‘Idol’ Recap: Sanjaya Is Stunning — Seriously; ‘Skeletor’ Stacey Is On His Way Out

Plus: Melinda earns a bad review from Simon; Haley loses the 'Beat' despite J. Lo's coaching.

I’m back from Paris a changed man … and I’m not just talking about the 10 pounds I gained thanks to my “I’m gonna eat a meal every three hours” plan. You see, I saw something so astounding and brilliant that it changed my entire outlook on life. It wasn’t at the Louvre. Forget the Eiffel Tower. The most beautiful thing I saw in Paris had to be “Nouvelle Star,” France’s incarnation of “Idol.”

Call me an ugly American, but watching non-English speakers ruin Aretha Franklin, Aerosmith and Madonna tunes brought me more joy than any famous painting ever could. It was like watching Russian bride Natasha from “America’s Next Top Model” sing for three hours straight. Heaven.

I was especially delighted, then, to return to the States only to find out that “American Idol” might put our top eight in a similar language predicament thanks to this week’s theme.

Yes, Latin night is upon us, and the mystery of what Jennifer Lopez could possibly teach a bunch of singers will finally be revealed. Will she give them advice on how to pick movie roles that hide their ethnicity? Or perhaps she’ll show them how to use Auto-Tune software. (Hey, maybe then Sanjaya will actually sound good!) But there’s no way the former Fly Girl is going to coach them on how to sing, right?

And while it makes sense for Gigli to hock her new Spanish-language CD on Latin night, I still think a better theme would have been “Songs by Actors Who Have No Business Singing.” Phil Stacey would sweat his way through the Don Johnson catalog. Chris Richardson would deliver a “whoa!“. The increasingly nude Haley Scarnato would be covered too, ironically. And how especially appropriate for “Idol” shape-shifter Sanjaya to sing a song by Norbit himself.

But I digress…

Ryan Seacrest butchers the Spanish language in several different ways during the Jennifer Lopez intro video. First, he over-enunciates “Latina” and “Selena” so much that he sounds like he learned Spanish from watching a Speedy Gonzalez cartoon. Then, he reads the title of her new record, Como Ama Una Mujer, the same way our president would, with no accent.

Looking like the hottest elementary school teacher EVER, the artist formerly known as J. Lo delivers a pep talk as the top ocho (Seacrest’s word choice, not mine) sit around the superstar as if they’re about to hear a story before a nap time. It’s a miracle the contestants could hear Lopez over all the noise her 4,000 bangle bracelets were making. It looks like she’s wearing several gold Slinkys on her arm. ¡Que loca! And is it just me or is she wearing the same dress she wore at last year’s VMAs but now with leggings? At least this time she left the Gloria Swanson headwrap at home.

Now before I go on a tangent about the cast of “Drive” — and inexplicably, was that ex-Monkee Micky Dolenz? — being in the audience, let’s get to the performances.

MELINDA DOOLITTLE
Song: “Sway”
Verdict: Celia Snooze

Maybe it’s ’cause I work with the guy, but when Melinda announced that she was singing “Sway,” I immediately thought, Sway has a theme song? Alas, no. Instead, it’s that lame song you’ve heard in every Latin dance movie since the Lambada hogged multiplexes back in ’90.

So far, so good in Lopez Land, though. Instead of discussing the intricacies of phrasing or vibrato, Jennifer teaches a class she knows a lot about: Sex Sells 101. The Booty Queen encourages Melinda — who, up to this point, has been about as sexy as the Estelle Getty workout video — to get in touch with her inner Antonella.

So what does Melinda do? She takes that advice and channels Celia Cruz. Oy. I don’t think “Imitate Dead Old Ladies” is a bullet point in Cosmo‘s “How to Drive Your Man Wild” issue. (Although I did always find Jessica Tandy kinda hot.)

Mindy’s vocals are pitch perfect — yawn. Aren’t they always? — but I’ve seen Kathie Lee Gifford Carnival Cruise ads that are less cheeseball. And for the zillionth time, Doolittle looks like she should be on “AARP Idol.”

Nevertheless, the audience is madly in love with her. Randy and Paula give her some positive, if not faint, praise. But Simon officially begins the Melinda Doolittle Backlash by giving the singer her first bad review. “You appeared much more older than you are.” Um … he’s only noticing that now?

How will Little Miss Perfect react? You learn a lot from somebody when they’re on the hot seat. (Remember Katharine McPhee’s heinous attitude? Or Haley’s Yiddish-filled meltdown?) This criticism should finally force the robotic singer to show us her real personality.

And … nothing. She’s gracious, polite and genuinely eager to hear what Simon has to say. Even her quip to Seacrest afterward (“He really wanted to say something bad and I’m happy he got the chance!”) came across as well-adjusted. (Imagine if Phil had said that? The audience would throw tomatoes at his melon head!) I guess Melinda really is that nice … and boring. Girl better turn up the charm and pick better songs or she might get the ax sooner than expected.

LAKISHA JONES
Song: Miami Sound Machine’s “Conga”
Verdict: No Bad Notes, Two Left Feet

Wow. Diva wonders Melinda and Lakisha both at the top of the show? That’s about as top heavy as Frenchie Davis. Bold move, “Idol” producers. Bold move.

After matter-of-factly exploiting her daughter in a Coca-Cola Real Moment (she’s finally learning how to play the game) KiKi gets diction lessons from Jennifer Lopez. I would make fun of LaKisha for not knowing how to pronounce the word “conga,” but I just spent a week in a country whose language I could not say no matter how simple the word (even my sandwich came out wrong).

But I have no problem ragging on the J. Lo/KiKi dance lesson. Watching the former Fly Girl teach LaKisha how to get down reminded me of every ’80s movie where the popular kid teaches the dork how to dance. Hey Hollywood, I smell a sequel! Plus, aren’t we all thinking the same thing? KiKi never takes the advice from the celeb mentors. She’s just gonna throw out this routine and do her own damn thing! Let’s hear it for the insubordinate!

Small world alert — it just occurred to me that Paula Abdul choreographed one of those dork-learns-from-the-cool-kid ’80s flicks! I’ll let y’all figure out which one. (Hint: McDreamy ruins a suede dress. Hilarity ensues.) SMALLER world alert! Said movie was remade in 2003 with Nick Cannon and a new title … which happens to be the name of a Jennifer Lopez song. MY HEAD’S EXPLODING.

Anyway, LaKisha’s sassy vocals are on point this week. She has no trouble rat-a-tatting the staccato lyrics, including the dreaded “c” word, and the plus-sized diva doesn’t even lose her breath while she hoofs around the stage. Which brings us to the dancing … LaKisha gets an A for effort, but I don’t think Bruno Tonioli will be judging her quick step anytime soon. You knew the choreography wasn’t working when a cutaway to Happy Feet Abdul showed her merely grooving in her seat. This is a woman who stands up at the sound of a hi-hat. And she’s sitting? For the friggin’ CONGA? KiKi’s in trouble.

Sure enough, Abdancer wasn’t impressed. She (coherently!) points out that “Conga” is a safe song selection and urges the singer to pick more challenging material. LaKisha is flabbergasted, no doubt because this is the first complete thought Paula has ever expressed in the history of “American Idol.” The choreographer doesn’t comment on the dance steps, though. She leaves that fish in the barrel for Simon to shoot.

CHRIS RICHARDSON
Song: Santana’s “Smooth” (featuring Rob Thomas)
Verdict: Let’s Forget About It

In rehearsals, J-Fed has a scarf wrapped around his neck. I find this utterly hilarious. Who does he think he is, Pavarotti? “I must protect my precious pipes. Nobody speak to me today. I would like lasagna.” But if J-Fed wants to protect his voice so much, the Nasal Wonder should probably keep that scarf wrapped firmly around his schnozz.

J-Fed is singing “Smooth” by Santana (“Vocal: Rob Thomas,” as Lopez formally and hilariously noted in the taped piece. Does she think she’s at the Grammys or something? Who says that??). “Smooth” was inescapable in 1999, which is probably why my 1999 sucked so hard.

Like LaKisha, J-Fed has a little trouble with the Spanish language. Again, Lopez comes to the rescue with her pronunciation guidance. She also (gasp!) offers some musical advice by transposing the song a half-step higher and thus making J-Fed strain his “ailing” voice even more. What an evil genius she is! “There’s only one diva allowed on this set, son. That scarf-around-the-neck trick is all mine. THE BRONX!” (Sorry. I like to pretend that Jenny-From-the-Block ends every conversation with that outburst.)

The half-step up was necessary, however, because even with the key change, J-Fed barely hits the low notes in the first verse. If the song were any higher, he’d be singing notes that only dogs (and Phil Stacey) could hear.

As a result, J-Fed sounds lost in the arrangement and his wonky voice gets buried behind the Santana imitator riffing on stage. By the time he hits the higher power notes, I’m so distracted by J-Fed’s awkward stage presence that I don’t even notice the singing. Was anyone else transfixed by J-Fed’s regional-theater-actor-who-doesn’t-know-what-to-do-with-his-hands-onstage gestures? This discomfort onstage will ultimately be his downfall.

I never thought I’d ever say this: I miss Rob Thomas.

Stop the presses. The judges liked it! Well, you have to excuse Paula’s “It was sexy. You were sexy! You were mad cool!” I guess she used up all her brain power on LaKisha. And, as Haley will tell you on national television, Randy’s jank opinions don’t mean a thing, dawg. So the only shock is that Cowell prefers J-Fed’s “contemporary” vibe over Melinda and KiKi’s adult-contemporary angle, despite a less-than-stellar vocal. Apparently, Simon would rather bite a hot-off-the-grill Big Mac than an aged Kobe beef burger. The English were never known to have an appetite for good food, were they?

HALEY SCARNATO
Song: Vicki Sue Robinson’s “Turn the Beat Around” via Gloria Estefan
Verdict: Saba-ho Gigante

The transformation of Haley Scarnato mirrors the story of Nomi Malone, the main character of Paul Verhoeven’s camp classic, “Showgirls.” Do you remember Haley the first week? She wore a pantsuit, for Pete’s sake! But desperate times call for desperate measures. And as she gets closer to the bottom, her hemlines get closer to her bottom. Somehow, it’s working.

During rehearsal, Lopez advises Haley to “bite. every. word. THE BRONX!” Haley’s all, “Yes, yes, yes — but how much of my crotch should I expose this week?” And I’m all, “Could this get any more painful?”

Enter Blake.

You see, poor Haley is having some trouble with the beat, so J. Lo calls in the resident beatboxer to drop some phat percussives. Haley Scarnato + Blake beatboxing = cruel and unusual punishment. Not since this have I been more nauseated from a pairing.

“Turn the Beat Around” is a hard song to perform. I have firsthand experience. When I was in eighth grade, we sang it in chorus. As terrible as 300 14-year-olds struggling to stay in unison was, we were still miles ahead of Scarnato’s wildly off-beat and off-tune trainwreck. The irony of a singer — especially a really intensely passionate one — screeching lines like “I feel it! I feel the beat!” while being completely OFF the beat is too much for me to handle. This is perhaps my favorite TV moment of 2007. (And considering I’m an avid “The Search for the Next Doll” viewer, that says a lot.) As soon as Haley finished “feeling it,” I rewound it and watched it again. And again. It gets funnier every time, people.

Speaking of PCD, it’s a shame the search for a new member is already underway because Haley’s love of revealing clothes and hoop earrings would be perfectly suited for that crackerjack team.

The judges are harsh, particularly Simon who snidely praises Haley’s “Strip for Votes” strategy. Wouldn’t you have just died if Haley snapped back, “Like my dress? I bought it at Ver-sayce!” Get this girl a “Showgirls” DVD stat! Instead, Haley mumbles something about appreciating all the judges’ comments. (That’s not what you said last week , friend.)

But Simon’s cruel — and chauvinist — assessment brings me to my final point.

Haley Scarnato must be a real jerk. Why else would the judges hate her so much? Week after week she’s pounded in some of the most uncomfortable judgings of “Idol” history. (Remember when Simon — and Paula! — couldn’t recall her name ?) You’d think Simon would lay off by now, right? Hell, Cowell’s even nicer to Sanjaya, and he’s publicly said that he’ll quit if that kid wins.

Or maybe it’s that she smells? I don’t know about you, but every time she’s on the “Idol” stage, my living room reeks of desperation. If she weren’t engaged already, I’d bet that within the next 10 years, we’d be seeing Haley fight over a Bachelor. Or Flavor Flav. I’ll miss her when she’s voted off.

PHIL STACEY
Song: Santana’s “Maria Maria”
Verdict: Ghostface Vanilla

Jennifer Lopez, you’re not the only person to get goose pimples when Phil Stacey sings. But it has nothing to do with his voice. It has everything to do with his presence.

I don’t know how else to describe Phil’s performance this week than to direct your eyes and ears to the following.

It sounded like this.

It looked like this minus the hair and devoted fanbase, of course.

To add insult to injury, Phil “I Left My Child In San Francisco … Or Wherever The Hell I’m From” Stacey exploits the kid he barely knows by throwing out this big announcement: “My daughter just got a stuffed animal cow and she calls it Simon Cow!”

Now you might call me a hypocrite for giving props to LaKisha for name-dropping her kid while chastising Skeletor for doing the same, but here’s the line of distinction: at least KiKi was prompted. She was answering a question tossed by Seacrest. Phil’s anecdote was an out-of-left-field afterthought that left an odd taste in everyone’s mouth. (And I already looked into it. Aside from the “Idol” baby, he has a 3-year-old daughter, who I’m assuming is the one with the cow. If not, then there’s a 9-month-old baby out there capable of talking in puns. For real this time.

It’s a miracle you lasted as long as you did, Phil, but I think you better pack your collection of Blossom hats. In my opinionation, you’re outta here.

JORDIN SPARKS
Song: Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine’s “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You”
Verdict: A Thriller for the Wrong Reasons

The top of Jordin Sparks segment is a Coke Real moment, and she’s as bubbly as the sponsor is fizzy. So what happened on the “Idol” stage while the taped rehearsal package aired? One moment, Jordin is adorable and expressing her love of ’80s music. Sixty seconds later, almost all the joy has been sucked out of her and the normally strong voice is quivering and sheep-like. Is she possessed? I bet the ghoulish Phil Stacey’s involved.

Perhaps it’s the Jordin/ Michael Jackson comparison Jennifer Lopez made, but for some reason I’m creeped out. Jordin’s “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You” is the most threatening and ominous rendition of the song I’ve ever heard. It seems unnecessarily intense yet somehow removed at the same time, exactly like a Phil Stacey performance! Woofing background singers and hypnotic dangling earrings distract me into thinking I’m enjoying the performance, but then the squealy “baa-ing” starts and I’m uncomfortable again.

Randy and Paula found the fun amidst all the doom and gloom (and did I mention the Stevie Nicks sheep vibrato?) Simon’s grumpy because there hasn’t been a progression with any of the performances tonight. And I’m grumpy because he’s 100-percent right. Grrrr.

BLAKE LEWIS
Song: Marc Anthony’s “I Need To Know”
Verdict: Fear and Loathing in Los Angeles

I give Blake props for being bold enough — or boneheaded enough — to pick a pre-Jennifer Marc Anthony song. Wasn’t he with Miss Universe around the time he recorded this? I can’t imagine this is one of Jennifer’s favorite tunes. (Likewise, Jen’s “I Love You Ben Affleck” song from that awful Bennifer-era album probably isn’t on Marc’s iPod, either.)

Shake-n-Blake (I can’t take credit for that one. A clever sign-maker flashed this in the audience tonight) takes to the stage wearing Hunter S. Thompson’s old hat and a half-smirk on his face. I don’t know what I want to slap off first.

Blake pulls a LaKisha and dismisses Jennifer Lopez’s “Don’t copy Marc Anthony” advice. The tiny-voiced beatboxer is belting à la Marc as if his collection of 311 albums depended on it. And when you push that hard, you go sharp — and the first verse is as sharp as most Vermont cheddar. Plus, he finishes each line with an affected orgasmic sigh. Add Blake’s armpit stains into the mix, and his performance is icky in every way.

Yet somehow, he gets raves. Latin night is ¡muy estupido!

SANJAYA MALAKAR
Song: “Besame Mucho”
Verdict: Shock and Awww!

Midway through the Blake Love-A-Thon, it occurred to me that we still had one more singer: The one and only Sanjaya! Could it be that “Idol” producers think so highly of Sanjaya’s performance this week that they’re giving him the cushy closing spot? Or is it just that they want to keep Howard Stern viewers watching ’til the bitter end?

Oh, Sanjaya. Not since Culture Club’s prominence has an androgynous singer captured the hearts of young girls — and Jennifer Lopez — which is why I consider Sanjaya to be the Boy George of “American Idol.” (Is making a “Karma Chameleon” joke borderline offensive?)

This week, Sanjaya’s gone through another makeunder. Standards Night’s used-car salesman has been replaced by Prince circa “Purple Rain.” But baby goatee notwithstanding, for the first time, Sanjaya keeps the theatrics to a minimum. He sits on a stool with no razzle dazzle, and just sings.

OK, maybe I’m giving him too much credit. He’s not “just” singing, he’s having TV sex with every young or old girl or guy who wants to partake with his come-hither glances and sensual delivery.

But aside from practicing his Ace Young eye contact, he’s been practicing his singing, too! The awesome news is that parts of his performance are absolutely stunning. Yes, I said stunning!! The last few lines in particular show a sincere vulnerability we haven’t seen since Jordin perfected “I Who Have Nothing” in Brit week . But the bad news is that parts of his performance are stunning. The other parts are shaky and not acceptable at this point in the competition. If Sanjaya hadn’t been so busy doing his hair the past several weeks, then maybe he would have been improving his vocals. If he stays focused, and gets better each week, he could actually be a contender for the top four!

Aunt Myra apparently hearts Sanjaya, and I think the savvy bugger won over some of the haters tonight too. Even Simon’s grumpy mood subsided. “I’m gonna hate myself for saying this: It wasn’t horrible.”

Perhaps I’m mostly impressed because Sanjaya sang the song (mostly) in Spanish and his accent was perfecto. Compare his Spanish to the English on “Nouvelle Star” and he gets four gold stars from moi.

High Note Of The Night

Ew. I don’t know that I can pick, honestly. Jennifer Lopez came off well. The few musical notes she gave made sense, and it was pretty adorable to see the dancer help LaKisha and Jordin with their moves. But I can’t pick Jenny as the shining star of the night because I know in less than 24 hours she’ll be singing live on television. No matter how likeable she may have been tonight, that impending four minutes is going to make me want to change channels. Maybe she’ll get the flu, à la Tony Bennett, and a slurring, shaky Michael Bublé can fill in last minute to continue his reign as the Paula Abdul of crappy jazz!

Hey, Phil: Anything you and your haunted crystals can do to help out with that?

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