I don't know about you guys, but I did not prepare to watch tonight's show with nearly as much enthusiasm as I did last week. I mean, last week had some of my favorites of the whole season, like nutball Norman Gentle, supremely OTT opera-rocker Adam Lambert, and button-cute Megan Corkrey. In fact, when I was watching last week I was thinking I'd wasted money on buying an entire couch, since I was only needing the edge of my seat during the entire two-hour show. (Heh heh. Um, sorry.) But tonight, I was considerably less psyched at the prospect of watching a steroidally shrill Broadway baby (Von), generic country girl (Kendall), or sob-story sympathy case (Scott).
However, there did turn out to be a few surprises throughout tonight's episode, both pleasant and unpleasant, some of which did inspire me to inch over to the edge of my sofa seat from time to time.
So first up tonight was Von Smith, one of my least favorite contestants of season 8--seriously, perhaps only Tatiana Del Toro has made my skin crawl, my toes curl, and my lunch travel back up my esophagus more rapidly and readily than this scenery-chomping showboater. Von worked my last nerve a while back, long before he even reared his bug-eyed, vein-bulging, red-faced head on AmIdol--when his screechy, fingernails-on-chalkboardy performance on The View was run in a constant psychosis-inducing loop during several episodes of The Soup. So by the time he actually made it to Idol's Hollywood Week, that last aforementioned nerve of mine was as shredded as what was left of my poor Von-tortured eardrums. But I admit his performance tonight was more bearable than his previous attempts. Sure, his corny cruise-ship interpretation of "You're All I Need To Get By" by Marvin Gaye was still bad enough to make the late, great Marvin himself spin a little bit his grave, but at least Von held back enough to keep me from wanting to reach into my desk drawer, grab the nearest letter-opener, and stab myself in the ear. By Von Smith standards, it was an almost downright tasteful performance--meaning, my lunch stayed down. (So good job, Von! The enamel on my teeth remains intact, for now, and my dentist thanks you.)
Simon Cowell agreed with me, telling Von that he'd improved considerably since the "indulgent nonsense" of his controversial Hollywood Week auditions--and, in an apparent attempt at flattery, Simon then compared Von to another polarizing Idol, Clay Aiken. At least Von took this comment as flattery, pointing out, "Clay's very successful!" Neither Simon nor Von bothered to mention that Clay was recently dropped from his record label, or that Clay's now more famous for his wild weight fluctuations and bizarre immaculate conception with his 50-year-old BFF. But hey, those are just minor details, right?
Next up was hula-dancing high-schooler Taylor Vaifanua. Man, is this chick really only 17? In dog years, maybe. She certainly seemed older tonight. Like, a lot older. I mean, besides her linebacker stature that made Jordin Sparks look like Ramiele Malubay, her laid-back and loungey performance of Alicia Keys' "If I Don't Have You" (a song she already sang during Hollywood Week, perplexingly) came across like the work of a middle-aged hotel singer, not some spunky teen. Simon grumpily griped about yet "another 17-year-old trying to be older" (although when Stevie Wright tried to aim for a younger demographic with a Taylor Swift song a couple weeks ago, that didn't go so well....so perhaps Miss Vaifanua knew what she was doing here). Then Simon wrote her off, not entirely unjustifiably, as "generic." Kara DioGuardi, arguing that she needed to see more personality from the overly reserved Taylor and complaining that Taylor's performance left her "a bit cold," then oddly mused: "I want to know what it's like to go shopping with you!"
Huh? Well, it'd probably be a shopping excursion to a Big & Tall store (really, Taylor is an Amazon). That much we already know. But what does that matter? Who cares where, how, or when Taylor shops? I'd personally rather know what it would be like to go shopping with Adam Lambert or Norman Gentle or Nathaniel Marshall--now, those guys have serious style! Where does Norman get those shiny Night At The Roxbury shirts, anyway?
But I digress. Singing third was another Clay Aiken doppelganger, dorkboy Alex Wagner-Trugman, who in his pre-performance interview with Ryan Seacrest admitted that he's recently gone online and read some of the comments written about his odds-defying geekiness. (Uh-oh. I hope he hasn't been checking out Reality Rocks. I never thought I'd tell anyone not to read my column but...hey, Alex, if you're reading this, look away! Now!)
Anyway, Alex chose to sing Elton John's "I Guess That's Why They Call It The Blues," a song supposedly inspired by a past long-distance relationship. This of course made me think Alex was a stereotypical dateless nerd who always claims to have a mystery girlfriend "in another state" that he "met at camp." He then disturbingly volunteered to any lonely viewers out there in TV Land: "I can be your boyfriend for a night." (Um, thanks but no thanks, Alex...)
But hey, you know what? When he finally sang...get this...I liked him! Yes, it was a very strange performance, full of herky-jerky Tourettes-like movements, glass-gargling wannabe-Joe Cocker raspiness, and allegedly accidental mic stand-kicking. And he definitely overdid it with his silly attempt to (in Paula Abdul's words) "channel his inner rock star" and his (Randy Jackson's words) "buckwild" stage moves. But hey, at least he showed some personality. Isn't that what Kara demanded of Taylor, after all? Maybe she and Alex can go shopping together instead.
Still, Simon dubbed Alex's singing "ridiculous growling" and likened him to "a little hamster trying to be a tiger." But I think Alex just might be The Little Hamster That Could. I still think Cody Sheldon should have beaten him in that lame Judges' Mansion singoff for a spot in the top 36, but I hold less of a grudge against Alex now after this fun--and funny--performance. So maybe it would be okay for Alex to read my blog after all, now that I've found a few good things to say about him.
Next to step up to the mic was Arianna Afsar, an also-ran I never thought much about until I heard the heartening news that she would be the first Idol contestant, incredibly, to ever sing an Abba song. Yay! This made me happy. But then Arianna sang. And this made me sad. By the time she was mercifully finished, I was earnestly hoping that she'd be the LAST Idol contestant to sing an Abba song, ever.
Mamma mia! This was just terrible. Arianna chose to go not with a fun and upbeat Abba number like "Waterloo" or "Dancing Queen" (which at least would've gotten the crow boogie-ing and set her apart as not another premature-aging teen), but with "The Winner Takes It All." Um, more like the loser takes nothing, in this case. The irony of the song's title certainly was not lost on Simon, who aptly described Arianna's all-over-the-place and pitchy vocal as "absolutely terrible" and her performance like something one might hear at a funeral. And it certainly marked the death of Arianna's Idol dream, I'll say that. A moment of silence, please...
By the way, Paula kind of enjoyed Arianna's performance, but I have a feeling her pills were kicking in right around this time. There's no other explanation for Paula's praise. Arianna was not good. Period.
The fifth contestant to sing, Ju'Not Joyner, was the first pleasant surprise and real standout of the night. He turned the Plain White Ts' "Hey There Delilah" into a stripped-down soul song with a completely original arrangement, and it somehow worked. His vocals were buttah-smooth and his delivery was slick and sophisticated and not too showoffy: It was just enough to stand out, a classy performance from a class act. All the judges dug it, even Simon--whose "That was better than I thought it was going to be" critique was his version of high praise, I think.And with that, Ju'Not unexpectedly became a real contender this evening.
Singing next was Kristen McNamara--whose performance was preceded by some sort of feud-settling, truce-setting, air-clearing conversation with her former Group Performance nemesis, Nathaniel Marshall, moderated by neutral-as-Switzerland Ryan Seacrest. With that controversy out of the way and bygones finally being bygones, she then took the stage wearing a hideously unflattering Holly Hobby party frock that even the flamboyantly party-attired Nathaniel must've hated; Simon said it looked like her "mum" had dressed her, although I felt that was an insult to Kristen's mother, really. (Kristen later understandably and humbly admitted she dearly needs a stylist, and I'm sure the Idol staff's makeover artists can't wait to get their hands on her, if she advances to the top 12.)
Kristen then sang Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason" (a song Jordin Sparks performed, quite well, early on in season 6), and though her voice was strong--perhaps one of the stronger female voices of the evening--her karaoke hostess background was very apparent. Her cheesy facial expressions and hokey Shania Twain-esque adlibs (lots of grating and gratuitous "hey!"s and "let's go"s and "c'mon everybody"s) were very Vegas, and frankly, very karaoke. If Kristen could tone down her cheesiness she could be good, because she definitely has the lung power, but I'm not so sure she'll have a chance to do that on this show, as there's a good chance she won't make the top 12 after this effort.
Finally, some entertainment, from a guy who's like Danny Noriega and Norman Gentle combined into one jazzercising, sweatband-swathed package. This is a boy so flamboyant he makes Adam Lambert look like blue-collar dude-next-door Michael Sarver. Nathaniel never fails to entertain, whether he's flouncing about in a completely ridiculous outfit or bursting into tears for no apparent reason, and tonight was no exception.
However, in his pre-interview video piece, he said something confusing about America wanting to see a humbler, mellower Nathaniel, to which I shouted out to my TV screen: "NO!!!!!! NO!!!!! Screw that! I want to see you crying and going ballistic and fighting with Kristen and dressing like a chorus line dancer from Xanadu!"
Well, Nathaniel must have heard me, somehow. Because tonight, out he pranced in his Olivia Newton-John headband, brashly belting out Meat Loaf's "I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That"). Simon had the best comment of the night--saying he thought Nathaniel WOULD do "that"--and then told Nathaniel in the same breath that he was both "fun" and "verging on excruciating." So that's good, right? Right?
Paula told Nathaniel it was a "Boy George version" of the song, but I of course considered this a compliment as well--a song as pretentious as that Meat Loaf epic needs a bit of camp and humor injected into it, after all. And I think Nathaniel was flattered by that comment as well. Why wouldn't he be? Because aside from the whole tying-up-male-escorts-and-going-to-jail thing, and the whole heroin-addiction thing, Boy George rules!
Kara then dismissed Nathaniel as a potential "karaoke buddy" and told him she'd like to see another, more serious side of him. (Noooo!!! I repeat, one last time: THIS is the side I want to see from Nathaniel. The crazy side! ) A visibly uncomfortable Simon then told Nathaniel he'd be better off pursuing a career as a Keep Fit home video instructor, and I tell you, if that ever happens I'll probably lose 10 pounds in a week. Because I will happily put on a Xanadu sweatband and work out to Nathaniel's exercise video several times a day.
Next was Felicia Barton, the 11th-hour replacement for ousted Joanna Pacitti, who was cut from the top 36 after the Idol producers decided they didn't want another Carly Smithson-style scandal on their hands. (Like season 7's Carly, Joanna had had a big major-label contract and previous business ties to the Idol camp.) So in a way, Felicia was almost like a wild card pick already, brought back from the brink for a rare second chance and hitting that stage with something to prove. She therefore took on a very challenging ballad, Alicia Keys' "No One," and she made a surprisingly strong impression. She looked absolutely fabulous, and for the most part she handled this big song fabulously. "You certainly came back to prove a point, didn't you?" quipped Simon; the only criticism he could even muster was saying Felicia's performance was "a bit copycat." I couldn't help but wonder if Joanna Pacitti was watching at home, and if so, what she thought of Felicia's star turn tonight.
Singing next was legally blind piano player Scott McIntyre. And I'm about to say something that will probably make me very unpopular, but here goes: Scott is not THAT good of a singer. I will go so far as to say if he was not blind, he would not have made it this far. Seriously, just close your eyes (no pun intended--really), and listen to his vocals. Just listen. He's not that good. Really, he's not. His performance of Bruce Hornsby's "Mandolin Rain" was very weak tonight, and when Kara said to him, "When you have issues with your vocal it doesn't matter, because it's coming from your heart"--well, that was a total CROCK. Wasn't Arianna's horrible Abba song coming from the heart? Didn't other bad contestants this season, like Stevie Wright and Casey Carlson, sing from the heart? No one let those contestants use that excuse--a bad vocal is a bad vocal, period. This is a singing competition, as the judges like to point out over and over again.
So I found Kara's comment to be very pandering. Yes, Scott has some talent, and yes, it's admirable that he's come this far in his life and not let his visual impairment slow him down or stop him from chasing his dreams. But that doesn't mean he should be in the top 12. He shouldn't be, okay? But I do give Scott points for high-fiving Ryan tonight--that was a wonderfully humorous move. Too bad Ryan had to ruin the moment by referring to Scott as "Scotty The Body"--which conjured up bad memories of season 4's Constantine-foiling VoteForTheWorst posterboy, Scott Savol (who went by that nickname). Yuck! I may not be a McIntyre fan, but he's better than Savol!
Next up was token country girl Kendall Beard, crooning Martina McBride's "This One's For The Girls," and she was boring. Not bad, just boring. Simon dismissively called her "cute" (true) and then more coldly called her "shrilly" (also true). She was like a less stupid Kellie Pickler, a less hot Kristy Lee Cook, or a less vocally gifted Carrie Underwood. Nothing special, in my opinion. This one wasn't for the girls, at least not for a girl like me.
Puerto Rico's own Jorge Nunez sang next, belting out Elton John and George Michael's "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me," and the subsequent judges' critique was almost racist in tone. For instance, Paula praised Jorge for working with a dialect coach to eliminate his thick accent, and said his demonstration of "how people dance in Puerto Rico" was funny. So good for Simon for calling such talk "patronizing" and telling Jorge to go ahead and sing with his accent because it made him different. By the end of it all, Jorge was crying, but he clarified that his tears were tears of joy, because he was so happy with the judges' overall positive comments. "I can barely think in English!" he exclaimed happily, before adding that he was very "contento" tonight. Hurray that he spoke in Spanish, casting all his dialect lessons aside for the moment.
Singing at the end of the show, in the "pimp slot" (performing last always puts a contestant at an advantage, as the final performance typically stays fresh in voters' minds--and I don't think it's some random coincidence who gets that coveted pimp slot each week), was longtime judges' favorite Lil' Rounds. She proceeded to kill it on Mary J. Blige's "Be Without You" and received the biggest, if briefest, praise of the night from Simon: "Brilliant." I concurred. I would be genuinely shocked if Lil' didn't make the top 12--and if she doesn't, the judges' will no doubt bring her right back as a wild card, anyway. This girl's a total ringer, and rightfully so.
So now it's picks 'n' prediction time, as usual. My PICKS are Ju'Not Joyner, Nathaniel Marshall, and Lil' Rounds, but I have a feeling the voters won't go that way. This one is a tough one to call, aside from the no-brainer of Lil' Rounds. Scott and Felicia have good chances of sweeping up the sympathy votes; the Latino community will surely rally around the likable Jorge; tweens will probably swoon for the lovably Clay-like Alex; and VoteForTheWorsters will champion my boy Nathaniel for sure. And then View fans might go for Von, country fans for Kendall, and fans of pretty girls for Taylor and Kristen.
Really, anything could happen--remember, Kris Allen's victory last week was a definite curveball. Each week I've only predicted two out of three correctly, with some leftfielder always swooping in to knock down a seeming frontrunner like Megan Corkrey or Anoop Desai.
However, I have a hunch that in the end it will come down to Lil' Rounds, Scott McIntyre, and Jorge Nunez. Tune in tomorrow to see if I'm right...and then on Thursday to see if any of this week's runners-up come back as wild card contenders!