A sweet slate of season 9 semifinalists is announced, but a couple of wacky decisions and a punch in the gut to one hard-luck contestant leave a hint of bitter aftertaste

By Michael Slezak
Updated February 18, 2010 at 05:00 PM EST

Tune up the acoustic guitars! Cue the adorable babies! And drag that plastic bin liner filled with the pulverized dreams of Angela Martin, Thaddeus Johnson, and J.B. Ahfua down to the curb! American Idol‘s ninth season is officially underway — and you can either try to ignore it by covering all your sensory organs with a protective layer of Paula Abdul’s nutty Tweets, or you can get ready to sacrifice your next 14 Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the altar of Fox’s prime-time ratings behemoth.

I’m obviously choosing the latter option, but it’s got nothing to do with the fact that I’m paid to ride this high-speed roller coaster of melisma, producer manipulation, and intermittent musical brilliance. I mean, what 500-channel sailor could resist the siren-like pull of season 9’s deep and potentially awesome field of female contestants? With the first round of live performances from Crystal Bowersox, Lilly Scott, Janell Wheeler, Lacey Brown, and Didi Benami less than a week away, my emotional state resembles a small, hyperactive poodle who’s about to get sprung from a constrictive handbag to run free in the neighborhood dog park. After all, it’s been almost nine months since Kris Allen and Adam Lambert took the stage at the Kodak for season 8’s Tuesday-night performance finale, and that’s a brutally long stretch — especially if, like me, you find the juggling mimes of America’s Got Talent too abhorrent to feed your addiction to reality singing competitions in the Idol off-season.

Of course, as I punch my fist in the air while chanting the words ”Bow-er-sox! Bow-er-sox!” I’ve got to keep reminding myself that it’s way too early to be backing any particular pony in the Season 9 Derby. At this point last year, we’d barely heard a peep from eventual winner Kris Allen and fourth-place finisher Allison ”The Rocker” Iraheta. And it would have been a long season indeed if I’d pledged allegiance to Brent Keith and Jasmine Murray after the top 24 announcement, and thereby closed my ears to less-hyped semifinalists. In other words, nine seasons in, regularly questioning the producers’ transparent agenda is just another aspect of a well-rounded Idol experience.

And while the last five weeks have found the Idol Hype Machine keeping its dial closer to a ”4” than the typical ”11,” I’d still have to contend there’s one mortal lock for the top 12 based on his body of work to date: Andrew Garcia. Which is what made it particularly peculiar to see the producers try to set up an end-of-episode showdown juxtaposing Andrew’s ”final judgment” against Thaddeus Johnson’s. If there are 10 people in America who watched tonight’s show and believed the latter kid had a mutt’s chance in Westminster of upending Andrew, then even those gullible souls likely changed their minds after the younger contestant announced ”America, get ready for Thaddeus Johnson!” (Alas, he dropped the key words ”to go home” at the end of his sentence. Badum-bum!)

In all seriousness, though, everyone knows that pride indeed goeth before a fall on Idol, and even the slightest hint of arrogance will not go unnoticed or unpunished by fans — or by the production itself. In Thaddeus’ case, it might’ve been less painful (not to mention infinitely more enjoyable) to take a trip on the Hogwarts Express and put a hex on his own Idol chances than to go around boasting how he ”killed it” on his good-not-great version of ”Man in the Mirror.” Still, I was horrified to discover Idol‘s powers-that-be concluded that a teenager’s misguided belief in his own infallibility was an offense punishable by having a camera follow him — sobbing and emotionally devastated — into a bathroom stall for all of America to enjoy. Oh, Ken Warwick and Cecile Frot-Coutaz, I’ve taken the liberty of calling ahead to book you seats on a cruise liner to Hell. (Hot-poker ”therapy” on the lido deck every day at noon, 4:00, and 7:00!)

Thankfully, tonight’s episode ended not with Thaddeus’ meltdown (bleeped word included) but with Andrew’s far happier display of waterworks after sailing into the semifinals. I wish Andrew’s package had aired solo — a face-off of Alex Lambert and J.B. Ahfua, for example, would’ve been a lot more suspenseful — but my annoyance with such lame-o editing was washed away by the bespectacled dad’s tears. ”Sorry I can’t talk to you,” Andrew said to Seacrest, head buried in his hands. ”Usually I’m the cool guy.” And just like that, in one self-deprecating moment, the men’s front-runner went from ”smooth re-arranger of Paula Abdul popsterpieces” to a real-life human being with big hopes and his own share of fear and insecurity. If I had any advice for Andrew, though, it might be to think about a different pair of glasses; his current choice of super-thick, square frames hang so low they sometimes threaten to obscure his eyes. And as any former Idol will tell you, a direct gaze into the camera is worth an awful lot of votes — even in a post-Paula Abdul world.

[How was that for ridiculous over-analysis? You thought you’d come to EW.com, not Psychology Today, right?]

NEXT: Crystal Bowersox wins us over even more

So anyhoo… let’s get back to the subject at hand and do a quick rundown of the 10 women who made the semifinals during tonight’s telecast (joining Didi Benami and Katelyn Epperly from yesterday’s show):

Lilly Scott I was glad to see the pale chick with the peacock-feather earrings admit her Day 4 cover of ”Rich Girl” was ”as a last impression, not what I wanted,” since the performance turned out to be vastly inferior to her gorgeous Day One ”Lullaby of Birdland.” And while we still don’t know too much personal info about the sandwich-making hipster, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing her boogie down the sidewalk after she made the cut, as well as hearing her state her yeoman-like goal of ”not slacking on anything.”

Crystal Bowersox We already know from her ”Natural Woman” and ”If It Makes You Happy” that the blonde, dreadlocked diva is among season 9’s greatest natural resources. And yet she also provided the night’s funniest moment. Earnestly speaking into the camera, Crystal reasoned, ”This is huge — three million people or something.” After being informed she needed to add an extra zero to that figure to accurately zero in on Idol‘s audience numbers, a suddenly wide-eyed Crystal gasped: ”Wow, you just made me nervous.” Bonus points for the undeniable cuteness of Crystal’s son, ”Little T,” who was not pleased to be awoken from a peaceful slumber to hear of his mom’s good fortunes. Moral of the story: In the DVR era, there’s never an excuse for interrupting naptime — especially if there are TV cameras on hand to catch the play-by-play. Plus, as one of my Twitter followers noted, coining the moniker ”MamaSox” might just be ”Randy Jackson’s greatest contribution to this season of #AmericanIdol.”

Janell Wheeler Remarkably, the woman I’ve considered a season 9 front-runner has already been dissed by Simon (who’d have passed on her jaw-droppingly good ”House of the Rising Sun” audition — preposterous!) and Ellen (who labeled Janell’s group rendition of ”Closer” a disaster). But for now, I’m keeping the faith that she’s a strong top 12 prospect, and giving her props for a cheeky comment to Ryan after the judges named her a semifinalist: ”If I was Bikini Girl, I’d kiss you right now.”

Lacey Brown You know your Hollywood Week solo is a good’un when the show’s producers use it as the soundtrack for a montage of additional contestants (in this case Joe Muñoz, Ashley Rodriguez, and Alex Lambert) getting good news from the judges. (Has that ever happened before in Idol history, trivia buffs?) Lacey’s is the kind of feathery warble that’s atypical of Idol‘s love of bombast — and yet there’s been no evidence that she doesn’t have the chops to stay on key or hang with the powerhouse divas once the live semifinal broadcasts kick in.

Katie Stevens Utterly charming teenager with a massive voice at her disposal is a definite threat to win it all this year, and yet I can’t help but wish she’d waited two more years to audition. There was something about Katie’s distressed denim skirt, shiny brown vest, and peculiar tissue-like hair scrunchie that was almost costume-y, as if the kid made a desperate journey to the mall to try to make herself fit America’s definition of what a teen pop star is supposed to look like. Which is a crazy complaint in and of itself, I know, especially when her competition includes…

NEXT: Angela Martin gets shafted

Siobhan Magnus, who dresses like she’s trying out for the lead role in a touring production of Punky Brewster: The Musical!. I worry that Siobhan, a raspy belter who’s got an enticing 20-horsepower instrument, is suffering from a little bit of an image crisis after Ellen told her on Day 1 of Hollywood Week that she was reading ”too old” on the stage. Paging Miles Siggins and the Idol styling team for an intervention — before it’s too late! Oh, and side-note: Did anyone else notice Idol goofed and showed Siobhan (very briefly) in a mid-episode montage of 14 semifinalists — before they’d actually shown the judges giving her the thumbs-up sign?

Paige Miles, Michelle Delamar, Ashley Rodiguez All three of these ladies got shafted in regard to screen-time tonight, but Paige (who didn’t even get properly I.D.’d while performing a group rendition of ”Bad Romance” with Neopolitan) at least had the benefit of Simon telling her she’s a better vocalist than she even realizes. Ashley, at least, had a splashy audition to help build her fanbase. But it was Michelle who drew the Jeanine Vailles Memorial Short Straw of arriving at the semifinals without America having heard a single note from her lips. Unless you count the uncontrollable sobbing as she exited the judges’ deliberations tonight.

As for effervescently charming Haeley Vaughn, let me just say this… it didn’t really matter to me whether it was her or equally screechy Tori Kelly who made it into the top 12 ladies tonight. What I want to know is this: Given both girls’ relative lack of experience — and serious need for additional polish in order to have a chance at the Idol crown — why not say ”no” to both of them and ask them to return for a season 10 audition?

This would’ve cleared the way for poor Angela Martin, a mother of a young child with Rett syndrome whose three seasons of Hollywood Week found her mourning the death of her father, getting sent to jail for not being able to pay off fines for traffic violations (for the record, my husband tells me he recently heard an NPR report on the frequency of this very type of crazy situation), and this year, the disappearance of her mother on New Year’s Eve.

This is not to suggest in any way that Ryan Seacrest should change his show-opening refrain to ”THIS… is Backstory Idol.” But the problem is, when you spend so much time (three seasons worth of auditions, in fact) getting your audience invested in a cheery young woman’s personal struggles, it makes it hard to see said person get casually dismissed in favor of ”package-esque” artists with half the talent. Yes, I’m sure Simon had seen a million auditions like Angela’s uninventive take on ”I’m Goin’ Down,” but she hit three times as many notes per minute than, for example, Haeley did on ”I’m Yours.”

Worse still, instead of getting the bad news from Simon or Kara, Angela had to endure creepy/faux-intimate interactions with Kara and Ryan before she was turned into a footnote in the Idol history books. Why in the name of all that’s pitchy did Kara ask Angela to ”share” a chair built for only one, then proceed to force the contestant onto said chair’s arm? And why — knowing all she’d been through, knowing she was already breaking down emotionally as she entered the auditorium — didn’t Kara just rip off the bandage and say ”We’re sorry but you didn’t make it,” without all the ”you’re special”/”you’ve grown” hoo-hah that preceded it? I’m sure it’ll give Angela great comfort to know that Kara will ”remember her forever.” And, of course, she’s going to be just fine seeing how Ryan forced her to make eye-contact and promise to use her third consecutive rejection as a positive. ”You can’t go back on a promise,” he declared, as if he was Oprah Winfrey imparting a little wisdom at the end of a particularly harrowing episode. I mean…

Look, Angela will be fine. She’ll probably even get more career mileage (as a lounge act or a wedding singer or a corporate convention gigger) from her shoddy Idol treatment than she would if she’d unmemorably advanced through two weeks of semifinals before the audience sent her home. And maybe that’s the ”positive” she can take home. But it still doesn’t mean I have to approve of how it all went down.

NEXT: Tyler Grady plans to get jiggy with it

Anyway, another thing I didn’t approve of: Near radio silence over the last several weeks for handsome devil Tyler Grady. Thankfully, the show remedied that tonight with a snippet of his cover of Daughtry’s ”Home” that will only build anticipation for his semifinal performances. And while I know I should never use the word ”chillaxed” in this column, I must admit it perfectly sums up the vibe with which Tyler approached the judges tonight. I agreed with Kara (!) that his ”Fancy seeing you guys here!” greeting was a winner, I just wish he hadn’t promised her he’d do whatever kind of moves the judges want to see. I assume Tyler has never witnessed the wretched choreography of a results-show group performance? (And no, I will not take this opportunity to make a joke about the ”moves” Kara wanted to see from #SignMattGiraudAlready during his season 8 run.)

The remainder of the male semifinalists named tonight — Jermaine Sellers, John Park, Alex Lambert, Joe Munoz, and Tim Urban — scored mere seconds of airtime tonight, with only Jermaine’s request for a hug from Simon managing to make any sort of lasting impression. But fans of the quintet shouldn’t fret too much. As much as we like to complain about the lack of parity in early-weeks hype for contestants, most Idol viewers can have their slates wiped blank by a single dazzling performance, and the return to a Top 24 format further advances the cause of this season’s ”anonymous” players. Remember, next week, someone like Michelle Delamor need only be the tenth highest vote getter among the evening’s women in order to advance to ”top 20” week — a complete about-face for what contestants like Kristen McNamara or Felicia Barton had to face in season 8, trying to be among the top three vote-getters in a crop of 12 or face immediate elimination. On a show that often gives us something to gripe about, that’s one move worth applauding.

(Oh, if you’re wondering why ”foster kid” Chris Golightly appeared in the top 12 group with Ryan, but got replaced by Tim Urban in the individual ”dance intros,” a Fox statement says Golightly was determined to be ”ineligible to continue in the competition.” Check back at our PopWatch blog throughout the day as we dig further into the story.)