“American Idol” is at the point of the competition where ordinary doesn’t get it done. It’s not enough to play it safe every week and hope for a Sanjaya-esque effort from at least one rival competitor.
Anyone who doesn’t demonstrate excellence is a candidate to go home.
That was proven again Wednesday, as the two remaining finalists most lacking in star potential were eliminated. Both Phil Stacey and Chris Richardson were solid all season long, avoiding disaster and skating to safety each week. But neither had the breakthrough performance that might have established him as a star in the making.
The blandness was costly for each, as too many of the remaining singers have taken giant steps forward in recent weeks. Melinda Doolittle is consistently great, Blake Lewis has shown he can win with traditional vocals and edgier mash-ups, and both Jordin Sparks and LaKisha Jones have had weeks where they’ve been as good as anyone in the competition.
Neither Phil nor Chris could say that. They had weeks where they weren’t among the worst of the finalists, but none where they were the best. As the weaker competitors vanished one by one, neither Phil nor Chris closed the gap on the leaders.
Men run out of chances
Phil came the closest, and his departure was the more surprising of the two, because it seemed like he’d finally found his groove over the past few weeks. He started trending more towards country music, which suited his voice a lot more than his attempts at crooning love songs, and also seemed to release his personality more. His performances looked more natural and effortless, and the feedback from the judges improved accordingly.
But Phil has been playing from behind throughout the competition. He was third from the bottom during the first week of the finals, and finished among the bottom three four times before finally being eliminated. Nothing he did earned him enough of a fan club to rest easy, and he ran out of chances on Wednesday.
Chris’s exit was more painful, because they put him up with Blake Lewis onstage. The two have become good friends over the course of the show.
Like Phil, Chris has had to battle from his first days in the competition, since being among the bottom two vote-getters in the second week of the finals. His feedback from the judges has gotten worse over the past few weeks, and he’s been outclassed by his rivals.
Blake has had his share of struggles as well, finishing third from the bottom three weeks ago. But unlike the others, he reacted by going back to the drawing board and taking some chances. After showing he could out-croon the rest of the men by nailing “Imagine” on “Idol Gives Back,” he went back to his roots with a mash-up of “You Give Love a Bad Name” that combined beatboxing, riffs and vocals for a creative interpretation of an old hit.
He took a big risk in doing that; had the audience hated it, he’d have been the one going home. But if his goal is to win the competition, that’s the risk he had to take.
Excellence, risks rewardedThe results were tabulated from votes over the past two weeks, with a total of 135 million cast during the fortnight according to host Ryan Seacrest. Since 70 million occurred last week during the charity hour, that meant that the four-hour voting window on Tuesday garnered an additional 65 million.
That influx of votes was great news for LaKisha, who entered the week in a slump that had nearly seen her eliminated two weeks ago. Though she survived that scare, she didn’t impress on “Idol Gives Back,” and would have been a prime candidate for elimination had they actually sent someone packing that day. More than perhaps any other candidate she was singing for her future on Tuesday.
She took advantage of her stay of execution with a strong performance of “This Ain’t a Love Song.” Resisting her tendency to shout through the lyrics, she rocked enough to show why she began the season as one of the favorites. As she said answering a viewer question Tuesday, she hasn’t had any vocal coaching, but her natural talent is enough to make her a dark horse in the competition.
She may even have emerged as a stronger candidate for the finale than Jordin. The teenager had a rough time with Bon Jovi on Tuesday, and avoided elimination mainly because it was her first real dud of the year. But she can’t afford any more efforts like that if she wants to stay in the race.
Yet to have a poor week is Melinda. Though she looked more nervous than usual on Wednesday, she’s the safest bet to move forward every week. She’s so consistently excellent that it’s a wonder that none of the acts she served as a backup vocalist for ever bothered to tell their agents about the sweet singer in the shadows.
Ultimately, Phil and Chris were the most ordinary talents among the six remaining finalists. It’s possible that with the right coaching, and a great studio crew, both can record successful albums. Onstage with the other finalists, however, neither looked as ready as the rest, and thus it was no surprise that they finally ran out of chances.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.