Only one singer from season 9's Top 11 proves speed-dial worthy on a night that ranges from a'aight to downright awful

By Michael Slezak
Updated March 24, 2010 at 04:00 PM EDT
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I’ve never quite understood the inherent sadism of American Idol‘s summer tour policy. Every year the show names 12 (or last year, 13) finalists, but only makes room on the sightseeing bus for 10 of ’em.

Okay, yeah, so last season’s Kradison Festival of Awesome wouldn’t have benefited much from the vocal stylings of Jasmine Murray or Jorge Nuñez (although Alexis Grace is quite another matter…hmph!), but as Simon pointed out tonight, finishing 11th on Idol is akin to getting five out of six lottery numbers: ”It’s the worst night to go home.”

Yet as devastating as Wednesday night’s vote tally is going to be for Paige Miles, Tim Urban, Katie Stevens, or Andrew Garcia, the news is much, much grimmer for us members of the Idoloonie nation. Chew on this like a smoker’s piece of Nicorette: Three out of the four contestants mentioned above will be ”singing” for our ”pleasure” at North American concert venues from June to September. (I’m betting Idol creator Simon Fuller will forbid any stops in Canada or Europe — just to ensure he’s not shipped off to the Hague to stand trial for international war crimes.) And even if Colored Contacts, Bieber-Hair Boy, Multiple Personality Robo-Barbie, and Acoustic ”Straight Up” get booted in the most rapid-fire succession possible, one of ’em is going to be sticking around on the Idol stage till at least April 14. Gah!

Anyhow, rules are rules — meaning we can’t do a two-, three-, or possibly four-way ouster tomorrow, and we can’t bring back Katelyn, Alex, Lilly, or even Janell. It doesn’t even matter that we could replace half the contestants with Folgers Crystals without anyone so much as arching a brow. This is our Top 11, dammit, and since they took the time to tackle the challenging theme of Old-Timey Songs That Have Been Butchered by Scott Savol or Sung 70 Times Better by Fantasia (a.k.a Billboard No. 1s), we owe them the courtesy of listening carefully, then judging with the fury of 1,000 Auto-Tuned Ke$has.

NEXT: We are now against ”Against All Odds”

In terms of sheer ”note”-for-”note” awfulness, no contestant could match Paige Miles’ ”Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now),” a track that incidentally edged ahead of ”I Have Nothing” and ”Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” in the unfortunate race for song that’s been covered the most times by an American Idol contestant on the live semifinal and/or final stage*. On the plus side, Paige certainly ”made it her own,” but only by failing to hit a single note of the laborious Phil Collins ballad. Honestly, the rendition was such a thing of disoriented wonder, I started thinking to myself: ”Did this girl get hit with a lighting fixture backstage? Is it possible she has a concussion?” Based on the opening line of Randy’s critique — ”Hi. How are you?” — it’s possible he was harboring the same fear. And based on Paige’s post-performance insistence that she ”had fun” doing it, I sincerely hope Cecile Frot-Coutaz called in a medic to check Ms. Miles for dizziness, slurred speech, and ringing in the ears. (See how my theory is making more and more sense?)

Whatever the reason, Paige ironically left the voting public with the words ”take a look at me now, there’s just an empty space,” which might be all that’s left of her by the end of Wednesday’s results telecast. Kara (giving her strongest performance behind the judges’ table in two seasons) was not exaggerating when she described ”Against All Odds” as Paige’s worst vocal ever — and possibly the low watermark of the entire season. In fact, poor Paige might even rank among the 10 beastliest performances in show history — though not ahead of (or should I say behind?) Camile Velasco’s sensational(ly awful) ”Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” (If you’ve never witnessed that spectacle before, click here; I promise it’ll be your favorite gag gift of 2010.) I just wish Ellen hadn’t awkwardly turned the musical critique over to Kara and Simon. Five weeks into the live performance episodes, and it’s time the congenial talk-show host started earning her paycheck at her new gig. Anyone else with me on that?

(*For Idol trivia fans, ”Against All Odds” had previously been covered on the live Idol stage by Corey Clark, George Huff, Jessica Sierra, Scott Savol, Katharine McPhee, and Ramiele Malubay).

NEXT: Are we having fun yet? No? No.

Of course, as veteran Idol watchers know, at this early point in the season, the most harshly critiqued performances sometimes get rewarded with sympathy votes. Which is why it won’t surprise me to see Paige last another week, with defiantly dreadful Andrew Garcia headed home instead. The latter contestant brought fairly high viewer expectations to the semifinal stage, but for the last five weeks, he’s been the pre-made, day-old tuna-salad sandwich of the competition — you approach him thinking he might still be a tasty treat, only to discover that the bread has become treacherously soggy and that you just want to discard it and start with some fresh ingredients. At the end of Andrew’s ”Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the look on the little girl’s face said it all: Slack-jawed, bored out of her skull, chomping on some Bubble Yum to try to keep herself awake.

Oh yes, the little girl! I can’t believe I’m already on Paragraph No. 9 and just now mentioning guest ”mentor” Miley Cyrus, who got Andrew to set down his guitar in an attempt to amp up his uninspiring performance style. Little did Miley know she’d be unleashing Andrew’s inner So You Think You Can Dancer, a strategy that left him sounding flat and winded even before the cameras cut away from whatever spin or moonwalk he was about to launch into. Like Paige, Andrew told Ryan his plan was to ”just have fun” on the stage, although the tone of his ”thank yous” and ”love yous” to the judges sounded more rageful than grateful.

A side note: Who told the singers that it’s their primary goal to ”have fun”? Note to next week’s Top 10: Your primary goal is to make the audience have fun. This can be achieved by: singing well, choosing fresh material that isn’t horrible, and stepping up the fashion game (but not with lace doilies). Also, please don’t rehash anything previously performed by Fantasia Barrino, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Elliott Yamin, Adam Lambert, Kris Allen, Allison Iraheta, Melinda Doolittle, and the Davids Cook and Archuleta. Please, make a note of it.

Anyhow, if Andrew committed Idol sacrilege by ”sucking the soul” out of the Marvin Gaye track that Fantasia so masterfully covered back in season 3, then Tim Urban committed the Idol equivalent of tearing up a picture of the Pope by pouring battery acid over Queen’s ”Crazy Little Thing Called Love” (also beautifully interpreted by ‘Tasia back in the day).

I mean… you knew ugly, ugly things were about to happen when Seacrest announced that after the break, Tim would be covering Queen, and the cameras cut to the season 9 sieve smiling, winking, and threateningly snapping his fingers. But nothing could have prepared me for the experience of this kid singing the words ”it swings, and it jives,” while stiffly reaching out to the audience Swaybots and attempting the kind of absurd knee-slide that I suspect he learned during this week’s group-performance choreography session. To be fair, dude hits more notes per minute than Andrew and Paige combined, but I would bet everything in my wallet (six dollars and several unchecked MegaMillions tickets) that I wiped down my kitchen counter tonight with more emotional commitment than Tim delivered his lyrics. It doesn’t matter if Mr. Urban is dealing with ”Hallelujah,” or ”Under My Thumb,” or ”Crazy Little Thing” — to paraphrase one-time Idol mentor Bon Jovi: ”It’s all the same, only the names will change.” The judges were appropriately brutal — with Simon even calling for singing lessons! — but Tim seemed unmoved, and in similar fashion to Paige and Andrew (anyone seeing a trend for the bottom three?), noted that he ”wanted to have some fun.”

URGH!

NEXT: Save us, MamaSox! We’re drowning in a sea of suck!

Okay, let me take a deep breath here. No need to whip myself into a white-hot Idol rage so early in the week. Especially since I need to brace myself for a bottom-three combo tomorrow night that probably won’t just be Paige, Andrew, and Tim.

Then again, why allow myself to feel anything about season 9 when its sole purpose seems to be to drive me into the timeslot arms of Dancing With the Stars or Lost or something soul-crushing and disease-ridden on VH1?

Actually, scratch that. Because I don’t want to disrespect Crystal Bowersox, whose exquisite take on ”Me and Bobby McGee” was the single perfect lifeboat of a grim, Titanic-esque evening. (Hop aboard, there’s room for everyone on the U.S.S. MamaSox!) I was grooving to Crystal’s Janis Joplin cover with such intensity, I forgot to take notes on the performance, but it was quiet perfection, from the intro package where Crystal allowed Miley to autograph her guitar — oh how I feared the kid was gonna sign a full, yearbook-length mantra on the face of that instrument! — to the seated critiques on her ”soft and pretty” stage rug. I understood Ellen’s Paula-esque critique that it’d be nice to see Crystal bask in the audience’s love, but those notes overlook the fact that she has only had five weeks of performing on the nation’s most popular TV show, and that it’s okay (refreshing, even) that she’s still working through the discomfiting experience of audience adulation. Yeah, I understood, and yet I understood Simon more when he told her not to change a thing.

With Siobhan experiencing a setback this week (more on that in a second) the door was open for someone (anyone!?) to grab the position of first runner-up, and wouldn’t you know it turned out to be the wee lad battling both laryngitis and tonsillitis? Now don’t get me wrong. I am far from advocating for a bizarre Aaron Kelly versus Crystal Bowersox season finale (in which she’d probably hold him and rock him gently to sleep as his 10 p.m. bedtime approached). But I have to give credit to Aaron for raising his vocal game, for acting like he actually has a desire to turn season 9 into a horse race, for having some fire in his eyes, and all those other sporty clichés he probably uses to psych himself up in the Idol locker room.

I was amused when Miley admitted she made a face during her mentoring session with Aaron because she hadn’t realized quite how skilled he was, and sure enough, despite his illness, he checked off a good 85-90 percent of his notes, while also working in a little of his trademark twang. Do I wish Aaron hadn’t selected a track previously covered by Allison Iraheta, David Cook, Antonella Barba, Lindsey Cardinale, and Josh Gracin during live Idol telecasts? Of course I do. But I’m also one of those crazies who thinks that once a song is performed on Idol, it should be banned from the show 4EVA. Word of warning to Seacrest, however — you might want to quit with the David Archuleta comparisons. I know I was on Team Cook in season 7, but if we’re comparing vocal firepower here, Archie owns Aaron like Oprah Winfrey owns, well, everything.

NEXT: Tweet tweet, tweet tweet

I also rather enjoyed ”our waitress” Didi Benami’s rendition of Linda Ronstadt’s ”You’re No Good,” although I felt like there were moments where her slow and slurry cadence seemed to be an homage to a drunk Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development. Maybe that’s why I kinda dug it, while the judges loathed it? Of course, I was also transported to camp heaven by the way Didi’s one-sleeved, gold-trimmed, black minidress and most excellent boots channeled Nancy Sinatra’s ”These Boots Are Made for Walkin”’. (Too gay? Yeah, okay, I take ownership of that. No need to call me out in the comments section, folks!) Anyway, maybe Didi will crash and burn in two weeks. (She, too, said she was trying to ”have fun” on stage, which could make her a bottom three surprise!) Or maybe she’ll rise to the occasion and be the contestant we always wanted Megan Joy to be. Or the contestant Megan Joy always wanted to be? In this season of turmoil, you’ve got to take your bright spots where you can find ’em. Caw! Caw!

That leaves us with five contestants bunched together in mid-pack formation — and while none of ’em necessarily surpassed ”it was just a’aight for me” status, dawg (Oh. Em. Gee. I have to stop that!), I am going to be physically ill if any of ’em slips through the season 9 cracks and into the musical limbo where so many other worthy vocalists currently reside. (Where you at, Theri? And when are you going to follow me on Twitter?)

Speaking of Twitter, since I am way over on word count, let’s try to break these cats down in 140 characters or less.

Lee Dewyze: Introverted Taylor Hicks? Was song a tribute to Alex Chilton? Still looks nervous as heck, but dug the bluesy riffs and improved fashion!

Katie Stevens: Nice Fergie (!) song in a pile of oldies, and sung w/ conviction, too. Still needs to work on pitch. Sideways camera glances killing me.

Casey James: Sweet vocals, but agree w/ Simes he’s pure ’80s cover band. Work that stage already! Why so stiff in the torso? “I’m a big fan…of your dad.”

Michael Lynche: Lifting of The Miley is gross and presumptuous. Stop licking lips every 10 seconds. Oh, your vocal was solid if unspectacular. Do not get.

Siobhan Magnus: Way too restrained for a soul track, vocally and in stage movements. You gotta ugly it up, girl! Unnecessary screech in 3, 2… J’enough!

And finally, tonight’s scorecard!

Crystal Bowersox: A

Aaron Kelly: B

Didi Benami: B-

Lee Dewyze: B-

Casey James: B-

Siobhan Magnus: C+

Katie Stevens: C+

Michael Lynche: C

Tim Urban: D-

Andrew Garcia: D-

Paige Miles: F

What did you think of tonight’s show? Who will and should be in the bottom three tomorrow? Who will and should go home? How did you feel about Miley as Mentor? (I will admit I appreciated that she acknowledged her own issues with pitch and mostly stuck to the less treacherous ground of trying to help the Idols improve their stage presence — even though she never shoulda been there in the first place!) And how awkward was that ”I know what a canine is, Ryan” moment?

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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