The biggest problem with the American Idol Top Nine show was the caliber of the singing, and I'll get to that (as much as I wish I didn't have to), but the hour and 23 minutes also served to point out a growing problem for the program: the judging segments have become more deadly dull than ever.
While the addition of a fourth judge might have been intended to add a new sensibility to the panel and inspire the holdovers to up their respective games, the reality is that Kara DioGuardi's presence has simply meant that three-part harmony has become four-part. No one on the panel ever seems to disagree with anyone else anymore. There were a few differences in emphasis this week, particularly when Simon Cowell slammed Lil Rounds while the others were moderately positive, but the critiques are mostly not just pointless, but predictable. It's becoming hard to ignore that there is one set of standards for judging Adam Lambert and Danny Gokey, who are permitted to "stretch;" and another for all the others, who get attacked whenever they try to scramble outside the stereotypes the judges have of them. And so we have Randy Jackson wondering why Lil is covering Celine Dion instead of Mary J. Blige or Mariah Carey, and Kara ordering Matt Giraud to choose between rock and R&B. Compared to their bad advice that is spinning contestants' heads every which way, a gaffe like Kara referring to the nonexistent disco hotspot "Studio 57" is small potatoes.
The theme this week was so open-ended as to be meaningless: "Popular Downloads on iTunes." One might assume this meant current or recent hits exclusively, but only one of the kids took on a song that is currently charting, and two of the wannabes returned to the 1970s for their selections. So basically, Idol was saying they didn't want any weirdo album cuts. The end result of the themeless theme was that Ryan Seacrest, in his role as host of radio's American Top 40, was the de facto mentor for this week. He might want to stick to one of his 42 day jobs instead, because this was easily the weakest night of the season so far. This isn't the first time we've seen that paradoxically, a tightly focused theme can spur the singers to great heights, but they often seem at sea when given free rein on what to pick.
But two singers managed to thrive where their competitors failed, and one of them is emerging as one of the most surprising contenders the show has ever had:
1. Adam Lambert ("Play That Funky Music"): The good thing about Adam is that he can sing just about anything really well. The bad thing about Adam is that he thus has to worry less about song selection than most, and can make something like this disco era novelty song sound great, if not exactly modern. The verse was switched to a slow funk arrangement (for which he duly credited the band), which led into a more frenetic chorus, during which Adam brought out those polarizing howls one more time. I don't agree with the notion that what Adam is doing her is "shrieking," as that implies he is out of control. In fact, his control of his voice is easily among the best ever on Idol; the biggest doubt about him, as far as I'm concerned, is whether he can make a record that will sell in 2009 and not sound like some kind of Rocky Horror knockoff. A-
2. Kris Allen ("Ain't No Sunshine"): I still can't quite fathom how this guy has ever lasted so long on this show with virtually no airtime before his semifinal, little attention from the judges, and nothing much in the way of a memorable performance or stage presence. And yet, it's a good thing he did, because his great work on the Bill Withers classic has made him a real contender, almost certainly the leading male threat now to the likelihood of a Danny/Adam finale. Kris got behind the piano for the first time and worked the perfectly arranged tune with a restraint unusual for the last performance of the night, or for any Idol balladeer. Sure, he's still a little boring, but his female fans probably aren't agreeing with me on that. A-
3. Lil Rounds ("I Surrender"): While everyone else seems to have fallen out of love with Lil, I still think she sounds perfectly acceptable most of the time, even if her song choice this week left something to be desired, as did her fashion ideas. She's been knocked for being over the top, but I thought the verses were handled with decent restraint. But the choruses, which is where any Celine Dion song will rise and fall, were not quite up to par, a sign that vocal fatigue may be setting in. The judges seem to be losing interest in Lil rapidly, to the point where Kara said she was surprised her performance was any good. But the shots of her kids in the audience might have given her a boost, though I think it's a bit too soon for her to really need one. B-
4. Danny Gokey ("What Hurts the Most"): I'm not much of a Danny fan and I have even fewer positive things to say about Rascal Flatts, who are less country than Eva Gabor. But this was a pretty good version of the decade's most overplayed Nashville hit. Danny still doesn't sound very convincing on the verse sections of his songs, but he's typically able to sell the soaring choruses. This is the first time in a while I've really gotten his appeal, although as Simon would say, I doubt he can really win Idol singing this sort of material. His true milieu is likely going to wind up being contemporary Christian, because he doesn't seem to be contemporary anything else. B-
5. Scott McIntyre ("Just the Way You Are"): This would be a good week for Scott to get voted off. Not because he was even close to being the worst this time around, but because Idol has a history of struggling singers being sent home on what for them would be a relatively high note, and I'm not sure Scott is really capable of performing better than this. The lack of any accompaniment other than his piano eliminated the cheese issues that have marred his efforts thus far, and he threw himself into the vocal with all the energy his thin voice could muster, almost making me forget that this song is now embarking on its fourth decade of being a cliche no one should ever sing in public again, including Billy Joel. C
6. Anoop Desai ("Caught Up"): Anoop appears to be working on a Gomez Addams mustache. Ah, we all go through that phase. But one phase he would do well to ignore is the "emulate Usher" phase, since Usher's music isn't all that interesting apart from his dancing. The problem here was less the singing than Anoop's overall persona. He just doesn't connote danger or sexual aggressiveness, as we saw before on "Beat It." He's a good singer of soul ballads, but he probably figured that he couldn't get away with doing that for a third straight week given the open-ended theme. However, the judges aren't buying him as a contemporary dance-pop artist, and I'm not sure I do either. C
7. Allison Iraheta ("Don't Speak"): Well, at age 16, she was bound to stumble eventually. She decided to bust out a guitar this week, making her the first woman to do that on stage this season, and I suspect the extra thing to worry about affected Allison's vocals, which were out of sync with the band on the opening verse. Whereas on her breakout performance of "Alone" Allison tried some interesting things on the lower sections of the verse before going all belty, she seemed to disappear this time before bringing out the big guns on the chorus. It doesn't help that I really don't care for this song, which almost requires one to sound shrill. The judges' critique of her performance amounted to a weird focus on her outfit and hair, which likely didn't help drive many votes her way. This could be another week for her fans -- and I'm still one -- to be concerned. C-
8. Megan Joy ("Turn Your Lights Down Low"): I'll say this for Megan this week: she did give us, possibly for the first time since her audition, a general idea of the sort of singer she wants to be. And it's frustrating to catch those little hints of an intriguing singer amidst all the off-key nonsense going on. While some were no doubt scandalized at the very idea of Megan daring to sing Bob Marley, I give her some credit for picking a song that isn't especially well known (always a risk on Idol unless you kill on it). Her biggest problem is that she tries to bend the notes and everything comes out in a different key than the way it went in. She isn't Amy Winehouse or Adele, as badly as the judges want to make this happen. D+
9. Matt Giraud ("You Found Me"): Simon often comes across as not being on speaking terms with any 21st century music that he hasn't personally had a hand in, and this was a classic example. He attacked the Fray hit as not being commercial, when it's currently one of the most played (overplayed?) songs on American radio. I've consistently ranked Matt lower than a lot of other observers, and what it comes down to is that I just don't think his voice is very pleasant. He rarely hits the notes he wants to, especially when attempting a falsetto run. And his idea of rocking up his vocals with a growl was a lot more Alex Wagner-Trugman than Isaac Slade. He needs a showstopper next week -- if he has a next week. D
Who is in danger? Allison has shown weakness before and doesn't have positive critiques to back her up this time, and Scott could be the victim of fan complacency after a doing a decent job by his standards. But my guess is that Megan may have crowed her last note.