thursday, because for the last two weeks, the Tuesday-night ”ladies only” episodes have been less a reality singing competition than a one-woman show. Nobody who caught tonight’s episode can tell me otherwise, either: It’s all about Mandisa!
Seriously, just close your eyes for a second and think about Mandisa!’s rip-roaring rendition of ”I’m Every Woman.” Now, quick! Name any of the other seven women remaining in the competition! See?
In all fairness, I have to admit I groaned a little when I heard the opening strains of Chaka Khan’s soulful classic: How many times has the old chestnut been dragged out onto the Idol stage only to fall pitifully short of Chaka’s original, not to mention Whitney Houston’s remake? (I think the answer is three, although I can remember only Vonzell Solomon’s and Trenyce’s versions.)
But then, something amazing happened: Mandisa!’s opening salvo was a sexy slice of sing-speak: ”Now all the ladies/Get on your feet/If you are every woman/C’mon and sing with me,” she demanded, not in the super-unfunky fashion favored by Idol wannabes who know that nobody’s going to get on their feet otherwise, but rather with the siren-like authority of a hot club goddess. If you weren’t doing a little bit of couch dancing when ‘Disa! cut loose on the piping hot arrangement, then you’d better check the cushions for your soul.
As Mandisa! sang, ”Don’t bother to compare,” but since she does have competition at this stage of the game, I’d say the only other woman who came anywhere near Mandisa!’s powerhouse vocal was Katharine McPhee. Her rendition of Aretha Franklin’s ”Think” was limber and sexy, not to mention completely on key. Unfortunately, it also seemed to be slightly lacking in conviction, a fault I’m willing to overlook for two reasons: (1) Katharine made a genuinely funny dig at season 4 finalist Constantine Maroulis, a fellow graduate of Boston Conservatory (”That’s where I learned my smoldering look,” she said), and (2) I have a feeling that the grilling Ryan Seacrest gave her about rumors that she was leaving the competition, or that she might be pregnant, threw her off her game. (Of course, it probably didn’t help that Katharine was dressed like she’d overslept for Sunday brunch and barely had time to pull on some old jeans and an ill-fitting black scoop-neck out of the laundry pile.)
If only Katharine had been able to siphon off some charisma from Kellie Pickler or Ayla Brown, or if, conversely, one of those two ladies could’ve grabbed a voice lesson or two from Katharine’s mom, then perhaps Mandisa! would have some reason to worry a little. Indeed, Kellie’s ”I’m the Only One” wasn’t going to make anyone forget the Melissa Etheridge original (heck, it wasn’t even as strong as Nadia Turner’s version from season 4), but damn if that girl doesn’t just light up the stage. The way she dropped to her knees midsong, you can understand Simon’s closing statement: ”I kind of prefer you to last year’s winner, actually.” So do I, albeit for vastly different reasons.
Unlike Kellie’s performance, Ayla’s version of Natasha Bedingfield’s ”Unwritten” might actually have been an improvement on the original. At the very least, the overachiever from Massachusetts picked a song that was a perfect fit, both lyrically and melodically, and as a result she was the only performer tonight, aside from Mandisa!, who actually made me believe every word she sang.
Ayla hasn’t quite been able to pull together a convincing look — that weird hair swoop and brown cropped jacket seemed way too middle-aged for a 17-year-old — and there are still moments of sheer awkwardness when she’s talking to Ryan or the judges, but as she sang tonight, ”I’m just beginning, the pen’s in my hand, ending unplanned.” Let’s hope that ending at least finds her surviving into the final 12.
If any of the other four women in the competition advance to the finals, they could learn a little something from Mandisa!, Katharine, Kellie, and Ayla. Like, choose an enjoyable song (and for the love of all that’s holy, not always a ballad, Lisa Tucker!). Make sure the song actually means something to you (no, Paris, I don’t believe that you’ve ever done the conga, or that you want to see the rest of the known world dance it with you). Try not to riff on the melody if riffing means veering into shrieking, off-key territory (although at least Kinnik admitted she had a rough night). And, well, um?hey! I forgot who the eighth and final singer is! Anyone?
Anyhow, if I had to choose which two women should get cut on Thursday (and thus lose out on a trip to the finals), I’d say Lisa and either Kinnik or the forgettable one. I’m sorry, I know a lot of you folks are members of the Lisa fan club, but shouldn’t you people be watching Star Search? There’s something about the kid that’s so off-puttingly practiced, like that insta-grin she turned on the second the judges finished critiquing her pageant-contestant performance of Tiffany Taylor’s dreary ”Where I Stand.” Plus, I don’t think she’s any better a singer than, um — oh yeah, now I remember, the one who looked like Count Dragula! — Melissa McGhee, who at least picks decent songs like Heart’s ”What About Love” and is likable in a Target sale kind of way.
Which leaves us with big-voiced Paris, who so many message-board posters say shouldn’t be in the competition because her grandmother is a member of the gospel act Sounds of Blackness. (Because, like, everyone has a Sounds of Blackness CD. Well, actually, I do have one, but that’s not the point.) At this stage of the game, Grandma is as much a liability as she is a benefit, since it seems like she (or some other AARP member) is picking the perky teenager’s outdated numbers. But I’ve still got hope that Paris will bounce back next week with something as show-stopping as her previous renditions of ”Take Five” and ”Midnight Train to Georgia.” She’d better, or else we might be looking at 12 whole weeks of Mandisa! — and the boys.
What do you think? Is Mandisa! in her own league? If not, which of the other women is as good as or better than her? And which two women don’t deserve to make it to the final 12?