The continued Hollywood Week presence of questionable singers like Norman Gentle makes the whole season kind of questionable, but at least we had stars-in-training like Anne Marie Boskovich and Anoop Desai, right?

By Michael Slezak
Updated February 10, 2009 at 05:00 AM EST

American Idol

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I’m trying hard to take a ”glass half-full” view of tonight’s episode of American Idol. After all, during the course of the one-hour telecast, we got to see 29 individual contestants singing, a particularly insane piece of sculptural jewelry from Paula Abdul, and the introduction of ”Believe” to the Idol oeuvre — signaling what I can only hope will be an inevitable guest-mentor appearance by the remarkable, unsinkable Cher.

The problem is, though, I can’t shake the suspicion that the show’s producers are spiking the Idol punch with a drop or two of musical arsenic — in the form of Tatiana Del Toro and that recurring ”joke” with the headband — and that’s making me reluctant to pick up the aforementioned glass, to emotionally invest in season 8 with the kind of unhealthy enthusiasm that’ll have me shedding tears over performances (and ousters) no later than early March. And it isn’t helping that Fox is doing everything short of hurling its pre-determined house specials in my face: ”Order the Adam Lambert-tini! Here, drink the Danny Gokey Kool-Aid! And how about another round(s) of Lil?” Note to Idol‘s production team: I’m still perusing the cocktail menu; please put away the drink funnel and stop trying to force your personal favorites down my gullet!

Okay, but my glass is supposed to be half-full right now. My. Glass. Is. Half. Full. (Or at least it will be for the first third of this column.)

So on that upbeat note, let’s talk about what went right on Idol tonight. After last week’s ”group performances” debacle — you remember, the episode where we got 30 minutes of yelling and crying without a single note of singing? — episode 3 of season 8’s extended Hell Week proceedings (focusing on the final pre-top 36 auditions) was packed with music. And some of it was quite good! Which brings us to our breakdown of tonight’s performances, starting with…

The Rising Stars: Let’s put our hands together for Anne Marie Boskovich, Anoop Desai, Kristin McNamara, Nathaniel Marshall, and (I didn’t see this one coming) Matt Giraud!

Of the quintet, I’d say I’m closest to becoming a fan of Anne Marie and Anoop. The former may not have the biggest voice of this season’s female contestants, but from what I’ve heard thus far, she’s got one of the most pleasing, a point she underlined with her sweet, unforced (an adjective that’s all too rare in season 8) rendition of ”I Hope You Dance.” In a weird way, I kind of liken Anne Marie to an organic chicken farmer; her product might not be as big and burly as the hormone-injected behemoths cranked out by the poultry plants, but you can’t argue with its flavor.

Anoop, meanwhile, took another little step toward getting an exclamation point added to his name by covering Bobby Brown’s ”My Prerogative.” On a night dominated by Lee Ann Womack ballads and the American Idol Graduates Songbook, it was nice to see a contestant get a little funky, and do it with pitch perfection. Now let’s just hope the dude with the questionable haircut keeps trending toward New Edition and away from Boys II Men. He’ll need to be a savvy song selector, naturally, since everyone knows you can’t get ahead in this competition without a cute child, a very public family tragedy, copious tears, insane drama, or the willingness to flash some skin. (I kid! I, um, well, I half-kid!)

Of course, I’ve liked Anne Marie and Anoop since their first appearances on my TV screen. The remaining three contestants all had to work a little harder to win me over, seeing as how none of ’em had scored too many points with me prior to tonight.

When last we saw Nathaniel and Kristin, they were the stale slices of bread in a trumped-up drama sandwich during group-audition day. Nathaniel of the Pierced Chin was sobbing about his dreams, trying out some ”Fosse! Fosse! Fosse!” choreography during his rendition of ”Mercy,” and consoling teammate Nancy ”rage-y eyes” Wilson after she got the boot. And Kristin of the Two-Tone Hair was falling asleep on stage, pointing her hooked index finger of blame, and avoiding a ”toot-toot, bleep-bleep” assault from Nancy. In other words, I remember everything but their singing.

Tonight, though, Nathaniel surprised me with a fresh, acoustic rearrangement of Rihanna’s ”Disturbia.” His vocal was tight, he bravely strummed away at his guitar, and managed to leave a decent impression even though the producers continued to treat him like a joke, interspersing clips of all his dramatic outbursts throughout his performance. Kristin also erased (partially) her not entirely flattering initial impression with a rafter-rattling rendition of Kelly Clarkson’s ”Because of You.” She’ll want to practice all future performances in front of the mirror, though, unless she’s confident America will get past the way her mouth opens up to resemble a two-lane portal to hell when she’s singing.

As for Matt Giraud, well, let me just say that, in the style of Natalie Imbruglia, I’m torn. (No, that wasn’t my subtle way of suggesting Natalie Imbruglia as an Idol mentor, though some whip-smart wannabe really ought to trot out that addictive chestnut ”Torn” before the season ends.) You see, Matt (of dueling pianos fame) first came to us sounding like an Alvin and the Chipmunks forty-five played on thirty-three, all aggressive vibrato and nasal-ation, with his rendition of ”I Don’t Want to Be.” But tonight’s ”Georgia on My Mind,” while still leaving no note unpunished with a riff or a run or a stab at falsetto, was (oh this is tough for me to say) pretty darn soulful and potently delivered. I feared the guy was going to be Chris Richardson 2.0, but frankly, he’s starting to remind me a little bit of Taylor Hicks. (Tell me I’m not alone on that count!) I know for certain, though, I won’t be the only one who feels that the next set of contestants could be labeled…

The Struggling Singers Watching the butchery of lyrics by Joanna Pacitti, Casey Carlson, and Stephen Fowler (one of my favorites from last week) was akin to seeing a goldfish flip out of its tank: You know you’re witnessing the kind of unfortunate event that happens every day, all across America, and yet you’re still shocked by the horror of it seeing/hearing it happen in front of you. The fact that all three contestants advanced to Wednesday night’s ”Elevator of Hope and Shame” episode proves the judges are taking contestants’ entire bodies of work into account — not sure if that includes performances given prior to auditioning for Idol or not (badum-bum!) — but either way, I suspect America will not be quite as forgiving if such obvious mental lapses start occurring during live broadcasts. Take your Ginkgo, kids!

I’m also not entirely sold on the long-term prospects of Jorge Nuñez, Scott McIntyre, Kai Kalama, and Kendall Beard. Jorge’s ”Closer” sounded like it had been tacked on to the wrong end of a tough 5K run; Scott’s version of Chris Daughtry’s ”Home” lacked the necessary grit — and wobbled off pitch every time the dude tried to hold a note; Kai’s ”Part-Time Lover” sounded like it needed some Cialis; and Kendall’s cover of ”Before He Cheats” was pure Carrie(Underwood)oke. That said, I appreciated the flashback to the Simon sound bite that followed Kendall’s initial audition success: ”We’re in Puerto Rico and the first person we put through is a blonde Texan.”

(Finally, I wasn’t bowled over by Alexis Grace or Jasmine Murray tonight, either, but their song snippets were so brief, I’m reserving judgment until I get more information.)

New People!: I absolutely loved Ju’not Joyner’s soulful presentation of ”Hey There, Delilah,” but I’ve been digging the guy’s vocal stylings since his season 7 audition of ”I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues.” Mishavonna Henson, on the other hand, sounded slightly nasal and snuffly on her number tonight. Color me unconvinced.

The Future Multi-platinum Artists For Whom You Will Start Voting Right This Second, or Else Risk Having 19 Entertainment Execs Lay Waste to You, Your Possessions, and Your Loved Ones: Okay, look, if you genuinely do love Adam Lambert, Lil Rounds, or Danny Gokey, you have my apologies. Each of ’em has some talent. But honestly, with the amount and the tone of the airtime the trio is getting, you’d think the convergence of their voices would at least be able to cure chapped lips, if not cancer, hypertension, and diabetes. And as I type this sentence, I’m still pretty certain I’ll be needing ChapStick when I hit the sidewalk tomorrow morning.

Let’s start with Danny, because my gut tells me that he’s the most likely of the threesome to crack the top 10. Now granted, his prior takes on ”Heard It Through the Grapevine” and ”Kiss From a Rose” were hard to fault, but tonight on ”I Hope You Dance,” the man known to some readers as Robert Downey Jr. Jr. sounded a little listless and totally hoarse. Which certainly didn’t stop Paula from leaping out of her seat and clapping like a seal anyway. Does Ken Warwick have a button he can press that shocks our loopy judge with a few volts — just enough to get her on her feet? I choose to believe not; that instead, the inside of Paula’s brain — which looks much like the set of the ”Promise of a New Day” video — can be overcome by the joy of music, and override any critical, intellectual, or self-preservational impulses in the pursuit of dance. Yes, Ms. Abdul, I hope you dance. But I hope no one else sings ”I Hope You Dance” for the rest of the season.

The other strange thing about the show’s relationship with Danny: Did anyone else flinch at how the dude got more camera time than his best buddy Jamar Rogers during the latter’s rendition of ”Hey There, Delilah.” Okay, maybe the camera crew naturally wanted to turn away from Jamar’s lime green cardigan, pink tie, and pierced cheek (which still looks oddly like a facial blemish), but I thought this was far and away the best, breeziest vocal Jamar has delivered during his Idol run. Anyone want to take a bet that the judges force Danny and Jamar to ride the Elevator of Doom (provided an elevator exists in the ”judges’ mansion”) together, in a Thunderdome-ian standoff where only one can survive? Sick, but the kind of television Fox j’adores.

Getting back to the other judges’ pets, I am beginning to question whether the relentless pimping from the panel is starting to turn me against them, or if maybe Adam and Lil aren’t as good as the show wants us to believe (for now anyway). To me, Adam Lambert’s balladeering version of ”Believe” reminded me of the faces he made while singing: A little bit sour. I mean, no doubt the guy has pipes — I just don’t want to be hit in the head with ’em. Adam needs to learn the difference between coming off like a howling rocker and imitating a shrilling chicken. Seldom the twain should meet.

Lil, in the meantime, approached ”If I Ain’t Got You” like Billy Mays ripping into his latest advertorial rant: All force and fury, with very little nuance or color. If she ever learns that interpreting a tender ballad is very different from selling Simoniz Fixit Scratch Remover, Lil could end up as a strong season 8 contender, but if she never gets constructive feedback from the panel, she could be the ”shock” elimination of the semifinal rounds! And finally, as my mind turns toward sleep, let us cover…

The Wannabes Who Will Haunt My Dreams: Riddle me this? Who in the Idol nation prefers ”characters” and ”stories” to memorable musical performances? I mean, these people must exist, and they must attend frequent Fox focus groups, because otherwise I cannot explain how Tatiana Del Toro and Norman Gentle are still with us, sitting at the front of the Hollywood Week rollercoaster and screaming louder than all the infinitely more interesting thrill-seekers sitting behind them.

The ”moving” of Tatiana from room to room was the only portion of tonight’s telecast that was less suspenseful than the repeated and frequent scenes of the four judges sorting photographs on a folding table. (Side note: Every weekend for the last seven months, I’ve avoided organizing my photo drawer; what makes Fox think I’d want to see this crap on my TV screen?)

But I digress. Here’s the thing about Tatiana. She actually has a decent singing voice, as evidenced by her imperfect-but-perfectly-pleasant stab at Whitney Houston’s ”I’m Your Baby Tonight.” (Hey, at least it wasn’t ”I Have Nothing.”) And I won’t lie: I laughed when Paula, Kara, and Randy entered the holding room and Tatiana cried out, ”Please, God! Please, Paula!” But just because Tatiana has the ability to briefly entertain with her deluded-chick shtick, it in no way justifies advancing her past a singer of Leneshe Young’s potential. I mean, if that’s how we’re gonna roll this year, then maybe the Best Picture Oscar should go to that ”Dramatic Groundhog” YouTube clip instead of Slumdog Millionaire or The Reader.

Now as for the guy in the geek glasses, headband, and shiny shirt, down on his knees warbling ”Georgia on My Mind,” well, it’s like hearing a 12-year-old making the rounds at a family function and repeating the same incredibly lame joke again and again and again to anyone who’ll listen. At the end of the day, Nick Gentle doesn’t have the courage to stand up in front of his peers and sing a song straight, because he knows that he’s nowhere in the league of a Kenny Hoffpauer or a Stevie Wright (a pair of 16-year-olds who impressed with their vocals tonight). But he’s also not a clever enough comedian to switch up his punch line, let alone his costumes. I defy you to compare Norman’s ”Georgia” to his Hollywood Week ”And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” to his initial New York audition and tell me we’re not witnessing a case of rapidly diminishing returns. The dude’s continued march to the top 36 is all the more disgusting because it meant we won’t be hearing (for at least a year) from:

The One Who Got Away: Aw, Leneshe, we hardly knew ye, especially since Fox refused to show you singing at point during Hollywood Week up until your sweet, R[&]B-tinged (if slightly nasal) version of ”Love Song.” But at least with your classy and mature philosophy — ”you have to be humble and work hard for what you want in life” — and your tease about auditioning again next year, we have a little something to look forward to, should the Normans and Tatianas of the world derail Idol‘s eighth season. And even if you don’t grace Idol with your presence again, we’ll always have your delightful self-penned ditty ”Nati” to remember. In fact, here’s hoping one day we get to hear it on the radio.

What did you think of tonight’s show? Better than anything from last week, yes? And while I’m throwing out questions, here are a few more: Who was that amazingly beautiful black woman in room one — and will we ever hear her singing voice? Did Kaylan Loyd get booted simply for chewing gum while singing ”If I Ain’t Got You”? Did the judges vote no to India Morrison’s ill-fitting black dress and unflattering purple boots even before she began taking the vocal meat cleaver to her song? How come the lovely and talented teenager Jasmine Murray applies her makeup with a trowel? And why the hell wasn’t Michael Castro acknowledged during his entire Hell Week tenure until the end of his run?

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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