Country music proves to be a great equalizer as several under-the-radar contestants draw even with the preordained front-runners

By Michael Slezak
March 17, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT
Michael Becker/American Idol/Getty Images; Ray Mickshaw/Fox(2)
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I’ve got a hideously early flight to catch on Wednesday morning, and so all day long I’ve been telling myself: ”No dilly-dallying tonight, Slezak! No Google image searches for galloping ponies. No pre-ordering Allison Iraheta performances off iTunes. No disrupting Annie Barrett with IMs asking her how far along she is with her Dancing With the Stars TV Watch. Focus on your writing. Give a run-down of the Grand Ole Opry Night performances — in order of preference — hit the save button, finish packing, and try to get some sleep!”

But of course, it wouldn’t be a two-hour Idol telecast without scads of weird little moments that have nothing, really, to do with advancing America’s wonderfully time-consuming, thoroughly maddening, unhealthily obsessive search for its next singing star. From Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi offering contestants the kind of advice that’d make Snow White’s wicked stepmother clutch her pearls in horror, to mentor Randy Travis discovering the decades-old art of male fingernail-painting, to Ryan Seacrest finally admitting that the Idol viewing experience can be improved with an alcoholic beverage (or two), it was a strange night indeed.

Early front-runners wobbled like the Weebles of my childhood. (Do they make those things anymore? Anyone?) Under-the-radar singers exploded their performances like flare guns, perhaps just to see if anyone at the judges table was paying attention (aside from the once-again consistently astute Paula Abdul). And we witnessed some of the most dramatic coughing since Nicole Kidman came down with the consumption in Moulin Rouge!.

(Side note: In order to distinguish between Mr. Jackson and Mr. Travis, we will, from this point forward refer to the former as ”Randy” — yes, the Dawg wins out, due to his Idol seniority, and the fact that he once appeared on Idolatry — while the latter has to settle for the decidedly less jaunty Mr. Travis.)

But anyhow, with the two-headed goal of providing a nutritious TV Watch without sleeping through my alarm, let’s get back to the contestants’ performances. And we’ll go in order from best to worst:

Kris Allen: It would be easy to dismiss Kris as ”a tender puppy,” the way Simon jokingly did while trying to riff on Randy’s oddly insistent dubbing of the dreamy troubadour as a ”tender dawg.” I mean, with those dark and limpid pools of his, and that eager-to-please disposition, Kris is only a cool, damp nose and a wagging tail away from setting up shop in the window of your local pet store. But while it’s true that the guy has heartthrob potential — anyone else observe how infuriatingly flawless his skin is, even under the unforgiving microscope of high-def TV? — the true beauty of Kris’s performance had nothing to do with his physical attributes.

Instead, it was the gutsy vocal restraint Kris displayed on ”To Make You Feel My Love” that won me over. And yes, I did say gutsy. Because when it comes to Idol — and what the judges and the show’s voters often respond to — bombast all too often trumps vulnerability. And yet Kris didn’t oversing a single note of the ”Garth Brooks” number (*known as a Bob Dylan tune, at least in my house), choosing instead to finesse certain words of the verse down to a whisper, and refusing to indulge in the time-honored tradition of making eye-love to the Idol cameras.

NEXT: Anoop comes back strong

Anoop Desai: What’s this? Not just one, but two singers succeeding creatively and scoring high marks from the judges by choosing a gorgeous melody and singing it in a (mostly) straightforward, riff-free fashion? In the words of Paula Abdul, ”Anoop is back!” (And he’s using words like ”impetus” on America’s No. 1 television show!)

Now mind you, I hope this doesn’t mean we’ll never again get to see the funky geek who entertained us with ”My Prerogative” in the Wild Card round, but after last week’s disastrous Michael Jackson cover, Anoop had one mission and one mission only — to prove he had the kind of vocals worthy of the big Idol stage — and I defy anyone to argue he didn’t accomplish that with his touching rendition of ”Always on My Mind.” Sure, there was a hint of nervousness in the opening lines of the verse, but Anoop covered it well, and soon looked right at home getting those loving camera close-ups as he bathed in the dreamy light of a single spotlight.

(By the bye, anyone else amused by the fact that Kara suggested the song was ”untouchable,” even though if you dusted it for prints you’d find artists as disparate Elvis Presley, the Pet Shop Boys, Fantasia Barrino, and the man who wrote it himself, Willie Nelson, have had their way with it? That said, I will admit that I never knew Opry member Johnny Cash had ”popularized” the song during his career.)

Adam Lambert: Speaking of Mr. Cash, I wonder what he’d have made of Adam’s sitar-infused rendition of ”Ring of Fire.” Call me crazy, but given the fact that the Man in Black was tackling Nine Inch Nails tunes late in his career, I’m guessing he’d have enjoyed the wickedly theatrical spectacle of it all — at least the audio half of the equation — because, love him or hate him, Adam certainly nailed his vocal tonight, even when he used his swooping falsetto to steer the time-honored melody into Idol‘s red-light district. Paula again got it right when she drew a comparison to Led Zeppelin’s ”Kashmir,” I just wish she’d have warned him against pulling such aggressive faces while he’s singing, the way she did with Casey Lambert (remember her?) back in the Week One semifinals. Still, as someone who’s priced a ticket for the Adam Lambert Bandwagon without ever getting out my wallet and making a move to buy one, you have to hand it to the guy for his derring-do. He won’t give you dull. And he won’t tamp down on the flamboyance just because it might make a Randy Travis fan wan to chuck a television out the window. As Adam joked to a schoolgirl-giddy Ryan before he took the stage: ”I don’t know about self-discipline, but it’ll be signature.”

Allison Iraheta: I worry about Allison. Because when you don’t have an enormous fan base, and you get stuck performing second, and then Simon accuses you of looking like you’re struggling to remember your words, and you get further shafted with bizarre camera angles and wonky lighting, sometimes it’s hard to stay out of the bottom three. But all my Idol night terrors aside, I thought Allison’s ”Blame It On Your Heart” was raucous and good-humored and beautifully gruff. Paula had a point that the Kool-Aid-haired teen might want to experiment with all the shades of her vocals, but in the end, I found myself agreeing with (cue additional night terrors) Kara (”You could sing the alphabet!”) and Randy ”I thought it was dope!”)

Actually, I take that back. Like its even more repugnant cousin (”You could sing the phone book!”), ”You could sing the alphabet!” is not an acceptable critique under any circumstance.

NEXT: Deflating hype

Matt Giraud: You know what’s beautiful about these early weeks of the Idol finals? There’s still time to change your mind about a performer. And while Matt definitely flirted with the outer boundaries of proper pitch as he approached the end of his cover of ”So Small,” I’m going to boldly declare I liked his heartfelt, piano-driven version better than the schmaltzy original. Not a bad way to close a show, Mr. Giraud, and Simon’s contention that you’re closing the gap on the early favorites was well-deserved.

Alexis Grace: Dear Alexis, Look, your rendition of ”Jolene” wasn’t perfect. You seemed to botch every fifteenth note or so, perhaps because you seemed to be trying a little too hard to prove to the judges you’re worthy of the season 8 crown. But honestly, you need to ignore those four overpaid tools behind the table, because they are playing some kind of sick game with you. Kara would like you to cover ”Last Name” or ”Before He Cheats” and ”bring out the angst” in your voice? Because a song about a green-eyed beauty stealing your husband is, what, too peppy? And because you’d want to draw comparisons between yourself and Idol‘s most popular current hitmaker? Dial 1-800-Hell-No! Furthermore, Simon was totally wrong: Your rendition sounded nothing like Dolly Parton’s original. And if America gets it right and sends you through to the top 10, don’t feel like anyone other than Kara wants you to bring ”more dirty” to your performances. With mild to moderate concern, Slezak.

Danny Gokey: Strange men’s overcoats are this season’s mom jeans for the Idol styling team. And they need to stop — pronto! But the good news is, the judges’ relentless cheerleading for the future Lenscrafters spokesman finally ended tonight, since it would’ve been comical if they’d been able to praise that garbled verse or failed to notice the overripe howling on the chorus on ”Jesus Take the Wheel.” (That said, they managed not to mention how you seemed to be slightly ahead of the band for the first third of the song.) But it wasn’t a terrible performance by any stretch. It just means Danny is pretty much positioned where he should be in the competition: As one of six or seven legitimate contenders for the season 8 crown, rather than its preordained champion.

Lil Rounds: Likewise, Lil came back to Earth last night with ”Independence Day” (a song coincidentally popularized by Carrie Underwood during Idol‘s fourth season). I’m not quite sure what happened to the woman who rocked that groovy black and yellow dress during the semifinal rounds, but Lil’s pink dress — and more importantly her vocal performance — were a little too wedding singer, and not enough singing superstar for my taste. Mr. Travis was right: Lil’s got pipes ”on the top end,” but it almost felt like the song was in too high a key for her comfort zone, giving her voice a slightly tinny quality when she reached the chorus. And while the usually charming young mom had a right to be annoyed by Simon’s obnoxious failure to correctly say her first name — how uninvested is the British judge in this season’s goings-on? — I don’t think she did herself any favors with her long-winded explanation of how she wanted to honor the country genre.

It is at this time that we will pause for a poll question: How many of you screamed or swore or opened your mouths to shocked silence when Randy Jackson suggested Lil should have selected ”I Will Always Love You” — the most thuddingly clichéd selection imaginable for an R&B diva navigating country night on Idol? I could rant here, but I have no words.

NEXT: The grades

Megan (Joy) (Corkrey) The contestant with the ever changing name — she giveth Joy, and she taketh it away — was under the weather tonight. In fact, she’d been to the hospital for the flu. You knew this because Megan coughed a lot up there on the Idol stage — except for when she was doing weird things to ”Walking After Midnight.” You knew this because the judges told us so. And you knew this because they really didn’t criticize any part of her squawky caterwauling — not even her ”quirky” pronunciation of ”miles” as ”my-ULLLs” — except for that Wonder Woman Island meets scales of a mermaid frock she had on.

All together now: Free pass!

Which means that one of the last two singers I’ll mention here should be going home this week: Even though there’s a chance neither of them will.

Scott MacIntyre: I loved how Mr. Travis immediately deemed Martina McBride’s ”Wild Angels” as a potentially bad song choice — I think because dude thought it had girl cooties and therefore was not appropriate for a boy — but unfortunately, he turned out to be right, seeing how many notes Scott missed during his performance. I could recount the 17-minute debate about whether the guy should or should not be sitting behind a piano for future Idol performances — I did, however, love his ”we can move it closer” notation — but that would suggest he should be on stage and singing on Idol next week and beyond. And I’m not really sure he should. Yeah, Kara, the guy has ”class and poise,” but this ain’t Miss USA.

Michael Sarver: If there’s any contestant who can and perhaps should give Scott the gift of one more week in the competition, it’s Michael. I could criticize how winded he got with the insanely fast cadences of ”Ain’t Goin’ Down Till the Sun Comes Up” (maybe he should have replaced the harmonica player with a medic bearing an oxygen mask) or agree with Simon that his performance was pretty much what you’d see at any bar night in a local country karaoke bar, but what would be the point? Michael is a moderately talented guy with a TV-friendly back story, but he’s the one person left in the competition who hasn’t got a chance in hell of winning this thing — and he proved it on a night when the theme really played to his strengths. Here’s hoping Michael’s ”journey” ends on Wednesday, because let’s be honest, we don’t want to see what he delivers if he makes it to disco week.

And with that, tonight’s scorecard:

Kris Allen: A-
Anoop Desai: B+
Adam Lambert: B+
Allison Iraheta: B+
Matt Giraud: B+
Alexis Grace: B
Danny Gokey: B-
Lil Rounds: B-
Megan (Joy) (Corkrey): C+
Michael Sarver: C
Scott MacIntyre: C-

What did you think of Grand Ole Opry Night? Who will and should go home? And which judge did the best job this evening? Before you comment, go forth and play’s Idol Prediction Challenge. Polls close at 8:59 p.m. EDT, but don’t get caught napping; go and vote now!

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