Boys’ night on the “American Idol” semi-final was simultaneously the most boring and the most compelling show this season. On a night where most contestants stuck to mid-‘90s throwback songs, and one of the only contemporary numbers got compared to Sting and the Police, there wasn’t exactly a lot of edge or currency or defining moments or anything, really, to make you want to give away your Facebook privacy rights and SuperVote. By the end of the episode, even Nicki Minaj was doing what we all were doing throughout—playing with her phone.
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At the same time, something incredibly heartfelt and extremely uncomfortable happened that will make this show go down in history for having one of the best contestant meltdowns ever. Charlie Askew, the self-proclaimed “awkward turtle,” gave a raging performance of Genesis’ “Mama” (1983). With his arms bare and somewhat muscular in a tank top, with a long feather earring, and with his hair pulled back in a ponytail, he was like a young girl fronting her hometown screamo band.
After some dreadful comments from the judges, most condescendingly from Nicki (“Where’s my little baby at, Charlie? I feel like someone stole my kid.”), Charlie countered that he needed to vent. On the verge of tears, he explained, “The only reason I smile so much is because I feel like I have to.” Heart=broken! Ryan Seacrest very sweetly told him that it’s not easy to be up there on stage and feel the way he does inside. It was wonderful and tender, and the only thing that could ruin it was Ryan then saying, “Now give us a real smile.” Still, can you imagine Khloe Kardashian’s reaction to that whole scene on “The X Factor”? “Phenomenal!”
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Depressive breakdown aside, many of the other contestants blended into one another on Wednesday. Elijah Liu had the judges talking about his look and salability more than his signing, with Nicki hoping to see his face “on blankets and cups.”
Cortez Shaw also had an image that overrode his strained performance of Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven,” complete with distracting background vocals and electronic whizzes and whirs. Somewhere in Mariah Carey’s meandering feedback, she compared it to a Sting song. But Nicki couldn’t look past “the long johns” he had on, which were actually khakis and a jean vest, but still, not “your sex takes me to paradise” material.
Nick Boddington, who was on after Charlie, is another sensitive, effeminate guy, but he offered a little more stability than his predecessor. Playing piano, he sang Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” (1998), one of Nicki’s favorite songs (which is so insightful). It was small, it was nice. But he’s a little too camera-aware. He’s singing “I don’t want the world to see me,” but I want to stare at you in the face? The judges felt he was comfortable, which he clearly was, but the performance was a little too under the radar.
Burnell Taylor—best of the night. With his massive weight loss since his audition, plus shaving all his hair and getting giant hipster glasses, (plus what is that? A backwards hat that looks like it has flowers embroidered in Easter colors?), I didn’t totally believe it was still the same guy. But then he sang his audition song, “I’m Here,” from “The Color Purple” and then it was like, “Oh, you’re THAT guy!” Keith Urban gave him a standing ovation, and Mariah said he made her cry again like he did in the audition, although she was not crying or moving her face much at all, other than her mouth that kept opening and words that kept coming out, sometimes intelligibly, sometimes not.
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Burnell’s a definite front-runner for the boys. Paul Jolley not so much. Following Burnell, it was clear how little he connects at all. He sang “Just a Fool,” and was all smiley and happy and fake throughout. Since Paul said he wants to be the male Taylor Swift, the judges all pretty much demurred to Keith, who refused to actually say whether or not he even liked the performance. Ryan tried to pull it out of him, but all he’d say is that Paul doesn’t realize how good he is. Whereas Taylor Swift is quite the opposite.
Lazaro Arbos, whose pants were just a tad too tight in his, uh, intimate area, did “Feeling Good,” and he did it well. I know it’s great and all that he’s here, how all these kids are reaching out to him and being all inspired by his stutter. But I don’t know about him. Something about his Hollywood group performance bugged me, and I don’t quite feel like he’s genuinely a nice guy. But I’m probably the only person in America who feels this way, because Lazaro is quite popular, with the most official Twitter and Facebook followers of the male bunch. He’s not going anywhere.
And here’s where it got super ‘90s. “I Believe I Can Fly” (1996), one of the most overdone “Idol” songs, got another round in the spotlight, courtesy of Curtis Finch, Jr., who gave it its gospel due with some profoundly powerful moments and a Joshua Ledet-style breakdown at the end. All four judges stood for him, and Nicki just lost it with one of her love-rants, this one about how “people are hurting” and need his music. Can you imagine if Nicki had been a judge last year with Joshua on the show? Her head would explode.
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Devin Velez, the Latino Josh Groban, sang a Perry Como song. That has got to be a first on this show. Also his bleached ‘90s teen boy hair? Nicki called him a Spanish Ken doll. The judges were pretty happy, and Devin’s got the moms in the bag, but will the teens with the powers of the SuperVote go for him?
Finally Vincent Powell, who, I should point out, wore a red turtleneck with a purple and pink polka dot scarf in his intro video, was trying to move beyond Nicki’s critique of last week that 40 and 50-year-old women were into him. So, not much progress there. He did “End of the Road” (1992), and I thought it seemed pretty good, but the judges were not into it. Keith felt Vincent’s nerves, and Nicki said his voice didn’t come alive.
But other than Curtis, whose did, really? Here’s my personal ranking for the “Idol” boys, along with their official Twitter and Facebook followers.
1. Burnell Taylor (Twitter: 5,802; FB: 607)
2. Curtis Finch, Jr. (Twitter: 2,695; Facebook: 1,434)
3. Lazaro Arbos (Twitter: 13,113; Facebook: 5,103)
4. Nick Boddington (Twitter: 2,812; FB: 1,422)
5. Elijah Liu (Twitter: 2,448; Facebook: 474)
6. Cortez Shaw (Twitter: 3,360: Facebook: 771)
7. Devin Velez (Twitter: 2,991; Facebook: 481)
8. Vincent Powell (Twitter: 1,168; Facebook: 556)
9. Paul Jolley (Twitter: 4,674; Facebook: 2,355)
10. Charlie Askew (Twitter: 4,544; Facebook: 515)