In a sort of metaphorical act of early-Christmas-present-opening (and as a definite American Idol first), a few of this season's Idol semifinalists were announced Tuesday night as part of a protracted two-night reveal. Seven hopefuls--Michael Lynche, Lee DeWyze, Todrick Hall, Casey James, Aaron Kelly, Didi Benami, and Kaetlyn Epperly--received their good news on night number one, and on Wednesday, 17 more contestants edged closer to their dream of becoming the ninth American Idol.
Below is my breakdown of all 24 semifinalists, along with my thoughts on a couple of the most surprising shutouts.
Angela Martin - Sometimes who didn't get through is bigger news than who did, and that certainly is the case with this girl. Many contestants this year have sob stories, but Angela's was by far the sobbiest, which, compounded with her actual legitimate talent, seemed to make her a Season 9 shoo-in. Angela became the ultimate Idol underdog this season when, after her third audition in her final year of eligibility, she made it to Hollywood Week yet again. Angela has a 10-year-old daughter with the developmental disorder Rett Syndrome; she suffered the death of her father in season 7 right before Hollywood Week; and on top of all that, her mother went missing last Christmas. Angela stayed strong and delivered throughout Hollywood Week this season, but apparently it still was not enough. The judges seemed pained when they told her she didn't make it Wednesday, and they encouraged her to keep going. Kara DioGuardi told her: "You're one of the bravest people I have ever met, and I'm going to remember you forever." Too bad the judges didn't remember to put Angela through this time. I personally think they made a major mistake.
Thaddeus Johnson - A Rooooben-esque velvet teddy bear and self-declared mama's boy, Thaddeus was all smiles and giggles throughout Hollywood Week, but when he got rejected on Wednesday, he collapsed into agonized sobs, and it was truly heartbreaking to watch. The judges told him he "did great" and "did nothing wrong," but that feedback only seemed to confuse and upset Thaddeus even more, as in, then WHY wasn't he chosen, if he'd done so well? He sobbed all the way out of Kodak Theatre, with his mother consoling and pep-talking him and hanging on his arm...and his rejection was ultimately almost as sad as Angela's.
Ashley Rodriguez - Many pundits, including AI judge Randy Jackson and guest judge Mary J. Blige, have declared this to be the females' season (after two seasons featuring boy-on-boy finales). And this soul-pop female, a Berklee music student, has stood out from the moment she auditioned in Boston on this season's premiere episode, when Simon Cowell told her she had "it." She hasn't gotten a lot of screentime since, and I wasn't quite as blown away from Ashley as Simon was, but she seems to have the looks and poise to go far in this competition. I'll reserve judgment until after she competes next week.
Crystal Bowersox - A young single mom with a headful of dreads, chinful of facial piercings, backful of tattoos, and mouthful of sandpaper-and-velvet, this Chicago-based coffeehouse folk rocker has consistently impressed with her covers of Sheryl Crow, Aretha Franklin, and her obvious soundalike, Janis Joplin. Her name has repeatedly cropped up in online polls about favorite contestants of the season, and I would be willing to bet a good chunk of my Yahoo! paycheck that she makes the top 12. She certainly should.
Didi Benami - One of my favorite girls this year, this part-time waitress and full-time songstress is like the immaculately conceived lovechild of Megan Joy and Brooke White, and her performances have been immaculate throughout this season so far. She made a big impression at her emotional Denver audition when she belted out the Beatles' "Hey Jude" in memory of a dear departed friend, so much that she was one of the lucky chosen ones to get through early on Tuesday night. If Didi does not make it to the top 12, I'm going to demand that Idol reinstates the Wild Card policy, pronto.
Haeley Vaughn - A sweet 16-year-old with aspirations of becoming the first big African-American female country star (although I would give Rissi Palmer some credit for making inroads in that subgenre, to be fair), Haeley is button-cute and has a made-for-TV backstory. (She was a preemie baby, and not expected to live to be 16.) Haeley's voice seems limited (she gets shrill easily), but she does fill a pretty empty niche, and it's hard not to like the kid (even if Simon finds her "a little bit annoying"). I imagine viewers will fall in love with her if they haven't already.
Janell Wheeler - Another one of this season's golden guitar girls, and another one of my personal favorites, Janell first really caught my attention during Hollywood Week, when she took on Estelle's "American Boy" and turned it into an acoustic alt-country tune. After that, I was hooked. Janell stumbled a bit this week, due to being sick, and she sobbed backstage, assuming she'd blown her chances. But luckily the judges saw in her what I see, and they gave her another shot. I hope America does as well.
Katelyn Epperly - This curly-haired cutie with the parental-divorce sob story (easily relatable to about half the nation's viewership) has been quite heavily "pimped," as they say in Idolspeak, in various Fox promos and teasers. And she was one of the seven who got through on Tuesday. I personally am not too sold on her yet--and neither was Simon, at her first audition--but there must be some good reason why the judges didn't want to wait an extra night to give her a coveted top 24 spot. Perhaps we'll all soon see why.
Katie Stevens - A frontrunner from day one (wholesome girl-next-door image, Alzheimer's-grandma sob story, mature-beyond-her-years voice), Katie is so perfect for Idol it almost seems like she was concocted in a Fox lab after weeks of focus group analysis. I am not so sure she is worthy of ALL her hype--she's a little too goody-goody for my tastes--but there's no denying the girl has a very womanly set of pipes.
Lacey Brown - This pixie girl made it all the way to the top 50 last season, but ultimately lost her spot in a singoff with the similarly charming Megan Joy (another quirky, unique, jazzy type). This season Lacey auditioned with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World" and made the over-performed, somewhat cliché Idol staple songs her own. Why she didn't make it last year boggles my mind, but I'm so glad the judges realized the error of their ways this season.
Lilly Scott - This bottle-blonde beauty first really astounded with her folky-jazzy version of Ella Fitzgerald's "Lullaby Of Birdland" during Hollywood Week--easily one of the top performances of the week, or even the season, hands down. There are many promising blonde guitar girls this season, but Lilly is one who's really set to blossom (pun intended) on this show.
Michelle Delamor - Michelle is a stunner, but her screentime has been so fleeting it's hard for me to form much of an opinion on her just yet. But I have a strange feeling that she might be this season's LaToya London--meaning she will just come outta NOWHERE and wow everyone the moment she performs on a live show.
Paige Miles - Paige is another under-the-radar contestant (often confused with Paige Dechausse, who did not make it but accidentally appeared on many early spoiler lists). The woman's got pipes and seems likable enough, but next week is when she'll really get the chance to shine.
Siobhan Magnus - Siobhan is a youngster, but received criticism throughout the season from the judges--particularly Ellen DeGeneres--because she seemed "too old." Siobhan took heed and attempted to youthify her image without betraying her artistic instincts and turning into some sort of wannabe Miley...and she struck the perfect balance on her final audition, an upbeat cover of Stevie Wonder's old-school hit "Living for the City." Will Siobhan now connect with Idol's teen demographic, or with the moms and grandmas? If she manages to do both, she'll surely sail straight to the top 12.
Aaron Kelly - One contestant sure to win over the blue-haired demo is grandma-friendly, Archuleta-esque teen boy Aaron Kelly. If Paula Abdul were still on this show, she'd surely want to squish this cuddly kid's head and hang it from her car window. (That's a direct Paula quote, people.) The boy can sing, he has a sympathetic back story (he's a former foster child), and he's (Idol buzzword alert, again) likable. Ain't no way he's not making the top 12.
Alex Lambert - He shares a surname, and an emo-combover hairstyle, with a certain famous Season 8 contestant. And he can sing, for sure. But that's where the Alex/Adam resemblance ends. This kid has his own thing going on, namely a talent for ukulele-playing and doing the laid-back folksy shtick. (He's got more in common with Kris Allen, come to think of it.) Alex is boyishly cute and has remained likable onscreen even when dealing with all sorts of Mary Powers-administered Group Night drama, but until I get to see more of his singing (he hasn't received much screentime yet), I'll reserve final judgment on him.
Andrew Garcia - Andrew is one of my favorite males this season; I've been impressed by the way he's so easily gotten in touch with his feminine side on his acoustic covers like Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" and Adele's "Chasing Pavements." His Paula remake was one of those total switch-up cover tunes that brought to mind Kris Allen's "Heartless," David Cook's "Hello," or Brooke White's "Love Is A Battlefield," and it was a real Idol MOMENT. If he can keep doing genius covers like that once he's performing for America's votes, he'll have it made.
Casey James - At his first audition, this blonde Adonis (who got through Tuesday) made more of an impression by taking off his shirt, at judge Kara's audacious command, than by actually singing. But once he strapped on his guitar, he transformed into a blue-eyed bluesy Jonny Lang type, and he proved he is more than just a pretty face (or chest). Kara apparently still has a crush (as do I, admittedly), and she was a little too eager to give him a congratulatory hug on Tuesday night. But that's not too troubling: Chances are many of America's female viewers will agree with Kara and vote for Casey in droves, and his blues guitar playing just might win over male voters, too.
Jermaine Sellers - A professional church singer with another heartstring-jerking sob story (he takes care of his mother, who has spina bifida) and heartthrobby hunky good looks, this guy has "American Idol" written all over him--and he may become the first big male R&B star to be spawned by this show since Ruben Studdard. His lovely Atlanta audition of Joan Osborne's "One of Us" was one of the season's early highlights, and although his diva-like behavior during Hollywood Week (he scolded the band) earned him some ill will among the judges, if he can get his attitude under control starting next week, all will certainly be forgiven.
John Park - John has gotten almost ZERO screentime since his Chicago audition--much to my chagrin, since he is one of my favorite guys this season based on his five minutes of Idol fame so far. Guest judge Shania Twain certainly is a fan; in Chicago, she told him he has a "beautiful bottom end" (a reference to his vocals, people!), "nice lips," and "a good head." So I, along with Shania and many other female Idol fans, am looking forward to seeing more of John's end/lips/head next week.
Joe Munoz - Another repeat auditioner, Joe plays guitar and sings in Spanish, which will surely set him apart from the pack. There hasn't been a real Latin music superstar to come out of AI so far, but maybe that will change in season 9.
Lee DeWyze - Lee got through on Tuesday, which was a bit of a surprise considering his underwhelming progress up until that point. His initial audition of "Ain't No Sunshine" was not quite as memorable as Kris Allen's starmaking performance of the Bill Withers classic last season, and Lee received little screentime after that. But like Kris, he may very well be this season's dark horse.
Michael Lynche - New dad "Big Mike" was rumored to be out of the running due to his father's premature blabbing to the press, but luckily it seems like he got through. (He was the first to receive a place in the top 24 this season.) His soulful rendition of John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change" was a Hollywood Week highlight, and despite all the pimping he's received so early in the season (were Fox cameras in the delivery room at his daughter's birth really necessary?), Big Mike is definitely talented and deserves his shot, despite his dad's big mouth.
Tim Urban - This ragamuffin boy first made an impact in Hollywood Week with his acoustic cover of Season 7 winner David Cook's "Come Back to Me." (A prophetic song, picking a winner, perhaps?) He has a face only a million tween girl voters could love, and all girls love a boy with a guitar. So this boy is full of win. (Side note: Tim was the one name not on widely circulated spoiler lists; his spot was supposed to go to heavily pimped, Guarini-haired foster kid Chris Golightly. Chris was featured in many group scenes this week, but was cut at the last minute because he allegedly was under contract with a boy band. This a claim Chris steadfastly denies, but unfortunately he lost his spot to Tim nonetheless.)
Todrick Hall - A former castmate of Season 3 champ Fantasia in The Color Purple, this theater veteran delighted viewers and judges alike with a "cutesy" (Simon Cowell's word) Dallas audition, of an original song about AI that namechecked all three judges and William Hung. (The song should be the show's new official theme, seriously.) He continued to delight throughout Hollywood Week, so much so that he was one of the seven early picks on Tuesday night. There are reports circulating on the Interweb that he has a shady shyster past, and if such allegations are true then he might soon fall out of favor with voters. But right now he is innocent until proven guilty--or, really now, the only thing he is guilty of is being awesome, as far as I'm concerned.
Tyler Grady - Another female-friendly pretty-boy contestant (judging from the way Kara and guest judge Victoria Beckham were bedroom-eyeing him up and down back in Boston when he sang "Let's Get It On"), this '70s-style hippie boy is one of my personal season 9 fangirl crushes. Yes, I must confess: I am a member of the Grady Bunch. Tyler just has a certain Jagger swagger that might make him this season's Michael Johns or Constantine, and even though his hippie-dippie-ness made Kara accuse him of seeming like he was from another planet ("Planet Tyler," of course), I must say that is a planet many women would like to visit. Yep, I look forward to seeing Tyler and Casey battle for the thirtysomething female vote next week.
So there you have it. While I was initially underwhelmed by the earlier audition rounds, now that I look at this final list of the top 24, I am pretty psyched for this season to really get underway. And yes, I do think it's going to be a girls' season, but a few of the guys will no doubt give the ladies some stiff competition. Tune in next week to see them all compete live, and get your speed dial primed and ready.