Finally, tonight was the night when the fate of American Idol was placed squarely back in the hands of America. The hands of The People. No more all-powerful judges smugly handing out golden tickets, callously tossing contestants' Polaroids into the trash, and forcing hapless hopefuls like Cody Sheldon to participate in sudden-death singoffs. Tonight, the chosen 36 semi-finalists started singing for the viewers' votes, not the judges' praise, on live television. And this was where the real competition began.
THIS is American Idol, as Ryan Seacrest (he of the Simon-described new Single White Female haircut) would say.
So tonight the first batch of 12 singers (apparently/hopefully chosen at random) stepped up to the mic, with the resultant top male and top female vote-getter each getting through to the top 12, followed by the next highest ranker (be it male or female, thus sort of lessening the strict gender quotas of past seasons). Their goal tonight was--as Paula Abdul semi-coherently worded it--to "hit the centerstage and make magic happen in one minute and 20 seconds" while singing all-time top hits of Billboard Hot 100.
No pressure there, then...
Singing first was "Miss Personality" Jackie Tohn, the retro-fabulous fashionista who in her pre-performance interview segment rocked a loud butterfly-patterned rayon sexy-secretary blouse AND a metallic gold Members Only-style jacket. So awesome. Then she took to the stage dressed like Sandy-gone-wild in the final scene of Grease, in skintight spandex pants and a polka-dot tubetop. Plus a calculator watch, for a little bit of geek chic. Even more awesome! Jackie sang Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation," with all the lovable goofiness of Jon Peter Lewis's performance of that same tune in season 3 (she even lapsed into a New Jersey Coffee Tawk accent at one point) but with definitely bloozier belting skills. I loved it. I wanted a little more of "A Little Less Conversation," frankly. Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi weren't so sure about Jackie's vocal prowess but gushed about what an expert "entertainer" she was, with Kara declaring, "You can work a stage, girl!" Then Paula said something that didn't make sense (the judges' comments are so brief this season now that all four of them have to speak, so it's quite easy for Paula to never get to her actual point). And then big meanie Simon Cowell told Jackie she'd "played the clown" and came across as "ungainly" and "gimmicky." He also didn't like her "trousers." (Those were LEGGINGS, by the way. Not trousers.) How about a little less conversation from YOU, Simon?!?
Singing next was Ricky Braddy, a contestant who made no impression on me during the audition rounds or Hollywood Week. "I want to show America who I am," he said during his interview, which I figured was a pretty good idea since, well, I had no idea who he was. Like, at all. (Even Paula pointed out that Ricky had received pretty much zero screen time up until this very moment, passed over repeatedly by editors in favor of good-TV drama queens like Nathaniel Marshall, Tatiana Del Toro, and Norman Gentle.) So Ricky sang "A Song For You" by Leon Russell in a Century 21 blazer and open-collared button-down, and then I finally knew who he was: A boring, old-fashioned, dinner-theater showman. Granted, he sang well--decent range, in tune, right key, etc. He all the mechanics down pat. But I agreed with Simon's assessment that Ricky had "no star quality" and "no self-belief," and didn't
agree so much with the more effusive Randy (who declared Ricky's performance the "jumpoff" point for the season). Seriously, if Ricky's snoozy performance is representative of the type of "best talent yet" I'm in store for during season 8, then it's going to be a dull finale come this May.
Next was the not-at-all-snoozy Alexis Grace, looking waaaay
prettier and foxier than I recall her ever appearing before. Wow, Alexis cleans up nice! She'll make the Idol
stylists' jobs easy if she sticks around this season, because she's already undergone quite a stunning makeover since Hollywood Week. (Even if she did forget to put on a dress tonight and showed up onstage wearing what appeared to be a Tennessee Williams play heroine's lace slip.) Anyway, little blonde 21-year-old Alexis sang Aretha Franklin's "Never Loved A Man," a song that would seem
way out of her depth, but no--she nailed it. She sang her little blonde single-mom heart out, committed 100 percent, and totally impressed the judges (and me, and probably millions of viewers). "You worked it out! I'm loving you right now!" whooped Randy. Kara then offered a couple mixed metaphors, saying, "The genie is out of the bottle...it's a pleasure to watch you come out of your shell." Simon seemed happy to see Alexis emerge from her bottle/shell as well, declaring Alexis the dark horse of this competition and even comparing this "a-ha!" moment to Kelly Clarkson's early watershed performance seven seasons ago. Hardly faint praise, especially from someone who's so usually stingy with compliments.
season has a token country boy, and so singing fourth tonight was this season's wannabe Nashville star, Brent Keith. His pre-performance interview was delayed due to some tape snafu--oh, the magic of live TV--which might have been a bad omen. Brent's rendition of Jason Aldean's "Hicktown" was certainly a snafu in and of itself, wholly unimpressive. It wasn't terrible
, not at all--it was just limp and ho-hum. Randy's critique had something to do with envisioning Brent at a chili cookoff, which I guess was supposed to be a country-oriented compliment, although it may have just meant that Randy, clearly a man with a hearty appetite, was feeling a few dinnertime hunger pangs by this point in the show. Kara was more to-the-point, telling Brent his performance was too safe and soulless. Paula tried to be nice and compared Brent to former country Idol Bucky Covington, to which Simon retorted, "What has
happened to Bucky Covington?" (Ooh, snap!) Simon then called Brent's performance "forgettable," to which Brent--in the first but surely not last live broadcast contestant/Simon standoff of this season--answered, "Personally, I don't feel country fans will forget that [performance]." Well, we shall see. I've already forgotten it myself. Brent who
Sweet 16-year-old Stevie Wright sang next, taking in mind the judges' supposedly constructive criticism to sing "younger" songs after performing Etta James's more elderly-friendly "At Last" during an earlier audition. So this time Stevie went with "You Belong With Me," a tune by fellow teenager Taylor Swift. But she really
shouldn't have listened to the judges' in this case. Her performance was an utter disaster: It was in a key way too low for her vocal range, plus she was out-of-breath in parts and looked deer-in-headlights nervous throughout. Taylor Swift's not even THAT good a singer--she's no Aretha or Ann Wilson or Maria Callas, for corn's sake--but Stevie still
couldn't handle "You Belong With Me." Well, clearly she doesn't belong on this show, then. I blame the judges to some degree for Stevie's downfall tonight--for giving her conflicting, "confusing" (her parents' words) guidance about singing more youthful material, then criticizing her for her subsequent song choice--but ultimately, Stevie just didn't perform well, and that's her fault. None of the judges had anything remotely nice to say about her performance, but naturally Simon was the most brutal and blunt, describing her singing as downright "terrible" and then adding, "The good news is you got some experience, you got to sing in front of 28 million people," and THEN adding, just in case Stevie became too encouraged, that there was "zero chance" that she'd make the top 12. Well, duh
. I must say, though, that Stevie took her beating extremely maturely for a girl so young and green. She may have a thick enough skin to make it in this business after all. Too bad she doesn't seem to have the voice
to make it, at least judging by tonight's debacle.
One of my favorites this season, Anoop "Dogg" Desai, went next, with another interesting and perhaps misguided song choice: Monica's "Angel Of Mine." He later explained this was the song that first got him into R&B when he was a kid, and I thought he sang the female-diva song in a suitably masculine manner. Plus he looked handsome, with real heartthrob potential, and Paula compared his voice to Brian McKnight's (a compliment that obviously and understandably made Anoop very, very happy). Randy, however, didn't like the song choice (a complaint he would make over and over throughout the night); Kara was underwhelmed; and Simon thought the performance was "too grown up" and "too serious." But then Simon noted that Anoop has "massive likability" and that that just might be enough to get him through to the top 12. I certainly hope so. I like Anoop myself--proving Simon's point.
One singer I most certainly did NOT like tonight was Casey Carlson, who until this episode seemed like a real frontrunner. Good voice, adorable face, bubbly personality--she seemed to have all the makings of the Next Tween Sensation. But then...she chose to sing the Police's "Every Little Thing HE Does Is Magic." It was, to say the least, not
magic. Sting has a crazy-high vocal range that few reality-TV singers can gracefully handle (I still have night-sweaty nightmares over an eliminated-in-week-1 contestant on Rock Star: Supernova
who tragically mangled "Roxanne"). Probably the only singers tougher to tackle are Queen's Freddie Mercury and Heart's Ann Wilson. Casey definitely did not live up to Sting's legacy, and her arrhythmic dancing, gender-altered lyrics, nervous-tic winking, and back-combed Amy Winehouse beehive didn't help matters. Randy called her performance "weirdly karaoke" ("weird" is another word he used a lot tonight); Kara said "everything about that was wrong," "nobody goes near those [Police] songs," and criticized Casey's "weird dancing"; Paula tried to be nice and praise Casey's one saving grace, her good looks; and Simon of course went for the jugular, declaring Casey's performance "atrocious" and a "disaster." Casey's fleshy lower lip started quivering and her Scarlett-like perfect pout got even poutier as she appeared on the verge of tears. And that might be the one thing that saves her: the sight of a beestung-lipped beauty crying can melt many hearts. But her singing unfortunately melted many viewers' eardrums
, so her chances of making it are probably still slim to none.
Everyman oil-rigger Michael Sarver sang next, hamming and mugging and basically all-around dorking out through Gavin DeGraw's "I Don't Wanna Be." His performance was "weird karaoke" too, in my opinion, although it was not nearly as painful as Casey's. (Novocain-less root canals are not nearly as painless as Casey's Police cover, really, so that's not saying much.) Simon flat-out told Michael, "We put you here primarily because we like you. You're a good, honest, hard-working guy who needs a break. And if you make it through, it will be because people like you for that reason." Well, I implore the people of America, don't vote for Sarver just because he seems like a salt-of-the-earth good ole boy whom you'd like to have an after-work beer or go shoot some pool with. Just go buy him some beers instead and let someone with more actual star potential advance to the next round, OK?
Anne-Marie Boskovich--the girl who at her first audition was ordered to leave and "come back as a different person," then returned with slightly tussled hair and a different pair of shoes and somehow convinced the judges that she'd undergone this massive, The Swan-like transformation--sang next. And here was another victim of...wait for it...SONG CHOICE, people.
She attempted to sing a song by yet another nearly-impossible-to-take-on powerhouse vocalist, Aretha Franklin. Sure, Alexis had handled an Aretha song with (no pun intended) grace, but Anne-Marie chose a more iconic Franklin tune, "Natural Woman"; she happened to choose one of Kelly Clarkson's most memorable season 1 numbers; and most importantly, her "voice was not good enough for that song," to quote Simon Cowell. She should have probably worn a replica of Aretha's big-bow-bedecked inauguration hat to distract the judges from her so-so singing; that might have been her only hope. Anyway, when Kara suggested she would have been better off singing something like Sara Bareilles's "Love Song," Anne-Marie quipped, "Oh, you mean something not as GOOD?"--and while her sassiness seemed to impress Simon, that was the only
way he was impressed by Anne-Marie tonight. He told her she'd only have a chance of winning a "Search For The Best Hotel Singer In California" competition, and declared her performance "irrelevant. That song destroyed you." Then Anne-Marie, who probably really DID wish she was "a different person" by that point, went off to sulk with Stevie and Casey.
Stephen Fowler went next, hoping to redeem himself after a very difficult Hollywood Week, the lowlight of which came when he forgot his lyrics and fled the stage in self-disgust. It's rare that people get a second chance in Hollywood, as Paula astutely pointed out--but sadly, Stephen blew this chance as well.
I was really rooting for him--there's always been just something I like about this cool cat, a "likability factor" as Simon would put it--and I was even happy that Stephen had decided to mix it up by singing Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" instead of the expected ballad most contestants safely opt for. This would be fun, I thought! But...no. It wasn't fun for me, the judges, and probably most of all, for Stephen himself. Kara said she preferred Stephen at his piano, even if he messed up the words. (Stephen admitted he was much more comfortable performing seated at a keyboard, and his discomfort tonight was extremely apparent.) Simon went so far as to say: "I wish you had
forgotten the lyrics" and called the song choice (again with the song choice critiques!) a "huge mistake" and "corny." Paula, who surprisingly actually had a few somewhat intelligent things to say tonight, called Stephen's song choice the "kiss of death" because "it belongs to one artist, and that artist is Michael Jackson." Wow. Guess Stephen's performance was BAD, and I don't
mean Michael Jackson-bad. And sadly, unlike the other contestants, Stephen didn't have any family members there on the set to console him tonight. Hopefully he was able to cry on the collective shoulders of fellow shiz-listers Stevie, Casey, and Anne-Marie.
Speaking of crying...next was camera-hogging crybaby Tatiana Del Toro, the girl everyone loves to hate. (Actually, scratch that: I hate to hate this girl. There's no love here. She's just got that "hate-ability factor," period.) After an interview in which she repeatedly screamed, "This is my dream!" and threw about 17 hissyfits in the space of about 30 seconds, she slumped onto the stage in a shockingly subdued manner, looking downright sedated. Had she undergone electro-shock therapy since Hollywood Week? Accidentally taken too many of her manic-depression meds before tonight's performance? I don't know, but something was off.
She semi-flubbed lyrics in the beginning and seemed to start off the song (another big, big one to take on: Whitney Houston's "Saving All My Love For You") in a wrong, super-low key. She wasn't as overtly annoying as she was on past episodes, but I was still saving all my love for other contestants--the damage was done, I'd already decided that I loathed her with every cell and fiber of my being, and nothing could change my mind, no matter how well she sang tonight. That being said, I didn't think she sang that well at all. The judges were for the most part kind when critiquing her actual vocals ("Surprisingly, it wasn't bad at all," said Simon--his idea of high praise), but they all seemed as flustered and loop-thrown as I was regarding her sudden personality makeunder. Paula said she didn't like the new, "demure" Tatiana and that she "missed the crazy!" (Come on, Paula: Being crazy is YOUR job on this show.) "Who are you? Where do you fit?" demanded a confused Kara, to which Tatiana--before reciting some off-puttingly robotic/pageanty speech about "marketing" herself--answered, "I fit everywhere
! It's world music, it's ALL genres!" The critiques then continued to focus on Tatiana's bi-polar personality (which, let's face it, is what got her this far on the show in the first place). Simon told her, "You are a complete and utter drama queen. I've never met anyone who's wanted fame more than you." Paula said, "You're the most talked-about contestant on the show so far. At least they're talking about you!" Then they all begged for the return of Crazy Tatiana (Shut up, judges! Be careful what you wish for!
) and ordered her to deliver her famously grating horse laugh on cue like a trained circus animal. A trained horse
, I suppose. I have a feeling Tatiana realized how badly she'd come across on past episodes and was trying to redeem herself by reining (no pun intended) in her obnoxiousness--but enough of it peeked through her Stepfordy exterior tonight to remind me why Tatiana Del Toro is just full of toro
. Please, voters of America, do not let her get through tonight. PLEASE.
Last to sing was lovable, recently widowed Danny Gokey, the show's number one hero, singing--what else?--"Hero" by Mariah Carey. Yes, it was big song of triumph to close the show, but I thought he missed the mark just a little and didn't belt it out quite grandly enough. Granted, I preferred his low-key approach to the OTT, chest-beating, Celine-esque way a contestant like Von Smith would have interpreted the song. But still, I did find Danny a little too reserved. Paula, Randy, and Kara clearly were super-impressed, however. Paula gave her one and only standing ovation of the evening and, lapsing back into her trademark mumblespeak, said, "I have two words, with a hyphen: sold-out arenas." Randy kept shouting, "You're the redeemer of the night!" And Kara shrieked, "You are the hero! You give us all hope!" Only killjoy Simon brought everyone "back to the real world" with his more measured critique: "Yes, it was good
, but it wasn't fantastic
. I like you; I'm just not buying the hype right now." I agreed with Simon--as I did most of the time this evening, except when he was lambasting my girl Jackie Tohn.
OK, so now it is prediction time. If it was up to MY vote, I would say Anoop should be the top guy, Alexis the top girl, and then Jackie should get the third slot. And while I do think Alexis has the top girl's spot all sewn up (with competition like Stevie, Casey, Anne-Marie, and Tatiana, I don't have to be Tatiana's psychic friend to predict that
outcome), I think the guy's spot will go to heartstring-tugging audience favorite Danny. That being said, however, I think Anoop has an excellent chance of being the third, gender-unspecific singer to get through. And if that is the case, I do hope the judges seriously consider Jackie when it comes time to make their wild-card picks. I heart her and her sequined fanny-pack.
Tune in tomorrow to see if I'm right!
- Paula Abdul
- Randy Jackson
- Simon Cowell