Despite Paula Abdul's bizarre, time-shifting critique, the show must go on, and some performances actually shine through on Neil Diamond night
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”Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”

I know some of you are asking, ”What’s a nice Wizard of Oz quotation doing in a TV Watch like this?” But tonight, in the immediate wake of what will from here on be referred to as Paulagate, I’m feeling as duped and bewildered as Dorothy at the exact moment she realized the great and powerful Oz was just a sad old man, one who didn’t have the power to send her back to Kansas, let alone provide her ragtag pals with a brain, a heart, and some courage.

Am I being melodramatic? Yeah, of course. But I can’t help myself after witnessing the moment American Idol‘s loopiest judge made what is indisputably the biggest (and most credibility-crushing) gaffe in the show’s seven-season history. (Yeah, even worse than Janay Castine’s season 4 semifinal rendition of ”Hit ‘Em Up Style.”)

At the midway point of tonight’s Neil Diamond week performance episode, after each of the five remaining Idol contenders had sung one song apiece, Ryan Seacrest appeared to call an audible (perhaps the show was running ahead of schedule?) and asked David Cook, David Archuleta, Jason Castro, and Brooke White to join him and Syesha Mercado on stage. Ryan then asked each of the judges to quickly weigh in on the contestants’ performances, before the Idols returned for their second numbers.

Let’s roll the tape and get Paula’s critique: ”Jason, the first song I loved hearing your lower register, which we never really hear. The second song, I felt like your usual charm wasn’t…it was missing for me, it kind of left me a little empty. And the two songs made me feel like you’re not fighting hard enough to get into the top four.”

When Randy jumped in and reminded Paula that the contestants had only performed one song at that point in the telecast, the typically bewildered ”Straight Up” singer gasped, then declared, ”Oh my God, I thought you sang twice!”

Me? I hit the pause button on my DVR, needing a moment to catch my breath from a combination of shock, embarrassment, and outrage.

I don’t for one second buy the explanation given by Paula herself, that she was momentarily confused and was reading her notes for David Cook; if that was the case, how come she changed course, seconds later, and told Cook he was ”fantastic”? And I find it hard to believe Paula’s flub was simply the result of her boarding the La-La Express; her critique of Jason’s performance was far too specific. (Note the use of ”charm,” a noun attributed to the Dreadlocked Dude all season.)

Nope, as far as I’m concerned, Paula’s blunder heard ‘cross the nation — click here to watch a video clip and to read Adam B. Vary’s report of how it played inside the Idol studio — can only be explained one of two ways:

A. Paula took notes during Idol dress rehearsals and used them (at least in part) to critique the televised live performances.

B. Paula was reading from notes given to her by the show’s producers.

Either way, Idol has some serious explaining to do.

The idea that Paula, or any of the judges, would base their comments on dress rehearsals is preposterous. In my mind, Paula, Simon, and Randy should neither see nor hear the contestants’ warm-ups, and even if they do, how is it that they’re not explicitly instructed to give feedback only on the same set of performances the viewing public sees on their TV screens?

And if there’s a chance that something more nefarious is going on, that Paula’s comments are pre-scripted by someone other than her, then I’ve got a feeling I won’t be the only Idol fan wondering if there’s any way Fox can make amends and give me a reason not to walk away from the show I’ve loved and obsessed over for seven straight seasons.

I know, I know, a lot of you are probably shaking your heads, wondering if I’m taking my conspiracy theory a little too far. Or else you’re thinking, ”We’ve already seen the man behind the curtain, Slezak! He’s in all the ads for So You Think You Can Dance!” But consider: Only seven nights ago, I was wondering aloud in my TV Watch column if the judges were reading off pre-written cue cards after they failed to call out Little David for forgetting his lyrics on ”Think of Me.” At the time, I wasn’t being literal.


NEXT: Actual criticism of actual performances

No matter what, even if I’m blowing all of the above out of proportion, I can’t help feeling that Jason got royally shafted having to perform his second number, ”September Morn,” only moments after hearing how much Paula was going to hate it. Sure, his vocals were flimsy, and his stage presence was slightly disconnected (especially after he stood up from his stool/crutch), but then again, dude was performing after undergoing the psychological equivalent of getting slammed in the stomach with a two-by-four.

With that in mind, I feel it’s fairer to judge Jason on his first performance, a pleasant if not particularly innovative take on ”Forever in Blue Jeans.” To some degree, I can understand Simon’s frustration with Jason; the guy didn’t really bring anything new or fresh to the song’s arrangement, and at this point in the competition, you kind of want to see contestants fighting for every last vote. From a star-making standpoint, too, it’s also a tad troubling that after 11 weeks of live performances, I’d have a really hard time mentally differentiating any of the outfits Jason’s brought to the Idol stage. (There’s been a little too much beige over denim, no?) That said, when you get right down to it, it’s not just the size of the voice that counts; Jason brings such an infectious joy to the Idol stage, derives so much pleasure from bringing his songs to life, that I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t miss him something awful if he went home Wednesday night, especially under such ignoble circumstances.

But if not Jason, then who deserves the boot? One could’ve certainly made a case for Brooke after hearing her first performance, a rendition of ”I’m a Believer” that Simon correctly described as a ”nightmare,” not only for the audience but also for the contestant herself. Seriously, I challenge you to find anything in the freezer aisle of your supermarket colder or stiffer than the terrified smile Brooke sported while strumming her guitar and delivering the night’s most falsely peppy number. It didn’t help that she performed the song in a key that seemed way too low for her comfort zone, or that Paula appeared to be the only person in the entire audience who was on her feet and dancing. Things got so weird that midway through the performance, I accidentally hypnotized myself by focusing too hard on Brooke’s thick, glittery eye shadow.

Still, Brooke neutralized the bad dream of ”Believer” when she sat down at the piano and gave the evening’s most heartfelt (if not most technically perfect) vocal on ”I Am…I Said.” I still have no idea why Paula referenced Idol Gives Back during her critique of the performance, but perhaps she was thinking of the way the G-rated nanny finally got her Idol mojo back (and channeled early ’90s hitmaker Sophie B. Hawkins in the process). The way Brooke’s voice broke on the line ”I am, I cried” gave me chills, and also made me realize that sensitive artists should never, ever have to (a) condense a gorgeous ballad into 90 seconds and (b) look out into the audience and see a herd of generic white chicks robotically swaying their arms out of rhythm.

Lucky for Brooke, she ended with the better of her two numbers, unlike Syesha, whose ”Hello Again” was hands-down the best of the night’s first five performances, and whose subsequent ”Thank the Lord for the Night Time” was perhaps 10 percent less potent.

I’ll say this much for Syesha, though: Every week, she hears the same basic message from the judges: ”Go directly to Broadway. Do not pass Go and do not come back to the American Idol stage in the interim.” Yet she keeps performing like she’s actually trying to win this thing. Somehow, she managed to ignore the swaybots from her seated position at the edge of the stage, overcome the sheer size and weight of her false eyelashes, and cut to the heart of ”Hello Again,” showing nuance and restraint that made the big notes sound all the more delectable. ”Thank the Lord for the Night Time” was formidable, too. Note for note, Syesha probably had the strongest week of any of the five finalists, which made it all the more maddening when Paula mistakenly called her ”Brooke” and Simon declared that she could be in trouble on Wednesday’s results show. In my fantasy version of tonight’s episode, when Syesha demanded to know why, Paula would’ve looked down at her notes and solemnly said, ”Sorry, Syesha. According to the script, it’s your time to go.”

Oh yeah, I went there. Because is there any way that three weeks from now it’s not going to come down to a David-David finale?

NEXT: Which front-runner deserves it

Little David, for his part, shook things up with a pair of up-tempo numbers, ”Sweet Caroline” and ”America.” The former found the Diamond-dubbed ”prodigy” inserting so many runs into the karaoke staple that it was almost unrecognizable, prompting Simon’s succinct but accurate critique of ”amateurish.” His second performance was far more successful, despite the fact that it couldn’t have been more American-cheesy if it had been wrapped in cellophane stamped with the word Kraft. As Simon noted (while not uttering a word about the actual vocal), it was a smart choice of song to send Little David’s fans into a speed-dialing frenzy. And while the kid continues to hit almost every one of his notes (except for that voice crack, complete with sheepish smile, at the end of the verse), I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t troubled by the disappearance of the contestant who nearly moved me to tears 10 weeks ago with his rendition of ”Imagine.” Every time Archie takes the stage, I feel like I’m watching a deleted scene from Steven Spielberg’s A.I.: Artificial Intelligence; the power and precision are there, but the heart and soul got lost somewhere on the Build a Better Idol assembly line.

Then again, maybe the season 7 script is supposed to end with David Cook dodging buckets of confetti. Paula said she felt like she was already looking at the American Idol when the rocker dude finished turning the obscure (and kinda dull) Diamond track ”All I Really Need Is You” into something that might work as an album track (or maybe even a fourth or fifth single) off the guy’s inevitable debut disc. Oddly, though, of Rocker David’s two song choices tonight, I actually preferred the growling, inspirational ”I’m Alive.” And while the presumed front-runner wobbled through the verse, which dipped a little too low for comfort, there’s no denying he looks and acts the part up there on the big stage (even as his hair seemed to take a step backward toward early-season weirdness).

Of course, if Rocker David snags the whole enchilada, he’s going to need every bit of that vocal power, musical ingenuity, and rock-star swagger. This season’s champ, after all, will have to overcome not only the inevitably jank victory song but quite possibly the cloud of winning a less-than-evenhanded competition. Indeed, Lythgoe & Co. can click their ruby heels as many times as they want, but after tonight, I’m not sure anybody gets a free flight back home.

What did you think of Paula’s blunder this week: simple accident or something more troubling? Did you have a tough time concentrating on the performances once Paulagate occurred, and did the incident affect how you voted? Which contestant do you think will (and should) go home on Wednesday? And what can/should Idol‘s production team do to restore its reputation after tonight?

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