In between Randy and Paula expounding on their '80s credits, Simon Cowell rested on his latest crutch to explain the troubles of Carly Smithson, saying she - like others before her - had yet to choose the right song for her talents.

In between Randy and Paula expounding on their ’80s credits – hair styles and video choreography for Abdul, bass and combing Steve Perry’s hair for Mr. Jackson – Simon Cowell rested on his latest crutch to explain the troubles of Carly Smithson, saying she – like others before her – had yet to choose the right song for her talents. Her problem goes much deeper than that, and that may be one of the most troubling aspects of “American Idol 7”: These performers lack the whole ball of wax – vocal ability, charisma, range, taste and personality – and the judges are really struggling to put their fingers on it.

Smithson has the pipes, there’s no denying that, which means part of her problem is the material. Not exactly. The song she chose – on ’80s night, mind you – was “I Drove All Night.” Technically it is an ’80 song as Roy Orbison recorded it in 1987 and Cyndi Lauper recorded it in 1989. (Orbison’s version actually was release posthumously in the 1990s).

In Orbison’s hands, it’s a hard charging neo-rockabilly number, the sort that Bruce Springsteen returns to now and again, and like everything Orbison sang, it was rch and rounded with an exposed element of determination. Nothing about his recording has an expiration stamp – no vocoders, electronic drums or extraneous synthesizers. But that’s not the version she performed.

Smithson opted to do the lightweight Celine Dion semi-house beat version, which hit five years ago on the heel of it being a mainstay in a car commercial. The visuals of those ads were pretty cool and even featured in her Las Vegas show. And most people, including the judges, if they knew the song, they heard Dion’s version in their head. Hers was a dance track as she is not the story-teller Orbison was, which makes Cowell’s other key comment to Smithson – “you’re a million times better than that song” – a misguided piece of advice.

Smithson was performing the cover of a cover and that is what rarely works on this show unless the performer has reworked the tune to make it at least superficially appear unique. Once again, Smithson exuded no personality; the tattooed arm, bad teeth and stiff performing style are antithetical to the Dion and Orbison models; and unlike at least three of her competitors, there’s little sense that she has any playfulness or stylistic range.

Those qualities have been key to past winners and runners up, especially Kellly Clarkson, Clay Aiken and Fantasia. They gave audiences multiple reasons to like them in addition to performing solidly week after week, which should lead to Smithson’s earlier than expected dismissal.

The contestants this season, beyond Ramiele, do not grasp how to play to the strengths of their vocals and simultaneously work the camera.

Brooke White’s move – reduce Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” to an unplugged version – was asmart one even if it stripped the song of all dynamics. Amanda Overmyer and Syesha Mercado opted to do straight Karaoke but they picked the 100%-correct songs – Joan Jett’s “I Hate Myself for Loving You” (Overmyer) and the Whitney Houston hit “Saving All my Love for You” (Mercado).

Kady Malloy – is she a cute dullard or a dull cutie, not sure – trashed “Who Wants to Live Forever,” running from flat notes to a scream in an emotionless rendition of the Queen tune.

What’s that? Queen did that song? Yup. But who on Earth knows it?

A theory: Apparently, after Live Aid reminded everyone about the greatness of Bruce Springsteen and Peter Gabriel and Bowie and Mick and Tina and even Tracy Chapman, someone in the Malloy household decided it was Freddie Mercury who was going to feed the world. And support Freddie the Malloys did, buying up used copies of “Jazz” and “Hot Space” and wondering when will we get more Queen. More Queen! Now!

Their prayers were answered when Freddie and the boys released “A Kind of Magic,” which included songs from a film I am guessing was played on endless loops during Kady’s childhood, “Highlander.” She must have believed that “How Will I Know” was this enormous hit and wondered why “Wayne’s World” would use “Bohemian Rhapsody” instead of a “Highlander” track and figures that every stadium that plays “We Will Rock You” will burst into “One Vision” any minute now.

Kady, you’re at the end of the line. And take the equally dull Kristy Lee Cook with you. (Any ’80s night is always a reminder of why I own so many jazz and blues albums).

On a side note, notice how the male and female front-runners slipped a notch for singing Phil Collins songs. Is that a question of talent, or taste?

'American Idol' girls reinvent the '80s


Taped in Los Angeles by 19 Prods. Executive producers, Nigel Lythgoe, Ken Warwick, Cecile Frot-Coutaz, Simon Fuller; director, Bruce Gowers.


Related links: The Set List
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