Still reeling over the cancellation of "Reba?" Have you ever burned Natalie Maines in effigy? Did you see the Larry the Cable guy movie? And not in an ironic way? Well, grab a fiddle and put away your "Mama's Family" DVDs because it's country night on "American Idol."
Sorry, I just don't get country music. Blame it on geography. I'm from Long Island, New York, so the only country tunes I knew growing up were Billy Joel's "Travelin' Prayer" and "The Great Suburban Showdown." Besides, any genre that allows "Idol" embarrassments Josh Gracin and Bucky Covington to have legitimate music careers is a genre I'd like to stay far, far away from.
It's not a shock, then, when I say I know nothing about tonight's guest mentor, Martina McBride. In fact, the only McBride I've ever heard of is this lady. But according to the clips shown during Martina's "Idol" intro package, she sings songs about God-fearing women and being patriotic. In other words, she fulfills every stereotype us Yankee bastards have about country music. Git 'er done, Martina!
Before I start making Jeff Foxworthy jokes (and trust me, between his redneck routine and his 5th grade game show, I have a lot to work with), let's talk about the performances.
Song: Keith Urban's "Where the Blacktop Ends"
Verdict: It's alive! ALIVE!
Mentor McBride complains that Phil's rehearsal started off "a little stiff." (Is she making a "Phil looks dead" joke with that "stiff" pun? I already love her!) But amazingly, that wasn't the case during his live performance. For the first time this season, Phil Stacey hasn't given me the heebie-jeebies. The usually awkward Stacey looks right at home and very comfortable on stage this week. Perhaps too comfortable. Did he really need to take time during his performance to shake hands and hug his old pals? Probably not.
Considering Phil's on-point vocals and explosion of personality, the judges are appropriately impressed. Simon — who spent part of Stacey's performance pinching Paula's nose — jokes, "It's only taken 10 weeks!" But it's Randy's critique that sheds some light on Phil's future. "You could have a career in country music." To which Stacey says, "That's what I want, brotha!" (Yikes. Even Imus winced at that one.)
But Phil, before you secure a contract with Tractor Pull Records, here are some pointers you might want to consider.
1. Stay away from wearing cowboy hats. Just 'cause.
2. Ditch the silver-striped Club Monaco attire you wore tonight. Let Seacrest sport that stuff, unless you want to look like you're cruising.
3. You ended your performance tonight with an out-of-place "I bid you good day, sir!" hand gesture. If you want Jethro's approval, you'll cut that out immediately.
Keep those three suggestions in mind and before you know it, you'll be walkin' the carpet at the CMT Flameworthy Awards. (Yes, that's what they're really called.)
Here's one final piece of advice: Get out of the "WOO" business. Taylor Hicks and the Soul Patrol already claimed the "woo." Perhaps try shouting "BOO" instead, and then form the Ghoul Patrol!
Country music stereotype count: 1 pair of shoes to be "kicked off"; 1 dirt road; 1 thankless job
Song: Martina McBride's (kiss ass!) "Broken Wing"
Verdict: Such Great Heights
The immensely likeable Jordin Sparks starts off her performance on shaky ground. Her low notes are especially breathy and husky, and her affected twang and vocal honks grow tiresome. But before long, her bumpy takeoff morphs into a glorious flight and it's smooth sailing at 35,000 feet. (And the award for lamest "flying" metaphor goes to ...)
Several power notes, a standing O, and a "da bomb" later, Jordin's on the receiving end of the highest praise an "Idol" contestant can get from Simon Cowell: "This is the first time since we have met you where I actually believe based on that performance that you could win 'American Idol.' " Well, Simon, I've been saying it'll be a Blake-Jordin top 2 since British invasion week, so I'm happy to have you join Sparkle Motion, albeit a little late. As long as Sparks can steer clear of the "Hey Baby"s and the Sound Machine discography, she'll have no trouble outlasting the Melindas and LaKishas.
Side note — I know Jordin's young and all, but can't her fans learn how to construct a legible sign? I swear one of them was made via finger painting! Come on!
Country music stereotype count: 1 bad boyfriend/husband; 3 vaguely Christian references
Song: Bonnie Raitt's "Something To Talk About"
Verdict: Even Howard Stern Will Hate It
Up to this point, if Sanjaya were a disco-rock musical from 1980, he'd be "The Apple." He's been such a disaster you can't take your eyes off of him. You have fun imagining what crazy thing he'll do next. In other words, he's so bad he's good. But after this week's abysmal performance, I'm gonna have to demote him to the "Can't Stop the Music" level of "so-bad-he's-boring." That's it, folks. I'm officially over Sanjaya.
First of all, the King of Coifs missed a perfectly good opportunity to sport a mullet this week. Instead, Sanjaya covered his curly locks with a red bandanna, giving him a passing resemblance to Rosie the Riveter. (Maybe he's trying to grab the lesbian vote?)
But here's where he really went wrong. Vocally, there's not much to talk about. Sanjaya's goal was to do Bonnie Raitt justice, but he didn't even do that crappy Julia Roberts movie right! Bandanna and all (and by "all," I mean flirting with a hilariously uninterested background singer), for the first time this season Sanjaya is — cue the dramatic music — forgettable.
But the judging's not! Paula's idea of criticism is slurring, "We're watching somebody who loves adversity! [Hiccup] You thrive on it!" (Nice to have you back, Abdrool.) And Simon delights a cackling Debbie Allen in the audience when he deadpans, "Utterly horrendous." For some unknown reason, Seacrest quickly comes to Sanjaya's defense, which gives Cowell the ammo to hiss, "What. Rattled. Your. Cage?" Seacrest tries to make the point that even if Sanjaya had been perfect, Cowell would still be critical of him. Simon's mature retort? "I liked him last week, big mouth!" Oh, there was a "Shut up!" in there somewhere too.
And they say there's no intelligent discourse on television these days. Poppycock!
Country music stereotype count: Aside from "talkin' 'bout people," not any. Go Bonnie!
Song: Carrie Underwood's "Jesus Take the Wheel"
Verdict: Oh, God! Book III
It's bad enough we had to hear this song in the semifinals when "Idol" fembot Carrie Underwood popped up in a results show. It's even worse to think that said song might be the downfall of early frontrunner (And mother! Remember she has a daughter? She's doing it all for her baby girl! Don't forget!) LaKisha Jones.
KiKi started off OK, I guess. The first verse's awkward phrasing and breathing showed her inexperience, but at least it was in tune. As soon as the chorus — and the full band — kicked in it was pitchy with a capital "NO!" and LaKisha spent the rest of the performance SHOUTING the song.
What went wrong? KiKi's rehearsal made McBride "verklempt." (I miss you, Haley.) Why was I weeping for an entirely different reason?
Randy hypothesizes that KiKi should have made it more "gospel." Maybe he's right. The arrangement was very faithful — no pun intended — to the original country smash, so LaKisha's straightforward vocals veered toward karaoke territory. Paula thinks KiKi shouted the song in order to compete with the loud house band. (This elicits boos from the audience, which then causes the "applause whore" chip in Abdul to switch gears immediately. "BUT YOU'RE BRILLIANT!") Simon says LaKisha and country music go together as well as a hamburger for breakfast. (Clearly, Simon's never been to a Carl's Jr.)
It's sad to predict the end of the road for a talented singer like LaKisha, but it'll be hard to win votes after a performance as unpleasant as that. Pray for her.
Country music stereotype count: Oh please, I lost count after the song title.
Song: Rascal Flatt's "Mayberry"
Verdict: A Flat Rascal
Pandering for votes like a candidate at a nursing home, J-Fed is a little too quick to remind us all that he's a Southern boy in his taped interview. The ruse worked on McMentor. She's so impressed with his (nasal) vocal stylings that she thinks he could have a career in country music. Eek!
"Idol" producers want to remind you that J-Fed's from the South, too. How else to explain the wheat-fields-in-the-wind background — or the fact that the fiddle and banjo players get almost as much screen time as J-Fed? But all the fancy window dressing doesn't hide a cringe-worthy vocal that brings new meaning to the word nasal. It doesn't help that the song is pretty high on the irritating level. (I'm sure Lythgoe & Co. were thrilled that the lyrics name-checked "Idol" sponsor Coca-Cola TWICE!)
After hearing from Randy and Paula, J-Fed looks defeated. Then Simon weighs in with "a very nondescript, tinny nasal vocal." J-Fed objects and, like a cocky and indignant jerk, snaps "Nasally [sic] is a form of singing, I don't know if you know that or not." (Really? Any of you voice majors out there taken Nasally 101?)
During Simon's critique, Chris turns to the camera and sends his thoughts and prayers out to his friends at Virginia Tech. What I'm sure was a heartfelt and sincere sentiment comes off as a last ditch effort to win votes. Here's the really icky part: Cowell the cynic is caught rolling his eyes as the camera cuts to the judges. The whole thing makes me really, really sad.
(Update: Cowell told Seacrest during his radio show on Wednesday (April 18) that he was not rolling his eyes about the tragedy in Virginia. He said he was reacting to Richardson's "nasal on purpose" comment and didn't hear the V-Tech mention.)
Country music stereotype count: 1 dirt road (total tally for the night: 2); 1 porch; 2 vaguely Christian references (total: 5)
Song: Julie Reeves' "Trouble Is a Woman"
Verdict: Back in the Saddle
We're in the homestretch, and so far, no Shania Twain. Amen to that! And with the final woman of the night, Melinda, picking an obscure country tune (even McExpert doesn't know it!), I'm ready to exhale. Let's just hope Blake doesn't unleash "From This Moment On (The IcyCoolFreshHighlightsYo Remix)."
Southern girl Melinda (her T-shirt says so!) picks an uptempo number and I'm a happy camper. She looks younger than she's ever looked (since 1964) and has a blast selling the song. Even though the track has the potential to sound repetitive and limit her great range, Mindy switches it up and delivers the well-rounded and developed Melinda Doolittle vocals we've all come to expect.
Here's what I didn't expect: personality. When Simon asks the comically humble singer to not act surprised as he praises her, she tries really hard ... but can't! It's so charming and honest that I'm back on the Mindy Doo bandwagon. Yee haw!
Country music stereotype count: 1 sassy woman; 1 bad boyfriend/husband (total: 2); 1 pair of tight blue jeans; 1 bar fight; 1 four-wheeler; 1 dirt road (total: 3)
Ryan Adams' "When the Stars Go Blue" (as covered by Tim McGraw)
Verdict: For the Dawgs
Somehow Randy and Paula focus on the positive. Randy likes Blake's "jumper." Paula likes his "isms." Simon wasn't jumping out of his chair. Why Cowell doesn't call Blake out for using a British Madge-ccent I'll never know. Hey Blake, didn't you get the memo? On country night you bust out the twang. "Dancing" is "dancin,' " not "dahncing."
For what it's worth, the gaggle of "Laguna Beach" wannabes in the audience are delighted by his performance. Maybe I'm just too burned out on country music to appreciate Blake's offering tonight, but to me his shaky falsetto was nails-on-a-chalkboard grating.
Country music stereotype count: Adams is more alt-country than country-western, so no stereotypes to be tallied here.
High Note of the Night
I have to give all the contestants props for their song choices. I was pretty sure we'd hear "How Do I Live," "I Will Always Love You," and something from Garth Brooks. For the most part (LaKisha the big exception) the gang picked songs I wasn't overly familiar with, and it kept country night more interesting than it usually is. I'm disappointed that nobody went for a Lucinda Williams tune. Or, in an ideal world, a song by the criminally under-appreciated Clem Snide. My prediction that Blake would go alt-country with a ditty by Wilco or the Old 97's was close. "When Stars Go Blue" was originally recorded by the insanely prolific (and borderline insane) Ryan Adams. Now that'd be a guest mentor!
If I had to pick a favorite performance? It's ... so ... hard ... ... to ... type ... this: Phil Stacey, you creepy son-of-a-gun, you pulled it off. The only one to look and sound comfortable in the genre, the dude we all assumed was going home this week will be around indefinitely! (Sorry, Phil's baby. You'll have to wait a little longer before you meet your daddy.)
So what does that mean for everyone else? Sanjaya has avoided the bottom three throughout the finals, but this week I think he'll pop that cherry. And while I wasn't a Blake McGraw fan, in the "white boy" department, J-Fed's more vulnerable. Even when he's decent he ends up in the bottom three, so tonight's mess will almost certainly dump him there. And — yikes — LaKisha's "I'm Gonna Shout About Jesus" disaster will be hard to recover from.
Sigh. If LaKisha gets sent packing this week, it'll be reason #1,422 why I hate country music.