American Idol is kind of like an axe murderer in a horror-movie franchise. Just when you think it’s good and dead, and you’re ready to walk away from it and start your life anew, it lurches into the upright position, clutches you by the ankle, and drags you back to your inevitable fate — sitting on the couch every Tuesday and Wednesday night from now through the end of May.
Oh, go ahead and scream all you want — no one’s paying attention. Everyone’s too riveted by the sequence of unexpected events that occurred during tonight’s Top 10 performance telecast: Ellen DeGeneres stepped up her critique game, offering her most pointed and useful feedback since Hollywood Week. Ryan Seacrest did everything but kick Didi Benami in the shins to try to activate her tear ducts. Lee Dewyze transformed into a legitimate front-runner (even if he’s still totally unaware of it). Crystal Bowersox put down her guitar and tickled the ivories, and was (mostly) quite lovely doing so. Plus, Anita Baker’s biggest hit got indoctrinated into a chilling cult of smiles. And Big Mike Lynche’s bare arms of terror lunged indiscriminately toward any contestant experiencing emotional turmoil and/or caught in a stationary position.
Okay, so maybe not every one of those talking points belongs in the ”positives” column. But with the first 25 episodes of season 9 playing out like Friday the 13th Part Bazillion: Jason Eats a Bowl of Lukewarm Oatmeal, Then Lies Down for a Nap, you’ve got to cheer any kind of forward momentum. Or, as Kara noted at the end of Andrew Garcia’s vastly improved performance tonight, there’s plenty of time to hop back aboard the Nitpick Express next week. But now, I say it’s time to hand out some awards!
Best Performance (That Strangely Resulted in Little or No Confidence Boost): Lee Dewyze For the last five weeks of live shows, Lee Dewyze has been performing with the pitch and conviction of a typical sixth-place finisher. But tonight, while possibly battling walking pneumonia (as Ryan seemed to suggest), Lee finally resembled a contestant with a chance to take home the season 9 crown.
It didn’t hurt that relentlessly propulsive ”Treat Her Like a Lady” was the perfect match for Lee’s gruff instrument, which always seems to sound best when it’s not laboring over drawn-out notes. But more importantly, the shy Chicago guy found a new level of emotional connectedness with his material. When the song shifted lyrical gears from romantic instruction manual to overt warning — ”if you fail to do this/don’t blame her if she looks my way” — there was a threat in Lee’s voice that resonated more passionately than even the Cornelius Brothers’ original managed to do. I kind of wish Lee hadn’t clipped the final note of his song, but Simon was right when he told the contestant ”this may be the night your life changed forever.” It’s just a shame this dark-horse-to-front-runner transformation seemed to make Lee’s eyes widen with terror, to force him to bite down on his guitar pick to, I don’t know what, fight back a sudden rush of bile, perhaps? As Usher told him in his mentoring session, ”If you don’t believe it, [your audience] won’t.” What Lee needs to practice over the next seven days is owning and inhabiting that reality as surely as he does his songs.
Worst Performance (That Strangely Resulted in Little or No Confidence Drop): Tim Urban Okay, so this isn’t really strange. For weeks, Tim has been squatting at the abandoned building at the corner of Cluelessness and Hubris that’s been empty since Kristy Lee Cook vacated it back in season 7. He attempted ”Apologize” even though its falsetto notes were well beyond his reach. He treated the raunchy ”Under My Thumb” like a Land Before Time soundtrack selection. So why not choose Anita Baker’s ”Sweet Love” (the smooth-jazz equivalent of a Harlequin novel) and sing it with all the passion and emotional depth of a man reading off an eye chart at the optometrist’s office?
Then again, the kid had to know it wasn’t exactly a positive when Ryan introduced him as ”Teflon Tim.” So if the production’s going to treat him like a punch line (got to, got to treat him like), what else could we expect Tim to do but to grin broadly and maniacally, his beaming blue eyes staring into that tiny void just above the Idol cameras, so it looks like he’s eternally searching for a boat on the horizon to come rescue him and take him to a place where the Rolling Stones are finally getting their due as a light reggae party band?
Once again, Usher’s mentoring session proved as instructive as it did entertaining. I loved the look of pure horror on Tim’s face when the chart-topping star suggested Tim use him as a stand-in for the song’s lyrical object of passion. (Using one’s imagination? How… how horrible!) Because it would be more forgivable that Tim’s voice disappears to a whisper when notes fall outside his limited range, that his phrasing lacks any sophistication or zest, if he were at least committed to the ideas behind the songs he sings. (And no, Tim’s tilted-back head and closed eyes are not an acceptable substitute for actual feeling.) If there was any positive at the end of the performance, it was hearing Ellen finally jump off the ”adorable” wagon and sum up the entire mess in a three words: ”Oh boy. Why?” And then, in the telecast’s comic highlight, we had Simon’s rant that when it comes to Tim, the judges’ critiques are meaningless. ”You’ll be here next week,” the cranky Brit sighed.
Me, I’m not so sure. With the field about to be reduced to single digits, Tim’s talent imbalance is all the more striking, and I suspect his final trajectory will fall closer to season 5’s Kevin Covais (11th place) than season 3’s John Stevens (sixth place).
Best Triumph Over Irritating Personality Traits: Michael Lynche Wait a sec! Did Big Mike actually get through the entirety of India.Arie’s ”Ready for Love” without any ridiculous finger-pointing or winking or trademarked sex-aaayyy glances into the camera? Granted, I might’ve missed a momentary shenanigan in the harsh glare of the spotlights illuminating Big Mike’s performance in a way that made me wonder if he’d get beamed up to a nearby spacecraft at the end of his set. But while I may not be the biggest fan of the burly personal trainer, I agreed with Simon’s assessment that this was the first time the guy made a serious impression as a possible (relevant) recording star. As usual, Michael didn’t hit a bum note for the duration of his performance, but with his guitar to keep his hands otherwise occupied, this particular ”man in love” anthem went down a whole lot easier.
Best Triumph Over Host-bot With Irritating Personality: Didi Benami Look, last week I felt the judges were overly harsh on Didi’s ”You’re No Good” cover, but this week Kara nailed it when she said Didi has really lost her way in the competition. Why is the emotionally fragile chick eschewing the acoustic vibe that made her a Hollywood Week breakout and opting instead for the ”Grande Dame Takes Carnegie Hall” styling and arrangement on ”What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”? In other words, how is it that Didi is suddenly trying to emulate Shirley Bassey instead of Jewel? Never mind that the band’s Muzak arrangement was custom-made to get piped through the loudspeakers of a JC Penney gift-wrap center in the mid-’70s — Didi’s sharp notes and drowsy delivery indeed made her sound like (as Simon implied) she was auditioning for a spot on the Dancing With the Stars cover band. (And no, her ”I’m not an R&B singer” explanation did not excuse the fact that she didn’t attempt to do anything special for the first 7/8ths of the ditty.)
Props to Didi, however, for dodging Ryan’s nauseating attempts to make her cash in on a personal tragedy as a get-out-the-vote strategy. Yes, we all know from her audition package that Didi’s Idol dreams have been spurred on by the death of her young friend, and Ryan’s inappropriate line of questions seemed to indicate that there was a deep connection between Didi’s late pal and the Jimmy Ruffin track she was singing. But Didi, fighting back a combination of tears and possibly fury, refused to budge. I’m just hoping that the overarching awkwardness that Ryan fostered won’t hurt her chances with Idol voters. Didi may not be the most consistent contestant this season, but she’s certainly got a more viable shot at a present-day recording career than the guy whose name rhymes with Slim Bourbon, no?
Recipient of Craziest Comparison: Katie Stevens I loved Simon’s incredulous cries of ”Randy!” and ”Kara!” after his fellow judges likened Katie Stevens to a young Christina Aguilera after her dim-bulb rendition of Aretha Franklin’s ”Chain of Fools.” Usher’s suggestions to Katie were spot-on: She needed pizzazz and attitude to make her vocals come to life. Unfortunately, the Connecticut teenager interpreted this advice as ”intermittently bend your knees to the rhythm; snap fingers; flash occasional shark-eye at the cameras.” Now if I’m being fair, I’ve got to point out that Katie’s pitch problems were far less noticeable tonight than they’ve been at any point in the competition, but one step forward vocally wasn’t enough to negate three steps back in the fashion department. What was with the hideous gray satin jumpsuit — mom-shorts and a spaghetti-strap evening-gown bustline! — paired with bizarre lace-and-pleather tights? Even Xtina’s much-maligned assless chaps from her ”Dirrty” video were more flattering!
Recipient of Craziest Non-Comparison: Aaron Kelly Okay, Idol judges, I get it. You don’t want to say anything nice about your season 8 champ. (Apparently, Simon Cowell’s ”you deserved to be on this stage” speech during last year’s performance finale was supposed to be Pocket Idol‘s lovely parting gift.) But how is it possible that, at the end of Aaron Kelly’s rendition of ”Ain’t No Sunshine” — which was the musical equivalent of watching in slo-mo as a toddler knocks a priceless vase onto a tile floor — none of you were inclined to point out that as far as the Idol stage is concerned, that song belongs to Kris Allen? I mean, that song was such a moment for Kris during Top 9 week last season, he repeated it during the finale, and throughout last summer’s Idols Live tour. And yet all Simon could muster was that the song had been done brilliantly ”many times” during previous Idol seasons. (Um, by my count, only Kris and season 1’s Christina Christian have covered the Bill Withers ballad on the live Idol stage, although Lee Dewyze auditioned to the song this season. Correct me if I’m wrong though — as if I have to ask y’all to do that! Ha!)
What next? Is Aaron going to tackle Adam Lambert’s ”Mad World,” Fantasia’s ”Summertime,” and Kelly Clarkson’s ”Stuff Like That There” in quick succession? (Hey, he did David Cook’s ”I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” last week!) I declare these actions to be Rated CP…for ”Child, Please!”
Still, the most daft part of Aaron’s performance was the way he totally discarded Usher’s excellent advice to add more passion and emphasis on the succession of ”I knows” in the middle of the song. Aaron’s Usher-influenced second take in rehearsals was a vast improvement on his maiden voyage, but once he hit the Idol stage, he performed a brutal soul-ectomy on ”Sunshine,” gutting it of any deeper meaning and reducing the lyric to a simple recitation about a rainy-day forecast in Los Angeles.
Most Damaged by High Expectations: Siobhan Magnus It’s unfortunate for the Glassblower — who ranked a clear No. 2 in this week’s EW.com Idol Power Poll — that her most memorable moment tonight was a dejected post-performance shot of her backstage, moping next to the craft-services table and trying to avoid a crushing embrace from Big Mike. But such are the risks of trying to scale Mount Chaka Khan without a team of experienced sherpas. And Ellen was right: Once Siobhan fell off pitch early in the performance, she was like a hiker who’d lost the trail, suddenly panicking and lost in the wilderness.
The sad thing is, the generally spot-on Usher seemed to indicate that Siobhan’s vocals weren’t an issue in rehearsal, but it’s important to remember that even Chaka’s original runs right up to the edge of shrill on the final repetition of the chorus. And at this point in her artistic development, I think it’s safe to say Siobhan isn’t quite a match for in-her-prime Ms. Khan. (Plus, the dated synth arrangement wasn’t exactly keeping things current.) What Siobhan needs to remember in the coming weeks is that we fell in love with her lilting upper register on ”House of the Rising Sun” just as much as we did with her trademark visceral howl on ”Think.” And more importantly, neither one of those gimmicks can get dispensed with the rote muscle-memory of a Taco Bell employee firing some guacamole from a guac-gun onto a Gordita. (Okay, I overshot with the metaphor there, but I get hungry when I’m tired… especially for the kind of foodgarbage I deny myself during normal waking hours.)
Just as bad, the one area where Usher did actually caution Ms. Magnus — her wardrobe — also went awry. A white shoulder sling that made me worry Siobhan had experienced some sort of unfortunate joint dislocation, a black top with multiple zippers and a faded pair of lips, a white skirt that kind of resembled a rumpled gym towel, and a pair of boots that are better left undiscussed. Dial 1-800-Gift-Receipt. Here’s hoping, however, that voters heeded Kara’s words: Everyone’s entitled to one off night.
Most Helped by Low Expectations: Andrew Garcia Dare I quote Randy Jackson? ”Andrew is back!”
Ugh. My apologies for going there. But it’s true that while Andrew’s rendition of ”Forever” wasn’t exactly an Idol Moment, it did help erase the impression he’s given for the last five weeks that he’s merely a YouTube cover artist who’s incapable of bringing any interpretive skills to the Idol stage. It was smart of Andrew to move the bassist and percussionist to either side of him (although the poor strings section got stuck in the Swaybot Pit), a move that gave the performance more of a relaxed jam-session vibe — and further moved it away from Chris Brown’s original. (Sidebar: Is it still too early for a return to the Chris Brown Songbook on Fox’s supposedly family-friendly reality competition? I’m gonna go out on a shaky limb, do my best Usher imitation, and say ”Yeah, yeah… yeah!”) And I agreed with Ellen that seeing Andrew smile — genuinely smile — made his performance all the more loose and enjoyable. I just hope I was imagining things when I thought I saw gum in Andrew’s mouth while the judges were offering their critiques because this would represent a trend (along with Miley and Usher) that lies somewhere between the existence of the Swaybots (TM) and the idea of future Idol covers of ”Against All Odds.”
One-Week Risk That Kinda Paid Off: Crystal Bowersox Look, I know I always spend a ridiculous amount of time waxing poetic about Crystal, so I’m gonna try to scale back on the superlatives tonight — especially since MamaSox was clearly skittish about messing up her piano part during the opening half of ”Midnight Train to Georgia,” and since said skittishness gave her a slight case of the vocal quavers.
Slight imperfection aside, though, how come none of the judges applauded Crystal for a new and thoroughly original rendition of Gladys Knight and the Pips’ rousing anthem to a departing lover? Seriously, Crystal slowed the tempo in a way that made this ”Midnight Train” a particularly wistful journey, and that head-voice howl toward the end was a good lesson to Siobhan about how to express a world of pain without losing any musicality. With eight weeks left in the competition, Crystal needs to be a little careful breaking out self-descriptive terms like ”multifaceted person and artist” — let’s wait for that debut album to drop first, okay? — but she solidified her front-runner status here by proving to the Idoloonie nation that she’s willing to peek out from behind the guitar and compete for a title that’s very much worth winning. After all, wouldn’t most singers rather trade spaces with Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood than, say, Nikki McKibbin or Jasmine Trias?
One-Week Holding Pattern That Kinda Didn’t: Casey James I know, I know… Simon and Randy loved Casey’s ”Hold On, I’m Comin”’ — and granted, it’s a pretty kicky ditty. But I agreed with Ellen and Kara: Once again, Casey’s performance, while totally competent, was generic and unchallenging, too. I also have a hard time getting past the way the dude smirks throughout every one of his performances — no matter the mood of the song he’s singing — and how he frequently lets his guitar flop to his side like a limp appendage. Yes, I say this knowing the guy has some real talent: Vocally, he checks off his boxes like Tracy Flick taking her SATs. (Which is to say impressively!) And Casey seems likeable enough, too. But I refuse to make like Simon and give him bravery points for covering Sam and Dave during freakin’ R&B week! (”The fact that you took on an R&B song…” the British judge marveled, clearly forgetting the theme of the night.) I will, however, give points to the guy for selecting a song that, as Ryan pointed out, had never before been covered on the Idol stage. That’s change I can believe in, Idoloonies. Heck, maybe at this point, Ken Warwick will take my advice about the 20 Songs That Should Be Banned from Idol Forever. And now for tonight’s grades…
Lee Dewyze: A
Crystal Bowersox: A-
Michael Lynche: B+
Andrew Garcia: B
Casey James: B
Katie Stevens: B-
Siobhan Magnus: C
Aaron Kelly: C
Didi Benami: C-
Tim Urban: D