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American Idol recap: Voters, Start Your Engines!

As the semifinals get underway, Slezak judges the first 12 performances and finds them mostly lacking

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American Idol Braddy

American Idol

TV Show
Current Status:
In Season
Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Ryan Seacrest
Reality TV

You know when you’re really excited about having a bowl of cereal for breakfast, and you scarf down that first spoonful only to realize the milk has gone bad — and then you silently curse yourself for not checking the date on the carton prior to pouring? That would kind of describe my experience watching the first semifinal performance episode of American Idol‘s eighth season.

After all, the Fox-approved label did not lie: Over the next 21 days, two-thirds of the current crop of 36 semifinalists will have their curdled dreams of superstardom dumped down the proverbial drain, their empty aspirations bagged and discarded — although not without hopes of getting recycled on cable-based reality shows, the hotel-lounge circuit, and budget-minded cruise-ship lines. (Performing tonight in the Captain’s Banquet Hall: American Idol‘s Stephen Fowler!)

So yeah, while I’m feeling the inevitable disappointment that comes from watching no more than four, maybe five, potential finalists (don’t forget the Wild Card!) over the course of a two-hour telecast, what exactly was I expecting? The return to the top 36 format of Idol yesteryear might yield more surprises and more suspense when we hit the top 12 come March 10, but it also means we have to endure a greater number of vocalists who can actually get upstaged by Idol‘s extremely charismatic new microphone/disco ball combo.

My one big fear about the new format, though, is that it could punish a terrific singer like Ricky Braddy, who wins this year’s Jason Castro Underdog Trophy, awarded to the contestant who isn’t heard breathing a single note through the audition rounds and Hollywood Week, before making a strong first impression in the semis. Under the old format, Ricky would only have to place tenth out of 12 male singers to advance to week two of the semifinals. This year, however, he’ll have to finish no worse than third out of 12 vocalists, or get booted — and find himself at the mercy of a seal-clapping former Laker cheerleader to give him safe Wild Card passage to the finals.

Now, because I have to tell the truth, let me share the following: I grimaced when Ricky declared he was singing the smooth-jazzy ”A Song for You” — not because it’s not a lovely composition, but because Idol graduate Elliott Yamin so thoroughly owned it back in season 5, it’s really not available for sale, lease, or shoplift. But Ricky, in his red velvet jacket and jeans, borrowed the ballad and treated it with total respect, displaying a tone that was equally lovely and effortless — except for perhaps that hint of strain on the falsetto notes. And while Ricky’s cover didn’t quite match Elliott’s deeply emotional reading, considering it’s week one of the semifinals, the guy deserved some praise, certainly not Simon’s lecture about his lack of star-quality. Thank heavens for Paula — a phrase I never expected to write in my life — who made it a point to note Ricky’s utter(ly unfair) lack of prior screen time, a move that’s robbed him of the kind of built-in fan base already being enjoyed by his 11 fellow competitors.

NEXT: The widower’s return