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‘American Idol’ Top 10 Boys: Sorry, Charlie

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

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When quirky, jazz-handy ginger Charlie Askew first appeared on “American Idol” this season, he was depicted as a merry misfit, an adorkable urchin who happily marched to the beat of his own hippy-dippy drum. But when he performed on “Idol” Season 12’s live show this Wednesday, he revealed the startling darkness behind his sparkly manic-pixie-boy persona, when he suffered a minor meltdown after receiving his first (overly) harsh critiques of the season.

And it was kind of harsh to witness...

When Charlie emerged on the “Idol" stage Wednesday, there was something different about him—he looked like a Venice Beach hair-braider, wearing an ‘80s-rocker ponytail, a grungy tank top that flaunted his pale biceps, a feathered dreamcatcher earring, and the remnants of a scraggly mustache. And then he started belting out Genesis’s “Mama,” a disturbing song about a prostitute that probably wasn’t the best choice for this conservative show (or for a 17-year-old). But at least it was original.

As the broody, moody ballad built, Charlie started screeching like the immaculately conceived lovechild of Ronnie James Dio and the Darkness’s Justin Hawkins. And while his unhinged performance was fascinating to behold, and actually kind of awesome just because it was so unique, and it probably would’ve made total sense if he'd been fronting a righteous rock group…it was a little too bizarre for “Idol.” At least, it was too bizarre for the judges (even Nicki Minaj), who all came down hard on the kid and even outright laughed at him at one point.

“The expressions on [audience members’] faces were varied; if nothing else, we’ve definitely offered some diversity tonight,” chuckled Keith Urban, who suggested Charlie start a band. Nicki was aghast, saying: “The last time I saw you, I wanted to cradle you in my arms. Where’s my little baby at? What happened? I don’t want to see your arms. I don’t want you working out. I don’t want to see that ponytail. I don't want to see that earring. Lose the mustache immediately. I feel like someone stole my kid. I want my cute, cuddly Charlie back!” Randy Jackson even said he was “a little worried.”

Maybe Randy had reason to be concerned for this sensitive contestant. When host Ryan Seacrest asked Charlie why he’d given such a sinister performance of such a strange song, Charlie answered, visibly trembling: “All I can say is, I needed to vent a little bit.” And then he started to cry, and his fragility was on full, uncomfortable, almost-too-real-for-reality-TV display. Suddenly, the judges seemed like bullies, and they weren't laughing anymore. And the mood in the theater grew dark. “A lot of people think I’m a very happy, buoyant person, and the only reason I smile so much is because I feel like I have to," confessed an unsmiling Charlie, in what seemed like a televised cry for help.

Oh no. Charlie appeared to be on the verge of a breakdown. And my heart broke for him.

Thankfully, Ryan handled the situation with class (can someone please give him an Emmy already?), placing a reassuring hand on the sad boy's quivering shoulder and telling him, “You’ve got some friends here. We appreciate your courage and your honesty, and there’s nothing easy about having those feelings inside and standing up here and having to do that tonight.”

Here's Charlie's full performance, which I actually enjoyed:

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Charlie has a loyal fanbase, tons of talent, and a flamboyant rock style that sets him apart from any “Idol” contestant, male or female, in this year’s top 20. He’s the kind of kid that many viewers, myself included, root for. Also included in that bunch: country star John Rich, who angrily tweeted in Charlie's defense, "@charlieAI12 on #idol was LAUGHED AT by the judges! DISGUSTING. The kid has GUTS. No need to hurt him.#justvotedforhim." And many other viewers, along with John, may be moved enough by Charlie's raw emotional display to supportively SuperVote for him in droves.

But I don’t know if that would be such a good thing for Charlie, right now, as much as I’d like to see him let loose and rock out on future episodes (and get through to the top 10, just to spite those judges). It was unclear to me if his mini-meltdown was caused by the judges’ tough critiques, or by personal issues that made him want to “vent” in the first place, or both…but after watching this poor boy completely crumble on his first live show, I don’t know if he’s quite ready to be in the glaring national spotlight like this. Sorry, Charlie.

And now I just want to cradle him in my arms, tell him it’ll all be okay, and advise him to wait and try out for “The Voice” in a few years.

Actually, I wish I had been watching “The Voice” this Wednesday; at least that show has interesting contestants who make interesting song choices (hence why I argue that Charlie would fit right in). While this week’s top 10 "Idol" boys episode promisingly started with relevant performances of actual current chart hits by Rihanna and Bruno Mars, it quickly devolved into circa-Season 2 schlock, with tired, overdone karaoke classics like the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris,” R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly,” Boyz II Men’s “End Of The Road,” and even an oldie by my grandmother’s favorite heartthrob, Perry Como. (Perry Como??? Seriously??? Way to court the youth vote, “Idol.”) It was enough to make me suffer a meltdown of my own. There were a few performances that gave me hope...but once five of these boys advance to the overall top 10, and they have to compete voicebox-to-voicebox against the girls, they’re going to have a tough time.

Here’s how the other nine boys fared this Wednesday:

Elijah Liu - Clearly the producers set Elijah up as fodder by putting him in the death spot. Or maybe they just put him there because they feared that this potential heartthrob—with his adorable face and skunky hairdo that Nicki said she could imagine plastered on “blankets and posters and cups”—could be a real threat to this season’s beloved girls. Elijah may not have the best voice of Season 12, but he does have a certain (wait for it) X-factor. And by covering a new hit that worked with his vocal style, Rihanna’s “Stay,” and giving an emotive performance that Nicki described as “committed,” he seemed like a real pop star—from the real world, not from some corny TV show. “I think I would be willing to stay,” the always-flirtatious Nicki sighed dreamily. “I love that you did that song. I thought it really suited your voice, and you showed really good control. A really great start to the show,” said Keith. Randy complained that the performance “didn’t really go anywhere” and “never left first gear,” but admitted, “I liked that more than I liked you last week. You’re definitely very current and marketable.” Mariah Carey praised Elijah’s “relevancy” and told him, “You were confident and strong throughout.” I do think Elijah could make it to the top 10, despite the death-spot odds against him…and if he does, the female contestants should be a little skerred.

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Cortez Shaw – Cortez’s “Titanium” cover last week, despite the lavish praise it strangely received, was a mess, but this week the man proved that he can convincingly cover modern urban pop. Singing Bruno Mars’s “Locked Out Of Heaven” was a major risk for him (let’s face it, Cortez is no Bruno, and I’d prefer to listen to Bruno’s “SNL” Pandora sketch over Cortez any day of the week), but he mostly pulled this off. He even did a little dancing, something that no male R&B singer has dared to attempt since Jordan Dorsey spectacularly imploded while impersonating Usher in Season 10. Cortez's occasional sharp notes still hurt my ears, but his good looks didn’t hurt my eyes, and he did seem like a potential new-school pop star. Keith didn’t like the song choice, and Nicki didn’t like Cortez's outfit, which she complained looked like longjohns, but Nicki did tell Cortez: “You got your mojo back. You enjoyed it, you didn’t seem nervous, and that was a good thing. But whoever is styling Elijah should style you. I want to see you looking sexier.” Randy and Mariah focused their critiques on Cortez’s vocals and pointed out that he was straining during his imperfect performance, and those critiques weren't off the mark. If Cortez advances after this week, maybe he just shouldn’t pick such huge, ambitious songs. With the right material, he could do very well.

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Nick Boddington – I really, really wish Nick hadn’t covered “Iris.” It has been performed on so many singing shows, the Goo Goo Dolls' own Johnny Rzeznik is probably sick of it (though I’m sure he’s not sick of the royalties). But that being said, I was happy to see Nick, the only male contestant in this “WGWG”-free season who plays a musical instrument, back at his piano. It’s clearly where the man belongs. His version of the Goos' ballad had a lot of heart, and his voice was gorgeous. He almost made me like “Iris” again. Almost. Nicki, who unexpectedly revealed that “Iris” is one of her favorite songs of all time, appreciated Nick’s rendition, but thought he strayed from the original melody too much. (Hey, straying from melody worked out pretty well for Phillip Phillips last season, right?) Randy called Nicki “solid” and compared him to OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, which I am pretty sure was a compliment, although Randy said this wasn’t Nick’s best performance. Keith, a fellow music nerd, was the most effusive, telling Nick: “What a perfect song for you; there’s a vulnerability about your tone, and I feel it every time.” Nicki added that she didn’t think Nick’s performance was “gonna get billions of votes,” but I think it will probably get him to the top 10. (Billions of people aren’t watching “Idol,” anyway. Have you seen the ratings lately?)

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Burnell Taylor – Burnell was one of my favorite performers of the night, even though I was disappointed that he reprised his audition song, “I’m Here” from The Color Purple. (Burnell explained that his audition had been too “chopped up,” and that he wanted viewers to see the full song, as he intended. Take that, overzealous “Idol” editors!) Burnell just has this cool, nerdy, funky style—very modified Urkel/Huxtable—that reminds me of a male De’Borah from “The Voice.” He is so much fun to watch, even when he sings a serious ballad. Keith gave Burnell a standing ovation and said, “I believe you, every part of you. I feel it. It’s beautiful. Your voice is instantly recognizable. You don’t sound like anyone else.” Nicki called Burnell “one of a kind.” Randy told him, “You grabbed our attention with your first note, with that urgency in your voice.” Let’s hope viewers urgently grabbed their phones, after this. Burnell belongs in the top 10.

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Paul Jolley – Paul did the Blake Shelton/Christina Aguilera country duet “Just A Fool,” but I thought he was more Christina than Blake. There’s always something so overly theatrical and showy about Paul’s performances; he’s never quite convincingly country, although he keeps insisting that’s the genre he wants to be in. Even Keith still didn’t seem convinced this week, once again grilling Paul about “what type of artist do you want to be?” and telling him to “un-cabaret” his act. Nicki and Mariah shrugged and deferred to Keith. Randy told Paul, “The beginning was amazing, but something happens when you get to that sweet spot, when you get really strong and really loud. I’m not sure if it’s as pleasant.” (I’m sure, Randy. It’s not as pleasant, at all. Loud does not always equal good.) Incidentally, Paul answered Keith’s career-direction question by declaring that he wants to be The Male Taylor Swift. Ugh. I knew he was trouble when he walked in…

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Lazaro Arbos – Before this week, I’d been thinking that Lazaro was getting through on his sob story alone, but this Wednesday, he gave a performance that really surprised me. No, his “Feeling Good” wasn’t great (it certainly wasn’t up to Adam Lambert Season 8 standards), but he compensated for his shaky vocals with a ton of swagger. I’d never seen such confidence from this shy stutterer before! The audience went nuts, and Keith noted that this reaction was a pretty good indication of Lazaro’s chances with voters. (Keith's predicton was probably right: Early on in Season 10, I sat in the studio audience, and the loudest screams were for Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina. And the rest was history.) “Everybody in this theater starts to connect with you as soon as you start singing,” marveled Keith. “The people went crazy for you; it’s almost like you got an album out already,” noted Nicki. Randy told Lazaro, “You’re in it to win it!” (I thought Randy retired that catchphrase after Season 10, but it’s back, dawg.) Only Mariah critiqued Lazaro’s vocals at all, saying the song was in slightly too low a key for him. But America won’t care about that. Clearly this bow-tied boy will make the top 10, and probably the top five. I think he earned his spot this week, and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy...but I am still worried that he may take away a spot from a more capable singer in the future. So let’s hope his improvement this week is a sign of things to come.

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Curtis Finch Jr. – Man. Are you for real, Curtis? “I Believe I Can Fly”? Hasn’t that song been blacklisted from all singing shows yet? Apparently not, and of course a gospel belter like Curtis would choose this bloated, tired old cliché of a song. (I always say, if contestants must do an R. Kelly song, there’s like 87 different chapters of “Trapped In The Closet” for them to choose from. But I guess that’s not Curtis’s style.) Curtis handled the huge showboater ballad with ease; his years of church singing have clearly trained him well. Personally, I find this type of singing off-putting—unless I’m actually sitting in church, or watching Fantasia perform, or watching “BET’s Sunday Best”—but many “American Idol” viewers love this sort of shtick, and there’s no doubt that they’ll love Curtis, because his immense talent is undeniable. The judges certainly loved Curtis, as all four of them gave him a standing ovation and started churchily testifying and practically speaking in tongues about his amazingness. “I believe you can fly, Curtis! You just ooze everything good and light and wholesome and positive. You have so much hope in you, and we need that,” raved Keith. (Keith apparently forgot about that time when the supposedly good/light/wholesome-oozing Curtis was a big meanie to little Charlie Askew in Hollywood Week. But I digress.) Nicki preached, ‘This is more than ‘American Idol.’ That was something given you by a higher power!” Said Mariah: “That was what I needed right now in this moment in my life. There’s so much bad energy for no reason at times [Editor’s note: Oh snap. Was that Mariah throwing some shade at Nicki right there?], and you made me feel like, ‘Man, thank you that Curtis is here.'” Randy said, “I felt like the competition started right here.” I thought the panel's praise was way too over-the-top, and I don’t see Curtis winning this show...but I do think he has a chance at making it through to the top 10. I just hope he does something a little cooler next week, if he does.

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Devin Velez – Devin was the contestant who covered Perry Como. It was later-period Como, I guess (“It’s Impossible,” from 1970), and the song was actually originally written and recorded in Spanish by Mexican composer Armando Manzanero, so the song choice allowed Devin to sing in both of his languages. And his vocal was smooth, in both English and Spanish. But still. Perry. Friggin'. Como. What viewer under age 80 is going to SuperVote for that? I was genuinely surprised that none of the judges, not even Nicki, criticized the song choice and arrangement, since they’ve used the “too old-fashioned” complaint many times when critiquing other contestants’ covers of more recent songs. “Man, you are such a good singer…you are so gifted,” said Keith. Nicki whipped out her Spanish accent and called Devin’s performance “muy bien” and “perfecto.” Randy loved Devin’s tone and vibrato, then bizarrely, inaccurately called Devin “mad cool.” Mariah thought Devin was “incredible.” I think Devin has talent, but if he makes the top 10, he needs to youth it up a bit.

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Vincent Powell – Vincent, one of the overall top 20’s strongest vocalists, also picked a hackneyed song, Boyz II Men’s “End Of The Road,” that in no way established him as a potential circa-2013 singing star. But I could have overlooked that; it was more disappointing that this was a weak vocal (by Vincent standards, at least). He was all over the place and trying way too hard, and I don’t think he needed to try that hard, with natural talent like his. “Nerves got on top of your talent,” said Keith. “Your voice didn’t come alive in that song,” lamented Nicki. “It just wasn’t your best performance, but it was still good,” shrugged Randy. Mariah, Vincent’s biggest fan, was kindest, insisting that “there were moments of brilliance” in Vincent’s performance and that he was “beyond.” Will Vincent make it beyond the top 20? Or is this the end of the road for him? We shall see. At least he got the pimp spot, which will help him.

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So now it is prediction time, and this one’s a VERY tough call, since none of the male contestants fit the typical “WGWG” mold that dominates the votes every season, and few of them really wowed. I’ll take a wild guess and say the top five will be Burnell Taylor, Lazaro Arbos, Nick Boddington, Vincent Powell…and (yes) the sympathy-vote-garnering Charlie Askew, whether he's ready for the top 10 or not. But I could be totally wrong here: A good case could be made for Elijah (the most teen-heartthrob-ish of the bunch), Cortez (a very handsome man), Paul (this season’s only country boy), Devin (he could court the Latino vote), or Curtis (he could court the religious vote). It’ll be interesting to see who makes it—and, if there are Wild Cards this season, if any of those extra spots go to the leftover boys instead of the arguably much stronger girls.

We’ll find out Thursday night, when the top 10 finalists are finally revealed! Until then, Parker out.

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