In the words of that matchless wit and aphorist Randy Jackson: I'm gonna keep it real, dawg. The American Idol semifinals are exhausting. How many hours worth of shows were broadcast this week? Fifty, right? One hardly has time for anything but Idol. Dishes pile up in the sink; a scrub forest of stubble spreads across your chin; children go unfed. It certainly was an engrossing three days. Among other things, we witnessed the worst barefoot rendition of "Careless Whisper" since your correspondent's own performance in front of a bedroom mirror at the peak of an adolescent identity crisis, circa December 1984. Chris Sligh, clearly desperate to maintain his rep as Idol's quipster-in-chief, made a lame joke about Simon Cowell's work with Il Divo and the Teletubbies—and then furiously backpedaled two nights later. On decision night, the 24 competitors joined forces for a stupendously campy singalong of Tears for Fears' "Sowing the Seeds of Love." (Nearly blinding the nation with their pearly whites, the Idol hopefuls sang, "Could you be, could you be squeaky clean/ And smash any hope of democracy?" The answer is yes.) We also learned that this year's celebrity musical guests will include Jon Bon Jovi, Martina McBride, Barry Gibb, Diana Ross, Gwen Stefani, and one actual vocal stylist genius, Tony Bennett. At the other end of the gravitas spectrum is Jennifer Lopez, who presumably will be on hand for Idol's Auto-Tune Week special.
Oh yeah, things got testy between Cowell and Ryan Seacrest. Seacrest goaded Cowell about this and that. Cowell called Seacrest "sweetheart." Shifting nervously in his immaculate Marc Jacobs vest-and-sport-shirt ensemble, Seacrest barked, "Don't call me sweetheart. …We don't have that kind of relationship. I don't want that kind of relationship." Cowell: "I don't want that kind of relationship." A faint breeze stirred the cypresses; fireflies flickered in the gloaming. Cowell leapt over the judges' desk, flung himself into Seacrest's waiting arms, and the pair made torrid love as the house band played "Unchained Melody." The truth is, the Simon-Ryan rivalry is hyper-stylized shtick—they're the Sam and Diane of American Idol, and they play their roles to perfection. Expect much more of the same as the season moves along.
As far as the competition itself goes, the girls wiped the floor with the guys. To be more demographically precise: The black girls wiped the floor with everyone else. I loved brassy Stephanie Edwards and my fave Melinda Doolittle—although Doolittle's "Since You Been Gone" was a touch shouty. (I suspect she'll really shine on ballads and midtempo stuff; she doesn't seem like a natural-born belter.) Jordin Sparks and Sabrina Sloan were also strong, but they feel second tier. The biggest rave reviews so far went to Lakisha Jones' powerhouse version of "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going." If you have the big voice, this is a perfect Idol song: how can you go wrong with a roiling gospel ballad that insists: "I'm staying, I'm staying/And you, and you, and you, you're gonna love me"? The voting public has no choice, really. For reasons I've written about elsewhere, the song has special resonance for a single mother like Lakisha. But while Lakisha's bio makes her a sentimental favorite, I suspect it won't be enough to buoy her to the Idol crown, unless she truly blows away the competition week after week. There's already been a hard-luck African-American single-mom champ: Fantasia. (She was in back in the house on Thursday night, doing a fine job with a terrible song from the Color Purple musical.) But it's hard not to root for Lakisha, especially against competition like Alaina Alexander and Antonella Barba, both of whom stayed in the hunt despite dismal performances, almost certainly because of their good looks. (Did Antonella collect some extra votes on the strength of those Girls Gone Wild-style photos that surfaced this past week?)
The fellas were just plain boring. Paul Kim (the "Careless Whisper" butcher) and Rudy Cardenas got sent home, but almost any of them could have gone. Sundance Head's "Knights in White Satin" was painful—I had to mute the TV 30 seconds in—but he survived to maul another song. I blame Dixie. Sundance is the one white Southerner in the competition, with a full-on barbecue-dipped Texas twang, and if past seasons are any guide, Bible Belt voters will send him deeper into the competition than his talent merits. (Hello, Bucky Covington; hello, Kellie Pickler.) The only guy who did anything for me on Tuesday night is my choice to win the whole thing, Blake Lewis, who sang a wonderfully fey version of Keane's "Somewhere Only We Know." I stand by my prediction: Blake has a je ne sais quoi that I don't see in anyone else in the contest, including all those diva powerhouses. I don't think we've ever quite encountered his like: a legitimately funky beat-boxing white boy who's capable of dialing it down to deliver a Britpop ballad in Morrissey's sad-sack, romantic croon. I was counting on Chris Sligh for a little originality, too, but he tanked. Suave Brandon Rogers hit all his notes but put America to sleep. As for the rest of the guys—to Idol Camp with you!