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Taylor Hicks gets ‘funky’ on ‘Idol’

Were his campy, old-fashioned song choices too big a risk?By Craig Berman
/ Source: contributor

It was two-for-one Tuesday on "American Idol" this week, with each of the five remaining finalists singing two songs, getting two phone numbers for fans to call, wearing two separate outfits, and getting twice the amount of forced banter with Ryan Seacrest.

The contestants first sang something from their birth year, then a song currently on the top 10 of any one of the nine million Billboard charts. For most, that meant one song from a couple of decades ago and one from today. For Taylor Hicks, it meant one song from nearly 30 years ago — and one song that was even older.

Hicks took one of the biggest risks of the competition by playing it safe. He's always walked the fine line between star and lounge act, and singing "Play That Funky Music" was way, way, way into the latter category. In fact, it was like a spoof of a lounge singer — see the funky white boy sing the song about the funky white boy! That's a "Saturday Night Live" sketch waiting to happen.

He followed that with a Beatles number found on one of those Billboard charts that nobody cares about, and the combination made him sound more like a run-of-the-mill entertainer than a showstopper. While he had fun and likely did enough to survive on a night where everyone was disappointingly average, it's likely not an image that will help him in the coming weeks.

Elliott Yamin, 27, Richmond, Va.: For a guy who has spent each week of his "American Idol" experience in grave danger of being eliminated, Yamin sure seemed determined to tempt fate this week. He opened the night with "On Broadway," as covered by George Benson in 1978. Though he sang it well, there are a couple of problems with the song choice. First, it features the distinctive lyrics: "They say that I won't last too long on Broadway," which is a nice way of saying that the critics think you suck. Also, the last person to sing the song was Scott Savol a year ago, on the night he got voted off the show.

His second song was "Home" by Michael Buble which, in addition to being one of the dullest songs in the history of mankind, forced him to sing the lyrics "I want to go home" several dozen times. If Yamin were on "The Sopranos," Dr. Melfi would say that he was expressing a subconscious desire to be voted off the show. But since this is a reality show, the judges just gave him his usual compliments and sent him on his merry way.
B-The judges, Song 1: "I don't think that was your best performance. I think it was a bit disjointed."– Simon CowellThe judges, Song 2: "You know what I loved? Seeing the tender side of you. Nice choice."– Randy JacksonStay or go: Yamin could go at any time, He and Paris Bennett are the best bets to be in the bottom two.

Paris Bennett, 17, Fayetteville, Ga.: Bennett started off by singing "Kiss" by Prince, a 1988 song that reminded everyone how young she really is. She said in the video montage that she picked the song because it was something different, and because she's lived in Minnesota, where Prince is worshipped like a God. That might explain the cold weather and the lack of Super Bowls for the NFL's Vikings, but it's not a valid reason for Bennett to pick a song that didn't do much to accentuate her vocal strengths.

Her second number was Mary J. Blige's "Be Without You," and her vocals were strong enough that she didn't get any serious flack for taking on such a difficult selection. Her problem was the same as it is every week — it's very hard for her to look like a musical veteran when she's surrounded by older competitors who bring a greater gravitas to the stage. She's the kid sister who grabbed the microphone and impressed everyone with her precociousness, but at some point it's going to be way past her bedtime. Grade: BThe judges, Song 1: "Nice to see you having a little fun, showing that youth thing." – Randy Jackson. The judges, Song 2: "I thought [Bennett] did rather well." – Simon Cowell. Stay or go: Bennett bowed to the audience at the end of her second song. That might have been her way of saying farewell.

Chris Daughtry, 26, McLeansville, N.C.: Ironically enough, Daughtry did better going old school than he did with his contemporary song. He began with Styx's "Renegade," one of those '70s rock songs that don't tend to make anyone nostalgic for the era. Anyone thinking today's bands are pretentious and overblown should be grateful for the history lesson. But he sang it well, throwing off the shackles of diversification and embracing the rock and roll genre again. That impressed the judges, who seemed relieved that he wasn't singing something by Bryan Adams again.

For his second tune, he picked "I Dare You" by Shinedown, and was just average on a song he could have nailed. The producers may be going overboard with the image thing, however; they had a mock fire burning on the video screen, flickering behind the leather-clad Daughtry and the smoke machine. All that was missing was the live chicken for him to bite the head off of. Come on, guys … Daughtry might be as edgy as "Idol" gets, but personality-wise he's closer to "Ozzie and Harriet" than Ozzie Osbourne. Grade: B+The judges, Song 1: "For me, that was a million times better than the first two performers." – Simon Cowell. The judges, Song 2: "I'm not sure I loved that song for you. It was just all right for me." – Randy Jackson. Stay or go: Anything can happen, but Daughtry doesn't have much need to worry.

Katharine McPhee, 21, Los Angeles: McPhee struggled with her first song of the night "Against All Odds" by Phil Collins. Of course, even Collins sounds like he's about to fall asleep during that song, so the main issue there is that McPhee apparently picked the song by throwing darts at the "Top songs 100 of 1984" list. It was the worst individual performance of the night.

Of course, she followed that clunker with the most compelling effort of the evening with"Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" by KT Tunstall. It was by far her best vocal in recent memory despite the fact that she didn't get up off her knees for the entire song. She showed a great stage presence, had a lot of fun with it, and managed to get through the night without another wardrobe malfunction. Grade: BThe judges, Song 1: "Not my favorite performance from you." – Paula AbdulThe judges, Song 2: "That's more like the Katharine that I really love." – Randy JacksonStay or go:  McPhee was one of the top two vote-getters last week, and that second song means she'll probably be back in that category again this time around.

Taylor Hicks, 29, Birmingham, Ala.: OK, everyone gets it — Taylor Hicks is old. His birth year song was "Play That Funky Music," as sung by Wild Cherry and every single wedding singer of the past quarter-century. It was at once the best song choice in history and the worst he possibly could have made; it was perfectly Taylor and allowed him to be goofy on stage, but it also made him sound like, well, a wedding singer.

For his second song, Hicks somehow found something even older — literally. He chose "Something" by a new alt-rock group from Liverpool called The Beatles. They're going on the Ed Sullivan show soon — watch for it. Apparently, that album is on one of the Billboard charts — maybe the Top 10 Albums from 35 Years Ago. Or, uh, the catalog/reissues chart. There's no truth to the rumor that the chart is actually a made-up list solely designed to keep Hicks from having to sing a 21st century song.Grade: B-The judges, Song 1: "I felt like I was in a bar and I had had a couple." – Randy Jackson.The judges, Song 1: "It's very daring to sing a song like that, but you sang it tenderly." – Paula Abdul.Stay or go: Hicks is the great wild card. At some point, his act may get old, but probably not just yet.

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