‘Idol’ Recap: Simon Says Antonella’s Time Is Up, Melinda Aces It Again

'Idol' semifinals wrap up with Barba blasted and Doolittle a clear frontrunner.

We’re not even 20 seconds into the show, and Ryan Seacrest is already suggesting that we’re in for one helluva train wreck tonight. “We don’t have Paula! But we’ll find her, right?”

This is “American Idol”?

It’s the last round of semifinal performances, and nothing could be worse than Tuesday’s embarrassing men’s show (see “‘Idol’ Recap: Sundance, Phil Stacey Strike Out On Disappointing Guys’ Night” ). Well, I guess if they let Antonella sing for the entire episode I’d reconsider that statement. But with a group of girls this talented, even an off-night would be worth watching. And Paula’s top-of-the-show disappearing act certainly suggests that it may be chock full of potential YouTube moments.

There’s Paula. She’s wearing a white scarf around her neck tonight. I can’t help but think of that old campfire tale about the woman whose head popped off when her scarf was removed. Seacrest’s also covering his neck, but he’s left the sash at home. Instead, he’s opted for a black turtleneck, which makes him look like he’s at a funeral for a professor. (Seriously, why are they both covering their necks tonight? Did Ryan and Paula have a hot-and-heavy hickey session?)

So where was Paula at the top of the show? Randy says that she was under the table “getting something for him,” but I think it’s pretty obvious that she was just returning a borrowed hair-straightening iron to its rightful owner: Sanjaya.

“Secret” week chugs along. Aside from revealing their innermost thoughts … about hairstyles, the women have one last chance to wow us before we get to the finals. As Jared Cotter would say (to his parents!), “Let’s Get It On.”

JORDIN SPARKS
Song: Pat Benatar’s “Heartbreaker”
Verdict: Not Quite a Touchdown

The secrets are off to a lame start. Jordin “My dad’s a football player” Sparks reveals that (gasp!) she loves football! Who woulda thunk it? At least her song choice makes my ears perk up. I wouldn’t expect the 17-year-old to be so committed to a Pat Benatar tune. While the studio audience freaks over Jordin’s performance, I’m left cold. Sparky’s vocals are passable, but she fails to connect with the cameras. As Tyra would say, she suffers from “dead eyes.” Girl, take two doses of fierce and call me in the morning. Here’s the confusing part: Jordin’s last note continues even after she brings the mic down to her side. I’m not insinuating that she’s lip-synching or using a backing track, but obviously there’s some sort of vocal effect being used, and I think that’s suspect. It’s one thing to add the “Nick Hexum” reverb to Blake’s 311 homage, but to help a contestant sustain a note is like letting “The Amazing Racers” use MapQuest. It’s a less impressive feat.

Randy looks like a dope when he calls her performance “dope,” especially since he complained about pitch problems just seconds prior. But I guess when you’re used to being followed by Paula Abdul, you can get away with saying absolutely anything and sound intelligent by comparison. For example: “You’re exploding into your own artist” makes “It needs some ‘yo’ in it” seem almost Shakespearean.

While her performance was “shrieky,” ultimately Jordin’s personality will save her. I know I was charmed when the tall girl poked fun at Ryan’s height, or lack thereof. How Timberlakian of her!

SABRINA SLOAN
Song: En Vogue’s “Don’t Let Go (Love)”
Verdict: Skunky Diva

When did Sabrina Sloan go to high school? I only ask because the clips shown from her high school news show — called, I kid you not, “Diablo Heat” — indicate that it was sometime during the Reagan administration. (And did Sabrina’s high school get their money’s worth on that Video Toaster, or what?!) Sabrina’s taped intro may have been intended to reveal that she used to aspire to be a news anchor, but in the end exposed something much more interesting: “Sloan” is a stage name. The teenage Sabrina — who I bet was, like, totally into the Fixx — signs off a “Diablo Heat” broadcast by calling herself “Sabrina Shirff.” Whoops!

Equally whoops? Her train wreck of a performance. Sabrina’s soulless voice does little to sell the song, and I feel like I’m stuck at a bad wedding reception. Even though Randy and Paula give her props, Simon cuts through the fluff, comparing the robotic rendition to one he’d see at a hotel resort somewhere. (I didn’t know they had Sandals in hell!)

In the audience, Sabrina’s fans wear T-shirts showing their support. (Ah, yes. “American Idol”: keeping custom T-shirt stores in business since 2002.) The Sabrina T’s are fairly suggestive, removing the “I” in Sabrina’s name and replacing it with the silhouette of a naked singer. Apparently they were inspired by the font used on the “Striptease” poster.

ANTONELLA BARBA
Song: Corinne Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On”
Verdict: Bad Voice, Worse ‘Tude

Speaking of nudity, Antonella’s next. Who knew that the Jersey girl played violin as a child? Alas, now with college — and visits to national monuments for impromptu photo shoots — she doesn’t have time to keep it up, so Itzhak Perlman can rest easy. (Who would you choose for your orchestra? A world-renowned violinist or a 20-year-old who looks good in a miniskirt? If America had their say, it’d be the hot girl, apparently.)

Onstage, Antonella struggles to hit the low notes. Too bad they make up about 95 percent of the song. I never knew a boring Bailey Rae song was so hard to sing. (Remember her recent Grammy performance? I swear I only heard three notes in the entire four-minute song!)

Despite a lackluster performance, the Point Pleasant princess somehow gets a standing ovation. (Clearly the studio audience is so elated that it’s over.) Paula melts my brain when she simultaneously praises Antonella for picking the perfect song to showcase her range AND complains that the singer failed to hit the bottom notes. But doesn’t the fact that she couldn’t hit the low notes indicate that the song was out of her range, Paula? You so crazy!

Things get real tense, real quick once Simon opens his mouth. The Minister of Truth essentially says, “What a waste of a hot young girl.” Actually, it was, “I just wish you could sing better,” but we all know what he meant. She’s clearly getting voted through by randy men (young and old), and Simon says what we’re all thinking: “You’ve served your purpose, and now it’s time for you to go.” But not before he gives her props for handling her sticky situation well, thus bringing up the infamous pictures for the first time on “Idol” (see ” ‘Idol’ Hopeful Antonella Barba’s Pal Says X-Rated Pics Are Fake” ). As Rosie O’Donnell would say, “CONFETTI! ”

In her post-performance chat, Antonella tells Ryan, “I think everyone’s an amazing singer here, but I don’t try to be like them.” So she’s deliberately trying to be terrible? Simon quickly puts the kibosh on her loopy “I’m unique” campaign by saying, “Let’s be real here. It’s a singing competition.” Paula tries changing the subject, “Let’s get to a warmer place.” But it couldn’t get any more heated than this!

HALEY SCARNATO
Song: Faith Hill’s “If My Heart Had Wings”
Verdict: Crash Landing

Haley Scarnato (child gymnast!) chooses a ditty that sounds a lot like the theme to “Webster.” Can’t say I’ve heard Faith Hill’s song before, but after this cheesy cabaret performance, I know I’m bound to hear it again (albeit with more tears) on this week’s results show. Great.

Randy laments the lack of “wow” or “yo!” in her performance. (What about your lack of vocabulary, Randy?) Paula brings her patented “you look great” to the table. But Simon, yet again, speaks the truth. After coolly hissing “horrible,” and comparing it to a “terrible, ghastly high school musical,” he finishes it off with, “I don’t know your name.”

OUCH.

Paula, trying to cushion the blow, berates Simon for his harsh-but-accurate criticism. But when Cowell asks Paula to say Haley’s last name, Abdul proves his point by staring blankly into space. With Simon crapping on so many of the girls, I can’t help but think that Lars von Trier is thoroughly enjoying tonight’s show. I wonder if “American Idol” airs in Denmark …

STEPHANIE EDWARDS
Song: Rufus and Chaka Khan’s “Sweet Thing”
Verdict: Sour Note Spoiler

Formerly shy Stephanie Edwards commands the stage with near-perfect showmanship. If only her vocals lived up to that. Each big note is like another failed attempt at greatness. That doesn’t stop two women in the audience from getting down. (Their choreography and lip movement is so in sync that I almost thought they were new backup singers!) Stephanie’s performance is dangerously mediocre tonight. Simon may not remember Haley’s name, but I doubt America will remember Stephanie’s performance by the time voting lines are open.

LAKISHA JONES
Song: Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing”
Verdict: Nobody’s Perfect

You know those people who pose and smile in front of a video camera like a photographer’s about to snap their picture? My grandmother is one of those people. LaKisha Jones is another. During a toss to a commercial break, LaKisha is forced to stand on the set and look awkward while the camera zooms in on her. Her posture — and the camera move — reminds me of every single “Maury” episode. I half expect the image to become black-and-white strobed video while LaKisha tells the camera that she’s ready to confront her no-good cheating husband.

In her taped piece, the normally reserved girl actually demonstrates personality for the first time. But “I can show emotion” isn’t her revealed secret tonight — although it would have been a good one. Nope, she discusses her phobia of animals. Yes, animals. “Any kind of animals!” Even birds?

LaKisha is a zillion times better than most of her competitors, but she’s a little rough around the edges tonight. Her performance is fraught with poor phrasing, a pitchy note here and there, and a cliché song choice. Biggest irony of all, she shows little personality during her performance, but tons before and after it. The girl pulled a complete 180 on us. Will she ever sustain likeability for an entire episode?

Warts and all, the judges lap it up, and I’m fairly certain America will too. Let’s face it: LaKisha’s worst is still a cut above Antonella’s best.

GINA GLOCKSEN
Song: Evanescence’s “Call Me When You’re Sober”
Verdict: A Sobering Discovery

After a bizarre “impromptu” pillow fight in the Coke room, Ryan introduces Jiminy Glock — I mean Gina Glocksen, who I think looks like a young Lucinda Williams after a four-day bender of Ring-Dings and Entenmann’s donuts.

Tonight, the superstitious Gina finally ditched the Celine Dion ballads for a different sort of slow jam. (You know, the kind of tune Chris Sligh might cover when gigging at a Super Church, no matter what Amy Lee says.) Thanks to Gigi’s Evanescence cover, chubby goth girls from the Midwest no longer feel the need to deny watching “Idol.” Like the judges, I applaud Gina for “finding herself” this past week. I just hope that next time she can find the melody and the correct pitch.

P.S. Why do I get the impression that Gina Glocksen could kick Amy Lee’s butt in a cage match?

P.P.S. I never thought I’d live to hear Ryan Seacrest say, “Your boyfriend has a pickle on his chest right now” on live television.

MELINDA DOOLITTLE
Song: Peggy Lee’s “I’m a Woman”
Verdict: Hear Her Roar!

At last, a contestant makes the most of “secret” night and reveals a juicy tidbit. Melinda’s obsessive-compulsive disorder! Hey Phil Stacey and Chris Sligh, I bet you both feel foolish talking about haircuts now, don’t you?

Her announcement, which she turned into a playful “equal opportunity” scenario, almost distracted me from her performance. (I got carried away thinking about how hilarious her future concert rider will read. “Dressing room must be perfectly symmetrical. Food must be cut into perfect 1/8-inch cubes. Remove all doorknobs from the premises!“) But before I could say “green M&M’s,” last week’s standout was up on stage slaughtering the competition with a genius rendition of an old Leiber and Stoller tune.

Think about it: Has anyone in the history of “American Idol” ever been this consistently fantastic at this point in the show? Even Kelly Clarkson’s early performances had a few wobbly moments. How Melinda doesn’t already have a successful career as a solo artist, I’ll never know. (Hate to say it, but it might have to do with the fact that she looks like Warwick Davis.)

But here’s where I worry about Melinda: Remember when that Little League pitcher was exposed as being too old to compete? I think we need to check Doolittle’s birth certificate. I don’t think I’d be able to handle it if a month from now she was disqualified because some old college roommate from the class of ’77 emerged with photos and a yearbook. Maybe Melinda has that “Jack” disorder, where she ages a decade every week. By the end of the season, she’ll look like Barbara Walters!

High Note Of The Night

Obviously I’m all about Melinda … for the second week in a row. Can you blame me? Her performance brought the entire studio audience (and myself, at home in pajamas) to their feet. The applause she received rivaled Scorsese’s reception after he finally won the Oscar a few weeks ago. In fact, Melinda was so great, I’ll even forgive the judges’ annoying habit of misrepresenting percentages. Simon says Melinda will be through to the next round, 1 million percent. That doesn’t make any sense!

Not so lucky? Haley What’s-Her-Name, who is almost guaranteed — Paula might say 900 percent — to go home Thursday night. The other spot is a little harder to fill. While Antonella’s voice is hated more than Sanjaya’s, as long as dirty old men have mute buttons, she’ll be Jersey-fying the “Idol” stage for weeks to come. With Antonella out of the way, either Sabrina or Stephanie will be joining Haley (Who?) on the return flight to Obscurity. Won’t it be scandalous when a girl with actual talent goes home before the Paris Hilton of “American Idol”?

Man, I love this country.

Get your “Idol” fix on MTV News’ “American Idol” page, where you’ll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.