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'American Idol' on the scene for Top 9 performance night: Impromptu dancing, Steven Tyler's mighty appetite, and Jennifer Lopez throws a punch

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Idol Paul2
Fox

Who do you send home after a night as strong as that? (Okay, my answer would be Paul, but even his performance tickled my typically Paul-phobic soul.) As I was exiting the Idoldome, that was the question on everyone’s mind. One female audience member summed it up best: “Usually there are one or two performances that don’t quite work, but tonight was different.”

Tonight was different. For one thing, the crowd was rowdier than I’ve ever seen it, frequently violating Idol Commandment No. 7: Thou shall not yell during the sacred post-song banter between Ryan Seacrest and a contestant. Interscope mentor Jimmy Iovine was nowhere to be found, thereby reducing the number of folded arms in the audience by 31 percent. And Casey’s upright bass, having been recovered from Nigel Lythgoe’s titanium vault, finally made its first live-show appearance.

As for what you didn’t see on TV, there’s much to discuss: an Idol hoedown, the world’s scariest Slinky, why J.Lo punched Randy Jackson, Cheesecake Factory attire, and the snacking habits of Steven Tyler. Here are your behind-the-scene highlights:

We can dance if we want to: During the phone-numbers clip at the end of the show, the Idoldome band continued playing Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” and the Top 9 broke out into a spontaneous hoedown. Stefano was hopping into the air, Lauren and Debbie the Stage Manager teamed up for a little tap-dancing jig, and Scotty unleashed arm movements more commonly used when washing your windshield with a towel. And then, square dancing! The two pairs of singers I saw most frequently lock arms were James and Stefano, and Jacob and Casey. I quickly realized this was perhaps one of my favorite Idoldome moments, because as far as I could tell, nobody instructed the contestants to dance. They simply wanted to bust a move, even though the cameras weren’t rolling. (TV viewers only saw the tail end of what amounted to a four-minute hootenanny.)

Nigel the Puppeteer: Nobody pulls more strings in the Idoldome than executive producer Nigel Lythgoe. This was most apparent during Scotty’s rendition of “That’s All Right.” You know those girls who ran onto the stage to hug the 17-year-old country comfort? Totally Nigel’s idea, as he was whispering into the girls’ ears a few seconds before their mad dash onstage. Normally, if someone attempted to storm the stage (as one girl did last year when Justin Bieber stopped by), that fan would have been tackled by security in less time than it took that twin-babies meme to go meta. I don’t fault Nigel for trying to create some “moments” on the show, but it’s interesting how he wields his influence for only a select few. Shortly into Scotty’s performance, Nigel commanded the audience to stand, and we obeyed. And for Jacob, Nigel resurrected the swaybots. Swaying at an American Idol show is analogous to applauding during the blessing of the Eucharist. It’s simply not needed.

Feeding the Demon (of Screamin’): Steven Tyler was famished. At virtually every commercial break, the rock star’s assistant arrived with a tote bag of snacks. It was hard to see exactly what Tyler was eating, although I could make out the distinctive coloring of a Reese’s Pieces bag. This chowing down of yummies was regularly followed by the checking of Tyler’s teeth, also performed by the assistant. At one point, Tyler actually got something stuck in his teeth. I think it may have been a constructive critique, but luckily the judge disposed of it before the show came back on air.

The Slinky from Hell: In preparation for Pia’s performance, the center staircase was rolled out onto the stage. And then, this 20-foot tubular thing started slithering, step by step, down the staircase. It looked like the offspring of a humongous Slinky and the Smoke Monster from Lost, and it was sort of freaking me out. The mysterious object ended up being nothing more than an overly elaborate way to bombard Pia with a London layer of fog. Once Pia’s knees had disappeared from sight, the Smokey Slinky crept back up the stairs and vanished, leaving the Idoldome to stalk innocent Angelenos in the night.

Jennifer Lopez’s punching bag: Randy Jackson. After Randy described Stefano’s singing as “jerky,” Lopez took a hard swipe at the judge’s right shoulder. And there was nothing jerky about J.Lo’s punching motion.

Lauren’s post-Idol meal: During my post-show backstage interview with Idol vocal coach Debra Byrd, Lauren Alaina barged into the room to pick up something she’d left behind. (Our interview was being conducted in the “green room” where the contestants watch each other perform.) Lauren announced her intent to walk over to the Cheesecake Factory at the nearby outdoor mall. But then she became concerned about her outfit: a baggy sweatshirt and sweatpants. Byrd assured Lauren that people dress like that all the time at the mall. “But not right after they were on national television!” retorted Lauren. Then, after greeting me in the sweetest of Southern accents and grabbing a carrot from the snack table, the singer bid adieu and was off.

Audience participation: Speaking of Lauren, it was during her post-song conversation with Seacrest that the audience got particularly vocal. Chants of “Vote for Lauren,” “We love you, Lauren,” and “Yeah Lauren!” were shouted at various points. During the following break, Cory the Warmup Host politely scolded the audience for yelling when they weren’t supposed to. But he also tweeted, “Wow, what a WILDLY LOUD crowd tonight!!!,” followed by #bringdanoise — a hashtag I’m afraid to report has been used more than once.

Read more:

‘American Idol’ recap: The Rock Garden

‘American Idol’ behind the scenes: ‘Idol’ coaches talk the Top 9

‘American Idol’: Top 9 Power List