“American Idol” Top 6 Recap: I Say A Little Prayer For America

Look, maybe you and your stepson are right and American Idol has jumped the shark. I accept your wrongness/common sense. But if you tuned in last night to the Top 6’s “Burt Bacharach/Songs You Wish You Wrote”-themed evening, you can’t deny that it delivered everything that has ever mattered about American Idol, including vocal triumphs, ferocious attitude, the dismal failure of a teenage dandy, Randy Jackson‘s gift for thoughts, 17-year-olds being forced to perform the songs of Jackie DeShannon, and Ryan Seacrest’s attempts at empathy. Every time he nervously puts his hand on Lazaro’s shoulder, it’s like a deleted scene from Speilberg’s A.I. is upon us.

Then there’s the other emotionally troubled member of the American Idol brain surgeon gallery: Mariah Carey. I’ve defended her long enough and still believe she delivers an iota’s worth of real advice every 15 minutes or so, but man, she certainly had her worst episode of the season last night. After one disastrous performance, Mariah delivered a labyrinthine monologue that began with self-pity, wandered into murmuring, stopped for a nanosecond in an oasis of actual criticism, and descended into terrifying nothingness for another seven minutes. Bleak. It was like one of August Strindberg‘s later plays like Ghost Sonata where there’s lots of scattered imagery and dull screaming but all you really get from it is that he totally had a nervous breakdown after he wrote Miss Julie and before he released The Emancipation of Mimi. Poor us and poor Sweden, because Mariah is flailing in that judges’ chair looking more frazzled and hopeless as the weeks progress. It is possibly she is cosmically related to Lazaro in this way. Like E.T. and that damn plant.

But anyway! Those singin’ idols sang two songs last night, as I mentioned earlier, one from the Bacharach songbook and another song “they wish they wrote.” Because I can so picture Lazaro sitting down with a quill and scroll and hammering out stanzas like Ira Gershwin. Let’s rank this week’s performers #6-1.

6. Lazaro Arbos, The Carpenters’ “(They Long to Be) Close to You” and Robbie Williams’ “Angels”

On the day that Lazaro was born, the angels got together… and decided to ruin my life. I’m perfectly fine with the desecration of certain standards (“Chain of Fools” should only be performed poorly, at this point), but there is something, oh, traumatizing and unforgivable about botching a Carpenters classic. Karen’s voice was the glorious Jif that smoothly caressed this great nation of Wonder Bread eaters in the 1970s, but Karen herself was an astounding interpreter and emotional navigator of songs. The eerie crystalline production of “Close to You” is in itself legendary, and Karen’s melancholic, magically resonant tone makes each lyric seem like a note-perfect emotional landscape. With the exception of “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” it’s the finest Bacharach/David achievement in my humble, rainy-day-and-Monday-lamenting opinion.

Lazaro Arbos not only under-served this killer ballad, he basically didn’t serve it. He was totally off-key, utterly sharp at the beginning, and garbled the words in what I would almost describe as backwardspeak. Birds suddenly disappeared every time he was near. The judges filleted him and tried to cry in pain, but there aren’t any feelings left to have. Lazaro is just an underachieving singer who is failing miserably, and it’s not fun to mock. Until, of course, he tries to redeem himself with Robbie Williams’ “Angels,” because that is a hilarious song to choose. What other so-so hits of 1997 does Lazaro “wish he had written”? Keith Sweat‘s “Nobody”? Toni Braxton‘s “I Don’t Want To”? Such an odd pick. Lazaro didn’t flunk this one, but he’s now reached the post-Sanjaya stage of welcome-outstaying, and if he doesn’t leave now (which is possible considering the fact that the judges haven’t used their compulsory “save” yet!), I imagine Karen Carpenter will rise from the dead and perform “Hurting Each Other” until the red clouds of the rapture smother us into crimson megadeath. We’ve only just begun… to die.

5. Janelle Arthur, Dionne Warwick’s “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and Garth Brooks’ “The Dance”

One nice thing about this week was the fact that the rankings basically wrote themselves. I can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with Janelle’s fifth place ranking here, as she cheerfully wielded trays of countrified muck that we get every season. “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” is a grim, self-eviscerating pop gem, and for some reason Janelle smiled through it like Florence Henderson. For fun, she paired that smile with a flatironed Maureen McCormick ‘do. I wish she’d let her cousin Oliver run circles around her feet too. Vocally it was a solid effort, but her grasp of the song’s depth was laughable. Laughter! Janelle loves to laugh.

Her work on Garth Brooks‘ “The Dance” was markedly more sensitive, but she preceded her performance with the following analysis of the song’s lyrics: “It’s not just a literal dance. It’s the dance of life.” Oh, well. Who can’t relate to that? When the judges praise Janelle for playing guitar, it sooort of seems like they’re telling her, “We love when you play an instrument because you’re too scared of screwing up to flash us that horrifying pageant grin for three minutes straight.” But again, she was generally sincere and stately in her performance of “The Dance,” and that’s a big compliment coming from a blogger who simply refuses to rope the wind.

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