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Finalists forget lyrics on ‘American Idol’

Brandon, Haley and Stephanie have problems; LaKisha and Melinda prove they are a cut above everyone else. By Craig Berman
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

“American Idol” began the finals by showing what is at stake. Footage of Kelly Clarkson, Chris Daughtry, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia Barrino, and Jennifer Hudson illustrated exactly what can happen to finalists — even if Oscar winner Hudson’s probably annoyed that she’s being used to shill the show when the judges were big meanies to her during her season.

Hyperbole aside, this is indeed the biggest stage a young musician can have these days, and the longer a contestant can stay on, the more opportunities generally await. After all, Daughtry came in fourth last season, and Hudson finished seventh in season three. Both are doing well for themselves anyway, thanks to the “Idol” career boost.

One big key to sticking around is not forgetting the lyrics. But three of the finalists did: Brandon Rogers, Haley Scarnato and Stephanie Edwards. Admittedly, Diana Ross, who served as both mentor and theme for the week, has some songs with intricate vocals. But it’s probably best to either study the words or pick easier songs.

Another key is to stand out from the crowd. In that sense, nothing much changed this week. Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones continued to dominate, while the rest of the competitors lagged far behind.

Brandon Rogers, 28, North Hollywood, Calif.: Rogers sang “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and it might just hurry his exit from the show. The former backup singer continued his habit of undersinging, not really letting his voice explode. He finished stronger than he began, and if that’s what the viewers remember, he may survive. While Paula stressed the things he did right, the other judges weren’t impressed. Plus he committed the cardinal sin of forgetting some of the lyrics. Grade: D+Stay or go? “I felt it was going my way … until I forgot the words,” Rogers said after he finished. That’s never a good sign. Nor is it good to have Simon call the performance akin to that of “a background singer to a background singer.” He’s in trouble.

Melinda Doolittle, 29, Brentwood, Tenn .: Doolittle said the hardest thing about the competition was wearing the high heels instead of tennis shoes. Not only did that endear her to all the women in the audience, it also sparked the weekly are-they-or-aren’t-they banter from Simon and Ryan. Singing “Home” from “The Wiz,” she and Paula broke down in tears. Emotions aside, Doolittle did well enough to remind Simon of a young Gladys Knight … not bad praise for Doolittle, who before this competition made a living as one of the music industry’s Pips. Grade: A+Stay or go? Of course Melinda’s safe. She’ll be safe until May.

Chris Sligh, 28, Greenville, S.C.: Sligh chose to sing “Endless Love,” and put a modern spin on an older song. He ditched the glasses — which may or may not be an improvement — and again showed he’s more than simply a personality. He came through with a big performance, especially considering he followed Melinda Doolittle’s show-stopper. But the judges didn’t agree. Randy wasn’t crazy about him merging Coldplay with Diana Ross, and Simon called the melody a wreck. Grade: B+Stay or go? Wow, the judges once again showed they don’t think much of modern music, since they didn’t like the arrangement. But the voters will probably disagree.

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Sanjaya Malakar, 17, Federal Way, Wash.: “It’s like Van Gogh teaching you how to paint,” Malakar said about having Ross as a singing mentor. Her No. 1 hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” might have struck a chord because it reminded him of the hurdles he has to go through on “Idol,” but those hurdles only got bigger with this performance. He still stands out as the one finalist who just isn’t good enough to be here. The judges, per usual, hated it. “Thank God for the background singers,” Randy said. Grade:D+ Stay or go? Malakar is a sweet kid with a nice smile, as Paula said, but he sounds like he’s in a high school musical. He should be going home this week. At this point, he may have to attack Ryan Seacrest with a spork to generate enough ill will to be voted off.

Haley Scarnato, 24, San Antonio: Diana Ross called Scarnato a recording-studio voice rather than one suited to live singing, which might rank as one of the more perceptive guest-judge comments in recent memory. Scarnato picked a nice song in “Missing You,” but again didn’t come through with the big notes and forgot the lyrics in the middle. Even studio singers can’t get away with that. She screwed it up badly enough that the judges took pity on her and weren’t as mean as usual. In fact Simon, perhaps making up for last week’s brutal evaluation, was very complimentary in citing her stage presence and some of her vocals. Plus he remembered her name. Grade: D+Stay or go? “I messed up the words — I feel like such a schmuck,” Scarnato said. The judges comments may well save her, but she’s definitely a strong candidate for the bottom three.

Phil Stacey, 29, Jacksonville, Fla.: Stacey did the best he could with a boring song, “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me.” It was another average performance, and the judges let him off easy by simply saying so without thinking up clever ways to cut it down. Perhaps he was fortunate in performing at a point in the evening where even they were lulled to sleep by the string of bland efforts. Grade: C+Stay or go?: Stacey is probably safe, if his fans stayed awake long enough to vote.

LaKisha Jones, 27, Fort Meade, Md.: Jones sang “God Bless the Child,” and was excellent as always. “Kiki,” as her mother, Diana Ross and now probably everyone on “Idol” calls her, came through with another great performance, showing again that she’s a very talented vocalist with a stage presence to match. As Simon said, she and Melinda are in a different league from everyone else. Grade: AStay or go? Simon opened his remarks by saying “You’ve either got it, or you don’t … and you’ve got it.” She’ll easily make it through the week.

Blake Lewis, 25, Bothell, Wash.: Really, what else can a singer like Lewis do with “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” besides try and freshen it up and add some lights and rhythm? The performance was a little over the top at times with the dance moves, but Lewis can definitely sing. It was the most entertaining effort from any of the men. Still, Randy wasn’t crazy about his “Blake-izing” the song, and Simon didn’t get it. Neither judge is looking very hip this season.Grade: B+Stay or go? Even if the judges didn’t like the freshness factor, the viewers will. Lewis is safe.

Stephanie Edwards, 19, Savannah, Ga.: Edwards struggled with the words as well in “Love Hangover,” and it was a slow and dull performance of a more lively song. Her vocals were generally fine, but as the judges said, it was more of an intro than an impactful performance. It left her well behind the leaders — a tough spot for someone with vocal stylings similar to Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones. Grade:  C+Stay or go? Edwards is safe, but needs to do a lot better to make it much farther.

Chris Richardson, 22, Chesapeake, Va.: Richardson worked the audience better than anyone, which was a good thing because the vocals in “The Boss” weren’t quite as good as they’ve been in the past. The performance had its moments, but was very uneven. At this stage of the game, however, being entertaining is usually enough to advance. Even if Simon thought that the vocals themselves were dreadful, Richardson’s charm and personality helped mitigate that. Grade: C+Stay or go? Richardson was good enough to survive, not enough to stay with the leaders. He’s squarely in the “needs improvement” camp.

Jordin Sparks, 17, Glendale, Ariz.: Sparks took advantage of some unusually pedestrian performances from the rest of the women to move up in the hierarchy. Her version of “If We Hold on Together” was good enough to close the show with a flourish, though the judges probably went a bit overboard with the praise. To say that Sparks has “a shot to be in the finals of the competition” was probably a bit much, but everyone else was bland enough that her performance was a breath of fresh air. Grade: B+Stay or go? Sparks isn’t going anywhere.

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