Tony Bennett came to American Idol this week, wearing a canary-yellow sport coat and a look of kindly, world-weary sagacity. He was by far the best celebrity mentor I've seen on the show, gently but firmly pushing his charges to pay attention to lyrics, to focus on a song's meaning, and to dispense with vocal fripperies. "I think that little tag at the end, you can do without. Hit that big note at the end and hold onto it," he told LaKisha Jones—good advice, which LaKisha completely ignored in a blowsy performance of "Stormy Weather." His judgment of the finalists was precise: "They're all very competent."
That about sums it up. On this week's standards-themed show, most of the singers were decent, and all were uninspired. Standards are a double-edged sword. The songs are so sturdily built that they can stand up to all kinds of abuse. You could detect Cole Porter's brooding genius in "Night and Day," even beneath the bleatings of Phil Stacey—whose eyebrows, incidentally, continue to haunt my nightmares. But because of their formal rigor and, especially, their clever lyrics, midcentury pop standards require sensitive vocal interpretation to really shine: In the wrong hands, even a great Gershwin ballad can come off as callow and soulless. I was looking forward to Bennett's master-class performance on the Wednesday results show, but he came down with the flu. Instead, we got pinch hitter Michael Bublé, who was a pleasant surprise—fairly oozing his way across the stage as he sang Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen's "Call Me Irresponsible" and capturing that song's louche spirit but exactly. (He even threw in a leering reference to Antonella Barba in his postsong chit-chat with Ryan Seacrest.)
Of course, as we've noted before in this space, the real American Idol virtuosi are Sanjaya Malakar's hairstylists. After the previous round's rococo faux-hawk, Sanjaya wisely went understated this week, slicking his hair flat across his forehead: Combover Chic. He also wore a fabulous white suit. And he danced with Paula Abdul. And he sang like he'd just done a dozen bong hits. Plus ça change. Simon Cowell has completely thrown his hands up, realizing nothing that he says will dissuade Sanjaya's loyal voters. "Let's try a different tactic this week," Simon said. "Incredible!" ("Welcome to the universe of Sanjaya," Sanjaya replied.)
Meanwhile, after several dispiriting weeks of sounding sane and coherent, Paula Abdul was back on form. "You exuded when you walked on stage!" she told Jordin Sparks. "God, you are this magnet of joy! I'm just so fricking proud of you, I don't know what to say." Indeed, 17-year-old Sparks is emerging as a real contender. Seacrest gave her his endorsement this week in a People magazine interview. She has one of the competition's better voices—probably second only to Melinda Doolittle in technical terms—and she is shockingly self-possessed for a girl her age. She's very pretty, and definitely more personable and normal than confessed OCD nutcase Melinda. And unlike Melinda, she has a neck. Might she just steal off with the crown?
We shall see. In the meantime, I'll be focusing all my mental energy on the fond hope that either Phil or Haley gets the boot next. I was distressed by this week's results: Poor dear rocker chick Gina Glocksen gave one of the better performances, and her teary, valedictory reprise of "Smile" was an all-time sweet Idol moment. (I loved it when she turned the mike over to Jordin for a couple of lines.) For this viewer, the show has hit a bit of a rut: I nearly nodded off a few different times on Tuesday. But next week promises to be a doozy: J. Lo week! Imagine the possibilities: Blake beatboxing his way through "Love Don't Cost A Thing," Sanjaya singing "Jenny on the Block." Oh, sweet magnet of joy—I'm exuding at the very frickin' thought.