A semi-inspired evening

Imagine that a great singer -- one with passion and power -- is given a wide-open request: Sing something that inspires you.

The result should be soul-shattering. On "American Idol," however, it is often merely kind of good. That was true tonight, just as it was four years ago, during the first inspiration night.

Back the, three of the top four singers -- Jordin Sparks, Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones -- had gospel routes. I expected vocal fireworks; instead, there were some strong songs -- "Imagine," "I Believe," "You'll Never Walk Alone" -- and some ordinary ones. That trend was repeated in the first half of tonight, which had a theme of "songs that inspire you."

James Durbin's performance on "Don't Stop Believing" was dynamic. Still, the sole "inspiration" was that it told him he could win the competition.

Haley Reinhart followed with the opposite -- a richly inspirational, save-the-world Michael Jackson song, but one she couldn't do much with vocally.

Scotty McCreery's song -- "Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning" -- was perfectly chosen to get votes 10 days after Osama bin Laden was killed. Judges gushed, but in truth it offered very little for the singer.

That left only Lauren Alaina to nail it perfectly. "Anyway" has a strong message, rich emotion AND a chance to show off her voice. Who knew that this teen-ager with a pageant personality would be the best on inspiration night?

A few other notes:

1) It's OK to do something that was done by a great singer, but only if it's someone Randy Jackson doesn't know. He attacked Reinhart tonight for daring to do Michael -- just as he's attacked others for doing Whitney, Mariah, Celine or Stevie. Actually, Martina McBride is in that same league, but Jackson doesn't know her. So Alaina was safe with "Anyway" ... just as Carrie Underwood once was with "Independence Day."

2) The second round -- doing a Leiber-and-Stoller song -- reversed the fate for the women. Reinhart's "I Who Have Nothing" was stunning -- powerful and perfect. Alaina's "Trouble" was just silly; watching her grin about her supposed evilness was sort of like the great "Glee" moment when a choral group offered a peppy version of "Rehab."

3) Why did Alaina choose to do "Trouble," then claim she didn't want to sing about evil -- which is the core of the whole song?

4) Does Lady Gaga have a mirror? Does she employ people who will give her an honest assessment of her look? I'm just wondering.

5) Both of the guys chose some of the funnier songs from the Leiber-and-Stoller collection. McCreery's "Young Blood" was fairly good; Durbin turned "Love Potion No. 9" into a party.

6) I can't remember the last time someone got to sing the first AND the last song of the night. Durbin did and was terrific on both.

7) So the easiest part of my prediction is that Durbin will survive. Since there are only four people left, that doesn't leave much room for sparing anyone else. I'll say Reinhart and McCreery end up in the bottom two; Reinhart goes home ... making her "I Who Have Nothing" the greatest performance anyone has ever given on the night before being eliminated. 







Bad news: "The Chicago Code" and "Human Target" won't be back

Lately, we've been used to a stream of good news from Fox: "Fringe" will be back next season, despite weak ratings ... Steven Spielberg's hugely ambitious "Terra Nova" is coming this falll ... Paula Abdul will re-unite with Simon Cowell, as judges on his "The X Factor."

So maybe we should have expected the bad news that came next: Reports surfaced today that "The Chicago Code" and "Human Target" won't be back; also being cancelled are "Lie to Me," "Traffic Light" and "Breaking In."

I'm surprised about "Human Target," which is a real rarity -- a show that got much better after it started. For its second season, it added two women and fresh bursts of humor and variety.

But I'm most astounded by "Chicago Code." This is a show that didn't have to improve -- from its first moment, it's been a gem; producer Shawn Ryan showed how to mix intense human drama -- big, corrupt-city stuff -- alongside case-a-week cop stories. 

Ryan introduced two terrific shows this season -- "Terriers" and "Chicago Code" -- and is apparently seeing neither survive. Let's hope he gets a new one soon.

On Paula, "SNL" and Jacob Lusk

A few random TV thoughts:

1) It's finally official that Paula Abdul will be one of the judges when "The X Factor" debuts this fall on Fox. That's a savvy move by producer Simon Cowell, promising some of the quirky charm of the early "American Idol" years. He'll be on the panel with Abdul, Cheryl Cole (a pop star who also judges with him in the British version) and record producer Antonio Reid. The hosts will be Nicole Scherzinger (the "Dancing With the Stars" champ from Pussycat Dolls) and Steve Jones. The hosts, like the judges, will be split evenly between British and American, in promising combinations.

2) As expected, "Saturday Night Live" was at its best this past weekend. It eventually faded out, but first were some great topical moments -- bin Laden's revised will, the debate of undeclared Republican candidates and, of course, "Weekend Update." That last one was at its  best when Seth Meyers discussed people who doubt that bin Laden is really dead, making Barack Obama "the first black man who had to actually prove he killed someone."

3) I feel especially bad that Jacob Lusk (see previous blog) won't be back. This is the week for the songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller -- many of which Lusk would have been sensational at. Imagine him wailing into "Stand By Me," "On Broadway," "Lovin' You" or "There Goes My Baby."

4) Then again, there's still a lot to look forward to Wednesday. I'm hoping Haley Rinehart sings "I'm a Woman"; I'll find it thoroughly believable if she sings: "I'll never ever let you forget you're a man." 

Jacob on "Idol": a great talent and a complex life

Jacob Lusk is full of contrasts.

He's a sunny guy, someone who was a concierge at a spa and has spoken fondly of baking and pedicures; he also, when prodded, talks of bleak moments in his past. He's a church guy; he also spent three days in jail, charged with boarding the Los Angele Metro train without a ticket. He's a soulful guy with immense gospel talent; he's also tried to rein that in at times, with mixed results.

Lusk talked to reporters today, after being ousted from "American Idol" on Thursday. Here's the story I sent to papers:


When the end comes on “American
Idol,” some people weep and some grin. Jacob Lusk did both.

“I said I didn't want it to be a sad,
crying time,” Lusk told reporters Friday. “I did cry (later), but
I said, 'I'm here to rejoice.'”

So he sang vibrantly, even continuing
after the show finished. There was much to cheer, with a fifth-place
finish; had he been dumped earlier, it would have been different.

“I was shaking in my boots,” Lusk
recalled of a performance in the Hollywood round. “I did not want
to go back to my life. I didn't want to wonder where I was going to
live or if I was going to have enough money to eat. Now I won't have
to worry about that again.”

Those fears reflect Lusk's early years
in Compton, a California city with a tough, macho image.

“My mother and father divorced,” he
said. “My father died when I was 12. I was picked on and beaten up
… and snubbed on the playground.”

He says he thrived in high school –
president of the student body, captain of the speech and debate team
– but sometimes stumbled afterward. “I was 17 and I thought I was
grown up and knew everything … I moved to Los Angeles …. I've
been homeless; I've had times when I didn't have any money.”

The redeeming thing was music. He sang
at church when he was 5; the first concert he went to had modern
gospel stars Kirk Franklin and Yolanda Adams. Later, he joined a
gospel group, InNate Praise.

Even when singing mainstream music,
Lusk said, those roots help. “You can't take the gospel out of you
…. It just oozes through you.”

That was clear during his key
Hollywood-round performance, an epic “God Bless the Child.” One
judge, Randy Jackson, called it the best “Idol” performance ever.

Others have praised him. Steven Tyler
called him “baby Luther,” referring to the late Luther Vandross.
Country star Dierks Bentley said Lusk was his favorite: “That kid
has the touch of God in him.”

But does that help win? Jackson wanted
more gospel touches; Jimmy Iovine, the mentor, wanted less.

“I definitely got some contradictory
advice … but it's up to me and I've got to be myself,” Lusk said.

He feels he didn't do that on
Wednesday. “I was the only one who wasn't in my element. I was
trying to do something different and this wasn't the time for that.”

So Lusk was ousted Thursday. He had his
final moment onstage, singing a soaring, uptempo song. After the show
ended, he stayed there and sang some more. The tears would come


"Idol": Jacob is gone, but the music soars

So there I was, bummed by Jacob Lusk being ousted tonight from "American Idol." We knew it would happen sometime; the poor guy had spent lots of weeks in the bottom three. Still, you hate to see the ouster of one of the most magnificent voices in the 10 years of "Idol."

And then, by happy coincidence, I plugged in an advance screener of Monday's "American Experience." It provided a reminder that Lusk's music style will go on and on; it already has.

Lusk sings pop songs on "Idol," but he does it with the bigger-than-life style that has flowed in the church and beyond. Each song gets the extra oomph that comes from that style.

Other "Idol" contestants -- Fantasia, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, more -- have had hints of church in their music. None has done it with the high-octane elegance of Lusk.

It was sad to see him go, but no one is safe now. Lauren Alaina -- who had never been there before -- was standing alongside Lusk in the bottom two, weeping as usual. For now, I'm predicting James Durbin will win, but we'll se.

Meanwhile, make sure you see "American Experience" at 9 p.m. Mondays. On May 16, it has a superb look at the freedom riders of the civil rights movement; a week earlier, on May 9, it has "Soundtrack of a Revolution," intercutting civil rights memories and new portrayals of the stunning music that was part of it.

The music is awesome, both from veterans (Richie Havens, Blind Boys of Alabama) and current stars; there are stirring moments from Wyclef Jean, Joss Stone, John Legend and more. The music soars; in style and tone, it's the kind of music that took Jacob Lusk to No. 5 on "American Idol." It's the kind that will flow for generations.