The first thing you need to know about this season of American Idol — the very first thing — is that the members of the audience who sit behind the stage of the newly redesigned-to-actually-resemble-a-dome Idoldome are rowdy. They whistle. They catcall. They whoop and cheer when a wannabe diva points at them during her song. They demand Cory the Warm-up Comic trek up to their row so they can shake their moneymaker with enough middle-aged gusto that Jennifer Lopez is forced to smile and point. I’m thinking of calling them the peanut gallery. Smirkelstiltskin my snark demon is thinking of calling them the nosebleeders. Neither of us is satisfied with this nomenclature, but it was our very first day inside the Idoldome OS X, so let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.
Indeed, this new Idol set is a bit disorienting. Built in the same soundstage at CBS Television City that’s played home to Idol for millennia, it’s like a dream of an Idol set. I don’t mean dream as in an ideal set, I mean dream as in you’re in one of those dreams where you’re in the audience of American Idol, and yet it’s not quite Idol. For one thing, you’re up higher, and yet also somehow much closer to the judges’ table, so close you can tell that Steven Tyler prefers his notes on yellow legal pads, whereas J. Lo and Randy Jackson like smaller white pads with no lines. And there are seats everywhere — a cluster of seats along the side of the stage, a thin line of seats along the very back of the studio, a three-pack of seats literally right behind the judges, so close one wonders if the people sitting in them can see anything other than S. Ty’s root job. And as my colleague John Young pointed out on Monday, everyone is actually sitting, as in no one is standing, as in the swaybot pit is blissfully no more. Not that that prevented exec producer Nigel Lythgoe from occasionally wandering into the audience during a performance to get everyone to clap their hands over their heads, but we take our victories where we can get them.
Alas, it was no dream, because as you may have already noted, Cory the Warm-up Comic was indeed back in action, and a few years ago Smirkelstiltskin ate the region of my brain that can remember Cory for longer than five minutes, so I scientifically couldn’t have dreamed him. For those of you just joining us for these On the Scene recaps of what you didn’t see on television, Cory the Warm-up Comic is Idol‘s resident audience warm-up guy, a man who gets the crowd in fighting shape to be on live television with the exact same warm-up routine every time, for every episode, every season. He is actually quite good at his job, but his affection for booty dancing and complimenting people’s outfits with an affected feminine lisp prevents me from ever taking him seriously, or wasting your precious time with anything more than a cursory mention of him when absolutely necessary. So this is hopefully the last I shall speak of him at any length, except to note that I expect to hear Cory’s newest “joke” in reference to those sitting above the stage (the plebeidols? No?) every night, for the rest of the season: “You guys get to look at booty all night long!”
With 15 minutes to go before airtime — or, rather, tapetime, since as most of you know, last night’s performance was prerecorded on Monday night — Cory took to the stage with some customary high-volume bluster, asking everyone “WHO’S READY TO PARTY?!?” Turns out by party, Cory meant “WHO’S READY TO PRERECORD AUDIENCE REACTIONS TO PERFORMANCES YOU HAVEN’T SEEN YET?!?” Debbie Williams — the steadfast, no-nonsense Idol stage manager without whom Idol would be a quivering chaotic bauble of blue neon and melisma — indeed took to the stage and conducted the audience to clap and stand, and clap and stand, and clap and stand, so often that I have newfound sympathy for the cast of Eyes Wide Shut.
Eventually, Cory welcomed the Top 24, who stepped through the Idoldome’s split Thunderscreen and took their places standing in a circle around the stage. As they waited there while the crew set up, Casey Abrams and Tim Halperin do-si-doed with each other, and then launched into a doofy arm-swinging-knee-jutting dance that they persuaded four of their male compatriots to join before Debbie cut short the shenanigans. Host Ryan Seacrest took his mark on one end of the circle, and (likely as rehearsed) Lauren Alaina and Pia Toscano stood just outside the circle. Debbie counted down, we went “live” (to tape), and Ryan walked around the circle, delivering his intro. Lauren and Pia took their places in the circle, Debbie shooed Scotty McCreery and Stefano Lagone out of the circle, Ryan hit the mark that Scotty and Stefano had just vacated, and THIS…was A-MER-ican Idol.
Except it wasn’t, not quite yet. After the judges emerged from behind the Thunderscreen, and the contestants had scattered to their respective corners, Nigel Lythgoe stepped on the stage to ask everyone to start again. Seems the stage- left Idol globe was spinning when the camera zoomed in on it at the end of Ryan’s spiel, and they didn’t get a pristine shot of the globe’s neon American Idol. So that globe was stopped, everyone took their places again, and now, finally, THIS…was A-MER-ican Idol…no, really this time, promise. Live-to-tape TV, everyone!
After Ta-Tynisa Wilson opened with the apparently obligatory cover of a melodically stunted recent chart-topping dance hit, we entered our first commercial break, and a small platoon of stylists descended upon J. Lo and S. Ty in a Tasmanian-devil cyclone of makeup brushes and hairspray. This ritual would continue all night; the judges stayed pretty much entirely in their chairs the entire show, either chatting up Ryan, Nigel, and Fox’s reality TV guru Mike Darnell or submitting themselves to the stylist go-bots. Meanwhile, in the first ad break, stagehands absconded with Lauren A.’s and Pia’s silver stools so they could be used for Ryan’s sit-down with Naima Adedapo, causing me to marvel at how Fox was happy to splurge on transforming the Idol stage into the bridge of the USS Enterprise by way of Starlight Express (I mean that as a high compliment), but couldn’t be bothered to shell out for some extra stools.
My seat was far enough to the right of the audience, and far enough above it, that it could reasonably be called an opera box. And from that vantage point, I had a clear view of the two Top 12 guys sitting closest to me: James Durbin and Jacob Lusk, who quickly established themselves as two of Season 10’s most entertaining audience-members-who-are-also-contestants. If you’re fans of other men, my apologies — that misbehaving stage-left spinning Idol globe blocked my view of the rest of the guys. (Stupid spinning Idol globe; can’t you do anything right?) After Naima performed, James and Jacob (and presumably the rest of the boys) leapt to their feet, reaching over the railing with applause. The girls? Polite golf claps.
It wasn’t until Kendra Chantelle’s crisp, flawlessly sung “Impossible,” though, that I was privy to what I quickly learned to call the Jacob Lusk slow-burn ovation. After Kendra finished, the rest of the boys immediately rose to their feet — the girls, again, applauded politely — except for Jacob, who remained seated. At first I thought his slightly stanky expression was one of divalike ruthlessness: i.e., “Oh, hell no — she did not just kill that song in those leather pants.” Then Jacob stood and clapped once. Then again. Then faster, then forcefully, and then with his full body, like an old mechanical toy that takes forever to wind up but then just goes and goes and goes once you do: i.e., “Oh. Oh. Oh, hell yes. Oh, she just killed that song, in those leather pants!” I loved it.
A quick word now on Rachel Zevita. When she first took to the stage, she was wearing that black satin cape. Like you saw on TV, she had draped it around her entire body. She kept wearing it that way, without fail, whether on camera or not, until her dramatic reveal at the top of her rendition of “Criminal.” With that kind of steadfast commitment to preserving the drama, it was plainly obvious to me that Rachel would love someday to be known as Countess Zevi and be born from a feathered egg on the Grammys. But her Gagaesque penchant for theatrics was apparently lost on the judges, and I’ll be surprised if she lasts past tonight’s sure-to-be-a-bloodbath results show. It’s too bad — Smirkelstiltskin was so looking forward to helping her accessorize with quail beaks and tapestries lifted from Versailles.
And now back to Jacob, as I suspect we’ll be doing for many weeks to come. If you’re maybe wondering why Karen Rodriguez won so much praise from the judges, it’s because the mega-powered Idoldome sound system really helped her sell those high notes in her bilingual take on “Hero,” so much so that the audience leapt to their feet two-thirds of the way through her song. No one, however, was as out-of-their-skin happy as Jacob, especially when Steven suggested that Karen and he duet. Ryan asked him how his Spanish was. “¡¡¡Muy bien!!!” exclaimed Jacob. We cut to commercial, Nigel took to the stage, and I’m not kidding, we proceeded to re-tape this moment four more times, from Steven’s suggestion to Jacob’s bubbly “muy bien.” The first take, Nigel told Jacob, “Don’t peak too soon!” The second take, Debbie cracked, “This is the Jacob Lusk Muy Bien show.” And by the fourth take, Ryan devolved into babbling out his radio blather before saying, quite forcefully, and to no one in particular, “We’re done. We’re done. We got it.” (Not that Jacob was deterred. During Lauren Turner’s “Seven Day Fool,” he had the boys all up and dancing pretty much immediately.)
During the ad break, Ryan climbed to the Top 12 boys’ platform, Debbie asked James Durbin to stand next to Ryan, and they worked out the bit where James would rise up on his toes to better tower over Ryan. Suddenly, we came back from the break without the customary command to applaud from Debbie. Ryan was having none of it: “No applause, Debbie?!” We did it again; Ryan must have his applause, always, or else he will no longer be a real boy.
Next, Ashthon Jones sang, asking me to imagine something all over her that I would just as soon not, and worked the folks in the balcony behind the stage — a.k.a. the homeless (a term from official Idol recapper Annie Barrett, and not Smirkelstiltskin, no matter what he tries to tell you) — into a lather by pointing at them and simply acknowledging they exist. She received a small ovation, from the Top 12 boys as well as the girls. Later, while Hailey Reinhart growled through “Fallin'” by Alicia Keys, I caught Ashthon attempting to talk to the other girls, who all had the courtesy to smile politely and look away. Ashthon Jones, ladies and gentlemen. The second “h” stands for “humility,” and is silent.
The rest of the night unfolded without much incident. Thia Megia high-fived the boys as she made her way up to the Land of the Great Unwashed, and J. Lo accidentally slapped down her mic while telling Julie Zorilla to connect emotionally with her song. When Thia finished “Out Here on My Own,” James Durbin debuted his preferred method of applause: pounding his boots on the floor. He used it again after Lauren Alaina’s effortless performance of “Turn On the Radio,” and he wasn’t the only one thrilled by it either. In my five years of covering these live shows, I can scarcely think of a contestant who took to the big Idol stage with as assured and natural a sense of what to do with it. Yes, I get it, she’s been pimped to the high heavens, but that’s not really her fault, and to my eye, she actually delivered on the hype: no precocious attempts to be older than she is; no uncomfortable attempts to be more sexual than she should be; no twisting the song into a showcase for her long, loud, and high notes.
Which is not to diminish Pia Toscano’s accomplishment with “I’ll Stand By You”; her long, loud, and high notes sent the audience into conniptions, Durbin into his floor pounding, and Jacob into his slow-burn ovation. It was a brilliant first performance on Idol, and as everyone wandered back out into the world beyond CBS Television City, we were all left wondering just how America will be able to squeeze all this Idol talent into a measly Top 10. We shall find out tonight, but you tell me, who do you think will make up the Idol Top 10? Who will be the wild cards? And are we headed for a Top 12, Top 13, or even possibly a Top 14?