Ever since Antonella Barba first appeared on the American Idol audition shows, I haven't exactly been a fan. She has one of those voices that's been over-trained–probably for pageants and high school talent shows–so that she can sound professional even though her vocals just fundamentally aren't very good. She can project, and hit a wide range of notes, but her instrument itself isn't pleasant to hear. She was also, in the early going at least, kind of a "rhymes with Hermit Of Mink Hollow." (That's a 30 Rock joke.) She was cocky, and rude to other contestants. I was shocked she made it to the Top 24, and the two crummy performances she's given in this round so far seem to have justified my doubt.

That said, I've felt bad about the "scandal" surrounding Barba this past week, ever since racy pictures of her started popping up all over the internet. I emphasize "racy." None of them were especially raunchy, save for a couple of explicitly pornographic shots that don't, on close inspection–and believe me, I inspected close–appear to be Barba.

What's really rankling me are the comments left on the various celeb-blogs that have hosted these photos. I know that most of the commenters are probably kids, typing without thinking, but the amount of hatefulness directed at Barba–mostly of the "ha ha what a skank!" variety–is very distressing. Barba may not be an exemplary person, but for a lot of her adolescent critics, her major problem seems to be that she's had sex.

It brought home something I've been thinking about since last week, when contestant Sabrina Sloan sang "I've Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Love You)" with the kind of sensuality American Idol rarely spotlights. This week she was in sweeter–and duller–mode, doing an inspirational ballad, but she still looked and acted more like a grown woman than the virgin queens and God-squadders who usually make up the female Idol pool. Sloan sings like someone who's not only had sex, but who actively enjoys it.

And this matters, because so many of these kids, year after year, stand up there and sing songs about heartbreak and lust, and while they've memorized the words, they don't seem to know what they mean. They're playing dress up, a lot of them. Even the men project sexuality only in a cartoonish way, with booty shaking and pelvic thrusts, not with any kind of carnal burn. And some of those men are married with kids, which means they have gotten it on a few times. (Interestingly, the single mothers on the show tend to be like Fantasia Barrino or this year's LaKisha Jones, who channel all their passion into faith. They may have been bad girls before, but they're pious on stage.)

In the grey zone of all this public sexlessness resides Idol's covertly gay contestants. Nobody has yet been openly homosexual on the show, maybe because Simon and Ryan's weekly gay-panic jokes haven't exactly made the show a welcoming place for alternative lifestyles. But there've been more than a few stealthy gay Idols, who either came out later or have been outed in the tabloids. This years "man of mystery" is A.J. Tabaldo, who after a campy performance of Nina Simone's "Feelin' Good" got to hear Simon say–and pointedly not clarify–"You looked strangely comfortable doing that." Translation: That was kind of queen-y, but you sing well, so let's not call attention to your flamboyance, okay?

Anyway, chances are Antonella Barba's days as an Idol are numbered. Even if she survives this week, there are five top-drawer singers among the female contestants–all the black ones, basically–and she's hardly the top candidate for the sixth slot. (That would probably be either Gina Glocksen or Leslie Hunt, though both those ladies need to switch genres fast and emphasize their rocker sides if they want to distinguish themselves from the big soul voices they're sharing the stage with.) Still, it would be nice if Barba or Sloan or someone with some raw need was allowed to show more emotional range than "technocrat" or "wilting flower." Even this year's outsized personality on the men's side, Chris Sligh, is like a big cuddly toy, hard to take seriously no matter how nice he sings. (My hopes are more penned on Blake Lewis, who stalks the stage like he owns it, and seems to have a broader, more knowing taste in music than we usually see on AI.)

The main reason I watch American Idol is because on any given week, someone can give a performance that's genuinely electrifying–even if only in an "ice skater who lands all the jumps" kind of way. But what I rarely see are people singing with untrained ease and authentic feeling. People who just might be warm to the touch.


(Personal Plea: I know some of our readership can't believe that we deign to write about American Idol every year. But whatever you think of the talent the show unearths–or doesn't, depending on your point of view–and whatever you think of the value of this little yearly experiment in pop music kingmaking, a lot of us still find it fascinating and relevant on many levels, from its kitsch appeal to the way it takes the temperature of the contemporary music market. So if you're not interested in the topic, I'm going to politely ask that you skip these posts/crosstalks/what-have-you, rather than complaining about their very existence in the comments. Thanks in advance.)