On her debut episode, Ellen DeGeneres provides rock-solid feedback, and leaves room for a number of potential front-runners to shine

By Michael Slezak
Updated February 10, 2010 at 05:00 PM EST

As an homage to my frequent Idolatry cohost and EW’s resident tastemaker Jessica Shaw, I’d like to kick off this American Idol recap ‘Shaw Report’ style:

In: Ellen DeGeneres; Five Minutes Ago: Simon Cowell; Out: Randy Jackson. (Yes, Kara you just dodged a bullet.)

In: Acoustic Guitars; Five Minutes Ago: Keyboards; Out: (Sorry, Paula fans!) Seal-Clapping.

In: Excitement Over Season 9; Five Minutes Ago: Longing Over Season 8; Out: Panicking Over X-Factor.

(Please do not interpret that last statement to mean that I’m going to stop making Kradison references for the foreseeable future. Heck, no! Also: #signmattgiraud! And #signfrenchiedavis, too, dammit!)

Anyway, Idoloonies, in the famous words of Mariah Carey, it’s like that y’all. Because tonight was the American Idol equivalent of a shampoo ad: Not that I needed a helpful animated graphic to outline how season 9 of the nation’s favorite talent competition was suddenly getting strengthened from root to tip. It was clear we were benefiting from a much-needed infusion of Ellen DeGeneres (the judging equivalent of jojoba or cocoa butter or some such rich, restorative ingredient), plus appearances by Vitamins A(ndrew Garcia), C(rystal Bowersox), D(idi Benami), H(aeley Vaughn), J(anell Wheeler), and L(illy Scott). And as the focus shifted to genuine Top 12 contenders, the burdensome weight of the gimmicky (woeful beat-box dood), the not-yet-ready-for-primetime (Vanessa Wolfe), and the downright ridiculous (Skii-Bo-Ski who?) got washed right down the drain.

But let’s get back to Ellen for a second. Because on a night — and to be honest, in a season — where her addition to the judges’ panel was The Story, the comedian/talk-show host seemed to take a deliberate back seat to the contestants. Eyes forward, focusing on the performances. Expression serious, reviewing her notes. Demeanor firm, sending contestants home with constructive advice that could serve them well if they return for season 10. And never once stirring up contrived drama/chumminess/ hijinks with Simon, Kara, and Randy in an effort to make sure all cameras were on her.

Oh sure, Ellen made me chuckle playing mind games with a row of contestants — sending them through an elaborate ritual of stepping forward, stepping back, and then back again, before announcing they’d all made it through to the next round; ”Sadist!” howled Simon — but it was clear from her overall performance that she understands the importance (yes, I said importance) of the task she’s been hired to do. Because at its heart, Idol has always been about a nation’s annual opportunity to take back the power from a record business that wants to feed us the chemical byproducts of an Auto-Tuned Britney Spears, wrapped in a tissue-thin layer of ”sexy,” and to tell us we should be happy when said byproduct turns out to be one of only 11 songs we get to hear hour after hour after corporate-controlled hour on our local radio station.

It’s a depressing time for mass-market music, and yet Idol allows 25 million of us to gather every week and experience the collective goosebumps of a ”Heartless” or a ”Mad World” or a ”Billie Jean” or a ”Summertime.” And the fact that I don’t have to assign a contestant’s name to any of the above song titles is proof positive of Idol‘s power. Ellen, by offering concise, intelligible critiques (a low bar that isn’t cleared nearly enough on this program), by keeping the goofy one-liners that are her stock and trade to a minimum (although her leopard metaphor re. Skii-Bo-Ski was as succinct as it was apt), let us know she understands and respects that power, respects the 181 kids who took the stage on Day One of Hollywood Week in the hopes of singing anything but ”No Boundaries” while wiping away tear-streaked pieces of confetti at the Kodak in May.

NEXT: Lilly Scott sings us a lullaby

Of course, not all 181 singers were created equal, and tonight, six singers (five of whom incidentally cracked this week’s EW Idol Power List) emerged as serious contenders for Kris Allen’s crown. Is it any coincidence that, like our Pocket Idol, each one of ’em strummed a guitar and left an aftertaste of ”artistry” in Kara DioGuardi’s mouth? Probably no. Is it insane that at this very early stage of the competition I can confidently say I’d pay good money to see a sextuple bill comprised of these cool cats? Probably yes. But whatever the case, let’s count ’em down in… order of least- to most-hyped by the producers (thus far):

Lilly Scott: Due to my endless quest for delicious, satisfying lunch options near EW HQ, I developed an immediate soft spot for Lilly the moment her interview package introduced her as a ”sandwich maker,” a profession that in my estimation ranks in importance right up alongside ”unicorn wrangler” and Modern Family writer. But in all seriousness, how come Ken Warwick and Cecile Frot-Coutaz denied us the pleasure of seeing this woman’s audition over the last four weeks? Because based on her acoustic ”Lullaby of Birdland” tonight, I’m inclined to say that any withholding of Lilly’s future performance footage can be labeled as petty larceny, if not full-on felony robbery (with intent to make me write a preposterous metaphor).

So what if with her milk-white skin, her towhead hair coloring, peacock-feather earrings, and all-black frocks, Lilly resembled the human embodiment of an animated Tim Burton heroine? She delivered so much tonal complexity — so much ”light and shade” as our old pal Paula used to like to put it — in such a brief performance that it’s almost impossible to imagine a top 24 without her. (I don’t read Idol spoiler lists, so yes, I do spend a significant amount of free time imagining potential contestant rosters derived from the elevator/mansion of doom episode slated for next Wednesday.) But anyway, Kara was (brace for chilling Randy-ism in 5, 4, 3, 2…) one billion percent correct that everything about Lilly was refreshing. (Refreshing as Vitamin Water, the apparent and unexpected new sponsor of the Paula Abdul Memorial Crazycups.)

Janell Wheeler: I’ve been obsessed with Janell since week two of season 9 — refusing to take her out of the Top 5 on my weeklyIdol Power List ranking on the strength of a sub-30 second rendition of ”House of the Rising Sun” shown during the Orlando audition episode. Tonight, Janell pulled a Kris Allen by taking a Kanye West hip-hop anthem and reinventing it as a folkie, acoustic-driven jam to absolutely winning effect. If Idol offered iTunes versions of Hollywood Week performances, I’d shell out $1.29 to play and replay that tiny hiccup of gravel that lingers at the distant edge of Janell’s effortlessly silky instrument. (Uh-huh, I said ”effortlessly silky.” And now I apologize for it. So let’s forget it and move on, okay?)

NEXT: Andrew Garcia makes us ‘Straight Up’ love him

Crystal Bowersox The third in a series of four powerhouse blonde, female, guitar-slingers who made a positive impression during tonight’s telecast, Crystal was able to emerge from near anonymity (after being shown in just a brief, sub-30 second snippet last week) and ended up being dubbed ”infectious” by no less a crankenstein than Simon himself! Given the enduring tattoo-phobia displayed by a sizable percentage of Idol fans in previous seasons (hi, Carly!), I’m not sure it was the best get-out-the-vote strategy for dreadlocked Crystal’s to take the Idol cameras to an ink station (is that what the kids call it?) where she got her son’s name permanently etched across her back. But hey, she did it for her adorable baby, people! And we’re not gonna be listening to skin art on the radio or in our iPods anyway! So let’s instead focus our attention on Crystal’s full-bodied take on ”(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” which found her providing such charming backing support to herself on the first pass of ”baby what you done to me (what you done to me)” that her own competitors couldn’t help but chime in on the subsequent ”good inside,” then follow it up with a standing ‘O.’ Yep, the woman is that good.

Didi Benami: Oh, hi! Speaking of positive frenemy feedback, how about Simon saying her really hated to admit how much he enjoyed Didi’s choice of the Kara-penned ”Terrified,” which the emotional waitress delivered with so much confidence and ease, you might’ve thought the song had been written for (or even by) Didi herself. America, how are we gonna find room for all these guitar-strumming, golden-throated ladies? Especially when there’s one more to mention!

Haeley Vaughn: Perhaps (okay, definitely) the least-polished songbird among tonight’s Significant Six, and yet I find myself drawn to…what is it?…the kid’s undeniable star power?…her ridiculously sweet smile?…subliminal producer manipulation that will reveal the voice of Debbie the Stage Manager chanting ”Haley Vaughn is your next American Idol” when you play the telecast backwards? Maybe it’s just that I can’t live without a season in which Randy Jackson will get to spew intellectual zingers like ”pop-country girl, 16.” Whatever the reason, Haeley’s cover of Taylor Swift’s ”Change,” flat notes and all, made me feel a surge of rebelliousness that I never got from the original (flat notes and all when it’s performed live, too). OH SHNAPPPZZZ!

Andrew Garcia: Or as I like to call him, the Ghost of Idol Judge Past! All kidding aside, is there anyone reading this column who didn’t totally love the bespectacled strummer’s acoustic twist on ”Straight Up” (which, mock it if you dare, is a slice of pure pop genius)? Thanks to the magic of YouTube, I’ve heard half a dozen unplugged variations on Paula Abdul’s first big hit, but Andrew’s took more chances with the melody, experimented more daringly with the tempo, zigged more times when I expected it to zag, than any ”Straight Up” I’ve heard before. Dude is gonna definitely be a page in my history (book) when I update my 15 Greatest Hollywood Week Moments gallery this time next year. Legendary!

[Side note: I thought it was a wee bit peculiar Kara praised Andrew by comparing him to Adam Lambert, when really, the dude’s entire stripped-down vibe is much closer to Kris Allen. But as several of you pointed out to me on Twitter last night, Mr. Lambert did perform Cher’s ”Believe” as an angsty ballad in Hollywood Week last year, so perhaps that’s what Kara (who seemed to be far less annoying than usual tonight) was getting at?]

NEXT: And the rest

Anyhow, since it’s the wee small hours of the morning, and I’ve got to be awake and alert for a date with CBS’ Early Show at 8:05 a.m. on the dot, I’m gonna just zip through a few remaining contenders, and touch on a couple significant/surprising eliminations in the briefest way possible:

Katie Stevens: Her Stevie Wonder cover was solid, but felt a little season 6 (not that there’s anything wrong with that!) by the time Lilly and Didi got done up there, no?

Mary Powers: Totally nailed Pink’s ”Sober,” but if she wants a top 12 slot, she’s going to have to throw away the paint-by-numbers kit and learn how to create her own works of art from pre-existing ditties. Also, a word of warning: Cracking season 9’s top 95 will not change your whole life, nor your whole family’s life any more than the MegaMillions ticket in my pocket makes me the kingpin of a massive thoroughbred racing stable. In other words, healthy perspective is crucial to the Idol life — and beyond. (End of fortune-cookie philosophy.)

Michael Castro: I hope some of you guys are having fun with that drinking game where you take a shot every time the producers flash an image of Jason Castro’s brother on screen, but don’t allow a single sound to come out of his mouth. (Don’t forget to take two Advil and drink two big glasses of water before bedtime!)

Michael Lynche: One Twitter pal pointed out to me that the personal trainer’s arms are so massive, he makes a guitar look like a ukelele. But put aside his ”big dude, big heart” charms, and I’m not entirely certain his ”Waiting on the World to Change” would get him any further than Week 2 of the semifinals.

Casey James: Judges j’adored his cover of a what I believe was John Mayer’s ”I Don’t Need No Doctor,” but I couldn’t get past his ”blues grimace” to fully embrace it. Also, if I am right that Casey was indeed covering a song by seemingly everyone in Hollywood’s ex, then it makes Randy’s critique even more stupefyingly hein: ”You really are a real singer-songwriter!” Um, alrighty then!

Tim Urban: Did very bad things to the melody of David Cook’s ”Come Back to Me,” and was rewarded with a ”you’re through to the next round!” Somewhere on that panel sits a disgruntled Syesha Mercado fan — of this I am certain.

Maddie Curtis: You may be only 16, as your mom (and I am sure Randy) pointed out. But I’d have cried too if Tim Urban advanced to group-performance day and I did not. I mean, I have no idea what you were singing up there other than a collection of high, elongated notes, but at least you didn’t spit in Cookie’s face. (Oh, hey, BTW, check out a brand-new interview I did with our precious season 7 winner! See how I shamelessly cross-link and self-promote when I’m sleepy!)

Justin Williams: Can’t say I was sorry to see the most hyped contestant from the season 9 premiere get a ticket back to Utah after a performance so ham-and-cheesy that I’m convinced he was performing a song called ”Croque-monsieur Recipe + Let Me Make Eye-Sex to the Cameras Now (Ick Ick Ick).”

Vanessa Wolfe: Made me love her even more by choosing Blind Melon’s ”No Rain,” but the judges did the right thing by sending her home. Bonus props to Ellen for pointing out that Vanessa’s nerves, more than anything else, will hold her back from her Idol dreams. But even if she doesn’t try try again in season 10, here’s hoping Vanessa can look back fondly on her brief taste of fame, and her first taste of travel, when she’s back behind the counter of her Tennessee fast-food restaurant.

Chick With a Whip: Yerrrrrrrrr out! [Insert sound of leather strap against floorboards here.]

What did you think of tonight’s show? How about Ellen’s performance? And the overall talent level? Anyone else find it funny that Ryan Seacrest started the episode by saying Hollywood Round would be ”no doubt the toughest week of [the contestants’] lives,” especially when the preceding four weeks of audition intro packages kind of implied that these 181 kids had pretty much survived every sort of natural and/or man-made hardship/disaster know to humankind? Yeah, me too!

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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