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‘Idol’ men make long-distance dedications

Singers improve, but most still lack star quality. By Craig Berman
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

This week, the "Idol" hopefuls are dedicating their performances to people who inspire them. The 10 remaining men among the "Idol" semifinalists also looked like they were dedicated to something more basic — not stinking up the joint again this week.  

After last week's parade of blandness and boredom, the men stepped it up a notch this time around. There still wasn't a lot of true star quality, but for the first time, it appears that the show may yet wind up with six male finalists who aren't terrible.

Early favorites Chris Sligh, Phil Stacey and Chris Richardson were strong, and Blake Lewis broke out the beatboxing again. Sundance Head took advantage of his second chance to close the show with a flourish, while the youthful Sanjaya Malakar again struggled to stand up to his older rivals. The rest of the singers did well enough to feel confident, but still can't rest easy until after Thursday's results show.

Phil Stacey, 29, Jacksonville , Fla.: First, Stacey missed the birth of his daughter to audition. Then he dedicated his performance to his military unit.  He must have the most understanding wife in the country. Then again, the song was John Waite's "Missing You", which features a chorus that repeats "I ain't missing you at all." Uncle Sam might not want to bank on a re-enlistment, especially since he started the show off with a strong performance that Paula proclaimed was ready for radio already. Simon called Stacey's voice unoriginal, though he did like the finish. Grade: B+Stay or go?: Stacey's definitely got the likeability factor, and even Simon said he was a cinch to come back next week. As long as opening the show doesn't prove too much of a barrier, he should be safe.

Jared Cotter, 25, Kew Gardens, N.Y.: Simon wanted more adverturousness from Cotter, who responded by singing a little Marvin Gaye. He dedicated his performance to mom and dad, though in that sense "Let's Get it On" might not have been the most appropriate song choice. But his parents had to be pleased with the vocals, which were better than last week's. It still reminded Simon of an episode of "The Love Boat" — though Cotter had a snappy comeback with "that would have been a great ‘Love Boat,’ man." Grade: BStay or go? Going early in the show won't help, but Cotter should be safe.

AJ Tabaldo, 22, Santa Maria, Calif.: Tabaldo's parents have been to all five of his "Idol" auditions, so naturally they got the dedication. He went out of his comfort zone with "Feeling Good," recorded by Nina Simone and Michael Buble among others, and not likely a tune much of the audience had heard before. It started slow, but he carried it off with a much better performance than last week. Even Simon said that it was "nearly very good."Grade: B+Stay or go?: Tabaldo did well enough to stick around, but not well enough to really feel safe.

Sanjaya Malakar, 17, Federal Way, Wash.: Malakar dedicated his song to his grandfather, who died when he was five. He went with "Steppin' Out with My Baby" and was much better than last week, though his voice still is a lot softer and thinner than most of the competition. The judges weren't impressed; Randy thought it was really weak, Paula gave her usual "old soul" comment and wanted him to sing younger, and Simon called it some ghastly dress-up performance for parents. Grade:C+Stay or go?  The judges really want Malakar to go; the criticism was a lot worse than the singing. He's still the only teenager on the men's side, and that will help, but it would help more if the judges' harshness causes a backlash that gives him some pity votes.  

Chris Sligh, 28, Greenville, S.C.: Sligh became the first to dedicate his song to his wife, who kept him from quitting music when times were tough. He sang "Trouble," a risk because it gives the judges a lot of room to make fun of a contestant who gets it wrong — the dumb puns just write themselves — and Simon indeed said he was nervous about dedicating a song called "Trouble" to his wife until he heard the lyrics. The judge was either going for the cheap laugh or has short-term memory problems, since Taylor Hicks sang the same song last year. Sligh cut it close a couple of times, but proved his vocals were strong enough to carry it off. Grade: A-Stay or go? The judges like him a lot. He's safe. More importantly, as Ryan pointed out, the song probably gets Sligh a month's immunity from the marital doghouse.

Nick Pedro, 25, Taunton , Mass.: Pedro looked to make up his “Idol”-related absence on Valentine's Day by dedicating "Fever" to his girlfriend. It certainly wasn't worth breaking up over, and it was better than last week, but the performance was more vibe than vocal. Simon focused his criticism mainly on Pedro's charisma, but he clearly does enough to make his beaming woman in the front row happy. Plus he got to break out the "Vote for Pedro" line for the first time. Grade: B-Stay or go: The judges were kind, so he's probably safe. But it's dicey.

Blake Lewis, 25, Bothell, Wash.: Lewis played it safe by dedicating his song to his parents, but took a bit of a chance in singing to Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity." It was a little bit of vocals, a little bit of beatboxing, a little bit of scat and a lot of sheer performing. He's definitely unique, as Paula said, but Simon liked the performance less than the other two judges. Of course, then then he was hectored so badly that Simon vowed that, in the future, he would bow down to the will of Paula Abdul.  Wow, would that make for a boring show.Grade: B+Stay or go? If people really don't like or get Lewis' style, he could go at any time. But unless that happens, he should be safe.

Brandon Rogers, 28, North Hollywood, Calif.: Rogers didn't pick a great song in "Time After Time." It might be an appropriate song to dedicate to his dead grandmother, but it wasn't catchy and didn't offer him enough to work with to really give his vocals a showcase. The former backup singer gave a backup-singer worthy performance, though of course Paula loved it because of the sentiment. It still didn't highlight his talent. Grade: C+Stay or go? Based on this week alone, Rogers would be in trouble. But he's a likeable guy and may have enough people rooting for him to skate through another week. At some point, however, there's going to have to be a payoff.

Chris Richardson, 22, Chesapeake, Va.: Richardson also dedicated Jason Mraz's "Geek in the Pink" to his grandmother, still alive in Virginia. The song has some tricky lyrical tics that Richardson pulled off, but it didn't test his range much. Still, Richardson's one of the best pure performers in the competition, and Simon called his song the best performance of the night. Grade: A-Stay or go? Richardson isn't in any danger.

Sundance Head, 28, Porter, Texas: Head dedicated his song to his 2 ½ month-old son. He choked up when he talked about all that he was missing while he was on the show, and how he wanted his son to have a better life. The editing laid it on a little thick, but Head also helped himself by playing it safer and singing "Mustang Sally." A smart choice; if Head's going anywhere in this competition, it won't be because of Moody Blues ballads, but more bluesy uptempo numbers like this one. The judges loved it, and Head was so happy with their praise that he looked like he won the lottery. Grade: BStay or go?: Head was terrible last week and survived. That means he should be safe this time around, but the competition is tougher.

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