American Idol Iovine
Credit: Frank Micelotta/Fox/PictureGroup

“Do I need my earplugs?” This was the question a kind woman asked of me as I sat down next to her before the Top 13 performance show of American Idol. It turns out that not only was it her first trip inside the Idoldome, it was the very first time she had ever seen American Idol. Seriously, ever. I imagine this must be akin to never having seen a baseball game and then going to Yankee Stadium, or trying Mexican food for the first time by biting into a dozen jalapeño peppers at once. At one point, the kind woman turned to me, and in all earnestness asked, “So, is that all Ryan Seacrest does? Stand there and introduce people and say numbers? I thought it was somehow more involved.” I am not totally embarrassed to admit that I felt a pang of protectiveness for widdle RyRy in this moment — after observing him in action for going on five seasons, the guy really is great at his job.

For one thing, Ryan managed to keep the show feeling buoyant in the face of the three-and-a-half hours most of us spent inside the Idoldome Tuesday night pretaping Wednesday’s show. By the end of it, Cory the Warm Up Comic felt compelled to apologize by way of promising that from here on out, Idol would always be live (to the East coast) (on a small Steven-Tyler-buffer delay). As for what happened during our marathon session of Idol‘s first official finalists performance night, let’s take a journey, shall we, into the highlights, and lowlights, of what you didn’t see on TV, starting with the (long-awaited?) debut of Idol Season 10 The Remix’s Official Mentor, Jimmy Iovine.

The Jimmy Iovine Standing Ovation Barometer of Quality vs. Scotty McCreery’s Torrid Love Affair with the Idoldome Studio Audience When I spoke to the Idol exec producers last December for EW’s Idol cover story, Nigel Lythgoe had indicated to me that the show’s post-Simon blunt truth-teller would likely be Iovine. Er, turns out, not so much, unless the Idol editors simply left the bit with Jimmy telling Jacob to avoid giving the word “fly” 14 syllables on the cutting room floor. Instead, the Interscope-Geffen-A&M chairman apparently shows his true feelings for the Idol contestants only with his post-performance enthusiasm. Jimmy (pictured, right, with Motown Records guru Berry Gordy) was the first to applaud Lauren after the judges’ lukewarm reception of her uptempo Shania Twain number. He joined the studio audience’s rousing ovation for Casey’s growl-y Joe Cocker, but, like the audience, Jimmy remained seated after Ashthon’s wobbly Diana Ross. Jimmy stood and applauded for Paul, Pia, James, and Haley, but for Thia, he yawned, and when the audience rose for her obligatory ovation, he remained firmly seated. His body language for Karen was even more troubling; first, dismissing her shaky Selena with a limp hand wave, and then watching her critique leaning forward with his head buried in his hands. Stefano was a different story entirely: Jimmy was practically the first to rise to applaud, charging the air with his fist, and he stood back up again after the judges finished their critiques — Jimmy loves this kid. And he loved Naima too, grinning wide and clapping enthusiastically for her high-wire rendition of “Umbrella.”

As for Scotty, the North Carolina teenager whose take on Garth Brooks’ “The River” had the audience roaring with approval with such sustained volume that I literally wrote “ROOOARRR!” in my notebook? Scotty, whose mere name caused pockets of women young and old to collapse in a torrent of squealing? Scotty, who had the audience already murmuring with barely contained delight when his intro video package revealed his music idol was Garth Brooks? Yeah, Jimmy Iovine did not look like he was so much feeling Scotty. He remained firmly planted in his seat as the rest of the studio erupted into an Oprah’s-favorite-things lather, and when Randy subsequently implored Scotty not to change, Jimmy’s arms did not budge. How this budding enmity develops over the season (and/or in my addled imagination) is anyone’s guess, butjudging from my still-ringing eardrums, the safe money is on Scotty coming out ahead.

Other notable moments from the night:

Let’s do the wave! And again! And again! Times infinity! Woo! Before the show, Cory and Debbie the Stage Manager led the audience in at least a dozen rehearsals of that Idoldome stadium wave that opened the show. We had cue lines, we had choreography, we had specific instructions to “Woo!” And when it came time for us to perform, we did so admirably. “When we win our Emmy for this audience, we’ll share it with all of you,” said Debbie, who then had to ask use to do the wave again after camera troubles botched the first run. Already clearing my mantelpiece for that Emmy, Debs.

Did any of these kids go to summer camp? Before the show started, Debbie brought out the Top 13 to shoot an intro package for Thursday’s results show. She had the contestants stand in a circle, facing inside, the camera panning by their faces at a deliberate (i.e. dramatic) pace. After the camera had passed Lauren and Haley, the two girls got themselves into such a forceful mock cat fight, Lauren appeared to have smacked/scratched/impaled Haley’s hand; all I know for certain is that at one point Haley grasped her hand while mouthing “OW!” so widely, the cheap seats could see if she has her wisdom teeth. (Not really.) So: Take two. “Kids, smile on this next pass,” implored Debbie, “like you’re happy!” With that happy take in the can, someone, somewhere decided for aesthetics/logistics/audience torture, the kids should also all be shot facing outward in a circle. You would think the basic task of standing in a circle would be simple enough for 13 near-professional performers, but eventually Debbie had to step in to physically arrange them all.

Lauren Alaina’s apt tongue With the results show circles finished, the audience wave completed, and the judges in their seats, Ryan tried to start the show in earnest, and almost immediately, Nigel and Debbie began frantically moving about the studio, Nigel finally parking himself on the steps just below the judges table. Just as Ryan cued up Lauren’s interview package, production halted for a never-fully-explained technical issue in the “booth” (which I believe is a truck sitting just outside Idol‘s CBS Television City soundstage, but I digress). We sat waiting for said issue to be resolved for nearly a half hour, while Cory dragged a precocious kid named Robert onto the stage for interviews that consisted mostly of Robert answering, “I don’t know” to Cory’s every query. Through most of it, a freeze frame of Lauren speaking in her video package sat on the Thunderscreen, her tongue peeking out of her mouth just enough to embody the sentiment everyone in the audience was beginning to feel for the slightly scrambling Idol crew.

A brief note on earpieces and studio speakers Before we continue, I should acknowledge what some of you I’m sure noticed last night: The judges were wearing what appeared to be in-ear monitors during the performances. On the one hand, I don’t blame them — the studio sound system at American Idol is famously cranked to dance-club decibels (i.e., yes lady sitting next to me, you will likely want to use those earplugs). The thundering volume blasts out many if not most imperfections from each singer’s voice (unless your Paul McDonald, in which case the in studio audio system struggles to register your apparently irresistible rasp at all), and gives the studio audience an aural experience at times far different from the ones viewers are having at home. Simply put: People (who aren’t Paul) just sound better in the studio than on TV. On the other hand, those ear monitors now mean the judges really have no excuse for praising performances that everyone at home can hear are at best off pitch.

Nigel, the swaybots are gone, please just deal with it Speaking of Paul, during his performance, Nigel wandered into the audience, and began forcefully clapping above his head — and like the trained monkeys we are, everyone began to join him. Nigel pulled the same trick again with Scotty, but by that point the audience was seemingly so transfixed by the low-voiced lad that Nigel’s overhead applause never quite gained enough traction to have a life of its own.

Ryan is cramped After Pia performed “All By Myself,” the production shot James and Haley’s outro button three separate times, in an attempt to get everyone in the Idoldome peanut gallery to stand behind them and cheer. (Yup, it took three tries to get people to stand correctly.) Then Debbie forced everyone to be quiet, as they had to do an audio pickup with Ryan. We all fell into a hush — what was Ryan going to say? Did he flub Pia’s numbers? Was he going to cover for Steven wishing everyone a “Happy International Woman’s Day” on a show that was going to broadcast the day after International Woman’s Day? Were we gonna have to do the wave again? Okay, and we’re rolling, and cue Ryan: [Chuckling] “Oh, charley horse, charley horse!” Quick mini contest in the comment boards: Who can come up with the best totally not realistic scenario in which Ryan would be called upon to use those words? (Keep it clean, folks.)

Cory primes the pump for Naima In the final ad break, before Naimi even took to the stage, Cory was busy boostering for her performance. “This next one is going to be hype,” Cory explained. (Yes, he really does use words in that way, and yes, I think he’s entirely aware that he’s doing it — hence the comedy.) “Y’all ready to get up and party?! We’re going to end this thing with a bang!” At first, I thought Cory was playing favorites, trying to win Naima a berth on next week’s show. In hindsight, however, I think Cory inadvertently took some of the wind out of Naima’s sails, stealing away the surprise of discovering her performance without any preconceptions for what ending a show “with a bang!” would entail. Just food for thought.

So how did Naima play at home for you, PopWatchers? Were you sufficiently surprised? Who do you expect to go home? And how happy are you that the show will be back to live broadcasts from here on in?

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