Pop Culture

Mandisa more than ‘Every Woman’ in field

In the “American Idol” semifinals, the women have outshone the men every week. There’s a deeper talent pool to choose from, but six singers have stood above the rest: Paris Bennett, Ayla Brown, Mandisa, Katharine McPhee, Kellie Pickler and Lisa Tucker.

That left Melissa McGhee and Kinnik Sky on the outside looking in even before Tuesday’s show commenced. They started off behind the others for a number of reasons, with less TV time and no compelling performances chief among them. Circumstances gave them a lot of ground to make up heading into the show, and neither was able to come through with the breakthrough performance they needed.

But in case there was any doubt, Simon Cowell tried to make the news official before the night was halfway over.

McGhee sang “What About Love” by Heart, a song with vocals lending themselves to McGhee’s tone and range. Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul both liked it, and it was McGhee’s best performance of the competition. That wasn’t enough for Simon, who told McGhee she'd just booked her ticket home with the performance.

Kinnik Sky fared no better singing Alicia Keyes’ “If I Ain’t Got You,” and Simon told her she should start packing as well. Maybe Simon was clairvoyant or maybe he’d just picked his six favorites beforehand and was looking to make it clear where he stood.

In fairness, neither performance was great. Even if the viewers could have somehow forgotten the entire rest of the competition and only based their votes on Tuesday’s performances, Sky would have been in big trouble and McGhee sweating bullets. But because of the storylines the show has chosen to focus on, and because Simon in particular has not been shy about telling who his favorites are, there probably won’t be much drama among the women on Thursday, except to see who joins McGhee and Sky in the bottom three.

As far as Simon was concerned, the drama was over after four singers. But anyone who changed stations at the halfway point missed the three best vocals of the night.

A class all her ownMandisa was in a class of her own, singing “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan. Simon described it as the only performance he would rewind on TiVo, and it was the best combination of vocals and performing among the women in the competition thus far.

The 29-year-old is the oldest woman in the competition, and surrounded by rivals much younger than she is. If Kinnik Sky is voted off this week, the next-oldest woman in the field will be 21. One benefit to that is that Mandisa tends to stand out; she’s not the teenager trying to be young and hip, she’s the veteran with the musical chops to take over a stage. She did that to perfection on Tuesday.

Katharine McPhee is not leaving the show, as one caller to Ryan Seacrest’s radio show apparently suggested. She has said she’s not quitting and she’s not pregnant, and she’s in no danger of being voted off this week.

Singing “Freedom,” she got the audience off their feet, got Randy Jackson yelling to the dog pound, and had Simon again predicting she would sail through. McPhee is roommates with the similarly bubbly Kellie Pickler, and if they stay in Hollywood after the competition, that’s a Fox sitcom waiting to happen.

But both might have musical obligations that take up too much time for that. Pickler also impressed Tuesday with Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m The Only One.” Pickler has really benefited from her personality throughout the competition — she’s the country-girl-in-Hollywood that’s such a staple of bad comedies — but for the past two weeks her performances have began to match her fan base.

Simon even said he kind of likes her better than last year’s winner, though Carrie Underwood probably isn’t losing any sleep yet worrying about it. Pickler’s vocals aren’t anywhere near that good yet, but she’ll get a lot more time to hone those skills before she’s in any real danger.

Pickler was the star of the teenagers. The other three don’t have anything to worry about, but mostly because they’ve done so well in the past that it’s hard to see a scenario where their fans don’t push them through.

Paris Bennett led things off with “Conga,” by Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine. It was one of those performances that will cause her fans to praise for “making it her own,” and her detractors to sniff it seemed to have a lot more shouting that the original. She has more fans than detractors, though, and is a strong favorite to win the competition, so the odds of her getting the boot are minuscule.

The judges love Bennett, but also seem determined to drive her crazy. Simon suggested she sing a “younger” song this week, and she did. Randy and Paula didn’t love the choice. Randy suggested she sing a ballad next week, while Paula voted for something up-tempo. Bennett thought she left high school behind to audition for the show, but the peer pressure and mixed messages must seem awfully familiar.

Lisa Tucker tried to make Paula happy with a ballad, “Here’s Where I Stand” by Tiffany Taylor. However, if there’s one thing guaranteed to make the judges cringe, it’s a young person singing a song that makes them sound like they’re from another generation, and Tucker was just average on this one. But Simon told her not to worry — she would sail through.

Ayla Brown may be the one in the most interesting situation. Brown sang Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten,” and did a nice job on a song that’s not that challenging. She also has a basketball scholarship waiting for her at Boston College this fall.

When she auditioned in Boston, the judges asked her if she’d pick playing basketball over touring with the Idol winners. Perhaps using skills from her politician father, she punted, saying she liked both and didn’t want to decide right then. That was good enough for Paula and Randy, who passed her onward over Simon’s objections, and Brown’s even won over the acerbic Brit since.

However, Brown’s going to have to make that choice very soon.

If she gets voted through to the final 12, which is very likely, she’ll get the chance to tour with the “Idol” contestants. But it will be impossible for her to do that and play college basketball as well; even if she’s back for the fall semester, she would miss all the summer workouts and the preparation she would need to play as a freshman.  Other singers are competing for their future, while Brown is still trying to decide what she wants that future to be.