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? Three special picks by the judges, producers, and contestants. The real issue? Rallying the base.
Step #1: Solidify Hometown Support
Though Idol masquerades as a talent competition, the show occasionally acknowledges that, like the Maxim 100, the Miss America Pageant, and presidential elections, it's merely a popularity contest. Last week, all three contestants returned to their hometowns to campaign for votes alongside local politicians. Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis appeared at public rallies with their mayors (Glendale, Arizona's Elaine Scruggs and Bothell, Washington's Mark Lamb, respectively), but only skillful spin-master Melinda "What? I Can Sing? I Can Really Sing?" Doolittle bagged a private audience with her state's big dog, Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen. Advantage: Doolittle.
Step #2: Avoid Embarrassing Statements
Sparks made one last attempt to alienate anyone born before the Reagan administration by admitting she'd never heard Rose Royce's "Wishing on a Star" and proclaiming her favorite song is "Mmmbop" by Hansen. Doolittle only jokingly made a George Bush–worthy gaffe, thanking Randy Johnson (rather than Jackson) for picking Whitney Houston's "I Believe in You and Me" after Governor Bredesen flubbed the judge's name. Lewis wisely kept his mouth shut, save for a fine moment where he assured Simon Cowell he was having a great time onstage. Advantage: Lewis.
Step #3: Execute the Stump
Sparks started a little shaky on the up-tempo "Wishing on a Star" and Donna Summer's "She Works Hard for the Money" before relaxing into her own pick, Shirley Bassey's passionate 1973 version of "I (Who Have Nothing)." Lewis managed a middling Sting impression on "Roxanne," a stellar although beat-boxy rendition of Maroon 5's "This Love," and an energetic tear through Robin Thicke's lesser-known "When I Get You Alone." Doolittle stayed fierce from her Whitney pick to Tina Turner's "Nutbush City Limits" and played up the girl power again on "I'm a Woman." But although she appeared to have the weakest night, Sparks has her own secret weapon: an actual base to rally. Advantage: Christian right. —Caryn Ganz