While the contestants worked the phones, Carrie Underwood, Annie Lennox, and Fergie stole the show, Miley Cyrus sang two songs, and Billy Crystal and Robin Williams flirted with elimination from the charity program
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Thank goodness Ryan Seacrest kicked off tonight’s edition of Idol Gives Back with the reminder that, at its heart, the event is all about raising money for disadvantaged children. In doing so, he gave me the perfect excuse to send my inner cynic to bed early, so he wouldn’t pester me all night with snarky asides like, ”Why does Fox insist on putting subtitles on the screen for foreigners who are speaking perfectly understandable English?” Or, ”If American Idol really wanted to give back, couldn’t they have shaved a half-hour off the telecast and not forced us to turn on our TV sets at 7:30?” Or, ”And why do folks continue to encourage Robin Williams?”

Okay, so yeah, clearly my inner cynic walked through the living room a couple times during the 150-minute telecast — he said he needed to get to the kitchen and refill his water glass. But for the most part, tonight was about sitting back and appreciating some pretty terrific musical performances — and the fact that I’ve been born into a life where I’ve got the luxury of doing so. Heck, who didn’t get a perspective check during that package with Forest Whitaker and his wife Keisha visiting a hospital in Angola, where that baby girl Maria was fighting a brave battle against brain swelling caused by malaria? The producers, of course, stacked the emotional deck by playing Sia’s ”Breathe Me” in the background, but I think I would’ve gotten choked up from the footage either way.

(Which reminds me: If you’d intended to make a donation and haven’t gotten around to it, you can end your procrastinating by clicking here. As someone who spent 99 cents to download Alexandrea Lushington’s semifinal performance of ”Spinning Wheel” off iTunes back in March, I figure I’ve got no excuse for failing to pony up myself.)

Oh, and speaking of ”show me the money!” plugs, I kind of enjoyed how Idol managed to appeal to pretty much every possible demographic with its pre-taped messages. You had George Lopez speaking in Spanish and appealing for the Latino dollar, Jimmie Johnson talking directly to the NASCAR crowd, and Kylie Minogue on the scene to ensure no gay wallet would be left unopened.

The musical guests, on the other hand, represented a slightly less diverse pack. In fact, if it weren’t for all the Idol Gives Back banners, you might’ve thought you’d stumbled across Fox’s Night of a Dozen Divas (and Snoop Dogg). (Someone get Jody Watley and Taylor Dayne on the line with Fox’s reality programming chief Mike Darnell! America needs this show!)

Anyhow, back to the event at hand, I have to admit: I went into the evening wondering if any of the big-name artists on the lineup might end up sounding a little, well, pitchy. I mean, come on, we’ve spent the last eight weeks dissecting every note, every song choice, every second of on-stage banter from the season 7 finalists. And starting next Tuesday, we’ll do it again for 12 more episodes. But, to go all Randy on you for a second, most of the performers did their thing, made it their own, worked it out. The highlights:

NEXT PAGE: Carrie Underwood, Annie Lennox, Heart, and Fergie steal the show

Carrie Underwood breathed new life into George Michael’s ”Praying for Time,” slowing down the tempo just a hair, and delivering her vocal with exquisite restraint and feeling; it was like hearing every word of the lyric for the first time, all over again. I’m predicting an iTunes stampede similar to last year’s ”I’ll Stand By You” rendition. My only complaint, actually, was the fact that Nigel Lythgoe & Co. didn’t call on additional former contestants to populate the program. (Yes, I probably need to quit fantasizing about a Fantasia-Elliott duet, a dream that’s been percolating in my brain ever since the duo paired up for that Idol Gives Back package during results night a few weeks back.)

Annie Lennox, who like Underwood, was back for a second year of Idol Gives Back, was equally tremendous on ”Many Rivers to Cross,” which was all the more powerful since it followed the piece about the Eurythmics’ singer’s visit with a family of four young brothers orphaned by AIDS in South Africa. Watching Lennox break down at the end of her trip, expressing her heartbreak that the eldest boy, at only 15, had to stoically carry the weight of his family’s burdens, was one of those all-too-rare televised moments that got past the celebrity-as-do-gooder veneer, and made you feel like she’d formed a true bond with the people she was visiting. (I also loved Alicia Keys’ remark during her video piece about how the world should spend as much time discussing the AIDS pandemic as it does celebrity drama. Tell it!)

Moving from emotionally gripping to just plain enjoyable, I was stoked by Heart and Fergie’s rockin’ rendition of ”Barracuda.” Ann Wilson’s glorious banshee wail hasn’t lost an iota of power over the decades, and Fergie Ferg more than held up her end of the number, delivering a pair of one-handed hand-springs in the process. Carly Smithson: I hope you took notes!

Speaking of Idol inspirations, upcoming mentor Mariah Carey was the final diva on the scene, delivering ”Fly Like a Bird” with a full Gospel chorus. I sensed a little raspiness going on, which made me skittish that Mariah would either flub or avoid the dog-whistle note at the end of her number, but girlfriend made it happen.

And who knows, maybe I got infected by all the charitable feelings in the air, but I was pleasantly surprised by Teri Hatcher and Band From TV taking on ”Before He Cheats” — right down to the goofy, Desperate Housewives-themed intro.

Also, side note to Gloria Estefan: We appreciated your efforts tonight, and that unexpected jolt when Sheila E’s cymbals went crashing to the floor, but you still have a ways to go before you make up for ”Gloria Estefan Night” back in season 3.

The only thing that had me a little befuddled was the fact that Miley Cyrus got to perform not one, but two numbers over the course of the evening. I know, I know, she’s popular with the kids, and she sang decently, but did she really deserve more screen time than the top eight contestants (and season 6 winner Jordin Sparks, relegated to seat-filler status) combined? I mean, aren’t those kids more important to Idol than the Disney Channel star?

NEXT PAGE: Comedy Idol?

As for Brooke, Carly, Syesha, Kristy Lee, Michael, Jason, and the two Davids (plus the four other booted finalists), well, it was a little strange seeing them get relegated to silently answering phones through the live portion of the pre-taped telecast. Wouldn’t it have been more fun to put some of those callers on speakerphone and hear how the Idol hopefuls dealt with some unscripted banter?

As for their all-too-brief musical moments, who’d have thunk they’d be most successful tackling Rihanna’s ”Don’t Stop the Music”? Seriously, Rocker David sounded unexpectedly at home on the dance-pop confection. Maybe he was just happy to be performing something that wasn’t written before 1990? And the group performance of ”Seasons of Love” was pretty solid, though I got completely distracted when one of the ladies went completely off pitch about 20 seconds into the performance. I have a sneaking suspicion who it was, but in the spirit of giving back, I shall make like Paula and give this songbird a free pass.

I shall not be quite as kind to the comedians who showed up this evening, providing a mixed bag of yuks and yucks. Jimmy Kimmel gets the gold star for the night’s funniest bit, as he mercilessly skewered Simon on everything from his wardrobe (let’s set money aside and buy a shirt that fits him”) to his dreadful crewcut (”who parts that for you, Moses?”). And Simon managed a nice zinger back, expressing his love of competitor Jay Leno, prior to introducing a surprisingly tender segment on his visit to New York City to observe a mobile medical unit.

Kimmel’s girlfriend, Sarah Silverman, managed to tone down her own brand of shock humor while still scoring a couple laughs of her own. I howled when she threw in the afterthought about how Forest Whitaker’s wife ”could be a nightmare,” and her post-performance critique of Gloria Estefan.

Still, if this were Comedy Idol, the bottom two tonight would have to be comprised of Billy Crystal and Robin Williams. The former’s exceedingly lame shtick about confusing Miley Cyrus for an unknown musical hopeful went on for freakin’ ever, but it breezed by compared to Williams’ interminable routine as Russian Idol ”Ivan Popinoff.” Bad enough that he didn’t score a single decent laugh from his routine, but the joke about a Russian reality show called Meal or Not Meal seemed in particularly poor taste on a night devoted to helping the world’s neediest kids.

Then again, on a night where Brad Pitt, Alicia Keys, Reese Witherspoon, Gordon Brown, and Eli and Peyton Manning all teamed up for a common (and worthy) cause, how much complaining do you really want me to do? Hey, no need to answer that. I’m gonna zip it, and send you directly to part 2 of my Idolatry interview with recently ousted Ramiele Malubay, where I give her a chance to explain why she covered ”Alone.”

And in the comments section below, I’m curious to see which performer you through was the MVP of Idol Gives Back. Did the telecast live up to last year’s? Who got more screams: Brad Pitt or David Archuleta? And do you think Idol will really send someone home tomorrow night, or will it be a double elimination next week?

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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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