I think "Idol" producers are running out of theme weeks. There, I said it. No disrespect to Gwen Stefani (believe me, I'll get to that later), but honestly, how the hell did Seacrest say, "We're featuring No Doubt songs and songs from artists and bands who inspired her" with a straight face? This might be the most unnecessarily complicated "Idol" theme since "Songs That Were on ANY Chart When the 'Idol' Contestants Were Born." Remember that winner of a concept?
Seriously, though, with such vague parameters, why even have a theme at all?
But booking Gwen Stefani was a fantastic idea on "Idol" 's part. So long Ashford and Simpson. We hardly knew ye, Carole Bayer Sager. There's a new "Idol" guest in town and this one is actually still making music! Miss Hollaback Girl took time off from planning a tour, designing clothes and angering "The Sound of Music" fans to be the voice of reason and maturity for the top 10 "Idol" hopefuls. She is, after all, the great educator who taught our youth how to spell "bananas" and "glamorous." Oh, that last one is Fergie? It's so hard to tell these days.
During her intro, Gwen Stefani (sans Harajuku girls) opens up to America: "A lot of artists I love aren't known for their big voices, but for their personalities." Great, so she's a Sanjaya fan. The top 10 are obviously Gwen fans because they look genuinely star struck when they meet her, as they should. This ain't no "I-Have-to-Call-My-Grandma-She-Loves-Barry-Manilow" moment past "Idol" singers have endured. This is a sincere "I Have Your Posters on My Bedroom Wall and I Love Everything You Do ... Except Maybe 'Wind It Up' Which I Found Kinda Lazy and Indulgent, Honestly" highlight in their short careers. Well, that's not fair. Melinda's career stretches all the way back to the days of Lena Horne. And the stegosaurus.
Gwen — wearing an outfit that I swear we saw Blake or J-Fed wear a few weeks ago — sounds eager to coach the crew since she hints that she's a fan of the show. Somehow knowing that Stefani spends her Tuesday nights watching "Idol" makes me think she's a little less hip. But she's a parent now. At least it's not a stereotypical married suburbanite TV show like "Criminal Minds" or "Aging Movie Star in Generic Crime Procedural."
One more note before I weigh in on the performances: In honor of Miss Stefani, my verdicts are No Doubt song titles this week. So dust off your old CDs and let's get to it!
Song: Donna Summer's "Last Dance"
Verdict: A Little Something Refreshing
Last week's aging "Diamonds Are Forever" put Kiki on thin ice ("ice" pun intended, "thin" joke not) so I'm bummed that she didn't go out on a limb and embrace her inner SoCal girl. If Lakisha tackled Talk Talk's "It's My Life" or an old Specials tune, it would have been genius. Instead we get a song that's been a Bar Mitzvah staple since the Torah was unearthed. But thanks to her on-point vocals, stylish getup and charming do-the-hokey-pokey-and-I'll-turn-myself-around dance move, I forgive Lakisha for her lame song choice.
The judges are thrilled that Kiki finally went uptempo. Randy even goes so far as to call her a "true fly diva." I'll finger snap to that! Simon loves her Antonella boots and exclaims, "You're 30 years younger this week!" But considering that he said she looked 50 years older last week (see "'Idol' Recap: Jordin Is A Revelation, Sanjaya Channels My Chemical Romance"), that means we're left with a woman who looks 20 years older than she really is. Who knew Lakisha was like Nicole Kidman?!
Song: The Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic"
Verdict: Get On The Ball
Chris Sligh's entire segment is a mess. It starts with a bad Matthew McConaughey joke and ends with the dejected singer mumbling, "My bad." And those were the highlights. Gwen's mentoring doesn't help any. From what we see in a taped package, she barely says anything to Chris Sligh, save for an awkward Stewart Copeland shout out. It's not until her post-session interview — with Sligh out of the room — that she unleashes her true feelings. Now put yourself in Sligh's shoes: You're on live television, and seconds before you take to the stage, you see Gwen friggin' Stefani talk smack about you. "Chris can't find the beat." Annnnd SING!
Chris' tempo dysfunction isn't new or surprising. Like MTV airing a marathon of "The Hills" every week, there are just some things you can depend on. But thanks to Sting's staccato wordplay (Lulu would be proud), Sligh's lack of rhythm is embarrassingly obvious this week.
Even worse? Squealing. Sligh is so nasal that the other Chris is probably backstage complaining, "But high pitched whining is my thing." When all is said and done (poorly), Chris Sligh proves that the lute isn't the worst thing to happen to Sting's music after all.
Randy and Paula both complain that Sligh was "never in the pocket," a phrase so absurd and hilarious that it just has to be legit lingo, right? Meanwhile, Simon calls it a mess and gets booed. Well, one person's not booing. The camera cuts away to a clapping crazy old man who is delighted with Simon's dis. Thanks to my TiVo and an incriminating homemade T-shirt, I can report that said "crazy old man" is actually Phil Stacey's Uncle John. Oops!
Song: The Pretenders' "I'll Stand By You"
Verdict: Hella Good
Aside from SuChin Pak, Gina Glocksen might be the biggest Gwen Stefani fan ever. There are tears and hugs and more hugs during her time with the superstar. Meeting her own idol must have inspired the Glocker to bring her A game, or at the very least her B+ game. Gina picks the perfect song for her voice and persona, and unleashes her finest vocals yet. My only complaint is that Glocksenspiel starts the song off with too much power, so the performance doesn't build as much as it could have. (Forget Stefani, she should get some pointers from fellow "Idol" hopeful Jordin Sparks!) Despite my quibble, Glock-N-Roll gets a much-deserved standing ovation.
In judging, tricky little Simon says, "It wasn't one of your best performances [dramatic pause]. It was your BEST performance." Oh, Cowell. If you were a junior high school history teacher, you'd be the one that says, "This weekend, your homework is [dramatic pause] to have fun."
Simon continues, comparing Gina's performances from three weeks ago to tonight to "chalk and cheese." I know England has a reputation for bad food, but I never imagined they'd actually eat chalk! Is that what makes Peter Noone so happy?
Song: No Doubt's "Bathwater"
Verdict: Magic's in the Makeup
It's no wonder Howard Stern is a Sanjaya fan. Like the shock jock, Sanjaya knows how to push people's buttons. Last week's bizarre "You Really Got Me" really got him headlines, and this week he's sure to be a New York Post staple thanks to a gravity-defying hair style that made his head look like a giant pineapple.
Imagine one of those old Esther Williams headdresses. Remember the one with the sparklers on top? Now imagine if that were all hair. By creating seven distinct ponytails atop his head, Sanjaya invented a new hairstyle. He calls it the pohawk but I call it the no!hawk. Whatever you call it, it leaves America's collective jaw firmly on the floor.
Here's where it gets depressing: Look deep in Sanjaya's eyes and you see that the kid instantly regrets pulling the follicle stunt. Just like the year I went as Christopher Reeve for Halloween — it seemed like a great idea in the comfort of my own home but as soon as I stepped foot in the real world, I had a sinking feeling that I was a huge ass.
Perhaps that's why Sanjaya looks distracted and distant during his performance. Either that, or his hair is pulled too tight, preventing blood flow to the brain. If he had really committed, it would have been a triumph. But instead, he recalls the last "Idol" mohawker, Nadia Turner: all 'hawked up with no place to go (see " 'American Idol' Recap: Carrie's Performance Was Hot, Nadia's Mohawk Was Not"). Gwen could be partly to blame for Sanjaya's glazed-over look. She all but shrugged her way through their rehearsal and during her interview sniffed, "Good luck to him" at the end. Cold!
Sanjaya pulls a Brandon and blatantly flubs a line in the song. It was probably navigating the pronoun game throughout the song that did him in. After singing about his love interest having a bevy of "attractive women" to choose from, Sanjaya forgot the next lyric. He realized he forgot to change "women" to "men" and now the pronoun predicament implies that Sanjaya's either pining for a lesbian or a straight man. Scandal!
But, as we learned from last week's Ashley-Furl-a-Thon (see "Move Over, David Hasselhoff — 'Idol' Has A New Star Crier"), America won't notice such details while a spectacle is getting such marvelous close-ups, right?
Paula and Randy agree with me and wish that Sanjaya delivered vocals to match his attention-grabbing getup while Simon is baffled beyond belief. "I presume there wasn't a mirror in your dressing room." Sanjaya goes all "Hollaback Girl" on the judge and sasses, "You're just jealous 'cause you couldn't pull it off," complete with Ricki Lake audience member neck snap. Simon gives up. "You are in your own universe and if people like you, good luck." First Gwen, now Simon? Sanjaya's got a lot of luck wished upon him tonight. Despite the lackluster vocals, he won't need it.
Song: Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors"
Verdict: Artificial Sweetener
Watching Gwen Stefani shoot a nasty look to her piano player as Haley butchers Cyndi Lauper's beloved masterpiece might be the most fun I've had all season long. In the interview, Gwen says, "She started off great but then started to go off and do another melody, which is so unnecessary for the song." While working with Haley, Gwen's eyes say, "This idiot did not just change my favorite tune in the whole wide world." Forget the "M*A*S*H" finale or Bette Midler on Johnny Carson's final show. To me, classic TV is all about Gwen Stefani's "I smell a fart" look.
Haley starts her performance sitting on the side of the stage showing off her gams. I guess if it ain't broke, right? Like McPhee on the McPhloor all last season, it looks like Haley Scarnato will be dwelling on the edge of the stage until she gets booted ... which will probably be this week.
Why anyone would dress in head-to-toe black while singing "True Colors" is beyond me. Get a clue! Haley may look like a Long Island nail technician en route to a really slutty funeral, but once she opens her mouth, it's classic Haley cruise ship cheese. No surprise that a sign in the audience says, "Wisconsin Hearts Haley!" Not since "Jethro Loves Kellie Pickler" has a sign been more obvious.
I miss the fragile mess that was Haley Scarnato a few weeks ago (see "'Idol' Recap: Lakisha Edges Out Melinda, Haley Has A Breakdown"). I long for the self-deprecation, the quivering lips, the unexpected Yiddish! As soon as Haley assumed the sexpot role, her personality flew out the window along with her self-respect. And take away those two things and all that's left is a forgettable, uninspired voice. This is the second time this season that a generic voice ruined a Cyndi Lauper song. Sanjaya better steer clear of "She Bop" or heads are gonna roll.
Despite some especially rowdy fans shouting over the judges pans (and a terrifying "Haley 4 President" sign), the vibe in the room was crystal clear. Haley's toast.
Song: The Police's "Every Breath You Take"
Verdict: Staring Problem
In a "Real" moment, Ryan continues being the mouthpiece for lame "Idol" watchers who submit boring questions to the show. "Rebecca" asks, "How does it feel to go from being an unknown to a household name in a matter of weeks?" Of all the contestants this season, I think Phil might be the least "household name" of them all. I've heard people call him other names, from variations of Baldy to Daughtry-Lite. And any faithful readers know I call him Absentee Father. But Phil Stacey? I bet more people can spell Nicole Scherzinger's last name than can ID Phil Stacey correctly. Don't cha?
Gwen continues this sentiment in her taped piece by giving Phil the backhanded compliment "I didn't know it would be that good!" She might as well say what she means, "You can sing?" Or, "You're still on the show?" Or, most likely, "Who are you again?"
Phil's singing the Police. So for those of you keeping track at home, that's the Police, 2. No Doubt, 1. (How is this No Doubt night again?) Gwen advises Phil to stick to the melody, just like she did with Haley. You'd never know she was such a fan of melody by listening to this or this or this.
It's hard not to be creeped out by Phil "Crazy Eyes" Stacey singing the stalker-esque line "I'll be watching you" over and over again. But his husky tone fits the song like a glove. For some reason, there's an echo effect on his voice. The same trickery was used on Chris Sligh's performance which makes me want to revisit my old Police LPs to see if there was a patented Sting reverb that I never noticed before.
Phil's performance is solid, miles better than last week's catastrophe. He apes the original recording a smidgeon too much, but the judges don't seem to mind. Randy and Simon give him a thumbs-up. Paula, who has been particularly spot-on and lucid tonight, dips back into the crazy well when she tells Phil, "The chorus? That's where you really live, and that's where your magic is" so matter of factly, it's like she's channeling psychic and "Montel Williams" staple Sylvia Brown. Loopy delivery aside, Abdul's criticism is correct. Phil's high notes soar. His low notes fall harder than Meredith Viera on ice skates.
So, despite the iffy bottom register, the ugly hat and the painted-on eyebrows, Phil's kid will have to go another week without daddy because he's safe.
Song: Donna Summer's "Heaven Knows"
Time for another tally. The Police, 2. Donna Summer, 2. No Doubt, 1. I get that it's "No Doubt and influences" but there's no way Stefani and company were only inspired by Donna Summer and Sting. What gives?
Melinda is listening to everyone's advice and is trying to appear younger this week. And she succeeds, sort of. Instead of looking like my grandmother, she looks like my grandmother circa 1978, which is — help me with the math, Simon — 29 years younger. At this rate Mindy may look like a 30 year old by the finale!
I love that the two "diva" frontrunners are both doing Donna Summer tunes tonight. As neat as it would have been to hear Melinda rip into a rock song, I have to be realistic in my expectations. If I had my say, there would have been Björk night already!
Melinda is, predictably, perfection, but I'm still a little bored by her. I want to hear her sing a bad note just once! It's only a matter of time before the rest of America grows tired of her flawless vocals, too. Sometimes we like crap! How else to explain this? Or this?
I'm not thrilled with the Doo's outfit, either. I hate to dwell on this, but if I had no neck, I most certainly wouldn't wear a top that covers up my entire torso. I think Mindy's stylist needs to have a V-neck-or-die mentality from now on.
Song: The Cure's "Love Song"
Verdict: Suspension Without Suspense
What's the most heinous offense in Blake's performance tonight? The air drums? The sweater with an asymmetrical zipper? Nope. It's his song selection. Now before Pete Wentz sends me an angry e-mail, let me say that I love the Cure. What do I not love? 311. And yes, Blake, president and sole active member of the 311 fan club has made the fact that 311 covered a Cure song even more upsetting, because now he's doing a bad cover of a bad cover on "Idol." Robert Smith must be rolling over in his coffin bed. This recycling of a song is like a pop music version of mad cow disease. As soon as a YouTuber films himself doing Blake doing 311 doing the Cure, we're doomed.
Gwen warns us that Blake might ruin the song with his beatboxing. "If he sticks to the melody, he'll be fine." Again, with the melody business, Gwen! Really? Turns out Gwen's beatboxing advisory is off, and like when the weather man's predicted downpour ends up sunny and clear, I'm a happy man. Blake leaves his bag (box?) of tricks at home tonight (maybe it's chilling with the Harajuku girls backstage!) and focuses on the singing instead.
He should have focused a little harder. Blake's vocals are slightly off tonight. I can forgive a bad note or two if the performance is engaging, but worse than being flat or being sharp, Blake's being boring.
Like Daughtry and "Walk the Line" last year, Paula praises Blake's originality, which is a complete joke because Blake did a carbon copy of 311. Someone get Abfool a copy of the "50 First Dates" soundtrack STAT. Will she still want Blake in the finale after she finds out he's a fraud?
Speaking of Daughtry, Simon evokes the original Yul Brynner of "Idol" when he warns Blake about the perils of the "Daughtry Zone." (Cut to: Kenny Loggins's ears perk up. He furiously re-writes his "Top Gun" hit.) As long as Blake steers clear of the indulgent (read: 311) songs, he'll be able to keep his spot as the male frontrunner.
At the very end of the segment, Blake busts out a few lines of "Don't Speak" before Ryan cuts him off. ("Don't sing that! We'll have to pay and Fox hates that!") Why couldn't you have picked that instead, Blake? I would have even tolerated the remix you would've created on your laptop. Anything but 311.
Song: No Doubt's "Hey Baby"
Look kids! A falling star.
Last week's standout, Jordin Sparks, picks a throwaway No Doubt ditty and throws away her status as the one to beat in 90 seconds flat. The only thing more painful than her out-of-breath and out-of-tune vocals is her out-of-whack outfit. Wearing a blouse inspired by the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book and an ill-fitting skirt (did I mention the matching knee socks?), Jordin successfully highlights the least flattering parts of her body. Stacy and Clint, get this girl in the 360-degree room immediately!
Somehow, Jordin gets raves from all three judges. "Brilliant." "Most improved contestant." "You're young and just celebrate it!" (Guess which judge had that insight? Here's a hint.) Last week Sparks KILLS it and the judges go, "Feh." This week, she dies and the judges cry, "Streisand!" Somebody pinch me. I'm worried that tonight's undeserved good reviews combined with our "whaaa?" reaction puts Jordin in jeopardy.
Song: No Doubt's "Don't Speak"
J-Fed (Any latecomers? Chris Richardson looks like Justin Timberlake and K-Fed mashed together) gets the cushy closing spot — although tonight that might not be a good thing. To mess with "Dancing With the Stars" and programmed VCR's nationwide, "Idol" is running to 9:07 tonight. There's a good chance a lot of people are going to miss J-Fed's performance because of this scheduling quirk.
After hearing J-Fed's awful vocals, he'd better hope people weren't watching! J-Fed's nasal runs are like nails-on-a-cheese-and-chalkboard (it's a British thing). And despite Gwen's pleads to (say it with me, folks) "stick to the melody," the R&Ber couldn't resist engaging in "vocal Olympics," as Lady L.A.M.B. put it. In fact, the only good part of J-Fed's performance was the opening few lines. Before he let his inner Eamon out to play, J-Fed managed to keep it simple and controlled.
Randy likes J-Fed's "twist" on the song. (What was the twist? Singing it terribly?) And because J-Fed is a man and mildly attractive, Paula Abdul purrs, "You're good, Chris. You're good." Simon points out the obvious struggle J-Fed had with the song, and Federlake looks crushed for the rest of the segment. Anyone else notice that he looked like he was trying to fight back tears?
High Note Of The Night
Call me crazy, or Paula, but I have to give props to Sanjaya tonight. He might just be the most media-savvy contestant "Idol" has seen. Sure his wonky voice might undermine the "validity" of "Idol" as a viable commercial launching pad, but his mere presence — and acceptance — is a great thing for our country.
Just as out-and-proud-and-liberal-and-loud Rosie O'Donnell broadens the horizons of Midwestern housewives each day on "The View," the androgynous-and-lovin'-it Sanjaya, too, pushes the envelope, although his target demo is more the tween scene.
Teen idols are often white-bread cookie-cutter bores. (Have you ever seen someone who looks like Sanjaya on the Disney Channel?) I think it's awesome that young kids from all over the country are now looking at a South Asian as a heartthrob, let alone one who isn't afraid to be very, very different.
At the same time, tonight's "Idol" episode was pretty blah, right? Sanjaya's performance-art kept the show interesting. You have to give him credit for that, at the very least. Who would have guessed that the shy guy with the shaggy hair who auditioned with his sister would turn into a full-fledged freak-with-no-leash? I think Sanjaya himself is a little confused as he embraces his role on the show. A line from "Bathwater" seems especially relevant: "I know I don't fit in, so why do you want me?" I'll tell you, dude: Because you're unique. Not "Gina Glocksen I'm Gonna Dye My Hair And Wear Ugly Clothes" unique. But truly unique.
At this point, what else can Sanjaya do to surprise us? We've created a monster, folks. Is it only a matter of time before he's pulling an Isaac Brock.
Lastly, thanks to a late-in-the-game J-Fed/Jordin one-two punch, No Doubt ended up the winner with three songs performed tonight. Shame no one tried my favorite No Doubt ditty, "Hella Good." (It makes me feel like dancing.) I guess now I'll just have to wait for a Fergie — and artists who inspire Fergie — theme night.