‘American Idol’ Wonder and Whitney Night: Can Anyone Wow the Judges?

Phillip Phillips on "American Idol" (FOX)

After two long months of prolonged auditioning, the “American Idol” finals have finally arrived. And to kick things off, the Top 13 were given a near impossible challenge to sing from the two songbooks most frequently butchered on this show: Whitney Houston and Stevie Wonder.

Why, you may ask, would anyone force soulless prom queens to sing Whitney or rhythmless adult contempo crooners to sing Stevie? Probably because they would have done it anyway. “Idol”s have always found those two singers irresistible, and just because they related to them on the radio, thought they could sound just like them. And against all better judgment, they tortured us with their sad karaoke failings.

The trick tonight was to A) pick a song obscure enough that you won’t be overshadowed by the collective memory of the original; B) do a weird enough rendition that the original is unrecognizable anyway; or C) be Jennifer Hudson.

The As:

Unfortunately, the more obscure Stevie Wonder songs are obscure for a reason. I never realized until tonight that so many of his songs are truly boring. It’s a testament to his phenomenal singing that some of his songs have endured at all. But take Stevie out of the equation, replace him with good but nowhere near as connected singers, and the result is just so-so. This is why so many “Idol” contestants fail at singing Stevie songs—because they just aren’t Stevie.

Jeremy Rosado, for instance, worked really hard on the snoozer “Ribbons in the Sky,” and even though he was on pitch and sounded smooth, he was not, as Randy Jackson pointed out, believable. Heejun Han, a Josh Grobanesque light-music star in the making, just droned on an on through “All in Fair is Love.” The judges had very little to say at all, other than Randy’s typical “not perfect but really good.” Jermaine Jones had the same issue with his performance—beautiful, operatic voice, but little connection to a not-very-interesting song.

The Bs:

Colton Dixon weirded things up with his nasally indie-boy rendition of “Lately”—another, sorry, terrible song when not sung by a great singer. But at least he made an indelible mark on the competition with his own imprint. He’s that skunky haired alt-guy. Now we know.

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Unfortunately no girls took any chances like Colton did, nor did they give an adequate but average performance like Jeremy, Heejun and Jermaine did. With Whitney, the songbook is too powerful to coast on or turn on its head. You can either sing it, or you can’t. Which brings me to…

The Cs:

No, JHud wasn’t in the house. But she did set an example years back about how a Whitney song could be done successfully on the show: slay it. She did that on “I Have Nothing.” Which proves it can be done, if sung by the right person. (The wrong person would be Shannon Magrane, who killed that song tonight in a bad way.)

Only two girls were a match for their songs. Jessica Sanchez, who had a Whitney-from-heaven vibe floating on clouds in a blue evening gown, blasted her ridiculously huge pipes on “I Will Always Love You.” And Skylar Laine, still channeling Reba McEntire (white blazer with shoulder pads!) gave so much feeling to a country spin of “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?”

On the Stevie side of things, Joshua Ledet and Phillip Phillips, opening and closing the show respectively, gave great performances—Joshua was completely in control of his gospel voice on “I Wish” and Phillip came out at a professional caliber, strumming and yelling through “Superstition.”


Tomorrow night, we’ll find out which guy and which girl got the lowest votes, whereby the judges choose who goes home. Apparently it took “Idol” producers a decade to realize that America doesn’t really know what it wants, and the choosing should be left to highly paid professionals.

Therefore, here are my picks for who the judges should choose from: Shannon Magrane and Heejun Han.

Shannon was the only person who truly bombed tonight, singing a song about ad kind of love and desperation that she could not have possibly experienced in her short time on this earth. Plus she missed some pivotal notes.

Heejun was fine, but in a class of truly interesting and talented male singers, he’s just the least good.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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