American Idol Recap: Test(osterone) of Wills

frankie ford american idolIn the spirit of National Beyoncé Week — brought to you by the National Football League, the United States Congress, the Internet and the House of Dereon — I begin this American Idol recap with the bastardization of a famous lyric from the Artist Occasionally Known as Sasha Fierce:

To the left, to the left. All the lady Idols in the holding pen to the left.”

Yes, folks, I’m still trying to sort out my feelings about one of the biggest changes to the show’s structure since my early days of recapping Fox’s reality behemoth — back when I identified with #TeamBo over #TeamCarrie. (Oh hindsight, you’re the cruelest mistress of all. Still, I bet even you have “Witness” on your iPod.)

But back to the curveball thrown by maniacal genius/kindly British uncle Nigel Lythgoe: Separating the annual/grueling Hollywood Week festivities by gender. Male contestants this week; future Haley Reinharts and Aloha Mi’Shos not taking the screen till next Wednesday. Yes, thanks to Fox’s crackerjack publicity department, we knew the change was gonna come — if you took that as an Adam Lambert shout-out, then ding-ding-ding-ding-ding — but tonight’s fast, furious two-hour telecast was kinda hard to process.

So many dudes. So many of them shown in less-than-bite-sized snippets. (Crumbs, really!) And not a single Carly Smithson or Crystal Bowersox or Theri to break the testosterone chokehold. A few guys were solid. Many were lyric-flubbing, pitch-averse disasters. A handful appealed only to the gay British chap who lives in Nicki Minaj’s medulla oblongata. But I wouldn’t bet the contents of my wallet — a book store receipt, a MegaMillions ticket that’s sure to make me a rich man come the weekend, and $23 — that we saw the 2013 answer to Phillip Phillps.

Ohhhhh, wait…I get it. The weak crop of boys — standing alone like the cheese at the end of “The Farmer in the Dell” — will be so thoroughly exposed by the end of this week, that a female contestant is bound to wind up with a groundswell of support and eventually reign over Season 12. The whole evil plot makes sense. Carry on, Nigel!

Anyhow, without going into a chronological recounting of the dozens of contestants shown singing two or three bars — or standing there grimacing and unable to blurt a single line — let’s relive the highlights/lowlights. As always, things kicked off with rows of 10 contestants lining up, then one at a time belting a capella numbers. Randy (wearing black shirt, black pants, and some of the ugliest white boots you could ever imagine) dug deep into his bag of clichés and told us the exercise would “separate the men from the boys.”

Among the “men” advancing to the Group Rounds: Micah Johnson, the guy who had botched tonsil surgery, on the strength of a lovely, lilting “Bennie and the Jets”; melody-phobic Curtis Finch Jr., for howling the phrase “Lord I Need You Now” over and over again; Lazaro Arbos, the cutie with the stuttering problem, despite visible nerves mucking up his version of “Angels”; plus Nate Tao (woot!), Gabe Brown, Gurpreet Singh Sarin, and a few other folks with Y chromosomes.

Eliminated: Karl “Gingers Have Soul” Skinner, Dr. Calvin Peters, Dustin “Hot Firefighter” Watts, and Brian “My Wife Beat Cancer” Rittenberry. (You have no idea who I’m talking about here, do you? By Friday, I won’t, either. Badum-bum!)

None of the Sudden Death decisions were particularly controversial, except maybe for a brief argument at the judges table over smokin’ hottie Cortez Shaw (who scored a Golden Ticket in Season 11, but was later cut with little explanation). Cortez got halfway up Mt. Whitney (via “I Will Always Love You”) with his clear, booming voice, but veered toward something strident and hiccupy near the end of his audition. (I think I detected a last-second and possibly unintentional key change, too.) Mariah said she enjoyed it, Nicki interrupted to declare herself “very very disgusted,” and things got momentarily tense. Would there be another expletive-filled rant? No, only Cortez advancing. (Whew.)

After that, Lythgoe & Warwick (not a hit songwriting team from the ’60s, believe it or not) pulled another random trick out of their bag and assigned teams for the Group Rounds — the better to create false drama/cut 23 minutes of footage of contestants scrambling to pair up with one another. This left us with what felt like three more hours of groups rehearsing, groups arguing, and groups failing to deliver a hot, tasty meal to the judges in less than 30 minutes. (Sorry, pizza delivery was slow tonight and it’s still on the brain.) Here’s what stood out — good and bad — among the Groups.

* The night’s final group, simply known as Oz, scored scads of airtime thanks to NYC Subway singer Frankie Ford (pictured) griping about song choice, whining about his “asthma issues,” trash-talking his cohorts and bursting into tears before Oz even took the stage. Overlooked in the absurdity, though, was an outstandingly rich vocal on “American Boy” by Charles Allen. The burly fella delivered the verse just behind the beat, then threw in a nice riff on “t-t-t-t-take me to New York…” After 120 minutes of ho-hummery, what a treat to hear a fresh, rhythmic delivery brought to us by a robust and husky voice. More Charles, please, judges!

* David Leathers Jr., eliminated in the Season 11 Green Mile instead of underperforming Eben Franckewitz (#BlameJLo), served up a reasonably tasty vocal on Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time” despite his cohorts whiffing at least half their lyrics and then (to make matters more unpleasant) putting the “harm” in harmony.

* The Four Tones (Micah Johnson, Vincent Powell, David Willis, and Marvin Calderon) brought soul and panache to “Hold on, I’m Comin'” despite a synth line so cheesy it could’ve been melted and splashed across the top of an Applebee’s entree.

* Redheaded stranger Devin Velez proved to have a very pretty, very intriguing voice on an a capella rendition of “Payphone,” but that apparently wasn’t worthy of more than a 10-secons snippet. (Thanks, Nigel!)

* It seemed like every other group featured one or more members who struggled with their lyrics like a Kardashian attempting a 9-to-5 desk job. Johnny Keyser, who got the “arrogant” edit in Season 11 (via some hottub shenanigans and his decision to keep singing after a group mate collapsed in front of him), pinged my douche-o-meter again when he botched the lyrics to “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” then told the judges, “I took a risk…” on song choice, implying somehow that the creative decisions came down to him and him alone. Oh, and bee tee dubs, he chose the Four Tops’ classic despite claiming he’d never heard it. To quote Keith Urban, “What planet are you from?”

* Curtis Finch Jr.’s true colors started shining through (yes, that was an Anoop Desai shoutout) when groupmate Charlie Askew got sick — and dare I say said colors weren’t very attractive? “I’m here to send him home in the first place,” Curtis huffed, because apparently he enjoys winning without having his opponents show up? Then, when he and his compadrés got on stage, Curtis attempted to use his voice like a high-powered firehose and blast his rivals off the stage, but it was ultimately his lower register that wound up all wet.

* And then we had the group B Side, a quartet of messes (including Gurpreet) who achieved the odd distinction of combining aggressively opposing “harmonies,” a mean lack of rhythm, and a flimsy grasp on lyrics to Adam Levine’s “Payphone.” As Keith noted, the Maroon 5 frontman, despite being alive and well, had to be rolling in his grave. Randy repeatedly yelled “Stop!” (the first time I’ve agreed with him in about eight years). But Nicki, though, saw it differently. “That’s my favorite group!” she squeed, mainly because Chris Watson (the Jimi Hendrix-looking dude) fired up the crowd and boogied when he forgot his lyrics. “I’m not looking left and right for someone to save me!” declared Chris, which was an easy boast to make since no one on his right or left knew the lyrics either. Somehow, Nicki convinced her fellow panelists to give all four gents another chance — “Yes we forget lyrics, we’re human beings!” — and so I’m sure we can look forward to at least one of ’em freezing up at the mic again during Thursday’s telecast.

Anyhooo…there were plenty more disasters on Night 1 of Season 12 Hollywood Week, but I’m going to leave it to you to point out anyone worthwhile I missed. What did you think of the episode? Were there any decisions that made you mad? Any contestants who got you jonesing for the live rounds? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!