Something is missing on ''American Idol'': Mario Vazquez's disappearance casts a pall on the evening, which seems haunted by past performances and future dismissals
Nadia Turner, American Idol

”American Idol”: Something is missing

Tonight’s episode of American Idol was haunted by ghosts. Ghosts of Idol Past, Idol Present, and even Idol Future.

Indeed, specters of the previous three seasons stalked the auditorium during half the evening’s 12 performances, as Anwar Robinson, Vonzell Solomon (nice prom gown!), Anthony Fedorov, Scott Savol, Mikalah Gordon, and Lindsey Cardinale all chose songs that have already been played out on the Idol stage.

Sure, the evening’s theme was ”songs from the 1960s,” but didn’t the contestants still have, oh, tens of thousands of chestnuts to choose from? Too bad no one told that to Mikalah Gordon, who tore into Dusty Springfield’s slinky classic ”Son of a Preacher Man” with such gale-force conviction and so little ability to stay on key that I actually became nostalgic for the abysmal Julia DeMato and Camile Velasco renditions from seasons 2 and 3. But while I’m finally coming to the painful realization that Mikalah has pretty limited vocal ability, I still find her rabid Fran Drescher shtick entertaining, and since I’m probably not alone, I think we’ll have her to kick around for a few more weeks.

More likely to get the boot will be either Scott Savol or Lindsey Cardinale, who should’ve known better than to tackle songs that helped lead previous Idol champs Ruben and Fantasia to victory. I knew Lindsey was in trouble the minute she grimly announced in her pre-performance video that she was going to have ”so much fun.” Folks, if fun involves bizarrely holding oneself in a squatting position similar to the one that my three-year-old niece likes to assume when she’s insisting she doesn’t need to go potty, well, then Lindsey sure was having a blast. Too bad her limp vocals on ”Knock on Wood” fell short not only of Fantasia’s ferocious rendition but even of second-season castoff Kimberly Caldwell’s. Meanwhile, the best I can say about Savol’s reading of ”Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” is that he didn’t deviate from the Temptations’ original. Not at all. Why Paula, Randy, and Simon all inexplicably praised this passable bit of karaoke is a mystery to me, but I’d bet good money that if any of them had had a basket of clean socks in front of them as I did, they too would’ve been overcome with the urge to separate the navies from the blacks.

Yet even on a night when misfires exceeded hits, I was genuinely disappointed when Anwar Robinson became the third contestant in four seasons to break into ”A House Is Not a Home.” The fact that Anwar, clad in a full-length Rhythm Nation: 1814 overcoat, struggled mightily to get ahold of Burt Bacharach’s intricate melody — remember how season 1’s fourth-place diva Tamyra Gray managed it effortlessly? — makes me wonder if all those Vegas oddsmakers are regretting listing the New Jersey music teacher as their early Idol favorite.

Anwar’s rare misstep allowed for a brief visit by the Ghost of Idol Future, and I think he was trying to show me an image of Nadia Turner and Bo Bice in a final-two showdown.

Not that I’d ever call the Idol race this early, of course. Anthony and Anwar both stand decent chances if they’d just stop using their fingers to signal which phone number they want their fans to call to vote. And even though the judges blasted Jessica, I thought her sultry take on ”Shop Around” put her squarely in the contenders’ corner, too.

That said, it was Nadia and Bo who shone brightest in the finals’ first week. Both made dazzling appearances before singing a single note: Nadia resplendent in her strappy, aqua dress, Bo rockin’ those serious leather pants. And once again, the two front-runners showed impeccable taste in song selection. Nadia’s ”You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” let her slow the tempo down for a change, while giving her a forum for her signature vocal drama. (Oh, and if cheesy Constantine really wants to know how to make eyes at the camera, all he has to do is study Nadia’s highlight reel.) Bo, for his part, may have had a couple breathless moments on ”Spinning Wheel,” but his charisma level is so high that any and all of his minor crimes are, for now, dismissed.

Yet of all the myriad spirits roaming the Idol stage this week, none was more haunting than the ghost of Mario Vazquez. We may never know for sure what ”personal reasons” forced him to drop out of Idol‘s top 12 (c’mon, Enquirer, don’t let us down!), but I do know that watching his last-minute replacement Nikko Smith huff and puff his way through ”I Want You Back” made me think about how Mario would’ve tackled the same material with a little less desperation to please, and a little more tunefulness.

It’s funny how riveting and sad the whole Mario exit has been. After all, he only performed a handful of times, and briefly at that, but there’s something about promising Idol contestants that’s all too relatable to anyone who’s grabbed the mike at a karaoke bar, or performed a duet with a car radio, or even belted a number out into a hairbrush. With his bright eyes and strong, clear voice, Mario was supposed to pick up the mantle for those of us who related to his message of ”I Love Music,” even if we weren’t blessed with his gift to interpret that music. I guess that’s why it’s crushing to think some dark secret or health issue or family drama or contract negotiation might derail Mario’s dream.

Then again, to answer the question Mario posed in his final Idol performance — how do you mend a broken heart? — well, you simply find another contestant to cheer for. With a fairly deep talent pool to choose from this season, the healing process shouldn’t be too hard.

Why do you think Mario left Idol? Should contestants be banned from picking songs used in previous Idol seasons? What did you think of the fact that Paula agreed with Randy on 11 of the 12 contestants tonight? And why was Carrie smiling broadly while singing a song about being cheated and mistreated?

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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