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‘Idol’ finalists catch a case of disco fever

LaKisha Jones and Blake Lewis both have off nights, while Jordin Sparks and Melinda Doolittle  score. By Craig Berman
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

When Bon Jovi guest-starred last week on “American Idol,” 17-year-old finalist Jordin Sparks implied that the rock legend was someone she’d mainly heard on oldies stations. She talked about how much a fan her mom was, and then went out and had her worst performance of the season.

With that in mind, Barry Gibb week seemed like it would be a nightmare for her. If she couldn’t handle ’80s rock, how could she possibly do anything with the disco era? Even worse, she and the remaining “Idols” had to pick two songs.

Instead, Jordin was the most impressive of the remaining four. Her first song, “To Love Somebody,” was the best vocal of the night, and her second song was good enough that she’s a good bet to last another week. Gibb was more effusive in his praise, saying “This is going to be one of our greatest female recording artists.”

Melinda Doolittle also was impressive, though she’s suffering now from the high bar she’s set for herself throughout the competition. With everyone aware that she’s the best vocalist by far, and with her seeming inability to have a bad night, the judges now are apparently looking for her to bite the head off of live chickens or smash a guitar onstage before they’ll come through with heavy praise.

She’s been called a master vocalist on multiple occasions, and is being treated like a master’s student in an undergraduate college course, held to a higher standard than the rest.

Neither Blake Lewis nor LaKisha Jones did much to help themselves.

Blake took some chances by modernizing his vocals, which may please the audience but didn’t impress the judges. He’d better hope that the judges’ squareness doesn’t rub off on voters. LaKisha, under the impression that slower is better, parlayed a couple of plodding arrangements into the dullest performance of the night.

Melinda Doolittle, 29, Brentwood, Tenn.: Melinda kicked the night off with “Love You Inside and Out.” Of course, the vocals were technically perfect. It would be an upset if she was anything less. It still didn’t wow the judges, because as Paula Abdul said, there’s no way to criticize her vocals so they’re looking for her to exceed the standard she’s already set. Simon Cowell likened it to a background vocal, a not-so-veiled reference to her background as a backup singer.

Her second song was “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” and she altered the lyrics to avoid the “loser” reference. Randy Jackson liked that one a lot better, and acknowledged “You(’re) our resident pro.” Paula again loved the technician in her, but wanted to be surprised. Simon said the second half of that song put her into the semifinals. He neglected to also cite the series of strong performances over the past three months.Grade: B+Stay or Go? This is the week that then-favorite Chris Daughtry went home last season, so anything is possible. But Melinda’s in great shape.

Blake Lewis, 25, Bothell, Wash.: Blake began with “You Should Be Dancing,” adding a bit of beatboxing to the traditional disco rhythms. It was a nice vocal on its own, and the additional riffs made it a lot more hip and relevant to an audience largely made up of people who weren’t alive when Gibb’s popularity was at its height. But the judges were cranky anyway. Randy was unimpressed with the beatboxing, Paula didn’t like the vocals, and Simon hated everything.

His second song was worse. “This is Where I Came In” isn’t one of the Bee Gees better-known songs, and not even the beatboxing could save that one. Randy again complained, Paula called him the show’s “contemporary rebel” and said she didn’t know the song. Simon hadn’t heard of it either, and stated the obvious — Blake didn’t have a good night. He also called it “a really weird bizarre choice of song.”Grade: C+Stay or Go? Blake’s made eclectic song choices all season with positive results, but it may have finally caught up to him here. He’s probably going to find himself in the bottom two.

LaKisha Jones, 27, Fort Meade, Md.: LaKisha slowed down “Staying Alive,” which mainly served to make it sound like a cassette tape warping in a boombox. She shouted her intro, and it didn’t get much better after that. Randy called it weird, and again was offended by change of melody. Paula said it wasn’t great, but loved her anyway. Simon said the audience was heading for the exits and did not proffer another kiss. It didn’t look like that broke LaKisha’s heart.

Her second song was “Run to Me,” and it was going much better until she got hoarse at the end. That destroyed any momentum she had. The judges were brief in their comments for time reasons, which probably helped her because they couldn’t harp on her technique.Grade: C-Stay or Go? LaKisha’s in big trouble. She’s the best bet to be voted off.

Jordin Sparks, 17, Glendale, Ariz.:  Jordin told Ryan that she was getting As and Bs in school despite having to juggle tutoring sessions with singing. She definitely gets an A+ for song selection this week. After hearing her sing “To Love Somebody” in rehearsals, Gibb said, “I know a couple of hundred people have sung this song, but I haven’t heard a greater version than Jordin’s.” The judges were fans as well, calling it the best vocal of the night.

Her second choice was “Woman in Love,” a song made famous by Barbra Streisand. This didn’t go quite as well. Sparks didn’t hit all of the notes, and her voice couldn’t carry it off to perfection. The judges didn’t like it as much. Simon called it “pageant-y,” and it served notice that even on one of her best nights Jordin is still far behind Melinda vocally. Then again, she’s also 12 years younger.Grade: A-Stay or Go? Jordin should be safe.

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