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They like to change the rules on "American Idol" every season, in an attempt to correct the perceived weaknesses of the year before and to make sure that no matter what happens we hear the same four Whitney Houston songs over and over and over again. This year, instead of splitting the semifinalists up into male and female groups and winnowing down from there, there are three mixed groups of twelve. Three from each show go through, and then there will be a wild card show where twelve losers from the first group of three shows will get a second chance. This is needlessly confusing, utterly defeats contestant momentum, and is quite possibly as fixed as the 2006 NBA Finals. In short, it's the exact forward (backward) thinking that has kept "Idol" such a ratings juggernaut for so long. If you don't like the way they're doing it this year, wait for next season. It'll change.
The biggest argument against 36 finalists instead of 24 that I can think of is that even in a field of 24 the judges have trouble finding enough talent. Tuesday, there were a number of singers -- a majority of singers -- who simply had no business making it this far along. The ghastly, whispery pitch errors of a Stevie Wright ought to be something that gets exposed at the very least by Hollywood week. What exactly is it the producers are looking for, if it's not kids who can carry a tune? Maybe it's "package artists," which is the euphemism Kara uses for "hot girls." With the overhyped Danny "Dead Wife" Gokey, it's a heart-tugging storyline. "If you don't buy my 19 Records debut, it's like you're killing my wife... again!"
What they should really be looking for is kids who can follow instructions -- they should have drawn more heavily on the Salt Lake City auditions. The judges have all but laid out instructions for their pet favorites, and even when it's simple as "slut it up," the contenders have trouble comprehending. Two alleged country singers crashed and burned because they didn't have the self-preservation instincts to tell the band to knock it off with the cheese-metal/Leftoverture electric guitars. Seemingly everybody picked warmed-over Top 40 pablum already humped dry by "Idol" wannabes past, to the extent that Tatiana Del Toro's Whitney rehash actually sounded good in context. In short, the long-awaited beginning to the real "Idol" season sucked the big one. I feel dirty, exhausted, and manipulated. Just like a real pop star in training! Let's move on to the performances.
Jackie Tohn Quick, which made Jackie seem cheaper, her stretch pants-and-sneakers ensemble or her comically broad (affected) Queens accent? Jackie almost certainly was familiarized with Elvis's "A Little Less Conversation" by the popular Junkie XL dance remix of a few years back, and yet she let the band take her back beyond her birth year with a lame disco arrangement. When she was actually singing instead of yelling, Tohn sounded hoarse. She lost pitch for the second verse inclusive and the slow, hip-hop/soul intro was snore-worthy. Overall it had that timeless drunk girl on a cruise ship quality and I was surprised the judges were as gentle on her as they were. 5
Ricky Braddy Massively forgettable, except for his complete inability to hold the microphone steady and his tendency to choke and gasp through each long run. Braddy moved, dressed, and sounded old-fashioned, which is nearly always death on "Idol." Odd since the most reliable voting bloc is women forty and up, but there you have it. Braddy was musically on target more than most on the evening but he swung and missed on most of his falsetto notes. It seemed like Braddy might be better suited to a country style, and he's certainly a better vocalist than the two declared country artists of the evening. But he did "A Song for You" in a straight cabaret fashion and under the old rules at least, that sort of thing rarely plays on "American Idol" for big votes. Particularly among the men. I wouldn't take a second look at him for the wild card show, although there will almost certainly be less gifted vocalists in that field. 7
Alexis Grace Grace benefited from being surrounded by forgettable or worse singers in the early section of the evening's running order. She's one of the more beautiful females in the field and her classy, flapper-like look really suited her, pink streaks and all. I would really like to hear her sing a jazz ballad. She doesn't lack for individual style in a women's field that seems short on it, and that's with particular emphasis on the nature of her vocals, which are raspy without being unmusical in an Amanda Overmyer kind of way. If Grace's "Never Really Loved a Man" was her giving her absolute all, I don't know where she goes from here. Her voice doesn't quite have the magical extra gear that the truly gifted all have. I couldn't help but thinking while she was moving to her climax that Melinda Doolittle wouldn't have left a dry seat in the house on that number. Grace doesn't have that kind of electricity. Perhaps she could grow into it. It might have hurt her ability to soar somewhat that she was ahead of the beat for pretty much the whole song. Props for picking a tune with a bit of a syncopated rhythm, but several demerits for not actually singing along to that rhythm. She's way too young to have a kid. 8
Brent Keith There are a lot more hunky guys in the semifinal group this year, as opposed to the goofy assortment of Chris Slighs and Danny Noriegas we usually get. I have nothing in principle against good-looking men, but they seem as a group to be even worse than the good-looking women at taking charge of their musical destinies. Keith was prepared to sing "Hicktown" and sing it well -- you could see him mentally loading up for each line, and his connection to the song's subject was honest if misplaced. The trouble was that the band absolutely killed him with a wack metal-guitar arrangement that overpowered Keith's modest vocals and made his twang sound confused instead of appropriate. Brent lost pitch obviously and badly for one line in the second verse when he tried to drop down to his bass register -- a technique, by the way, that you just have to have as a male country singer -- but his troubles with the melody elsewhere I largely attributed to the band's ugly off-night. On more than one occasion they just completely blew the singer away, which they're usually commendably good at avoiding. The same vocal over an acoustic arrangement might have been way better. I don't think Keith's tune was as forgettable as the judges made it out to be, but it certainly wasn't memorable for the right reasons. 7
Stevie Wright In her interview bit, Wright's real-girl skin and figure had me recalling Jordin Sparks at this time last season. But then she sang. There was no saving her then. Wright was whisper-weak at the beginning of "You Belong With Me" and never really found the pitch even when she did manage to open up and sing properly. Once she got a bit of a head of steam her stage moves above the waist weren't all that bad, but she kept shuffling from foot to foot with the recognizable gait of a deer in the headlights. Stevie's big debut was so dreadful I couldn't imagine what the judges saw in her that let her make it through even this far. Under the old format, where only one male and one female got sent home each week, she'd have a chance to carry through on viewer sympathy. With this season's rules she's got a fork sticking out of her. 4
Anoop Desai Expectations were high for Anoop, because he's the very picture of what "American Idol" is all about when it works. He's a fresh-faced, regular-looking kid with a ton of talent. His first live performance was a bit of a puzzler, with an incompletely transposed Monica hit ("Angel of Mine") serving as a rather downbeat introduction to the big stage. Desai gave a good pep talk about keeping the energy level high during his intro, but then he did a slow jam, and one in a rather inert arrangement that barely let him stretch out his considerable vocal chops. He's a bit stiff onstage but it's not for lack of confidence; both his presence and his dress style should grow a little more colorful as he moves on. With the other guys on the evening (with the partial exception of Danny Gokey, for whom it's become impossible to separate the manipulation from the talent) you got the idea that you weren't going to get much better out of them. Anoop barely scraped the surface and he should be settling in for a long run where his potential emerges as his self-confidence soars. If he's going to be one of the favorites, he should act like it. More cocky swagger is my main suggestion for his ongoing development. 8
Casey Carlson With little Stevie, you just didn't know what the heck the judges were thinking. For Casey, things were much simpler. She's very pretty, and she wears little hats! She's far more likely than her fellow flop-sweating predecessor to be heard from again, if only in the Maxim magazine context. Casey is clearly dumber than pond water, because she picked "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic." First of all: I hate that song. Boy, do I hate that song. Second of all: Among songs that I hate, "Every Little Thing She Does" is one of the most difficult to sing well, having as it does multiple modulations plus another key change, a double-time section, and lyrics that don't fit the melody in that time-honored Gordon Sumner fashion. Throw that in with the fact that nobody likes it when you change gender pronouns in a cover song, and Carlson was doomed to fail. She had more brutal blue notes than anyone else on the night (although with Stevie it was hard to say since you couldn't hear her) and any time her weak little kitten voice got more than a fifth away from her teensy comfort zone it might as well have been a dog whistle for all the correlation it had to pitch. Her stage moves were clunky, her facial expressions awkward, and she got less and less cute with every second of performance. By the end of it she was a hideous sweaty mess. Quite atrocious, really. The expansion to 36 has been an utter fiasco on the basis of this night. 2
Michael Sarver I bag on "Idol" contestants for their massively swelled egos and lack of perspective all the time. So what am I going to say bad about Michael Sarver, the oil-driller? Well, he could stand to be less modest, grateful, and mature. He threw himself into his dancing like a guy just pleased to be given an opportunity, and his humility and grace made him stick out among the Tatiana Del Toros like a big gush of oil springing from one of those things Sarver works on. The judges liked his change-of-pace attitude so much that Simon made a direct appeal for votes on his behalf. Too bad Sarver was the second guy of the evening to be utterly crushed by a crappy performance from the band. The metal guitar was back, for another country song, and Sarver never connected to the pitch of "I Don't Want to Be," quite possibly because he couldn't hear clearly. He has some grit and character in his voice but if by some miracle he lives on he has to choose his material (and hold back the band's 'roid rage) flawlessly. Every time he finished a line in the verses with the word "other" it seemed as if he was rushing it, as if he'd left it until the last minute. Again, you can blame the band for playing too fast, but the contestants have to take responsibility for telling the band in rehearsal when they're sucking out loud. That's part of the game. 5
Ann Marie Boskovitch Another gratuitously horrible song choice, from a girl with the right mixture of looks and mild vocal talent to make a Kristy Lee Cook run in another universe. What a hugely stupid pick of "Natural Woman." I mean, not only does everyone in the universe know that song, most people know two or three different versions. Ann Marie could have sang it better than she'd ever sang anything in her entire life, and it still would have paled next to the universal cultural memory of Aretha's version, not to mention Carole King's. I mean, you're a skinny white girl with a halfway decent voice for a Sheryl Crow tribute band. Are you dumber than a can of paint? Don't touch "Natural Woman," you flipping idiot. Boskovitch did OK I guess, although I was too busy raging at her stupidity to notice all of her pitch errors. She was obviously miles more talented than Casey or Stevie, which makes her massive idiocy that much more unforgivable. Pick almost any other song and you're golden, since the only female singer better was Tatiana who almost everybody hates. But no. 6
Stephen Fowler Bummer for the stylin', likable Stephen, who lost his confidence with an audition-round slip-up and never recovered. His "Rock With You" was utterly undistinguished. Fowler has a more naturally sexy voice than any of the other guys who sang Tuesday, but he picked a song that is rendered sterile by its immortal association to a singer whose sexuality everyone finds too creepy to think about. Stephen didn't pick the right key for the song and sounded drab and off-pitch for most of it, then he overcorrected by piling on the runs at the very end. He's more musical than any of the other dudes, save maybe Danny, but that just made his weak showing so much more the pity. Like Anoop, he could have absolutely seized the night by the throat and made it his own, but unlike Anoop, he didn't get massive amounts of play in the early shows and can't coast. A sensible choice for the wild card show, since the perception is he's the guy with nine lives. 7
Tatiana Del Toro She's crazy, possibly dangerous, and poison to the hopes of all who cross her path. Can she be stopped? Tatiana, she of the manic laugh and monstrously swelled self-worth, fell into a fortuitous double-bluff situation when everyone else in the night's competition picked songs even worse than she did. "Saving All My Love" ought to be right near the top of the heap of Whitney, Celine, and Mariah songs when "Idol" belatedly puts together its "never again" song list. But... but... but... against all odds Tatiana sang her little malicious heart out, almost completely nailing a very difficult melody. She was a bit raspy at points and fluffed one of the high notes, but by the low standards of the rest of the night's ladies she was very nearly perfect. People might not still vote for her because they're afraid she's going to fly into their houses on her broomstick and eat their babies. I almost think, maybe it's better for all of us if she's on "Idol" where there's cameras keeping tabs on her at all times. 9
Danny "Dead Wife" Gokey Danny's performance of the Mariah Carey warhorse "Hero" was more or less impossible to judge on its own merits. See, his wife died. If you don't vote for him and then buy his record, you are basically a horrible person. So with that in mind it's tough to critique him neutrally. He looks a lot better without his glasses, as the results from his first glamour photo session bear out. I wonder if the "Idol" stylists are afraid to drop a hint because without the glasses, we might possibly forget that he's the dead wife guy. Gokey like Anoop has raw talent to spare, but it's hard to see how he'll ever get any better if the nonstop dead wife love train from the judges doesn't slow down. His technique is not good, as his breathing often gets ragged and he keeps opening and closing his throat like he's drinking a glass of water. On the other hand you can't really knock him for leaving anything on the table, like so many of the other promising voices on a disappointing night. The producers gave him the cherry last-of-the-night slot basically inviting him to spill his guts out all over the shiny "Idol" stage and he picked up the ball and ran with it. He even gave the most darling little nonspecific speech about life after loss. Many others with living spouses were not so wise. Plus, with nearly everyone else making such lobotomized song choices, Danny and "Hero" came out seeming an inspired pair. The judges sure couldn't knock him for lacking a connection to that one, even if the melody's transposition to a male register played as about 75% shouting. He is an absolute stone cold lead pipe cinch to be one of the leading vote-getters. 8
No way Danny "Dead Wife" doesn't cruise until at least the Top 10. Beside him, I like Alexis Grace and Anoop Desai. For wild card consideration, I give you Stephen Fowler and Oil Guy. Ann Marie is a possibility as well, mostly based on her audition clips. As for Tatiana, I think she's just engendered way too much ill will among the voting public to survive a format that seems deliberately reorganized to keep her ilk out. She may have a bright future ahead of herself as Secretary of State. Or Queen of Scotland.