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”American Idol”: Putting some English on it
Forgive me for trotting out the old cliché about a picture being worth a thousand words, but can any of you think up an adjective that describes Sanjaya Malakar’s cover of ”You Really Got Me” as accurately as the image of the sobbing little girl the Idol producers kept cutting to during tonight’s episode, the British Invasion theme night? Now mind you, I don’t know who the girl is. And I don’t know if she was crying out of joy, or terror, or pain, or amusement — or some combination of the four. But with even Simon deferring to the evening’s unlikeliest star — ”I think the little girl’s face says it all” — it was clear something spectacularly awful was going down.
Indeed, watching Sanjaya, sporting his hideous gloved sweater, doing his Gene Simmons tongue before the commercial break, grinding suggestively in front of Paula, and growling lyrics like ”You’ve got me so I can’t sleep at night,” all I could think was ”No, Sanjaya, you’ve got me so I can’t sleep at night!” Seriously, I’m worried that if I close my eyes, I might hear the screaming of the Kinks. On the plus side, though, now I can finally relate to friends and relatives who grew up on upstate New York farms where they had to witness the slaughter of livestock during their formative years.
As off-the-charts heinous as Sanjaya was tonight (note that Paula told the kid he was ”a lot of fun,” not actually in tune), I’ve got a feeling of nameless dread that many of us Idol fans will be sobbing like schoolgirls after he survives the cut on Wednesday night’s results show.
Maybe I’m wrong. But I’m betting it’ll be Stephanie Edwards, a singer I’ve found consistently enjoyable if not always spectacular this season, who’ll pay the price for a disastrous cover of Dusty Springfield’s ”You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me.” Clad in an ill-fitting blue satin corset dress and black spike-heel boots, Stephanie started her performance tentatively and just got worse from there; she was sharper than Sharon Stone’s ice pick on most of the big notes and displayed all the energy of a week-old helium balloon hovering depressingly over the carpet. I don’t know what’s happened to Stephanie, but Simon’s right — where are the rawness and the passion of her previous efforts, like ”How Come You Don’t Call Me” or ”Dangerously in Love”? She’ll be lucky if she gets a chance to get her groove back next week.
I’m not saying that I want Stephanie to go home, or that she doesn’t deserve to make this season’s top-10 tour, but sometimes on Idol, momentum is just as important as overall talent. Of course, if voters don’t judge Stephanie on this week alone, it could spell trouble for Haley ”Clock In, Clock Out” Scarnato or Gina Glocksen.
Now I’ve taken a lot of flak on the TV Watch message boards for my long-standing dislike of Haley’s performances, but you’ve got to admit it was pretty comical hearing her say she wanted to give an ”aggressive” performance of ”Tell Him” (an Exciters hit covered by Brit Billie Davis, and thus qualifying for this night’s theme), then deliver it with all the passion of a non-English-speaker who’d learned the lyrics phonetically a few hours before the telecast. Did Haley hear anything that Lulu, who was an extremely perceptive vocal coach for the female contestants, told her about delivering the lyrics in staccato bursts? Or was it just that Haley spent so much time selecting and squeezing into her gold halter top and brown hot pants that she couldn’t be bothered to work on things like, oh, not running out of breath every time she launched into the chorus? Simon said it best: ”People are gonna be talking about a lot more than your singing.” But with Maxim and Stuff readily available on the newsstand, is there really any reason to vote Scarnato?
While I find Gina’s personality more endearing than Haley’s, I’d have to concede her rendition of the Rolling Stones’ ”Paint It Black” was actually the weaker vocal tonight. Part of Gina’s problem is conviction; being a rocker involves more than wearing a blouse made of black leather strips and growling the words ”black as night!” But even if Gina really gets in touch with her inner rock goddess, is she any more talented than season-2 castoff Kimberly Caldwell or season 4’s gravelly Nadia Turner? Gina was correct when, responding to Simon’s critique, she said, ”I sang, I performed.” Just not particularly well!
Phil Stacey, who, when he’s at his best, might possibly have the strongest voice of all the men in the competition, grappled with a similar lack of conviction on ”Tobacco Road.” Granted, the dude sounded pretty solid to me (when I could separate his voice from that overzealous backup singer), but there was a paint-by-numbers feel to the performance: A. Grab mike stand. B. Stalk stage sternly. C. Sweat mightily. D. Howl! Phil certainly ought to survive into next week, but he’s running out of time to get comfortable on the stage, and to learn to feel every word of every song he sings. That said, at least he didn’t struggle with the low notes of his number this week.
The same cannot be said for Chris Sligh, who picked the night’s best song (the Zombies’ ”She’s Not There”) but bordered on inaudible (and out of breath) for about a quarter of the performance. Indeed, the ”she” in the song’s title could’ve been referring to Chris’s lower register, and while I’m all for interaction with the audience, I found Chris’s walk through the crowd extremely distracting.
But lest I sound like a total downer — yeah, yeah, I know, too late — five of the night’s performances impressed me, albeit to differing degrees. Can we start with LaKisha Jones’ ”Diamonds Are Forever”? Oh, Kiki! Thanks for not listening to Lulu’s pleas that you cover ”You’re My World” (what?). Of course, you probably couldn’t hear her over my howling insistence that you cover my second-favorite James Bond theme ever. And, yes, Kiki, you covered it well. Didn’t miss a note, even. The only problem is, much as you did with the $1 million in diamonds you were rocking, you were merely borrowing Shirley Bassey’s classic — right down to her gloriously campy phrasing and inflection. Sure, you wore ’em nicely, but Kiki, if you really want to go farther than sixth place, you’re going to have to put down the crutch of karaoke and find a way to inhabit these songs. Tell me you’ll work on it, okay?
I’m worried that if LaKisha doesn’t develop her own style, she might get booted before the likes of Chris Richardson, who delivered ”Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” with not one single annoying vocal run. Yeah, he was a tad nasal, and no, I don’t think I’ll ever root for the guy. But for the first time in five live performances, I could see why he’s one of season 6’s male front-runners. Now we’ll have to see if Chris R. reverts back to his melismatic ways without the spot-on coaching from Peter Noone.
Mr. Noone also seemed to help Blake Lewis stay focused on the beauty of the melody of his song choice, the Zombies’ ”Time of the Season.” If I’m being honest (and why wouldn’t I be?), Blake’s beatboxing kind of felt like an afterthought tonight, but for the first time since week 1 of the semifinals, his vocals were almost entirely on key — and there is no better lyrical interpreter among this season’s male contestants. (Am I crazy for saying the guy’s voice reminds me of Morrissey?) Bonus points should (and will) be given for the jaunty camel jacket, pink shirt, V-neck sweater, and fierce plaid pants. How can I get Blake’s look for less? No, seriously!
I never imagined I’d say this (and I may regret it in the morning), but I actually think Melinda Doolittle could learn a little something from Blake. Not vocally, of course — the former backup singer appears to have struck some kind of Faustian pact that guarantees she’ll not hit a sour note for the remainder of the competition — but rather when it comes to song selection. For the second week running, Melinda chose a show-tune ballad (Oliver!‘s ”As Long As He Needs Me”) over any number of alternatives that could’ve helped her seem, well, maybe just a tiny bit contemporary. Not that I haven’t loved the ”My Funny Valentine”-”Home”-”I’m a Woman” marathon, but if Mindy Doo’s as good as I think she is, then she can handle the Rolling Stones (”Gimme Shelter”) or the Kinks (”All Day and All of the Night”) or anything she damn well pleases!
If Melinda’s not willing to hip it up a little (aside from her vastly improved hairstyle, that is), she could leave an opening for Jordin Sparks to snatch the Idol crown. And this week, for the very first time, I’m starting to think that wouldn’t be the worst way for season 6 to end. Indeed, while I haven’t shared the judges’ enthusiasm for the deeply excitable teenager for the last few weeks, tonight I thought they didn’t give her enough credit for her powerful, passionate rendition of Bassey’s ”I (Who Have Nothing),” which, no exaggeration, I’d rank in the top-20 Idol performances of all time. Paula was right — who cares how young Jordin is? Either her performances hold up against her competitors’, or they don’t. And while Simon made it sound like a bad thing that he wanted to jump off a bridge after Jordin’s number, let’s keep in mind that she was singing about soul-crushing, gut-busting unrequited love. The fact that Jordin actually made the surly Brit experience an emotion in the process, oh, that’s just gravy.
What do you think? Which contestants benefited most from British Invasion week, and which are at risk of going home? How awesome were Peter Noone and Lulu as vocal coaches? Did you enjoy seeing Ryan attempt to dance and beatbox? And, given the night’s theme, what did you make of the total absence of Beatles songs? And be sure to check out our latest Idolatry webcasts, featuring our panel’s dream picks for British Invasion week and a live performance by season 2’s Kimberley Locke!