American Idol Recap: Investment Opportunities

Some things in life are certainties: Steven Tyler’s penchant for profanity. Jennifer Lopez’s ability to add sparkle to just about anything (her eyelids, a pair of mom shorts, the Glinda-like bubble that perpetually surrounds her). And the way that, despite Ryan Seacrest’s best efforts, American Idol‘s “Holding Rooms of Doom” episodes are never really all that suspenseful.

Let’s be honest: Did anyone really think the squalid pen containing Brielle von Hugel, Corey Levoy, and a group of people who might as well have been auditioning for America’s Next Top Sway-bot was going to win out over the VIP lounge with Brett Loewenstern, James Durbin, Lauren Alaina, Jacee Badeaux, and Chris Medina?

Not that I’m complaining, really. Tonight’s “Hollywood Week: Round Three” telecast featured enough solid vocal performances that I’m almost allowing myself to hope that the season 10 Top 24 will be comprised entirely of people who can sing on pitch. (“What fun would that be?” comes the refrain from 19 Entertainment HQ.) And while no individual contestant has fully convinced me to start practicing my speed-dialing exercises, you can rest assured my brain is already working overtime trying to determine which singers will be worth rooting for (and against) when viewer voting kicks off in less than two weeks’ time.

In that same vein, I thought it seemed like the perfect time to examine tonight’s main players as if they were stocks, rating the clear winner as “Buy,” the obvious stinkers as “Sell,” and those who require more information as “Hold.” (You might already suspect from the previous sentence that I’m as bewildered by the stock exchange as Paula Abdul judging an opera competition, but hey, it can’t be all food metaphors all the time, can it?)

Kendra Chantelle (buy): Okay, I’m going out on a limb on this one, but Kendra (pictured, top left) brought an appealing world-weariness and a sweet, husky tone to her cover of “Georgia on My Mind.” And seeing how Idol‘s given poor Kendra the “witness protection program” edit all season, you can buy low now, and tell your friends “I told you so!” if she winds up getting a confetti shower at the Nokia in May.

Haley Reinhart (sell): I know the judges raved about Haley’s cover of “God Bless the Child,” but to me, this caterwauling wreck of a performance was like a movie that’s all special effects and no dialogue: By the time you reach the midway mark, you’re just praying for some respite from the relentless aural and visual assault. Haley comes across like one of those singers who uses every trick she’s got on every song she sings, without ever stopping to understand that greatness isn’t a point system tallying the number of runs, growls, and high notes you deliver, but rather, it’s about the emotional connection you forge with both song and audience. Plus, a little respect for the melody never hurt.

Lauren Alaina (hold): The teenager who Ryan refers to as a “judge favorite” — in case you forgot! — can definitely carry a tune, but there was something vaguely creepy about her performance of “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” tonight (and not just because Aaron Kelly, David Cook, Allison Iraheta, Josh Gracin, Lindsey Cardinale, and Antonella Barba have all performed the Aerosmith ballad on the live Idol stage). By my count, Lauren (pictured, bottom right) has now performed four times on camera, and on three occasions has attempted to force “a moment” with Steven Tyler. She broke out a sample pack of “Don’t Want to Miss” at her Nashville audition and got the Aerosmith frontman to sing along with her; in the group rounds, she and her teammates brought Mr. Tyler up on stage to provocatively serenade him; and tonight (again!) she tackled “Don’t Want to Miss” once more! Even more discouraging, however, is the way the show’s producers seem hellbent on giving Lauren a commanding early lead to take into the voting rounds. Take the way Ryan put on his “saying something serious” voice to comment on Lauren’s standing. “Once again, she proves she has what it takes to command the Idol stage — giving the judges exactly what they had hoped for.” Next week on Idol, for an encore, Lauren will cure the blind — using only the sound of her heavenly instrument! Stay tuned…

Casey Abrams (buy): I’ll admit it: It took me a few seconds to identify what track Casey was tackling as he performed with an upright bass (for a second I thought he’d forgotten his lyrics), but once I did, it was hard to resist rewarding it with a slow clap and a chant of “Kay-cee! Kay-see!” (Steven Tyler, for his part, chose to go with an old-fashioned howl of joy.) What I love about Casey is the way he completely inhabits his music (and vice-versa): I’ve never questioned the authenticity of a single one of his runs or scats or rhythm changes, never felt like he was simply trying to showboat, and “Georgia on My Mind” was no exception. In Casey’s super-smooth hands, you could practically feel the Spanish moss dripping from the oak trees. Yeah, I detected a couple of flat notes at the end of his performance, but did I mention the upright bass?

Chris Medina (sell): I think many of us expected Chris’s tragic backstory would only carry him so far. I just wish it hadn’t carried him to a listless, winded acoustic rendition of “My Prerogative.”

Clint Jun Gamboa (hold): Did you know Clint wants to go far in this competition…AT ALL COSTS. (Cut to: A weeping Jacee Badeaux.) Um, thanks for the reminder, Ryan. Me? I don’t really care whether “Junebug” played the good samaritan, the big bad, or the spectacles salesman during the group performance round. What bothered me about his “Georgia on My Mind” was the overbaked delivery. In Clint’s version, the refrain became “Gaw-uh-aw-eh-eeee-oh-ooh-uuhhhh-waah on mahhh-ee-ugh maaaahh-eeee-uuuund.” Much like the standard for obscenity laws, it’s often hard to define the difference between a genuine, heartfelt performance and an ostentatious display of vocal technique, but you know it when you hear it.

Stefano Langone (buy): The dishy brunette (pictured, upper right) didn’t go into the forge with his fire and his tools to reinvent the wheel on his rendition of “Sir Duke,” but he did perform Stevie Wonder’s chestnut with enviable control and infectious enthusiasm.

Jovany Barreto (sell): He didn’t take his shirt off this time around, but no amount of clothing could disguise the hunk of pure cheese behind that rendition of Marcy Anthony’s “You Sang to Me.”

John Wayne Schulz (hold): The judges seemed all kinds of thrilled with his cover of “Landslide,” yet while I give him cool points for choosing a song I’d actually listen to outside of the Idol bubble, I worry that lower register isn’t strong enough to stand up to Bandzilla when/if he reaches the live rounds. (Season 8 Flashback: Typing the phrase “live rounds” made me think of “Lil Rounds.” Whoa.)

Robbie Rosen (buy): Brace yourself for an avalanche of “but he’s only 16!” from the judges in the coming weeks. The kid’s gorgeous rendition of  Sara Bareilles “Gravity” showed off some solid piano skills and the kind of exquisite phrasing many of his competitors can only dream about.

Jacee Badeaux (sell): Once I got past the Idol geek thrill of hearing David Cook’s season 7 victory anthem “The Time of My Life,” I was left with the realization that the cherubic 15-year-old has a very pleasant singing voice and not much else in his arsenal. Here’s hoping a “kinder, gentler Idol” means that next week, the judges give Jacee the chance to let his instrument grow and mature outside the harsh glare of the spotlight — in the form of a ticket back home.

Thia Megia (hold): Every time the precocious 15-year-old takes the stage in an outfit from the Punky Brewster collection, Ryan and the judges use all kinds of superlatives to praise her talents. What am I missing, Idoloonies? Seriously, her slightly boozy take on “What a Wonderful World” struck me more as lido deck on a Norwegian Cruise Line than main stage at the Nokia.

Jacob Lusk (buy): Okay, I know I gave grief to Clint Gamboa and Haley Reinhart for excessive vocal acrobatics tonight, but I’m about to give Mr. Lusk (pictured, bottom left) a pass for committing the same exact misdeeds on his version of “Gold Bless the Child.” You see, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, it is my contention Jacob Lusk was not in possession of his own body when he performed his Round 3 Hollywood Week solo. No, I believe the Holy Ghost or some other entity actually possessed Jacob’s body, burst forth from him in a wild fireworks display of jazzy affectations, and left nothing left but the skin over his bones. (Maybe that’s why he was crying?) Yes, occasionally Jacob’s facial expressions and tone resemble that of an animated Disney villain, and yes, there is a maximum limit on holleration that we the audience can be expected to tolerate between now and late May, but there’s no denying the guy has an immense talent, and that when he needs to throw it down, he throws it down so hard it threatens to put a hole in the floor. Love him or hate him, can you imagine a season 10 without him?

Carson Higgins (sell): I know, I know…this Mike White lookalike is “wacky” and “energetic,” like Norman Gentle with a surfboard and better wardrobe. But since the judges seem unwilling or unable to say it, let me be the one to point it out: Carson has an unpleasant singing voice — kind of like the Mucinex Phlegm Mascot hopped up on Red Bull and Oxycut. They haven’t shown us a single second of White House intern Molly DeWolf Swensen’s Hollywood “journey,” but I’ve had to see this foolio singing twice? #Fail!

Colton Dixon (hold): I’m not sure I loved his cover of Daughtry’s “What About Now,” but Colton’s magic hair tells me I am not allowed to completely dismiss him.

Also in the “buy” category?
* Redhead Brett Loewenstern, who a lot of you have pointed out sounds a little like Alex Lambert with more confidence and better phrasing; his rendition of “The Story” was nuanced and lovely.
* Ashton Jones, who already dresses the part of a popstar, and who held her own on the diva mountain of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” She may not have J.Hud’s vocal horsepower, but she’s got undeniable passion and a unique tone that could take her far.
* Sophia Shorai, who doesn’t wear shoes and dances like she’s having a muscle spasm, but showed off a big, muscular voice in a very short snippet of “Georgia on My Mind.”
* That black woman with the sensational hair and diva expression in Holding Room Four. I know we haven’t heard a note from her mouth, but I am quite certain I’m not the only one who’s inexplicably intrigued, right? Anyone?
* Caleb Hawley, whose acoustic “Sir Duke” was as tense and constricted as Stefano’s was loose and freewheeling.

My other nominees for “sell” include:
* “Emotional Timebomb Ashley Sullivan”: Oh how I wish she were just an actress playing the role of “girl coming completely undone by the Hollywood Week process.” Thank goodness she seems to have a sweet, supportive boyfriend who’ll be able to rock her gently and dry her tears for the next 10-12 months.
* Tatynisa Wilson: Forgets her lyrics, has a shrill tone to her voice, and robbed me of a chance to hear the aforementioned mystery diva.
* Scotty McCreary: Baby lock them doors and turn the lights down low/You’re a one-song wonder and you’ve got to go…

And I’ve got one last singer in the “hold” category — Julie Zorrilla, who delivered “Love Song” at the piano with confidence and a flared skirt, but leaves me icy cold.

What did you think of tonight’s episode? Did any of my “buy, sell, or hold” rankings make you shout “Amen!” Or are there any contestants I’ve completely misjudged? And were you sad about any of the evening’s major eliminations, including Chelsee Oaks, Frances Coontz, and (due to sickness) Jacqueline Beddard? Sound off in the comments!

What’s more, if you have some strong thoughts or opinions on anything you saw this week on Idol — pertaining to judges, contestants, trends or conspiracy theories — and you’d like to share them on the next episode of TVLine’s new Idol-related Web series, Idoloonies, email a paragraph or two to idoloonies@tvline.com (and be sure to include a contact phone number). We’ll be selecting a handful of readers each week to join me in cohosting the Webcast via Skype or iChat (to tape on Friday afternoon). We’ll also be choosing a Twitter Question of the Week, so don’t hesitate to fire your best shots to me @MichaelSlezakTV. Be sure to tag it #Idoloonies!