Try putting yourself in Jordin Sparks' shoes. You're 17 years old, you're singing in the finals of "American Idol," you've got three goofballs sitting in front of you waiting to pass judgment and millions watching on TV about to do the same. When I was her age, my most pressure-filled moments involved trying to roll turkeys down at Newtonbrook Bowlerama -- and I usually failed. But this kid? She goes onstage Tuesday night in the biggest moment of her life and sings with the confidence, control and charisma of an established star, turning in her best performance of the show and prompting Simon Cowell to say she "wiped the floor" with her 25-year-old co-finalist, Blake Lewis. That's clutch.
It also might make Wednesday's season finale a tad anticlimactic. Lewis, the b-boy from Bothell, Wash., didn't choke -- those clipped, guttural noises you heard during his performance of Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name" were the sound of his beat-boxing -- but his pedestrian singing skills were no match for Sparks. Lewis did really well with the aforementioned song a few weeks back, but the wow factor was gone -- Randy Jackson, wearing a bizarre chain-laden blazer, said his singing was "just fine." To be fair, though, Jackson did give the Blakester a "10 out of 10" on the beat-boxing. But c'mon -- bleep, wicky wicky wicky, eh eh eh eh, boomcha. That's a solid six out of 10 right there.
As a performer qua performer, Jordin might not be as good as Blake -- she's too stationary onstage, and her expressiveness is all centered on her face -- but she is by far the better singer. And as Jackson and Cowell took pains to point out multiple times last night, "American Idol" is supposed to be a singing competition. The casual way Jordin threw in scale-jumping runs on Christina Aguilera's "Fighter" or the pure, glittering vocal tone she achieved on Martina McBride's "Broken Wing" were absolutely killer displays of technical prowess and emotional intensity. Watching her turn back into a regular teenager after she finished singing -- all fluttery hands and nervous smiles -- only emphasized her precocity.
That he's only a good, not great, singer means Blake's ceiling for a performance is much lower than Jordin's. He was having fun last night -- bouncing around and smiling -- but off-kilter charm doesn't raise goose bumps in quite the same way as an amazing vocal performance. On both Maroon 5's "She Will Be Loved" and "This Is My Now" -- a serviceable big pop ballad that won "Idol's" weirdly unhyped songwriting contest -- Blake was fine, but nothing more, even seeming a little unsure of himself on the latter song (which called for a relatively subdued performance). The fact that Cowell was still using words like "odd" to describe Blake's singing this late in the season is surely a bad sign for Dallas and Dinah Lewis' kid.
The only thing odd about Jordin was her startling amount of skill and poise. All night long, her voice sparkled and soared with emotion and conviction, never betraying a hint of nerves. Toward the end of the show, Paula Abdul (showing no signs of a broken nose) said she was "frickin' proud" of Jordin. The neurotically encouraging Abdul probably says the same thing to whoever refills her water glass, but her words still rang true. Watching last night's "American Idol," how could you not be frickin' proud of Jordin Sparks?
-- David Marchese