Wednesday, April 04, 2007

"American Idol" -- The Top 9

Here's one safe prediction: my recent run of luck in predicting who is going home will end this week. Too many of the performances were so-so for me to feel confident. But here we go. Tony Bennett was a good coach -- he made solid, specific suggestions to the kids. On the other hand, he made same insanely polite comments. And how sad is it that "Duets" is his best-selling album? People, give "When Lights Are Low" or "The Beat Of My Heart" or about a dozen other CDs a chance. That's where his greatness lies.

BLAKE -- Sang "Mack The Knife." Blake looked really good...from the chest up. In medium shots -- when all you saw were the jacket and tie and his hair -- Blake looked great. But then we found out his jacket was kind of long and awkward and worst of all he was wearing sneakers. Bennett urged Blake to "pay attention to the meaning" and think about how Mack was a gangster, advice Blake sort of took to heart. Unfortunately, Bennett didn't help Blake with the key he sang in -- Blake couldn't handle the low notes, but most of the song sounded uncomfortably high to me. He had a very sharp note towards the end and wavered at the finale but at least he didn't beat-box here. His talking outro was very effective, if drowned out a bit by the band. Overall, Blake was about as menacing as a Boy Scout. Simon as usual was spot-on: "I'll give you a 7 out of 10 and the band 8 out of 10." Blake turned that around positively by saying the band was hot. He also had a nice, lopsided grin a la David Arquette. Apparently, he struggled with the lyrics in rehearsal, which wasn't a problem here. Foolishly, Blake insisted, "Going first is fun! I like getting it out of the way." Doesn't he know that the show gains viewers every half hour? Blake's vocals were awkward all the way through, basically, and going first doesn't help. If he and Chris Richardson are interchangeable Tiger Beat contestants, Blake is vulnerable. But even though I emphasize each week's performance rather than getting caught up in who has momentum, etc, I feel he probably has enough base to get by.

IDOL GIVING BACK -- More big celebs attending, including Kelly Clarkson, who will perform. Funnily enough, that seemed like big news not really because it means former Idol winners don't have to turn their back on the show to be taken seriously but more to the point just big news in general because she's one of the biggest stars in the industry right now.

PHIL -- Sang "Night and Day." Phil was stoked and said "Tony Bennett is my hero" and they immediately cut to Phil butchering "Night and Day" in a pained, high register with Bennett standing in front of him. I literally had to pause while laughing. But what does Phil care what I think? Bennett said, "Believe me when I tell you he's one of the better singers that I've heard. Not just today, but for a long time. He's a real good singer." What exactly is Bennett hearing when Phil sings? I haven't a clue but if I were Phil, that one comment would make every online reference to Nosferatu and Bat Boy more than worth it. Tony Bennett paid him a real compliment. To hell with Popsurfing. So, salud, Phil! Phil looks pretty good but immediately started wavering on the first high note of the song. He's in a weird, high register (sounding strained just like Blake) but of course he's even weaker in the lower register. He touches his heart when he gets to the line about "heart." Phil gets stronger and really does nail the final big note, which is often all that matters sometime. HE believed the performance was good and that can be really helpful too. Randy Jackson, wearing a cross, was so-so. Paula has been really solid this season with actual critiques instead of just greater or lesser cheerleading to indicate her frame of mind. But like Bennett, she went way over the top. Paula: "You remind me of a yong Frank Sinatra." Simon: "What?!" [looks away in astonishment.] Simon: "Which Frank Sinatra are you referring to? Seriously." Paula: "My opinion." (Which was a nice, end-of-discussion rejoinder.) Simon went on to refer to how gloomy and funeral parlor-ish the song was, with Phil smiling but clearly puzzled. Didn't Simon hear that big final note? He might have saved it all by responding to Randy's comment that he was disconnected to the audience or the song by saying, "I was trying to focus on my wife. That's what I was doing." It got an "awwwwwww" from the audience and a quick shot of the wife found her mouthing "I love you" to Phil. Congrats, Phil, that post-song performance may keep you safe for another week. But without getting too clever and ignoring the big final note and the post-song triumph, Phil was REALLY weak vocally and seems vulnerable to me too.

MELINDA -- Singing "I Got Rhythm." Bennett says Melinda was the "best singer all day." Uh, but Phil is the best singer he's heard in a long, long time. So does that make Melinda the best since Billie? The shot of Melinda with misty eyes over Bennett's comments was nice without harping on the modest girl vibe. Her hair looked really good, her dress was fun and thank goodness Melinda was singing something upbeat. She sang the intro, which is a sign of pure class and respect for the standards, she dove into some funky syncopation and had a terrific finish she milked for all it was worth (unlike LaKisha). She even had a little raspy, soul thing going on one of the last lines. Huge! Awesome! Those were some of the words I scribbled down. Some people still insist she's a "ringer," even though other performers have had record deals that fell through (like Kelly Clarkson) or sang on demos or released CDs regionally. If tons of backup singers start competing on Idol and get through, well, so be it. It's not like Melinda is pulling a fast one and could have signed a record deal without the show. She can look nice but she's hardly a babe and her modest persona and adult leanings in song styles a la Anita Baker make her out of step in an industry obsessed with youth. She is very deserving.

When going to the break, Chris Richardson and Jordin both did a cute little look at the camera, look at each other, look at the camera thing. It's the little things that can give you an edge.

CHRIS RICHARDSON -- Singing "Don't Get Around Much Anymore." The vest and hat were very Rat Pack, but he spoiled the look with jeans and those dorky suspenders. Ryan joked with Chris after a viewer question by asking if he practiced by imagining he was staring into Paula's eyes. Chris -- in one of those unscripted moments that can be so telling -- said, "Sure" in a nice, whatever tone, but then went on to add tellingly, "More or less the camera's (eyes)." We know he's playing to the camera but he shouldn't be revealing that. He is definitely the closest to Justin Guarini we've seen in a long time as far as knowingly playing to the camera and giving off the aura of being in love with himself. "Memorize the lyrics," Bennett told Chris helpfully. And he did. But who cares about the lyrics when you've got the producers rooting for you? Chris got a great production number, beginning with a striking silhouette beginning that should make all the other guys jealous. But what the producers think will work for the show -- cute pin-ups -- is rarely what America goes for, as they've shown repeatedly. Chris struggled with the low notes and generally just seemed to get through the song, rather than performing it. But he was working the stage and got stronger after the bridge (gee, do I repeat myself too much, just like Randy?) and brought in some actual personality. He had a cool run towards the end, especially when able to sing in a better, higher register for him and ended with a loving close-up that didn't seem too self-adoring. Even though I've found a lot to criticize, I remember the first season when Big Band night seemed way out of their league. Tonight, I feel like the standards are challenging the singers in a really good way. I've had a lot to critique, but it's been fun and cool. Don't smile too much Chris. But overall marginally better than Blake and he got to go later and had a much better presentation thanks to the producers.

JORDIN -- Sang "On A Clear Day." The song is pretty unfamiliar, which is always a danger on "Idol." Bennett said, "She sang very much in tune, which is rare these days." I'd have to peg that as a modest comment, compared to what he said for Phil (really, Phil, savor that) and Melinda. Her black vest and white shirt sort of emphasize her body in an unflattering way, making her look more pear-shaped than necessary but she looked fine overall. She had a little breathing problem at the very beginning. But as the melody went higher she got better and better with just a marvelous, lovely high note at the end. She pointed to her ear when she sang "You can hear." More effectively, she did a little "come on" gesture with her hand while building towards the finale. Controlled and classy (the very word I think Paula used, "controlled") with great lighting for the final shot when she tilted back her head. (The producers want her in a long while, too, just like Chris.) Really, her voice just soared at the end but I'm afraid it played better in the arena than on TV. Her voice was buried a little bit in the mix at the very end or the band drowned her out or she just had the microphone a hair too far away from her mouth. She was great, but I'm not sure it came fully across. Paula called her a "magnet of joy" and said "I'm just so frickin' proud of you." Simon brought me up short when he called it "old-fashioned" which is right on. It's also a little dangerous because the song is relatively unknown. I thought she was terrific but she too might be a tad vulnerable.

GINA -- Singing "Smile." Bennett said, "That was beautiful, the way you sang it." He then offered up his comments on the song, saying, "When I sing it, I think of 9-11 and the soldiers in Iraq right now. [pausing, as a note of emotion and heartbreak makes his voice crack] And praying they come home." That framing of how to think of the song should be invaluable to Gina this week. The heartland should eat it up. Of course, his comments were undercut by her ludicrous, multi-colored hair that looked like some Eighties wig that a Pat Benatar or Heart wannabe would don. Just awful and really weakening her entire presentation. But then she sang. For two weeks in a row, Gina has proven she can sing. This time, Simon's comments of "old-fashioned" seemed a little silly. It is Standards Week. On the other hand, while Gina actually can sing, she's lost her distinctiveness as a rocker which makes her weaker down the road. But when she tries to sing like a rocker, she's far less effective. That's what we call a Catch-22. With Bennett's comments about Iraq and her overall solidness, I think Gina is safe. But long-term, the style of singing in the last two weeks has left her adrift and ruined her distinctiveness.

SANJAYA -- Singing "Cheek To Cheek." Ryan says, "Now two legends collide" when intro-ing the piece with Bennett. In further astonishment, Bennett says, "I'm a big fan of yours." Really? From Bennett's comments, either the "Idol" people sent him the entire season and he watched it to prepare like the pro he is. OR, or is it possible he actually watches the show? The mind boggles. The all-white suit with a black shirt was fun and since of course he couldn't top the faux-hawk Sanjaya went with slicked-back hair. But he made the fatal mistake of wanting to be taken seriously this week. He danced with Paula (after Simon bodily lifted her out of her chair to encourage it) and gave just a sidelong glance at Simon (his funniest moment, to me). And as always, he had a pretty decent vocal, though it wavered more than usual at the beginning. Maybe when he sings at fuller volume, he has less control, which is not unusual. Randy, stealing Simon's comments from the week before, said, "I can't even comment on the vocals anymore." Yes, you can, Randy. They were his strongest overall since Sanjaya's audition. Simon jokingly said, "Incredible" and Sanjaya chimed right in with an amused, "Welcome to my world" response. But it wasn't really FUN and the hair was boring and asking to be taken seriously is a big, big mistake for him. I think the party's over and that Sanjaya is very vulnerable this week. If he's not bottom three, I'll be surprised.

HALEY -- Singing "Ain't Misbehavin'." She had on a great green dress that showed off her legs (which Simon commented on) and her breasts (which Simon wisely avoided mentioning). Her comments in response to a reader's question did nothing but piss off Randy and Paula. Don't contestants realize how stupid it is to focus on how much they care about what Simon says and make Randy and Paula feel peripheral? They were PISSED and treated her dismissively in their comments, not even bothering to talk about her performance and that does not look good to America, which really pays attention to what the judges say. Bennett pointed out that her improv on the song was all wrong because the lyrics are about a woman pining for one man. But he's wrong. This is Fats Waller, after all, one of the more playful lyricists. It's hardly a stretch to see this song played as vampy and with a woman "pledging" herself to one guy after another. "Ain't Misbehavin'. I'm saving my love for you. And you. And you." Heck, she says she's just waiting at home for him, but you don't have to believe her. Haley sort of went along with Bennett but couldn't resist throwing in a second "and you" when she began the song, giving her the worst of all possible choices by seeming to ignore him but not really committing to her interpretation. Her vocals were technically fine but essentially boring. Simon commented on her singing by saying "I think you've got great legs," to which Haley looked utterly confused. His later comment that it was a little "pageant-y" was also dead-on. Adult men are NOT a strong contingent of voters. And "Idol" viewers have consistently rejected contestants who try to use their sex appeal too obviously. I think Haley is very vulnerable.

LAKISHA -- Singing "Stormy Weather." Bennett gave her one big piece of advice -- that she should skip the little riff at the end and stick with that big final note. That is ALWAYS good advice on "Idol," especially if you've got a voice like hers. Melinda held her big final note with aplomb earlier. But LaKisha has a track record of ignoring advice. That can be good when you're being true to yourself and avoiding being shaped into something you're not. But when you're talking about presentation (something Diana Ross knows all about, who suggested a stand for the mike) and giving a pow finale (something Bennett knows all about), repeatedly ignoring the advice of the experts is just stubbornness. LaKisha is going to be a handful for anyone who works with her. She sure looked great though. She had a rough beginning, due in part to the saucy spin she tried to put on the vocals. Her "keeps rainin' and rainin' and rainin' and rainin'" was a terrific build-up to the finale and then she hit that huge final note and could have raised the roof but deflated it with a dull little riff at the end. Yes, she has a big voice. But talk about having no sense of the song you're singing. Unlike "Ain't Misbehavin' (which even sounds playful in the title), "Stormy Weather" is strictly a song about someone who is in the depths of despair. There is simply no other way to read those lyrics. LaKisha sang it as if it were a come-on, with that sassy little curl in her voice. It's not a song of triumph; it's a song of titanic heartbreak but she went for triumphant. It was a complete misreading of the song, something she's done before. The finale - if it's her and Melinda -- could be a real diva-off, but frankly I think Melinda would be challenged more by Jordin. LaKisha simply belts everything out and I've never been more convinced she won't win. But is she vulnerable? Heck no. Do I wish I had her voice? Heck yes. Will she have a post-Idol shot at a career? Absolutely. And hopefully not winning it all will teach her she doesn't have all the answers yet and that Tony Bennett and Diana Ross might just know what they're talking about.

At the final group shot, Chris Richardson had that faux-sexy, arms at the side hot dude pose akin to the finalist on "Grease: You're The One That I Want." Dude, go for bashful and aw-shucks. If you can. He definitely has a future on the CW in a "One Tree Hill" type show.

So here's my problem. Looking back, I've said that Blake and Phil and Jordin and Sanjaya and Haley are all vulnerable. And certainly all of them (except for Jordin) will be gone, with Melinda and LaKisha in the final four with Blake or Chris the sole guy and Jordin the last one in. Phil, Sanjaya and Haley will all be gone, along with Gina. But in what order?

THE BOTTOM TWO -- Just trying to focus on this week's performance, I'd say Phil and Sanjaya and Haley and Blake are the bottom four. (Talk about hedging your bets.) The fun definitely went out of Sanjaya, but I'm going to say Phil and Haley are the bottom two, with Haley going home thanks to her unmemorable performance and ultra-competitive demeanor. No, I'm thinking too much about this. My first instinct was Phil and Sanjaya in the bottom two with Sanjaya going home with a wave and a smile. And that's what I'll stick with. Just when everyone thinks Sanjaya gets to coast for a few weeks, America will send him home.


Michael in New York said...

Boy am I tempted to second guess myself. Joe is right in thinking that Phil could definitely go home tonight. And Blake slips so easily from the mind that he could be going home -- I was just afraid of placing too much emphasis on the deadliness of going first. And Haley comes across as too "head cheerleader" and competitive to feel safe either.

joe said...

Great recap Michael. Just with regards to Jordin's last note, and whether it came across as well on TV as it may have in person -- I thought it was one of the best and most distinctive notes I've ever heard on the show. Just my two cents.

I think your hedging about who stays and who goes just further shows the great divide in talent on the show. Phil, Haley, Gina, and Sanjaya SHOULD be the next four to go, but I think the order is really just too tough to call.

Michael in New York said...

I certainly won't be sorry if you're right about Phil. I just thought that comment about his wife saved him with viewers. The big question is whether the anti-Idol vote for Sanjaya as a joke contingent really has sway. I think the field is so big that they could have a swing effect, but it'll fade once we get down to the final four. Glad to hear Jordin sounded good to you too. I thought it was great. Surprised the judges didn't talk it up. And I'm surprised they just gave laKisha a free pass, but clearly they expect and want a Diva Off for the finals.