With only two weeks left in the season, "American Idol" dispensed with all its typical foofaraw on Tuesday night. No guest judges; no Hollywood sneak previews; no crass intrashow advertising. Instead the focus was on the final three contestants, who sang more than they have all year. But that's enough setup. In the newfound spirit of the show, let's cut right to the chase.
The extra singing wasn't nearly as much of a problem for resident wunderkind Jordin Sparks as Simon Cowell was. For whatever reason, the man-titted Brit seemed determined to undermine the poor kid. Not only did he choose for Sparks to sing a piece of roller-disco fluff like Rose Royce's "Wishing on a Star," but after she turned in a bubbly, charming performance, Simon deflated the other judges' praise with a bizarre criticism of the song's arrangement. Amazingly, he did the exact same thing later on when Sparks scored with Donna Summer's "She Works Hard for the Money." Simon, do you really think this 17-year-old girl told the show's musical directors, "You know guys, I think these disco songs I didn't even pick to sing would work really well with lite-jazz, bar-mitzvah-friendly arrangements?"
Cowell's night of nit-picking concluded when he brushed off Sparks' emotional version of "I Who Have Nothing" as being old-fashioned and staid. This from someone who'd just asked her to sing a 30-year-old disco song. Come on, guy. Still, despite Cowell's capriciousness, Sparks sang well and righted herself after a slightly shaky showing last week.
Though Jordin Sparks is my pick to win, as the weeks go by it seems more and more plausible that Blake Lewis might, I can't believe I'm saying this, actually be the one to beat. You may not like Lewis' squirrelly features, you may find that his beat-boxing makes a little piece of your soul die every time he does it, but you can't deny that the guy has avoided any out-of-character missteps. Presented with a trio of plastic-soul softballs like the Police's "Roxanne," Maroon 5's "This Love" and Robin Thicke's "When I Get You Alone," Lewis knocked them out of the park. He might not be that good -- have you noticed how his voice is often slathered in echo? That's because it sucks. But he looks so comfortable with himself that his smarminess seems to double back on itself and turn into a strange sort of charm. At least that's how I rationalized not despising him Tuesday night. With three shows left to go, Lewis is sitting firmly in his comfort zone -- which I imagine is decked out with a Bob Marley poster, a turntable and a leopard-print throw rug -- and that makes him dangerous.
In a lot of ways Melinda Doolittle is the bizarro Lewis -- and not just because she's a black woman and he's a white man. Where Lewis is a poor singer who gets by on his irrepressible personality, Doolittle is a great singer with an unfortunately bland stage presence. Doolittle's vocal talents have been good enough to get her this far, but it'd be nice if her sense of showmanship didn't seem directly inspired by her last name. Sure, she sang a beautifully controlled and technically spotless version of Whitney Houston's "I Believe in You and Me," but she can do that in her sleep -- and almost did. When presented with the opportunity to get down and dirty on Leiber and Stoller's bluesy "I'm a Woman," she just came off as awkward. Even more frustrating was her rendition of Ike and Tina Turner's "Nutbush City Limits." Tina sang that song like a big burning ball of sex. Melinda Doolittle smoldered like a plastic-wrapped votive candle. But maybe people are into that sort of thing. We'll find out Wednesday night.
-- David Marchese