American Idol Top 30 Performances of All Time: No. 6, Jordin Sparks, “I (Who Have Nothing)”

Still can't believe a 17-year old sang a song damn near 50 and got away with it.

Still can’t believe a 17-year old sang a song damn near 50 and got away with it.

Could the kid cut it?

That was the biggest question about Jordin Sparks once she got into the Top 12 and it took her all of two weeks to prove she was a little more than a 16-year old with a voice. She was a performer.

If you take Season 3 out of the mix – where four minors placed in the top 12 with 17-year old Jasmine Trias finishing third and 16-year old Diana DeGarmo taking second behind 19-year old Fantasia – being under 18 merely made you a side show. Including Season 3, nine U-18s were on Idol prior to Season 6 and only two made Top 4 or better.

The stigma surrounded them was just; they weren’t ready to perform with the older contestants, many of whom had sung in bars or on stage for years before jumping on to what was America’s No. 1 show. Season 3 was a bit of a fluke and it’s telling that the most famous of the bunch – seventh-place Jennifer Hudson – barely got noticed.

So how was Sparks going to be different? There were some strong female voices on Season 6 and some guys who looked the part (pretty much WGWGs minus the Gs, perhaps a little before their time), so for a 16-year old to make a name for herself, she needed to do something big.

And on the second week of the finals, Sparks delivered her moment, singing an Italian song made famous by Ben E. King 50 years earlier. To not put Sparks’ version of “I (Who Have Nothing)” would be a disservice and it rightfully takes its spot at No. 6 on our list.

THE SITUATION: Let’s just get this out of the way: there’s no way you can sell this being allowable for a “British Invasion” theme. The song is Italian and was translated and recorded by King in June of 1963, beating Shirley Bassey’s version by four months. That makes it an American song and by my strict rules, not eligible. Sparks wasn’t the first person to skirt Idol’s theme rules and won’t be the last, but that needs to be said because rules are rules.

Anyway, Sparks gets through the first week – on talent, but helped a little by getting handed the first “pimp spot” of the season – and needs to get noticed so she’s no longer getting critiques that start with “well, for a 16-year old.” What better way than to pick a song six-years older than her ex-NFL-playing father Phillippi.

This is one of those songs you know even if you don’t. You’ve heard it in movies, on TV, on the radio in passing; it’s not one you look for because it’s not a fun, listen-to-with-friends-at-a-party song. It’s only good when it’s attached to a moment.

And this happened to be one of those moments.

HIGHLIGHTS: The pre- and post-show segments are damn near as good as the performance itself.

We have Ryan Seacrest delivering fan questions, then Sparks can’t stop talking – as 17-year old girls are known to do – and Seacrest plays along. Then we bounce over to the sessions with Lulu – who I’m still not quite sure why she was on – and we get to crazy town. I might not have a clue who Lulu is, but she’s terrific interacting with Sparks. She’s on the kid’s ass, screaming direction, singing out of tune, screaming as she’s trying to get Sparks to sing louder and more powerful. It’s a terrific example of taking the adviser role seriously, it’s hilarious and it foreshadows the hell out of what we’re going to see.

The start of the song isn’t mind-blowing. Don’t get me wrong – it’s damn good. You lose sight of the fact that the person in front of you singing such a passionate love song has, just seconds earlier, confessed she doesn’t have a boyfriend. So she’s just singing for the sake of singing.

She hits the pre-chorus and it’s a tease. You want her to go get the big note, but she’s just building the song. Is she really just 17?

Sparks hits the verse, or pre-chorus, or whatever the hell it is again and the music starts to build. Her voice rises. Here it comes. Boom.

The portion of “But believe me dear when I say/That she can give you the world but she’ll never love you the way” to “I love you” makes you feel it.

She crushes the next verse with flawless execution. As she holds the note on “windowpane,” you can feel love’s pain as she starts transitioning into another “I love you.” At this point, you pick your jaw up off the floor and wonder who in the hell this girl is singing to and how come no one loves you that much.

The praise from the judges was limited. This was before Randy Jackson became a fraud, before Paula Abdul started taking crazy pills and since it was only Week 2 and early in the show that night, Simon Cowell was more interested in hotties in the audience than what was happening on stage.

Now could be wrong, but I think Cowell’s critique was a joke. When Paula’s finishing up, he winks to someone – probably a producer – off stage, like “let’s see how the people react to this.” Cowell opines “You sang it beautifully but I feel like jumping off a bridge. It was sooooo gloooomy.” If anyone said this now, boos would rain down. The audience barely reacted, but this is when Idol was a little more serious.

WHY IT’S HERE: This performance holds a special place in my heart. I had just started dating my wife and she was into the show. I’d go to her apartment and watch it as a joke and then I got hooked. Super hooked. Like so hooked that four years later I created a Facebook page about dudes reviewing Idol and three years after that I started a web site about the damn show.

Besides that, it’s here because this was Jordin Sparks’ moment. She’s one of the more underrated contestants because she never touched the Bottom 3 and when it came time to perform against Idols who were more experienced and probably better vocalists – Lakisha Jones and Melinda Doolittle – she didn’t flinch. I’d include Blake Lewis in this conversation, but he rode his one trick as far as he could and I’d be shocked if he got more than 15 percent of the vote in the finale.

Sparks repeated the song in the Final 3 and while it was still good, it lacked the surprise of the first performance. Listen:

In the Final 3 we were expecting it to be great. But all the way back in the Top 11?

That was a lot more than we could have imagined.

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NEXT UP: One of the best Idols ever gets Mad on stage.