'Idol' Watch: Taylor's No Bubba

Goofy Hicks is a serious contender, our TV critic says

The Votes Are In
Elliott Yamin’s departure from American Idol was a bittersweet affair: Watching the footage of his hero’s welcome on a return trip home to Richmond, Va., I was touched by how much he was touched. I also was struck by the difference in his appearance: The hepcat in the blazer was gone, and instead we had a sort of sweetly goofy dude.

In the final reel of retrospective clips after Ryan Seacrest announced the results – the vote was trisected, with Elliott barely in last place – we saw this same earlier Elliott, this guy with funny haircuts and odd beard trimmings and a phenomenal voice.

Maybe that’s the Elliott Paula was always crying over. The disconnect between his nightclub-crooner voice and his average-Joe looks worked much more to his advantage then. Was he the victim of a makeover? Should the show’s style squad have just left him alone to run around, like Taylor Hicks, in untucked shirts?

Given the slim margins dividing the three finalists who are now two, maybe it would have made a difference.

Taylor will still win, I think, even if he couldn’t dance his way out of a barn fire. Over the course of the competition he’s found a vocal groove and seems to know how to explore it.

Sure, he’s a bit of a Bubba. So was Bill Clinton. But the judges are unfair to keep treating him as a rompin’, stompin’ party animal. It’s not only unfair, it’s condescending. Yes, Paula, I mean you too! If he tries to learn how to really sing Springsteen, as he did on Tuesday’s show, and not laze his way through the Doobie Brothers, as he did on Wednesday’s, he’ll eventually get listeners to take him seriously.

Katharine McPhee, as I’ve said before, deserves credit for being adventurous. The flip side is that she’s all over the map. If the judges rave about her “Over the Rainbow” and all but ask her to put it in writing that she’ll stick to soft, teardrop-y ballads, why the next night is she skipping on doe-like feet through a big, chugging Aretha Franklin classic? Whoever wins American Idol doesn’t have to be the greatest singer – but they need to stick to their guns.

Tuesday Night’s Show
Many viewers were upset and even shocked with the rejection last week of Chris Daughtry – one woman I spoke with seemed unsure how to pick up the shards of her life – but I’m happy with the contest now.

It’s imperfect, and it’s messy, but it’s vital.

The only remaining contestant who looks and sounds as if she could have crawled ashore from the great sea of auditionees and evolved into an American Idol winner – by which I mean, she might have merited a supporting role in From Justin to Kelly – is the beautiful, limpid and more often than not insipid Katharine McPhee.

On last night’s program she made her way from “I Can Believe I Can Fly” to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to “I Ain’t Got Nothin’ But the Blues,” and she wasn’t outstanding on any of them – but at least she tried different effects on each.

She’ll make it to the final two, mostly because the judges loved her “Over the Rainbow.” I found myself wishing she’d also gone really over the top, har har, and performed it in a gingham dress with her hair in pigtails and a little dog in a basket. But I don’t think she’ll win – the judges haven’t been rooting for her. I’m not rooting for her. Are you?

With Chris out, Elliott Yamin indisputably is the one with the goods vocally. The problem, as I’ve said before, is that everything he touches (including Journey’s “Open Arms” last night) sounds 30 or 40 years old. His first recording will probably be one of those Rhino career retrospectives. I think he could sing Schubert Lieder and it would still come out Sammy Davis Jr. – a cool, gorgeous blast from the past. Katharine at least reclaimed “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” from the Depression Era and made it sound like something of the moment. I think Wednesday night will see Elliott going home.

Simon predicted earlier in the week that Taylor Hicks will win. Simon is very smart. Taylor’s sound, which has a raw coarseness that always makes me think of a light, dried caking of mud, is only slightly more contemporary than Elliott’s, and only slightly more versatile, and actually a lot less consistent: The judges all praised his version of the Joe Cocker classic “You Are So Beautiful,” but he made the line “… to me” so tiny, he might as well been singing “to Mini-Me.” But he tackled Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and got through it with a kind of rootsy, full-speed-ahead determination. Was it good? Maybe not. But it impressed. To me, that’s what counts.

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