On the final night of semifinal performances, the eight remaining guys do little to dispel the notion that this season is all about the women

By Michael Slezak
March 11, 2010 at 05:00 PM EST
Frank Micelotta/Fox
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Imagine a greasy slice of olive-loaf, a package of half-defrosted frozen green beans, and a bowl of two-day-old refrigerated oatmeal. Now imagine going to your favorite restaurant and having the aforementioned foodstuffs placed in front of you. You try to explain this isn’t what you ordered, try to send these unappealing items back to the kitchen, but everyone — the waiter, the manager, the busboy, and the chef — insists you’re turning your nose up at a delicious meal of filet mignon, haricots verts, and creamy polenta. You think to yourself: ”Am I going crazy? Am I losing touch with my senses? And why in holy hell is Kara DioGuardi crying?”

Welcome to Bizarro Night at the American Idol Cafe, where the eight remaining male semifinalists of season 9 received an unwarranted amount of praise, encouragement, and hugs (!) from a panel of judges who seemed desperate to convince us there was a future musical superstar among their ranks.

Okay, okay, the guys did, in fact, hit a much higher percentage of notes this evening than in their two previous outings. And yeah, aside from a Gong Show-level vocal by Aaron Kelly, there weren’t any true disasters over the course of the one-hour telecast. But every time the season 9 guys hit the stage, the feeling persists that the Emperor, while perhaps not butt-booty nekkid, is down to a threadbare bikini and a pair of tragic fingerless gloves.

Still, despite the overarching concern that season 9’s Top 12 is going to contain a few too many lemons, we’ve got no other option but to add water, stir in some sugar, and hope the end result is not too tart, not too sweet. I mean, what else are we gonna do? Give up our Idol addictions and put our collective faith in America’s Got Talent? No, wait — don’t even think about answering that question! Instead, let’s split the guys up into two groups:

Group A: The Four Dudes Who’ve Clearly Done Enough to Advance to the Top 12

Any way you look at it, the leader of the manpack heading into the finals is clearly Michael ”Big Mike” Lynche, who has surged to a leadership position over the last two weeks by actually singing in tune (what a novel idea!) and positioning himself as the burly guy who understands the hearts and minds of the fairer sex. Musically and emotionally, tonight’s cover of Kate Bush’s glorious ”This Woman’s Work” provided the perfect bookend to last week’s ”It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” and from a technical perspective, it was the telecast’s best vocal — although Simon’s contention that it was ”the best performance of all these live shows by far” seemed impossibly daft.

Trouble is, the visual aspect of Big Mike’s performance provided absurd contrast to his vocals. The dramatically raised hand, the side-to-side shimmy, the parallel fists held out in front of the torso… these carefully staged moves had all the subtlety of an Applebee’s commercial where a tidal wave of melted cheese splashes dramatically over a promotional entrée. If Big Mike weren’t so gosh-darn serious, I’d half wonder if he wasn’t aiming for parody, or at least high camp, up there on the Idol stage. What’s more, while Michael’s decision to utilize his falsetto only at the beginning and end of the performance helped him avoid copycat comparisons with Maxwell’s 2001 cover, it also created a jarring disconnect within his own performance — sort of a vibe of: ”now we’re in head voice”/”now we’re not”/”oh, and now I’d better switch back to it at the end because that’s what people expect from this song.” I can’t be the only one who was more moved to scratch my head than to burst into tears of, um…I’m not sure what. Joy? Despair? Desire for a little additional screentime?

NEXT: Alex may be in ”Trouble”

I feel a little bad complaining about Michael, though, when he’s one of the few men in the competition who’s willing to work up a little sweat to entertain us. On the flip side, I think I expended more energy brushing my teeth this morning than Alex Lambert did covering Ray LaMontagne’s ”Trouble.”

Don’t get me wrong: Alex has one of the very best natural voices in the competition — his husky tone is immediately identifiable, and would sound amazing on the radio. But the judges need to help him learn the difference between being some guy who stands on a stage with his guitar and sings songs and being an actual singer. And while self-confidence is definitely part of the equation, I’d actually like to hear one of the judges tell Alex that he can still succeed in the competition even if he’s never 100 percent comfortable performing for a national TV audience of 25 million. Because the real key isn’t learning to make eye-love to the cameras, it’s about making a connection to material, feeling it so innately that nerves and lighting cues and weird judges and their banana metaphors won’t matter. As it stands, though, the way Alex uses his gift so casually — almost carelessly failing to complete his turns of phrase with any kind of emotional robustness — is the musical equivalent of buying a top-of-the-line Dyson, then using it to clean your vegetable garden.

[Side note: Now that Alex has joined season 5 champ Taylor Hicks and season 6 finalist Chris Sligh in covering ”Trouble,” can we please add it to my growing list of ”Songs That Should Be Banned from Idol”? Mark ”yes” or ”hell yes” in the comments below, thanks.]

The one thing you can say for Lee Dewyze is that he’s certainly managing to pick songs (and bands) that haven’t been done to death on the show. Okay, so we probably could’ve gone another 543 seasons without ever getting a craving for Hinder’s ”Lips of an Angel,” but I had to give the season 9 rocker dude credit tonight for tackling a contemporary hit in Owl City’s ”Fireflies” and putting his own sandpapery slant on it. (That riff on the word ”earth” was particularly sweet.) Strangely enough, I agreed with Kara that Lee’s acoustic rock rendition was better than the twee original, but how come Ellen was the only one to point out his pitch problems? Based on a very unscientific study of eight previous Idol winners, I would estimate Lee has maybe seven or eight bum notes to use between now and May 25 if he wants to have any chance of inheriting Kris Allen’s scepter and throne. Because, as the weak antelope gets slowly picked off from the pack, viewers are eventually going to turn on the dude who botches every fourth or fifth note that comes out of his mouth.

Rounding out our quartet of mortal locks for the top 12 is Casey ”same shirt, different colors” James. Simon was right that in less than 24 hours, most of us will have control-alt-deleted Casey’s competent cover of Keith Urban’s ”You’ll Think of Me” from our brains (makes the title a little ironic, don’tcha think?) but there wasn’t much egregiously wrong with the rendition, either. In his best moments, Casey’s gruff quaver resembles Bob Seger (he ought to seriously consider covering ”Feel Like a Number,” yo!). In his worst, he’s just deeply derivative. But despite being in direct competition with ABC’s deliciously funny Cougar Town tonight — get it? Kara’s a cougar, everybody! Ugh. — it’s inconceivable that Casey’s solid body of work will land him any lower than sixth among the remaining guys. And that brings us to our second (and final) set of male semifinalists…

NEXT: Will Todrick get ”Somebody to Love” him?

The Ones Who’d Better Be Hoping Their Direct Line to God Has Less Static Than Jermaine Sellers’.

Okay, so four guys, two slots, easy math. But while Todrick Hall and Tim Urban went into the evening looking like the weakest impalas in the herd, they performed adequately/interestingly enough tonight that suddenly, Andrew Garcia and Aaron Kelly are looking fairly vulnerable out there in the high grasses. (That last sentence brought to you by Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.)

Let’s start with Todrick, who seemed so hellbent on impressing the judges, he threw in everything but a backflip and a flaming baton into his performance of Queen ”Somebody to Love.” Actually, those circus-like elements would’ve fit nicely with the charcoal cashmere marching-band jacket, fingerless gloves, and full complement of vocal hoo-hah that the Destiny’s Wild frontman incorporated into his solo routine. The vocal was just as kray-kray, with Todrick locking in to the theatrics of Freddie Mercury’s vocal line that had Simon pulling out the ”Broadway” critique (specifically, he called it American Idol: The Musical. Kara said she wasn’t sure whether to love or laugh at Todrick’s performance, but if you happened to catch those hysterically giddy women gawking from the audience during Todrick’s perormance, it seems like plenty of people chose what was behind door No. 2.

Still, a Top 12 in which Tim or Aaron subs for Todrick seems infinitely less interesting. I mean, I can’t say I’ve ever really enjoyed one of Todrick’s performance, but I could also never accuse him of putting his audience to sleep.

Tim, on the other hand, hit my musical snooze bar the second he started gamely but lamely covering ”Hallelujah.” In the much-pilloried contestant’s defense, his Leonard Cohen cover was significantly more in tune his brutalization of One Republic’s ”Apologize” two weeks back, but so what? Tim’s ”Hallelujah” was like a Reuben on Wonder Bread — hold the pastrami, the Swiss, the sauerkraut, and the Russsian dressing. Which is to say Tim’s rendition lacked the heft and the world-weariness required to make the song’s lyrics resonate in any way, shape or form.

I know human-to-human, Ellen’s decision to embrace Tim and tell him his performance was ”fantastic” might have seemed to her like the kind thing to do for a probably nice kid who’s never going to win the whole enchilada, and who’s going to have to accept that his parting gift will involve nationwide scorn and ridicule. But that’d be like saying the mark of a good mom is letting her toddler take a crack at cutting his own hair the day after he’s learned to use craft scissors. I could take a moment here to express my opinion that in deference to a certain season 7 contestant’s seminal cover, ”Hallelujah” ought to be retired from the Idol stage — along with ‘Tasia’s ”Summertime,” Cookie’s ”Billie Jean,” and Adam’s ”Mad World,” to name a few. But why bring the Dreadlocked Idol‘s name into a paragraph about something so unsavory?

Instead, I’ll just point out that Randy needs to dial back on his use of the phrase ”one of the greatest songs ever,” a label he slapped on Kelly Clarkson’s ”Breakaway” yesterday, ”Hallelujah” tonight, and probably ”Macarena” tomorrow. Also cruel but true, but Tim’s placate-the-judges smile, which he broke out when Simon and Ellen were trying to take credit for his improved performance, is perhaps a little too ”You’re not jonesy” for TV.

That said, in terms of full-throttle, creep-me-into-next week moments, nothing can trump the unfortunate mental picture of Andrew Garcia breathily imploring us to ”rub him the right way” as he covered Christina Aguilera’s ”Genie in a Bottle.” I know Kara would have us believe Andrew’s Hollywood Week cover of ”Straight Up” set the bar too high for the bespectacled YouTube star to ever have another Idol moment, but let’s keep it really real: It’s not like creating an acoustic Paula Abdul remix holds equal weight to penning Handel’s Messiah. The real problem is that Andrew is a vocalist with serious limitations. If you can’t stay in pitch for a slowed-down rendition of Xtina’s most disposable ditty, how do you expect to hold up on the big Idol stage over a wide variety of jaunty theme weeks? At this point, I think Andrew is gonna have to get lucky to get that question answered, because his berth in the top 12 is no longer guaranteed.

NEXT: Get the grades

Ditto for Aaron Kelly, whose cover of Lonestar’s ”I’m Already There” has to rank in the top three worst semifinal performances of season 9. Ellen was right — it was way too much song for the season’s youngest hopeful. But even if you could get past the fact that the kid was badly out of tune from beginning to end… actually, scratch that. How and why would anyone do that? Things got so unpleasant during the performane, I managed to distract myself by focusing on the way Aaron has already learned to look meaningfully into the cameras and offer the strategically placed knowing smile like a seasoned TV vet. How quickly these kids learn!

And with that, I leave you with tonight’s grades:

Michael ‘Big Mike’ Lynche: B+

Casey James: B

Lee Dewyze: B

Alex Lambert: B-

Todrick Hall: C+

Andrew Garcia: C

Tim Urban: C

Aaron Kelly: D-

What did you think of Idol‘s final semifinal performances? Who do you think will go home tomorrow? And who’ll fare best during next week’s festivities.

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