Latinos are very passionate. Their music, accordingly, is full of passion. Spicy, you might say—a bit like a hot sauce. Also, most Latin music songs are by either Gloria Estefan or Carlos Santana. And/or that guy from Matchbox 20. Oh, and the words are almost always in English.
These are the lessons I took away from American Idol's Latin week, aka "Gringo Fest 2007." OK, so no one expected—or, God knows, desired—to hear Phil Stacy tackle "Mi Gente." But really: "Conga," "Rhythm Is Gonna Get You," "Smooth," "Maria Maria"? And, for crying out loud, "Turn the Beat Around"? Somehow, the Idol producers let Haley Scarnato get away with singing that disco classic on the technicality that it was once performed by a Latina (Gloria Estefan, who else?)—by which logic it would have been acceptable to perform "I Want To Know What Love Is" or "The Star-Spangled Banner." In any case, Haley got her comeuppance when she was voted off on Wednesday night, a result many weeks overdue. And, astonishingly, no one opted to perform "Livin' La Vida Loca." Gracias a dios for small favors.
Thanks, also, for Jennifer Lopez, who turned out to be an even better Idol mentor than Tony Bennett. For years, we've heard tales of horrifying diva behavior, and although J-Lo probably does, you know, lash her personal assistant with a cat-o'-nine-tails when her dressing room isn't appointed with the white flowers (and white candles, and white couches, and white drapes) stipulated in her rider, I found her utterly charming and down-to-earth. Don't be fooled by the rocks that she got, people. Plus, she gave good advice. Like Tony Bennett, she immediately diagnosed Blake Lewis' big problem, his gaping soullessness—all hairspray, no heart. "These songs have to mean something," Lopez said. "They have to come from somewhere. Or else you just leave people feeling vacant." Blake did a decent job with Marc Anthony's "I Need To Know." He's still my favorite, lo these many weeks later, and the judges are loving him. But there's an undeniable diffidence about him that leaves one icy cold.
There was nothing cold about Lopez's performance of her new single, "Qué Hiciste." I mean, how great is that song, with that surging head-rush crash into the big chorus? J-Lo has clearly decided to remake herself in the Shakira mold, and though she's never been as charismatic as the great Colombian, there's no question that stormy rock en Español suits her far better than R&B. Muy caliente.
But what was the standout performance on this week's Idol? Not Melinda's, not Jordin's, not Lakisha's. Not even Jennifer's. Reader, I jest not: Sanjaya took the prize. (An opinion that defies Slate's American Idol poll, which ranked him last.) His "Besame Mucho" was great: smooth, sexy, sweet, and, except for one verse, in Spanish. Once again, he pulled off a fashion coup, growing out a moustache and little scrub-brush goatee to add an extra layer of winking irony to his Latin lover act, which he topped off with those long, sly, sleazy sidelong glances at the camera. Randy called him one of the smartest competitors in Idol history, and he's right. No one else has had as much fun at the show's expense: He is a meta-contestant, sending up American Idol even as he hijacks it. And for one week at least, he looked like a serious contender. Vote for the Best!