The chicks and chavs of American Idol wailed two jams this week: one post-2000 anthem and one “soul” song in the tradition of Soul Train, the most phenomenal music series of all time. (Sorry, Dick Clark! I still watch $25,000 Pyramid reruns every day, so no disrespect.) Though it was awkward when Don Cornelius’ son Tony appeared in the audience not two months after his father’s self-destruction, much of the night was a splendid musical spectacular. Hot. And a couple of beleaguered contestants rebirthed and came alive for the first time in weeks. Wee!
Now, if I were performing this week, I’d have chosen “Work It” by Missy Elliott (I love inventive vagina slang!) and “Ease on Down the Road” from The Wiz. Both would feature Timbaland in a scarecrow costume, if that helps you to understand my vision. Onward to our rankings!
7. Colton Dixon, Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” and Earth, Wind and Fire’s “September”
More like “Blah-dee-ahhh,” am I right, Earth, Wind and Fire?! It took my exhausted aunt Steven Tyler all night — literally, up to the very last seconds of the telecast — to announce his first truthful observation: It’s all about song choice at this stage of the competition, and Colton’s selections felt as inappropriate as a Soul Train montage on the day of Dick Clark’s death. The svelte Mr. Dixon usually scores in the top half of my rankings because he’s that rare Idol fit, a belter who remains sincere while acting the part of a “package artist,” but last night his tiny-panted blandness robbed his song choices of any power.
“Bad Romance”? I have news for you, Colty. “Bad Romance” was a sensation in 2009 because Lady Gaga is actually weird, and she commits to kooky melodrama like no one since The B-52s, John Waters, or the cast of Cold Mountain. The faith-touting Colton can’t approach that level of bizarreness with his safe-ass “rocker avatar” getup from The Sims, and so his rendition was cleverly arranged, but ultimately flavorless. “September” was a more obvious failure, as Colton stripped it of its dance beat and driving melody. The late Don Cornelius would’ve purred in despair, then forced Shalamar to take the stage and wake up the room. I notice that Colton wore a pink/red streak in his blond ’do this week, much like Erika Van Pelt. Death knell, anyone?
6. Elise Testone, Alicia Keys’ “No One” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”
Last week I declared that Elise Testone is my favorite singer left in the game, but I have a dastardly confession to make: I’d prefer she just lose now. The crouchy, boppy, vaguely crestfallen chanteuse isn’t “connecting,” as they say, and the American Idol viewership isn’t about to appreciate a classy rock/jazz vocalist in the vein of Rickie Lee Jones, Toby Lightman, and latter-day Joni Mitchell. Not going to happen, particularly if her astounding forebears Allison Iraheta (4th place) and the fabulous Carly Smithson (6th place, dear God) are any indication. Simply put, she’s the one contender with no shot of winning, and I’d rather see a tight race than an uneven, uncomfortable one where a talented dame like Elise has to hold on for dear life every Thursday.
Anyway: “No One”? Fine enough. Awful, tangelo-colored dress and Emancipation of Mimi wind machine, but the vocal was serviceable. And “Let’s Get It On”? Crazily, I thought she started off on the right foot. Very controlled and effortless. But then the chorus hit, and Elise summoned the sexuality of a bored geometry tutor. Where was the Soul Train fire this week? Hit me with Aretha Franklin’s “Rock Steady” or something, child. Twirl and jive, thanks.
5. Joshua Ledet, Fantasia’s “I Believe” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”
What Joshua has: a voice. What Joshua doesn’t have: the chops to outdo Fantasia Barrino or the maturity to make “an anthem about social change” (quoth Ryan Seacrest, my own personal Marcus Garvey) a watershed Idol moment. There’s simply no doubt that Joshua’s spunk is better suited to uptempo, be-boppity, house-riling anthems than ballads, even if he can holler like a sassy old vulture. But I have terrible news: “I Believe” is a forgettable retread of “A Moment Like This,” and “A Change is Gonna Come” only works when I believe the “change” is something other than “a new, less-ugly vest.” If Joshua didn’t conclude the show this week, I’d be positive he was destined for the bottom three, but as such, it appears he’ll rack up more votes than my surprise choice for Most Improved Periwinkle Princess. Nope, not Steven Tyler. See #4.
4. Hollie Cavanagh, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” and Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man”
I can’t front: Periwinkle brought it this week! Yes, “Rolling in the Deep” is as novel a song choice as Whitney’s “I Have Nothing” or Heart’s “Alone.” Yes, Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man” is an expected “soul” pick for, um, a white British chick vocalist. But I found Ms. Cavanagh’s thumping grit believable and fun. I’m always down for some Dusty in Memphis crooning on the Idol stage, especially if it’s from a little lady who roars the final notes like the choir loft is aflame. Hollie demanded attention for the first time in weeks on that stage, and I’m in no mood to neglect her. How about THAT? Periwinkle Princess be sangin’ with the sorcerers last night.
3. Phillip Phillips, Usher’s “U Got It Bad” and Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour”
Fascinating dichotomy offered up by Philly Phillz: The Wilson Pickett situation wasn’t his strongest performance, even if he gave us the Bill-Cosby-fell-down-the-stairs-and-landed-on-his-larynx blues we so cherish from him. Could we have gotten a little “Land of a Thousand Dances” up in here? Soul Train, guys. Come on. Though it’s hard not to concur with the horrrrrnayyy Jennifer Lopez, who noted Phil’s sexiness and swagger yet again. The man is having fun, confidently selling his brand of musicianship, making those Sling Blade noises, and getting away with it. He seems kind of funny too. Like a person you and I might even tolerate in person. American Idol, you surprise me sometimes.
But now, let us have a moment to understand the “U Got It Bad” story. I can’t stand that song. Usher’s slow/contemplative jams are so hammy and phony, and I’d rather he trill a dancefloor-tickler like “U Don’t Have to Call” ’til the end of time. But here’s where Phillip did a fine thing: He went the Kris Allen route, drummed up a new MTV Unplugged version in the vein of Kris’ “She Works Hard for the Money”/”Heartless” performances, and sold the damn thing. I got it completely. I must have it bad.
2. Skylar Laine, Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way [Country Version]” and Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”
For a split second I thought Skylar Laine had chosen a non-country song for her post-2000 selection, but she qualified “Born This Way” with the hasty disclaimer “IT’S THE COUNTRY VERSION, THOUGH” or whatever. Settle down, Reba Jr. We know you like saddles and Velveeta. But even if I gripe about Skylar’s aggressively one-dimensional persona, the woman flails and fights onstage like a firebird, shooting sparks at every preteen in the house.
Naturally, she didn’t get to the verse in “Born This Way” about “gay, straight, or bi / lesbian, transgendered life,” but I can’t expect a social revolution from a woman as committed to chunky belts as Skylar. I can expect an application to Wet Seal, maybe. Ferocious vocal on the Gaga anthem, and enough back-alley rasp to alarm Miranda Lambert’s PR squad. Great work there. “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” struck me as an uninspired song selection, but I feel like it passed so quickly and with so little problem that it was arguably a success. Congrats on attempting another genre for once in your rifle-rifling life, Skylar. You pass.
1. Jessica Sanchez, Alicia Keys’ “Fallin'” and Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness”
Our happenin’ baby girl almost died last week when America forgot to vote her over to May, but I think she solidified her status as a reigning critical darling with both her performances. “Fallin'” is about the most odious song of all time — up there with “Macarena” and the little-known Adolf Hitler ballad “Wind Beneath Mein Kampf” — but Jessica managed to play with the melody, inject some novel sauciness, and illuminate those underwritten lyrics. Fabulous.
Here’s my most controversial opinon of the evening, girls: I thought Jessica’s cover of “Try a Little Tenderness” was breathtakingly sensational. Started off a little slow, but morphed into a hard-strutting, soul-flinging, insanely powerful homage to the genius of Otis Redding. Best compliment of the season: I imagine that Jessica’s performance would’ve blown away the Soul Train audience. They’d have been blasted off their platform shoes and into the walls, like the bullies in Carrie. For now, I’m banking on Jessica’s survival. She has too much soul and too much train to die off right now. Too much train. Interpret as you will.