If Sanjaya's run on "American Idol" proved that a contestant can make it only so far on personal appeal alone, what transpired on Wednesday night's show lent credence to the idea that sheer singing ability also is, by itself, not enough to bring home the bacon. The truth is, once a contestant makes it to the audience-voting portion of the show, when it's no longer up to the judges whether they stay or go home, vocal talent is only marginally more important than the ability to make the viewers fall in love with you.
Take the final three contestants: Beat-box aficionado Blake Lewis makes me squirm, but he makes a lot of hearts flutter. Teen phenom Jordin Sparks gets over more on the strength of her youthful exuberance and girlish charm than on her inconsistent voice. Melinda Doolittle? She was easily the season's best singer, but that's all she was. And that's why the staid Tennessee native and judges' favorite was voted off Wednesday night, leaving Lewis and Sparks to duke it out on next week's finale.
But before that development took place, "Idol" ran through its usual amount of result-night dreck: a reminder to check out the "Idol Live" tour, a recap of Tuesday's performances, appearances from Maroon 5 and last season's third-place finisher, Elliott Yamin -- oh, forget it, I'm not dignifying that crap with a recap. Aside from the final results, the most interesting parts of Wednesday night's show were the segments showing the final three contestants returning home, having been given a temporary reprieve from their "Idol" quarantine (the contestants live apart from their families while on the show) and finally coming face to face with the fame "American Idol" has brought them.
As one of six co-winners of my junior high's school spirit award, I have some sense of what it's like to zoom from Joe Average to Joe Cool, but even I have trouble imagining what it's like to do it on the scale of Lewis, Doolittle and Sparks. Four months ago, they were regular folks, Lewis excepted, but now, as last night showed, people launch into crying jags at the mere sight of them, they get streets named in their honor, and they ride around in SUV limos the size of Swaziland. It felt almost voyeuristic to observe the three singers' reactions upon emerging from the "Idol" vacuum to a "Twilight Zone" world populated with screaming hordes of fans and talk-show appearances and parades and pep rallies held in their honor.
Sparks -- back in Glendale, Ariz. -- seemed the most moved by the situation. Your heart had to break just a little when she fought back tears and wondered aloud whether she deserved all the adulation. Doolittle too had the waterworks going on her return to Nashville, a trip that saw Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen declare a day in her honor. Visiting Seattle and Bothell, Wash., Lewis mostly just did a lot of grinning, but he was redeemed by his adorable father, one of those people who just seem to radiate a kind of hug-magnet decency. Seeing the elder Lewis beam with pride at Blake's accomplishments made me feel like a nasty little dorkus-malorkus for repeatedly making fun of his son. I apologize, Blake's dad, but can you maybe talk to him about the beat-boxing?
Unfortunately, the peek behind the "Idol" curtain came too late for Melinda Doolittle. Maybe if we'd learned more about her life outside the show earlier on, her personality would have revealed something other than its pleasant blandness. It didn't matter that, at the tail end of Tuesday's show, Randy Jackson predicted an all-girl final round or that Simon Cowell strongly endorsed Melinda (Paula Abdul, that nausea-inducing self-esteem booster, said, of course, that all three contestants deserved to make the final) -- Doolittle was done. That revelation brought a bone-chilling glare of disapproval from Cowell, but he shouldn't have been so surprised. Doolittle may have been a much better singer than either Lewis or Sparks, but the two younger contestants were able to hit the kinds of emotional high notes that can't be written down. And that's why they're staying and she's not.
-- David Marchese