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‘American Idol’ men continue to struggle

The "American Idol" men shrank from the challenge instead of rising to the occasion.  By Craig Berman
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

This is the biggest week of the season for the “American Idol” semifinalists. A lot of times, there’s not a tremendous difference in future potential between the winner and some of the runners-up, but contestants eliminated in the semifinals are rarely heard from again.

Jennifer Hudson got enough exposure on the third season of “Idol” to land the “Dreamgirls” role that won her an Oscar. It’s doubtful that she would have even been called to audition had she not been a wild-card pick into the final 12. Taylor Hicks may have won last year, but Chris Daughtry will likely have the better career. Had either bowed out early, their lives might be very different today.

With all that on the line, the men shrank from the challenge instead of rising to the occasion. None of the eight performances were particularly memorable on a night when the opportunity to advance was there. This week, each contestant was asked to reveal something about themselves that might surprise people; not surprisingly, few said anything that implied an ability to perform under pressure.

When host Ryan Seacrest closed the show by asking the judges how many of the men actually deserved to be among the 12 finalists, Randy and Paula said only four fit that description, and Simon said three and a half. Because of the quota system, six will actually move on, but that doesn’t bode well for when they have to compete against the stronger women finalists.

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Sanjaya Malakar, 17, Federal Way, Wash.: Malakar lived in Hawaii for four years and therefore knows how to hula, arguably better than he can sing. His version of John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” was better than last week’s effort, but showed that he’s not ready for a competition like this one. He doesn’t have that extra vocal gear that his rivals can surge towards at a critical moment of the song, and so once again he sounded more like a talent-show contestant than an “Idol” semifinalist. Grade: C Stay or go? If he hasn’t been voted off the show yet, who knows? He should go this week, but he should have gone last week, the week before, and in the Hollywood round. He’s already had more unwanted sequels than “Rocky.”

Sundance Head, 28, Porter, Texas : A big part of Head’s appeal is his genial personality, and this week he claimed he’s really a skinny guy wearing a fat suit for the competition. Sounds silly, but not as silly as being a bluesy rocker singing ballads, which he did in Hollywood and in the first week of the semifinals before finally returning to his strengths last week. His version of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” won’t get him any guest slots subbing for Eddie Vedder, but will probably get him into the final 12. Simon criticized him for shouting, which may indicate that the judge thinks Pearl Jam is one of Grandma's canning recipes.Grade: BStay or go?: If Head hasn’t gone by now, odds are small he’ll go this week. But he’s really close to being on the bubble.

Chris Richardson, 22, Chesapeake , Va.: Richardson emerged as a threat to take over as the next Subway pitchman, claming healthy eating habits helped him lose 40 pounds. As far as the singing goes, he went with a ballad, Keith Urban’s “Tonight I Wanna Cry.” The vocals were solid but unspectacular, lacking most of the energy he showed last week singing Jason Mraz’s “Geek in the Pink.” Randy loved the change, but Simon was more on-target with his more tepid response. However, even Simon admitted that Richardson sold it well.Grade: BStay or go? Richardson looks enough like a pop star than a performance like this won’t hurt him much. He’ll be back next week.

Jared Cotter, 25, Kew Gardens , N.Y.: Cotter played college basketball before concentrating on music. The last contestant with those duel skillsets was Ayla Brown last season, and Brown bowed out in this round of the competition. On the positive side, Brown did finish her freshman season as the second-leading scorer on the Boston College women’s basketball team. On the negative side, Cotter might have to head back to hoops as well, since his version of Stevie Wonder’s “If You Really Love Me” didn’t make much of an impression. Randy was a fan, but neither Paula or Simon saw much of a wow factor.Grade: C+Stay or go? Cotter’s definitely in danger this week. He didn’t stand out enough to feel safe, and hasn’t been enough of an early favorite that he had the wiggle room to just be average.

Brandon Rogers, 28, North Hollywood, Calif.: It was a strange song choice for Rogers, particularly since he’s apparently a classical piano player. He sang Rare Earth’s “I Just Want to Celebrate,” but the energy level didn’t mask the overall blandness of the vocals. Rogers sounded at his first audition like he’d be a threat to win it all, but after a series of poor semifinal performances he’s in danger of missing the cut. Grade: C+Stay or go? Rogers is one of the more likely candidates to be sent home this week.

Phil Stacey, 29, Jacksonville , Fla.: It almost seemed like Stacey, who showed visual proof that he once had long hair, was trying to even the playing field by singing LeAnn Rimes’ “I Need You.”  It was a strange choice of songs that didn’t do much for Stacey’s chances in the competition, though the fact that he’s done well up until now probably keeps him safe. But if he does make the final 12, it won’t be because voters see him as beating Rimes at her own game; it legitimately sounded like a bad karaoke version of the original. Grade: C+Stay or go?: Stacey’s safe based on his overall resumé, but this isn’t an episode he’ll be saving to show the grandchildren.

Chris Sligh, 28, Greenville , S.C.: Sligh clams to have once had a shaved head — perhaps at the same time Stacey had his long hair. They’ve gone in very different directions since, with Sligh’s curls a sharp contrast to Stacey’s bald dome. His effort at DC Talk’s “Wanna Be Loved” was acceptable, but no knockout. “It wasn’t a stellar night for the boys, but you may get the prize for the best male vocal performance,” Randy said. Paula disagreed and liked last week’s better, and Simon thought he shouted in the middle. Grade: BStay or go? Sligh’s in no danger. He’ll be making jokes with Ryan for the foreseeable future.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.