Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Topsy Turvy Top Ten

We’re only three weeks into the American Idol final countdown. Even so I feel confident enough to make a prediction about the winner – not a huge surprise considering that I began to study these contestants as I packed away stockings, snowflakes, and candy canes and now I’m saying goodbye to baskets, bunnies, and colored eggs. Never mind that I am already rethinking predictions I made last week about record numbers of record contracts.

It’s been a looong season. But, oh, what a difference a week can make.

Just ask Ozzie “Nikko” Smith, who was cut one week and called back up to the big leagues the next. Since he got his second chance, Smith put together a three-week hitting streak. He picks songs that showcase his strengths and infuses them with the kinetic energy that apparently is his birthright.

On the other hand, ask Mikalah Gordon, who had one impressive week when she sang God Bless the Child, followed by several disappointing performances. She inspired a loyal cult of poisonality (think Bronx accent, not toxicity) that could not save her from her vocal shortcomings.

Nikko obviously figured out what it takes to win the competition: smart song selection and consistently appealing performances. While I am enjoying his comeback, I do not foresee Nikko winning.

I have a name in mind for the winner, which I will reveal at the end of this column. Two weeks ago I thought Anwar Robinson was a strong contender. Last week I wrote that Anwar needed help choosing songs. This week I decided regretfully that Anwar is beyond help. He is a dynamic singer when he picks a melodically demanding song. I can imagine him blowing everyone away with one of Stevie Wonder’s gems from the 1970s like Golden Lady (and Nikko could do the same with Sir Duke). However, I have little hope that will happen now.

Last week I wrote off Vonzell Solomon. This week she took on a Whitney Houston ballad, an ambitious but extremely risky choice, and avoided the temptation to out-diva the original. Her song selection paid off and an appealing performance should put Vonzell back in the competition for at least another week.

For me, the most memorable part of Anthony Federov’s performance was the tragic look of devastation he wore after Simon Cowell trashed it. Or were his contact lenses bothering him? Anthony seems genuinely likable as a person while perfectly forgettable as a performer. His survival this week may depend upon the continuing support of Claymates, but I don’t think boyish looks are enough to keep him around.

Last week Jessica Sierra surprised me as Vonzell did this week. I am not familiar with the Leann Rimes song she performed, but there was an a cappella bridge where she seemed to lose her pitch and made me cringe. With her pipes, Jessica has the potential to steal every show but not the victor’s crown, I believe. I would love to hear her try a Stevie Nicks song like Edge of Seventeen or Landslide.

A relatively subdued Nadia Turner redeemed a Melissa Etheridge song I thought Nikki McKibbin butchered in season one. I bet lots of viewers who used to mock Nadia’s trademark ‘do were happy to see it back this week. I suspect last week’s mohawk cast her as more of a fashion idol and cost her as a serious contender.

Scott Savol has a big, slow vibrato that occasionally flirts with flatness. Thus he needs to pick songs that showcase his soulfulness but allow him to control his vibrato. I disagree with Simon that his performance was fit for karaoke. Like Aaron Neville, Scott has a distinctive R&B voice and unconventional look. Sadly for Scott, he is not the only good singer and this is more than a singing contest.

Carrie Underwood looks like Reese Witherspoon’s country cousin. Her talent is undeniable and unique to the AI competition. Her voice is dynamic and powerful, but her facial expression seldom varies. I am sure she will do just fine on radio, although she may need a drama coach to make her a more appealing performer. I wonder if she inspires the passion it will take for fans to deliver enough votes to “carry” her to the very top, pun intended.

We’re near the end, so I can reveal the name I have in mind for this year’s winner. I think I will call him … Clay Guarini.

Clay Guarini is a composite of two AI4 contestants who combine the attractiveness of Justin Guarini with the charm and talent of Clay Aiken. AI fans have never had a traditional heartthrob who could really sing and this year’s competition features two: Bo Bice and Constantine Maroulis.

The momentum seems to be with Constantine. He looks like he’s having a blast shaking off all the preconceived expectations of the rocker label and retooling familiar songs everybody has heard. When Constantine looks into the camera, he absolutely commands your attention. You feel a personal connection. In a forum that could scarcely be more public, he creates the illusion of intimacy. To paraphrase Randy Jackson, Constantine has theatrical talent. He also has an unexpected sweetness to his voice.

Bo is a better singer than most of his song selections reflect, but he needs to shift gears quickly or he’ll be eating Constantine’s dust. This is not American Idle. I enjoyed Time in a Bottle, but Remedy was a messy throwaway. Bo needs epic songs to impress us with his big talent: You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, Trying to Get the Feeling Again, Feelings (Whoa Whoa Whoa). Scratch that last one. Seriously, if he wants to rock out, Black by Pearl Jam would be a great choice.

I think either of the Clay Guarinis will be hard to beat. I also reserve the right to change my mind next week.

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