Saturday, April 29, 2006

AI5 Royal Flush: The Heir and Four Spares

Every season around this time I get fed up with the favoritism and manipulations of the American Idol crew. This year my revulsion is tempered by gratitude that the remaining contestants comprise the most talented, diverse top 5 – and next week’s top 4 – in American Idol history. Any of them would do justice to the victor's title.

As I have written once or twice, Elliott Yamin and Taylor Hicks are my favorites – in that order. From the get-go, my husband Luis preferred Taylor and Bucky Covington, but it took him a bit longer to board the E-train. Awed by his performance this week, Luis said reverently, “Elliott has nothing left to prove.”

I had to agree. On A Song for You, Elliott established himself as a self-assured performer who connects with the audience visually and audibly. Although I was suffering from a bothersome lumbar injury and the usual mid-week anxiety common to Elliott’s long-time fans, confidence about his future calmed me. So I stopped voting and took my aching back to bed. Not! I figured how to work the speaker phone so all I had to do was hit the redial button repeatedly with my thumb. Then I settled into the least uncomfortable position and, during the final 30 minutes of the voting period, startled myself awake every time I began to fall asleep. Am I a meshugenah Yaminion – or what?

Paula Abdul is, too, especially the meshugenah part. Like her, Elliott’s performance moved me to tears. Unlike me, she seemed to be feeling no pain. She is so intoxicated by Elliott that she told him this week he is “this handsome, evolved performer” – hence the expression high praise. Heck, Elliott’s mom Claudette will commit only to “almost handsome.”

AI producer Ken Warwick informed the media on Monday that the judges learn the voting results when the audience does and not a nanosecond sooner. Paula may not know the numbers, but she sure knows the score. The other judges and crew like Elliott well enough, but Chris Daughtry is TCO – The Chosen One.

The competition began with Randy Jackson’s prediction that a boy would win. He reiterated his forecast last week on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and this week on The View, the only time when he named Elliott as a potential winner. Randy has complimented Elliott consistently if not as enthusiastically as he has Chris from the judges' table. On Ellen, Randy envisioned Chris and Taylor in the finale.

Recently I asked, “Is Simon Cowell off his rocker, Chris Daughtry, or just off his rocker?” Simon seemed to have grown bored with TCO Chris and Extra claimed somewhat incredibly that Paris was his new favorite. Two weeks later, the answer seems crystal clear as Simon’s preference for Daughtry remains undeniable, as is Randy’s. From the start, music producers Simon and Randy have salivated over Daughtry’s recording voice. Likewise the show’s TV producers are motivated to deliver a winner from a different genre each season to keep the formula fresh.

As we enter the final month of AI5, we are left with one contestant heavily promoted by the show and four talented spares in the way. Therein lies the potential for extraordinary entertainment and extraordinary mischief. The mischief has already begun.

Monday's official Fox press release announced this week’s theme: Classic Love Songs. David Foster was the guest judge, jury and executioner all in one smug, self-important package. Andrea Bocelli was more like his psychic sidekick, able though blind to divine that Kellie Pickler was blonde and Katharine McPhee pretty.

The editing on Foster's introductory clips was interesting. They showed him acting impatient and hypercritical with Elliott. Afterward, however, Foster said of Elliott, "He sings really, really well." Then the audio was cut off, but we could see him add, "He really, really does." Of Chris, Foster predicted, "If he delivers the performance of his life, he'll do amazing. But..." The but could not be heard and the video ended.

Comic actor Kevin Nealon, who gave the camera two excited thumbs up and a standing ovation in response to Elliott, and his female companion were seated next to Linda Thompson Jenner Foster, wife or ex-wife of David, ex-wife of Bruce, and ex-girlfriend of Elvis Presley. Sometimes I just spout useless trivia to free up space in my brain, but it doesn't work.

In his Wednesday briefing as transcribed at MJ's Big Blog, producer Nigel Lythgoe announced that Classic Love Songs didn't really mean love songs that are classics but – I’m paraphrasing here – Love Songs We, the Idiots in Charge, Consider Classic and Can Imagine Andrea Bocelli Wanting to Perform Although He Never Has and Probably Never Will. Alone among the top six contestants, only Kellie was smart enough to select a song that met Nigel’s specific criteria – and look where it got her.

Lythgoe admitted that, after letting Taylor rehearse Try a Little Tenderness until the beginning of this week, they forced him to scrounge up a new song less than 48 hours before Tuesday’s show time. Explaining why he disqualified Taylor's song, he said something like, "This ain't no stinkin' Blues Brothers theme." If you think I'm lying, check the record.

Tenderness could have been another barn-burning, show-stopping, kick-out-the-jams Hicks masterpiece. Instead, Taylor stood under a harsh floodlight usually reserved for escaped felons and struggled to salvage the heart of James Ingram’s Just Once buried by the predictably loud Bandzilla. Small wonder that his vocal sounded strained and he looked wounded. If the set designer ever tried lighting like that on Paula, she would go psycho killer on his ballast. Today I reviewed Taylor’s performance again and was quite impressed that he could master the abbreviated arrangement so quickly.

Never mind that Try a Little Tenderness appears on an Otis Redding album titled Love Songs. It is also listed as a love song here, here, here, here, and here. Other artists who recorded Try a Little Tenderness include Bing Crosby, Mel TormĂ©, Aretha Franklin, Michael Bolton, Michael BublĂ© – and the most famous Italian crooner of all, Frank Sinatra. So – was Taylor a victim of the regrettable ignorance of American music that pervades the AI team or clumsy sabotage? The two are not mutually exclusive.

TCO Chris Daughtry covered Bryan Adams’ undemanding, repetitive, single-octave-range ditty, Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman. In the pimp spot. Again. Under flattering lighting. Again. Accompanied by two Spanish style guitarists. Please God, don’t let me die before Bocelli records this magnum opus. If Daughtry's performance came with a label regulated by the FDA, I would be appalled at all the corn syrup, fillers and artificial additives – and immediately put it back on the shelf. However, I like Chris, so I’ll be charitable. For a blind taste test involving a Bryan Adams product, I didn’t retch.

In seven weeks of competition, Taylor Hicks has never performed last. Never.

Meanwhile, the exquisitely talented Paris Bennett cannot catch a break from Simon or Randy, of whom I honestly expected better. The male judges just will not be bothered to give her a coherent critique – and shame on them. They know how technically challenging it is to reproduce the quality of Billie Holliday and Gladys Knight. Paris does it effortlessly nearly every week and still adds her own impossibly mature interpretations. Nevertheless, she has been in the bottom three twice. Referring to those other trips to the bottom, Ryan Seacrest asked her Wednesday how often she had been there. She had the poise to remind him that it was her first time in the bottom two. Along with Paula and Parisians everywhere, I cheered.

Now that Kellie is no longer a spoiler in the competition, I can enjoy her personality, if not so much her sometimes painful singing, especially on Unchained Melody, Simon's self-described favorite. Kellie’s lack of surprise at the voting results was obvious. But she accepted the unwelcome news like a classy trouper. I have read and watched her post-elimination interviews, in which she is more charming and less ditzy than she behaved onscreen. I hope the AI experience continues to help her break away from her tragic childhood.

From Tuesday torture to Tuesday’s torcher. The judges uniformly criticized Katharine McPhee’s performance of I Have Nothing. They even denied her credit for attempting a Whitney Houston epic. Kat does tend to screech in her uppermost register, which has undercut many of her vocals. The disdainful, how-dare-you dismissal from Simon and Randy seemed almost personal.

The next evening Kat received a rare Cowell apology for his harshness, plus enough votes to place her in the top two. She may have Simon to thank for making her a martyr overnight. More likely, her change of status was a reaction to her change of clothes. She left her matronly duds behind and donned a cleavage-baring, figure-hugging halter dress so tight that some thigh-high buttons popped, revealing her Fruit of the Loins. Unsurprisingly, since Tuesday there has been an outbreak of McPheever on AI-inspired message boards.

Dave White provides a possible explanation for Cowell’s contrition. Two of Dave’s friends attended Tuesday’s show and sat near the families of Paris and Elliott. According to Tony the Spy, “In the commercial break after Elliott sang, McPhee’s McFather comes over to the judges’ table to complain about how they dissed Katharine. Simon and Randy get the hell out of there, but Paula gets trapped by him for the whole break, much of it with her hands holding his face, consoling him while he cries. I can see Paula clearly, mouthing stuff like ‘It’s just our job’ and ‘She’s gonna be fine.’ I lean into Paris’s mom and grandmother and whisper, ‘I didn’t know you could do that.’ And Mom whispers back, ‘We’re not supposed to…’”

Daniel McPhee is no ordinary stage parent. He is an established film and TV producer. If Simon ever considered signing Katharine, the prospect of dealing with her father must be a buzz kill. No worries, though. Kat has a powerful defender. In his richly quotable Wednesday update, Nigel “was a little miffed that Randy would compare Whitney Houston to Katharine, but not compare Donny Hathaway to Elliott.” He referred to Randy telling Elliott he could sing like Donny’s record because he’s “got it like that.”

Translation: Elliott has talent that compares favorably to Hathaway. Randy is right and Nigel proved two of my points. The judges and producers no longer speak with one voice – and Elliott, although well-liked, will never be the producers’ TCO. More than ever, though, Simon and Randy are on the same page. Simon told Elliott that his performance of A Song for You was superb and, in parts, of vocal master class caliber.

Conversely, Nigel said that Katharine is in a class above most AI singers. Uh oh – looks like we might have dueling TCOs. If only for the sake of karmic justice, I almost wish Kat would win so that clan McPhee can join the AI dysfunctional family and Simon would finally face his comeuppance.

Until now I have carefully sidestepped the is-Kat-conceited debate. But I must grant that it takes an amateur with an inordinately high opinion of herself to launch into a spontaneous duet with a world-class opera star. Whether Pappy McPhee influenced Simon’s retraction or not, Kat might be feeling empowered and a little cocky about now. I am curious to see her song selections next week and how the judges handle her – and if she'll be wearing any of Pickler's skimpy castoffs. That ought to make her father cry.