As the top 13 contestants tackle the Michael Jackson songbook, multiple serious contenders emerge. Meanwhile, Ryan hints at a possibly troubling twist!

By Michael Slezak
March 10, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT
Ray Mickshaw/Fox(2)
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I’ve complained quite a bit about American Idol over the first 17 episodes of its eighth season, and I have a feeling I’ll be kvetching even more vigorously after Wednesday night’s telecast — especially if that ”surprise change to the rules” Ryan hinted at this evening matches my deepest, darkest suspicions. Yes, somebody call 9-1-1, because I fear that the people responsible for arranging not one, not two, but three live performances by Jasmine Murray over the last couple weeks are about to commit felony (ham)burglary by stealing control back from the voting public when it comes to the show’s eliminations.

Board up your doors, people, Kara DioGuardi is coming — and she doesn’t want to take you shopping!

While we’re waiting for the police to arrive, though, let’s focus on some good news for a change. All week long, I’d been fearing a 13-singer pileup when our still-somewhat-unknown vocalists tackled Michael Jackson tunes to kick off the season 8 finals. I mean, let’s face it: The King of Pop’s songbook is a musical minefield for the amateur singer, filled with impossible cadences (”Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” ”Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin”’), stylized stuff meant only for Mr. Jackson himself (”Thriller,” ”Bad”), and a handful of tracks that really aren’t gonna sound good on anyone in the post-Bubbles era (”Ben,” ”ABC”).

But a funny thing happened tonight: In a season where I’ve felt more cynical about, enraged by, and (dare I admit) disengaged from my very most favorite television show, I’d say that seven (maybe even eight) of the 13 finalists stepped up with performances that proved, as Randy Jackson might so ineloquently put it, that they’re ”in it to win it.” Mind you, I’m not heading to iTunes tomorrow morning to download all of ’em — $7.92 is a lot of money in this economy, folks! — but when more than half of the field makes you want to (internally) get up and boogie like Paula, then you know something is going right. And better still, no member of the top 13 is sending me to bed with nightmares of a barrel-racing beauty queen brutally driving a Q-Tip into my ear, the way Kristy Lee Cook did in the opening week of the finals last year with her countrified ”Eight Days a Weak.” (Nope, that’s not a typo. Thanks.)

That said, a visit from the Lunesta butterfly might be helpful in getting me over my fears of what Kara, Randy, Paula, and Simon have in store for us (and our collective voting power) tomorrow, considering that all too often tonight, their critiques ended up being a little pitchy, just a’aight, not knowing who they were in the competition, etc. Let’s start by discussing…

The three contestants who deserved a little more praise than they received: Allison Iraheta, Kris Allen, and Alexis Grace. Now can we all raise our lighters in unison for the most convincing rocker chick to ever grace the Idol stage? Yes, it’s Allison Iraheta, who took ”Give in to Me,” a completely obscure album track from Jackson’s Dangerous album and delivered it with such passion and confidence, I felt like I should call Ticketmaster and let them retroactively charge my credit card a couple hundred bucks just for the privilege of hearing her. With her fuchsia hair blown out into wispy waves, and clad in a cropped, black leather jacket, Allison infused the guitar-heavy track with a world-weariness that seemed completely contradictory to her tender age. (She’s only 16, dawgs!)

NEXT PAGE: To bring the wife or not bring the wife

Just as awesome, though, was the way Allison goofily defended her performance to an obtuse Simon, who told her she needed to ”lighten up.” (Because, apparently, all teenagers should be upbeat and chipper creatures, if not full-fledged members of their pep squads? Feh!) ”It’s not a very happy song, so…,” Allison mumbled in response, before adding with a broad grin, ”I’m not dark. I’m not, like, cutting myself.” No offense to Jordin Sparks or Paris Bennett or Diana DeGarmo, but it’s nice to see a teenage female contestant on this show who hasn’t already been media-trained into soundbite-spewing submission. Bonus points for some a-mah-zingly weird footage of Allison performing a set in the furniture department of a massive store called La Curacao (!), although can I make a suggestion to Idol‘s producers? Just because Allison’s dad is from El Salvador and speaks with an accent doesn’t mean we require subtitles to understand what he’s saying. (Why do I get the awful feeling they spoke reeeeally slowly and reaeeeally loudly when asking Mr. Iraheta their questions? UGH.)

Oh, and speaking of awkward moments, how about Allison’s arm-wrestling partner, Kris, not knowing whether to laugh or blush or lash out when Simon declared ”I’m not sure I would’ve brought the wife out so early”? Especially considering ”the wife” was right there in the audience. And ”the wife” was not even cracking a smile. To be fair, I understood where Simon was coming from: Whether he wants to be or not, Kris is the official season 8 heartthrob. He’s like the love child of Heroes‘ Milo Ventimiglia and the world’s cuddliest koala, swathed in a Downy-soft green, black, and white plaid shirt — or matching monogrammed red aprons along with his equally adorable wife.

But Kris is not one of those ”hit mute, refill your wine glass, enjoy” kind of contestants. I thought his take on ”Remember the Time” was one of the night’s strongest and most relevant performances. Sure, the band overpowered his enthusiastic guitar-strumming for much of the performance — the sound mix has been an atrocity all season, no? — but unlike many of his less daring competitiors, he proved he’s not afraid to play with a song’s arrangement. What’s more, there’s a jazzy little growl to Kris’s vocal, and an emotional connectedness to his delivery, that has me considering shelling out the 99 cents it’d cost for a download.

Okay, who am I kidding. For an extra 50 cents, you can get the video.

Of course, if Kris is season 8’s reluctant stud muffin, Alexis seems to be throwing her hat (and most of her other clothing) into the ring to be its corresponding sex kitten. Clad in, well, not much — a strapless black micro-minidress, spike heels, and her own body weight in silver necklaces — Alexis stalked the stage during ”Dirty Diana” with a swagger that might make ”Dirrty”-era Xtina blush.

Paula was right that Alexis needs to watch out for oversinging. In fact, Alexis was trying so much toward the end of the number that she almost seemed to run out of air when transitioning from that final run to that last falsetto howl, with the latter playing like a quadruple salchow that’s converted at the last second to a sad and underwhelming single-spin axel. But that aside, Alexis nailed the opening three-quarters of her number, delivering the saucy number about a dangerous groupie with a grit and sexuality that’s rarely seen on the Idol stage. No wonder the good folks at Fox placed her last, and had her performance running over most DVR schedules. ”It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?” Um, if they’re under the age of 12, hopefully in bed and not witnessing Alexis drive Kara to drool, ”You’re a naughty girl and I liked it!”

Speaking of naughty and judges, let us move on to…

NEXT PAGE: What way did Lil Rounds make you feel?

The three contestants who received a little more praise than they deserved: Adam Lambert, Danny Gokey, and Lil Rounds. Now before you Adam fans take to the message boards and eviscerate me, let me say this: Dude definitely gave his best performance to date last night on ”Black or White.” The way Adam began the number with complete restraint actually allowed him to crescendo — both musically and emotionally — throughout the number, and I particularly liked the way he upped his enunciation to deliver that pointed line: ”I told them about equality, and it’s true you’re either wrong or you’re right.”

That said, I didn’t hear anything that would indicate Adam should get a full-season bye directly to the final two (as Paula suggested) or that he’s in a ”totally different league” from the competition (as Simon stated). There were moments on the bridge where I could hear a successor to Axl Rose, but there were also moments where I could hear the sound of a subway car coming to an abrupt, screeching halt as it enters a crowded station. Most folks view Adam in black or white, as season 8’s great theatrical hope or its thuddingly awful screamer. For me, the situation is decidedly gray, and it’s probably going to take me a few weeks at least to figure out the way he makes me feel.

Speaking of polarizing contestants, I’m even less prepared to give Danny an automatic pass to the finals, as Paula also prematurely predicted. (Other than those oddball moments of fortune-telling, and a bunch of hiccupy non sequiturs, though, I thought Ms. Abdul was once again fairly astute with her advice tonight.)

Look, there’s no doubt Danny can sing his butt off. And it was nice to see him tackle something as upbeat and un-message-y as ”P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing).” But while the dude hit his notes with the precision of an Army sniper taking aim at a paper target, I wasn’t hearing or seeing anything in his performance that says he’s cut out to be the multiplatinum recording star of the 2009 holiday shopping season. I’m not sure what was worse: the lite-jazz opening riff or the full-body spasms that some of the judges referred to as dancing. The over-enunciation, the way he held the mic out to Paula and Kara on the bridge, the matching red eyeglass frames and dress shirt…it all made me feel like Danny was trying a little too hard. Somewhere between this full hokum treatment and his ”let me inspire you” mode might be a contestant who’s got a shot at the win.

Nor did Lil make me feel like she’s headed for radio playlists nationwide with her competent but rather dreary cover of ”The Way You Make Me Feel.” It may have been the copycat arrangement of M.J.’s original more than Lil’s performance, but as much as she tried to fire up the melody and make the song go somewhere (a snarl here, some falsetto there), this one was kind of a well-sung non-starter for me, from the ”Go on, boy!” opening to the ”ain’t nobody’s business” ending. And Holy Mother of Extended Stay Hotels! What was Lil wearing? The slacks recalled the unfortunate ”mom pants” crisis of season 7 — one that should be a faded memory by now, stylists! — and the top… Um. Let me just say this to Lil: I know when you were a bridesmaid in your friend’s wedding back in ’07 that she said that with a few alterations, you’d definitely be able to wear your dress more than once, but she was lying. And if before you took the stage, she saw that tulle-vomiting, one-shouldered monstrosity you were wearing and didn’t make you change, then she isn’t even your friend. Speaking of not being friends, dear readers, I fear all of you might abandon me after the next paragraph, in which I discuss…

NEXT PAGE: Hot mama

The contestant you’re gonna mock me for digging: Megan Joy Corkrey. Look, my mom made a lot of macramé plant-holders when I was a kid, so it’s entirely possible that the shoulders of Megan’s sexy red minidress took me back to some happy part of my childhood and made my ears all confused. But from my couch, I really thought Megan nailed just about every note of ”Rockin’ Robin,” and interpreted the fusty old number with enough swing and sass that it wouldn’t have sounded all that odd sandwiched between cuts from, say, Duffy and Nellie McKay. Yes, the ”caw! caw!” at the end was crazier than those old Heckle and Jeckle cartoons that really still ought to be on TV — man, kids today are missing out! — and yes, Kara’s blurb about the cover being ”so Megan” was atroshe, but it worked. Megan even seemed to have a little rhythm, and….

We interrupt this paragraph for a very important HOT MOM ALERT. Megan’s mom? 1-800-Whoa-Mama! That is all.

On the flip side of Megan, we have The contestant you might mock me for not digging: Matt Giraud. Okay, okay, I get it to a degree. The opening half of Matt’s ”Human Nature” was tender and in tune, and followed heart-tugging footage of Matt’s dad crying. (What can I say? I’m a sucker for misty-eyed dads on Idol.) But, if Simon is right that the performance was ”meat and potatoes,” then those falsetto runs toward the latter half of the song represented some truly inedible gravy that sullied half the meal. For me, Matt is drawn to too much of the same vocal excess as Adam, except without the undeniable technical mastery. Still, he seems like he’s at least aware it’s 2009, and that he’s coming out and doing his best to make a seven- or eight-way race of it.

Which brings me to the five contestants most deserving of winding up in the bottom three on Wednesday night: Michael Sarver, Scott MacIntyre, Anoop Desai, Jorge Nuñez, and Jasmine Murray.

Of the quintet, I’m guessing Michael and Scott are least likely to flirt with elimination, and deservedly so. In fact, Michael’s rendition of ”You Are Not Alone” was actually a major improvement, pitch-wise, on his grasping semifinal rendition of ”I Don’t Want to Be.” I loved how Randy praised Michael as ”one of the best” of the night, even though he was only the fourth singer to take the stage tonight, but that’s exactly the trouble in some ways. It seems like at least half the field outshines Michael at this point in the competition, and we all know from experience that decent but undistinguished vocalists (like Chikezie and Gina Glocksen, for example) often get booted earlier than later.

At least Michael was more on pitch, and chose a far better song, than Scott, whose ”Keep the Faith” sounded like the kind of insipid background music you might hear while watching a late-night testimonial about some miraculous new anti-acne cream. The problem is, as Kara said while trying to praise Scott, that he’s not the most dynamic performer (understatement alert!). Yes, he seems like a heckuva nice guy, and it’s inspiring to see how he hasn’t let his visual impairment hamper him from pursuing his dreams, but his vocal was flat, both in terms of pitch and emotion, and I think if the dude wants to achieve his dreams, he’d better start fighting for a slot on the Idol tour, rather than get his hopes up about going all the way.

NEXT PAGE: The grades

That aside, can we pause for a second to review Simon’s comment about Scott’s jank song choice? ”It’s fine being artistic. Just not on this show.” Wow. And here I thought I was getting cynical. But really? Is that what it’s come to? Has Idol really given up on the idea of music as art? Will there be no room for a contestant who hopes to match Fantasia’s ”Summertime” or Bo’s ”In a Dream” or Blake’s ”You Give Love a Bad Name”? Because if that’s the case, I invite ABC, CBS, NBC, and The CW to take your best shot with a brand-new Idol copycat. The time may have arrived!

The time has not arrived, however, for Anoop to go home. Yeah, his ”Beat It” was about as authentic as grilled tofu soaking alongside a dozen frankfurters in the boiling water of a street vendor’s hot dog cart (overwrought metaphor alert! sorry, it’s late and I’m beat!) but it wasn’t out of tune. And Anoop’s new shorter haircut and flashy jacket-tie combo looked great against that crazy Matrix-style backdrop. And most importantly, he simply wasn’t as bad as Jorge or Jasmine.

Oh, Jorge, if in fact we have a double contestant elimination on Wednesday, you’re in trouble. I’m not 100 percent convinced, though, not after the way Simon said something about two contestants ”going home,” not ”getting voted out.” Of course, I don’t want to believe the producers are dumb enough to give us a top 13 on Tuesday, and immediately hack away to 11 the following Wednesday.

Either way, Jorge — whose brother Caleb received the subtitle treatment despite speaking perfectly understandable English — performed ”Never Can Say Goodbye” like a week-old helium balloon, you know, the nearly expired kind that haunts the backs of couches, or pops up glumly in the corner by the living-room bookshelf. The band has to be blamed a little for what Simon dubbed an ”absolutely awful” arrangement, but the cranky Brit was also correct in noting Jorge is officially out of his depth.

Jorge, however, is not my selection to get the boot in the Idol Prediction Challenge. If you haven’t signed up to compete against yours truly, as well as Season 6 superstar Melinda Doolittle, and Idolatry cohosts Kristen Baldwin, Missy Schwartz, Annie Barrett, and Jessica Shaw, please head to right now and do so. You’ll see I’m going with Jasmine, and while I have until 8:59 p.m. Eastern Time on Wednesday to change my mind, I don’t see that happening. Not only is the tone of Jasmine’s voice reminiscent of a toy poodle getting caught under a lumberjack’s boot, but her performance of ”I’ll Be There” inspired some ClapBot activity in the audience. And because such behavior is strictly verboten, Jasmine must pay the price.

Here are the grades for the night:
Allison Iraheta: A-
Kris Allen: A-
Adam Lambert: B+
Alexis Grace: B+
Danny Gokey: B
Lil Rounds: B
Megan Joy Corkrey: B
Matt Giraud: B-
Michael Sarver: C+
Scott MacIntyre: C+
Anoop Desai: C
Jorge Nunez: C-
Jasmine Murray: D+

What did you think of tonight’s show? Who got your votes, if any? How did you think the judges performed? And what to make of Alexis’ ”Idols-36” phone line? Does it help or hurt the pink-haired pixie?

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