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'American Idol': On the scene at Top 9 performance night

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Image Credit: Michael Becker/Fox“Judges are optional…” – Debbie the Stage Manager

It was generally agreed upon by those of us in the Idoldome that tonight’s Tribute To The Bulletproof Nature Of The Lennon-McCartney Catalog was the most consistent evening of non-offensive music yet to emerge from Your. Top. 9. Thank goodness — because pretty much everything else about the night was coconuts. Bagpipes and didgeridoos! Kara DioGuardi cutting to commercials only she could see! Rogue audience members shouting themselves onto the stage! Plus: “Cougars for Kelly,” Kara’s cousins, Cory self-promoting, Ellen taking a dive, and your Aunt Whittlz missing out on some dreaded TV time by a matter of inches, twice. THIS…was American Idol.

Before we get to all that, the usual housekeeping: Celeb count was low, which I assume is why Lacey Brown got such a good seat. Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz were on hand to promote the 100th episode of Bones, airing this Thursday on Fox — though I’m not sure the latter star arrived until right before they appeared on your screens — and that was about it. Apparently, the Octomom spent the show in the green room; I saw her backstage after the show, raiding craft services with a brood of children that came nowhere near equalling her storied 14. (One assumes the rest were stashed in the same holding area used for Kate Gosselin’s Eight whenever mommy is dancing with the stars next door.)

Signs-wise, if you perceived way more day-glo pro-Katie posters than usual, you were right: her mother spent the preshow handing half a dozen out to strangers. I am not sure where this falls on the integrity scale for Mrs. Stevens or the people accepting the signs, but I do know that there are more attention-getting audience gimmicks popping up every week. Besides Katie’s publicity team, we’re seeing a lot of personalized t-shirts (on Teams Aaron, Katie, Crystal, and Lee) and wacky costuming choices (Garcia glasses, whatever was up with the Siobhan zombies that one time). It’s as though in the absence of compelling contestants, the friends and families of said contestants have stepped up to fill the void with creative marketing. And yet it is Tim Urban’s dad — he of the sincere smiles and hearty applause for singers other than his son — who continues to dominate my attention in Family Row. There is no gimmick that can beat being totally awesome.

I should have known the night was a little off when I walked in to an Idoldome sans Cory the Warmup Comedian, who eventually emerged from the wings with a set of turntables, which he set up on stage and began faux-spinning. I know it was faux because 1) there were no records on the turntables and 2) Cory “DJs” the Idol preshow via his iPhone. Still, there he was, “spinning,” and there was a photographer taking his picture. They needed to take some “promo shots,” Cory told the mosh pits, and then he had them raise their hands and cheer to serve as background while he fake-DJed for the camera. (The woman behind me muttered, “Is this for his website or something?”) Next, Cory held the turntables over his head — at which point the invisible records he was spinning fell off — and told the audience he was doing the “crazy shot.” As he’d not yet introduced himself to the crowd, I suspect many people had absolutely no idea what was going on. At 4:46 p.m. (7:46 ET), Cory began to pack up, and with about 10 minutes to go before we went live to the East Coast, he finally got around to the tedious business of his actual job. Hollywood, already confused, made some noise.

The mosh pits practiced their over-the-head seal clapping and swaying, coached by audience coordinators. A “Casey Take Off Your Shirt” sign was relocated from its original owner because it was blocking Ryan’s teleprompter. Some people claimed to be Kara’s cousins. Your. Top. 9. took the stage, waving adorably to individual fans as we gave them a standing ovation. Cory instructed us to give everyone and everything a standing ovation from here on out. Siobhan’s outfit once again led me to hope she would be singing a Pat Benatar song, despite the general lack of Benatar/Lennon/McCartney crossover material.

It was explained that the show would start with Ryan in the control room, because, boy, they are all about the reality of this reality show all of a sudden! What’s with all the behind-the-scenes access? Prior to this season, the world behind the curtain was a mystery; now they’re all about the tiny wizard himself, and to me it feels like a series of increasingly desperate moves to spark ratings. To help deal with this feeling, one of my journalist friends coined the term “desperatings” tonight. Later while standing around waiting for interviews, we made up lyrics to the tune of “Desperado,” incorporating a verse about the Octomom getting snacks in the green room while we starved. After almost five hours in the Idoldome, this sort of thing becomes highly amusing.

The real show got underway. The judges walked out in pairs to applause. Just once, I’d like Kara and Ellen to emerge from behind the wall holding hands.

We took a moment to remember what Didi Benami looked like, watched the Lennon/McCartney infomercial complete with greeting from Paul himself, and then while Kara was explaining how Lennon/McCartney are important and how their work led her to write songs like “No Boundaries,” Aaron Kelly made his way up to the stage right clock tower. When we cut to commercial, Kara started to walk out the door, Coke cup in hand, before making a hard right up the audience stairs to visit the people claiming to be her cousins. “Who are you people?” she kidded, then handed out shiny sequined hugs.

During this break, Ryan was directed towards the two girls in my row holding up “Simon, Be Nice!!” signs, one of which featured an unflattering picture of Ry-Ry as a boy. Ryan, his groomer, and Debbie applauded the signs, then Debbie sent a camera over to shoot the girls and their signs while Ryan shook hands in the pit. When we came back from break, the two girls were on TV. Their father, a kind gentleman in a bright orange sweater who engaged in his Idol journey with the enthusiasm of a fluffy baby sheep cavorting in a field of clover on Easter Sunday morning, was extremely pleased. I believe this is where my section of people started to run off the rails.

When Aaron “Yoda” Kelly finished his performance of “The Road that is Long and Somehow Even More Winding Than Usual Right Now,” he got a standing ovation from his “Team Aaron” supporters, including a grandmotherly type going wild in a day-glo jacket made from old Katie Stevens posters. When Simon criticized the youngster for being old-fashioned and dull, there was a very, very loud “BOOO!” which the editing on your TV screens may have led you to believe came from Team Aaron. It did not. It came from the Crazy Booer, some dude seated three rows in front of me with a fauxhawk and an attitude and nowhere near enough hours of therapy under his belt to handle his need for attention. My row, with their “Simon, Be Nice!!” posters, joined him in creating a scene. I suddenly felt a sense of great unease. We went to commercial, and Simon shook a playful finger at my section en masse. Had he known what was to come, I believe he may have dispensed with the pleasantries.

During this commercial, Cory mocked the Crazy Booer, and then assured the audience it was okay to boo. Somewhere on the other side of the room, a woman took issue with this and vocally stood up for Simon because “he knows what he’s talking about.” She and Cory had a short theoretical discussion about the viability of booing professionals in this context while Debbie, Ryan, and Katie “Dressed As Jordin Sparks For Some Reason” Stevens hung out at the stools. Some lady in the stage left pit held up a “Cougars for [Aaron] Kelly” sign. “That’s just wrong,” said Cory, because even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Katie Stevens, like Aaron Kelly, chose her really obvious Lennon-McCartney song (“Let It Be”) thanks to the beautiful greeting card sentiments contained within, and delivered what I think was her best performance to date because it was “personal, like, from her heart.” Kara loved it, doing the overzealous pigeon thing with her neck and then glancing at Simon and Randy for confirmation that what she was watching was really that amazing. (She got it from Randy.) As the Pretty Pageant Pony’s voice swelled, Kara seemed unable to control herself, even briefly conducting the performance. Then she repeatedly used the word “blossoming,” and I got uncomfortable. Simon called Katie “country,” Kara showed off corrected him, the Crazy Booer made more noise, and then Kara had her first real Abdul Moment™: she got up, gestured to her cousins, and started to head out the door. Sadly, we were still on the air.

When we cut to break, Ryan made a beeline for Ellen to say something cheerfully exasperated. More and more I am noticing the bond between Seacrest and Ellen, two professionals adrift in a sea of lunacy. Say what you will about Ellen as a judge (okay: she’s not good at articulating her thoughts and rarely contributes much of anything besides humor), but as a human being, she excels — and this show can always use more humanity. As Andrew Garcia set up to steal Big Mike’s performance gimmick from last week, Ellen even took the time to fix the hem of his pants. She is the only judge who always pays total attention.

As Andrew Garcia did the hokey “Can’t Buy Me Love” pokey, everyone around me clapped whitely on the one. Shockingly, the Crazy Booer agreed with Simon’s assessment that Andrew’s performance was corny and irrelevant.

Next commercial, Kara asked Simon to do her a favor, then took him up to her cousins for handshakes and hellos. Ellen went over to greet the stage right pit and somehow took a spill right off the side of the center catwalk, bouncing back up between swaybots with that same look of wide-eyed how-did-I-get-here-ness she’s been wearing a lot lately. Randy went to greet Lacey Brown. The Stevens family switched places with the Big Mike family (speaking of, how totally wonderful was last night’s episode of Chuck? it was totally wonderful), and the Kelly family swapped with the Urbans. Ryan’s groomer carefully made some pocket square adjustments. The pits got lectured to have more energy. And best of all, Andrew Garcia had fun up there.

Debbie the Stage Manager was at the judges’ table during Big Mike’s reel, speaking very animatedly about something which I could not make out. As Big Mike slow-jammed the “Eleanor Rigby” news, my section once again entertained themselves by clapping on the one, while Kara’s neck engaged in some sort of front-to-back Night at the Roxbury impersonation. Ellen looked a little stymied, and when Big Mike finished, she gave both Kara and Randy shrugs that read as, “So, that was basically fine, right?” Much of Simon and Randy’s musical argument/plug for Glee was lost on me thanks to the Crazy Booer, who started loudly giving the universe a piece of his fauxhawked mind and was soon joined by every single person in my hyperactive section, especially the ladies behind me who kept thwacking the LA Times‘s esteemed Shirley Halperin with their Big Mike sign. Ellen seemed really confused and sort of upset that my section kept yelling out.

It should be noted that at the top of each and every commercial break, the Crazy Booer tried to get Ellen to come over and see him by screaming, “ELLEN! ELLEN!” in a tone of voice usually reserved for law-enforcement situations. I suspect he’d be really useful at Tea Party rallies, or if you needed someone to shout at your congressman about death panels. He has that kind of voice.

Commercial. Crystal’s family swapped with Big Mike’s family while Crystal herself sat on a stool and coughed up a lung. A stagehand brought her water. The smoke machines switched on. Somewhere backstage, Big Mike again resisted the urge to snack on Yoda. When Ernie the Didgeridoo Player took the stage, Crystal gave him a huge hug. Crystal is so magical that her rendition of “Come Together” got everyone around me to finally clap on the two. As the judges complimented her performance, Urban Dad nodded his sincere approval of their every word. Crystal and Ernie the Didgeridoo Player walked off stage during the break with their arms wrapped around each other. Crystal is perfect. If Crystal doesn’t get voted out somewhere in the neighborhood of fourth (in what I like to call The Melinda Doolittle/Carly Smithson/Allison Iraheta Memorial Spot Of Kick-Ass Chick Doom), I’ll eat one of her dreads.

The pits were once again reminded to clap/cheer with their arms over their heads during the next break, as Kara went back to visiting with her cousins and the Crazy Booer fluffed his fauxhawk for Cory the faux-spinner’s approval. “No applause,” Debbie the Stage Manager reminded us coming out of commercial, trying to keep crowd noise from covering the shiny new backstage testimonial desperatings bumper. The stage-left pit clapped anyway. “They never listen!” Debbie said into her headset, then went to hug Lacey and walked out singing along with Tim Urban and all his loving. (eeeeeeeeeeeee!)

Tim kinda nailed it tonight, transcending the singular category in which Randy tried to place him and making me wonder if it’s too late for someone to make a sequel to That Thing You Do! (I think Tom Everett Scott might be free.) Again we succeeded in clapping on the two, all of us except the older man on Team Aaron, who was locked lonesomely on the one. Simon looked bored, his head in his hand, but ultimately complimented Tim on taking earlier criticism “like a man.” As I watched the good-natured Urban family smiling supportively out of the corner of my eye, I realized exactly why.

Simon took a second to autograph someone’s tote bag during the next commercial, while Kara draped herself over Randy and chatted with the stage-left pit. The bespectacled Garcias moved to make room for Siobhan’s bandmates from back home (the hair. THE HAIR.), while Deschanel and Boreanaz were plopped down in the front row for the Bones plug. Kara had Ellen wave to her cousins.

It was dead silent in the house while Casey “Goldilocks” James made the risky move of singing a song that every single person in America didn’t know by heart. The house was so quiet, in fact, you could almost hear Casey’s hair glowing. Even the few bots who tried to sway found themselves standing stock still and staring at the stage. I’m not totally sure all the tweenagers were staring in a good way — I saw a few girls with crossed arms and what might have been absent expressions — and the fake-out ending left nearly everyone in the room a bit unsure of when/how loud to clap. The judges told Goldilocks he was the best of the night, and then I learned a fun fact: Casey James makes Ryan Seacrest look like someone put him in the dryer. It’s not just that Casey’s taller, it’s like Ryan’s Word document is sized at 80 percent in comparison. The proportions are the same, just… less. It’s way freaky.

We learned in the next commercial that the Crazy Booer is a Siobhan fan. Of course he is. That would explain why he was interrupting the show to defend every single other contestant except Andrew Garcia. Meanwhile, Siobhan herself took the stage, lit from behind like a Bonnie Tyler video come to life. As she and her phlegmy falsetto carried us across the universe and back, the back wall of the Idoldome lit up with hundreds of fake stars. It was the nicest prom I’ve ever been to, but even more of the swaybots in the pit were crossing their arms and losing interest. Tim Urban’s dad gave Siobhan a standing ovation; the crowd was less enthused in general.

Siobhan did win tonight’s Miss Idol pageant (sorry, Katie!) with her answer to the “What Does This Song Mean To You?” question, a tender moment punctuated by the Crazy Booer’s cry of “SHE’S BLOODY GREAT!” during Simon’s critique. As you saw on TV, this was when the judges stopped pretending like he hadn’t been annoying them the whole entire broadcast and gave him the 15 minutes of fame that he and his fauxhawk so desperately craved. I thought we’d stop with just a wave and a thumbs up on camera (maybe he’ll shut up now, I wrote in my notebook), but someone told Debbie the Stage Manager to fetch the Crazy Booer, whose name we would soon learn was the implausible “Earl,” and walk him right up to the stage so he could mouthbreathe all over poor Siobhan at close range. This was terrifying, and I’m pretty sure at least a little bit unsanitary. Still, it was all worth it to hear Ryan’s goodbye to Earl — I believe his exact words were “See ya, buddy,” delivered with all the disdain a career spent entertaining the unwashed American masses can instill in a man. When the Crazy Booer got back to his seat, my delinquent section congratulated him heartily on derailing everything — woo, yeah, way to go, you make my heart sad, etc. Then a security guard who dwarfs Big Mike’s Word document came over and whispered something in his ear. The Crazy Booer did not say another word for the remainder of the show.

Crystal Bowersox should win this season of American Idol for her “Andrew Garcia + Lee DeWyze = Danny Gokey” equation alone. (Stay tuned to EW.com for more on that budding bromance this morning; no answers yet on whether the pair will make the Tenacious D-style road movie I so lust after.) I thought Weezy started his “Hey Jude” maybe a half-step too high and the arrangement sounded like a dude in a dorm room playing his guitar over a YouTube karaoke track, but none of that really matters when a bagpiper gets separated from his parade and comes kilting down the stairs.

During the Remember Those Things That Just Happened montage, Simon and Randy hugged, then all four judges sort of huddled together for warmth at the table. Meanwhile, on stage, Your. Top. 9. were hugging one another and more or less ignoring the bagpiper. Others have made far better puns about the bagpiper situation than me, so I’ll not even try — I’m just wondering what’s next. Marching bands? Mimes? Adam Shankman-choreographed interpretive dances? What about a dancing bear? Or a monkey? Everybody likes monkeys. A little monkey grinding an organ would really give this show the desperatings boost it needs. Ooh! I know! Let Octomom sing!

What did you think, PopWatchers? Were the Lennon/McCartney stylings as solid at home as they were in person? Were they maybe not that good but we’ve all adjusted our expectations accordingly? If you were friends or family of one of the Idols, what marketing gimmicks would you bring along? Should I have thrown a shoe at the Crazy Booer before things got out of hand? And who’s looking forward to Adam Lambert’s performance as a mentor next week? I’m kind of hoping Siobhan responds to his outlandish presence by performing in jeans, a gray t-shirt, and a pair of Crocs. You?

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