Idol Scott Pia Stefano
Credit: Michael Becker/Fox/PictureGroup

The squealing, oh for the love of my cochleae, the squealing! For what amounted to a rather middling Top 12 performance show, the Idoldome was nonetheless Kathy Griffin-with-a-vuvuzela loud. I knew something was up when Ryan Seacrest was greeted with the same enthusiasm as that kid who received a Nintendo 64 on Christmas morning. So, yes, the audience was pumped. Cory Almeida, Idol‘s go-to warm-up guy, took advantage of the electricity in the Idoldome by… doing the same warm-up routine he always does. And Debbie the Stage Manager informed everyone that this was the season’s first live performance show — the prior two had been taped.

The judges lined up onstage to deliver their opening remarks about how purchasing this week’s songs would contribute to the relief efforts in Japan. But three seconds prior to filming this live intro, J.Lo and Randy were making hand gestures at one another — the kind of fingers-extended gesture one would make when jumping out from behind a corner and yelling “Boo!” That the two judges could transition from that silly behavior to utmost seriousness in the span of three seconds means that, well, they got this television thing down pat.

First up was Naima singing Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” sans lightning-bolt dancing and impromptu rapping. Seeing that Naima was born in 1984, I was really hoping for some Purple Rain-era Prince, but my musical dreams are rarely fulfilled on Idol. After the judges tossed around the word “pitchy,” we went to our first commercial break. A makeup crew of five or six ambushed the judges’ table, and Interscope exec Jimmy Iovine arrived and took his seat. Some girls from the balcony section yelled “Happy Birthday” to Steven Tyler, even though the singer’s 63rd b-day isn’t until next Saturday.

Back from break, Paul hopped around with some Elton John. Iovine didn’t seem impressed, as he folded his arms and refused to clap along with the crowd. After Paul, Thia sang the 1995 Pocahontas song “Colors of the Wind,” during which Iovine started texting on his phone. Midway through the performance, Cory the Warm-Up Guy started clapping wildly in an attempt to get the audience to follow suit. We took the bait, but applauded halfheartedly.

During the break, James sat down in his silver interview stool and took a couple deep breaths. Nigel Lythgoe walked up to James and presumably offered some words of encouragement. Back from the break, Seacrest revealed Kate Hudson’s presence in the Idoldome. Using the kitty-cat technique of “If I can’t see you, you can’t see me,” the actress attempted to hide behind two bags of snacks.

Out of all the contestants, James appeared to get the biggest kick out of seeing his childhood footage. He started cracking up when his mother recalled how he used to sing to his dolls. (Correction: one doll). James unleashed Bon Jovi, which the audience cherished, and we went back to a commercial break. In what was my favorite what-you-didn’t-see-on-TV moment, James ceremoniously handed his microphone to a stagehand by extending his arm as if he were holding a sword and bending down onto one knee. Up in the balcony seats, Cory found a middle-aged woman who had been to 26 Aerosmith concerts. She had a homemade Steven Tyler poster with her, and Cory made it his personal quest to get the poster signed by the Demon of Screamin’ himself. (It would take a few tries).

During Haley’s rendition of “I’m Your Baby Tonight,” Randy was bobbing his head and smiling, so I was a bit surprised when he chastised the singer for, in his words, not knowing who she was. Stefano grooved to “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” — the Simply Red cover, not Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes original. And Pia delivered “Where Do Broken Hearts Go” with what was, at least from my seat in the Idoldome, the strongest vocal of the night. But Iovine wasn’t applauding. I’m going to assume he was so stunned by what he had heard that he simply forgot about the ancient human custom of smacking your hands together to show approval.

Strangely, the audience was slow to stand up for Scotty’s performance of “Can I Trust You with My Heart,” but they eventually did. During the break, Karen multitasked in the silver stool, getting her makeup applied, having her two earpieces fitted, and holding a bottle of water in one hand and a microphone in another. Lythgoe gave Karen thumbs up and — I’m guessing here — complimented the contestant on her appearance. And the award for the Idoldome’s most-adored parent goes to Karen’s mother. Whenever Karen’s madre showed up in the baby-footage reel, I could hear audience members whisper statements like “She’s so sweet” or “I’m getting teary-eyed.” Unfortunately, Karen’s take on “Love Will Lead You Back” made us cry for all the wrong reasons. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but after landing in the bottom three last week, Karen needed to fight back with a vengeance. That didn’t happen, so a return to the bottom three seems inevitable.

Casey growled a bit too much through Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but at least he selected a stellar song — one that, by some calculations, is the most acclaimed song of the 1990s. During the break, Cory finally managed to get Steven Tyler to sign that Aerosmith fan’s poster. Once Tyler finished scribbling his signature, he proudly held up the poster, and the balcony cheered triumphantly. Lauren, after that awkward flu-mask bit with Seacrest, delivered a fine Melissa Etheridge performance that made Randy bounce his head to the beat. And Jacob ended the show with Heart’s “Alone.” Right before he started singing, Jacob stood completely still and closed his eyes for a few seconds, displaying a sense of calm that was pretty remarkable.

Then the Top 12 gathered on stage for the phone-numbers clip. The replay of Stefano’s performance garnered the loudest Idoldome screams, followed closely by Casey. It was at this point that I finally noticed my favorite audience sign of the night. In the balcony section, a woman held a poster that read: “Casey, Play My Bassy!” PopWatchers, what other rhyming slogans can we think of for this pack of singers? My best late-night attempt: Pia Toscano’s got quite the soprano. *Smacks forehead*

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