Twelve shipwrecked guys are treading water amid a swarm of ravenous sharks, when suddenly, a luxury yacht pulls up alongside them. “Darling, your bathing suits are divine!” exclaims a glamorous actress, peering down from the deck. “Dude, your backstroke is bitchin’!” says the rock star alongside her. “Way to throw caution to the wind and do your thing, dawgs!” says their pal the music producer, sipping from a tall Coca-Cola glass. Welcome to the American Idol season 10 men’s semifinal — life boats not included!
Okay, okay, I’m probably sounding harsher than I’d intended. After all, of the dozen male semifinalists who debuted on the American Idol stage Tuesday night, most were pretty decent, and only one came close to the legendarily awful season 9 “top 24 week” troika of Tim Urban’s “Apologize,” John Park’s “God Bless the Child,” and Jermaine Sellers’ “Get Here.” (Thanks for the memories, guys?)
But whether or not you agree with my working theory that, on the whole, the dudes of season 10 appear to be more talented than their season 9 counterparts, one thing is certain: Each and every one of ’em could use some constructive criticism. After all, competitively speaking, six or seven of ’em are already chum. As Ryan Seacrest explained it, the season 10 semifinal round will last one week only, meaning that on Thursday night, the top five vote-getting guys will score automatic slots in the finals; the seven men out will then be at the mercy of the judges’ wild cards in order to get a second chance to perform for the Idoloonie Nation.
Given the brutality of what’s to come, I was flabbergasted that Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, and (to a slightly lesser degree) Randy Jackson failed to give actionable feedback to Idol‘s merry band of inexperienced combatants. Maybe nobody wanted to be compared to Simon Cowell (who I missed for the first time all season), or maybe our judges wanted to go easy on the new kids on the block. But since Idol‘s not that kind of game, I thought I’d review the top 12 in order from “cannon fodder” to “definitely making the finals,” while also pointing out the beginners’ mistakes each of these singers committed during Tuesday’s performance telecast (which, for the record, was pre-taped Friday night in front of a live audience):
Take the spotlight off your vocals at your own risk. Indeed, by choosing to make his first impression with Usher’s highly stylized “OMG,” Jordan Dorsey pulled the equivalent of showing up to a culinary throwdown against Bobby Flay armed with only a can of Spam and a hot plate. We don’t really know whether or not the guy can carry a tune (although that garbled falsetto note is a point in the “not really” column), but we know he can awkwardly shake his shoulders while delivering lines like, “Honey got a booty like pow-pow-pow.” J.Lo asked the right question when she wondered if this was the kind of artist Jordan wanted to be. And since the answer was a pretty clear “no” — “I’m not a jumpy-jumpy singer,” said Jordan — we’re left wondering why the dude didn’t radically slow down the song’s tempo (hey, it’s an idea!), or ask Uncle Nigel for one last look at the list of available songs.
In the early weeks of voting, there’s no faster way to the exit than being boring. Poor, competent Jovany Baretto! There’s no denying the guy’s got a very pleasant singing voice, and he’s certainly mastered the art of staring meaningfully into the camera. But his rendition of Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be” was like the iceberg lettuce of the Idol salad bar: You wouldn’t spit it out into your napkin, but you’re not exactly going to be talking about it after dessert. There were no unexpected note choices, no discernible changes to the song’s arrangement, none of the Latin flavor of any of Jovany’s Hollywood Week performances. Okay, there was a retro, ’80s-esque “final chorus” key change, and, um, a gray vest, but methinks Jovany may soon regret his earlier rallying cries of “No more shipyard for me!”
Just say no to the Stevie Wonder songbook! Sure, once in a while a contestant nails a Stevie track, but Clint Jun Gamboa will not join that short, prestigious list for his rendition of “Superstition” (which has been previously sung on Idol by RJ Helton, Bucky Covington, Ricky Braddy, and Siobhan Magnus). Clint sounded like an enthusiastic goat on the verse, and it seemed too ironic by half that the lyrics “then you suffer” appeared in the midst of Clint’s “Adam Lambert with his hand in a blender” howl toward the end of the number. “No karaoke singer in the world has that kind of talent,” shouted Randy, who has clearly never been to a karaoke bar and/or cannot resist excessive hyperbole.
It’s just as important to understand your emotional range as it is your vocal range. Or to put it another way, while Brett Loewenstern’s got a lovely tone to his voice, it shouldn’t be used on a growly, big-boy jam like the Doors’ “Light My Fire.” I mean,was there anything more cacophonous this episode than watching the endearingly awkward teenager timidly pose and hair-flip his way through a song by sexy beast Jim Morrison. “The time to hesitate is through,” Brett sang, seconds after attempting to disappear behind the mic stand. I can only assume Steven’s “you are on fire” critique was a cleverly edited-down commentary on Brett’s hair color. J.Lo, meanwhile, scored her biggest laugh of the night by noting Brett’s performance contained “more hair tossing than me plus Beyonce together in the last 10 years.” Anyone else wishing the judges had cut Brett from the “Green Mile” episode and told him to come back in five years’ time? (Colton Dixon fans, I know your answer already!)
Don’t get too reliant on instruments. Idol‘s producers have repeatedly said they don’t want contestants “hiding behind” guitars and pianos this season, and that turned out to be bad news for Tim Halperin. What a shock to see the guy who had such magnificent presence behind the keys performing the Beatles’ “Something” with Julie Zorrilla in Vegas, awkwardly shuffling his way around the stage during Rob Thomas’ blandly inoffensive “Streetcorner Symphony.” Tim struggled with pitch from start to finish, kept adopting a weird, wide stance, and ended with a cheesy “point and smile” pose that was strangely reminiscent of a season 9 finalist with the same given name. Plus, could the dude have been any more Caspar Milquetoast in his pre-performance interview with Ryan? “Everyone is so supportive of one another.” “All those guys are like my brothers.” “My favorite color is beige.” “My favorite food is a boiled potato.” The only positive news for Tim is that he’s a potential front-runner for the judges’ wild card picks; J.Lo declared Tim as having “one of the most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard.” Grrrrl, let me introduce you to Patti LaBelle, okay?
Not all song rearrangements are created equal. “Like Jennifer said, I did my own thing,” said Robbie Rosen, responding to Randy Jackson’s criticism of his performance of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel.” But much like adding marshmallows to spaghetti bolognese, making something your own doesn’t necessarily mean making it better. Robbie seemed to be just a tad behind the band the whole way through the song, and his falsetto notes made about as much sense as the strange “sliver of moon” backdrop behind him. And in just 90 seconds, the kid who seemed like a mortal lock for the season 10 finals found himself at risk of an early ouster.
Be careful about choosing the right key for your songs. Stefano Langone was undeniably adorable bouncing around the stage on Bruno Mars’ “Just The Way You Are,” but right from the getgo, the song seemed to be pitched a little high for him, and by the time he reached for those big closing notes, he’d reached a very unpleasant spot in his vocal range. Heck, J.Lo visibly winced at one point, but made no note of Stefano’s pitch problems in her critique.
Gimmicks are not your friends. If he’s not careful, James Durbin’s Na’vi scarf-tail has the potential to become Jasmine Trias’ flower or Sanjaya’s hair — an accessory that becomes a rallying cry for the opposition. Which would be kind of a shame. James’ rendition of Judas Priest’s “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin'” was a vast improvement on anything he’s done all season: It had enough attitude and volume to outmuscle with Idol’s Bandzilla, but it didn’t go overboard in the backbend-and-shout department (except maybe that final “rocker-jump pose” from hell). And most importantly, it was the kind of number that made sense under the “any song they wish” theme. “That was f****** crazy good,” said Steven, later adding.”I think all of America agrees with that word, anyway.”
Don’t be afraid to be unpredictable. Thank heaven (perhaps quite literally) or maybe Jimmy Iovine that Jacob Lusk dialed back on the melisma-meter for his rendition of Luther Vandross’ “A House Is Not a Home.” The guy who previously treated the release of every note like a full-blown exorcism dialed it back — waayyy back — and took us to the center of his broken heart, instead of easing on down the road to Ebenezer Baptist. (Side note: Anyone else find the audio mix on this performance bizarrely echo-y?) The key for Jacob going forward, though, will be to infuse less obvious material with his old-school R&B vibe. J.Lo was sweet (and perhaps a little premature) in dubbing Jacob the next Luther, but it’s season 10, and it’s not just white guys with guitars who need to show their musical imaginations to go all the way.
This…is American Idol — not Zoolander. Scotty McCreery almost made me a believer tonight with his affecting performance of John Michael Montgomery’s “Letters From Home.” Perhaps more than any other contestant tonight, the deep-voiced teenager managed to tell a story, despite having to condense his song into a 90-second snippet, and his black-and-silver checked shirt won Best in Show among the dudes. Now the kid just needs to play back his performances and be careful about the “lean to the side, raise eyebrows, grin knowingly” antics he trotted out for the duration of the performance.
Just because your general awesomeness makes us forget your occasional pitch problems doesn’t mean they won’t eventually become an issue for voters. Aw shucks, is there a contestant right now who’s more endearing than Casey Abrams? Heck, Naima Adedapo practically leapt over the second-floor balcony to express her excitement for Casey’s growling, gutteral take on Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell On You.” I like that the kid inhabits his songs with the tenacity of a bedbug clinging to the underside of a mattress, and that he does it with a wry sense of humor — a quality that’s all-too-often missing on the super-serious Idol stage. That said, I wish one of the judges had at least made note of the fact that the latter third of Casey’s performance devolved into not-always-tuneful howling. With a reigning Idol champ who never quite conquered his pitch problems, I’m guessing voters may be a little less forgiving of such issues as season 10 goes forward.
Go on with your quirky self, but be careful not to become the male Megan Joy. Hands down my favorite vocal of the night was Paul McDonald’s quietly powerful cover of Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May.” Yeah, it’s not the easiest track to condense into a minute and 30 seconds, but Paul’s chipotle-smoky voice glided over the top of it like the Winklevoss Twins zipping down the Charles in The Social Network. I could listen to him all day. My only slight concern is how Paul’s stagger-sexy-cool stage presence will play out as the season progresses, especially with Ryan’s voiceover already beating the “quirky” drum. It’s one thing to heed Madonna’s advice and let your body move to the music, it’s quite another to shout “what’s up TV Land?” and flail your legs with the random energy of a trout on a dock. Paul is another contestant who might benefit from a slo-mo morning-after replay of his performances, just to make sure his body language stays on par with his vocal adrenaline.
What did you think of the Tuesday night performance show? Which five contestants deserve to advance to the finals, and is there a sixth who deserves another chance via Wild Card? Which contestant disappointed you most? And did you find yourself missing Simon Cowell (or Kara DioGuardi) tonight? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol coverage, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV.