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American Idol recap: Ell(en) Yeah!

On her debut episode, Ellen DeGeneres provides rock-solid feedback, and leaves room for a number of potential front-runners to shine

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Ellen Degeneres Idol

American Idol

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

As an homage to my frequent Idolatry cohost and EW’s resident tastemaker Jessica Shaw, I’d like to kick off this American Idol recap ‘Shaw Report’ style:

In: Ellen DeGeneres; Five Minutes Ago: Simon Cowell; Out: Randy Jackson. (Yes, Kara you just dodged a bullet.)

In: Acoustic Guitars; Five Minutes Ago: Keyboards; Out: (Sorry, Paula fans!) Seal-Clapping.

In: Excitement Over Season 9; Five Minutes Ago: Longing Over Season 8; Out: Panicking Over X-Factor.

(Please do not interpret that last statement to mean that I’m going to stop making Kradison references for the foreseeable future. Heck, no! Also: #signmattgiraud! And #signfrenchiedavis, too, dammit!)

Anyway, Idoloonies, in the famous words of Mariah Carey, it’s like that y’all. Because tonight was the American Idol equivalent of a shampoo ad: Not that I needed a helpful animated graphic to outline how season 9 of the nation’s favorite talent competition was suddenly getting strengthened from root to tip. It was clear we were benefiting from a much-needed infusion of Ellen DeGeneres (the judging equivalent of jojoba or cocoa butter or some such rich, restorative ingredient), plus appearances by Vitamins A(ndrew Garcia), C(rystal Bowersox), D(idi Benami), H(aeley Vaughn), J(anell Wheeler), and L(illy Scott). And as the focus shifted to genuine Top 12 contenders, the burdensome weight of the gimmicky (woeful beat-box dood), the not-yet-ready-for-primetime (Vanessa Wolfe), and the downright ridiculous (Skii-Bo-Ski who?) got washed right down the drain.

But let’s get back to Ellen for a second. Because on a night — and to be honest, in a season — where her addition to the judges’ panel was The Story, the comedian/talk-show host seemed to take a deliberate back seat to the contestants. Eyes forward, focusing on the performances. Expression serious, reviewing her notes. Demeanor firm, sending contestants home with constructive advice that could serve them well if they return for season 10. And never once stirring up contrived drama/chumminess/ hijinks with Simon, Kara, and Randy in an effort to make sure all cameras were on her.

Oh sure, Ellen made me chuckle playing mind games with a row of contestants — sending them through an elaborate ritual of stepping forward, stepping back, and then back again, before announcing they’d all made it through to the next round; ”Sadist!” howled Simon — but it was clear from her overall performance that she understands the importance (yes, I said importance) of the task she’s been hired to do. Because at its heart, Idol has always been about a nation’s annual opportunity to take back the power from a record business that wants to feed us the chemical byproducts of an Auto-Tuned Britney Spears, wrapped in a tissue-thin layer of ”sexy,” and to tell us we should be happy when said byproduct turns out to be one of only 11 songs we get to hear hour after hour after corporate-controlled hour on our local radio station.

It’s a depressing time for mass-market music, and yet Idol allows 25 million of us to gather every week and experience the collective goosebumps of a ”Heartless” or a ”Mad World” or a ”Billie Jean” or a ”Summertime.” And the fact that I don’t have to assign a contestant’s name to any of the above song titles is proof positive of Idol‘s power. Ellen, by offering concise, intelligible critiques (a low bar that isn’t cleared nearly enough on this program), by keeping the goofy one-liners that are her stock and trade to a minimum (although her leopard metaphor re. Skii-Bo-Ski was as succinct as it was apt), let us know she understands and respects that power, respects the 181 kids who took the stage on Day One of Hollywood Week in the hopes of singing anything but ”No Boundaries” while wiping away tear-streaked pieces of confetti at the Kodak in May.

NEXT: Lilly Scott sings us a lullaby