Her vocal was pitchy, her song choice iffy. Her outfit was a mess—she spent the first part of the number schlepping around an enormous scarlet stole the size of an infield tarpaulin. She executed some bizarre drunken-traffic-cop hand gestures, teetered on her high heels, shouted at the audience. And when she was finished, Randy, Paula, and Simon stood and applauded. Such are the benefits of being Diana Ross.
The Motown legend—"Ms. Ross" to Phil Stacey, "Van Gogh" to Sanjaya Malakar—was American Idol's big guest star this week, performing "More Today Than Yesterday" and tutoring the Idol finalists for their first turns on the big stage. She was less a vocal coach than a spiritual guide. "Go back to your center. Go to your center, your heart place," she counseled Brandon Rogers, who followed her advice, spaced on the words to "You Can't Hurry Love," and was eliminated from the competition.
I confess I felt a vague pang in my heart place when the results were announced on Wednesday night. I was never a big Brandon fan, but botched lyrics aside, I thought he sang better than almost all of the guys this week—certainly better than Sanjaya, who continued his run of abominable vocal performances and great hair days. (This week, Sanjaya wore a kind of Justin Guarini-do. Or was it a Diana Ross?) Sanjaya's torpid "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" inspired the most bizarre Simon Cowell "zinger" of all-time: "Look, when you hear a whale in Beverly Hills, that is where Diana Ross is watching this show." Was Simon Cowell calling the Diana Ross a whale? Would Cowell be dead by sunup, dangling at the end of a feather boa from a Rodeo Drive lamppost? Of course, Cowell was trying to say that Ross would wail when she heard Sanjaya butchering her song—a bit like I did when I heard Ross singing "More Today Than Yesterday"—but it just came out wrong.
Americans have a habit of declaring any old lager lout from Chigwell the second coming of Noel Coward the minute he opens his mouth and emits a long vowel sound. Simon may be the biggest-ever beneficiary of this reflexive American Anglophilia. For all his vaunted "wit," Cowell is pretty weak rhetorically. "You came over as a background singer for a background singer," he told Brandon on Tuesday night—a typical Cowellian bon mot. That's a step up from, Yo, dawg, it was just aiight for me, I guess, but not by much. The real Idol wit, of course, is Ryan Seacrest. Who can forget his exchange with Season 5 country-pixie Kellie Pickler, who reappeared on the Idol stage a few weeks back, staggering under the weight of enormously enhanced bosoms. Seacrest: "Have you, um, spent your money on anything since you've left us?" Pickler: "Shoes." Seacrest: "(Pause) Just shoes? (Pause) OK."
Anyway, about the competition. Melinda was great again. LaKisha, too. Everyone else was forgettable. Are there really 10 weeks left? Am I the only person that's living for the Bon Jovi guest appearance? The Jovi songbook may be the only thing capable of stopping the Melinda juggernaut. (What's she going to sing? "Bad Medicine"? "Runaway"?) As usual, the guys really stunk. Phil Stacy is a weird one, vacillating between tuneless mumbling in his lower register and a creepy-beatific Mario Lanza vibe when he belts out the high tenor notes. I want him off the show now. I respect the efforts of Chris Sligh and my slumping favorite, Blake Lewis, to rearrange their songs. (I loved the footage of Blake futzing around with the Supremes' track with his Pro Tools. Ooooh, he's so … modern!) The results, though, were bizarre. Blake's "You Keep Me Hanging On" was a Eurodisco abomination, capped by some embarrassing falsetto singing. Sligh's "Endless Love" remake was even worse, turning one of the great wussy ballads of the '80s into tuneless, bludgeoning synth-rock stomp. Round about verse two, I swear I heard a whale in Beverly Hills.