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'American Idol': On the scene for Top 4 performance night

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Image Credit: Frank Micelotta/PictureGroupLast night was only my fifth visit to the Idoldome, and already a wave of Groundhog Day déjà vu has taken hold of me. Is Corey the Warm-Up Comic really asking two young women to show off their best Beyoncé moves yet again? Is the Casey-Kara-cougar relationship really still a topic of conversation this late in the game? And is Lee really going to perform Seal’s “Kiss from a Rose” only three weeks after Big Mike sang Chad Kroeger’s rip-off “Hero”? (Listen to the two superhero songs and convince me they aren’t identical twins separated at birth). But despite feeling like my time in the Idoldome was some sort of glitch in the Matrix, it’s impossible not to feed off the excitement of all the audience members around you. As Corey reminds us each week, this is the No. 1 show on TV, so lighten up, John, and bask in Idol‘s soothing, repetitive warmth.

Those three words aptly describe the California weather as I passed the Dancing With the Stars stage on my way to the Idoldome. Outside the studio, Crystal’s boyfriend, Tony, was pushing around her baby boy in a stroller. He was wearing a blue volleyball shirt, the back of which featured his last name and the jersey number 69. (Schools allow athletes to use that number?). Tony was also sporting some flashy American flag pants. Backstage, Crystal told reporters that the pants were her idea. “This morning, before I left, I told him that if he truly loved me, he would wear his American flag pants,” Crystal said. “He wore them, and I’m happy with that.”

After Ryan Seacrest introduced the show, he did his customary sprint up the center staircase so that he could walk down said staircase 15 seconds later. In fact, Seacrest scurries around the Idol set with such speed and dexterity that he must train at home using one of these. As for the judges, they tend to gravitate toward anyone in the Idoldome whose celebrity status exceeds their own.

This week was no different, as all four judges were infatuated with Jamie Foxx. During the opening title sequence, Simon got out of his chair to shake Foxx’s hand, and Kara waved to the actor-singer (and star of The Soloist!). During the mentor introduction clip, Seacrest hurdled off the stage to hug Foxx. Seacrest then walked behind Foxx so that he could repeatedly pat the actor’s shoulders, a technique also known as the Seacrest Shoulder Staccato. Later in the show, during a commercial break, Ellen kissed Foxx on the cheek and had a lengthy chat. During a different break, Randy planted a hug on Foxx and a photographer materialized out of nowhere to take a photo of the two. Then, during the mentoring clip introducing Casey’s performance, Foxx instructed Casey to “seduce him,” and Kara loved that moment so much that she turned her chair toward Foxx, caught his attention, and then applauded for him. I guess the judges figured this was their only moment to make contact with Foxx without having to get past his five bodyguards. (Yes, I counted five bodyguards, with each guard increasing in mass the closer you got to Foxx).

Other than the judges’ Foxx-y behavior, there’s little to report from the Idoldome, but press on we shall. Lee received a standing ovation for his rendition of “Kiss from a Rose,” although I’m starting to think the Idol audience will give a standing ovation to whoever performs first. When Randy criticized Lee’s performance, the audience booed the dawg, and Simon turned around in his chair and flashed a devilish smile while savoring the fact that someone else was being booed for a change. During the break, Big Mike and Seacrest sat on the stage’s stools and casually chatted — you could tell that Seacrest, who has been awake since the Dawn of Time, had to force himself to perk up before the cameras started rolling. Also during the break, Corey chastised the girls in the pit who yelled out “We love you, Lee” during Kara’s critique. Apparently, it’s acceptable for the audience to applaud and boo, but spontaneous acts of individuality are simply not allowed.

Big Mike’s “Will You Be There” played much better live than on TV, and I’m frankly surprised by the judges’ cold remarks. During the actual performance, Kara was grooving to the song, and Randy, who was also bobbing his head, turned to Ellen at one point and smiled. As for the first duet, Crystal and Lee’s take on the great Once tune “Falling Slowly,” Kara was clapping along and the audience gave the duo a standing ovation. When Crystal mentioned that Lee was her “musical crush,” Crystal’s real-life boyfriend, Tony, tilted his head back and looked toward the ceiling. Either he was responding to his girlfriend’s comment with hearty laughter, or was releasing some awkward nervous energy.

The main thing worth mentioning in regard to Casey’s “Mrs. Robinson” is how much fun Randy and Simon had alluding to Kara’s “cougar” status. Backstage, I asked Casey whether he felt the extended focus on his supposed “relationship” with Kara may be preventing viewers from taking him seriously as a musician. “It doesn’t bother me by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “I took my shirt off to get to the Hollywood round, so I can’t really complain if they’re going to bring something like that up. It is what it is.”

As the Jamie Foxx/Crystal Bowersox clip rolled, Crystal adorably hopped across the stage to grab her guitar, and then hopped back to her microphone in the nick of time. During her performance of “I’m Alright,” boyfriend Tony clapped along, although he subscribed to the vertical clapping technique; that is, his right hand was positioned directly above the left, and then his right hand descended to meet the left hand, which didn’t move. This style of applauding makes no sense to me, a devout horizontal clapper.

Finally, Casey and Big Mike unveiled “Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman,” which received the third complete standing ovation of the night. Seacrest was walking up a small staircase stage right when Ellen remarked, “As a matter of fact, yes, I have loved a woman.” Seacrest cracked up at the line and was still laughing by the time he reached center stage to cue the phone-number clips. During the clips, Seacrest darted for Ellen at the judges’ table, most likely promising to give her the Seacrest Shoulder Staccato as a reward for her joke.

Once the show ended, Simon actually hung around for a moment to sign a few autographs, while Crystal and Lee walked over to the pit to shake a couple of hands. I grabbed dinner at The Grove shopping mall, and on my way back to the parking structure, I spotted Lee hanging with his brother and signing autographs for a small pack of shoppers. As I got into the elevator, a little girl and her parents told me that Lee had signed their Idol tickets. “He seems like a decent guy, doesn’t he?” the mother asked me. Something tells me that when this family recalls the time they once attended American Idol, they won’t remember the performances or the stylish set, but rather the fact that Lee DeWyze, while on the verge of stardom, took the time to make their night a special one.

PopWatchers, I’ll be back in the Idoldome tonight as one contestant is sent packing. So who will that be? And why do think yesterday’s duets were so much stronger than any of the solo performances?

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