‘Idol’ Recap: Lakisha Edges Out Melinda, Haley Has A Breakdown

Chris Sligh and Blake Lewis' reinterpretations of Diana Ross hits could send them home.

Grab a fright wig and burn your “Dreamgirls” ticket stub because Tuesday night’s “American Idol” is all about Diana Ross! Yep, the top-12 “Idol” hopefuls are turning Motown into NO!town and killing disco even deader. And I can’t wait!

First, “Idol” producers force us to sit through the same “Successful Idol” montage we’ve already seen this season … twice. Just once, I’d like to see an “Unsuccessful Idol” montage detailing the whereabouts of the black sheep of the “Idol” family, like Corey Clark, Scott Savol and Mario Vazquez. (Actually, according to a lawsuit, we may be able to find Mario in the men’s room.)

Ryan starts off the evening displaying a ninja-like agility. At the very top of the show, he’s chilling with the audience. Thirty seconds later, he’s walking out from backstage like he’s been there for days. I’m impressed. Not so much by the lighting, however. In an effort to “wow” us, Ryan shows off the new “tricked out stage” and thanks to some lame effects, I now feel like I’m at a Scorpions tribute band gig.

In addition to a bigger stage, there’s now a bigger band. Ryan compliments the horns and the strings by saying, “Looking good, gentlemen.” Clearly, he’s not referring to the musician I’m looking at. (I didn’t know Mike from “American Movie” rocked the violin!)

Now while I’m not a huge fan of Diana Ross’ music, I’m stoked for a wild “Oh no she didn’t!” ride — anyone who recently caught her giggle-fit appearance on “Inside the Actors Studio” knows what I’m talking about.

Things look promising right from the get-go. Lady Di chose what looks like a Venti-sized wig to greet the contestants. The crazy meter’s raised a few notches from Carol Kane to Björk, and we’re only a few minutes in. (Will she pass Tomi Rae Brown? Fingers crossed!) Ross’ outfit is classic “diva in rehearsal.” Tank top over a blouse? Check. Capri pants and heels? Check. Crazy meter holds steady. But then, Diana’s almost Liza-like in her greeting. “Look at your shmiling fashes! Sho good to meet you. Well, hello!” Folks, crazy meter is up to Suzanne Somers. Fasten your seat belts and prepare for a rambling QVC story about a dead cat.

A funny thing starts to happen, however. Diana’s interview bites are coherent, even poignant at times. And her “I’m not a critic, I’m here to support you” speech comes off really sincere. For the first time in a long time, an “Idol” guest mentor looks as though they’re there to mentor, and not just push their crappy new adult-contemporary album. The crazy meter drops below the Joy Behar level and that means there’s barely any cuckoo to measure, aside from Paula. Diana is the real deal.

Now if only I could say that for this season’s top 12 …

BRANDON ROGERS
Song: “You Can’t Hurry Love”
Verdict: You Can’t Remember the Lyrics, Either!

Right off the bat, ex-background singer Brandon Rogers displays his classic (read: lame) background-singer dance moves. It’s an auspicious beginning, and things quickly go from bad to worse. His nervous voice cracks, he does little to engage the audience and before you can say Baylie Brown, Brandon forgets the words. Badly. The audience doesn’t care. They cheer him throughout. Speaking of which, thanks to a production gaffe, Brandon’s cheering section is in complete darkness during their first reaction shot. The Chyron may say “Brandon’s family” but all I see is a pitch-black frame and two white graphics on a pair of custom made T-shirts. Good thing they fixed the lighting for the cast of “Bones.” Fox would hate for their cross-promotion to go unnoticed.

Randy’s first final-12 critique is instantly classic. “The last two notes were good.” And he means that sincerely. As a compliment. Paula follows him up with another winning nugget: “We don’t need to tell you what you did wrong.” Um, isn’t that your job? Luckily, Simon’s there to make sense of it all: “No star quality.”

MELINDA DOOLITTLE
Song: “Home”
Verdict: The Wiz Dazzles Again

Before Melinda graces us with another sure-to-be-jaw-dropping performance, Ryan has her in the “Coke” corner. This season, apparently fans (at least those who are Coke-drinkers) can submit questions to the “Idol” contestants. Somehow, I doubt any juicy or scandalous Qs will get past the producers. So instead of a question we all want to ask Melinda (like, say, “What happened to your neck?”), we’re stuck with, “What’s the hardest part of this contest?” Snore! Is this “American Idol” or Miss America?

Lucky for us, Melinda’s answer is all personality. “I would have to say the high heels and these dresses! I like my tennis shoes and my sweatpants.” Spoken like a true soccer mom.

In her taped interview, Melinda admits that she’s “an old school Motown girl at heart.” Motown tunes must remind her of her childhood. In the ’60s. (Seriously, Melinda. You’re 45. We know. You can come clean now. I’ll still buy your record.)

Melinda eases on down the “Wiz” songbook to “Home.” She sings the first few lines of the song in front of Rickey Minor and I swear it looks like he’s making love to his bass. Good thing she quickly moves to center stage and commands our attention with yet another pitch-perfect, passionate performance. I’d say she was a machine, but no robot could emote this well. Well, besides Johnny Five.

The crowd, appropriately, showers Melinda with endless applause and the singer is moved to tears. Which makes me a little choked up. Which makes Paula a LOT choked up. I can only imagine how Sundance is holding up right now. I don’t need to grab a Kleenex, though, because the sight (and sounds) of Paula Wackdul blubbering is enough to sober me up. Paula’s such a mess that she barely completes one sentence. Really. It’s just so good, I have to transcribe it all, lack of punctuation and everything:

“Melinda just watching you I just I feel what you you’re just feeling so much joy from and it’s exciting I feel like one big goose bump and I just am so excited for you because look at you. I mean, this is it for you. This is it for you. You’re you’re you’re sailin’ through.”

Watch your back, Maya Angelou.

Simon’s on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. He has the giggles. He can’t stop. And now I have the giggles. And now Paula has the giggles! (And, trust me, wherever she is, Diana Ross has the giggles too.) What an emotional rollercoaster! Once Simon collects himself — and Paula stops clapping like a seal — he compares Melinda to Gladys Knight. The comparison is almost too easy. Wait a second — I think Melinda is Gladys Knight. That explains a lot.

CHRIS SLIGH
Song: “Endless Love”
Verdict: Chris Martin, Call a Lawyer

Chris Sligh’s taped interview plays exactly like every makeover episode of “America’s Next Top Model.” As soon as you hear one of the girls say, “I don’t care if they chop off all my hair,” you just know that she’s gonna be the one to whine about her boy haircut for the rest of the season. Similarly, thanks to the magic of editing, we go from hearing Diana Ross saying, “Chris was a little bit nervous” to Chris saying, “I don’t have a nervous bone in my body.” D’oh!

I slapped my forehead a second time when Sligh says to the legend, “We have very similar hair! I just can’t get mine to go out like that.” Diana offers some free hair advice and I fall instantly in love with her. Any woman who puts an electrocuted poodle on top of her head and then denies that it’s a wig is a hero in my book. “You gotta tease,” indeed.

A contact-wearing Chris rearranges the dated song that most people nowadays associate with a lip-synching Zamboni driver in “Happy Gilmore.” Problem is, his arrangement blatantly rips off Coldplay, and America’s left longing for Lionel Richie. The judges call him out on aping Gwyneth’s favorite band — or at least they try to. Randy cites “Speed of Sound” but he means “Clocks.” And when Simon calls the Coldplay arrangement “a complete and utter drone,” he ends up knocking a different Chris, this one of the Martin persuasion. Oops.

Before I move on, I’d like to send this quick note to Chris Sligh’s family:

Dear Sligh clan,

“Fro Patro” is really, really weak. Please come up with a better tag line for your Chris Sligh campaign. Maybe tailor it for each theme? For example, this week’s signs could have read, “Ain’t No Idol Sligh Enough!” Weak, sure, but it’s better than the Taylor Hicks hack job you had. I mean, “patro” isn’t even a word. You should be ashamed of yourselves.

Sincerely,
Jim C.

GINA GLOCKSEN
Song: “Love Child”
Verdict: Never Meant to Be

Back from a commercial break, Ryan introduces Gina Glocksen while standing in the audience, but judging from all the 13-year-old girls surrounding him, it looks more like the pit of an All-American Rejects concert.

In their one-on-one session, Diana Ross tells the Glockinator that she needs to “pronounciate” every word. Oh, the irony. (The crazy meter is back from retirement, and it just shot up to level Jade.) When Diana follows up her first comment with “You can’t say ‘blubblabidubdayblub,’ you know what I mean?” the meter is up to Pretty Ricky and approaching Sally Kirkland frighteningly fast.

On-the-Glocks’ performance is flat and forgettable, the definition of bad karaoke. Luckily, Paula makes the segment noteworthy by saying “Love Child” is a “feel-good-you-can’t-help-yourself-you-wanna-get-up” ditty. Really? The song about an unplanned pregnancy is an upbeat jam? I bet Paula thinks the same thing about Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle.” (“I love kitty cats!”)

SANJAYA MALAKAR
Song: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”
Verdict: Hair Raising

A co-worker has a theory about Sanjaya: Dude does not want to be on the show anymore. He just wants to go back home and hang out with his sister. After this train wreck, I think my officemate may be on to something.

Exhibit A: In his taped interview, Sanjaya looks like he’s near tears when he talks about his mentor time with Miss Ross. “She told me I just need to move around and just … like have fun, just feel it in my body.” Good advice, because he looks absolutely pained to be there.

Exhibit B: Last week’s hula “secret.” The guy is daring the South to hate him.

Exhibit C: The Snoop-Dogg-At-The-’94-VMAs-Meets-Jennifer-Lopez-In-1997 Curly Hair Don’t.

Exhibit D: He chose “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” probably the most ill-fitting Diana Ross song for his meek voice.

Despite this freak show, I hate to admit that I still think Sanjaya has a really nice, if undeveloped, voice. When he’s on key — he was there about 60 percent of the time — he has a really delicious tone. He should stick to quieter songs in the future so that his timid pipes don’t get overpowered by Rickey Minor and the now-100-piece house band.

Searching for anything positive to say, Randy tells Sanjaya that if the show were called “Hair Idol,” he’d be in the lead.

HALEY SCARNATO
Song: “Missing You”
Verdict: Hey Coke, HERE’S Your Real Moment

Haley “Who-The-Heck-Is-She-And-Why-Is-She-In-The-Top-12?” Scarnato brings out Diana Ross’ passive-aggressive side, while exposing her own self-involved doofus side. When Diana asks Haley who she’s thinking about while singing “Missing You,” Haley tells the Diva, “I’m actually thinking about my fiancé.”

Diana responds with a really phony, “Yeah?”

“Yeah, he’s back at home,” she pouts.

Edit to Diana’s private interview. “I recorded that song after Marvin Gaye’s death.”

In other words, take your fiancé and shove it! And give that editor an Emmy.

Like Brandon, Haley forgets the words in a major way. But unlike the background singer, Haley kicks up her performance after her goof and works extra hard to make us forget about it. This causes pitch problems up the wazoo, but it feels honest and real and makes for especially compelling television. Her vulnerability makes her likeable all of a sudden. Somehow, I’m now a Haley fan.

During judging, she’s really down on herself. Paula gives her most eloquent comment: “Your pitch? Ay-ay-ay.” Simon, who bashed her last week with a “what’s your name?” dismissal, does a complete 180. “I didn’t think it was that bad.” And he correctly says her name.

Cue the waterworks. Haley Scarnato pulls a Sundance and the poor thing has a breakdown of epic proportions. As Simon praises her presence, she looks as though she’s going to vomit onstage.

Post-judging, Haley continues her meltdown, revealing her perfectionist-to-a-fault personality. “I forgot the words! I forgot the words! I’m a schmuck!” (OMG, I love the unexpected Yiddish!) Paula tries to comfort her with a “the show must go on,” but in the process insults the viewers in a pretty major way by saying, “The audience doesn’t know anything!” I golf clap at home. Well done, Paula. Well done.

This might be the most emotional judging in the history of “Idol.” In the process, Haley’s “real”-ness wins me over. It’s almost too real. Her raw nerves are practically visible. Because she now reminds me of every girl my friends dated in film school — you know the Fiona-Apple-unstable-but-in-an-attractive-way type — I think she’ll have a lock on the hipster vote. I just hope that’s enough to keep her around another week.

PHIL STACEY
Song: “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me”
Verdict: I Miss Daughtry

Diana Ross says Phil Stacey brought back memories of Marvin Gaye, but as soon as Phil took to the stage, Marvin’s the last singer that comes to mind. Phil’s lower register is just awful. And thanks to Phil’s poor diction, during one line he sounded like he sang something unintentionally dirty. The line is “I’m coming in your direction,” but if you swallow a letter in “direction,” you’re saying a completely different word. He salvaged the rest of the performance, although his power notes are unbearably grating.

Randy gives Phil the award for best vocal by a boy tonight. But the only award I give Phil is for “Most Creepy Poster.” Phil’s family blew up a giant picture of his new baby and with the magic of PhotoShop, the baby’s holding a cell phone and is saying, “I’m voting for you, daddy!” The banner should read, “Daddy, who are you?” since Phil has been on “Idol” for a majority of this kid’s life so far. Start saving up for therapy bills now, dude.

LAKISHA JONES
Song: “God Bless the Child”
Verdict: A Blessed Child, Indeed

Lakisha “KiKi” Jones tackles a Billie Holiday classic and “Idol” staple. I could complain (or kvetch, as Haley might say) that technically it ain’t a Diana Ross song, but KiKi’s won me over week after week so she could sing “The Humpty Dance” during country night and I’d let it slide.

During her time with Diana, Lakisha didn’t have to work on her already-stellar vocals. Instead, she wanted to know the more important details. What kind of dress should she wear? And mic stand or no mic stand? To watch KiKi and Diana discuss these minute details, you’d think they were trying to figure out how to get our troops out of Iraq. I eat up their dedication.

Lakisha continues her winning streak with a “God Bless the Child” to end all “God Bless the Child”s. It’s easily her most multilayered, complex and controlled performance yet. Here’s where I nitpick — I wasn’t thrilled with the last note. KiKi has a habit of ending the last power note a few measures before she really ought to, but that’s just a minor quibble for a performance that is, as Randy echoes, “SENSATIONAL!”

BLAKE LEWIS
Song: “You Keep Me Hanging On”
Verdict: (Re)mixed Up

Blake’s up next and it’s pretty obvious that he’s raiding the closet of Ryan Seacrest and stealing the moves of Justin Timberlake. His routine is so conspicuously inspired by the former ‘NSYNCer that I keep looking for Timbaland to join him onstage for an awkward and depressingly off-kilter jig. Alas, no luck. Or we’re in luck, depending on how you look at it.

Blake channeled his inner-Pharrell when he showed off his laptop skillz to Diana Ross, who seemed not-so-thrilled that he was noodling with an old Motown classic. (Maybe she just doesn’t know what a computer is?) The beat-boxer must have said the words “update” or “remix” at least 12 times in his taped intro alone, so I’m expecting a killer arrangement.

Then the song starts.

Well, Blake did update the song from the ’60s. But he stopped updating somewhere around 1985, making the arrangement less FutureSex/LoveSounds and more Mike and the Mechanics. Appropriate, because all Blake needs is a miracle to avoid the bottom three this week.

Randy and Simon are Motown purists, apparently. They detest Blake’s bizarre interpretation, reacting the same way film critics responded to Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” remake. Randy even coins a new term — “Blakeize” meaning “to attempt to make a song sound contemporary but failing miserably.” Let’s use that in a sentence, shall we? Taylor Hicks’ old soul vocal stylings didn’t fit with the Blakeized production of his debut album.

STEPHANIE EDWARDS
Song: “Love Hangover”
Verdict: A Sobering Arrangement

It must be pretty embarrassing to have a senior citizen give you pointers on how to be sexy. (I guess they don’t call Miss Ross a sexagenarian for nothing!) Stephanie found herself in that sticky situation when her “Love Hangover” wasn’t working for disco diva Diana.

Steph’s performance was a real misfire. The arrangement is mostly to blame. By ditching the uptempo part of the tune, she left fans of the song on a limb — or in Paula’s case, out of her chair waiting to boogie. But her vocals weren’t up to snuff, either. Her high notes were screechy and decidedly unsexy.

Randy mentions some “missed words” that I didn’t notice the first time, so I went back and watched the performance a few times. I still didn’t notice any lyric slipups. (It would be hard to mess up a song that has about 13 words total.) Paula and Simon both complain that she merely sang an extended intro. Stephanie learns a valuable lesson: Don’t tease Abdul with the idea of dancing without delivering a booty shaker. If you cross the queen of “Vibeology,” she’ll unleash a fiery stare and a cold critique. (Note to “The Devil Wears Prada” producers — if Meryl turns down a sequel, you can cast Paula instead! Only hiccup is you might have to change the movie title to “The Devil Is Unable to Conjugate Verbs,” but I still smell a hit!)

CHRIS RICHARDSON
Song: “The Boss”
Verdict: Disco Duck

Diana begs Chris “J-Fed” Richardson to “find the hook, find the audience.” J-Fed follows the latter half of her advice as he bounces around the stage and shuffles into the crowd. (She didn’t mean literally find the audience, you dolt!) He acts like a puppy begging for love and affection. J-Fed constantly tosses goofy grins and wide-eyed come-hither looks toward the camera, but he’s moving around so much that my brain can’t keep track of all that’s going on. Maybe that’s the point? If he distracts us with his schtick, maybe we won’t notice that his vocals were horrendous.

The judging is comprised of a series of paradoxes. First, Randy says it wasn’t his favorite, but then says J-Fed’s holding it down for the guys. (Were the dudes that bad, dawg?) Then, Paula praises J-Fed for being the only guy to properly give their performance a contemporary feel, but immediately follows that by saying the song had a Dan Hartman “Instant Replay” vibe … a track that came out in 1978. Say it with me, Haley: Oy gevalt!

JORDIN SPARKS
Song: “If We Hold on Together”
Verdict: Overpraised and Underage

Diana Ross — who must be exhausted working with and then talking about all these kids — waxes poetically about this tune, which I’ve never heard before. “You gotta be able to look at the audience and believe and own the words of the song.” While working with Jordin, Diana pleads with her, “Tell them the story, don’t lose your way!” Sounds like it’s gonna be one helluva song, don’t it?

Ryan Seacrest then announces, “The song was featured in ‘The Land Before Time’ …”

Cue the sound of a balloon deflating. And a record scratch. And a car crash!

We just spent a minute watching Diana insist that Jordin “believe” and “project” and “tell the story” of a schmaltzy ballad from a third-rate Don Bluth cartoon? Really?

As Jordin performs, all I can think about is that she’s singing about animated dinosaurs that have been featured in more direct-to-video sequels than Jenna Jameson. And then I’m distracted when I realize that Jordin wasn’t even born when “The Land Before Time” hit theaters. Now I feel like a dinosaur.

Inexplicably, Randy includes Jordin in the “League of Melinda and Lakisha.” Did he not hear those nails-on-a-chalkboard high notes? Or her distracting vibrato? Or the fact that she just sang a song about ANIMATED DINOSAURS? Paula jumps onboard the train of obsequiousness. (That’s unfair. She didn’t jump. She’s the conductor of that train.) Even Simon, while admitting the song was “gooey,” called it “a very, very good vocal.”

“Idol” producers obviously felt Jordin had the right stuff too. They gave her the cushy closing Fantasia spot, always reserved for a dynamo. Either I’m deaf from watching two hours of amateur singers or I’m biased against dino-songs but ether way, I did not get that performance.

Something’s Pitchy

We’ve watched Ryan and Simon channel Isaiah Washington and Ann Coulter before. But tonight’s endless taunts of “You wear high heels,” “No YOU are” were enough to make me run to my computer and refresh Rosie O’Donnell’s blog, waiting for an angry haiku in response. Meanwhile, poor Melinda, who was stuck in the middle of their childish behavior, handled herself fairly well — although I really wanted the soccer mom to give each participant a time out: “Get back in your closets, boys, and don’t come out until you’re sorry for what you said!”

But I’m all for turning a negative into a positive. So after this bout of “gay, straight or taken” passes, Ryan’s scripted segue into Melinda’s video makes my inner Beavis and Butt-Head chuckle: “OK, let’s take a look at Diana and Melinda in action.’ Hehe he heh hehehee.

High Note Of The Night

A sane Diana Ross was a breath of unexpected fresh air. After last year’s crude Andrea Bocelli/ Rod Stewart/ Barry Manilow trifecta, I was blown away by Diva Ross’ dedication and commitment to the Ditzy Dozen. Sure, she’ll try her best to sell her stinker-of-a-CD during the results show, but she took her role as mentor quite seriously. Diana Ross, Mentor: The Freshmaker.

Performance-wise, Lakisha Jones edges out Melinda this week, mostly because of song choice. Doolittle’s “Wiz” tune was a tad too Broadway for my taste, while Lakisha’s nuanced performance shed a whole new light on the powerhouse performer.

Is it depressing to anyone else out there that these two women, who are so clearly in their own universe as far as talent goes, won’t be the final two this season? You just know one of them will get voted off prematurely, or some “scandal” will erupt which will result in an early dismissal. (I hope Lakisha doesn’t have a pot arrest in her past, because the “KiKi and Herb” headline just writes itself.)

As far as this week’s elimination goes, I think Stephanie Edwards, Gina Glocksen, Blake Lewis and Chris Sligh are in jeopardy. Stephanie and Gina were fairly forgettable, and Chris’ Coldplay knockoff was just enough of a mess to turn off some of his diehard fans. Same goes for Blake’s “SexyHack” routine.

The untouchable Sanjaya continues his reign as the John Stevens of this season. Much to his dismay, he’ll have to live without his sister for at least another week. As bad as he was, I still think his young fans will vote him and his perm through.

I don’t know who to pity more: Sanjaya, or the 40 million-plus people who will have to listen to him sing again next week.

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