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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

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

Indeed, according to this week’s Idol Power List readers’ poll, no two season 8 contestants had bigger blocs of speed-dialers in their corners heading into tonight’s show than Danny Gokey and Anoop Desai, and that makes me think they’ll both advance to the top 12 tomorrow night, despite having both been outperformed by Ricky.

To be fair, Danny was nearly pitch-perfect during his rendition of Mariah Carey’s ”Hero,” and while his phrasing sometimes struck me as a little odd…wait a sec…let’s rewind this sentence for a second. You can sing any composition to make the Billboard Hot 100 in this history of said chart, and you choose a drippy inspirational ballad like Mariah Carey’s ”Hero”? And then you go and bookend your performance with motivational-speaking sound bites about finding ”new hope on the horizon,” experiencing ”new excitement amidst all the tragedy,” and visualizing ”people rising above”? Seriously? While you’re at it, why note fire up a Power Point presentation entitled ”Overcoming Obstacles Through Positive Thinking, Therapeutic Singing, and Reality-Television Hamming”?

Look, I cannot sit here and say I can understand the loss Danny experienced when his young wife died less than a year ago, or how that event is informing his decisions as an artist — we all grieve differently — but for a guy who confidently boasted during last week’s ”Judges’ Mansion” episode that he sees himself as a relevant and contemporary singer, it all felt a little 1996 to me. Weirder still, even though I’d place Danny’s performance among the night’s three best, I don’t get what exactly prompted Paula, Randy, and Kara to break into a hooting, hollering, standing-ovationing, desk-slapping litany of overbaked platitudes. Really, Kara? Danny ”gives us all hope”? Is that the kind of insightful critique you want to offer during your first live Idol telecast? Thankfully, Simon stepped in with his ”good…not fantastic” reality check, which certainly won’t stop Danny’s march to the finals, but might get him brainstorming how to up his game between now and late May.

Anoop, meanwhile, entered tonight’s broadcast as the contestant I most expected would break out with something uptempo and funky. My hopes started to skyrocket when his interview package kicked off with a recap of his Hollywood Week take on ”My Prerogative,” and his promise to try to tackle songs he’d always wanted to see covered on Idol. (ANOOOOP!) Unfortunately, all this led into a good, though not great, performance of Monica’s languid ”Angel of Mine,” a really lovely ballad on which the backing vocalist gets to carry the majority of the melody, leaving Anoop to riff (rather effectively) over an otherwise lethargic arrangement.

NEXT: Michael Sarver’s possible salvation

Side note: Was anyone else completely distracted by the clunky, karaoke-ish arrangements on most of the songs tonight? Is Rickey Minor a disgruntled Archuleta fan hellbent on wrecking the Idol franchise till Nigel Lythgoe completes a recount?

Anyhoo, Randy, naturally responded to Anoop’s performance with his regular brand of insight (”interesting song choice for me for you”) while Paula (on a roll) offered the most astute assessment of Anoop’s chances, explaining that the connection he’s forged with viewers over the last several weeks might be enough to advance to the finals.

Ricky, Danny, and Anoop’s conceivable battle for two positions in the finals does not bode well for Michael Sarver, Brent Keith, or Stephen Fowler. Granted, Simon (surprisingly) lobbied in favor of Michael surviving into future rounds, but not because his wobbly, oxygen-deprived rendition of Gavin Degraw’s ”I Don’t Want to Be” (another track that needs to get retired from Idol) was any better than what you’d hear in any roadhouse bar on a Saturday night — okay, you got me…I don’t know that much about roadhouse bars on Saturday nights, but I’m gonna guess they don’t pronounce ”hafta” as ”hoffta.” Simon instead praised Michael’s likeability, pointed out that here was the kind of contestant who really ”needed a break,” then encouraged America to give him another chance in the competition.

Poor Brent Keith got no such emotional relief after an utterly forgettable rendition of ”Hick Town” because apparently, in the Idol guidebook, it lists working as a roughneck in an oil field as a deeply noble profession, but working for a home-improvent warehouse (like Brent does) as worth zero emotional backstory points. How heartbreaking was the look on Brent’s face when Simon told him he’d blown his ”massive opportunity” with a lame song choice, and after Ryan asked Brent’s wife if they’d set a deadline to pull the plug on hubby’s singing career?

Maybe not as heartbreaking as the Lite FM arrangement of Michael Jackson’s ”Rock With You,” which Stephen punctuated with a cracklingly off-pitch falsetto note, some half-hearted dance moves, and the old ”I’m not comfortable singing without my piano” excuse. In all seriousness, I felt like the sole purpose of Stephen’s appearance tonight was so that Simon could get in that zinger about how he’d have preferred if Stephen had forgotten his lyrics, much as he did during Hollywood Week.

Since my surest bet of the night is that two men will advance to the top 12 on Wednesday night, that means only one woman will be able to join ’em, and I’m putting my money on Alexis Grace, a contestant whose transformation from perky young mom to black-slip-sporting sexpot won’t be seemingly complete for the judges until Alexis installs a stripper poll at center stage and works it like a nine-to-five. Seriously, how many ways can this woman be asked by the judges to dirty herself up, or to make love to her fiancé before she’s got a legitimate sexual harassment suit on her hands?

NEXT: Tatiana shows up and tries to justify her presence

All image issues aside, though, while I felt Alexis’s performance during ”I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You” was stronger than her five female counterparts, it certainly had some problems: A tentative beginning, vocal-control issues, the unfortunate black nail polish, and another sparse-yet-cheesy arrangement from the band. And, of course, a color-inside-the-lines reading that could only pale in comparison to the legendary original. The thing I like about Alexis, though, is that in many ways, she still seems like a total amateur, a throwback to the days when ”undiscovered” didn’t mean ”once had a three-record deal with Arista and a three-episode arc on NCIS.” And she’s still got room for improvement — which is probably why Simon said that Alexis reminds him of Kelly Clarkson.

If that comparison backfires, however unlikely that may be, it could provide an opportunity for either Tatiana Del Toro or Ann Marie Boskovich — two women who entered the top 36 through completely different doors, yet find themselves in much side-by-side heading into Wednesday night’s results show. Tatiana rode into the semifinals on a cloud of bad buzz, getting labeled as a giggling joke whose only talent was to perplex the judges, but tonight, she indeed had a flash or three of brilliance on ”Saving All My Love for You”; her closing run was prettier than the reflection Bikini Girl thinks she sees when she looks in the mirror, and can I admit that I felt a little twinge of sympathy when the judges worked themselves into a lather over the fact that Tatiana wasn’t screaming, crying, and acting generally like a circus seal, ready to bounce a ball on its nose? (This feeling quickly subsided after Tatiana declared herself ”multi-faceted” and that it was up to America to keep her dreams alive, but I digress.) The weirdest part of the performance, though, was the way the judges expressed shock that Tatiana’s vocal wasn’t half-bad. Um, memo to Randy, Simon, Paula, and Kara: You’re the folks who put her through to the top 36! This is a big surprise to you how exactly?

As for Ann Marie, well, a spot in the finale appeared to be hers to lose, based on strong showings at her audition and during Hollywood Week, but she fell victim to the one trap the judges delight in pointing out: inappropriate song choice! Like one of Cinderella’s stepsisters trying to force her massive foot into a tiny shoe, Ann Marie desperately tried to manipulate her dulcet voice to match the big, soaring choruses of ”Natural Woman,” and wound up delivering the song with a strange, halting kind of cadence and a stiff, hunched posture that erased memories of the potential pop-star who sang ”Bubbly” at her Jacksonville audition. And a pox on that aqua-colored minidress with the weird cutouts over Ann Marie’s cleavage! That potato sack managed to make the show’s resident hot chick look downright gawky!

NEXT: Report card time

But not to worry, Ann Marie: I think the judges will be wise enough to bring you back and let you have a shot at the Wild Card if you don’t survive Wednesday night’s eliminations. And the other bit of good news? You don’t even have to worry about taking home the Worst Dressed trophy, thanks to Jackie Tohn’s black lycra leggings, red cumberbund, and black-and-white polka-dot bustier, an outfit that looked like it could’ve been vomited up by Katy Perry after feasting on imagery from Olivia Newton-John’s ”Physical” video. Yeah, I appreciated Jackie’s attempts at bringing some energy to the first live performance of the Idol season, but you know you’ve set the bar low when your goal is to ”get Ms. Abdul up on her feet.” Then again, maybe it’s good that the rapid-fire pace of ”A Little Less Conversation” proved to be way beyond Jackie’s skill set; I have a tendency to get hypnotized by Idol‘s raspy-voiced rocker chicks (see Overmyer, Amanda) and it never ends well.

Speaking of severed attachments: Farewell to Stevie Wright and Casey Carlson, whose attempts to rocket toward the upper-echelons of the singing world never got off the launching pad tonight. I was imaging the folks at Idol Mission Control shouting ”Abort! Abort!” into their mics as Stevie missed her cue to start Taylor Swift’s ”You Belong With Me,” then just staring in abject terror as they realized she’d be failing to hit a single correct note for the next 90 seconds. I think I pretty much summed up the performance with the only two words I managed to scrawl on my notepad during Stevie’s performance: ”OH NO!”

And as for Casey Carlson’s misbegotten cover of the Police’s ”Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic,” let’s just say she’s lucky that, as Simon pointed out, the semifinal crowd is so easy to please. Otherwise Neil Patrick Harris and Ted Danson might’ve been throwing bricks and tomatoes at the stage in an effort to put an end to the weird facial tics, Elaine Benes dance moves, and Jessica Simpson School of Diction phrasing that turned Casey into a very attractive punching bag for Kara, Paula, Randy, and Simon. I mean, you know it’s been a rough night when you have to fight back bitter tears after getting called ”exquisitely beautiful” in front of 25 million people.

Not to pile it on to poor Casey, but earlier tonight, my colleague Dave Karger emailed me with a great suggestion: ”Slezak,” he said, ”why don’t you assign a letter grade to every performance for the rest of the season?” And so, keeping in mind that previous semifinal rounds have given us Chris Daughtry’s ”Hemorrhage,” Melinda Doolittle’s ”My Funny Valentine,” and Mandisa’s ”I’m Every Woman,” and remembering these contestants all have plenty of room to improve, here’s my scorecard for tonight’s contenders:

Ricky Braddy: B+

Danny Gokey: B

Alexis Grace: B-

Anoop Desai: B-

Tatiana Del Toro: C+

Ann Marie Boskovich: C

Jackie Tohn: C-

Brent Keith: C-

Michael Sarver: C-

Casey Carlson: D

Stephen Fowler: D-

Stevie Wright: F

What did you think of tonight’s show? Which three contestants are you predicting will advance to the top 12 on Wednesday night? How awkward and poorly staged were the Ryan-parent-contestant interviews? How would you rate Kara’s first live-show performance? And were you annoyed by the psych-out of having Simon sit on the left, but still making him speak last?