A female contestant is going to win season 9 of American Idol. That’s what Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell have been telling journalists during their early-season press tours, and that was also the point driven home by Ryan Seacrest at the start of tonight’s telecast. ”You’ve said that it’s gonna be the girls’ year. What is it that stood out about this group of girls?” he asked Simon, before any of us had seen a single live performance from this year’s Top 24.
But here’s my question: If Idol‘s ninth season is nothing more than a scripted affair, if its final ”run through the airport/sob and weep while performing ‘No Boundaries 2.0”’ scene has already been written, why shouldn’t we all just emotionally disengage from the process right this very second? Male or female, married or single, black or white, tattooed or ink-free, I want my Idol winner to clamber up on stage for 14 consecutive weeks and fight for every last vote — whipping up innovative arrangements of genius song choices, delivering the kind of vocals that would never hide behind a backing track under the guise of an ”acid reflux” flareup, displaying stage presence that’ll make me gleefully detonate my social calendar every Tuesday and Wednesday night from now until May.
You’d think Idol‘s judging panel would have the same basic goals in mind, but last night Ellen, Simon, Randy, and Kara all seemed almost as interested in achieving parity among the ladies as they did in sorting out the pretenders from the contenders. True, each judge (even Randy and Kara!) provided more specific examples of constructive criticism than I’d have reasonably expected (how ’bout Randy pointing out Haeley Vaughn’s upper register is thisside of unpleasant?), but I still can’t understand why superior vocalists like Crystal Bowersox and Didi Benami were held to higher standards than the likes of, say, Ashley Rodriguez and Paige Miles. I mean, if Ashley and Paige both got ”you definitely should/will live to fight another week” critiques after slaughtering entire villages of notes in their respective performances, then Crystal and Didi deserved nothing short of cash prizes and ticker-tape parades at the end of theirs.
But enough about the judges’ highs and lows. Because I already live-blogged the ”Top 12 Ladies” episode (click here to read it!), and because, well, we’re going to be over-analyzing the judges’ motivations for weeks and weeks to come, I thought I’d do something unprecedented for this recap: I’m going to put aside my conspiracy theories, make no mention of the judges’ critiques, and instead, review each performance solely on its own merits — in descending order from best to worst.
Crystal Bowersox: A- If MamaSox’s success can only be defined by whether or not she completely rebooted and rearranged ”Hand in My Pocket,” then by all means, strap her to the train tracks and carry on with your morning commute! But before you go tying that final knot, let’s remind ourselves that previous Idol innovators like Blake Lewis (”Somewhere Only We Know”), David Cook (”Happy Together”), Kris Allen (”Man in the Mirror”), and Adam Lambert (”[I Can’t Get No] Satisfaction”) all played it fairly safe with their arrangements during their initial live performances.
By comparison to those four cats’ opening salvos, Crystal’s Alanis Morissette cover more than holds its own. And compared to the other 11 women of season 9, it was the performance of the night. Sure, there were moments Crystal’s facial expression seemed to be saying ”Whoa! How the heck did a chick like me end up in front of a TV audience of 25 million people?” But not once did she succumb to that pressure with desperate poodle-on-a-tightrope stunts that might’ve elicited some ”oohs” and ”aahs” from the crowd, but would’ve ultimately taken away from the story she was telling. Case in point: The way Crystal’s voice dissolved into almost a whisper on that initial ”fine, fine, fine” caught my attention in a way the showiest vocal run never could have. And let’s be honest: There was something infinitely more interesting (and current) in Crystal strumming her guitar, working her harmonica, and interacting with the band to the side of the stage than, say, a generic pop vocalist delivering a formulaic ballad while trying to make sultry eyes for the camera.
Side note: I actually guffawed when Crystal, responding to Simon’s criticism that ”you’ve got to do something which is you, not try to sound like somebody else,” earnestly declared ”They don’t allow original [compositions] on the show, though.” I don’t usually believe contestants when they say they haven’t watched Idol before, but in this case, I’m totally buying it. And while Simon’s right, in order to succeed in Idol‘s new world order, you’ve got to zag when the world expects you to zig — this ain’t season 5, where Chris Daughtry could get away with exceptional carbon copies of Bon Jovi and Fuel, after all — I don’t think a one-week learning curve is it?
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