On Tuesday the top 12 "American Idol" boys performed in what was possibly the most competitive semifinals episode in the series' history. Usually at this early stage in the game, it's positively painful, but this season? Not so much. There was only one performance that was truly awful--Jordan Dorsey's--but even that took place under unusual, somewhat scandalous circumstances. Read on for more on that, since I was in the studio at this show's taping, and there was plenty the TV audience DIDN'T see Tuesday night.
It was also a Very Special Episode in other ways, as it featured many firsts: a snazzy new 360-degree set, a revamped judging panel...and a new prop, a little cardboard panel on a stick Steven Tyler could place over his big lips whenever he felt a curse word coming on. ("It's in case you [beep] something up," Ryan Seacrest explained. By the way, did I mention this episode was pre-taped, not live? Maybe Fox execs didn't think a five-second delay would be enough for the foul-mouthed Tyler.)
But in the end, the show was still all about the contestants. The good news here is, whoever makes it out of the 12 male hopefuls, it's sure to be a strong top 10. The bad news? It's inevitable that some very worthy contenders, who would've been shoo-ins during any other season, won't make the cut. Sigh. Thank gawd Wild Cards are being reinstated this season, right?
Clint Jun Gamboa - Now THIS is how you open a show, people! The studio audience was clearly pumped even before this cut-up hit the stage in his Mr. Peabody spectacles and Oz-worthy red slippers, vamping up a storm on Stevie Wonder's "Superstition"...but even if they hadn't been psyched, Clint would have remedied that situation pronto with his high-energy performance. Why has this guy been hiding out in a karaoke bar all these years, when he can hit off-the-scales notes like this? But clearly Clint's years of entertaining drunken bar patrons have bolstered his confidence, because this showman knew how to work the crowd. The judges seemed impressed. Steven spoke first (a new "Idol" tradition of which I strongly approve; in fact, I wouldn't mind if S.Ty did all the talking for all three judges), raving: "You just proved to me everything I've seen in the last couple months. That was brilliant." Jennifer Lopez claimed she'd detected first-night "jitters" from Clint, but I think she mistook his bouncing-off-the-walls energy for nerves. I thought he owned the stage. As least J.Lo said that these supposed jitters never affected Clint's impeccable vocals. Because, as Randy put it, "There's no karaoke singer in the world that's got that kind of vocal talent." Dang straight!
Jovany Barreto - This shipyard worker has bugged me ever since he stripped off his shirt in the "Idol" audition room. But at least tonight he kept his clothes on, looking polished and gentlemanly in his business-casual vest and slacks. But his wardrobe choice was the only good choice he made this evening. His song, Edwin McCain's done-to-death "I'll Be" (a snoozer that should be banned from "Idol" FOREVER), did him no favors, especially following Clint's more uptempo number. The energy in the studio instantly sagged, and it was hard to imagine this would make enough of an impression to get Jovany to the next round. The two new, nice judges, however, were inexplicably pleased. "Holy shipyard!" Steven exclaimed, narrowly avoiding having to put that censor-paddle up to his face. "That was beautiful!" Said J.Lo: "I'm happy, because people got to see you for the first time--really, really see what you can do." Only Randy, by default the "mean judge" now and therefore the voice of dissent/reason, gave it to Jovany straight, telling him he was "very karaoke" and "I didn't really get it." I'm Team Randy on this issue. Jovany sang better than I expected or remembered, but to me, this still wasn't very special.
Jordan Dorsey - I had high hopes for this guy, but if there was ONE contestant among this dozen that I now think has NO chance of making the top 10, it's Jordan, sadly. It's all about song selection, song selection, song selection, people! Usher's clubby "OMG" just wasn't the right tune for Jordan, as he gyrated awkwardly, pelvic-thrusted, stripped like a Chippendale's dancer, dropped to his knees, and basically tried, unsuccessfully, to bring sexy back. His vocal acrobatics, jumping from the verse's lower register to some dog-whistle falsettos, were equally embarrassing. "You had the moves...but it wasn't OMG for me," said Steven in his first negative critique of the night. J.Lo, who once likened Jordan to old-school crooner Nat King Cole, concurred: "I'm not sure that is who you really are. Is this who you want to be as an artist?" Randy dubbed the performance a pale and (wait for it) "pitchy" Usher imitation. Surprisingly, Jordan was all too quick to agree that the song was "not me" and that he's not usually a "jumpy-jumpy singer."
Here's what the audience didn't see: I attended this taping in person. Jordan's full response, when he was asked why he chose a song so unsuited to him, was that he was "offered" it. It was not his choice, but he did the best he could with it. However, this comment was edited out of Tuesday's broadcast. So did producers set up Jordan, who'd been difficult during Hollywood Week, to be the fall guy, by making him do a tricky song that not even Usher himself can sing well live? If so, their plan worked. Jordan is doomed.
Tim Halperin - Tim is nice to look at, likably puppy-ish, and in a season short on cute-boy heartthrob types, that counts for something and could get him far. But probably not far enough. I was excited to see Tim's performance after watching his stunning piano duet with Julie Zorrilla in Vegas, but his dull rendition of the already-dull Rob Thomas semi-hit "Streetcorner Symphony" had none of his early magic. (Side note: How come NONE of the boys played musical instruments this evening, huh? That was a bit of a disappointment.) Tim's voice was pleasant enough, but his staging was awkward, the arrangement was cheesy, and there was an overall theater-y vibe to the proceedings. What happened? "I don't think that song did you any justice, man," griped an increasingly straight-shooting Steven. "I don't think that's your strength...I would hate to lose you over that," agreed Jennifer, before stressing how much she usually loves Tim's "beautiful" voice. And Randy just shrugged, "It wasn't your best try." Before this, I would have said Tim had it in the bag, but I think he blew it here. A Wild Card is now his only hope.
Brett Loewenstern - I predict that, should he continue, Brett will become a most polarizing "Idol" figure, the Sanjaya of Season 10, a love-him-or-hate-him contestant. Personally, I love him, after seeing him flounce about and goof off throughout his "Light My Fire" performance. It was just so wrong, it was right. He knocked over his microphone, looked like a tiny redheaded elf on that sprawling new stage, whipped his hair like Willow Smith...and sure, this freckle-faced bully magnet didn't exactly personify the hairy-chested swagger of the Doors' Jim Morrison (or even Jose Feliciano), but who cares? I just couldn't stop smiling when this ginger was singing with the abandon of a boy alone in his bedroom or a crazy reveler at Clint Gamboa's karaoke club. "You did it again. You are on fire," chuckled Steven. "That was more hair-tossing than me and Beyonce put together!" quipped J.Lo in her best one-liner of the night. "You need a fan!" (She meant an electrical fan, but my guess is Brett has plenty of fans already. Heh.) Randy, who counted FOURTEEN hair-flicks during Brett's three onstage minutes, praised Brett for being "fun" and "bold," saying, "You're going to do whatever you want, whenever you want to do it, and I appreciate that." I hope voters appreciate it too. I find Brett's fearlessness admirable and irresistible.
James Durbin - I've been hard on this guy, and not without good reason: the excessive screaming, the needless Adam Lambert comparisons, the whining, the dumb haircut, all of it has been just too much. But you know what? I had another thing coming. I must give James some props here. Covering a Judas Priest song--an "Idol" first, and one that went over quite well with rocker Steven Tyler--was a genius move. Sure, his flailing version of "You Got Another Thing Coming" came across like a Rock Of Ages performance, or like an overgrown teenager playing a tennis racket in front of his bedroom mirror, but as was the case with Brett's similarly amateurish attempt, it totally had its charms. James looked like he was having tons o' fun, and besides, he nailed the Rob Halford screech at the end. (Ex-Priest Ripper Owens himself would be envious.) "That was [beepin'] crazy good!" howled Steven, reaching for his handy censor paddle. "I love it that you're over-the-top, man!" J.Lo praised James's "organic" and "real" performance skills, and Randy called him "nice and tasty" and exclaimed, "This is how you do it!" I think if James continues to define himself as a full-on metal dude--something "Idol" has never really had--he could go very, very far.
Robbie Rosen - Robbie, one of the best male singers of the season and also one of the youngest, has gained ground over the last few episodes, but this performance was unfortunately a setback for him. The "pride of Long Island's" performance, of the Lilith Fair-to-middling Sarah McLachlan ballad "Arms Of An Angel," was nothing to be that proud of--it seemed so tame and treacly and old-fashioned, especially following James's ballroom blitzkrieg. I really wish Robbie had picked a more youthful, current tune. He also wincingly overdid it with the very (yes) pitchy falsetto--a little goes a long way with that, you know. The judges went easy on Robbie, however. "You can sing a ballad like nobody's business," Steven raved. (Um, did he mean "You have no business singing that ballad"?) "You're one of those very special people where when you sing, you feel every word," J.Lo purred equally delusionally. But even Jennifer admitted that Robbie's notes weren't perfect, and Randy was the only one who gave Robbie some tough love, telling him: "You never seemed quite comfortable in it." Once again, I am Team Randy on this issue.
Scott McCreery - I'm not the biggest McCreery fan, I admit--I think his low, low voice is just too much of a novelty, like that dude who sings the "oom-papa-mao-mao" parts in the Oak Ridge Boys' "Elvira"--but Scotty's voice is a very recordable voice. Seriously, you could put this kid in the studio tomorrow and get him on the radio by the weekend. Singing John Michael Montgomery's family-valued "Letters From Home," instead of his usual go-to Josh Turner song, Scotty sounded like a real professional hat act, hearkening back to the '90s heyday of Garth and Trace. "I don't think you could've picked a better song to represent who you are," said Steven. "You were born to sing country music," said J.Lo. (Well, yeah, Scotty sure wasn't born to sing, say, glam rock.) And Randy hit the nail on the head when he called Scotty a "real throwback country guy...you're not trying to be the crossover pop guy." You know, America is going to love this kid.
Stefano Langone - Stefano sang Bruno Mars's "Just The Way You Are," aka the "amazing" song, but he wasn't amazing at all. As his performance began, he seemed to be in a key well out of his range, and he really struggled. And it only got worse when he tried to go after that final money note. It was just the totally wrong song for his voice. However, the subject matter did work in his favor: Ever the hunky ladies' man, Stefano worked the stage like a real pop heartthrob and managed to slip in the fact, during his post-performance Seacrest interview, that he's single and ready to mingle. As for the performance itself, all three judges bizarrely adored it (Steven said something about forehead veins popping, but the only popping sensation I experienced was that of my tortured eardrums). At least Randy did admit it was sharp in parts. (In parts? You mean the beginning, middle, and end?) Will Stefano's loverman charms be enough to keep him in the running? I doubt it.
Paul McDonald - OK, this is when the show really got going; producers knew what they were doing when they saved the best three performances for last. Reprising his Nashville audition song "Maggie May," the ultimate classic rock cougar anthem, Paul worked the stage like a true raspy rock star who could appeal to all demographics. Looking like the cooler younger brother of Kenny Loggins (please, Paul, if there's ever a Movies Night this season, sing "Footloose"!) and stumbling lackadaisically around the stage like Coldplay's affable Chris Martin (doing what Steven called the "McDonald two-step"), Paul came across as the real deal, a dyed-in-the-denim roots rocker through and through. Steven praised Paul's "character," Jennifer loved his light-up-the-stage smile, and Randy raved, "You are just so unique and different...I like the possibility that 'Idol' could embrace this kind of singer." Oh, I've got a feeling many women out there would like to embrace Paul. Heh.
Jacob Lusk - Tamyra Gray's "A House Is Not A Home" Season 1 performance still stands as one of "Idol's" all-time great moments, but Jacob gave Tamyra a run for her money when he tackled this classic himself. An old-school R&B male diva with more sheer power in his windpipe than most singers have in both their lungs, Jacob got off to a shaky start but then took "Idol" to church with his gospel-tinged performance, and he eventually made everyone in the studio a believer. "It's divine intervention that brought you here," exalted Steven. "I'm honored to be in your presence. You make me cry when you sing! I don't know where you get it from, but I will bathe in it." (Wait. Steven Tyler bathes?) Jennifer went so far as to compare Jacob to the late, great Luther Vandross, saying: "He's gone...but now we have you!" And Randy concurred: "Luther would be so proud of you...I don't think there's anything you can't sing." If, by some ungodly act of fate, Jacob doesn't make the top 10, expect him to be first in line for the Wild Card picks. He is just too divine not to continue on the show.
Casey Abrams - Casey was hospitalized with stomach pains only two days before the top 12 boys' show taping, and was released only a couple hours before he performed--but you would've NEVER guessed he was ill judging from his totally energetic, no-holds-barred performance. Casey rocked the house--and proved he doesn't need a stand-up bass or melodica to lean on as a musical crutch--as he put a spell on the audience with a screaming rendition of Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You." (Another "Idol" first!) Dayum, this boy was FEELIN' it. And I was so spent after watching him, I felt like I needed to be hospitalized myself. Steven declared Casey's performance "as good as it gets. Crazy good!" Jennifer purred, "Casey, you're sexy....Somebody wants it baaaad. You came out with the hunger and the fire, and you TOOK it." And Randy gushed, "I love the way you transformed yourself into the spirit of that song. Screamin' Jay is somewhere jumping up and down, so happy." Casey has cast his spell all over America now. There ain't no way he's not moving ahead, especially since he sang in the all-important final "pimp spot."
So now it is time for my predictions and picks. I believe the top five boys will be Casey, Jacob, and Paul--not just because they were indeed the best, but also because they sang last and therefore will be fresh in voters' minds--along with Scotty, simply because he's the only country singer among the males, and James, because he's the only straight-up rocker dude. I definitely want my holy trinity of Casey/Jacob/Paul to make it, but if I had my druthers, the other two finalists would actually be Clint and Brett. But both of those boys are polarizing in their own ways, and Clint's position of having to sing first won't help him any. But hey, at least they still have a better shot than Jordan Dorsey.
Still, like I said earlier, this is a really tough call. And I'm afraid the top 12 girls' night, which airs Wednesday, will be just as competitive. So I think we're going to need some more Wild Cards.