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American Idol’s Michael Jackson Night: Who’s Bad?

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

When Randy Jackson Presents America's Best Dance Crew held its own Michael Jackson Night back in season 1, it was a real thriller. But tonight, when Randy's "other" show American Idol went with a Jacko theme, it was kind of just, well, bad. Sure, some contestants tonight were pretty young things, but many others just needed to beat it. And some performances were such carnage-laden trainwrecks, they almost left blood on the dancefloor, so to speak. They were less wacko Jacko and more just plain old wack.

The less-than-thrilling performances tonight should come as no surprise to longtime fans of either AmIdol or Michael Jackson, really. Remember the Beatles performances last year? Producer Nigel Lythgoe spent six seasons lobbying for Idol access to the Fab Four's (ironically once Michael-owned) catalog, but then when the contestants finally had the chance to tackle such iconic, classic material, their performances weren't so fab. George Harrison and John Lennon subsequently spun in their graves, and Nigel perhaps not coincidentally left the show not long after. The Beatles' songs simply turned out to be too associated with their beloved creators, and as Paula Abdul pointed out in one of her rare lucid moments tonight, many MJ songs are similarly "untouchable." (Sure, David Cook's Chris Cornell-inspired hard rock cover of "Billie Jean" last year was a season 7 highlight, but Kris Allen's bland rendition of "Man In The Mirror" and Stephen Fowler's not-at-all-rocking performance of "Rock With You" just a couple of weeks ago are proof that not all singers, even talented ones, are capable of capturing that Michael magic.) Forcing this season's finalists to perform songs so intrinsically linked in fans' minds to one of this century's most charismatic American idols, Michael Jackson, was almost inevitably setting them up for failure.

But the 13 contestants did their best, and some handled the challenge better than others. Lil' Rounds, a frontrunner with seemingly little chance of beating it any time soon, actually fared pretty well. The only real traditional R&B diva among this season's finalists, oddly (a far cry from season 3, when soul-sista powerhouses Fantasia Barrino, Jennifer Hudson, and LaToya London all battled for divalicious supremacy), Rounds has stood out from the pack from the beginning, and tonight--singing in the advantageous first slot--she certainly made a good impression with "The Way You Make Me Feel." First of all, she looked unusually fabulous with her new Idol-stylist makeover, despite her somewhat fussy pink-powderpuff prom-queen top. (Paula, always quick to comment on contestants' outfits, admired Lil's new look, giving the show's "glam squad" props. Meanwhile, Simon Cowell barked, "I hate what you're wearing!"--but this was coming from a man who's worn nothing but too-tight, nipple-revealing black V-necks for all eight season of this show.) Second of all, Rounds worked the stage like a pro. And third, she managed to hit those difficult eunuch-high Michael notes. Impressive all around, indeed.

"This is the way we kick off season 8!" Randy cheered after Rounds was done, adding a few "dawg"s for enthusiastic emphasis. Kara DioGuardi concurred, warning the other presumably intimidated contestants to step it up after this bar-setting opening performance. But of course, party-pooper Simon was less gushy, dismissing Lil' Rounds' song choice as "lazy." If he'd realized what was to come later in the episode, he might have been more appreciative of Rounds' performance, as it ultimately turned out to be one of the stronger showings of the night.

Next up was one of this season's big sympathy-vote-getters, blind pianist Scott McIntyre, choosing to perform--of ALL the amazing hits in the King Of Pop's catalog--some throwaway track off Dangerous, "Keep The Faith." (Huh?) Paula pointed out that this was (FACTOID ALERT!) the biggest-selling record ever in Norway, or something like that...but hey, this ain't Norwegian Idol. Who in America cares about this song? If Scott had to do a ballad--and let's face it, ballads probably best suit his mellow singer-songwriter style--then why not "She's Out Of My Life," "Ben," or even "Man In The Mirror"? Instead he did this forgettable snoozer, and ended up sounding like Christopher Cross waking up from a nap. Granted, Scott seemed more comfortable behind the piano again, instead of floundering in front of a microphone, but I was still not feeling his performance at all.

However, the audience freaked out appreciatively and predictably, acting as hearing-impaired as Scott is visually impaired. And Paula and Kara pandered to him once again, of course. (Paula babbled about him being "magical"; Kara mawkishly praised his vague "hopeful message" and overly kindly told him, "You're true to yourself," as if Scott deserves a medal for that. Aren't the other contestants true to themselves, too?) Simon and Randy were less smitten, understandably: Randy told Scott that his song choice was too safe, while Simon complained that it was too obscure.

Scott defended his puzzling song choice by saying he'd wanted to do something "more artistic," to which Simon candidly answered: "It's fine being artistic--just not on this show." Wow, Simon said a mouthful there--and former Idols battling for artistic control (everyone from winner Kelly Clarkson to reject Josiah Leming) know all too well that Simon was sadly speaking the truth. Anyway, I have NO problem whatsoever with contestants trying to be artistic or mix things up or take risks; I just didn't think Scott's performance was all that exciting. I probably would have been underwhelmed no matter what he sang, as I'm just not a fan--but it didn't help matters that he went with such an uninteresting and unfamiliar tune.

Next up was Danny Gokey, a man everyone in America seems to adore except me. This is another audience favorite that I just don't get at all. First of all, to set the record straight, Danny does NOT look like Robert Downey Jr., okay? Robert Downey Jr. is a hot, sexy former heroin addict. Danny is a dorky, scrubbed-clean minister. I'm not saying one is better than the other, but a bad-boy ex-junkie and a clean-living church musician are two very different animals.

That being said, Danny just creeped me out tonight. His pre-performance video piece--featuring him and seemingly 400 of his closest relatives and friends adlibbing campfire-type songs about brushing their teeth and making their beds, while Danny flailed about his living room like a low-scoring Dance Dance Revolution player--was skin-crawlingly annoying. And his performance of "PYT" wasn't much better. He flaunted even sillier drunk-dad dance moves (the kind that'd make Taylor Hicks look like Justin Timberlake), and his overall stage presence reminded me of the night that a red-leather-jacketed Clay Aiken horrified Simon with "Grease Is The Word" in season 2. Yes, Danny sang well, as Simon was quick to point out, but I definitely think the performance overall was embarrassing. "I thought the vocals were brilliant; however, maybe because you were getting overexcited, the dancing was hideous," Simon very correctly assessed. (Although I think saying Danny's vein-popping vocals were "brilliant" was a bit much, myself.) Danny admitted he's always had trouble singing and dancing at the same time (his aforementioned living-room spectacle was clear proof of that), so Paula--who was on her feet throughout Danny's performance, and perhaps prematurely predicted Danny would make it to the finale--offered him some much-needed dance lessons.

Meanwhile, Paula also babbled something like, "The true mark of an artist is when you can hear somebody even with your eyes closed and know who they are." I wonder, then, if Scott McIntyre agreed? Was he impressed by Danny tonight? Sorry, but that un-PC thought did cross my mind. Either way, Paula's comment made sense, again--because Danny's performance definitely was better aurally than visually. Sigh. It made me wish his BFF Jamar Rogers had made it this far in the competition. I bet Jamar would have killed it on "PYT."

Roughneck Michael Sarver--who, as Simon pointed out, never seems to shaddup about his oilrigging job, which wasn't really all that interesting the first 27 times he mentioned it--went fourth, singing "You Are Not Alone." Zzzz... Man, this guy is so boring. How did he ever make it into the finals? Suffice to say Michael Sarver has little in common with Michael Jackson. His performance completely lacked pizzazz--the guy needed a sequined glove, or some light-up floor tiles under his feet, or a sidekick like Bubbles The Chimp, or SOMETHING, to make him more interesting. Bizarrely, though, the judges totally disagreed with me. Randy said it was "one of the best" performances so far; Kara marveled, "Wow, you really can sing"; and Simon wrote off any of Michael's vocal shortcomings with "You made up for it with passion and heart and you gave it 110 percent."

What show were these judges watching, huh? I didn't see any 110 percent from Sarver. Maybe more like 65 percent. A solid C-minus.

Another dull performance came from teenager Jasmine Murray, a girl I really liked a few weeks ago but of whom I'm quickly tiring. She crooned "I'll Be There," rather capably, but that's about all I can say in this case. Randy said it "wasn't that bad." Simon said it was "good attempt," if a little bit "robotic." These were not exactly glowing compliments, but this was just one of those MOR, neither-great-not-awful performances that didn't warrant any sort of passionate response. 

The aforementioned Kris Allen, perhaps the most surprising contestant to be voted through to the top 13, went next, doing a guitar-assisted, inoffensively Jason Mraz-ish cover of "Remember The Time." And he didn't just sound like Jason Mraz, but kind of looked like Hal Sparks too. (I think he looks more like Hal Sparks than Danny Gokey looks like Robert Downey Jr.)

I liked him better with a guitar this week (so did Kara), and I saw some sparks in him (yes, pun intended), but I wouldn't go so far to call him "adorable sexy" (Paula's words; I guess Kris is her token crush this season). Simon didn't think the song suited the guitar, and snakily advised Kris to keep his wife on the sidelines in order to boost his heartthrob appeal--but this was advice coming from a man who's currently single, so Kris should probably just ignore Simon and continue to play the doting-husband card.

Singing next was Allison Iraheta, a girl who I'm liking more and more as I get to know her. Her hair reminds me of Nikki McKibbin and her voice reminds me of Kelly Clarkson, so watching her brings back all sorts of warm 'n' fuzzy season 1 AmIdol memories. Tonight Allison also went with a somewhat obscure song from Dangerous, "Give In To Me," but in this case I think it was a good decision. She really rocked it, Clarkson-style (actually in a dark, vicious sort of My December kind of way), and continued to position herself as real contender.

Paula called Allison's great performance "mind-boggling" (yes, I know Paula's mind is easily boggled, but still); Randy declared her "one to watch"; and Kara championed her unique rock-chick flair. Only Simon had anything bad to say (surprise!), telling Allison to "lighten up." But then again, Simon probably always preferred the bubbly, "Since U Been Gone"-style Kelly Clarkson, not the bunny-boiling "Never Again" Kelly evoked by Allison tonight.

Allison, a rather intriguingly stoner-ish weirdo in an Ally Sheedy-in-The Breakfast Club sort of vein, replied: "I'm not that dark. I'm not cutting myself or anything!" Awk-ward! But interesting. I agree with Kara: Allison needs to just keep on rockin'.

Anoop Desai, a surprise fourth wild card last week, sang next, and I had high hopes for him tonight after his immensely enjoyable Bobby Brown performance last Thursday. I was particularly excited to find out he'd been singing one of MJ's biggest and baddest hits, "Beat It." Finally, a real crowd-pleaser! But apparently not everyone was pleased.

Yes, Anoop looked handsome (great new haircut, courtesy of the glam squad) and his fun performance had a lot of swagger to it, but the judges seemed so angry with him, I thought they were about to start a choreographed, West Side Story-ish knife fight a la the famous "Beat It" video. Even the usually nicey-nice Paula offered the kind of critique that usually comes from Simon (she shockingly called Anoop's attempt "karaoke"), while of course Simon went much further with it: He called Anoop's performance "horrible," "very lightweight," and even "a bit stupid." Simon even said that after this travesty, he regretted expanding the finalists' group from 12 to 13 to include Anoop, which I thought was way too harsh. True, Anoop fumbled tonight, but I still think he deserved to make it this far, and I don't think he was the worst of the bunch tonight.

Another audience favorite up until now, Puerto Rico's own Jorge Nunez, was next, struggling through a weak version of "Never Can Say Goodbye" that may very well cause him to say goodbye to this show when he consequently gets voted off this week. Jorge admitted the song was not his first choice but that most of the songs this week were already spoken for, so he had to make do with what was left--and he figured this song better suited his voice than some of the alternate songs on the list.

"I wasn't gonna sing 'Bad,'" Jorge justified. "Well, you kind of did," Simon countered. (Touché, Simon, touché. That was a good one. It was mean, but it made me laugh out loud. Jorge set himself up for that one.)

Megan Joy Corkrey, who until tonight had been my favorite girl in the competition, admitted in her interview before her performance that she'd never sung onstage before. Judging by her "verging on ridiculous" (Simon's words) dance moves over the past couple weeks, this confession didn't really surprise me. What did surprise me tonight, however, was Megan's absolutely horrific song choice, a choice that bummed me out so much she might as well take the "Joy" out of her stage name right now.

Megan sang "Rockin' Robin," perhaps the most annoying song ever besides "Macarena," and I couldn't have agreed with Simon more when he exclaimed, "WHAT A STUPID SONG CHOICE." Yes, I appreciated that she went retro with a Jackson 5 song, but why didn't she do something less insipid and annoying, a cool J5 hit like "I Want You Back" or "ABC"? Ugh! Why, Megan, why?

Yes, Megan was as button-cute and fun as always, she looked great, and she even showed more confidence than before. She also sang well, since, as Kara astutely pointed out, she has "a way of putting her signature on everything she touches." But I couldn't get past this terrible song choice, and I fear the voters at home will be similarly unforgiving. It didn't seem like Simon, who previously was such a massive Megan fan, was full of much forgiveness tonight, and Simon's cooking-show grumpy-Brit counterpart, Gordon Ramsey, was also in the audience looking red-faced and peeved. This was not good. (FYI, Megan is the new Vote For The Worst pick after this debacle.)

Luckily along came my favorite Idol contestant EVER (yes, EVER), the phenomenal Adam Lambert, to redeem the whole dang show. While I would have preferred him to do a real Jackson rocker--like "Dirty Diana," "Scream," or even Michael's Mick Jagger duet "State Of Shock"--instead of the song he went with tonight, "Black & White," really,

Adam could have sang even "Rockin' Robin" and I would have been happy. And the song did kind of make sense--after all, I've often compared Adam's vocals to Axl Rose's, and (FACTOID ALERT!) Guns N' Roses' Slash played on the original "Black & White" recording.

While Adam's shrill performance in parts veered toward cheesiness, I found it to be good, tasty cheese, like aged gourmet gouda or maybe a nice artisanal brie. And as Simon pointed out, a little over-the-topness is necessary to properly pull off a Michael Jackson song. Simon said Adam's performance was in a "totally different league" than the others of the night; Randy called Adam the "most current, most right-now" contestant among the final 13; Kara gushed, "You hit notes I didn't even know existed"; and Paula once again made some sense, saying, "Never in the history of American Idol have we ever seen someone so comfortable and seasoned onstage." She also predicted that Adam would make it to the finale, and while I'd like to believe her, Simon did sadly point out that there are still 10 more weeks to go this season. But I hope Paula's right. After another awesome Adam effort tonight, I think she probably is.

Wild card Matt Giraud went next with "Human Nature," and while Simon correctly said that Adam was a tough act to follow, I do think Matt held his own, in his own blue-eyed-soulman way. He seemed like a star, and Randy's comparisons to Justin Timberlake and Robin Thicke were right on the money.

Singing in the final coveted "pimp slot" was one of this season's strongest women, Alexis Grace, doing the aforementioned barn-stormer I would have chosen for Adam, "Dirty Diana." Dressed in a little black onesie romper that reminded me of Debbie Harry's outfit in Blondie's classic "Rapture" video, and vamping it up to the max, she looked more minxy than Kellie Pickler on a good day and impressed all by having such a huge voice come out of such a teensy-tiny body. "You're a naughty girl, and I like it," Kara said, provocatively and a little disturbingly. Paula told her to watch oversinging (yes, Alexis was a little showoffy tonight, but she has a lot to show off, so can you blame her?), and Simon told her, "That was probably not as good as you thought it was." But I thought it was pretty good overall. Certainly good enough to carry Alexis through to next week.

So tomorrow night's results show is going to be interesting. Not one but two of tonight baker's dozen contestants will in fact be beating it this week (because with 13 finalists competing this season instead of the usual 12, I suppose the series needs to get back on schedule in time for May's finale). My guess is Kris Allen and Jasmine Murray will be the ones voted off, although I fear Megan and Anoop--both wild cards who've already been eliminated once during this short season, and both major blunderers tonight--are in danger too. Really, there were enough pale Jackson imitations (pun intended) this week that almost no one is safe.

It remains to be seen, however, how things will pan out, as Ryan Seacrest teased tonight that a "surprise change of rules" involving the judges will be announced tomorrow--and it's a switcharoo that could potentially change the entire show. My guess is the decision-making process will be altered to be more like how it is on So You Think You Can Dance, so that judges will now have veto power to save a contestant they think wrongly landed in the bottom. If so, that's certainly going to change the game in a major way, and probably for the better (no more Sanjayas getting through or Tamyras and Daughtrys getting cut).

So tune in tomorrow to find out if all--or any--of my predictions are correct!

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