On ''American Idol,'' the 12 female semifinalists finally get to sing for America's votes; some seem safe, others sorry

By Michael Slezak
Updated July 02, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

”American Idol”: We judge the women

I can’t believe it, but for once, I’m on the exact same page as Paula Abdul. No, I don’t think Lisa Tucker is a ”precious little gift” (oof!), but the loopy American Idol judge indeed stole the words right out of my brain at the end of tonight’s women’s semifinal round by declaring, ”I love my job. This is the greatest show on earth.”

Oh, how I second that emotion. Yes, the Idol audition rounds are good for a few laughs, and Hollywood week always packs a few surprises, but let’s be real: The season doesn’t get under way till the top 24 are announced, the potential superstars begin to separate themselves from the karaoke specialists, and, of course, I get to pick up my phone and speed-dial with the gusto of a 13-year-old girl.

Still, lest we forget, there’ll be disappointments along the way — probably as early as Thursday night, when season 5’s field of 12 women will be winnowed down to just 10. I know it seems pretty obvious which of the dozen divas should be packing their bags after tonight’s initial outing, but when it comes to Idol, there’s really only one certainty: Simon will show up in a form-fitting black or white T-shirt. Everything else is subject to the whims of the unpredictable American viewing audience, and on that note, here’s how I see things shaking out.

Don’t toss your earplugs quite yet Brace yourselves, folks. Anyone remember season 4 semifinalist Janay Castine, the girl who made Jessica Simpson’s ”I Wanna Love You Forever” sound like a prelude to an evening of projectile vomiting? The same girl who was inexplicably among the final 8 women? Well, not exactly inexplicably. As I see it, in the Idol universe, there’s often a proportional relationship between how badly a singer self-immolates on stage and how deaf viewers become at home, particularly if said singer appears sweet and fragile. The whole ”Oh! That could be my daughter up there!” thing kicks in, and crazy voting patterns follow.

So while Randy was right that Stevie Scott’s croaking falsetto take on Josh Grobin’s ”To Where You Are” was a daydream-inducing effort — where else to go but to the happy place when the singing is so abominable? — I worry she’s going to live to warble another week.

The only worse news is that it’s also an annual Idol tradition for some super confident, super off-key contestant (think: Mikalah Gordon, Scott Savol) to also benefit from a surprising groundswell of voter love. This season’s version: Brenna Gethers, who was admittedly pretty amusing striking those ridiculous post-performance poses, but still…

Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. Maybe America will do the right thing and send both Stevie and Brenna packing, but in the event that one (or both) survives, that could spell trouble for…

The women who didn’t make a strong impression I’m talking to you, Heather Cox, Melissa McGhee, and Kinnik Sky. Well, actually, Heather’s voice actually made a strong negative impression, on an off-key rendition of ”When You Tell Me That You Love Me” that Simon correctly pointed out sounded like ”somebody taking an elocution lesson.” But could anyone out there pick the blond songbird out of a lineup?

Melissa and Kinnik, on the other hand, have both suffered from a serious lack of exposure this season. The former’s strong but not entirely stirring ”When the Lights Go Down” might not be enough to rally a formidable fan base, whereas the latter’s ”Get Here,” while chic and soulful, was pretty much a note-for-note imitation of Oleta Adams’ original. That said, I hope Melissa and Kinnik get a chance to compete for two slots that look sewn up, but shouldn’t be, by…

Early front-runners who aren’t all that strong in my book I have to admit I actually found wide-eyed Kellie Pickler a lot less annoying tonight — though the producers are doing her no favors by flogging her hard-luck backstory. On the plus side, while her version of Martina McBride’s ”How Far” was fair to middling, at least she’s not (as Simon put it) ”a stage-school monster.”

I wonder if he meant for that phrase to describe precocious teenager Lisa Tucker, who picked a song that, to my ears, was about two sizes too big. Yes, yes, the studio audience and the judges raved, but as Randy noticed, she launched her ”I Am Changing” on rocky ground, and that lack of modulation (all boom! no restraint!) makes me feel like Lisa would prefer to attack and kill the notes she encounters rather than interpret them.

Thankfully the night had a few unexpected treats I went into tonight’s show expecting vocal meltdowns from Ayla Brown and Becky O’Donohue, and maybe it was just that I’d set the bar low, but I found both of ’em pretty appealing. While Ayla’s song choice (Christina Aguilera’s treacly, tricky ”Reflection”) immediately sparked my gag reflex, the ice princess cum basketball star seems to have pulled a Grinch — her heart has grown at least a couple sizes since the Hollywood rounds — and said personality breakthrough helped me overlook those botched high notes in the middle of her performance. In fact, I’d argue Ayla gave the night’s fourth-best performance. Becky wasn’t nearly as strong vocally, but God bless her for choosing ”Because the Night,” a song that fit her vocal range and, more important, wasn’t mined from the Disney songbook.

Still (as I said last week) there are three women who are in a different league right now True, this could get old fast, the whole heaping praise on Paris Bennett, Mandisa!, and Katharine McPhee thing. But let’s be honest: They earned every huzzah and hooray tonight.

Sure, Paris might’ve put just a little too much pep squad and not quite enough ache into Gladys Knight’s ”Midnight Train to Georgia,” but she knows how to show off her power vocals without resorting to bombastic measures (and there’s no arguing she picked the night’s best number, to boot). If I owned a record label and could sign only one artist based on tonight’s performances, I’d choose Paris, especially now that she’s lost the alarming weave she’s sporting on the official Idol Web site and replaced it with a saucy retro flip.

Speaking of looking good and sounding gorgeous, how ’bout that Katharine? It’s not every singer who can turn a Barbra number into a rump-shakin’ good time, but McPhee’s ”Since I Fell For You” was jazzy, lusty, and very much her own. (Urgh. Out comes my inner Paula again.)

As for Mandisa!, when she announced her selection of Heart’s ”Never” by declaring, ”Sistahs can rock too,” well, let’s just say I had to put down the dinner fork and offer a couple of strategic snap-snaps. The fact that she owned the song, owned the stage, and owned the red-negligee-and-black-culottes getup means I can no longer hide from the truth (no, never!): I. Love. This. Woman.

What do you think? Who are your picks to go home Thursday, or go the distance? Could you make sense of anything Randy said all evening? And do you find Brenna’s antics intriguing or intolerable?