American Idol has been hijacked by a head of hair. "This is a singing competition," Simon Cowell and company have insisted time and again this season—a mantra that grows more plaintive, more patently untrue, with each week that 17-year-old Sanjaya Malakar steps on stage with tresses teased into an avant-garde pile, sings terribly, and sails into the next round. With this week's Dada faux-hawk, Sanjaya's hair has become a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. It's mercurial, it's charismatic, it's garish—in short, Sanjaya's hair is the closest thing to an actual pop star we've seen on American Idol this season. It is also, not incidentally, good strategy: a reason, beyond Vote for the Worst mischief-making, to keep pulling for the kid. What 'do will he sport next? More variations on Phil Spector? Tina Turner lion's mane? Marie Antoinette Belle Poule pompadour? Gehry blob? It's clear that Idol's stylists are having the time of their lives, and that beneath Sanjaya's sunken schoolboy's chest, there lurks the frozen heart of a born fashionista. (Did you catch his bitchy retort when Simon made fun of his hair: "You're just jealous that you couldn't pull it off"?) No matter what happens in the "singing competition," it's a safe bet Sanjaya and his tumbling locks will adorn the terrace of Donatella Versace's Lake Como villa for years to come.
In the meantime, Idol has lost its other fashion-forward hair model, Chris Sligh. "I think it's 'Bye-bye, Curly,' " Simon predicted before Sligh was sent home. True, Sligh's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" was a bit of a mess—but surely Haley Scarnato and Phil Stacey (who also butchered a Police song) deserved the boot more. Overall, it was a strange week. The guest star was Gwen Stefani—so, why exactly did Lakisha and Melinda sing Donna Summer songs?
I'm still fuzzy on the theme, but I was pleasantly surprised by some of the performances. "Rocker chick" Gina Glocksen—the most likeable of the remaining finalists—sang a pretty version of the Pretenders' "I'll Stand By You." My boy Blake Lewis has bounced back nicely the past couple of weeks. I was happy to see him indulging his Britpop jones again, singing the Cure's "Love Song." The truth is, Blake isn't the best singer, but I'm tickled by his weird mix of genre preferences: mopey-fey British ballads, frat-boy ska-punk, "alternative hip-hop," Jamiroquai. Blake's big deficiency is, well, soul. He's emotionally disengaged from the songs—it's not clear that he gives a second thought to the words he's singing. It will be interesting to see what happens next week, when Blake gets tutored by guest star Tony Bennett, one of the most subtle interpreters in the history of American song.
Bennett is sure to love front-running Melinda Doolittle, who has proven a virtuoso singer of standards and show tunes. (Her "My Funny Valentine" back in the semifinal round was the finest vocal performance of the competition thus far.) Last week, I got an e-mail from a friend and a dedicated Idol-ogist: "Melinda Doolittle is the best singer in the history of Idol. Discuss." My friend is right, of course—but Melinda also may be the most boring singer in Idol history, hopelessly old-fashioned (that 1978 Donna Summer hit is the closest she's come to 2007) and way too refined. Do we really want an Idol winner this classy? Isn't flashing-neon-sign vulgarity what we crave in our pop stars, to say nothing of our reality-TV contestants? (Verily it is, answers Sanjaya Malakar's glam squad, as they wheel in another barrel of pomade.) Consider this week's guest star, Gwen Stefani, who has turned her own sublime tastelessness—in clothes, in Fiddler on the Roof samples, in Japanese girl backup dancers—into an irresistible pop-art gestalt. Stefani's performance of "The Sweet Escape" on Thursday's results show, flanked by her Harajuku girls and an R&B-singing ex-con with his underwear poking out of his jeans, was 100 times more fun than anything we've see on Idol this season. And by the way: Did Simon Cowell notice that Stefani was, um, lip-synching? Why didn't he remind her that this is a singing competition?