Not many singers give a more high-energy effort onstage than Gwen Stefani. The lead singer of No Doubt, who also has a solo career, is known for music and dance moves that rev up the dullest engine. But paradoxically, the 10 remaining “American Idol” finalists reacted to her coaching by singing like they had the parking brake on.
A very demure Stefani, dressed like she was auditioning for a remake of “The Stepford Wives,” offered calm and sedate advice. The contestants responded with calm and sedate performances, somehow turning a show designed to showcase Stefani and her favorite songs into something more appropriate for a Muzak competition.
Not everyone played it safe. Melinda Doolittle was great as always, Jordin Sparks continued to surge, and LaKisha Jones, Gina Glocksen, Blake Lewis and Phil Stacey pleased the judges. But ultimately there wasn’t a whole lot to remember from this one.
LaKisha Jones, 27, Fort Meade , Md.: Jones kicked off the show by motoring around to Donna Summer’s “Last Dance.” It was her typical strong vocals, but Jones still seems to lack some of the vibrancy onstage that her rivals Melinda Doolittle and Jordin Sparks have been exhibiting. Still, it was a strong start. Simon called her 30 years younger than she sounded last week, which is a neat trick since nothing says young and hip like Donna Summer. “You did it like a true fly diva there — that was hot,” Randy added. Grade: B+Stay or go? Apart from the general misfortune of going first, she’s on solid ground.
Chris Sligh, 28, Greenville , S.C.: Sligh sang “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic” by The Police, and was the first of many contestants who looked less than comfortable with his selection. Stefani told him to watch his tempo, and something was definitely off in the performance. The rhythm was out of synch, and he looked like he was overthinking his performance. None of the judges thought much of it. “I was off. It was my bad,” Sligh finally admitted afterward. Grade: C+Stay or go? Sligh wasn’t great, but plenty of others were equally mediocre. If the same people who have kept him in the game thus far don't slack off on their text messaging, he should be OK. But he still put himself in the danger zone.
Gina Glocksen, 22, Naperville , Ill.: Glocksen made a great song choice in picking “I’ll Stand By You,” hoping to steal a little of the vibe of the original by The Pretenders. The performance was a lot better than last week’s, but her voice never really rose as powerfully as it should have on the chorus. It still seems like she can’t cut loose when she needs to. But Simon called it her best performance, and the judges were all impressed. Grade: B+Stay or go? Glocksen came through with the performance she badly needed here. She’s likely safe.
Sanjaya Malakar, 17, Federal Way, Wash.: It’s like Malakar knows that he can’t do anything to get voted off the show, and wants to test exactly how far he can press his luck. He picked “Bathwater” by No Doubt, sang with what looked like a dead bird on his head, and was pretty much a mess until the last 10 seconds of the song. “It’s a hard song, and he chose it … so good luck for him,” Stefani said before the performance. But clearly Malakar already has more luck than a gaggle of leprechauns, or he would have been gone weeks ago. Grade:DStay or go? “I don’t think it matters what we say anymore,” Simon said. He’s probably right. But there’s no reason that he should still be around next week if voters make their pick based on performance.
Haley Scarnato, 24, San Antonio , Texas: Scarnato sang “True Colors” by Cyndi Lauper, and was blandly boring. Stefani was worried that she’d do too much with the song, but the opposite was true. It’s a song that needs a powerful voice to keep it from becoming something other than a Hallmark card set to music. Instead, Scarnato was “sweet but forgettable,” as Simon said. Grade: C+Stay or go? Scarnato is likely to find herself in the bottom three, and could be a candidate for elimination.
Phil Stacey, 29, Jacksonville , Fla.: Stacey sang “Every Breath You Take” by The Police, and was solid, if unspectacular. “I didn’t know you were that good,” Stefani said. She doesn’t have to worry — he’s really not. The vocals were fine, but he was one of many contestants who played it safe. Grade: B-Stay or go?: Stacey didn’t do anything to change opinions of him one way or the other. He’s flirted with danger before, and may be in trouble again.
Melinda Doolittle, 29, Brentwood , Tenn .: Doolittle is so good that she’s becoming predictable, which is one small step away from being boring. She was excellent as always on Donna Summer’s “Heaven Knows,” no doubt about it. In fact, she’s great every week, there’s no point in even expecting otherwise. Her only danger is that her fans won’t vote because they don’t think she’s in trouble. No “Idol” finalist is more obviously assured a future in the music industry. Grade: AStay or go? Take a wild guess.
Blake Lewis, 25, Bothell , Wash.: Lewis chose to try his hand at The Cure’s “Love Song.” He disappointingly didn’t go goth when he picked his costume, and played it straight on the vocals. The result was a nice, strong, earnest … and bland cover of Robert Smith. It looked like he was on autopilot, though the audience enjoyed it and the judges raved. Paula called him a threat to sing in the finale, while Simon called him the best of the male contenders (admittedly a low bar to exceed). Grade: BStay or go? Simon said Lewis was in the Chris Daughtry zone right now, which would be true if Lewis had a similar talent level or fanbase. Still, he should be safe.
Jordin Sparks, 17, Glendale , Ariz.: If anyone’s going to knock off Melinda Doolittle, it’s probably Jordin Sparks. Unlike most teenagers who have made it this far, she gets better and more confident every week, and this time around was no exception. Singing No Doubt’s “Hey Baby,” Sparks strutted around the stage like she’d been doing it forever, the latest in a series of strong efforts that should keep her around for a good long while. Grade: AStay or go? Sparks shouldn’t be in any danger.
Chris Richardson, 22, Chesapeake , Va.: Richardson became the third to pick a No Doubt song, but didn’t do Stefani much of an honor by trying his hand at “Don’t Speak.” The vocals were mediocre until the last few seconds of the song, when he closed with enough of a flourish to likely ensure his survival. It was a mostly boring effort that proved an appropriate finish for the night. Grade: CStay or go? Richardson may be in the bottom three again this week, but will probably skate by.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.