A big improvement for the guys from last week. They don't seem quite so outclassed by the ladies. A nice shout-out to Jennifer Hudson at the beginning; short and sweet and appropriate. Indeed, anyone who makes the final 12 and gets that weekly national exposure that is invaluable and goes on to make a mark of any sort is indeed a credit to "Idol" and the work of their behind-the-scenes producers (who sit through tens of thousands of auditions) and the three judges who winnow them down a small group of just a few dozen. Jennifer Hudson has wavered back and forth, being polite about the leg-up of "Idol" but also saying that if she'd won the entire thing that she would never have been in a place where she could have auditioned for "Dreamgirls" and got the part. That's absurd and she knows it -- the massive audition came down to Hudson and...Fantasia, the winner of the show the season Hudson was in the final Top 12. Fantasia was available and ready and darn near got the role. Fantasia has also starred in a TV movie (about herself) and will star on Broadway in "The Color Purple." Saying the winner of "Idol" would be too busy to star in a major new movie musical is just silly. The opposite is far more true: if Jennifer Hudson hadn't been in the Top 12, she probably wouldn't have been within a mile of the film auditions. Yes, talent will out but lucky breaks and national exposure sure help and "Idol" will always deserve credit for showcasing Hudson's talent.
PHIL STACEY -- he played the military card, again, by dedicating his song to his fellow men and women in uniform. The photograph of his pals was unintentionally hilarious -- one guy had a fey, come hither look on his face, with another sailor resting his head on the guy's soldier and next to Stacey was a pretty boy sailor. It looked like the Village People's "In The Navy" world. Singing John Waites' "Missing You," Stacey aka Bat Boy was for most of the show the most improved. his vocals were much better all the way through, and not just when he went for a rock vibe, but even during the quiet passages. Good enough to stick around a few more weeks.
Then we got our first random shot of Jeff Foxworthy, who hosted the slow-moving but somewhat tricky quiz show "Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?" During the interviews between Ryan and the contestants meant to pad out the episode to a too-lengthy 90 minutes, AJ looked super-nervous as he tapped his toes while answering a question.
JARED COTTER -- Dedicated to his folks. Looking very nice in a dressy but casual suit sans tie, Jared tried to channel Marvin Gaye while singing "Lets' Get It On." It was smooth, but draggy and he was about as sexy as a Cub Scout. He was performing in front of his parents and didn't have to be embarrassed for a moment, whereas if you're really digging into Gaye's salacious ode, your mom should be red-faced while her baby gets seriously worked up. He was imitating sexy quite nicely but not genuinely passionate. And the hand down the face at the end was absurd, marring a so-so finale. Still, the vocals were fine. But Simon's ref to a performance on a cruise ship, specifically The Lvoe Boat, was spot-on as usual.
On a night filled with sexual double entendres and gay refs, Ryan blurted out "The things we've done to that song. Memories!" It was odd but more genuine than anything in Jared's performance.
AJ TABALDO -- Dedicated to his folks. AJ sang Michael Buble's "Feeling Good" and looked very nice in a vest, classy but not too "adult." I thought he performed well, with his vocals being his best so far. But his moves were so choreographed, I couldn't help feeling he'd practiced them a thousand times before alone in his bedroom, in front of a mirror. He hit the big notee towards the end, something that can always get you through to the next round. But agin AJ waved his hand in the air and looked like a club kid at Splash or some other gay bar. Obviously it doesn't bother me, but isn't there just something too gay about his performance style that is gonna hurt AJ down the road? Hence Simon's pointed comment that "You looked strangely comfortable" performing.
SANJAYA MALAKER-- Dedicated to his grandfather. Wearing a dorky hat, Sanjaya sang the standard "Stepping Out" in a thin, small voice that was so quiet, I was constantly worried he would be drowned out by the musicians. He had an absolutely awful finale and was timid while singing and even more timid while talking with the judges, sounding like a Michael Jackson-wannabe. Like AJ, he was way too choreographed, with lots of little moves that were over-rehearsed. Back to back, they both just seemed super-gay to me. A disaster.
CHRIS SLIGH -- Dedicated to his wife. He sang "Trouble," and was smooth and confident throughout. Sligh will easily get through the next round and while we can't expect a dramatic makeover (he's just a big guy), I don't think he's even come close to showing off his vocal ability yet. This is one contestant who is going to keep sounding better and keep impressing. Despite his popularity, as a singer Sligh has almost been under the radar. He clearly won't be peaking too soon as far as showing off his talent.
NICK PEDRO -- Dedicated to his girlfriend. A decent but passion-less performance of "Fever," with too many shots of the drummer by the director. (As I've said before, one or at most two shots of the musicians and backup singers is plenty; anything more just detracts from the singer.) Nick was very rough right before the finale and overall I couldn't shake the feeling that he came across as Sanjaya's older brother. The judges were far too nice (not Simon, of course) and Nick FINALLY made the "Vote For Pedro!" joke we'd all been waiting for. That alone might get him through to the next round; that and his nice guy looks.
More sexual banter from the judges, with Ryan trying to make fun of Simon's clothes by saying they should dress Nick in tight black shirts and he should rub his hands all over his chest and Simon saying, "Calm down, Ryan." They will seemingly never tire of gay banter. And clearly, the odd moments from last week between them were just that -- moments.
BLAKE LEWIS -- Dedicated to his folks. He had on a very goofy hat and sang Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity." I thought it was a fun performance, with some good beatboxing and some shaky falsetto towards the end. But his singing was undistinguished and not terribly strong, especially in the first part where he was singing the song straight. Plus his pants were too baggy for nice grey slacks and looked terrible with white sneakers. I'd place him in the middle, but the judges loved it, except for Simon.
More gay banter from Simon, when Ryan asked if "they" were dating, meaning Simon and Paula and Simon responded with "Who? Me and Randy?" because gay banter never, ever gets old.
BRANDON ROGERS -- Dedicated to his late grandmother. He sang Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" with his mom tearing up in the audience. Unfortunately, his vocals were terrible. He had a horrible beginning, was weak on the chorus and generally just awful. It was his dad's b-day and maybe that coupled with a pillorying from Simon wil get him through to the next round. But it won't be his singing that does it. Simon finally punctured the obnoxiousness of dedication week, but saying, "It's my mum's birthday....in November." and "I like puppies. I LOVE puppies." Brandon also scored points here by laughing along with the joke, as he should have.
CHRIS RICHARDSON -- Dedicated to his grandmother, who is living, thus giving Brandon a leg up on Chris. He sang "Geek Into Pink" and I thought he was way too jerky with his dance moves; personally, I was starting to get seasick. His vocals were okay, but not exceptional to me. His strong suit is that he's doing hip-hop while everyone else is mired in older styles, so Chris seems modern in comparison. (Frankly, this could have been standards night, what with Fever and Stepping Out and Feeling Good.) But the judges loved him, with Simon saying he was the best by a mile. But wait....
SUNDANCE -- dedicatd to his son Levi, with Sundance scoring points by tearing up when he said he missed his kid, who was just learning how to smile. Sundance FINALLY gave a decent performance of the warhorse "Mustang Sally." He'd been so awful and didn't deserve in the least to still be here and he knew it. The difference was so dramatic it sounded like the second coming. Yes, he was the most improved, but he went from awful to good, not awful to great. A million bar bands do that song just as rousingly every night. But it was good, though I have no confidence he can maintain his mojo on theme nights.
GOODBYE -- to Sanjaya and Brandon Rogers, if there's any justice.