A solid night of swinging standards is nearly ruined by Simon's disastrously off-key critiques, but we still learn new truths about the five remaining singers

By Michael Slezak
Updated April 29, 2009 at 04:00 PM EDT
Frank Micelotta/American Idol/Getty Images

American Idol

S8 E33
  • TV Show

Hello, and welcome to your weekly American Idol support group! Please grab a seat and fill out the following survey questions:

1) In the last four months, have you had more than one dream involving an Idol contestant/hostbot/judge?

2) Do you lie to yourself every Tuesday night when, in the midst of maniacally speed-dialing (or speed-texting) on behalf of your favorite Idol contestant(s), you say, ”this one’s gonna be the last call I make tonight!”?

3) In casual conversation with family, friends, or coworkers, have you found yourself dissing Randy’s vocabulary or raging against The Kara or speculating whether Idol can survive without Simon?

4) Have you, in recent memory, used one or more of the following words or phrases: ”Glambert,” ”mjsbigblog,” ”for me for you,” ”artistry,” ”cruise ship,” ”dance like there’s no tomorrow,” or ”dance in the path of greatness”?

5) And, finally, have you listened to Jesse Langseth’s “Tell Me Something Good” — still available on iTunes for the low price of 99 cents, by the bye — exactly eighty-eight times since you downloaded it one week ago?

Okay, so maybe that last question was just for me. And maybe that Jesse Langseth play-count is exaggerated. (It’s not, actually.) But if you’ve answered ”yes” to one or more of the aforementioned questions — don’t fret…I answered ”yes” to all of the above — chances are you’re officially and firmly entrenched in Idol‘s strange and suddenly exciting eighth season.

But (Kara-ism in 5, 4, 3, 2…) here’s the thing: Heading into tonight’s performance show (one of only four left before Adam is buried under his own body weight in confetti at the Kodak Theater) I made a decision to attempt the impossible. My goal for Rat Pack Night was to view each and every performance — by the contestants and judges alike — as if I’d never laid eyes on them, as if I hadn’t spent 31 prior episodes dissecting their every note, every song choice, every word, and every facial tic.

Now mind you, I couldn’t undergo some Dollhouse-esque memory sweep — and so, in the back of my brain, I couldn’t entirely quell the chanting for an Adam-Allison-Kris final three — but that doesn’t mean I didn’t make a grand total of seven surprising (and sometimes painful) discoveries over the course of the not-quite-music-filled hour. Let’s count ’em down, shall we?

NEXT: Gokey hooks Slezak

1. I am capable of enjoying a musical performance by Danny Gokey. There, I said it! And at the risk of receiving a pimp-slap from my fabulously rageful Idolatry co-host Kristen Baldwin, I’ll say it once again: I am capable of enjoying a musical performance by Danny Gokey.

Well, that just felt weird!

In all seriousness, though, this is good news for me. I mean, week after week after bloomin’ week, we’ve heard the judges praise Danny’s pitch as flawless, herald his emotional connectedness as unparalleled, even talk about his sex appeal till I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat. (Thanks for that one, Paula!) And week after week after bloomin’ week, I’ve struggled to understand such superlative praise getting piled onto what my ears interpret as a slightly above-average karaoke singer.

This time, however, ”Come Rain or Come Shine” hooked me right from that extra-cool trombone kickoff, but it was Danny’s muscular growl — and the way he kept it restrained through the opening two-thirds of his number — that made the performance work. Perhaps Jamie Foxx invading Danny’s personal space (and fresh-breath area) was exactly what the contestant needed. The intimacy of the opening verse meant that when Danny ran down the final chorus with his usual Mack Truck gusto, it didn’t seem relentlessly aggressive, just powerful. And the contestant himself, rocking a black jacket, white shirt, and silver tie, did indeed bring a Rat Pack swagger to the stage, as Kara sagely noted.

To nitpick, though, the first half of the bridge on ”Come Rain or Come Shine” fell slightly flat, and a flowing body of water should be referred to (musically speaking) as a ”riv-ver,” not a ”reeee-ver,” but my only real beef with the performance was Danny’s overzealous self-applause and, of course, those cheesy ”Thank you! Thank you!”s he shouted to the crowd when he was supposed to pipe down and wait for his critique. (Did I hear Randy shout ”check yourself” to silence the Gokester?)

2. Kara DioGuardi has the potential to be a more astute judge than Simon Cowell. Maybe it was for one night only: I mean, a single episode does not a Tim Gunn make, especially when one has been performing at David Hasselhoff levels. And no, this is not to say that I’d start a movement to inundate Cecile Frot-Coutaz with ”Studio 57” merchandise to change her mind if she decided not to invite Kara back for Idol‘s ninth season. But the woman I’ve frequently compared to a dancing, cymbal-clanging monkey deserved credit this week, if only for her impassioned defense of Allison’s gloriously heartbreaking ”Someone to Watch Over Me.”

For starters, Allison softened her look to suit the mood of this week’s theme, without compromising her teen-rocker edge, by pairing a black-and-white-patterned, taffeta skirt with a strappy black bustier. (Bonus points for the slight change in hairstyle that kept Allison’s hair from her eyes.) But enough about fashion! Because Allison’s was a performance so tender, you could cut it with a fork, and so meaningful, it was as if it had been wrapped in a piece of parchment paper with all the emotion in the world, and cooked in a 375-degree oven for three hours.

Okay, that metaphor got away from me. But I’m not thinking straight. Allison was up there on that stage, misty eyed and vulnerable, and hitting every note of her performance, technically and emotionally, in a way that indicated she couldn’t be taking the show any more seriously. And then, because she showed some humility and took a beat before answering Simon’s question about her chances to win the competition — ”You know, I think I can. I think all of us have this chance right now.” — he turned on her like the toothless little garden snake that he is, questioning her belief and surmising she was getting overshadowed by ”some of the personalities.” Um, last I checked we hadn’t time-traveled back to Wild Card Week, where Simon boiled the competition down to a depressing bit of casting.

NEXT: Randy makes a good point!

Now we could speculate that maybe Simon was engaged in a high-stakes game of reverse psychology, trying to incite Allison’s fans to vote by making them feel insecure about her get-out-the-vote power, but then why not say: ”Allison, your performance was so touching and pitch-perfect, and America would be really, really stupid to let you go home before Rock Week. I worry you’ve been in the bottom three a lot over the last six weeks, so I’m begging your fans to vote for you.” But this is not what he said. Instead, the heavy lifting was left for Kara, who, in what I believe is the first direct reference by a judge to any contestant other than Adam or Danny having a chance to make the finale, barked ”if that doesn’t land you in the finals, I don’t know what will.” And yet even while Randy’s ”Pink with 9,000 more octaves” comment revealed he may not know what an octave actually is, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that tonight…

3. Even Randy The Monosyllable proved to have a better ear and more musical knowledge than Simon. Surely, there’s a joke to be made from Matt’s pre-performance interview, in which the affable dueling pianist noted he’d gotten a B while studying college jazz. Should we comment on how his not-always-pleasant cover of ”My Funny Valentine” was far from A level? Or that he lost a grade point or two since college?

Look, four weeks ago, this performance would’ve been more than enough for Matt to last another week in the competition. But now that we’re down to just five, those flat notes on the opening verse, the gimpy falsetto run at the end of his final glory note, the key that was just low enough to make some portions of Matt’s natural voice sound as mellifluous an adolescent going through a voice change, they’re downright deadly. Or in other words, as Randy actually managed to articulate (!), some of Matt’s runs simply didn’t land right, and without his impressive piano-playing skills to focus on, Matt’s inconsistent vocal was all the more transparent.

To top it all off, just as I was writing the words ”a little disconnected” in my notebook, and there was Kara declaring almost the same exact critique about that the guy she’s been salivating over all season. I don’t know where or how Simon was hearing shades of Nat King Cole, but maybe he should watch a YouTube clip of Melinda Doolittle’s revelatory season 6 semifinal cover of the Rodgers & Hart classic. Then, and only then, can he make comments about brilliant ”phrasing.”

4. It’s quite possible to win an entire season on the strength of a single note. I am, of course, referring to that insane, extended glory note at the end of Adam’s ”Feeling Good,” the one that reminded me of a glittery comet falling from the sky. Don’t look away, people, because you never know when or if you’ll get another opportunity to see/hear it. And (WHA?!) you certainly won’t be privy to an encore on the Idol end-of-episode replays, which was clearly reflecting Adam’s not-as-breathtaking dress-rehearsal rendition. I know I’ve brought this up before, but it bears repeating: If networks airing everything from football to baseball to tennis to figure skating can show us an almost instantaneous replay from live sporting events, how come the same technology can’t be employed to make sure we see the live performance replays, and not dress-rehearsal footage, paired with those coveted 866-numbers?

NEXT: The grades

But I digress. Even at the piano during rehearsals, Adam had Jamie Foxx in tears, and that was without the grand entrance down a lengthy row of brightly-lit red steps. (!) Yep, there’s something so unrelentingly audacious about Adam that sometimes it’s hard to process what he’s trying to achieve, and whether or not he’s pulling it off. ”Feeling Good” walked that edge brilliantly, and to use Paula’s Michael Phelps analogy, the closing note was the equivalent of Phelps’ reaching out with that otherworldly hand at the end of the men’s 100-meter butterfly, barely hitting the wall first, and leaving his stunned Serbian foe wondering what exactly just happened. That outperformed foe, in tonight’s case study, is none other than Kris Allen, which made me realize that…

5. Dark horses, just like nice guys, can indeed finish last. If Matt doesn’t get sent packing tonight (though I think he will and should), we could be looking at a shock elimination of the season 8 heartthrob. Honestly, if his rendition of ”The Way You Look Tonight” was the first time I’d ever heard Kris, I’m not sure I’d care so much about whether or not he cracks that final three. Something about the guy and his delicate voice running up against Rickey Minor and his outsized band (on jazz arrangements no less!) was like watching Paula Deen accidentally stumbling into the Barefoot Contessa’s kitchen and trying to figure out where the woman stores her southern-style fare. The sensibilities just didn’t fit, and the little flaws in Kris’ voice that are so appealing when he’s strumming his guitar and delivering a folk-pop melody just seemed a little, well, anemic on the jaunty jazz classic.

It didn’t help that Kris’ performance featured the jankiest production values of the season. There was a cut to the brass section when they weren’t even playing. And multiple shots of Kris hunched over from behind, and shot panorama-style from the depths of the mosh pit. Heck, not even the loving close-ups were centered tonight, giving an already lackadaisical performance an added air of carelessness.

For once on this night, though, I did understand Simon’s comment about the performance seeming a little wet, or in some ways unformed and soggy, but how come Mr. Cranky is suddenly angling for a role on Medium, sneering that he doesn’t get the feeling Kris can actually win. Is he sneaking peeks at the weekly vote tallies? And is Simon judging primarily on music performance, or by the contestants’ pre- and post-interview clips? ‘Cause last I checked, I never downloaded one of Beyoncé’s dull-as-dry-toast interviews, but I always buy her music.

And speaking of colorful interview clips…

6. Jamie Foxx unfiltered: It’s a good thing? I have to say that given his recent off-color rant about Miley Cyrus, I had a moment of eep when Mr. Foxx declared he was going to say ”exactly what’s on my mind” while mentoring the kids. But what a charming and helpful mentor he turned out to be! Yeah, Paris Hilton could’ve advised the top 5 and not been able to ruin the appeal of the songs in question, but Foxx seems to not only understand the importance of a singer infusing a lyric with real meaning and emotion, but he’s able to convey it in a clear and articulate fashion that’s rare among Idol mentors. And finally…

7. American Idol should never, ever try to be America’s Next Top Model. I’d rather have had an extra 15 seconds tacked on to every performance than have had to endure the Foxx intro package of contestants standing around and speculating: ”We don’t know who the mentor could be.” ”The mentor could be anyone.” ”The mentor could be Buble, or Bennett, or Rod Stewart.” ”The mentor will not be a dead person. We hope.” I was half-expecting for Ken Warwick to fire up some Tyra Mail and watch Matt, Allison, Adam, Danny, and Kris squeal with sycophantic delight. (Gross.) And on that note, let’s do the grades thing!

Adam Lambert: A

Allison Iraheta: A

Danny Gokey: A-

Kris Allen: B-

Matt Giraud: C+

What did you think of this week’s show? Who should and will go home? And what did you think of Kara, Simon, Paula, and Randy this week?

Episode Recaps

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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