Of the many, many, many differences between Season 10 and Season 9 of American Idol, one of the most striking to me is how suddenly we’re all deeply interested in the dating lives of the contestants this year. As I made my way to my seat in the Idoldome last night, I overheard one woman say with great concern and earnestness, “I just don’t know how he met Nikki Reed.” And the two women with pleasant perfume seated next to me — one a big Haley fan, the other a big Casey fan, with the clear impression that there was a heated debate over glasses of Chardonnay about who was better — were all too happy to point out to me that Dancing With the Stars pro Mark Ballas and his father Corky were both seated in the front row in “very dapper” looking suits. You may notice that I haven’t pointed out why Nikki Reed and Mark Ballas hold any importance to the Idol Nation, and if you yourself don’t know already, then please do spend some time today treating yourself to a congratulatory cupcake or mall massage for managing to keep this knowledge from setting root in your brain. The rest of us will be madly parsing next week’s DWTS results show for body language clues while fooling ourselves into thinking it has something to do with learning about the national debt ceiling.

Ballas seemed to realize that his mere presence inside the Idoldome was winning him a whole lot of (perhaps unwanted) attention. Before the show, he buried himself in his iPhone, barely looking up at all; his father Corky, on the other hand, grinned and took in the scene like a man who had worked at a Six Flags for the last decade and had suddenly found himself in the heart of Disney World. When Cory launched into the “get the entire audience ‘dancing’ by asking them to shift their heads from side-to-side” portion of his warm up routine, the elder Ballas happily played along; the younger Ballas, kinda hilariously, stood stone still, refusing to move at all. If Cory had had the stones to pull Mark Ballas on stage and commanded him, as per usual, to “shake that booty,” I daresay at least one or two audience members would’ve spontaneously combusted.

Alas, Cory did not have said stones, which is just as well given all the wild goings on inside the Idoldome last night. Here are the highlights:

“They are killing it,” said Jennifer Lopez in the taped opening. “Yes, they are,” said the nice-smelling woman to my left. (The Haley fan, not the Casey fan.)

Ladies and gentlemen, your Bottom 6! The crowd had an inkling of what was in store when Cory told us before the show that “all the Top 13 will be on the stage” for what he promised was a “super high-energy, high-impact group number.” Cory did not, however, give us a heads up that Pia Toscano would be wearing a near backless top that, had she worn it on the show, would have safely kept her around at least long enough for her to have watched Mark and Chelsea dance to “Party in the U.S.A.” this week from one of the Idol green rooms at CBS Television City. (Mark’s father kept looking at him during the group number, and Smirkelstiltskin, my snark demon, is convinced he kept saying to his son, “Look! She’s wearing fringe! Look!” Oh, dads.) Cory also gave us no indication that Paul McDonald would be lucky if he correctly sang one out of every three words in the song. But as Idol vocal coach Debra Byrd pointed out to me later that night when I interviewed her for our Idol coaches column, the poor guy had just finished a bi-coastal press tour and likely barely had enough functioning grey matter to realize he was still wearing the same suit from last week. (Byrd didn’t say that last part, Smirkel did, but we were all thinking it.)

J.Lo goes negative! If you want a good indication for when Jennifer Lopez is about to give a less-than-glowing critique, sit behind her during the show and note when she is swaying her knees back and forth something fierce. Her note to Scotty that maybe a John Anderson song from 1983 recently re-recorded by LeAnn Rimes wasn’t the best song choice caused both women sitting next to me (the Haley fan and the Casey fan) to become suddenly, vocally beside themselves. In a way, it was heartening to see something bring these two feuding friends back together.

Example 56,329 on the difference between live audio and televised audio on American Idol: There was pretty much nothing about James’ performance of Muse’s “Uprising” that didn’t work like gangbusters inside the Idoldome, especially, yes, how it sounded. In the studio, the Durbs’ mic was evenly mixed in with the band and backup singers, and it was a pretty much perfect sonic marriage. On TV, his mic was, as always, far more forward in the audio mix, which is simply not how that kind of performance is best heard — which is to say, the judges did hear a different performance than you did. Anyhoo, after the number, James hung around to do his post-performance interview, which Cory interrupted with his usual ad-break audience banter. So James did two more takes of the same interview, turning back to get the audience’s response with increasing enthusiasm. The production ended up using the first take anyway. Ah, showbiz.

Randy’s advice to Haley: Just before Haley was set to perform, she looked back at the judges sitting right behind her; Randy leaned forward and said, “Have fun, man.” Then the video package played in which it was quite clear that Jimmy Iovine did not want Haley to bring the fun to Adele’s megahit break-up anthem. Oh, Randy, is there any sound advice you can’t contradict?

The power of free $#*!: After Haley performed, as is becoming Cory’s custom, he started handing out Haley-centric swag. At some point, however, he procured what I believe was a small handful of Scotty t-shirts, and asked who wanted one, pointing to a family with a small girl in a cute dress up in the back balcony. As Cory pointed, about a row down from me in the front section, a woman — a grown woman, a grown woman who looked like a soccer mom who’d put on her fancy off-shoulder spangly top because she was going to Idol — began leaping up down, saying full-voice, “Is it me? Is it ME?!” It wasn’t. Undeterred, the woman brandished her sign, with the indiscriminate slogan “We [heart] you!” Still nothing. When it turned out the aforementioned little girl had the same name, Mya, as another girl who’d just won a Haley t-shirt, Cory asked the audience, “Who else here is named Mya?” Immediately, the grown woman surged to her feet and screamed, “I AM!” She wasn’t.

The mystery of Jacob’s botched cue: On TV, it looked like Jacob was perhaps overcome with emotion at the outset of “Dance with My Father”; but, for what it’s worth, it was clear to everyone in the studio that something had gone seriously wrong musically. As Jacob began singing, the strings section situated behind Jacob began plunking to a drum beat at odds with the song; mere seconds later, the strings and pretty much the whole band stopped playing at all, save for a piano emphatically delivering the song’s melody line. Finally, for a brief second, Jacob stopped singing and shot a quick glance at band director Ray Chew — as if to say “what the heck is going on?” — and the air kinda left the room. But Jacob soldiered on, and when he hit the chorus, the audience spontaneously began applauding him, pretty much willing him to make it through.

Casey isn’t quite the devil he seems to be: Thanks to the camera angle, it appeared as though J.Lo was turning away from Casey when he sang his final notes mere inches from her face. She was, in fact, playing along, turning one ear towards him as if to say, “Whisper it to me, baby.” Boy, did he.

F-bomb fallout: Yes, if it wasn’t abundantly clear already, Steven Tyler said “f—ing” on live TV (except without the dashes). It was also abundantly clear that all those times when Tyler had been bleeped before on the show were false alarms, given the reaction by pretty much everyone within earshot of Tyler last night — especially exec producer Nigel Lythgoe, who spent a good 30 seconds standing with his hands buried into his hair. Eventually he, Fox reality TV head Mike Darnell, and Fox TV chairman Peter Rice, the big boss man himself, made their way over to the judges table, practically surrounding Steven. But everyone was, at least outwardly, all smiles. Rice and Tyler even hugged it out, although Rice did then appear to have a more serious conversation with Tyler while a make-up artist touched up the lip marks on his left cheek. (Tyler‘s left cheek, I mean.) Eventually, Nigel began calling for a piece of gaffing tape to put on Steven’s mouth; when it arrived, Nigel deadened the adhesive by rubbing it on his shirt a few times. Those lips must be protected from harm, even if they do occasionally dangle six-figure FCC fines over Rupert Murdoch’s head.

How many times can James twirl Stefano during the final credits? One? Two? How about four? Yes, four. I mean, if you were going to twirl Stefano, wouldn’t you go for at least three? That’s a silly question — of course you would.

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