Gasps, cries, and boos erupted when Ryan Seacrest announced that Melinda Doolittle was going home on Wednesday night’s American Idol. I swore I heard the sound of angels weeping. Or maybe it was Clive Davis. Even Blake Lewis’ mother looked appalled. Simon Cowell, meanwhile, rent his $900 sweater, and wandered, dazed, onto Sunset Boulevard, muttering oaths in Aramaic. As for me: Yeah, I gasped, too, and felt vaguely sickened. And then elation set in. There’s no question that Melinda’s dismissal is the biggest shocker in Idol history—even more of a surprise, and more of an injustice, than Chris Daughtry’s elimination last season. Her performances on Tuesday were her best yet, which is saying something, given that she’s been almost uniformly great in every show of the season. But now, finally, an element of surprise has been introduced into American Idol’s dullest season. It’s definitely going to be one weird Idol finale. And just because I’ve recanted several times since, don’t think that I won’t claim credit for having called the title for Blake back in Week 5, when there were still 24 Idol hopefuls, before the contest even began.
As for Melinda: She’ll be just fine. I foresee a solid career, and even decent record sales, which is more than can be said for most musicians these days, including, probably, the two remaining Idol finalists. It happens that Melinda’s natural audience—the adult contemporary crowd—still operates under the delusion that popular music is a thing one purchases, and in compact disc form. Melinda will likely make a nice, very old-fashioned, debut record. I doubt there will be anything more than the lightest sprinkling of hip-hop-style production. Ciara she ain’t. Maybe, as a savvy Idol-watcher pal suggested in a postgame phone conversation last night, Ne-Yo and Stargate will be brought in to supply one tuneful track with a bit of a beat. But Melinda’s bread and butter will be the grown-up stuff—Doolittle Sings the Great American Songbook will move units. I look forward, kind of, to her inevitable duets with Rod Stewart and Barry Manilow. (Not so jazzed about the Andrea Bocelli duet, but she’ll definitely outsing him.) There will probably be a gospel album or two, and I bet they’ll be good. Plus, she can always do Broadway. (I can see the Brooks Atkinson Theatre marquee now: Melinda Doolittle is Eliza Doolittle.) I’m just glad she left on such a high note. I loved her staging of “I’m A Woman,” with that trio of Idol backup singers joining her in the spotlight, a nod to her background singer roots, and a declaration of victory: I’m singing lead now. Who but Melinda would have the guts to share the stage with those talented women—and have the chops to outperform them?
In retrospect, Melinda’s elimination is not so surprising. What, exactly, was her voting base? The grandmothers in the audience? Church deacons? Blake and Jordin each have their blocs of motivated young voters, and those voters—clearly convinced, like every one else, that Melinda had wrapped up one of the spots in the final—turned out in force to support their favorite. I gave my nod to Jordin last week, but fickle me, I am officially recanting. She’s a lovely girl, but she’s just too green, and too—as Simon would have it—”pageanty.” I mean, what’s up with “I Who Have Nothing“? She sings that old torch song awfully well, but it’s just so creepily fuddy-duddy. Get with the 21st century, girl! (For crying out loud, you’ve got a star at the mall!) Meanwhile, for the first time in weeks, Blake’s fans had reason to be enthusiastic. I actually didn’t mind his version of “Roxanne,” and I liked his Robin Thicke and Maroon 5 songs a lot. (As for Maroon 5 themselves: wack.) Blake sang well, and he looked smooth and relaxed—a real pro. Plus, how about that footage of him rocking the Seattle lunch crowd with Sir Mix-A-Lot? And that tear-jerking montage of his trip home, kissing his big sweet weepy bear of a Dad? My torch for the little beatboxer is officially rekindled.
So, what will happen next week? I’m pulling for Blake, of course, and he should win: Jordin doesn’t have that star-polish. The big variable, though, is repertoire. The finalists will have to contend with the winning number of Idol’s songwriting contest, which promises to be power-ballad about the Winds of Your Dreams or the Wings of the Eagle or some such—the sort of schlock-soaked material that’s a perfect fit for the teenage dinner-theater belter Jordin. Blake may be called upon to do some bold rearranging. Throw a big beat behind that ballad, add 16 bars of beatboxing, spice with a few slick little dance moves. Rock that “hip” white-shirt-with-the-white-tie-over-the-white-hoodie-under-the-white-blazer look. And hope that the Youth of America burn up the text-message voting lines in gratitude.