Season 9 gets rolling (at long last) thanks to strong showings from more than half of the top 10 ladies

By Michael Slezak
March 02, 2015 at 04:41 PM EST
Fox
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We live in troubling times. Lauren Conrad is an ”author.” Human carving board Heidi Montag is a ”singer.” And something called a ”JWoww” is now marketing herself as a ”fashion designer.” Alas, in an era where shameless attention-mongering is valued over actual talent, where doltish and reprehensible behavior can serve as an express ticket to fame, fortune, and widespread acclaim, it’s enough to make you want to impose a total pop-culture blackout for the nation’s youth — at least until there are laws on the books that prevent Noah Cyrus’ parents from dressing her like this for public outings.

In that context, last night’s American Idol telecast was like a single lemming running away from the ledge, a solitary salmon (embossed with a Fox Broadcasting Co. logo, of course) muscling its way against the tide. As 25 million Americans collectively celebrated some mighty fine singing from the likes of season 9’s female semifinalists, I felt giddy — maybe even a little proud — to be partaking in a shared, (mostly) shame-free reality-TV experience.

Yes, yes, I realize that sentiment is as corn-filled as a Frito-pie. But after enduring 16 consecutive episodes of Idol that left me wondering if, perhaps, our nation’s pool of undiscovered singing talent had dried up — and that had me feeling a little wistful for the days of Mikalah Gordon and Anthony Fedorov! — I’m relieved to discover there’s a little life in Idol yet. In fact, based on the promise of performances by Katelyn Epperly, Lilly Scott, Crystal Bowersox, Siobhan Magnus, and even Michelle Delamor and Didi Benami, the show appears, in fact, to have a lot of strength left. (Sorry, I will now put the kibosh on trying to weld together this recap using scraps of Kate Bush lyrics.)

The hard part is, over the next two Thursdays, the current crop of 10 ladies is going to get whittled down to six — because gender parity is apparently so important to Ken Warwick & Co. that they’re willing to risk the hopes and dreams of Paige Miles on the belief that a small but passionate segment of the voting public wouldn’t seriously want to endure another seven or eight weeks of watching Jermaine Sellers communicating with God. (Actually, come to think of it, that might be kind of amusing — if said conversations weren’t preceded by 90 seconds of the dude’s pointy-haired caterwauling.)

Still, with only two of the remaining female semifinalists totally tanking tonight, that means some semi-controversial cuts are coming. With that in mind, let’s divvie up the lay-dees into three clearly defined groups:

Group A: Go Directly to the Top 12; Do Not Pass Ellen, and Do Not Collect 200 ”Greats” Crystal Bowersox, Lilly Scott, Siobhan Magnus, and Katelyn Epperly.

Group B: Go and Start Rehearsing Your Top 16 Ditty, on the Off Chance You Don’t Get Fewer Votes Than Haeley Freakin’ Vaughn Michelle Delamor, Didi Benami, Paige Miles, and Katie Stevens.

Group C: Go Directly to the Holding Pen Where Fox Is Storing the Musical Aspirations of Ariana Afsar, Taylor Vaifanua, and Stevie Wright. Lacey Brown and Haeley Vaughn.

Based on the women’s pre-semifinal bodies of work, there are definitely some surprises in the aforementioned rankings. Ten days ago, I’d have bet all the money I’ve ever spent on Paula Abdul’s music (more than you’d think) that Didi would be a shoo-in for a spot on the Idol summer tour, nor would I have expected Katelyn to emerge as a serious contender for the season 9 crown. And as for Paige Miles, well, 10 days ago she was just a supporting player to the uni-monikered Theri in the battle of the ”Bad Romance” singers.

NEXT: Crystal’s Clear-lead

What a difference two performances make! And tonight, no individual outing made more of a difference than Katelyn Epperly’s risky effort to reinvent Coldplay’s ”The Scientist.” The mop-topped blonde may have been clad in a white, one-shoulder blouse and seated at a giant white piano, but her performance was dark and sparse and bordering on funereal — plus, it was breathtakingly beautiful. I’m not sure what pitch problems Randy was hearing toward the end of the number, or why Ellen was so mockingly dismissive of the tempo change, or how exactly Simon found the affair to be ”corny.” But I just about stood up and cheered for Kara (who’s suddenly making sense about 50 percent of the time) when she told Katelyn she kind of loves her.

Look, I can understand the rendition might not have been everyone’s cup of depressants, but it’s not as if Katelyn was singing ”Don’t Worry Be Happy” up there. I mean, when your song’s refrain is ”Nobody said it was easy/ No one ever said it would be this hard,” I think a little deceleration is not only appropriate, it’s actually inspired! And in the post-Blake Lewis, post-David Cook era where the judges not only want but demand ”artistry,” where was the credit for the way Katelyn switched up the melody to showcase the strongest aspects of her instrument? Not only was her final glory note perfectly in tune, but it was also thoroughly believable. Katelyn got up on that stage tonight and told a story with her music — which is exactly what these contestants will have to do in eight or nine months, when they’re forced to compete for airtime and shelf space with the Pinks and Jay Seans and (why is Ryan obsessed with him?) Justin Biebers of the world?

The judges had no such problem heaping praise on Crystal’s effortless rendition of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ”Long as I Can See the Light,” a performance made all the more impressive by the fact that the singer had just yesterday been hospitalized for diabetes complications. Crystal promised us she would take the arrangement to church, and she most certainly didn’t bear false witness against the Idol audience — from the blast of organs on the intro, to the Gospel-tinged riffing where she cried ”mama’s comin’ home” over the wails of the backup vocalists. I love that Crystal enunciates and emphasizes her lyrics in a way that makes you feel like you’re hearing them for the very first time. I love that she doesn’t reach into her dragonfly bag for a vocal trick on every other line. And I love, as Simon pointed out, that she didn’t play the sympathy card tonight, simply telling Ryan she was a ”tough cookie” and then grabbing her acoustic guitar and rocking her way into an inevitable top 12 spot. (Oh, and the interview package with Crystal busting Simon’s chops about his ”subway” remark and pointing out the size of his trailer? Priceless.)

If only Kara hadn’t blathered about Crystal having sung ”You Oughtta Know” last week. (Wrong Alanis Morissette track, sweetie!) If only Simon hadn’t brought the word ”Misunderestimated” to the Idol lexicon. If only that image of a heart with eyes on Randy Jackson’s sweater wasn’t haunting my waking dreams. And if only the judges hadn’t gone all overzealous (”Truth is reality. You are the truth.” Really, Randy?) in advocating for Crystal at the beginning, middle, and end of the show — as if she wasn’t going to sail through Thursday’s results like a Sunfish on a breezy day — I would honestly have nothing to complain about.

NEXT: Siobhan’s glory note

The only person who comes close to (or perhaps outranks) Crystal in the coolness department is Lilly, who wins the awards for best Top 20-week introductory facial expression into the camera, best Top 20-week outfit (j’adored that navy dress with red embroidered details!), and best music-related revelation (an undying devotion to the Moog!). Heck, Randy and Ellen seemed willing to give her a trophy for best performance of the entire telecast for her version of ”A Change Is Gonna Come.” And while I’m not sure I’d go quite that far — I agreed with Simon that Lilly definitely oversang the middle portion of the Sam Cooke classic — the woman certainly wasn’t boring. Yeah, if I could give a note to Lilly, I’d tell her she shouldn’t try to pull things off shelves that, vocally speaking, she can’t quite reach. In fact, it’s the airier, lilting tones of her voice that set her apart from her competitors.

But all that aside, I was impressed by the fact that the chrome-haired songbird had an Idol Moment with a song that Adam Lambert redefined in the Idolverse just nine months ago. Indeed, Lilly’s greatest asset at this point might just be the way she brings an earthy, acoustic jazziness to every song she tackles. ”A Change Is Gonna Come” has been sung by dozens of Idol hopefuls (either in competition or audition rounds), but in Lilly’s capable hands, it didn’t sound old or fusty or played-out in the least.

Siobhan could actually learn a little something from Lilly when it comes to that last-mentioned attribute. Her cover of Aretha Franklin’s ”Think,” while brash and powerfully sung, occasionally felt like it should’ve been occurring back in Idol‘s second season, not its ninth. That’s not as much a knock on Siobhan’s vocal, which had enough meat on it for two or three meals, as it is on the tinny, karaoke-light arrangement she accepted from Rickey Minor and the band.

Yet, that said, everything else about the performance was pretty much obliterated by Siobhan’s atom bomb of a closing glory note: It was the singing equivalent of Plushenko’s quad — a show-stopper, a game-changer, a topic for water-cooler conversation — even if it had a few little wobbles. All I can say is that if you don’t appreciate Siobhan’s oddly compelling interview clips and wacky fashion sense — blue satin strapless dress with a blue-and-white polka dot t-shirt underneath? — you might want to find another reality TV obsession, ’cause She Who Formerly Sported a Self-Buzzed Mohawk is definitely cracking the top 12.

But what about those ladies who are going to be fighting for the fifth and sixth female-designated Top 12 Stools of Doom? If I had to hand ’em out myself — at right this very second — I’d choose Michelle and Didi over Paige and Katie, even though I have a sinking feeling that the Contestant Who Has Finally Stopped Mentioning Her Grandma’s Alzheimer’s is probably the safest bet for Slot No. 5.

Michelle, for her part, took a massive risk by selecting ”With Arms Wide Open,” by Creed, a band that went from multi-platinum powerhouse to blogosphere punch line faster than it took Kara to nuzzle Simon’s hideous, plunging Henley this evening. And while Randy was right that Michelle wasn’t always perfectly in tune, at least Michelle zagged when we expected her to zig — without sacrificing an emotional connection to the (admittedly repetitive) material. As for that outfit — black lycra half-gloves, black shrug, and a poofy white dress that looked like a decorative curtain half-lifted to reveal a pair of jeans underneath — all I can do is call it Rated W…for Whoa!

Interestingly enough, I’d have said Simon’s accurate ”80 percent worked” critique for Michelle would almost have applied to ”emotionally fragile Didi Benami.” Sure, the Bill Withers jam turned out to be a major song-selection misstep — Randy was right that ”deep-rooted soul” is not, and never will be, Didi’s bag — but didn’t the judges seem excessively brutal with their feedback? I mean, at least she was in tune for the majority of the performance (save that hinky ”pick up the phone” bridge) which is more than three-quarters of the guys managed on Tuesday night. As it was though, Didi was so shaken by the time Ellen declared her a blight on our nation’s global reputation (I kid, I kid) that she couldn’t utter a word to Ryan for fear of bursting into hysterics.

NEXT: Get the grades

If the Idoloonie nation considers covering Creed a felony-level offense (quite possible) or feels that over-productive tear ducts are the work of Satan (could go either way), then Michelle and Didi could be in trouble Thursday night. But I think if any woman is going to break up the ”Haeley and Lacey Catch the Next Bus Out of L.A.” festivities, it’ll be Paige, a perfectly nice gal with a bunk weave who enjoys coloring books and delivered a clean but derivative take on Kelly Clarkson’s ”Walk Away.” Alas, her song title may prove to be one of those all-too-prescient Idol coincidences.

Katie, on the other hand, is more worthy of the chopping block, but I think Simon’s comment that she’ll ”stay another week,” along with her copious amount of early-season screen time, will help Katie survive a cover of ”Put Your Records On” that was as forgettable as a mailbox full of credit-card offers. I mean, you know you slapped a pile of ’em onto your kitchen table when you got home from work, but I bet you’d be hard-pressed to give any specifics. Katie is like that, in a way: She’s got power and pitch generally under control, but it’s almost as if the spirit has been shellacked out of her: The robotic stage movements, the wan phrasing, the hyper-awareness of the camera, the appropriately ”wacky” interview package about being able to say ”give me a kiss” in six languages. (Yeesh.) The parts all seem to be there, on the surface, but they pretty much add up to me rooting for another week of (gasp!) Haeley Vaughn.

Yeah, I said it. And look, I’m not defending Haeley’s unfortunate vocals on Miley Cyrus’ ”The Climb” (even though she might be as good a live singer as the original ”artist”). It’s just that, well, with her ridiculous homemade hair accessories, and omnipresent smile, and kicky fashion sense (the black tank with silver beaded trim was divine!) Haeley is like a strange, secondary character who wandered in from Justin’s high school on Ugly Betty. The effervescent teenager belongs on my TV screen — I just don’t think that she should necessarily be singing when she does it.

And if you disagree, of course, you might want to start a group chant of ”Haeley to the No! Haeley to the No!”

[Side note: I totally agreed with Kara that Haeley could use a year of strengthening her instrument, but that only makes me wonder why the judges and producers didn’t choose Tasha Layton or Angela Martin or maybe even Theri for season 9, and give Haeley a Golden Ticket redeemable in 2011.]

And finally, there’s Lacey Brown. Honestly, I’d almost make a bet to dye my hair shocking orange if Lacey doesn’t get booted for her tepid ”Kiss Me,” but we all saw the trouble I got into last season when I made a similar kind of wager.

I could talk about Lacey’s overly quavery delivery or her still obvious discomfort on the semifinal stage, or her inability to handle the vocal dexterity required on Sixpence None the Richer’s verbose track. But I will spare her the further indignity to make the following observation: SHINY HAPPY PEOPLE ARE ALLOWED TO SING SONGS OF PAIN AND HEARTBREAK, YOU STUPID, STUPID JUDGES! Have these folks never heard Dolly Parton’s ”What a Heartache”? Or Jody Watley’s ”Everything”? Rated P…for Please!

Anyway, without further ado, my grades for tonight’s performances:

Katelyn Epperly: A

Crystal Bowersox: A-

Lilly Scott: B+

Siobhan Magnus: B+

Michelle Delamor: B

Didi Benami: B-

Paige Miles: B-

Katie Stevens: C+

Lacey Brown: C-

Haeley Vaughn: C-

What did you think of Idol’s ladies this week? Who was your favorite? Who’s going home? (I’m guessing Paige Miles and Lacey Brown.) Anyone catch that end-of-show embrace between Simon and Ellen?

Episode Recaps

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