After three seasons of ''American Idol,'' the singers seem to have learned how not to mess up too badly, but that lets the few risk takers really soar
Nadia Turner, American Idol

”American Idol”: The contestants play it safe

This season’s 24 finalists seem to have studied the American Idol playbook: They’re not sassing back to the judges; they haven’t let the producers find out about any past or pending police charges; and none sound like nails in a blender when they take to the stage.

Trouble is though, with none of the 12 men or 12 women proving to be as truly wretched as past contestants EJay Day or Camile Velasco, for example, it’s even harder to predict which quartet America will send home Wednesday night — as if it weren’t already impossible to decipher the tastes of a country that once booted Trenyce before Joshua Gracin. Not that I’m still bitter or anything. . . .

Despite the sometimes cruel whims of Idol voters, though, I’ve come up with a fairly simple cheat sheet that contestants would do well to follow — at least until they make the top 12. (Think of these as addenda to the eight simple rules I laid down last week.)

Do make like Beyonce and shake your bootylicious backside! I’m still not sure how I feel about Judd Harris’ cover of ”Travelin’ Band,” but I’d rather watch him working the stage than see his competitors standing frozen in front of the mike making runs through some saccharine ballad. (Bonus points to Judd for confidently sporting red velvet pants. I am so wearing my pair to the office on Friday!) What I’d really like to see would be Harris engaged in a dance-off with the effervescent Aloha Mischeaux (a true pop-star name if ever there was one). She took my favorite obscure Beyonce single, ”Work It Out,” and turned it into a funky Idol classic — despite the cheesy Casio instrumentation behind her.

But don’t inexplicably get a case of the shakes while painfully delivering a Jessica Simpson ballad Poor Janay Castine!

Do display an authentic rock & roll attitude No one proved that better than 28-year-old Nadia Turner, whose flawless take on the gospel-rock song ”Power of Love” was week 1’s biggest — and best — surprise. Working a gorgeous Afro and a form-fitting white tank as she whipped the audience into a frenzy, Turner showed you don’t have to be a long-haired white boy to rock the house. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a long-haired white boy, as the unexpectedly charismatic Bo Bice showed during his soulful ”Drift Away” (although I wish he hadn’t gotten quite so much support from the backing vocalists).

But don’t let attitude trump tunefulness Although Paula told smug Constantine Maroulis that his style ”makes you unique to yourself” — say what? — perhaps it wasn’t the best idea for him to stand out by brutalizing the high notes on ”Kiss From a Rose.” Sure, Maroulis got plenty of early buzz, but if he’s only the second-best late-twentysomething rocker in the competition, how’s he going to win the whole thing?

Do work a fabulous look So what if her rendition of ”Young Hearts Run Free” fell slightly short of her previous vocal efforts? Mikalah Gordon’s green and black lace dress and There’s Something About Mary ‘do were the perfect compliments to her zany, infectious personality. She’ll be back! And Nikko Smith’s vaguely ’80s black-jacket-red-shirt-with-fedora look was oddly fetching, too.

But don’t let the look work you What vindictive stylist let Sarah Mather hit the stage with a gaudy rhinestone necklace, a black cuff on one wrist, two silver bangles on the other, and a pair of white hoop earrings? Talk about the Clash! And it doesn’t say much for Mather’s get-the-oxygen-tank version of ”Get Ready” that I spent so much time picking apart her accessories.

Do improve upon the efforts of previous Idol runners-up Mario Vasquez may have been separated at birth from Justin Guarini, but he’s got a better voice, better fashion sense, and significantly better dance moves. (Don’t even try to argue; I saw From Justin to Kelly on the big screen.)

But don’t remind us why we didn’t vote for said Idol runners-up He’s a skinny, pale white boy with spiky hair and crisp enunciation. And if Clay Aiken is the candlestick in Beauty and the Beast, then Anthony ”Clay 2.0” Fedorov, with his flat delivery of a flat Richard Marx tune, is destined to play the teacup. Travis Tucker, meanwhile, may have Guarini’s confidence, but his flaccid ”My Cherie Amour” is the kind of ho-hum performance that leads to early elimination.

Do pick songs that haven?t been sung to death I didn’t love Anwar Robinson’s melody-avoidance technique on ”Moon River,” but at least he tried something different. And let’s all salute Carrie Underwood for paying homage to the original queen of the mall tour, Tiffany, with a soaring rendition of ”Could’ve Been.” Huzzah!

But don’t offer tepid takes on played-out Idol standards Sure, we didn’t have to suffer through ”I Have Nothing,” but was there any reason we needed to hear Melinda Lira’s karaoke-bar take on ”Power of Love” or Vonzell Williams’ uninspired ”Heatwave,” a song that almost did in more talented Idol alums Jennifer Hudson and Kimberly Locke?

As for Joseph Murena and Amanda Avila, they should make Idol history on Wednesday — earning his-and-hers tickets home by making us nostalgic for Michael Bolton’s version of ”How Am I Supposed to Live Without You?”

Which, of course, leaves two other seats on the back-to-obscurity express. While god-awful Janay Castine really earned the spot, I think memories of Janay’s terrified face will score enough sympathy votes to spell trouble for Celena Rae, who hasn’t had enough airtime to create the needed voting base. That same lack of exposure — plus a miserable impersonation of Marc Anthony — ought to doom Jared Yates as well.

So there, I’ve put my neck on the line with some predictions, now it’s your turn. Which four contestants will be eliminated? Were any of them good enough to win your vote? And do any of these people really rock?

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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