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''Idol'': Hair, Shoes, Song (With Podcast Info)

By RD Heldenfels Published: March 14, 2006

Besides my notes below, check out the new ''Idol'' podcast with me and Amy Carlson Gustafson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. It is available at:

And now, for the night's notes:

Well, it's Top 12 night. No more gender division. Lots more marketing.

Many enhanced hairstyles. (Bucky did indeed have a Jessica Simpson 'do, as Simon said.) Even Chris's head looked shinier. Fancier duds, including shoes that were much discussed (Kellie's, Katharine's, Ryan's removing of Mandisa's). Paula looking especially mummified, at least in HD, and early on demonstrating her inarticulation (''well-diversed''?). Promises of a bigger band, which is not a good thing; a bigger band can hide more flaws in the vocals -- and so give the producers a way of protecting singers whom they want to sell for non-vocal reasons.

Which brings us to Kellie Pickler. Not only was she awful tonight in her song, her little dumb-gal act has worn itself out. Up to now, she could seem ditzy without going completely Jessica Simpson; tonight she was out beyond Jessica.

''I have no idea what I'm doing,'' she said at one point, and that should be reassuring. I'd hate to think her marketing strategy is to look this ridiculous. And, a week after the judges seemed ready to canonize her, they were quite critical -- which for Paula, of course, meant saying that ''you look gorgeous.''

To the songs and the report card: This week's topic was the songs of Stevie Wonder, with Stevie himself meeting the contestants, many of whom actually knew his music. Not all, alas. Not all. Given the size of Stevie's catalog as a writer and performer, I would have thought each singer could find a song that was manageable. Not all, alas. Not all. They couldn't even come up with a clip of Stevie praising the singing of some performers.

In fact, for the first hour-and-45-minutes or so (and at least it moved along rather well), the show was kind of a bore, the tone set by crowd-pleaser Ace's C-grade opener on ''Do I Do.'' Then came Kellie. Then Elliott Yamin, who was better than the two before but not setting any fires. Mandisa started so-so, then revved up (''Oh, there she is!'' I scribbled in my notes), then settled back, then revved up. I still wasn't giving anything better than a C plus.

Bucky Covington. ''Superstition.'' I'll say no more.

Melissa McGhee, Lisa Tucker, let's move on.

Kevin Covais. ''Part-Time Lover.'' This was the moment of my hysterical, horrified, at-home meltdown. Worst performance of the night, and one that should spread rapidly on the Internet. And the mouthing off to Simon was foolish.

Following that, Katharine McPhee was all right, as long as I didn't think too closely about the Aretha version of Stevie's ''Until You Come Back to Me.''

Then the final three, and things finally woke up. Taylor Hicks gave the performance I've been awaiting for weeks, with ''Living' for the City.'' Paris Bennett followed with ''All I Do.'' I still think she's too practiced -- Simon's comparison to a wind-up doll was a compliment with subtext, let's say -- and her singing during the post-performance segment with Ryan was a little disturbing, as if she had no faith in her ability to speak.

Finally, Daughtry, with ''Higher Ground,'' which he knew from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Not a bad performance, but a letdown after Taylor and Paris. The stage effects oversold it, trying to convince the audience it was a great show-capper no matter what the singing was like. And the mike-stand business was too much a reminder of Bo Bice.

Anyway, report card: Taylor and Paris, B each. Chris, B minus. Mandisa C plus plus, putting her slightly ahead of Elliott and Katharine's C plus each. C for Ace and Lisa. C minus for Melissa. Bucky gets a D plus, Kellie a D and Kevin ... well, I have to give him some kind of grade, so D minus.

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