American Idol Recap: Smells Like (Thir)teen Spirit

creighton fraker idolIf there was a doctor in the house during Tuesday night’s American Idol telecast, he or she really should’ve rushed the stage at the 1:22 marker and called the official time of death for criticism. That was seconds after J.Lo, Randy, and Steven used words like “beautiful,” “mad cool” and “good job” to describe a performance that found “adorable” Eben Franckewitz wreaking havoc on Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” like a baby doing its worst to a diaper.

The message from the judges was loud and clear: Go ahead and do your worst. Sing as carelessly as Ashlee Simpson with her mic switched off and a backing track blaring through the speakers. Bite the head off a small woodland creature, if that’s how the spirit moves you! We’ll respond to it all in the same bland, encouraging playgroundspeak reserved for a toddler who puts his toys back in the cabinet. “Very good boy-oyyyy!”

But not to worry, Idoloonies: What the judges lacked in constructive criticism and insightful commentary, they made up for with an extended discussion of J.Lo’s Oscar-night nip-slip. Because (tee hee hee) 30 seconds of boob humor makes up for 120 minutes of half-truths, evasions, and new-age gibberish from a trio of multi-millionaires.

Okay, okay, enough of my kvetching! Because it wasn’t all bad news for the first live show of Idol‘s 11th season. Of the 13 guys who performed a number of their own choosing, only one or two were nails-in-a-blender, teeth-clenching disasters. The song choices were current and quirky — and didn’t include “Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now).” And by my unscientific calculations, there was approximately an 80 percent strike on the night for hitting the correct notes.

So let’s break down our 13 performances — the judges added Jermaine Jones to the standard Top 12 lineup in what was referred to as a “dramatic” twist — with an eye on which five are most likely to advance to the finals during Thursday’s results-show telecast. (For the record, the top five vote-getters from the men’s and women’s pools will advance directly to the finals, with the judges filling out the remaining spots with their Wild Card selections. And just so you know, I’m generally going to avoid quoting the judges in this recap, since you can get a recap of their comments by filling up a balloon with hot air, and then letting it splutter and flail around the room before landing in a pile of dust behind your couch.)

“GET THEM A TICKET FOR AN AEROPLANE…THEIR IDOL DREAMS ARE GOING UP IN FLAMES”
Reed Grimm, Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger”
Things that really did not need to happen in the very first live performance of Season 11: A lounge-lizard arrangement of “Moves Like Jagger.” A bleeped profanity. Reed’s hips set to “continuous gyration” mode (how ghastly!) while singing lyrics like “take me by the tongue” (insert gagging noise here). Reed doing his “heh-heh, I’m a cool cat” giggle mid-performance in favor of actually singing on pitch. Randy trying to make the term “Season One-One” happen, right before using his only jazz reference (Casey Abrams) and only drum-player reference (Sheila E) in the same sentence. If I end up going to Hell for all the cruel barbs I’ve written during my eight seasons of recapping Idol, this is the video Satan will be playing when he greets me at the fiery gates.

Adam Brock, Aretha Franklin’s “Think”
You can’t really say affable Adam didn’t hit every note of this rollicking R&B ditty, or that he didn’t make a wise choice in selecting a song typically covered by female artists. It’s just that the performance was utterly utilitarian, like a perfectly okay sandwich you scarf down at your desk on a busy workday, and of which you’ll have no recollection a week or two later. By this time next season, you might have some brief rememberance that there was a bearded guy who had a Pittsburgh Steelers towel hanging out of his back pocket. Or that someone other than Matt Giraud and Kris Allen brought the term “white chocolate” to the Idol stage, resulting in a car-crash of double entendres that exploded in Randy Jackson likening himself to milk chocolate.

Aaron Marcellus, The Jackson Five’s “Never Can Say Goodbye”
Aaron had scored far less screen time this season than most of the Top 13 guys, and you could almost feel the resulting desperation in his rendition of “Never Can Say Goodbye,” in which he buried his big, powerful voice with unneccessary vibrato and a final note that was as shrill as George Costanza’s mother on Seinfeld. “That’s how you sing some vocals!” shouted Randy. Another day, another affront to the English language.

SHOULD SCORE A SPOT IN THE TOP 10, BUT PROBABLY WON’T
Jeremy Rosado, Sara Bareilles’ “Gravity”
Jeremy has one of those quiet personalities that tend to get overlooked early in the Idol season when there are still 25 contestants cluttering the stage and the average TV viewer knows no more five or six of their names. Maybe that’s why producers gave him the pre-performance sit-down with Ryan, who discussed his status as the “spirit stick” of the group. Either way, I thought Jeremy’s emotive, stripped-down take on “Gravity” was among the two or three best vocals of the night. I loved how he put a modern R&B stamp on the ballad while respecting the melody enough not to muck it up with unneccessary runs and tics. I chuckled when Ryan asked producers to show a screengrab of J.Lo and Steven’s faces “melting” during the performance, but truth be told, I suspect I had the same “into it” expression on my face as Jeremy brought the song to a delicate conclusion. If he gets cut on Thursday, I can’t promise I won’t be yapping about the injustice well into Season 13. (Side note: Did anyone else notice the letters “ooki” on Jeremy’s t-shirt peeking out from under his jacket? Twitter follower @joetranch wondered if he was paying homage to Snooki! Let’s hope not!)

Creighton Fraker, Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors”
Admittedly, I’ve spent the bulk of Season 11 railing against the way Creighton covers songs like an Olympic shot-putter, complete with pulled faces and unpleasant grunting and physical strain. But with “True Colors,” the guy proved he’s capable of restraint. Sitting on a stool with a rainbow backdrop that was yet another example of Idol producers giving us an exact visual representation of a song’s lyrics (uff da), Creighton stuck to the melody on the opening verse before ripping into the final chorus with an appealing growl, unique phrasing and intriguing riffs. He’s actually really talented. It’s just a shame nobody in the styling department addressed the guy’s hairdo, which looks like the result of a three-way scuffle among a mullet, a Mohawk, and a mangy terrier. That alone will probably keep him from the Top 10, as will the fact that the judges managed to spend half of their positive critique raising the prospect of Creighton getting the boot.

SHOULD’VE BEEN SWALLOWED BY A TRAP DOOR IN THE STAGE AT THE END OF THEIR PERFORMANCES, BUT SINCE “AMERICA” IS NOW IN CHARGE, MIGHT SOMEHOW SURVIVE
Eben Franckewitz, Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain”
Add this to Jennifer Lopez’s Book of Gargantuan Lies (probably due from Hyperion Books in summer 2012, because J.Lo needs more bling in her life): “You’re a great performer, you’re aware of what you’re doing, and you can really do this. So congratulations. It was a good job.” Now let’s translate that comment into truth: “You were visibly terrified, you had no idea what you were singing about, and a judge should issue a restraining order keeping you at least 500 yards from Adele’s music. I am so sorry, Eben. That was as unfortunate as your violet jacket is ill-fitting.” But wait! I hear something terrible in the wind: “OMG! HE IS SO ADORBS! MOMMY WE HAVE TO VOTE FOR HIM!” To which I say, “Remember when America eliminated Jennifer Hudson before John Stevens back in Season 3?” Those who do not learn their Idol history are doomed to repeat it!

Chase Likens, Hunter Hayes’ “Storm Warning”
Sure, his vocal was as average as a bowl of instant oatmeal, and he struggles with pitch when he has to hold a note for more than two seconds. But hey, he looks like Brendan Fraser in The Mummy (thanks, Steven!), and he’s a “good-looking dude” (thanks, Randy) and he has “movie star good looks” (thanks, J.Lo!). That counts for a lot, apparently. Plus, Chase is the only country singer on the men’s side, so he won’t have to worry about any dreaded vote-splitting among his core fan base. So really, who cares that there are at least 10 guys who deserve one of the five “stools of safety” more than Chase does? Apparently not our highly paid and esteemed panel of “judges.” (It feels really good to put quotes around that word, by the bye.)

MORTAL LOCKS FOR A SPOT IN THE FINALS (AND RIGHTFULLY SO)
Phillip Phillips, Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”
Hey, hey! I know this game, Randy! Pick one of the night’s strongest performances, and then make it the only one you actually criticize! Yes, folks, it’s gonna be a looooong season. Which isn’t to say that Randy didn’t have a point about Phillip taking so many liberties with the melody of “In the Air Tonight” that it occasionally bordered on jarring. But on the flip side, at least the guy attempted to do something interesting with the arrangement, and he sang the bejeezus out of it. In fact, I’d say Phillip brought the menace behind the lyrics to life in a way that Phil Collins’ original never quite did (for me, anyway), even if the sax-heavy arrangement bordered on “late-night Cinemax, lovers in the surf” territory. No, don’t go back and re-read that last sentence, or this whole paragraph, because it probably doesn’t make sense. And in any event, Phillip is a mortal lock for one of the five men’s slots that will be filled by the public.

Joshua Ledet, Jennifer Hudson’s “You Pulled Me Through”
I kind of love that Joshua is known in some parts as “Mantasia,” because in a lot of ways, he reminds me of the polarizing Season 3 champ. Where some folks hear overwrought ridiculata, I hear a voice that has so much strength and texture, that draws from such a deep well of emotion, that I just can’t fault it. Even when it devolves into a gutteral howl or a melismatic seizure, I’m nodding my head and letting out a whoop of appreciation, because Joshua brings the excess where it’s appropriate, and not in a studied “look what I can do with my voice!” kind of way. He does it because he has no other choice. To love Joshua’s performance of “You Pulled Me Through” is to feel it to the tips of your fingers, clench said fingers into a fist, and (here’s where I agree with J.Lo) literally want to punch the guy in the face out of pure joy. Bonus points for the Dalton Warblers-esque blazer. America had better do the right thing here.

MOST LIKELY TO STEAL A SPOT IN THE FINALS FROM A MORE DESERVING VOCALIST
Heejun Han, Robbie Williams’ “Angels”
Everything about Heejun is entertaining, right down to his life goal of making people realize Asian folks can do more than get high SAT scores. Heck, even his mom is fun to watch. And that’s why I can’t be mad at people who want to see Heejun on their TV screens for the next three months. But I also can’t pretend that Heejun’s rendition of “Angels” didn’t expose him as a limited vocalist. The guy clipped his lines like your aged aunt clips coupons. He struggled to conjure up the vocal horsepower necessary for the big notes. He looked slightly overwhelmed by the vastness of the Idol stage. It wasn’t terrible — not by any stretch of the imagination — but I do wonder if Heejun’s personality will seem so endearing if, week in and week out, he steamrolls past contestants who actually deserve a shot at being the next Kelly Clarkson.

Jermaine Jones, Luther Vandross’ “Dance With My Father”
Like Heejun, Jermaine gave a decent rendition of a treacly Luther Vandross ballad, but there was an unevenness to the performance, and a decided lack of charisma, that I know deep down will change my “awww…what a sweet guy” to “get him the frak off my screen and bring back Elise!” in about three weeks’ time. Of course, by making Jermaine the recipient of the “last minute, dramatic” No. 13 berth, and by bringing out his adorable mom to tug away at our heartstrings, Uncle Nigel has practically guaranteed Jermaine a place in the finals, where he otherwise would’ve been no more than a semifinals footnote. To which I ask, “Is the ‘Gentle Giant’ character really and truly a necessary component of Season 11?” Personally, I’d take Jeremy or Creighton or Colton or Deandre over Jermaine 100 times out of 100. Which leads me to…

OUR LIKELIEST WILD-CARD CONTESTANTS
Deandre Brackensick, Earth Wind and Fire’s “Reasons”
Even though the judges failed to acknowledge it, there was a tremulousness to the opening half of Deandre’s performance that led to more than a few bum notes, and what’s more, his limbs and hair flailed around like a wind puppet in front of an auto dealership. But oh boy that big powerful chest voice toward the end of the song reminded me why I can’t abandon the Deandre bandwagon just yet. Is it possible that the soft-spoken teenager was just starting to get comfortable on the live Idol stage when his ho-hum song choice reached its climax? If that’s the case, it would be a shame if we didn’t get the chance to find out.

Colton Dixon, Paramore’s “Decode”
I’m going to be completely honest: I really didn’t understand Colton’s dreary, hook-free song choice. (Hey, J.Lo, it feels good to be honest! Try it sometime!) But there’s no denying the guy has a powerful, pleasing singing voice, and that he has a definite vision of how he wants to use it. Plus, he’s pretty handy at the keyboards, and he has magnificent/ridiculous hair that deserves its own Vevo channel. If America gives Colton’s Top 10 slot to Heejun or Jermaine, I fully expect our “judges” will remedy the situation and send him through via Wild Card.

And now, for my final verdict on the night:

MOST DESERVING OF A TOP 10 SLOT
Joshua, Jeremy, Phillip, Creighton, and either Deandre or Colton

MOST LIKELY TO GET A TOP 1O SLOT
Joshua, Phillip, Heejun, Jermaine, and (because life is pain) Eben

Your turn. Post your reviews in the comments, tell us which singers got your votes, and take our poll below!