“American Idol” Top 6 Recap: I Say A Little Prayer For America

Look, maybe you and your stepson are right and American Idol has jumped the shark. I accept your wrongness/common sense. But if you tuned in last night to the Top 6’s “Burt Bacharach/Songs You Wish You Wrote”-themed evening, you can’t deny that it delivered everything that has ever mattered about American Idol, including vocal triumphs, ferocious attitude, the dismal failure of a teenage dandy, Randy Jackson’s gift for thoughts, 17-year-olds being forced to perform the songs of Jackie DeShannon, and Ryan Seacrest’s attempts at empathy. Every time he nervously puts his hand on Lazaro’s shoulder, it’s like a deleted scene from Speilberg’s A.I. is upon us.

Then there’s the other emotionally troubled member of the American Idol brain surgeon gallery: Mariah Carey. I’ve defended her long enough and still believe she delivers an iota’s worth of real advice every 15 minutes or so, but man, she certainly had her worst episode of the season last night. After one disastrous performance, Mariah delivered a labyrinthine monologue that began with self-pity, wandered into murmuring, stopped for a nanosecond in an oasis of actual criticism, and descended into terrifying nothingness for another seven minutes. Bleak. It was like one of August Strindberg’s later plays like Ghost Sonata where there’s lots of scattered imagery and dull screaming but all you really get from it is that he totally had a nervous breakdown after he wrote Miss Julie and before he released The Emancipation of Mimi. Poor us and poor Sweden, because Mariah is flailing in that judges’ chair looking more frazzled and hopeless as the weeks progress. It is possibly she is cosmically related to Lazaro in this way. Like E.T. and that damn plant.

But anyway! Those singin’ idols sang two songs last night, as I mentioned earlier, one from the Bacharach songbook and another song “they wish they wrote.” Because I can so picture Lazaro sitting down with a quill and scroll and hammering out stanzas like Ira Gershwin. Let’s rank this week’s performers #6-1.

6. Lazaro Arbos, The Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close to You” and Robbie Williams’ “Angels”

On the day that Lazaro was born, the angels got together… and decided to ruin my life. I’m perfectly fine with the desecration of certain standards (“Chain of Fools” should only be performed poorly, at this point), but there is something, oh, traumatizing and unforgivable about botching a Carpenters classic. Karen’s voice was the glorious Jif that smoothly caressed this great nation of Wonder Bread eaters in the 1970s, but Karen herself was an astounding interpreter and emotional navigator of songs. The eerie crystalline production of “Close to You” is in itself legendary, and Karen’s melancholic, magically resonant tone makes each lyric seem like a note-perfect emotional landscape. With the exception of “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” it’s the finest Bacharach/David achievement in my humble, rainy-day-and-Monday-lamenting opinion.

Lazaro Arbos not only under-served this killer ballad, he basically didn’t serve it. He was totally off-key, utterly sharp at the beginning, and garbled the words in what I would almost describe as backwardspeak. Birds suddenly disappeared every time he was near. The judges filleted him and tried to cry in pain, but there aren’t any feelings left to have. Lazaro is just an underachieving singer who is failing miserably, and it’s not fun to mock. Until, of course, he tries to redeem himself with Robbie Williams’ “Angels,” because that is a hilarious song to choose. What other so-so hits of 1997 does Lazaro “wish he had written”? Keith Sweat’s “Nobody”? Toni Braxton’s “I Don’t Want To”? Such an odd pick. Lazaro didn’t flunk this one, but he’s now reached the post-Sanjaya stage of welcome-outstaying, and if he doesn’t leave now (which is possible considering the fact that the judges haven’t used their compulsory “save” yet!), I imagine Karen Carpenter will rise from the dead and perform “Hurting Each Other” until the red clouds of the rapture smother us into crimson megadeath. We’ve only just begun… to die.

5. Janelle Arthur, Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and Garth Brooks’ “The Dance”

One nice thing about this week was the fact that the rankings basically wrote themselves. I can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with Janelle’s fifth place ranking here, as she cheerfully wielded trays of countrified muck that we get every season. “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” is a grim, self-eviscerating pop gem, and for some reason Janelle smiled through it like Florence Henderson. For fun, she paired that smile with a flatironed Maureen McCormick ’do. I wish she’d let her cousin Oliver run circles around her feet too. Vocally it was a solid effort, but her grasp of the song’s depth was laughable. Laughter! Janelle loves to laugh.

Her work on Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” was markedly more sensitive, but she preceded her performance with the following analysis of the song’s lyrics: “It’s not just a literal dance. It’s the dance of life.” Oh, well. Who can’t relate to that? When the judges praise Janelle for playing guitar, it sooort of seems like they’re telling her, “We love when you play an instrument because you’re too scared of screwing up to flash us that horrifying pageant grin for three minutes straight.” But again, she was generally sincere and stately in her performance of “The Dance,” and that’s a big compliment coming from a blogger who simply refuses to rope the wind.

4. Angie Miller, Dionne Warwick’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart” and Kari Jobe’s “Love Came Down”

My least favorite activity is defending Angie Miller, the baby cipher of season 12, but I’ll admit that her take on “Anyone Who Had a Heart” was slightly undervalued by the judges. It’s a sad, great song, but it’s also one of the stodgier tracks in the Bacharach songbook, and I felt Angie-lica Pickles’ rendition was mysteriously current and strong. She can’t emote worth 1/50 of Candice’s flammable stank, but no matter. What bothered me most was in her introductory package, she bragged of loving “hardcore” music and then presented us with 2.5 minutes of the most definitively softcore music ever. Why doesn’t she embrace her rocker angst and try to mean something? We’ve had enough of the palatable Celine antics. Stab us with some Mudvayne. Dropkick Rammstein at us. Vogue while reciting Klan hatecore rap. I will take anything.

Now, I can’t guarantee that “Kari Jobe” is a real person or even a proper noun, but Angie summoned a full ark of Christianity to perform her conventional ballad “Love Came Down.” And boy did it, with enough shock-white background lighting for a gay hailstorm. We keep hearing about how Angie is great because she’s always being Angie, but could she be someone more awesome like Amber soon? Give me swagger and sauciness and jean shorts and a no-no side-eye when Ryan Seacrest brings up yo’ boyfriiiin. Less piano tributes to the Jesus-tickling legacy of Colton Dixon, thanks.

3. Amber Holcomb, Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer” and Beyonce’s “Love on Top”

Amber had a fierce week, but for the first time in almost a month, I have to give the crown to another competitor. Though “I Say A Little Prayer” and “Love on Top” couldn’t be more different in terms of style, Amber’s performances suffered from the same (admittedly marginal) problem: Her vocal delivery was slightly sluggish, nearly falling behind the just-so melody of “I Say A Little Prayer” and the ratatat hollering of “Love on Top.” That’s not to say she forfeited even a moment of her transcendent-sassy-graceful-blase stage presence, which comes complete with Iman legginess and Max Factor gloss, but it’s easy to see why she opts for ballads over uptempo jams. Her energy is simply too serene for the methadone-quick scat-sangin’ of Beyonce’s world.

And now, a word on Amber’s tragic romance with Burnell: I do not really care. Thank you. But if someone could dredge up the tapes of Devin Velez and Paul Jolley’s bunk bed adventures, I’d be much obliged.

2. Kree Harrison, Jackie DeShannon’s “What the World Needs Now is Love” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night”

It might be sacrilege to say, but Kree’s truly varied performances tend to run together for me. Though her voice projects hurt, innocence, and longing, it projects the same hurt, innocence, and longing every week, and her fascinating song choices end up all settling in my memory like satisfactory renditions of “Blue Bayou,” which she didn’t even sing. But I think this may have been Kree’s strongest week yet for song choices, since the genius of choosing the schmaltzy, dearly overplayed tune “What the World Needs Now is Love” is that she is a stronger and more distinct voice than the song’s most well-known singer, Jackie DeShannon. Every note of this performance was album-ready and emotion-heavy and sweet. Can we get a followup of “Put a Little Love In Your Heart”? And then an extra followup of Jackie DeShannon’s proudest songwriting moment, “Bette Davis Eyes”? Thaaaaanks.

Also: I can never decide what Kree’s chances in the competition are. She seems to fare well in the home vote, but she’s less dynamic than Candice, Amber, and Angie, so I don’t how cemented her lofty ranking is. She should totally sing “Blue Bayou” next so we can all be sure she sang it.

1. Candice Glover, Dionne Warwick’s “Don’t Make Me Over” and The Cure’s “Lovesong”

Could there be aaaaany doubt? ANY? Watch that clip right now.

In the history of performance nights on American Idol, there has likely never been such a stellar pair of performances given by one singer. The difference between Candice and her competitors is she not only dictates the power of her renditions with the strength of her voice, but she constantly, yet organically controls and shifts the grit and vulnerability of each lyric she sings. In “Don’t Make Me Over,” another Bacharach classic, she vaulted from sweet, rumbling tones to pained calls and bleats to all-out proclaiming, emerging like Jennifer Holiday’s grudge-bearing niece and spilling pails of rage and self-possession all over Nigel Lythgoe’s freshly waxed vomitorium floor. If Kree deserved a phone call from Aretha Franklin that one week, surely Candice warrants an hour-long Skype session and Tarot reading from Dionne Warwick after giving that mesmerizing rendition.

And yet. And yet! And yet Candice topped “Don’t Make Me Over” with the growling, hurting, hell-raising, operatically fabulous version of The Cure’s “Lovesong.” Uh, props on the near-unbelievable song choice, first of all, since nothing about Candice strikes me as a devotee of Disintegration. I’m happy to be wrong about that, because Randy Jackson (for once) wasn’t exaggerating when he declared this supernova one of the best performances in Idol history. I’m also happy to be wrong about Mariah Carey’s sanity, which I have famously defended, because when she approached the stage during Candice’s standing ovation and threw a handful of (that’s right) GLITTER at her feet to signify — what, exactly? A sale at Jo Ann Fabrics? — I almost turned into the evil Mariah from the “Heartbreaker” video and wrestled with her in a movie theater bathroom. But, point made, I suppose: Game, set, match, Candice. Tennis metaphors for everyone.

Was Candice’s work good enough to kill off Lazaro? Who’s going home tomorrow? No one, because of that blasted “save”? What if I eliminate myself, in that case?