American Idol Recap: Woman on the Verge of a Judging Breakdown

It was a tale of two telecasts tonight on American Idol. Act One found the sanctity of marriage getting punched in the kidney by a pair of craven fameosexuals (even worse than it sounds), a grizzled clairvoyant predicting the untimely death of a pair of wide-eyed teenage contestants (much funnier/more inspirational than it sounds), and Randy Jackson offering perhaps the worst advice of his 10-season Idol tenure (no small accomplishment, that). Act Two (aka The Jennifer Lopez Empathy Hour) was most notable for revealing five of the 24 season 10 semifinalists, ousting a contestant whose backstory was far more impressive than his singing voice, and ending with a rhetorical question disguised as a cliffhanger. “Will Jennifer find the strength to continue?” asked Ryan Seacrest in his enthusiastic-puppy-newscaster voice. Um, is the obscene pileup of diamonds on the lady’s ring finger worth more than your annual salary?

But we’ve got a lot of ground to cover before we get to J.Lo’s end-of-episode tears: A trip to Vegas featuring magnificent duets on “Something” and “Blackbird.” The fate of the White House intern! And “Chosen One” Lauren Alaina getting shoved so far down our throats that it might be time to call in a gastroenterologist and get the results of our Idoloscopy. Okay, okay, so maybe it wasn’t quite that extreme. Either way, let’s recap the action chronologically tonight — since there were too many moving parts to break it down any other way.

Ryan got the party started by telling us that of the 327 contestants who’d made it all the way to Hollywood, 61 would be on their way to Vegas as part of a lucrative corporate marriage with Cirque du Soleil’s The Beatles LOVE show. None of this impressed “vocal coach from hell” Peggi Blu (pictured, right), who pointed her weapons at wispy young things Thia Megia and Melinda Ademi and shot them full of harsh truths. “If you’re still reading your lyrics, you’re not ready to do this gig!” “You’re gonna die on that stage!” “Sing, damnit!” “Bury her ass on that stage!” “Welcome to the jungle baby, you’re gonna diiiiiiiiiiie!” Wait, if Simon Cowell is still casting for U.S. X Factor judges, I think we’ve just found his woman.

It’s a shame Nigel Lythgoe didn’t have the good sense to foist Peggi on all the kids who thought it was perfectly okay that — despite harboring dreams of being singers — they could remain in blissful ignorance of the Beatles’ songbook. (That’d be kind of like calling yourself a horse racing aficionado without ever having heard the name Secretariat.) I mean, imagine Peggi at the front of a classroom, clutching her big knuckle-rapping ruler, schooling her lackadaisical pupils about John, Paul, George, and Ringo?

But Peggi wasn’t the only harsh critic stalking the contestants backstage. Interscope Records chief and Season 10 mentor Jimmy Iovine listened in on contestants’ rehearsals and wasn’t bothering with any Paula Abdul-style “you look lovely today” feedback. “You ain’t gonna win singing that song,” he barked at Lauren Alaina, Denise Jackson, and Scotty McCreary, as they performed “If I Fell.” Cut to Lauren getting more screentime sobbing in the bathroom. And then cut to her laughing with delight from the audience of The Beatles: LOVE, as Ryan tells us what a “whimsical dream” the stage has become to her.

And just like that, it was time for the various duos and trios to get their Beatles on. Stefano Langone and James Durbin kicked things off with “Get Back,” the former displaying some intriguing ability to riff off the beat, the latter clad in a goofy headband, double-breasted vest, and tail of trailing scarves. I can’t tell you how the end of their performance sounded, though, because a pair of alley cats somehow snuck in off the street, hid under my television, made a wretched racket, and then magically disappeared. Steven Tyler, however, sort of praised James for going “up to squeak-land” on the high notes, while Randy pulled off the impossible feat of earning a paycheck by telling Stefano “it started off a lil’ slow, like you a lil’ kind of timid there, you like ‘Awww man,’ and I was like ‘Yo, come on, kick in, man, kick in, I know you got it,’ and finally you got it together.”

Next up, Pia Toscano and Her Swinging Arm and Karen Rodriguez Sponsored By MySpace, delivered “Can’t Buy Me Love” with bland competence, decent harmonies, and (to quote J.Lo) “beautiful smiles.” “You jumped the fence and ran off into the field,” said Steven, inexplicably conjuring up the image for me of the cow jumping over the moon. I’d have been more interested in their story of being high-school buddies had it not been conducted inside what looked like the lobby of Coca-Cola’s HQ as designed by a nine-year-old girl.

Jacob Lusk, Naima Adedapo, and Haley Reinhart then got to star in one of those segments where Ryan’s voiceover tell you something that’s in direct opposition to everything you see and hear on screen. In their rehearsal of “The Long and Winding Road,” a spot-on Mr. Iovine told them the worst thing they could possibly do is oversing all the time. In fact, Bono would still be performing at cafes in Dublin if he didn’t learn how to harness his vocal power, Jimmy told Jacob. “But will the judges agree less is more?” asked Ryan, as the trio began to sing. Hold up just a second! THIS was supposed to signify LESS? Haley’s affected, slurred delivery included the made-up word “Beef-oh-oh-oh-oh” where a simple “before” would’ve sufficed. Jacob did everything short of swallowing the microphone so we could hear the notes erupting from their point of origin in his diaphragm. And Naima, while a bit shouty, was at least clean and direct in her delivery. Making matters worse, the trio ended by keeping their feet on the ground and (quite literally) reaching for the stars — as if under the cheesy spell of Casey Kasem.

And here’s where Randy proved unequivocally that Idol should’ve thrown The Dawg out with Ellen DeGeneres’ bathwater. “Don’t hold back, Jacob, ever. Go for it baby, you got the gas in the car, drive it and go, put the pedal down!” squawked the longest-running judge, likely erasing all the good Mr. Iovine had done the previous day. Jacob responded he’d been advised to be “extremely, extremely, extremely, extremely cautious” and that he “didn’t want to take it all the way to Ebenezer Baptist.” But Randy could not leave it alone. “Yo, baby, yo, hey, many people live in Ebenezer Baptist, baby, so whatevuh,” he declared. “Do you, always do you, when in doubt, do you!” Please tell me I wasn’t the only one screaming a stream of expletives at my TV screen.

Thankfully, Rachel Zevita appeared moments later (in a veil!) with a soulful snippet of “Eleanor Rigby,” followed closely by Lauren Turner belting “Let It Be” with perhaps more power than control. These interludes preceded what I’d say were probably the night’s three strongest Beatles performances.

Tim Halperin (the Idol version of The Office‘s Jim Halpert!) and Julie Zorrilla sat at dueling pianos to start a gentle, lilting rendition of “Something,” and not even Julie’s “Susanna Hoffs sexy side-eye” midway through the performance could distract from the restrained intimacy of it all. Here were two people gauging their delivery to add to the song’s emotional impact, out-harmonizing every other Beatles duo and trio, and not missing a note in the process. Outstanding!

Aside from a cacophonous final harmony, LaKeisha Lewis, Tatynisa Wilson, Jermone Bell showcased big vocals and plenty of energy on “I Saw Her Standing There.” I haven’t cared much for Jerome’s over-the-top style in previous performances, but I thought he was especially solid tonight — and I even liked the way the gold epaulets on his shirt matched his sneakers. Of all the performances Randy and J.Lo could’ve criticized, I’m not getting why these cats inspired their lukewarm response.

Still, for me, the Performance of the Night went to Kendra Chantelle and Paul McDonald’s “Blackbird.” I felt like the judges’ critiques were edited to heap more praise on Paul — and certainly the delicate beauty of his vocals warranted enthusiastic response — but I felt Kendra was every bit his equal, in particular that exquisite high note she hit toward the end of the song. Here’s hoping if she makes the top 24 along with Paul (who bears a strong resemblance to Alias-era Bradley Cooper), Nigel Lythgoe & Co. will allow both singers more of these tender moments, as opposed to jacking the band up to maximum volume and decimating any hope of recreating the quiet brilliance of “Blackbird.”

Because Idol is Idol, we were quickly brought back to (Middle) Earth by She Whose Wedding Must Not Be Discussed (except to point out the horrific comedy of our blushing bride threatening to kill her beleaguered groom in his sleep). The most nauseating televised wedding since Trista and Ryan’s Pepto-Bismol-colored Bachelorette extravaganza signaled a sudden and steady decline in performance quality, beginning with Thia and Melinda’s “Here Comes the Sun,” a performance so stiff that it had me looking for the marionette strings attached to the comely teenagers’ limbs. “Oh Lord,” said Peggi, sitting in the stands and ruing the day she ever laid eyes on her disappointing pupils. Inexplicably, Randy made it a point to praise Thia’s phrasing, which is quite possibly the very worst thing about her as a singer.

Next up, The Bride went down in a hail of botched notes and uncomfortable cadences during “We Can Work It Out,” and poor Sophia Shorai was caught in the crossfire.

And then there was a rendition of “Hello Goodbye” by Lauren Alaina, Scotty McCreary, and Denise Jackson that began in a British phone box and ended somewhere in the close vicinity of hell. My eyes and ears were struggling to latch on to something — anything, really — during this audio-visual assault: Denise’s ill-advised hotpants and distracting arm tattoo, Scotty’s squat-and-release stance, Lauren’s lacy stockings, the way the lead vocal got passed around like a hot potato, Lauren’s cutesy “where’d they go?” face before sprinting after her mates, that damn voice of Scotty’s, the girls’ breathiness trying to run and sing “goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, hello!” If you saw it for yourself, then you know Steven’s “Marx Brothers putting out a fire” critique was strangely apt.

Side note: Did anyone else out there wish that Carson Higgins and Caleb Hawley had done a partner swap with Casey Abrams and Chris Medina? Because, frankly, Carson’s total lack of singing ability dragged the somewhat promising Caleb into the deadly Idol undertow, while Casey has never sounded anything like he did during the unfortunate harmonies with Chris on “A Hard Day’s Night.” (Out of respect for Casey’s awesome Hollywood Week solo on “Georgia on My Mind,” I shan’t mention the mattress shenanigans that occurred during the latter performance.)

The final Vegas group — Aaron Sanders, Robbie Rosen, and Jordan Dorsey singing “Got to Get You Into My Life” in front of a white neon cross — introduced Aaron as an intriguing contestant who’s received the Witness Protection edit for the past five weeks, confirmed Robbie as a definite season 10 front-runner, and exposed Jordan as merely the third-best guy in a three-guy formation (and not just because he was so unlikeable during the Hollywood group rounds). Aaron’s natural voice is as strong as any guy’s we’ve heard this season, while Robbie is perhaps just a good (short) haircut away from teen heartthrob status. (Seriously, the kid has major pipes, and unlike, say, a David Archuleta or an Aaron Kelly, he can actually move.)

At the end of Beatles round, we said adieu to roughly 20 singers, including Carson, Caleb, Denise, Sophia, Melinda, The Bride, and… Molly DeWolf Swensen??? Something’s rotten in Vegas, people, when the White House intern, so smolderingly good in her audition round cover of “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay,” is not allowed to sing a single additional note on screen before getting unceremoniously dumped right before the final judgment day. Perhaps she can get the Department of Reality Television to investigate? Or maybe not. As Molly so interestingly put it, perhaps singing will/should remain one of her side passions, and not her primary focus in life. (Chew on that, tearful Idol auditioners who reach for the smelling salts at the mere mention of having to do something other than singing for a living. Behold what the twin powers of education and ambition can do for you!)

The second half of tonight’s episode saw five singers advance to the semifinals, and five singers fall painfully short of their goal (which means, if my math is right, we’ll get 19 more “yeses” and 11 more “nos” on tomorrow’s telecast). Let’s review how the drama played out:

Naima Adedapo – YES: One of the season’s most likeable contestants walked the “Green Mile” in a dress Madonna might have worn in her “Take a Bow” video, had that video been shot in color, and had Madge ever favored aquamarine sparkles. We got to see Naima’s strong but slightly overwrought “Girl Put Your Records On” (her post-Beatles solo) and hear her tell J.Lo she once dreamed of being an In Living Color “Fly Girl.”

Hollie Cavanagh – NO: The kid with the disastrous, tearful audition showcased a lovely tone on her final solo, a muscular, straightforward rendition of “No One.” Alas, one of the season’s most interesting turnarounds was cut short, as J.Lo got outvoted by Randy and Steven.

Alex Ryan – NO: How do you advance to the top 40 without having one performance deemed worthy of airtime by the show’s producers? Let’s ask Alex. “Well, you see…” [Cue sound of an orchestra beginning “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now).”] Aw, frak, the band is playing him off.

Lakeisha Lewis – NO: Well, at least they let us hear a few seconds of her vocals during Beatles round, right?

Clint Jun Gamboa – YES: Brought more of his showboating style to Lionel Richie’s “Hello” for his final solo performance, but once again, the producers reminded us that Clint didn’t play nice in the sandbox with cherubic Jacee Badeaux. The only way Clint can turn this ship around would be to team up with Lassie to rescue the little fella the next time he falls down a well (which he totally will).

Haley Reinhart – YES (GAH!): For her final solo, Haley chose to forgo the pedestrian combination of words and notes, and instead ran together a whole bunch of vowels and consonants while caterwauling like a woman with jumper cables attached to her pinky toes. Haley is far and away the front-runner for Season 10 Contestant I Do Not Get. She’s a “happy girl,” noted Steven. J.Lo’s ominous response? “Today, she is.” Wonder who Jennifer woulda swapped out for Hollie Cavanagh, eh?

Deandre Brackensick – NO: Apparently, awe-inspiring hair, a pretty voice, and the ability to play an instrument aren’t enough for a polite teenage boy to make it in the music business anymore. Unless your name is Justin Bieber, that is.

Paul McDonald – YES: More footage, please? There’s a hot solo of “Landslide” in Hollywood Week. And — whoa! — there’s Paul in a white sequined suit emblazoned with red roses singing an original track called “American Dreams” (thanks, Internet!). The guy has a voice that’s one part Van Morrison, one part Adam Levine, and one part Rod Stewart, but he needs to be cautious about pulling faces when he starts really feeling the music. That caveat aside, can I just say I’m glad I kept Paul on the Idol Leaderboard the last few weeks despite the fact that Uncle Nigel was keeping him locked in the basement?

Ashton Jones – YES: I’m gonna try not to be swayed by Ashton’s looks and spectacular fashion sense but Oh! Em! Gee! She! Is! So! Purdy! I’m a little scared that she chose the cursed Idol anthem “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” in the “sing for your life” segment, but Group Round choice of jaunty “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops)” cancels it out.

Chris Medina – NO: Can I get a slow clap for Steve, J.Lo, and Randy? Because as much as Idol played up the emotional backstory of the tragic accident that left Chris’s fiancée with a brain injury, the dude never exhibited the kind of vocal talent worthy of being one of the final 12 men in the competition. And his unfortunate choice of Coldplay’s “Fix You” made an underwhelming and vaguely creepy final impression. (Yeah, I know, the song probably held personal meaning for Chris, but at a certain point, contestants should be cognizant of the ways the Idol Machine will manipulate and exploit their backstories, and ought to select their songs accordingly, no?)

J.Lo broke the news to Chris gently, then had a tearful breakdown in which she muttered something about not wanting to go on with the final round of rejections. I’m sure she’ll get flak from viewers for turning on the waterworks for the cameras, but honestly, I almost got choked up just watching Chris’s ouster tonight — and I was rooting for his elimination — so I’m willing to cut some slack to a judge who’s actually been actively invested in the season 10 proceedings. After all, would we rather have Idol judges who care too much, or ones who don’t care at all?

What did you think of tonight’s show? Did J.Lo’s tears move you, or just make you roll your eyes? Were you shocked or delighted by any of the cuts? How are you feeling about the talent level of the folks who advanced to the top 24 so far? Sound off in the comments below!

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!

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