American Idol Recap: Those 24 About to Rock, We Salute You!

What Thursday night’s American Idol telecast lacked in suspense, it more than made up for in terms of surprise.

Ryan Seacrest pulled a Gwyneth Paltrow and went all Country Strong on us, but not before getting lifted like a set of Jersey Shore dumbbells by male and female contestants alike. Rachel Zevita opened up a commanding lead in the Season 10 Millinery Race. A pissed-off rocker chick took home the prize for Most Endearing Contestant (I kid you not!) by candidly flipping off the Idol cameras. And Sam Cooke’s classic civil-rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” underwent radical plastic surgery — without the benefit of anesthesia!

Perhaps most importantly, though, by the time the judges finished introducing us to this year’s 24 semifinalists, we’d had a chance to hear each and every last one of them singing. Yes, Idoloonies, Nigel Lythgoe & Co. apparently succumbed to our prior accusations of “sabotage!” when contestants like Michelle Delamor or Jeanine Vailes — I’ll pause here so you can go ahead and ask “Who?!” — arrived at the live portion of the competition without having performed a single note for the voting public. And while the New Idol Order doesn’t mean each and every one of the Season 10 semifinalists is operating on a level playing field, it’s better than seeing a handful of contestants selected at random to get buried alive underneath the grass.

So bravo, Uncle Nigel! Mazel tov, Cecile Frot-Coutaz! When it comes to the 19 singers who survived the “Green Mile” in Thursday’s telecast (joining Naima Adedapo, Haley Reinhart, Paul McDonald, Ashton Jones, and Clint Jun Gamboa from Wednesday’s show — read my take on their chances here) we’re not limited to ruminating on the “pop-starriness” of their names or the luxuriousness of their hair. Instead, let’s break ’em down into six distinct categories, shall we?

* Robbie “Get Me a Buzzcut!” Rosen
: Just in case you hadn’t noticed that the polite, dashing teenager has yet to take a musical misstep this season, Ryan’s voiceover served as a perky reminder: “This 17-year-old seems unstoppable!” And indeed, his stripped down rendition of Elton John’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” in the sing-for-your-life round showcased Robbie’s lovely phrasing and penchant for smart vocal risks. I’m not sure he’s quite earned Randy’s superlative label of “genius” (insert eye roll here), but I can definitely get behind Steve Tyler’s assessment: “You sang your [bleep] off!”

* Casey “The Furniture Thrower” Abrams: The season’s most charming contestant got even more adorable tonight, noting that whether he left the Green Mile crying in joy or in agony, he’d still get to hug Jennifer Lopez. “I’m here to prove people like me can be sexy,” he grinned, before taking to his upright bass and delivering a smoldering take on “Why Don’t You Do Right?” I’m not sure a black suit paired with sneakers is heartthrob chic, but that final falsetto note fading into a growl certainly helped support Casey’s thesis.

* Lauren “Cute Overload” Alaina: One of the night’s comedic highlights came before the commercial break, when producers juxtaposed the image of a gasping Lauren with the sound of Jennifer Lopez saying, “you didn’t make it into the top 24 this time.” As if! Uncle Nigel spent the last seven years in a laboratory trying to weld together DNA from Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood with a heap of sequins he pilfered from the set of Toddlers & Tiaras. He’d rather toss Thia Megia into a swimming pool of ravenous piranhas than see his Chosen One go the way of Baylie Brown. Yet while Lauren definitely has a set of pipes (and an icky penchant for physical contact with Steven Tyler), did anyone else notice her hiccupy delivery on the chorus of “Unchained Melody” in her airplane hangar performance? “I need your (gasp) love”? Seriously? Cowboy Barbie needs a lot of work in the phrasing department, folks!

* Brett Loewenstern: Sweet, redheaded teenager got lumped together with Colton Dixon and Jacee Badeaux (pictured, bottom right) for the season’s twenty-fourth and last semifinal slot. Yet while Brett has been a consistent presence on the show all season, his original track “Bulletproof Vest” featured the kind of lyrical hokum you’d find at a bad high-school poetry jam. “I look in the mirror and I see a stranger staring back at me”? Gack! Then again, compared to Jacee’s choice of Michael Jackson’s absurd “Gone Too Soon” (with an actual lyric of “born to amuse, to inspire and delight/ here one day, gone one night”) perhaps I’m judging Brett too harshly. He’ll also have to face residual wrath from fans of Colton Dixon and His Magnificent Hair.

* Tim “Never Ask a Lady Her Age” Halperin: Of all the original songs we heard performed in the final solo round, Tim’s piano-driven ballad was the best. If it weren’t for Paul McDonald, Tim would have a monopoly on the “sensitive musician hottie” role that’s been a proven commodity on Idol the last few years.

* Kendra “Not Chanterelle” Chantelle: Somewhat to my surprise, I cheered more enthusiastically for Kendra to crack the top 24 than any other contestant tonight. Maybe it’s because I’m still reeling from her haunting, lovely version of “Blackbird” (with Paul McDonald) from Vegas night, or that snippet of “Georgia on My Mind” from Hollywood Week. (Neither of which got as enthusiastic reception from the judges as they warranted.) And now, thankfully I’ve also got Kendra’s sparse, intimate take on Alicia Keys’ “Fallin” to add to my “YouTube obsession” folder. Clearly, this is a woman who’s not limited to just one genre; now here’s just hoping she doesn’t pull a Janell Wheeler and botch her Week One semifinal song choice!

* Rachel “Hat Tricks” Zevita (pictured, lower left): Granted, Idol has been pretty frugal in doling out clips of this little firecracker’s performances, but her “sing for your life” rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Speechless,” while a wee bit theatrical, was also highly entertaining. Rachel can go from a growl to a squeak — and everywhere in between — and her kooky fashion sense should offer  refuge from the onslaught of tulle that Julie Zorrilla and Lauren Alaina are sure to inspire. (Bonus points for the way Rachel’s grandmother macked on Seacrest. ( “What’s the matter? You losing weight?” she wondered mischievously, before telling our host he was looking like a teenager. )

* MySpace Contestant Karen Rodriguez: She might’ve won over Jennifer at the moment she turned “If You Had My Love” into a tender ballad, but I’m still convinced that the judges put her through to the top 24 under some bizarre, secret deal guaranteeing at least one MySpace discovery in the voting rounds.

* Tatynisa “Hair, 10; Voice, 3” Wilson: “It’s about not having a bad day,” explained J.Lo, just moments after producers showed the comely songbird double-botch the lyrics to “I Hope You Dance.” And, oh dear, her airport-hangar rendition of “Unbreak My Heart” has us wondering if she’s got anything more than a great set of gams in her arsenal.

* Jovany “now that my pecs have got your attention, please take me seriously” Barreto: “I’m here to sing,” crowed the guy who performed a half-striptease during the audition rounds. “I’m here to win a competition on talent.” Um, unless that talent is strippin’ down to his skivvies and shakin’ what his mama gave him, I don’t really see that happening, especially since his main priorities between Hollywood Week and the Green Mile were centered mainly on the erstwhile shipbuilder “working out and, letting my hair grow out a little.” As Ryan explained, “Now Jovany is in your hands, America. Do with him what you will.” Ew, did you mean for that to sound so dirty, Seacrest?

* Jordan “You Say ‘Aggresive’ Like It’s a Good Thing” Dorsey: I don’t know about you, but the thing I remember most about Jordan’s highlight reel tonight isn’t his rendition of John Legend’s “So High,” but rather, the words that accompanied his runway strut: “I don’t wanna lose. I’m in this to win. I’m confident. I’m aggressive. I like to get things done in perfection, and I’m trying to win this thing.”

* James “Scarf-Tail” Durbin (pictured, upper left): Yeah, Idol reminded us tonight that James is coping with Tourette’s and Asperger’s Syndromes, but those details are starting to look like red herrings to distract us from the fact that the show’s editors are systematically turning the headband-wearing foolio into the season’s least likable contestant. (Or maybe this is all just a long-con bit of reverse-psychology to make us all feel really bad for the dude.) “I started my journey throwin’ my screams in, just like Adam Lambert, and it’s like, what else can I do? They’re just gonna expect it,” James said after catching “Somebody to Love” in the vice-like grip of his “vocalizing” during Group Round in Hollywood Week. As if James’ presumptuous self-comparison to season 8’s wickedly talented runner-up wasn’t bad enough, he then went and took one of Adam’s signature Idol songs — Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” — and violently tore it limb from limb till there was nothing left of it but a bloody, quivering pile of unrecognizable notes. J.Lo made her “I smell something bad” face. Ryan, meanwhile, issued an unmistakeable threat: “We now turn James over to you.”

* Scotty “Nuts of Wonder” McCreary:
Holy baritone, Batman, even Ryan Seacrest is singing “Baby lock them doors”! And while Scotty did manage to remember the words to something other than “Your Man” for his airplane-hangar performance, I am dismayed to report that “Long Black Train” is by the same exact artist — and last time I checked, this wasn’t America’s Next Top Josh Turner Impersonator. Would it make me a bad person to fantasize that the “quarter Puerto Rican” side of this unassuming teenager will lead to a spectacular implosion on “Livin’ La Vida Loca” or “She Bangs”?

* Jacob “No Good Note Left Unpunished” Lusk: If Elliott Yamin’s season 4 cover of “A Song for You” was a perfect summer breeze of a performance, then Jacob’s overwrought rendition was a tornado — powerful, yes, but also horrifying. (Also note Jacob’s tornado like action when picking up Ryan and whirling him around like a tiny and meticulously styled rag doll on the Green Mile runway.) Unfortunately, as he did during Wednesday night’s telecast, Randy once again reinforced all of James’ histrionic habits, declaring Jacob’s Hollywood solo of “God Bless the Child” as “the single best performance ever on Idol.” (I’m not going to even go down the road of refuting such nonsense.) But I do have to wonder aloud if it’s too late for Idol to swap in a sub for Randy? I’d even be willing to consider the other original judge, now that “Paula Abdul’s Thunderdome of Dance” has been canceled.

* Thia Megia: Every season needs a teenage female contestant (Lisa Tucker, Katie Stevens, etc) whose GPS misdirects them to Idol instead of some soul-sucking regional beauty pageant. And Thia, with her somber, tinny take on “You Raise Me Up,” has assumed her role with grace and enthusiasm (although, at this time, not with a sash).

* Lauren Turner (pictured, top right):
We haven’t really seen enough of the New Orleans housekeeper to get a true gauge on her talent, but she certainly proved she’s got a lot of horsepower with a muscular reading of “Steal Away.” Idol styling team should be on orange alert following Lauren’s parkly silver skirt and unflattering aqua top during the Green Mile. Color me intrigued with a side of hopeful.

* Julie Zorrilla: J.Lo righteously wants to turn the beautiful robot girl into a real-life human being, demanding she start performing from the heart, not just the head. And I have to say, Julie’s attempt to participate in a game of “Lift the Seacrest” was an excellent step toward her campaign for humanization.

* Stefano Langone: Love the vocal oomph and charisma this kid has, but it was hard to find a single individual word or note in that turgid self-penned ballad he performed in the airport hangar.

* Pia Toscano: Hasn’t made a serious misstep during her Idol run to date, and that cover of Alicia Keys’ “Doesn’t Mean Anything” sounded pretty tight. I also liked the way her thank-yous to the judges felt more humble than entitled.

And finally, as we say goodbye to Brittany Mazur, Jimmy Allen, cowboy John Wayne Schulz, Taiwan Strong, Erin Kelly (sorry, we had one of those in Season 9), Jackie Wilson, and apparently Jerome Bell and Aaron Sanders (even though their send-offs weren’t deemed fit for television) let’s check in with rocker chick Jessica Cunningham (pictured, below), who got cut from the Green Mile for the second year running, on her f****** birthday, in her seventh attempt to make the Idol stage, while paired with Thia &^*#?@* Megia. She knew it from the look on Ryan Seacrest’s face that he was nothing but an undertaker. You hear her! Let’s roll the tape: “They ruined my birthday. You know what I have to say to that. [Raises both middle fingers to the camera.] Yeah, you know what it is. Guys, you know you deserve it. You can’t see what it is — probably got American Idol bubbles over these fingers right now, but you ruined my birthday. I love ya, but come on.” Well-played, sister! After seven seasons of rejection, you’ve earned the ability to keep it real, to not have to grit your teeth, smile, and say “it was an honor to come this far.”

Oh, and about the Jennifer Lopez “drama” that kicked off tonight’s episode? Just because Nigel Lythgoe & Co. put it on an endcap and slapped a bright orange ‘SALE’ tag on it doesn’t mean I’ve got to buy it. The woman had an emotional reaction to Chris Medina’s ouster, and the producers chose to repeat the same footage over and over again till it looked like a full-blown emotional meltdown. As for the “production has come to a halt” bit, I’m willing to bet there’s a lull in filming after nearly every contestant receives a “yes” or “no.” Shall we keep pushing our shopping carts and walk on by?

On that note, what did you think of Thursday’s episode? How do you think the Season 10 semifinalists stack up to last year’s crew? Sound off below, and for all my Idol coverage, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

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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