Tuesday, May 10, 2005

''Idol:'' No Runaway?

If I could have one job on ''American Idol,'' it would be as the song-credibility analyst. If the theme was country music, I would be the guy who decided whether songs actually qualified as country, and I'd be a strict constructionist. None of this big-tent approach that lets limited-range contestants find something that works for them, or considers a song country just because someone with a Southern accent sang it.
But that's a dream for another time, because ''Idol'' wants to keep things broad enough in the final four that the contestants can all sound relatively good. That will keep the audience entertained and spur CD sales down the road.
On Tuesday night, the producers may have gotten their wish, because at the end of the night, the singers seemed remarkably evenly matched, each having had ups and downs.
Country was indeed the first song topic of the night, although the only one to offer up hard-core country was Carrie, who's been the show's country girl since the season started. Still, she showed some brass in picking not only a Dixie Chicks song but ''Sin Wagon,'' one that once again puts some spin on her image. And she was good.
Bo came in with some Travis Tritt, and I began to wonder if he was suffering a little from Justin Guarini Syndrome, figuring he could coast to the championship on his charm and reputation. And he was noticeably not good.
Then I have no idea what happened with Vonzell, who was shaky while working through a booming ballad so cliched I'm too tired to mention it by name -- but which was considered country because Trisha Yearwood has done it. The show actually tried to save her poor performance with outpourings of sympathy from Paula and Ryan, though it offered no explanation of what had upset her so much.
Finally, Anthony, who seems ready to assume that Clay II mantle for real; he's not as electrifying as Aiken, but he's certainly picking up his game. In fact, I thought he and Carrie gave the best performances of the first round, followed by a tie between Bo and Vonzell.
But things did not hold in the second round, with Gamble-Huff songs as the topic. Both Carrie and Anthony tried to take on ''If You Don't Know Me By Now,'' and neither really had a handle on it -- they went smooth when that's a song that's best served rough. Any advantage they had in the first round slipped away, especially since their lesser performances came later in the show.
Bo, though, rebounded nicely with the O'Jays' ''For the Love of Money.'' (And what is this with ''Idol'' using songs associated with other networks' shows?) He got the biggest ovation of the night, more than I might have given him, but he was effective onstage.
Vonzell also fought back with an energetic ''Don't Leave Me This Way,'' so I found myself ranking the second round a Bo/Vonzell tie, followed by Carrie/Anthony.
Which meant that at the end of the hour, I was looking at a scorecard that found Bo and Vonzell tied, with Carrie a close third and Anthony not far behind. I don't know if the vote will be as close as the performances seemed to be, but it's a lot more interesting to watch something that feels like a fair fight.

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