Tonight’s ‘American Idol‘ was devoted to soul, rhythm, and blues, but it was just as devoted to the art of killing time. The episode stretched out over two hours, and given that there were only about 900 seconds of “meat” that the show had to wind itself around — 10 performances, each about 90 seconds in length — there was lots of filler. Ryan started things off with a call for audience participation and long chat with Usher; the judges seemed to be trying to fill space as much as they could during the critiques; the singers all got post-commercial break reaction segments.
And nestled inside all that stuffing was the ultimate sign that this season’s bar had been lowered to a heretofore-unseen depth: After a performance where Tim Urban channeled the vocal stylings of Barry Manilow, Randy told the shaggy-haired teen idol, “at least you sang in tune.” Yes, that’s what is passing for success on ‘American Idol’ during this absolute trainwreck of a season; not being terrible. Do you think that Matt Giraud and Chris Richardson are kicking themselves for not waiting a year or two to try out?
I will say one nice thing: Usher was a pretty great mentor. His advice was spot-on, even if the singers didn’t always take it. (I wonder if he also gave them advice on bouncing back from career-killing albums? Because man, his 2007 record Here I Stand was not good at all, to the point where he’s not even mentioning it in the press material for the album he released today.)
1. Crystal Bowersox. The dreadlocked Crystal not only had a slight makeover (high heels!), she showed off her versatility — she started off her performance of “Midnight Train To Georgia” behind the piano, and then came out from behind it and actually stood up and sang sans instrument. And her voice sounded pretty fantastic the whole time, even if the lousy backup singers made me kind of wish that she’d had some different Pips stand-ins backing her up. The critiques of her performance were all rapturous, although Simon warned her that she should watch out and not become something she isn’t — is he getting worried about the Lilith Fair demographic evaporating should she decide to drop the axe?
2. Lee DeWyze. I have not been a fan of the post-grunge revivalist’s stylings this season — his wedding-band take on the Box Tops’ “The Letter” from last week’s show makes me angry even now — but I have to say that I loved the way he busted out the Cornelius Brothers’ “Treat Her Like A Lady.” He bodied the track, and if he can keep up that sort of intensity and quality over the rest of the competition, I may forgive him for forcing me to professionally engage with Hinder’s “Lips Of An Angel” one more time.
3. Michael Lynche. Mike’s intense version of India.Arie’s “Ready For Love” was similar to his take on Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” a few weeks back; the song’s quivering sadness paired well with his featherweight voice. “Chicks dig a guy who can actually play guitar and sing,” Usher said of Mike’s decision to get behind the axe for this song. Chicks also dig singers who aren’t making jazz hands and spazzy gestures the whole time, which Mike engaged in a little bit too much in recent weeks!
4. Andrew Garcia. The bespectacled father walked the “dancepop transformed into coffeehouse fodder” line that got him into the Top 24 in the first place, slowing down Chris Brown’s gum-ad-turned-chart-topper “Forever” and turning it into something actually very pretty. However, Simon’s assertion that he’s kind of boring is not wrong. At least the anger said assertion inspired in Andrew’s mother filled up some camera time, though!
5. Casey James. Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming” got its ‘Idol’ premiere from Casey and it sounded fine, but there seemed to be a scrim up between the shaggy-haired rocker and the audience when he was singing; he had a grin plastered to his face, and he only seemed really comfortable when he was wailing away on his guitar. The crowd (and Randy and Simon) were pretty into it, but it left me sort of cold when he wasn’t soloing. Also, the backup singers nearly torpedoed the performance, thanks to their being amplified in a way that drew attention to every single one of the flaws possessed by their individual voices. Shouldn’t these sorts of kinks have been worked out by the ‘Idol’ production staff by now?
6. Aaron Kelly. Oh boy, what a risk, taking on “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Not just because Aaron is young and even though he gets older when he sings, he doesn’t giv off that sort of weathered-soul feel; there’s also the threat of the recent past, as this track was pretty much owned by the reigning ‘Idol,’ Kris Allen, when he performed it last year. He was fine — perhaps a little too smiley and a little too tight, but definitely not as horrid as the night’s nadirs.
7. Tim Urban. Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love” is one of my favorite songs of all time, and Baker’s soaring vocal on it is absolutely majestic. Thankfully, Tim didn’t massacre “Sweet Love” like he had other songs this season; instead, he crept around it gingerly, and the overall effect was, for lack of a better term, Manilow-esque. I actually have enjoyed the vocal stylings of both Mr. Timothy Urban and Mr. Barry Manilow in the past, and Tim’s performance tonight wasn’t bad, given the towering nature of the source material and the big missteps he’s taken in the past. But there was a definite “variety show in the ’70s” feel about the whole thing. (Not that what I think matters, really; Simon noted that whatever Tim did would have no bearing on him remaining in the competition another week, thanks to the rainbow coalition of Vote For The Worsters and people lusting after him he’s accrued.)
8. Didi Benami. “Honesty is what the audience looks for,” Usher said of her bursting into tears after practicing “What Becomes Of The Brokenhearted.” But for some reason that intensity didn’t quite translate to her performance. (Fear, perhaps?) What really torpedoed her was her super-enunciated vocal, which sounded very, to use a Simonism, Broadway. (He, for his part, compared Didi’s performance to the singers who accompany the celebrity hoofers on ‘Dancing With The Stars.’ Ooh, time-slot beef!) I will say that her big note at the end was much more successful than Siobhan’s attempts at the same this evening. And the beaded gown she was apparently hinged into was lovely! But overall, the performance left me kinda cold.
9. Katie Stevens. Watching her awkwardly vamp through “Chain Of Fools” while wearing awful culottes and too much jewelry was like watching a young girl play dress-up with material sourced from her mother’s closet. She hit most of her notes, so she wasn’t the worst of the night. But her upper register’s smoothness was the completely wrong fit for this lusty track. Swallow some gravel or something, girl!
10. Siobhan Magnus. Chaka Khan possesses one of the most purely powerful voices in music, and “Through The Fire” is a stunning song. Well, Siobhan’s performance was certainly a stunne. Things started off badly, with her seeming to be personally opposed to enunciating the first verse. And as the song grew so did her pitch problems, with the phrase “bad karaoke” coming to mind more than once. In very lengthy judging that seemed to be pitched directly to anyone who might hold off on phoning in their support, Kara, Randy, and Ellen chalked her poor performance up to her having an “off night” and said that she deserved to stay because of what she’d accomplished in previous weeks.
WHO I VOTED FOR: Crystal and Lee.
WHO SHOULD GO HOME: Didi? Or Katie? One thing’s for sure: All the guys are safe.
WHO VERY WELL MIGHT GO HOME: Could Siobhan be the shock elimination of this season? A crummy performance and the first slot of the night mean maybe. (Although I suspect Didi will be the one to leave.)
JUDGING THE JUDGES: The need for filler tonight meant that there was lots of judge-yammering. And “Fortunately” for us, they seemed to be acutely aware of the fact that they really didn’t have much to say, even though they needed to take a lot of time with their nothingness and nonsense. At least all the extra time allowed Simon to call the other three judges out when he disagreed with them?
NEXT UP: Usher performs a track from his new album, the semi-decent Raymond Vs. Raymond! Ruben Studdard returns to the scene of his triumph! Diddy does something! (Here’s hoping that something is “Tweeting.”) And, of course, more filler.