A Very Special ‘American Idol’

Cowell in AfricaCourtesy of Fox

Every week on American Idol, contestants perform songs based on a specific theme … then we ignore that theme and create our own. Last night’s stated focus? Inspirational songs tied to Idol Gives Back, a charity campaign fighting poverty in the U.S. and Africa. The real issue? The power of positive spin.

Spin #1: Idol isn’t greedy!
Ryan Seacrest looked directly into the camera and intoned, "The calls you make will not only save your favorite contestants" — dramatic pause — “they will also save lives.” Oh, and they'll help the reps of those corporate sponsors: Coca-Cola, AT&T, and Ford … and did Seacrest mention Coca-Cola? He did? What about AT&T? So those Coke glasses on the judges’ table, instructions to vote via AT&T text messaging, and truck commercial breaks haven’t just been soulless product placement: In fact, News Corp. will donate $5 million from last night’s voting to the cause. (By the way, a 30-second ad during the show earns them a reported $600,000 a pop.)

Spin #2: Phil Stacey loves his children!
He’s not an absentee dad who skipped out on the formative first months of his second kid’s life — he’s doing this for the children. “What do you miss most about home?” an audience member asks, providing Stacey with an easy opportunity to shout out his two daughters, who have been staying with their grandparents. “Even though it’s hard being away from them, we know in the long run it’ll be all worth it,” he justified. Leslie Sloane Zelnick would be proud.

Spin #3: Simon Cowell is a pussycat!
During montages set to Coldplay and Keane tunes, the cantankerous judge toured famine-stricken African villages with Seacrest. “This is just intolerable,” he says, offering a critique that sounds suspiciously similar to his evaluation of Sanjaya Malakar. Later, while visiting a Los Angeles food-distribution center, he lovingly taps a small child on the nose.

Spin #4: The competition really begins … now!
After Chris Richardson’s shaky, high-pitched version of Eric Clapton’s “Change the World,” Cowell announced, “It kind of feels that the competition starts properly tonight” — thinly veiled code for “Ding, dong, Sanjaya's dead!” Melinda Doolittle powered her way through "There Will Come a Day" by Faith Hill; Blake Lewis turned out another sleepy performance (this time of John Lennon’s oft-covered "Imagine"), and LaKisha Jones got slammed for shouting (again) on a song previously performed by an Idol winner (again), Fantasia’s "I Believe." Stacey followed up his earnest interview moment with a soulful "The Change" by Garth Brooks, and Jordin Sparks closed out the night with a soaring, genuinely emotional "You’ll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel. So forget those six other weeks of competition — Idol is on. — Caryn Ganz