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‘Idol’ contestants drown in sea of sap

Love songs don’t make for a lively night on ‘American Idol.' By Craig Berman
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Here's the thing with love songs … they're usually played for a purpose that goes beyond wanting to hear pretty voices. If someone is willing to spend an hour listening to the likes of Whitney Houston or Bryan Adams, there's usually an ulterior motive involved, such as seduction, or at least a chance to slow-dance with that hot classmate or co-worker.   Otherwise, they're the kind of melodies that usually signal the need for a drink break or a quick smoke, not riveting television.

Therefore, it's no surprise that Tuesday's "American Idol" was the blandest night of vocals this season, since the theme centered around the music-that-plays-during-the-romantic-scenes-in-movies genre. None of the six remaining finalists were great, and none except for Kellie Pickler was atrociously bad, but the only interesting parts were watching Simon Cowell snap at host Ryan Seacrest for cutting him off mid-diatribe, and trying to guess if special guest and music producer David Foster was closer to having migraine or a stroke watching some of the six rehearse.

Guest music coachAndrea Bocelli just sat back, relaxed and sang some vocals that none of the contestants could possibly match on their best day. For everyone else, the best part of the night was that it eventually ended.

Katharine McPhee, 21, Los Angeles: Give McPhee credit for trying. The judges have never, ever liked any contestant's version of Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing," but McPhee went for the home run anyway and managed a pop-up to center field. Her mannerisms have gotten much better, but she couldn't match Houston's power or range, particularly at the beginning of the song. However, figure skater Sasha Cohen was clapping in the audience, which raises the possibility of a potential Fox sitcom next year with the tiny skater and the taller singer. Simon could star as the wacky neighbor. Grade: BThe judges: "By choosing that song, it's like coming out here and saying 'I am as good as Whitney Houston.' And you're not." – Simon Cowell. Stay or go:  McPhee sang in the "American Idol" Spot of Doom, which means she's in trouble. Singing first is usually a recipe for disaster, which means she may be very nervous at about 9:25 ET on Wednesday.

Elliott Yamin, 27, Richmond, Va.: If the judges got to pick the "American Idol" winner, Yamin would be such a prohibitive favorite that the overseas casinos wouldn't even let people bet on it. All three judges went crazy over his rendition of Donny Hathaway's "A Song For You," with Paula Abdul moved to both tears and incoherence. Foster, despite looking at first like Yamin was giving him a migraine, also acknowledged that "he really, really sings well." But that and five bucks will get him a large latte at Starbucks if his singing didn't excite the voters. Grade: AThe judges: "Seven weeks ago I said you were one of the best male vocalists we've ever had on 'Idol.' Tonight, in parts, it was like a master class. It was superb."– Simon CowellStay or go: Yamin was strong, but he's in danger every week because the voters don't seem to give him any margin for error at all.

Kellie Pickler, 19, Albemarle, N.C.: It's like Pickler is testing the voters to see how much she can get away with and still stay on the show. Last week was her worst performance of the season, and this week's wasn't any better. Her version of Leann Rimes' version of the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" was three minutes of pure tedium. The best thing about the night for her was that she got saved by the bell from the full brunt of Simon's comments — the theme music signaled the need for a commercial break while he was still trying to think of harsh metaphors. Perhaps the problem is that, as she told Ryan, she "[doesn't] have anyone to play pottery with," like Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore did in "Ghost."Grade: DThe judges: "I don't see you raising the bar each week. At this point, it's about greatness, and I didn't get that from you tonight." – Paula Abdul. Stay or go: Based on this week alone, she should be heading home. Based on what the viewers have thought of her so far this season, she isn't going anywhere.

Paris Bennett, 17, Fayetteville, Ga.: If "Idol" was a musical futures market, Bennett would be the safest bet for the longest career. Andrea Bocelli and David Foster both loved her — Bocelli said "she has an extraordinary voice" — but for some reason that voice hasn't captured the fancy of the voting public. That means she's in trouble despite doing a nice job with Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were." Grade: BThe judges: "Very good vocal, but old-fashioned for my taste. It sounded a bit like you were trying to impersonate an older artist …   and now I'm finished — off you go Ryan." – Simon Cowell.Stay or go: Someone has to go, and Bennett may be the unlucky one this week.

Taylor Hicks, 29, Birmingham, Ala.: It was a tale of two critics for the competition's lone senior citizen. Foster loved his choice of James Ingram's "Just Once," and thought he "potentially had the most charisma, which is a very, very important part of being a star." That shows Foster doesn't watch the show much or he could have safely dropped the "potentially" — Hicks is a charisma machine. The judges, however, hated the song selection and didn't like the performance much either, which should make it an awkward scene if they all meet Foster at one of those post-Grammy parties. Grade: B-The judges: "That song was completely the wrong song for me, for you." – Randy Jackson.Stay or go: It wasn't Hicks' best effort, but he's probably safe.

Chris Daughtry, 26, McLeansville, N.C.: This was Daughtry's nightmare theme — how can anyone rock out to something that even drunk college students avoid on karaoke night as being "too uncool." He tried his best with Bryan Adams’ "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?" but it didn't fit with the previous Daughtry musical catalog and he didn't look very comfortable singing it. The vocals themselves were solid, and the judges all really liked the effort. Still, he'll also be really happy when the themes give him something a little more suited to his style than sappy love songs. Grade: BThe judges: "That was a very, very good choice of song." – Simon Cowell. Stay or go: Wednesday is the day we find out if last week's results were an aberration or a sign that Daughtry really is in danger. He was the second-lowest vote-getter a week ago, and therefore he won't rest easy this time around either.  

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