Country Night on "American Idol." Bleah. I had hopes that this could be a memorably awful theme night, but instead it was mediocre and forgettable like last week. A few decent performances, but nothing I'm going to want to play back, like, ever, with the exception of Katharine, and that has nothing to do with the vocal.
Taylor Hicks, "Take Me Home Country Roads": Karaoke John Denver, saved only by the fact that the gruff tone of Taylor's voice would keep me interested even if he was singing a Gregorian chant. But he looked nervous for the first time on this show, and you could tell he knew it was just okay.
Mandisa, "Any Man of Mine": Another week of Mandisa doing the talk/shout thing, with the wordiness of the song keeping her too breathless to actually sing any of it. If her declaration of love for Jesus last week didn't win her a bunch of new fans, she could be in trouble for that.
Elliot Yamin, "If Tomorrow Never Comes": If I heard this on the radio, I'd probably enjoy it very much. Like Taylor, Elliot's voice has such an interesting tone that you want to listen to him even when he's not doing too great. But vocals are half the battle, at best, on this show, and Elliot looked like he was going to be lined up against a wall and shot at the end of the song.
Paris Bennett, "How Do I Live": The most interesting thing about the entire performance was the audience assaulting Paula with a wave of boos when she criticized it. Either that, or they're annoyed that her mega-millions contract extension is going to keep her on their screens for years to come, and reward her financially for doing nothing. Whatever the reason, you can expect her to go back to cheerleader mode for the rest of the year. And Paris? I barely remember her this morning, except that I liked her more than Randy and Paula did and less than Simon did. "How Do I Live" is one of those "Idol" cliches that needs to be retired. (Oh, and she either ignored or forgot Kenny Rogers' advice about emphasizing the "live" part of the chorus, because she dropped the word in a half-second.)
Ace Young, "I Wanna Cry": Again, not awful, just boring. Contrary to what Randy said, the vocal was much better up until he started doing his cheesey falsetto. (More than the other two judges, Randy has this pathological need to see contestants stay firmly inside their respective box; he seems outraged whenever Taylor doesn't do some spazzy Pee-Wee Herman dance or Ace doesn't try to lick the camera.) This was maybe a slight improvement on Ace's other finals performances, but the audience already seems quits with him.
Kellie Pickler, "Fancy": Hey, it's the Seacrest Damage Control Minute! In this week's message board-driven controversy, Ryan has to prove that Kellie's not faking the dumb hick bit by... asking her if she's faking it! Woodward and Bernstein would be proud! Or, at least, Billy Bush. A bit of a repeat of the Pickle's semi-finals performance of Melissa Etheridge, with the slutty top/jeans look and some rawer vocals. When she just shreds her voice like she did on "I'm the Only One" or the chorus here, I can actually ignore what an annoying phony she is, but the verses were just as dull as usual, and she's even less convincing as a sex kitten than Carrie was when she tried it last year.
Chris Daughtry, "Making Memories of Us": And here comes the night's first (and only) unqualified success. Often, when a contestant responds to Simon's criticism that they're getting repetitive, he complains that he prefers their one trick. But Chris proved that he could sound passionate, subtle and just plain good without the strobe lights and the growling and all the other Scott Stapp affectations, and yet he still seemed like Chris. Before I ape Paula any more, let's move on to...
Katharine McPhee, "Bringing Out the Elvis In Me": I'm sorry, what did the vocal sound like? I was too busy... um... appreciating the visual aspects of the performance. Apparently, you now need some penicillin to get over a case of the McPheever. After last week's bottom two scare, Katharine has obviously decided to ride the sexpot thing as far as it can take her -- which, since girls overwhelmingly vote more than guys, might not be as far as she thinks. And Kellie? This is how a real sex-kitten looks -- or maybe a Sex Panther (made from bits of real panther!). Okay, now I remember the vocal. I don't know what the Faith Hill version sounds like, but Kat made it sound like a repetitive novelty song, even more gimmicky than "Suds in the Bucket." But I suspect people like Fienberg aren't going to care that much. Also, she was able to call out Simon's historical boredom with country music -- why does he even bother to show up for this theme? couldn't they get that guy from "Mad TV" to fill in, or maybe just a mannequin with a tape recorder hung around its neck? -- without seeming cocky or rude. (Then again, who knows how the audience is going to respond to that?)
Bucky Covington, "Best I Ever Had": Again, Kenny Rogers gets ignored (a shame, because, like Manilow, his advice was spot-on for every performer), though I think Bucky was just born without the enunciation gene. After a rough few opening notes, this was actually quite good, soulful in a way Bucky hasn't been before. I still doubt he'd get very far on "Nashville Star," but this was probably enough to save him for whatever ill-suited theme they'll have next week.
So if Bucky's not going, who is? Again, on a night when nobody was great and nobody was really awful, you're going to see fanbases come into play. Maybe Kat's scare last week was a sign that the people who vote don't care about her. Maybe Elliot's lack of stage presence finally hurts him. Or maybe, hopefully, Ace and his scar go home. About the only people I don't expect to see at center stage are Chris and Kellie, with maybe Bucky and Taylor as the other safe bets (Bucky because he was one of the better people tonight, Taylor because his fanbase seems to be larger than anyone's except Chris and Kellie).