Honestly, in a newly competitive age of TV talent shows, when "The X Factor" has an MC covering Eminem and "The Voice" has contestants reimagining songs by Drake, Trey Songz, and Lady Gaga, I don't see how "American Idol" hopes to remain hip and relevant when it hosts a Songs Of The '50s night--forcing hapless 17-year-olds to perform golden oldies that were originally recorded before their parents were even born, sometimes while wearing bobbysox, poodle-skirted prom gowns, and boogie-woogie-bugle-boy USO uniforms. Because that's exactly what horrifyingly happened Thursday night, when the remaining Season 11 "Idol" hopefuls road-tripped to Las Vegas--and if this was all some sort of advertorial tie-in with that town's current "Viva Elvis" Cirque du Soleil revue (the contestants performed on the "Viva Elvis" stage), well then, I hope the Cirque revenue was worth the resultant downgrade in whatever remained of "Idol's" pop cred.
Don't get me wrong: These songs certainly have laid down the bedrock for rock 'n' roll, and they have their permanent place in pop culture. Just not in current pop culture. Sure, Bruno Mars can rock a Fighting Temptations gold dinner jacket and pompadour at the Grammys and get away with it, but these poor "Idol" kids? Well, they did their best. And many of them did deliver stellar vocals, given what they had to work with. But stuck with this older-demo-friendly material, few of them came across as relevant to the current marketplace, and many of them ended up sounding more like they were competing for a Vegas lounge contract on "America's Got Talent" than for an Interscope record deal.
But then again, before I accuse the "Idol" producers of being hopelessly out-of-touch...maybe they simply don't care about being hip or cool. Maybe the producers realize it's the older viewers, not their tweenaged children, who are watching "Idol" these days. After all, this certainly wasn't the first time that "Idol" courted more mature viewers, since past seasons' themes have included the songs of Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Frank Sinatra. But I couldn't help but wonder if these young contestants would have preferred singing a little actual Bruno Mars instead.
Cari Quoyeser, Chase Likens, Colton Dixon, Skylar Laine
Anyway, forming groups yet again (WHY must they keep singing in groups? This isn't "Making The Band"), the contestants took to the "Viva Elvis" stage and sang lightning-round-style (make that greased-lightning-round-style), finding out right then and there if they'd be moving on to the next stage of the competition. The first group consisted of country-outlaw girl Skylar Laine, Colton Dixon (sporting a very Presleyan quiff), Cari Quoyeser, and country boy Chase Likens, performing "Dedicated To The One I Love." Skylar did surprisingly well, infusing the sweet song with as much true grit as was possible under the circumstances, and Colton had the crooner thing down, but Cari (a survivor of the previous night's disastrous group the Bettys) noticeably struggled, and she was the one who was cut on the spot.
Ariel Sprague, David Leathers Jr., Gabi Carrubba, Jeremy Rosado
Next up was the youthful team of David Leathers Jr., Gabi Carrubba, Jeremy Rosado, and Ariel Sprague, covering a song that should have been retired after Season 8's Megan Joy fabulously caw-cawed her way through it, the Jackson 5's novelty hit "Rockin' Robin." To be fair, David, who is 17 but looks 12, was perfectly cast in the young Michael Jackson role, and all of them did fine (and made it to the next round). But it was still so cheesy, the show may as well have been sponsored by Velveeta.
Angie Zeiderman, Shelby Tweten, Adam Brock, Erika Van Pelt
Singing third were two of my favorite Season 11 girls, Erika Van Pelt and Angie Zeiderman, teamed with Shelby Tweten and, unfortunately, the obnoxious and blowhardy Adam Brock. Adam dominated "Great Balls Of Fire" as he hollered and hammered at the piano, but Erika rocked it out and actually made the song seem a little cool, and Broadway baby Angie got her Frenchie-from-Grease moment as she belted out her lines while sprawling across a vintage muscle car. It sort of worked, and was cute, and Steven Tyler lasciviously told Angie, "For a skinny girl, you don't have many tailfeathers, but you sure shook 'em!" All four made it through, though the hemming and hawing among the judges before they gave Angie her good news made me fear for her future. If she was trying to shed the "too Broadway" tag Randy Jackson once gave her, having to perform on the "Viva Elvis" stage certainly didn't help her chances.
Schyler Dixon, Brielle Von Hugel, Molly Hunt
Next was Colton Dixon's younger sister Schyler, along with stage-(s)mothered Brielle Von Hugel, and some girl named Molly Hunt. They did "Why Do Fools Fall In Love," but the more appropriate musical question would have been, "Why do fools wear USO costumes when they try out for 'Idol'?" (Come on, didn't they remember when Cee Lo Green threw his fodder contestants Tori & Taylor Thompson under the army bus when he dressed them up like Betty Grable in "The Voice" Season 1? It didn't work then, and it didn't work now.) Molly got the axe, but Schyler and Brielle had the stronger vocals and survived, surely hoping for a chance to deliver more youthful out-of-uniform performances in the future.
The next group consisted of Haley Johnson, Reed Grimm, Elise Testone, and Eben Franckewitz, doing "The Night Has A Thousand Eyes." I felt like gouging out my own eyes while watching a poor 15-year-old kid like Eben do something so unrelatable to his generation. But they were pretty easy on the ears, all things considered, and they certainly committed to the performance. (Elise even beatboxed, although she didn't quite reach a Blake Lewis level of greatness.) However, in the end, they still came across like a Manhattan Transfer cover band. Way to connect with the kids, "Idol."
Richie Law, Jermaine Jones
The next act was a duo, after psycho cowboy Richie Law burned every bridge in Hollywood and couldn't find anyone else to form a full group in Vegas. So gentle giant Jermaine Jones was the only guy nice (or masochistic) enough to not fight the Law. I gave both men credit for working together to do a truly unique, slowed-to-a-crawl rendition of "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do," and they sang it well, but they ultimately gave a performance that could make Clay Aiken seem edgy. It also felt like it went on for 17 minutes. Did the "Idol" editors fall asleep on the job or something?
The next group--Candice Glover, returning teenage contestant Deandre Brackensick, and Jessica Sanchez--were a mini-revelation, with their gospel-inflected version of Buddy Holly's "It Doesn't Matter Anymore." The girls were on point, but Deandre was the real star of this show, proving that even if he got passed over in Season 10, he's definitely ready for "Idol" this year. I'm so glad he came back.
Clayton Farhat, Adam Lee Decker, Scott Dangerfield, Curtis Gray
Another Season 10 returning contestant was scruffy Scott Dangerfield, who dropped out last year to finish college. I love me some Scott, but sadly, his group's hokey Sha Na Na-abe performance of "Jailhouse Rock" with Clayton Farhat, Adam Lee Decker, and Curtis Gray--compete with black-and-white striped prison shirts--was painful to watch, and sucked all the coolness out of Scott. (Without his Weezer glasses and floppy fringe, he was unrecognizable.) But Scott survived, along with everyone but Curtis, so I am looking forward to seeing him back in his element, doing Amos Lee songs and such.
Joshua Sanders & Caleb Johnson
After that we saw Caleb Johnson and Joshua Sanders covering "Hunk Of Burnin' Love" in unfortunate outfits that made them look like the human equivalents of Spuds Mackenzie. Joshua Ledet and Shannon Magrane fared better, though Shannon's Pink Ladies getup was a bit distracting. Meanwhile, was put out of his '50s misery and shipped home.
Next were wannabe dreamgirls Britnee Kellogg, Jessica Phillips, and Courtney Williams, doing "You Just Keep Me Hanging On" in matching sequined Supremes frocks. I thought all of them had their vocal struggles, but I was SHOCKED when the judges didn't hang on to Jessica but kept the other two. "They're not looking for a real artist," grumbled Jessica. (Um, didn't she realize that back when they told her the Vegas theme was '50S AND '60S NIGHT?)
Wendy Taylor, Mathenee Treco, Lauren Gray
Mathenee Treco, Lauren Gray, and Wendy Taylor joined forces next for "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow," and I must say, Lauren did sound amazing, one of the finest female singers of the night. The rasp in her voice even reminded me slightly of Adele at times. Wendy too was a pleasant surprise, since she hadn't received much screentime before. I was pleased to see both girls get through, but was a little stunned that Mathenee was sent home. I guess the judges won't still love him tomorrow.
The next group consisted of my man Heejun Han, Neco Starr, Phillip Phillips, and Jairon Jackson--a seemingly strong team, but somehow they were NOT the sum of their parts. The foursome sang "I Only Have Eyes For You," but I certainly didn't have an ear for this mess. I was glad all four made the cut, since I know they're better than this and deserve another chance--but I still shocked that none of the judges at least called them out for their iffy singing, and instead just blew smoke up their you-know-whats and told them they were "beautiful," etc.
Aaron Marcellus, Nick Boddington, Jen Hirsh, Creighton Fraker
The final quartet, also consisting of frontrunners, received a similar kid-gloved treatment. Jen Hirsh, Creighton Fraker, Aaron Marcellus, and Nick Boddington (four-fifths of Hollywood Week's excellent Groove Sauce) are all great vocalists who deserved to go through based on their PAST performances, but their Lawrence Welkian "Sealed With A Kiss" totally went off the rails and was a screechy disaster; if Simon Cowell were still on this show, he surely would have broken out one of his tried-and-true cat similes to critique this. Only Nick was eliminated, but the nicey-nice judges told the other three they were fantastic, once again doing the contestants no favors whatsoever.
Britnee Kellogg takes the news hard
In the end, only 42 contestants remained, after some of the ones who actually made it through the first Vegas rounds were called back the next day to receive unexpected bad news. Among the more surprising last-minute cuts were Schyler Dixon, Britnee Kellogg, Johnny Keyser, my girl Angie Zeiderman (noooooooo!), Candice Glover, Gabi Carrubba, Stephanie Renae, Janelle Arthur, and Jairon Jackson. As for the 42 still in the running? Let's hope we get to see a fresher, more modern side of them next week, when they presumably perform songs of their own choosing--and of their own generation.