If American Idol wanted to find its Season 12 winner via personal ad, the copy would probably read something like this:
TOP-RATED REALITY SHOW ISO BIG-VOICED DIVA | Been dreaming for six years now about discovering America’s next great female artist — though not the “current” type that looks and sounds like she spontaneously sprouted from the dark, moist corner of a dumpster. (Sorry, wannabe Ke$has!) Turn-ons include girl-next-door charm, working-class backstories and the ability to crush a glory note like The Rock slamming his fist down on an empty Diet Coke can. Turn-offs include pale-skinned males who’ve ever plucked a guitar, bass, violin, eyebrow or even a chicken. In fact, if you’ve got a penis, go to The Voice. Go directly to The Voice. Do not pass the SwayBot pit and do not collect 200,000 text votes. Willingness to share our affections with 11 prior winners a must. Reply to LadiesLoveBritishNigel@aol.com.
And yet while The House That Kelly Clarkson Built continues the quest to find itself a new queen, the situation hasn’t gotten desperate enough for Fox to make Season 12 a ladies-only kinda party. To which I say thank goodness.
Oh, sure, the last five seasons of Idol have found me rooting for Carly Smithson, Allison Iraheta, Crystal Bowersox, Haley Reinhart/Pia Toscano and Skylar Laine, but would I really want my iPod to exist without the sounds of David Cook, Adam Lambert, Kris Allen, Joshua Ledet, Matt Giraud, Anoop Desai, Phillip Phillips, Michael Johns, Paul McDonald and Stefano Langone? (Don’t try to pretend “I’m on a Roll” isn’t one of your guilty pleasures, too.)
At the end of the day, Idol is all about giving power to the people, letting the American public overthrow the major-label cabal that gives us musical gruel like that will.i.am-Britney Spears duet and tries to convince us it’s chocolate mousse. So bring on the guys — all 20 of ‘em — and let them throw it down, I say! (And, hey, it’s not as if rootsy blues rocker Phillip Phillips, earnest country kid Scotty McCreery and pop-rock troubadour Kris Allen are really anything alike — aside from their Y chromosomes and pale complexions.)
Tonight’s two-hour Idol installment — which whittled the first 10 Season 12 men down to five (the remaining 10 will perform next Thursday and also be cut by half) — was weird and wonderful (and yet also totally confounding), with Nicki Minaj threatening to marry one contestant’s vibrato, make babies with another, and cradle a third male contestant in her arms (sibling-style).
Look, I understand that Idol is a TV show as much as it is a singing competition. I accept that successful musical artists need to have personality and personal charisma as much as they need to hit their notes. And I love that Nicki and Keith (and even Mariah and — heaven help me — Randy) were all able to articulate their myriad reasons for digging some singers while not responding to others tonight. I just get a little skittish when the cuteness of contestants’ faces or the adorkableness of their shtick starts trumping other folks who hands-down outsang ‘em, ya know what I mean?
Anyhow, let’s cut to the set list for the second “sudden death” episode of Idol‘s 12th season — along with my letter grades for every performance:
Paul Jolley: Keith Urban’s “Tonight I Want to Cry” | Nicki’s mind might work in mysterious ways, but her ear continues to be a righteous organ. I loved how she picked up on the way Paul’s tone was “a little sweeter to the ear” in earlier rounds than it was when he took the Vegas stage with the big Idol band. Indeed, there was a strained quality — weepy, even? — whenever Paul reached for a glory note on “Tonight I Want to Cry,” and perhaps that’s what had Jimmy Iovine describing the performance as too theatrical. I know some readers have tabbed Paul as Season 12’s great male hope, but to me, his performances still read too amateurish, too eleventh-place. Remember, when the power moves to the hands of speed-dialing crazies, it’s better to be fantastic or catastrophic than it is to be just aiight. Grade: B-
Johnny Keyser: Jason Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up” | “Get ready for some blue-eyed soul, America!” Johnny declared in his intro package, his seduction techniques as cheesy as a block of Wisconsin cheddar. Yet while the Season 11 Vegas evictee had been pretty underwhelming in his earlier rounds this season, I thought that after an opening verse that was less dynamic than your average GPS robo-dude, the latter two-thirds of “I Wont Give Up” were in tune and reasonably pleasing. The weird side-part in Johnny’s hair was a little too Ken Doll to have been anything other than an act of sabotage by the Idol styling team (as directed by Uncle Nigel), and he seemed to struggle a little to keep up with the rapid-fire cadence of the bridge, but as Keith declared when Mr. Keyser had finished, “That was…good?!” Grade: B-
J’DA: Adele’s “Rumour Has It” | “I applaud your originality,” said Keith to the contestant who rocked more makeup and glitter than your average RuPaul’s Drag Race contender, and yet also sported enough stubble to be deemed acceptable by The CW’s standards and practices department. J’DA’s vocal wasn’t terrible, though — especially when you add dramatic floor writhing and post-performance snap-tasticness to the equation. Sure, J’DA probably should’ve avoided covering one of the most universally lauded voices of his generation, but if I had to choose one of the night’s “spectacle” performers to advance, I’d have chosen him over Charlie. (Uh-huh, I went there.) Grade: B-
Kevin Harris: Bryan Adams’ “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” | It was strange to hear Randy had bestowed the nickname “Buttah” on Kevin, considering the appealing graininess he displayed on the verses of Bryan Adams’ hokey soundtrack hits. Yet while Nicki was spot-on that Kevin was the first male contestant to offer up a Grade A vocal in Vegas, she also pointed out his fatal flaw: A low-key personality that might not “pop” with the at-home audience. Then again, to be fair, Kevin didn’t exactly have time to build a connection with the Idoloonie Nation in the 3.6 seconds of screentime he scored prior to Vegas. But methinks his real fatal flaw was the excessive restraint he used while sticking mostly to the song’s well-worn melody. Mariah huffed that she didn’t care for the song choice when she knew Kevin was capable of “taking a note and bringing it 56 places.” Which made me want to scream, “Oh grrrrrl, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.” [Insert your own joke about Mariah's role in getting Glitter to the big screen here.] Grade: B
Chris Watson: Otis Redding’s “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay” | Is it wrong that I was so distracted by Chris’ giant headkerchief with monstrous side bow that I had to use the “seven-second jumpback” button on my DVR to start the performance over again? I mean, that thing had enough fabric to dress every model in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue — with a little left over to make a set of two rhinestone-studded dishtowels and a tea cosy. Wait, what were we talking about? Oh, Chris’s vocal. I mean, the guy has an above-average set of pipes, but his arrangement of Otis Redding’s R&B classic was as vacant as the Bates Motel after a special visit from “Mother.” Nicki’s whole bit about heating pain and soul and struggle in Chris’ voice left me a little confounded — unless she was trying to say dude was giving off a cruise-ship kinda vibe and then got sidetracked by visions of that stranded Carnival Triumph and its mortifying bathroom situaysh. Grade: C+
Devin Velez: Beyoncé’s “Listen” | Of all the guys who performed this week, I’d say Devin has the best shot at making it to the finale, because A) he’s got a really beautiful singing voice; B) he’s brimming with quiet magnetism; and C) his main rival Curtis continues to come across as a massive tool. To my ears, “Listen” was maybe 10 percent too big and too sophisticated a number for Devin (at this stage of his career). The kid nailed every note, but he lacked just a little of the anger and budding empowerment Beyoncé uses to punctuate certain phrases in the original Dreamgirls version. Nevertheless, Devin’s seamless transition from English to Spanish was a deft touch, and brought out yet another astute, unflinching bit of feedback from Nicki: Devin’s a nice-looking kid with warmth in his eyes, and his bilingual delivery makes him more marketable. Nothin’ wrong with that! Grade: B+
Elijah Liu: Bruno Mars’ “Talking to the Moon” | Like Devin, Elijah is also a nice-looking kid with warmth in his eyes, but I’m going to end the comparisons there before my computer CTRL+ALT+DELs itself in protest. You see, my trusty laptop was in the room for Elijah’s Bruno Mars cover, and we agreed it had all the heft and substance of a store-brand marshmallow. The kid’s falsetto was barely audible over the Idol background singers, the entire section of “ahhh-ahhhs” was unquestionably flat, and there was a juvenile quality to his tone and phrasing that made me certain he’d be the first singer cut from the Top 10. But nope, quite the opposite happened. “You look like a freakin’ pop star,” contributed Keith. “So relevant and now.” Nicki — daring/desiring to be different — declared that she’d sign Elijah to a major-label deal today, on account of his sweet face and general marketability. “I like that you’re Mexican and Chinese,” added Mariah, “that’s a great combination.” (Good thing Elijah’s parents had the foresight to procreate in a way that appeals to Ms. Carey; she should dedicate “We Belong Together” to them at her next concert.) Only Randy made sense (kinda), lamenting the lack of “moments” in the vocal. And when I have to type the words “Randy made sense” (in that order), it’s time to wrap up the paragraph and consider a pint glass full of gin. Grade: C-
Charlie Askew: Elton John’s “Rocket Man” | Question: Were the judges actually being serious with their feedback about Charlie’s “fearlessness” and originality? Because what I saw was a teenage boy with visibly shaking hands stumbling his way through an Elton John classic and hitting maybe 60 percent of his notes in the process. When Charlie finally got off his knees and stood, his vocal improved, but then he went in for some ad-libs that kerplunked with the awkwardness of a giraffe collapsing on a skating rink. If that wasn’t painful enough, we then had to put up with Charlie “cutely” interrupting the judges and firing up the audience, the better to turn critique time into a victory lap. (Note, he really didn’t want to hear Randy’s astute assessment that “it was a bit stage school” and that apparently his fellow panelists just wanted to forget the quality of singing and make it all about the performances.) Okay, so Charlie had scored a big victory for weirdness in front of 17 million viewers. He’s just a kid! He was just having a quirky-good time! But it’s not going to be so cute in three or four weeks’ time when the ladies of The View and The Talk and half of the country are asking “Who the hell is voting for Charlie Askew and why is he lasting over contestants with better voices?!” I’ve felt it since Charlie’s audition: He’s got a sweet, unique tone to his voice, but I don’t think he’s ready for this jelly. Ready or not, though, here he comes. Grade: C-
Jimmy Smith: Radney Foster’s “Raining on Sunday” | I’m pretty sure Jimmy was just under the melody from the very start of his performance to the bitter end. I’d write more about the whole sad spectacle, but every time I try to recall the details, the Lunesta butterfly tempts me with her siren call, “Sleep, my child, sleep!” Grade: C
Curtis Finch, Jr.: Luther Vandross’ version of “Superstar” | I know Curtis is going to draw comparisons to Season 10’s Jacob Lusk and Season 11’s Joshua Ledet because he’s a flashy black guy with roots in Gospel music, but I say “Bzzzt!” to that. To me, Curtis has got a slicker, more ’70s soulster vibe than those fellas: Plus, he’s more of a stylized, intellectual vocalist than someone who’s singing directly from the gut. Take that falsetto run near the end of the performance: You can’t tell me Curtis hadn’t planned exactly where to insert it, and hadn’t practiced 100 times or more exactly how he was going to deliver it. But that’s not saying I didn’t enjoy the old-fashioned Vegas-iness of Curtis’ cover. I mean, the dude is really good, and he knows hot to transport you to a certain time and space. It’s just his personality that’s gonna do him in long before we’ve boiled the Season 12 soup down to the Top 5. I can’t be the only one who watches Curtis on stage and sees him thinking, “I’m good…I know I’m good…but I’m gonna pretend I don’t know how good I am…even though every facial expression and movement I make tells you that I know I’m good — maybe even better than I actually am.” Props to Nicki, then, for telling the guy to quit the humble act. “You know damn well you’re goin’ thru!” Amen, Sister Minaj! Grade: A-
Put through to the Top 20 by the judges: Curtis, Elijah, Paul, Charlie, Devin
Eliminated by the judges: Jimmy, Kevin, JDA, Chris, Johnny
Favorite Ridiculous Moments
* Mariah saying she agreed with Randy about Paul Jolley’s performance, then adding she felt a little differently than “other people on the panel.” Is it possible she can make it to May without uttering the word “Nicki” (AKA she whom the lamb shall not name?).
* Randy critiquing Johnny Keyser with this gem: “For me, it felt a little bit kind of just an okay performance, for me.” Well spoken as always, Dawg!
* Keith howling “Baby?!” and Nicki roaring with laughter after Randy used the word to start his critique for Chris Watson.
* The absurd theater that was the Tie-Break. I mean, the judges called in Jimmy Iovine to break some kind of mythical tie, but only presented him with one contestant: Paul Jolley. Without a second singer in the mix, Jimmy wasn’t breaking any tie at all? I mean, he didn’t know if the judges had settled on a Top 4 and were debating between Paul and Devin or Paul and Johnny or Paul and Charlie or Paul and Chris? I’d have had more respect if each of the judges had selected their own favorite from the pool of 10 to advance, then called Nigel Lythgoe out from behind the wings and said, “Okay, Overlord, tell us which one you need to round out the cast!”
And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of the first half of the American Idol Top 20 guys? What did you think of the judges’ feedback in a live setting and how did you feel about their decisions? Who was your favorite? Did Kevin get robbed? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!