American Idol Top 12: Diana Ross week

geez, Regis hasn’t even gone under the knife yet, and already Ryan Seacrest is stealing his tone-on-tone shirt & tie look, circa the early days of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” Oh great, and why is Diana Ross working a Jennifer Beals/Flashdance ensemble in the mentoring clips? I’ve got a bad feeling about tonight, but here we go….

First up was Brandon Rogers, singing You Can’t Hurry Love, a Ross hit from 1966. He looked stiff and uncomfortable during the first half of the performance, and needs to show some more personality if he wants to stick around more than a couple of weeks. Things went from bad to worse as the song progressed, and I heard his voice crack once and though, “Uh oh…he’s gonna choke.” Sure enough, once he did that ridiculous Elvis-inspired leg wiggle, he rattled his brains and forgot his lyrics ¾ of the way through his song. Randy and Paula tried to couch the news of his incredible awfulness, but I’m with Simon all the way on this one: a complete letdown, no originality, not good enough.

Melinda Dolittle needs to fire that stylist she gave a shout out to a few weeks ago. The cutsie cap sleeves she wears week after week make it look like she’s constantly shrugging her shoulders, and the Darth Vader helmet hair has to go. She sang, Home, one of my favorite songs from The Wiz. The beginning of the song was a little boring, but she did a terrific job, hitting some big notes and singing her heart out like a seasoned pro–immediately reverting back to her wide-eyed “aw shucks, you mean, you liked it?” surprised look at the end. Argh!

Paula, bless her ditzy heart, graced us with a mini emotional-breakdown, sobbing her eyes out and declaring her excitement over what Melinda was experiencing (what’s that exactly? oh yes, the knowledge that SHE can actually SING. Someone, please pass Ms. A a tissue. ) Simon referred to her as a young Gladys Knight, but my favorite part was when he asked her, in an exasperated tone, “Why are you crying, Melinda?” The whole “humble pie” schtick has got to go!

Chris Sligh sang my least favorite Diana Ross song, Endless Love. Oh dear, Ross is advising him to “find the melody and hold onto it.” That does NOT bode well for his performance, and sure enough, he sounds totally out of sync with the music. He’s not wearing his glasses, either, which only adds to the weirdness of his sped-up, decidedly un-romantic version of this sinfully sappy ballad. What say the judges? Randy called it “weird” and “a mess”, Paula cautioned him not to try so hard to be “cool” and “contemporary”, and Simon told him he murdered the arrangement, and called the performance unemotional and uninspiring. Judging by Chris’ after-banter with Ryan, it sounds like he’s getting a serious case of attitude behind the scenes. He “respects Diana Ross, but…” BUT? But nothing! Dude, she was the musical guest this week, you’re singing HER songs, she’s been in the business for over 40 years…you might want to listen to her.

Gina Glocksen, on the other hand, was clearly hanging on Diana’s every word as she offered some great (albeit grammatically incorrect) advice on her rocker rendition of Love Child. (Someone might want to mention to Ms. Ross that the word is “annunciate” not “pronunciate”. Whatever…she’s a singer, not a scholar.) I think it’s becoming pretty clear that the contestants are really feeling the nerves tonight. The judges were underwhelmed, but I think her middle-of-road performance will be enough to keep her for another week.

Sanjaya Malakar singing Ain’t No Mountain High Enough? Please, say it ain’t so! Diana Ross seemed oddly smitten by the Michael Jackson-esque teenager. And, just like the creepy one-gloved wonder, Sanjaya seemed unnaturally obsessed with Ms. Ross, to the point that he curled his infamous mop of hair just like hers. The judges really let him have it: Randy called it “almost unlistenable” although he thought the ‘fro hair was “popping”, Paula reiterated Diana’s inexplicable assertion that “Sanjaya is pure love” even though he wasn’t on pitch at all throughout the song. Simon said Diana Ross is going to scream when she hears how “Pure Love” butchered her song, and poor clueless Sanjaya needed Ryan to explain what exactly that meant. Please America, put us all out of our misery and STOP VOTING FOR THIS KID.

Next up, Hayley Scarnato. She chose Missing You, and Diana Ross tried to convey the heartbreak and emotion behind it (she was missing the late-Marvin Gaye when she co-wrote it), but Hayley insisted on conjuring thoughts of her insipid fiancé back home (remember, the guy who “doesn’t do well” while she’s away? ugh). Ross also worried that Hayley had more of a studio voice, and wouldn’t be able to “project” to a larger audience. So, how’d she do? Well, she certainly looked pretty in her hot purple mini-dress, but she spent most of the song furrowing her brow and looking confused, and pretty soon, she was missing the lyrics, too, and ended on a clunker of a flat note. Randy called it “a valiant effort” and chalked it up to nerves, while Paula trotted out her standard “you look lovely tonight” pity bone. Simon definitely noticed the mini-dress because he said, “It wasn’t that bad.” Judging with something other than your brain, Mr. Cowell? Methinks so. Oh, and how funny was Paula’s follow-up comment (meant to encourage Hayley not to be so hard on herself for forgetting the lyrics) that the audience “doesn’t know anything”? Talk about projecting, sheesh.

Diana Ross looked a little frightened by tall-blond-and-stalkery Phil Stacey when he first walked in, but she loved his song choice because it brought back great memories for her. (Uh yeah, that’s it, THAT’S why she was closing her eyes the whole time he was singing. Nothing personal, Phil.) Singing I’m Gonna Make You Love Me, a hit made popular by Ross & Marvin Gaye, Phil had the best performance by any of the guys so far tonight—which isn’t saying much. At least he looked like he was enjoying himself out there, and he took Ross’ advice to heart and tried to look at the audience and connect with them. Randy and Paula gave middling praise, and Simon told him he made the right song choice. “It wasn’t outstanding, it wasn’t awful, but it was better than last week” according to Simon.

Watching the video clip, it was clear that LaKisha Jones connected with Diana Ross on a professional level, asking her thought-provoking questions about how she should sing God Bless the Child. I found it very interesting that this was the first contestant that Ross seemed to relate to as an equal—and with good reason. LaKisha came out looking and sounding like a star, commanding the stage from the moment she stepped out into the spotlight. Eight contestants in, and it was the first standing ovation of the night! Randy called it “Sensational,” Paula said something useless and bland (“Your heart comes through, and that’s what’s important”) and Simon said simply, “You either have it or you don’t, and you have it.” He pointed out that LaKisha didn’t appear intimidated by the crowd, and that she and deer-in-the-headlights Doolittle are in a different league. If it comes down to LaKisha and MindyDoo in the finals, I’m telling you right now, I’m putting in another phone line just so that I can put “KiKi” over the top.

Blake Lewis needs to ditch the turned up collar look. I was going to criticize the spikey hairdo, too, until they showed him in the pre-recorded clip with hideous, slicked-forward bangs. Ewww, that wasn’t even a good look on George Clooney. Blake chose to do an updated version of You Keep Me Hangin’ On, with mixed results. I wasn’t thrilled with the tempo—it would have worked better if he’d sped it up just a bit more—but at least it was interesting, unique, and stayed true to this other performances. He’s got a good voice, but the song just didn’t showcase it to full effect. Randy thought he put too much of his own stamp on it, and Paula agreed, but reminded people that he does have a good voice. Simon didn’t get it, but told Blake he’d be fine.

Stephanie Edwards chose Love Hangover—not my favorite song, but I think it’s a good fit for Stephanie. She took Diana Ross’ advice and added a bit more soul to her onstage performance than we saw in the practice clip, but there didn’t seem to be enough varied lyrics to hold my interest. She kept moaning and singing the same 6 or 7 notes over and over again. Randy: “awright, so yo…” hmmm, sounds like he’s having trouble thinking of something nice to say, too. Paula asked her why she didn’t sing the uptempo disco portion of the song, and if it was an artistic choice? Nice try. Simon blamed it on a “strange arrangement,” and told her she chose the wrong song.

Ugh, and here’s Chris Richardson in his recorded video clip with Diana, once again sporting an unfortunate hat. This one looks like a confederate soldier cap, without the little military insignia on the front. He sang The Boss, an upbeat choice that called for lots of moving and dancing while he performed, which made his falsetto voice sound shaky and chipmunk-ish. Randy said it was so-so, Paula gave him points for keeping it fresh and contemporary, and Simon brought him back to reality and told him the vocals were terrible. The studio audience rained down the obligatory boos, but that’s okay, because they don’t know anything (right, Paula?).

Jordin Sparks chose a ballad, If We Hold On Together, and promised to take Diana Ross’ advice to heart and really “feel” the song. Ross also said Jordin has “an inner light”, and encouraged her to project during her performance. Unlike most of the other contestants, Jordin actually followed through on what Ross told her, and sang the song beautifully. Her performance was subtle, controlled, and came across as heartfelt and touching. Oh lord help me, while Randy’s telling her it’s now a “three girl race” between Jordin, Melinda and LaKisha, I can already see Paula blowing her nose. She holds it together long enough to blather out some compliments, and Simon concurred that Jordin’s vocal was great.

As I watched the recap clips & phone numbers whiz by one last time, I am overcome by the realization that I just spent two hours of my life watching what amounted to less than 10 minutes of worthwhile performances. The rest was either so-so or just plain awful.

They can’t seem to thin down this Final 12 fast enough. Tune in tomorrow for the elimination results!

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