Half of the evening's twelve semifinalists deliver decent performances. Too bad half of 'em won't make the cut

By Michael Slezak
Updated February 26, 2009 at 05:00 PM EST
  • TV Show
  • ABC

It may not be as overtly violent as the death-matches portrayed in the 1985 classic Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, but there’s a certain brutality to the structure of American Idol‘s semifinals this season. As a dozen contenders take the stage each performance night — some hinting that they might be future singing superstars, others betraying the fact that they can’t hack the pressure of appearing before a televised audience of 25 million — I’ve been half-expecting Tina Turner’s Aunty Entity to pop out from behind Paula’s massive weave and repurpose the movie’s ”Two men enter, one man leaves!” tagline into, ”Twelve singers enter! Three singers advance!”

I mean, think about the bloodbath that’s coming Wednesday night. Even after you weed out the obvious train wrecks/insomnia curers from last night’s telecast — Dude With Headband, Lady Hot Legs, Vibrato Boy, Perspiring Welder, Shaggy Hair, and Girl Who Went First — that leaves six performers who made at least some kind of compelling case for why they deserve another chance to take the Idol stage this season. And of that sextet — Allison Iraheta, Mishavonna Henson, Megan Joy Corkrey, Jesse Langseth, Adam Lambert, and Kris Allen — half will face the Idol guillotine in less than 24 hours.

As any Idol addict will tell you, though, it doesn’t hurt to have heavy backing from the show’s judges and producers — which has to come as great news to Adam and be about as welcome as a two-by-four to the gut for Kris. As far as I’m concerned, however, Kris ought to win the guaranteed ”male contestant seat” over Adam, even if his ”Man in the Mirror” didn’t display the note-for-note technical perfection of Adam’s ”(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

Sure, Kara was right that Kris struggled with the beginning of his Michael Jackson cover — particularly the lower notes in the opening lines of the verse — and I also observed he had a tendency to hold the mic too close to his mouth. But Paula and Simon were also correct that Kris nailed the number by delivering what could’ve been a trite ”message song” with real emotion and proving to have enough grit in his voice to overcome an absolutely monstrous karaoke arrangement from the increasingly bizarre Idol house band. (Dear backup singers: Either try to stay on pitch, or just don’t sing at all.) And while some folks might assign bonus points for the fact that Kris danced (yay!), or wore a black jacket from the nonexistent ”David Archuleta collection,” or that he looks a lot like Ugly Betty‘s Val Emmich (as Simon noted, ”chicks are gonna love you”), the bottom line is that he’s interested in telling a story with his music, not merely engaging in a 90-second fit of aggressive vocal acrobatics. And that ought to count for something, no?

NEXT: Adam (unfortunately?) does his thing

Adam, on the other hand, has me worried he’s going to spend the next 12 weeks trying to summon a pack of rabid wolves to the Kodak Theater with his relentless (albeit pitch-perfect) howling. Which is not to say that the guy doesn’t have a ton of natural ability, but to use a food metaphor (my favorite kind!): Dude needs to stop trying to shove an entire birthday cake into my face — candles and all! — when a single slice would be far more appetizing.

Of course, I should’ve immediately braced myself when Adam’s pre-performance package started with him talking about how he was going to try to scale back his performance, to not aim for the rafters as if he were in the chorus of a traveling Broadway show. Because on Idol, contestants tend to do the exact opposite of what their interviews would have you believe: ”I sing just like Whitney” usually means ”My voice is about as soothing as getting your pinky caught in a car door.” And indeed, there was Adam stalking the stage with over-accentuated snarling, tongue-flashing, side-eye-giving, teeth-gritting affectations, not just aiming those massive glory notes for the rafters, but trying to use ’em to bore holes in the roof. (It was almost as if Adam was auditioning for a stage show called I’m a Rock Star, Dammit!, rather than being an actual rock star.) I don’t know why Randy thinks Adam is one of the season’s most ”current” contenders when I haven’t heard that kind of hair-metal vocalizing since Kip Winger was on the charts, but then again, the Dawg also compared Adam to Robert Pattinson (in a shameless attempt to activate the Twilight masses). I think in this instance, it’s better to side with Simon, who noted that parts of Adam’s performance were brilliant, and parts were excruciating. Anyone else think he might actually benefit from a week in Wild Card limbo?

Yeah, I know, it’s not gonna go down like that. Even if Idol voters were inclined to reward nuance and restraint over vein-busting holleration, Adam holds such a massive lead over Kris in head-to-head screen-time, nothing short of an Exorcist-esque head spin/profanity spew/vomit spray (or a stellar vocal by Matt Giraud) could’ve stopped his march to the finals.

The race for the guaranteed ladies’ slot from this week’s pool, however, looks a lot more contentious, but if my gut instinct is right, Allison might be proof positive that it only takes one great performance to overcome any prior lack of buzz and endear yourself to a nation of speed-dialers.

Before she sang a single note, the pink-haired, braces-clad teenager had all the odds stacked against her. Allison’s pre-performance interview with Ryan had all the color and energy of a ball of dryer lint. Then producers re-ran that footage of Simon declaring her a ”6 out of 10” at her audition. And to top it all off, she revealed she was singing Heart’s ”Alone” — which topped my recent gallery of the ”12 Songs That Should Be Banned From Idol Forever”.

NEXT: Mishavonna, Megan, and Jesse

Just as I was about to hit the mental snooze button, though, my ears started tingling with excitement over the rich and layered vocal that paired up perfectly with the tricky lower register of Heart’s power ballad, then soared on that totally awesome chorus. Like most of the contestants tonight, Allison’s number did not benefit once the wonky backup singers and cheesy synth track kicked into high gear, but by that time, she was in full rock-star mode, and likely sending chills of fear up the backs of her female competitors.

That said, even if Allison turns out to be the top female vote-getter on Wednesday, it wouldn’t shock me if the third (and non-gender-specific) spot in the top 12 went to another female, perhaps Megan or Jesse or Mishavonna, who didn’t miss a note tonight on ”Drops of Jupiter.” Unfortunately, the last-named of those three ladies saw her hopes get arbitrarily trampled by Simon, Paula, Kara, and Randy tonight, although I’m still not sure why. As the quartet collectively dumped on Mishavonna’s performance like a Dave Matthews Band tour bus over a Chicago sightseeing boat, I started imagining them putting their heads together and crafting a note during one of the tonight’s many, many commercial breaks:

”Dear Mishavonna,

We regret to inform you that we will not be paying any attention to your performance tonight, since our bosses just informed us that Allison has already locked in the coveted ‘cute and quirky teenage female contestant’ spot for this week. We know you’ve got mad talent, but we just can’t have both of you advancing to the top 12 at the same time. It’s a demographics thing! Also, remember, you’re 18; and it’s a lot more fun for Randy to shout ‘only 16!’ (which, coincidence or not, is Allison’s age). So that means that even though you have an adorable disposition, we’re going to accuse you of coming off like a haggard old battle-axe. Also, with your dark hair and your Hot Topic dress and the fact that you made it to Hollywood Week two years running, we just realized you remind us a little of Gina Glocksen. And she’s so season 6! Best of luck anyway! xoxo. — The Judges.

P.S. Paula thinks you look lovely tonight, even though she’s laughing during your critique.”

What do I know, though? Maybe Mishavonna simply isn’t the kind of ”package artist” that gets Kara’s record-label pistons firing. And by package artist, Kara means: ”Looks: 10; Dance: 3.” (Chrous Line reference — mad snaps!) Sorry, Megan, we’ve got to go there for a hot second. And I do mean hot, because you have the face (and eyelashes) that could launch a couple hundred thousand text-message votes, even if you had a singing voice as bunk as Casey Carlson’s. Which, thank heavens, you don’t. But your dancing — was that for real? Because it kinda sorta brought me back to Sister Clarie’s first-grade class, when kids would fail to hit the bathroom before chorus, and then rock back and forth uncomfortably while singing. Combined with the stark white stockings and the white pom-poms on the front of your dress, the whole affair was, from a visual perspective, a wee bit incongruous. And an awful lot distracting.

As for your vocals…well, hang on and we’ll get to that.

Let’s first pause and consider that Kara called you ”very pretty,” said absolutely nothing about your singing voice or your performance, and then declared: ”With the right song you could be a breakout hit artist on the radio…with the right video you could be very viable in this market.” MEMO TO KARA: YOU ARE JUDGING AMERICAN IDOL, NOT THE MISS USA PAGEANT!!! STOP BEING GROSS!

Okay Megan, back to your singing. The good news is that you picked a song perfectly suited to your sultry and scratchy instrument. And while your performance tonight wasn’t without its flaws — when Simon critiques you, don’t sass back, just pay attention — I don’t have any trouble closing my eyes and remembering the sound of your voice. Perhaps as much or more so than for any other singer in the competition. So while I’m not sure you outsang Mishavonna or Jesse tonight, I understand why Simon called on America to vote for you.

Oh, and speaking of backtalk, Jesse is another one who hasn’t learned how to verbally parry with the judges during one’s first live performance on the Idol stage — which is to say you do not do it at all. Jesse may not have intended for that ”may I ask what you would’ve liked to have seen?” to come out quite so tartly, but coupled with her smile-of-rage, it started off what was by far the most difficult-to-watch feedback session of the night. Simon’s ”too cool for school” could just as easily have referred to Jesse’s attitude as it did her performance.

All that aside, though, there’s a little part of me that would love to see Jesse stick around a little longer — either by scoring the night’s third-highest vote tally, or via Wild Card. After all, her choice of ”Bette Davis Eyes” was the coolest out of the 24 tracks we’ve heard thus far in the season 8 semifinals, and she infused her vocal with more sass and sex appeal than any of her competitors. I agreed with (drumroll please) Paula: There’s something about this woman’s voice that’s hard to forget.

NEXT: The worst of the worst

Too bad the same can’t be said for Jasmine Murray, Matt Breitzke, and Kai Kalama, each of whom scored plenty of screentime before tonight’s episode, but unfortunately came to the major leagues equipped with whiffle-ball bats. I’d rail against the way the mic cut out more than once during Jasmine’s ”Love Song,” but since she was off-pitch throughout, the pauses felt like a relief. Simon was right; her Idol run came a ”couple of years too early.” Welder Dude, meanwhile, hit all his notes on Tonic’s ”If You Could Only See,” but wound up getting swallowed by the stage — and working up quite a bit of perspiration in the process. As for Kai’s ”What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” well, as I think about his performance, I can physically feel the will to complete this sentence being drained from my body, so I’m gonna cut it short. The one thing that Jasmine, Matt B, and Kai had in common were the looks of abject sorrow that crossed their faces when the judges finished pillorying them in the public square.

Then again, at least that trio came into tonight’s show with a fighting chance to contend, unlike poor Jeanine Vailes, whose first and only impression on the competition started at her ankles and ended a couple miles later at the hem of her teeny denim shorts. Yep, as all the judges pointed out, the woman has amazing legs. Unfortunately, though, Jeanine couldn’t hear the sound of the kitchen timer go off over the sound of her own caterwauling, and her take on Maroon 5’s ”This Love” ended up brutally overbaked.

Similarly, Hollywood Week star Matt Giraud tried to do way more than needed with Coldplay’s ”Viva La Vida,” throwing in a run or a bit of uncontrolled vibrato at the end of almost every line of the song. Again, it should’ve been a warning when the once-dueling pianist proclaimed his intent to put ”a soulful twist on a white-boy rock song,” but honestly, I never expected anything this off-the-rails awful, especially that wince-inducing crack when he went for that final glory note. If ”Viva La Vida” was a piece of Tilapia, then Matt’s vocal was a gallon jug of Tabasco dumped over the top: Not only was the dish inedible, it rendered the original song almost completely unrecognizable. Which leaves me wondering how a guy who seemed promising enough for me to rank at No. 1 on this week’s Idol Power List could bomb so badly. Was I tragically off the mark (probs) or should Mr. Giraud get a chance at redemption with a Wild Card slot?

NEXT: (Hopefully) Norman’s swan song

One singer I’d like to ban from Wild Card consideration is The Guy With the Red Headband. But since that one-joke pony once again went with ”And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” — the same exact number he coughed up at his New York City audition and during one of his Hollywood Week performances — I can’t be bothered to write anything new about him. So on that note, let me cut and paste a passage from my Feb. 4 TV Watch that I think fits rather well in this column, too:

I could talk about the diminishing returns of Norman’s encore performance of ”And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” or the fact that he didn’t even bother to wear a different outfit than he did to his audition, but it’s easier to quote Simon: ”Without the glasses and the silly headband, you’re just a boring person. And when you put the stupid outfit on, you become a joke…It’s just ridiculous.” So how did this guy — who performs with about a sixteenth of the camp, style, and vocal potency of an amateur drag queen in a mid-sized market — survive another round of judges’ cuts?

But let’s not end on a negative note. Instead, let me offer a double standing ovation to Idol‘s producers for two excellent innovations tonight (one of ’em long overdue): First, the elimination of the exceedingly painful ”meet the parents” post-performance interviews was a huge relief for everyone except for those few sadists who enjoy seeing a loyal mother fight back tears while trying to tell her beloved daughter or son that she/he should keep her/his singing dreams alive, despite knowing deep down that the fostering of such a delusion can only lead to heartache, the delay of an actual viable career path, and (in worst case scenarios) a seedy incident involving a camera and possibly the Interwebs. Second, here’s to changing up the judges’ order after every contestant. Because Simon shouldn’t always have the last word — especially because with a yappy, four-judge panel, the final word all too often gets truncated.

What did you think of those production changes? Are you as excited about Adam Lambert as Paula and Kara, or is this another case of too much hype before the goods are delivered? Were there any performances tonight that shocked you? Which three contestants do you think will advance Wednesday night? And which three should?

Episode Recaps

American Idol

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

  • TV Show
  • 16
  • 574
  • ABC