The guys of season 9 make a middling first impression, putting the cap on a two-night fiasco that doesn't bode well for this year's talent pool

By Michael Slezak
Updated February 25, 2010 at 05:00 PM EST

Two episodes into American Idol‘s season 9 semifinals, and I’m ready to ask my doctor for a Xanax prescription. And once I’ve calmed my own panic attacks caused by the (mostly) subpar performances from the 24 kids competing for the right to star in an adorable 2011 Ford campaign, I’m going to be seriously tempted to administer some pharmaceutical aid to the contestants as well.

Indeed, after Tuesday’s literally shaky start by the Top 12 women — here’s hoping poor Janell Wheeler won’t be operating any heavy equipment this week with those trembling hands of hers! — a dozen male contestants took to the stage tonight to try to disprove Randy and Simon’s recent press tour declaring the season 9 crown will ultimately rest on the head of a lady. Unfortunately for the guys (and for all of us), the telecast’s menu was filled not with for genuine charisma and unique, powerful singing, but rather the deadly combination of random rearrangements, feeble falsettos, and murderous melisma — not to mention a miming exhibition and the debut of a contro-ver-see-ahhhl bolero jacket with tails!

Since we’ve got a lot of ground to cover, let’s cut directly to a breakdown of each of tonight’s performances — in descending order from best to worst — with occasional breaks to talk about the maddeningly mixed messages being spewed by Simon, Randy, Kara, and Ellen. ”Hey, be yourself — until we want you to be someone else!” ”Stick with the melody — but don’t be a copycat!” ”You were horrible tonight — but you’re really great!” Of course, one contestant in particular had to put up with so much nonsense from behind the judges’ table that I almost bumped his grade up from a B to a B+ just for enduring it all with grace and a sense of humor. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s have a (respectful) round of applause for….

Casey James: B Okay, let’s face some hard truths here. Were there times tonight when Casey’s bleaty tone resembled that of Theodore the Chipmunk sitting on the dryer during a spin cycle? Sure. And no way will anyone on the planet convince me that Bryan Adams’ ”Heaven” is an appropriate first choice for any purpose outside a high-school prom theme in 1987. But those reservations aside, I must admit Casey was the only contestant tonight who took the stage with quiet confidence and nailed every last note of a song that actually suited his voice. He’s like Ace Young 2.0 — only without the crippling seriousness and the arsenal of bum notes.

It’s just a shame that while Casey was one of the few guys to make the telecast worthwhile, he didn’t wind up getting any real respect from the judges both during and after his performance. Kara and Randy — apparently filled with the burning desire to prove that they can easily assume the imbecilic mid-performance shenanigans once associated with Simon and Paula — locked arms in a ridiculous swaying motion that caused Casey to nervously laugh during his opening verse. I loved how Ellen bluntly chided her colleagues when, after an obligatory ”Kara thinks you’re hot” joke, she noted, ”I’m sorry that everything was going on [during your performance], ’cause it was not fair.” I mean, just because Casey is clearly okay with playing up his sex-symbol status — chilling out on a stool and strumming his chest hair, er, his guitar — doesn’t mean he should have to endure a series of unfunny zingers about how Kara wants to ”make music” with him. The only plus side of the back-and-forth, in fact, was Ryan’s brilliant post-critique quip: ”Looking ahead at the schedule, as you know tomorrow [is] results, and then Friday is Kara’s H.R. meeting. It’ll be a two-hour live event.” And as for next Wednesday, I don’t think there’s any doubt we’ll be hearing from….

NEXT: Get sweet on Andrew Garcia’s ”Sugar We’re Going Down”

Andrew Garcia: B Hey, what’s this? For the second night in a row, the contestant in the episode-closing ”pimp spot” didn’t score unabashed, unanimous praise from the judges’ panel! Is this a mere coincidence, or a formal plot to get viewers to turn producers’ faves into appealing underdogs? I’m cynically guessing the latter, naturally.) But while I agreed with Simon that Andrew’s acoustic take on Fall Out Boy’s ”Sugar We’re Going Down” was slightly disappointing — the verbose track sounded peculiar (and a tad nasal) against the sparse, slowed-down arrangement — there’s no denying Andrew is about as polished a performer as we’ve got in season 9. Now the dude just needs to stay cognizant of the fact that while his brilliant Hollywood Week cover of Paula Abdul’s ”Straight Up” has indeed endeared him to a massive block of season 9 fans, not every song belongs in a midtempo, acoustic box.

Side note: Just as it’s a common Idol superstition that contestants should never sing songs that mention going ”home,” I wonder if Andrew paused at all before delivering the line for ”Going down, down in an earlier round”? Let’s just hope that lyric doesn’t prove prescient in a pack that includes Jermaine Sellers and Tim Urban, eh?

Lee Dewyze: B The third and final male contestant who’s absolutely guaranteed safe passage into the top 20, Lee hit the trifecta by choosing an appealing recent (but not too recent) hit, giving it a unique (but not too unique) twist, and singing it solidly. Okay, not too solidly, as there were definitely some flat notes whenever Lee pushed a note of Snow Patrol’s ”Chasing Cars” too hard or too far (or, as Ellen called it, ”screaming”). And was it just me or did Lee occasionally seem to fall out of sync with the Idol band?

Either way, while I thought Simon was too effusive with his praise tonight, I’d argue he made more sense with his feeback than Randy, who squawked that Lee should go a harder-rock route by covering Kings of Leon (!), and Kara, who requested a Bad Company cover (!). Simon, on the other hand, suggested Lee go the David Cook route by gravitating toward unexpected ditties and infusing them with his own gruff edge.

Joe Muñoz: B- I know, I know… a lot of you are reading this and thinking, ”Wait. There’s a guy named Joe Muñoz in the competition?” And that’s unfortunate, seeing how The Artist Formerly Relegated to 10 Seconds of Airtime actually offered up a more appealing vocal than most of his competitors tonight. Sure, Jason Mraz’s ”You and I Both” is one of those rambling, open-ended jams that doesn’t really benefit from being compressed down to a 90-second romp (”not the perfect song choice for me for you,” said Randy), and Joe’s visible nerves resulted in 39 percent more vibrato than is scientifically proven to be pleasant, but with so much fat to trim from the Top 24, I’m really hoping A.J. Tabaldo 2.0 gets himself another week of TV glory.

NEXT: Tyler Grady told to time travel

Michael ”Big Mike” Lynche: C+ Um, can anyone tell me why the burly personal trainer was holding a guitar during his frantic rendition of Maroon 5’s ”This Love”? Because it was painfully obvious to the home viewing audience that dude wasn’t actually playing it. Okay, maybe he strummed it once or twice, but for all the impact it made, Michael might as well have been grasping a bassoon. Or a tuba. Or a camera-phone featuring more exclusive footage of his wife making an adorable babeh! J’ugh. Kara pretty much summed up Big Mike’s performance when she noted it ”wasn’t outrageously great,” and that he only avoided harsh criticism because he’d been preceded by several contestants who were far worse. And while Ellen may think the guy has personality bursting out of his pores, for the first time tonight, I’d say that said personality contained more than a hint of arrogance; Big Mike making a mock-threatening gesture with his muscles after Simon likened him to a warmup act for the main event.

Aaron Kelly: C+ The good news is that the kid who kept forgetting his words in Hollywood Week had a much-improved showing tonight on Rascal Flatts’ ”Here Comes Goodbye.” The bad news? Going from a D+ to a C+ won’t ensure he’ll get his ears blown out by legions of screaming tweens on the 2010 Idol summer tour.

If Kara is right that the boot camp of Idol experience should help Aaron get better every week, then he might want to practice in front of a mirror to wipe out his facial expressions of pure horror/embarrassment, and to obliterate his rock-back-and-forth stance that resembles a four-year-old in need of a potty. How much more Aaron can improve remains to be seen, but it’s encouraging that a vocal that started out wobbly and flat ended with arguably the best glory note of the night. And the use of a split screen — Aaron in mournful closeup against an aerial shot of Aaron on stage — proves he’s got a friend in the producers’ booth.

Tyler Grady: C- ”Hey there, Tyler Grady, you’re so seventies/ Hey there Tyler Grady, look real good in jeans/ Don’t go forgetting your vocals/ Lest you get labeled a lame yokel/ You got more important things to do/ Than karaoke versions of the Guess Who/ Now Tyler, do obey/ Hey there Tyler Grady, listen what I say!”

In all seriousness, though, let me just say this to Tyler. It is not about abandoning your ’70s rocker chic. It is not about going to the mall and purchasing new clothes. It is about thoroughly inhabiting whatever song you choose, and then making sure you’re singing it in-tune. That’s pretty much your mission for week two, should you choose to accept it. Carry on!

Todrick Hall: C- Oh Todrick, you wouldn’t march up to a classroom of third graders, promise them a pizza party, and then (just to give them a new experience) serve them a pie covered in Fancy Feast wet cat food, would you? So why entice the Idol audience by promising a cover of Kelly Clarkson’s ”Since U Been Gone,” and then sullying it with a can of laughable spoken-word interludes and ridiculous Bel Biv DeVoe affectations? I mean, really. That whack intro — ”Girrrrl, I never wanted to have to tell you goodbye. But bay-bee, since you been gone, I can breathe for the first time!” — may have been something you cooked up in your head, but that’s where it should have stayed. As Randy noted, a top 24 contestant should know the difference between clever rearrangement and complete obliteration.

NEXT: Tim Urban needs to ‘Apologize’

Alex Lambert: D+ Okay, so the kid with the hair that my Idolatry buddy Kristen Baldwin described as ”Russian figure-skater awful” is an unripe banana, according to Ellen’s best critique of the evening. (We need more clever wordplay and less robotic ”you’re great,” from our newest judge, yo!) And yeah, I kinda know what she meant, because if one were to surgically remove the occasional word or phrase from Alex’s rendition of James Morrison’s ”Wonderful World,” you might have some pleasing sounds to enjoy. But the problem is, Alex isn’t just slightly under-ripe tropical fruit, he’s positively green. The kid has absolutely no ability to tell a story with music: He lets the ends of phrases flop from his mouth like fish on a dock; he weaves on and off pitch like a wayward loom; he stalks the stage like a wounded baby gazelle on the lookout for hungry carnivores. It is too much to bear. And yet because all four judges played the ”potential” and/or ”sympathy” cards in their critiques, Alex is likely to get seven days to hone his skills, when really, he needs seven years (at which time, incidentally, he’d still have been eligible to audition for Idol). Why exactly did this kid make the cut instead of Jermaine Purifory?

John Park: D- Um, God bless Mikalah Gordon, whose season 4 rendition of the Billie Holiday classic may not have been flawless, but it was at least recognizable. John’s ”version” (or, more accurately, butchery?) of ”God Bless the Child” got so guttural in parts that it barely resembled music, and his supersized melisma rendered a good quarter of the lyrics unintelligible. Simon wasn’t the only one who got zero emotion from the performance, either, as my own notes contain the scrawled and underlined phrase: ”No emotional connection! Weird!” The sad part is, John showed tons of potential with his toned bottom end back in his audition episode, but on the flip side, those happier memories will probably score him enough votes to have a shot at redeeming himself during top 20 week.

Tim Urban: D- I think Simon’s critique of Tim’s ”Apologize” said it all: ”Tim, well look, congratulations for coming back. Having said that, we absolutely made the right decision the first time around by not putting you through, based on that performance.”

Then again, if America is as shallow as I sometimes (but not always) fear it is, maybe Ellen’s right, and the kid will get a second chance to play the role of American Piñata: ”If you close your eyes and just hear that, it didn’t sound good. But if the sound was down and we’re lookin’ at you, you’re adorable. I think people will want to vote for you because you’re adorable. And girls, you may get a lot of votes just ’cause of that. But you’ve got to choose the right songs and step it up. Not just count on the fact that you’re adorable ’cause you’re adorable.”

Jermaine Sellers: F And here, on Jermaine’s inconceivably awful version of Oleta Adams’ ”Get Here,” Randy gets a chance to be totally accurate for a change: ”Sing the melody. It’s good.” But nope, instead, we got a guy in a bolero jacket and tails, screeching like a pterodactyl, to the point where midway through the performance, the melody actually stood up, dusted itself off, and exited stage left. Add a jaw-dropping interview segment in which Jermaine tried to defend his Hollywood Week kerfuffle with Idol music director Michael Orland by asking ”Who is Michael?” and, well, take solace, Tim Urban, it could’ve been worse.

What did you think of tonight’s Top 12 men? Who were your favorites? Who do you think is going home on Thursday? And how did you feel about the judges’ performances tonight?

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