Saturday, March 04, 2006

Boys Rule, Girls Drool, Ryan's Cool, Paula's a Fool

We can play “What Did Paula Abdul Have for Lunch Thursday.” You go first.

The producers should play Spank the Judges. Next Tuesday I expect we will all see Paula eating crow or Barry Bonds sitting in her chair.

Me, I’d rather play Wednesday’s broadcast of American Idol – over and over and over again.

Paula's not the only girl in trouble. This week, only Lisa Tucker and Mandisa showed strong enough chops to hang with the boys, who have an advantage not only in depth but breadth of talent. At sixteen, Lisa is already a diva divine but without the brat-titude. The house band and backup singers are tighter than ever, occasionally drowning out the lead vocals. But Mandisa has such awesome power and control that she will never be in anyone else’s shadow.

I thought Melissa McGhee delivered the third best performance Tuesday, showing professionalism and versatility that earned her another chance.

Kellie Pickler’s take on Bonnie Raitt was all hot and bothered in an appealing way that made up for her vocal limitations.

Paris Bennett is still one of my favorites, but she carried Wind Beneath My Wings like a pallbearer. Kinnik Sky has a lovely, warm, rich tone and probably fatal pitch problems.

The good news for Ayla Brown is that Simon Cowell acknowledged how hard she is working to improve. I think she may overtake Katharine as the best of the diva wannabes. The bad news is that her singing seems like all work and no fun.

Katharine McPhee wasn’t a whole lot better than Heather Cox, who was the second of the top 10 females to be eliminated. Katharine is watchable and well-trained, but her vocal runs are ragged. She floundered embarrassingly on the line “I had to go away” from All Is Fair in Love.

The first to be eliminated was Brenna Gethers. What can I say about Brenna that hasn’t already been said about the uninvited buttinsky who crashes your family reunion? At least she left the stage without handcuffs.

The boys have a problem, too. Eight of them should advance to the finals, but there is only room for six. Most of the males who are eliminated during these first three weeks of the contest would have been top 12 contenders in seasons one through four.

The unprecedented talent on display this season is no accident. Before season four, the maximum age limit was raised from 26 to 28, opening the door for Bo Bice and Constantine Maroulis. Aspiring singers from genres traditionally underrepresented on American Idol took notice and are leading this year’s pack.

Previously, the standard for best vocal performance by a male contestant was established early in season two by Ruben Studdard on Superstar. Unfortunately, that was also Ruben’s high-water mark, which he never equaled again. Fortunately for him, he had only one serious competitor, Clay Aiken, breathing down his neck.

Two weeks in a row, Elliott Yamin surpassed Ruben’s achievement. Elliott has a jazz musician’s ear for every half-step on the musical scale. Yet it may not be enough for him to win. Taylor Hicks and Chris Daughtry are compelling, charismatic singers with unique appeal.

My husband, who recognized Clay’s rare talent when he auditioned, loves-loves-loves Taylor Hicks. Who can resist his contagious passion for music? We agree that his Easy had more character and soul than the Commodores’ original version. Taylor proved that he can cool it down as well as burn it up.

Gedeon McKinney sang Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come – and, sure enough, it did come in Simon’s estimation. Gedeon’s star-making performance reminded me of a Broadway showstopper. The producers should have assigned him the final slot.

However, that was reserved for the current frontrunner, Chris Daughtry. Chris is more than just a great rock voice. Like Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops, Alex Chilton of the Box Tops and Big Star, and Bruce Springsteen among others, Chris sings as though his life depends on it. Plus, he has really kind eyes that mesmerize. He is special from the inside out.

If Ace Young’s vocals consistently match his dreamy gaze, he could steal voters’ hearts. Following Taylor and Elliott this week, he seemed tired and not as confident.

David Radford sang two of my favorite songs before he was eliminated. Call me shallow, but I couldn’t get past his facial contortions.

I think Sway Penala is a better vocalist than Simon realized. When we first saw him onstage, Sway was Mr. Smooth. After Simon worked him over, he was visibly rattled. He picked a difficult song, Overjoyed, and performed it with technical proficiency – but no joy.

My husband is a fan of Bucky Covington. I am charmed by his personality more than his voice, although he is growing on me. If I found this week’s performance to be a huge improvement, he may have increased his fan base.

Likewise, I was quite pleasantly surprised by Will Makar. Like Paris Bennett, he resurrected a song that has been done to death, but I actually enjoyed every cheesy note of Lady (sorry, Paris). He has an unforced, dynamic voice with a natural vibrato.

Kevin Covais is another uncommonly poised teenager who can sing well. However, he is not a great singer and, much as I am tempted to root for the underdog, I will be upset if he takes the place of more deserving contestants.

Thursday’s results show may be remembered for the folly of one or two judges laughing callously and mugging for the camera as Heather Cox and Sway Penala were eliminated. I have been dismissive of Ryan Seacrest’s contributions to the success of American Idol and criticized his scripted milking of the weekly elimination drama. I owe Ryan an apology.

Ryan always improvises well and it looks effortless. He is never better than when trying, usually in vain, to lead the unruly judges into more constructive behavior. Off script Thursday night, Ryan admonished Paula and Simon while restoring some much needed decorum to the set. The final screen shot revealed Simon smirking and Paula ruefully resting her head in her hands. Classy.