A night of 'Top Downloads' brings us ancient ditties, ridiculous judges' comments, and a longing for the good ole' days of season 7

By Michael Slezak
April 01, 2009 at 04:00 PM EDT
Frank Micelotta/American Idol/Getty Images(2)
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There comes a performance episode in every American Idol season when the closing credits roll, and you feel an acrid cocktail of disappointment and regret sloshing around in your stomach, and you think to yourself: ”I could’ve been reading a book/daydreaming about ponies/watching The Mentalist/[insert your oft-neglected activity of choice here].”

Tonight marked that night for Idol‘s eighth season.

Granted, the performances were probably no worse than what we saw during that second (unwelcome) helping of Beatles tunes during Season 7, or on Latin Night in Season 6, or in front of the ghastly backsplash ”Songs of the 21st Century” from Season 5. But coming off the high of last week’s Motown festivities, Idol had a lot farther to fall — and, unfortunately, the telecast slammed against every possible branch on its descent into lead-in provider for this season’s least hotly anticipated program: Osbournes Behaving Badly.

For starters, tonight’s theme wasn’t really a theme at all, seeing how contestants were allowed to choose ”any song they want that’s a popular download on iTunes,” according to Ryan Seacrest. Um, what? I mean, yes, ”Top Downloads” rolls off the tongue a little more easily than ”Popular Songs From This Decade (as Well as Other Decades) — All Under the Umbrella of a Conveniently Tacked-on Corporate Sponsor,” but couldn’t they have just dubbed it ”Contestants’ Choice” or ”Open Mic Night” or something like that? (Then again, what can you expect when the closest thing to a mentor this week was Ryan Seacrest, who did little more than impart knowledge to the contestants about how to click and play an MP3 file, and remind home viewers that American Top 40 is alive and well and living as part of the Witness Protection Program somewhere between Los Angeles and Reno?)

Far more irritating, though, was the fact that Idol‘s judges turned in the crappiest collection of televised critiques since The Peanuts Gang got the wrong idea about a humble little pine tree on A Charlie Brown Christmas. Show of hands: How many of you would love to see Randy ”for me for you” Jackson, Kara ”here’s the thing” DioGuardi, and Simon ”absolute mess” Cowell in the bottom three tomorrow night? (No sense putting Paula ”legato!” Abdul on the chopping block; as author of this here column, I would reserve the right to use my judges’ save on her behalf — if only for her excellent use of the word ”axe” this evening.)

NEXT: Time for Lil to go?

But seriously, every time a judge opened his or her mouth this episode, a bunch of unrelated gobbledygook came pouring out. And the whole 85 minutes had me me wondering if the highest-paid folks on my TV screen tonight have any sense of investment in what’s happening in front of them, if they bother to pay attention to the nine kids who are spending every waking moment trying to become the nation’s next great singing sensation/overworked cash-cow of 19 Entertainment. To that end, I’ve broken up the contestants by trying to articulate the one message that should’ve come down to each of them from the judges during tonight’s telecast.

Lil Rounds, it’s not the song choice; it’s you. Ever hear about those cellphone ringtones that only teenagers can hear? Well, I’m starting to wonder if Lil’s vocals are similarly tuned to a frequency at which Randy, Kara, Paula, and Simon are privileged to hear their greatness, while I’m stuck deafly wondering what all the hype is about. (Or maybe the judges were merely distracted by the eerie projection of dual Lil heads towering over that comparatively tiny, holleratin’ Lil body.) In all seriousness, though, not only has Lil struggled to stay on pitch during the verses of her songs for four weeks running, but with tonight’s ”I Surrender,” the woman failed to deliver when it came to the big notes, going flatter than that bunky wig that looked like it had been sitting underneath a backstage makeup counter since it got discarded by a member of En Vogue back in ’96.

And yet, once again, the judges heaped on the praise — Randy declared Lil sang really well, while Kara called the strained-like-baby-food performance ”effortless” — and limited their vague criticisms to song selection. And even on that count, the judges failed. How come no one pointed out that former Idols Kelly Clarkson and Anthony Fedorov offered vastly superior takes on the song in seasons 1 and 4 respectively? Sure, Simon noted Lil’s performance was like something out of a wedding, but wait! Let’s cut to Ryan interviewing Lil’s adorable daughters! And then let’s have Randy scoop up one of the little cuties in a long-lasting hug. Oh, just like that, everything was over except the tears and the sympathy voting.

Allison Iraheta, you botched your lyrics — just a little. Not that subbing a second ”I know what you’re saying” for an ”I know what you’re thinking” is the worst offense perpetrated on the Idol stage tonight. (If I’m being honest, you need to work on your enunciation, too.) But if the judges were determined to destroy your momentum in the competition, maybe they could have actually articulated their complaints about your performance of ”Don’t Speak,” rather than fantasizing that they’d stumbled into a particularly uncomfortable episode of What Not to Wear.

Oh, but yeah, if Kara, Randy, and Simon had focused on your No Doubt cover, they might’ve had to give you credit for breaking out your guitar and displaying a more vulnerable side to your vocals on the opening verse. Or how once again, you came pretty darn close to pitch perfection. Or that you picked a track that was actually written and recorded within the last two decades — and performed it with the kind of emotional gusto we’ve all come to expect, though hopefully not take for granted. For the record, I kind of dug Allison’s hair tonight — it looked like the coolest possible mashup of Jem, Pebbles, and Missing Persons‘ Dale Bozzio — and while your dress was kind of shaped like a tent and looked like it had been stitched together using bespangled nightclub-admission bracelets, your intonation and delivery were (in the words of Paula) ”masterful and effortless.” Too bad she said you were ”skating by” to the finish line when I think she meant ”sailing through.” Well, you can’t win ’em all!

NEXT: Improvement versus goodness

Adam Lambert, this was your chance to sing something current. See what happens when the judges say stupid things like ”you can sing the phone book”? It gives vocally gifted contestants like Adam all sorts of crazy ideas — like thinking that America would like an update on Wild Cherry’s pretty much un-updatable block of store-brand cheese, ”Play That Funky Music.” And let’s be honest — we really haven’t had enough time and space to recover from Taylor Hicks’ season 5 rendition to have to endure it again on Idol — no matter how much a contestant changes up the rhythm and melody of the verses. All that aside, however, Adam sang pretty much flawlessly, and I chuckled with delight while he performed. I just kind of wish that on a week when Adam could have showed us what kind of artist he really wants to be, that he hadn’t painted himself into the corner of trying to prove that he can turn the ”Mambo No. 5” of its era into something ”hip” and ”current.”

Scott MacIntyre, that was an improvement, but only in the way that, say, losing your pinkie finger would be preferable to losing your left arm. I kind of knew we were in trouble when Ryan announced Scott’s performance from a ”mosh pit” made up of shiny happy teenagers, and Mr. Congeniality didn’t disappoint on that count. Granted, Simon was right that Scott’s stripped-down, piano-only ”Just the Way You Are” was his ”best performance by a country mile,” but it still doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be an arrest warrant out for the way he’s in criminal possession of Ricky Braddy’s Idol seat?

Sure, Scott sounded better without the band charging through his delivery like the horse-drawn carriage that used to roll through the middle of those old Chuck-Wagon commercials, but whenever the guy has to hold a note for more than a couple seconds, it never seems to arrive at the correct destination. But when did it become enough for a contestant to improve on an abysmal performance with one that’s so depressingly mediocre?

Danny, there’s a difference between showing emotion and screaming. I’m going to admit I am no expert when it comes to the Rascal Flatts oeuvre. But I can’t believe the way Danny Gokey sang ”What Hurts the Most” was the way it was intended to sound, not with a verse that contained more flats than a highway full of sharp metal objects, and a chorus so bombastic it’d make Von Smith tut-tut under his breath. (I worried dude was gonna cough up a phlegm ball the second time he delivered the line ”having so much to say.”) To be fair, Danny flexed a lot more emotional muscle than he did during last week’s ”Get Ret-ty,” and his black suit and funky pattered v-neck was his best look of the season, but methinks Simon’s declaration of brilliance was too enthusiastic by half. Good thing for Danny, though, he got a really instructive bit of critique from master wordsmith Randy Jackson: ”Keep it movin’! Come on now!”

NEXT: Anoop doesn’t bring the heat

Anoop Desai, tackling Usher without the dance moves and the swagger is like making a grilled cheese without switching on the burner. Indeed, it wasn’t so much Anoop’s perfectly acceptable vocal on ”Caught Up” that was the problem, it was the way he tepidly stalked the stage, almost as if he was looking for his old college a capella group to come and carry him back to his musical comfort zone. I’m not sure what the answer is for ‘Noop Dawg, though. He can’t sing tender ballads for the next seven weeks and expect it’ll be enough to carry him to the Kodak, and yet two out of his three uptempo R&B performances have been about as convincing as an Alvin and the Chipmunks concert with Theodore on lead vocals. Worse still, Anoop did himself no favors trying to verbally spar with Kara, who was actually right on point with her critique. Anoop’s whine that he’d chosen ”one of the songs from one of the most popular R&B artists ever” as if it meant something, would be like me declaring I’m ready to take over Martha Stewart’s empire after one not-very-successful stab at following her instructions for ”How to Fold a Fitted Sheet.”

Kris Allen, you actually have a chance to win this thing. Nope, once again, nobody at the judges’ table delivered any such words of encouragement to the crooner with the skin smoother than the surface of a freshly opened Dannon yogurt container. And maybe that’s because, for Simon and Randy especially, we still live in a world where Celine Dion is still residing at No. 1 on Billboard’s singles chart, and where vocal bombast is still where it’s at.

Too bad for them, since ”Ain’t No Sunshine” wasn’t just Kris’ best performance to date (as Simon and Paula argued) but THE BEST PERFORMANCE OF THE NIGHT! Seriously, Kris’ ability to consistently dial back on notes where the average Idol singer would attack, makes it that much more delectable when he finally goes in for the power growl. And while the guy did botch that final falsetto note, I think it’s forgivable considering he broke out the piano tonight, becoming the season’s only two-instrument artist to date.

Matt Giraud, you can totally cut a rock album if you want to…just be prepared for the fact that nobody will want to freaking listen to it. In the weirdest performance of the night, Matt perched himself right in the middle of Idol‘s creepy clap-bots, and as their hands rose up all around him, it was like watching a horror film in which an aspiring young singer gets lowered into the fiery pit of hell. Luckily, Matt’s woeful rendition of The Fray’s ”You Found Me” was the perfect soundtrack for the moment. It’s possible Matt got thrown off by the fact that his mic seemed to cut out for the first two or three words of his vocal — or maybe he didn’t have his mic positioned correctly — but if Matt were being graded on the number of notes he hit tonight, he’d be lucky if he reached anywhere near 50 percent. Still, Kara was right in saying the guy really doesn’t deserve to go home yet. Now whether that’s only because Megan and Scott are still in the competition, or if dude is actually a real contender, we should find out soon enough.

NEXT: The grades

Megan Joy, go sit on the Naughty Step. Mixing Megan Joy’s voice with Bob Marley’s music is akin to stirring mayonnaise into a cup of tea, or pouring gallons of hand lotion into your gas tank, or replacing your Q-tips with fondue forks. In other words: This shizz should not be attempted anytime, anyplace. And yet there was the contestant herself, clad in an aqua bustier and 20 pounds of necklaces, taking a vicious stab at ”Turn Your Lights Down Low.” Or as I like to call it, ”No Woman, No Rhythm.” (Badum-bum!)

I’ve defended Megan in the past. I liked her ”Rockin’ Robin,” and I’ve always felt she’d do better going with sparse arrangements that would give her vocals room to breathe away from Idol‘s overbearing house band. (Unlike Simon, I got what Paula meant about Megan needing just a stool and a spotlight.) But tonight, I think the Artist Formerly Known as Corkrey cawed her last note. Seriously, by the end of her song, Megan’s voice had taken on a Kermit the Frog-like quality, and her post-critique confidence that her ”fans” were feeling it made me wonder if, maybe, there’s a silent but powerful Muppet-loving voting bloc that’s been helping keep girlfriend out of the bottom three. If you’re one of ’em, speak up now. If not, let’s move on to my letter grades for each contestant tonight, but not before checking out the premiere of ”Must List Live!” featuring a raging debate about Idol vs. Lost:

Kris Allen: A

Allison Iraheta: B+

Adam Lambert: B+

Danny Gokey: B-

Anoop Desai: B-

Scott MacIntyre: C

Lil Rounds: C-

Matt Giraud: D+

Megan Corkrey: D-

What did you think of ”Top Downloads” Night? Who will and should go home? And am I alone in thinking the judges are reaching maximum levels of suckitude?

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