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American Idol Hits an All-Time Manilow

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Last night on American Idol, the contestants got help in their song stylings from singer-songwriter Barry Manilow. At least I’m assuming it was him. Thanks to an oddly spiky haircut and a weirdly tanned appearance, he looked a little more like Martin Short doing Barry Manilow.

But I digress. It was ’50s night on American Idol, and Manilow has a new album of oldies to flog, so he helped the aspirants wail their way through songs approximately 10 times as old as they are on average. The results:

* Mandisa: For her rendition of Dinah Washington’s "I Don’t Hurt Anymore," Manilow suggests that she "open big and end big." This would become a theme for the night from Manilow, who has never met a pop song he could not finish with a note worthy of an air-raid siren.

* Bucky Covington: The country-rocker does a decent rendition of Buddy Holly’s "Oh Boy," but he’s undercut by a namby-pamby arrangement that sounds like the producers taped it off someone’s customer-service hold music.

* Paris Bennett: She nails her cover of "Fever," but what really helps her tonight is her makeover: to befit her grown-up song selection, the pixieish singer wears a grown-up yellow dress that for once does not make her look like an original cast member of The Fact of Life.

* Chris Daughtry: The shave-headed rocker covers Johnny Cash’s Walk the Line. What really sells the performance is the haunting rock arrangement; my wife–who unlike me actually knows something about music–notes that the backup the performers get can make as much difference as their actual singing. Not that I’m accusing the producers of playing favorites, but Bucky Covington should be consider buying them some spa gift certificates before next week’s show, if he survives this week.

* Katharine McPhee: The opera-trained singer belts out a smoky version of "Come Rain or Come Shine" but still looks a little stiff and pageant-queen-like on stage. It’s hardly her fault that she’s tall and attractive. Still, she looks a little like she should be on stage picking out the winning lotto numbers from a ping-pong-ball machine.

* Taylor Hicks: The gray-haired singer does a cover of "Not Fade Away" that is surprisingly mediocre given that we suspect he actually toured with Buddy Holly back in the day.

* Lisa Tucker: The bubbly teen does a cheery-but-blah version of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" that–let’s just say, if you missed it, you can probably catch it again tonight when she sings it after being eliminated.

* Kevin Covais: Speaking of youthful, Covais looks more boyish every week; within a month, they’re going to be sending him onstage in a sailor suit holding a giant lollipop. But the kid angle is probably best for him; despite a lukewarm performance of "When I Fall in Love," every grandma in America still wants to hand him a shiny quarter every time he opens his mouth.

* Elliott Yamin: I’m still not sure what this guy’s deal is–is he hip-hop? pop? jazz?–nor do his fashion choices help brand him well. (Last night, he wore a button-up shirt and tie that made him look like he should be selling paper for Dunder-Mifflin.) But props to him for saying that he never cared for Barry Manilow’s music before meeting him. Hey, the Manilow fans were all going to vote for Kevin Covais anyway.

* Kellie Pickler: Another performance-immune artist, Pickler will get by for weeks on charisma–she’s Dolly Parton minus several decades and cup sizes–but she actually does a decent job with Pasty Cline’s "Walking After Midnight," making up for her vocals with moxie and a Nancy-Sinatra strut (call it "These Boots Were Made for Walkin’ After Midnight," even if it came more by way of Jessica S. than Nancy S.).

* Ace Young: Idol’s dreamboat of the year is introduced by a 7-year-old girl, a proud member of the demographic he should be counting on to get him through to the Final Four (he could have stepped off the cover of Lisa Simpson’s "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine). The cuteness is unfortunately undercut when Paula Abdul breathlessly tells him how "sexy" and "sultry" his performance was, which is always good for a shudder or two after the Corey Clark scandal

All in all, it was a better night for the singers than last week, probably because the sock-hop era songs were generally easier than last week’s Stevie Wonder tunes. And, of course, there was the counseling from Barry Manilow, who came and gave without takin’. Unless getting free publicity for your album in front of 30 million viewers counts as takin’.