Last night America got its first glimpse at the finalist pack of American Idol, and overall things were pretty OK. No singer had a perfect performance—everyone either went off-pitch or got super-boring at least once—and the pacing of the show seemed slightly off, perhaps because it was taped on Tuesday night and there were a few awkward edits.
The theme of the night was "Your Personal Idol," and while some of the choices were eyebrow-raising (R. Kelly, Jacob? Huh!) and others made me wonder if the singers had decided that they were going to sing ballads no matter what, theme weeks be damned. If only the professional producers like Don Was, "Tricky" Stewart, and Rock Mafia (aka the people behind the sparkling deep teenpop cut "Another Dumb Blonde") had stepped in to discourage the singers from their gloppy ways! Instead, they aided and abetted them, sometimes to not-ideal results.
The 13 singers, in order of my approval:
(You might notice that there's a bit of gender imbalance in my rankings—five of the seven female singers are clustered in the bottom of the pack, which is sorta disappointing to me, particularly for a show that was taped on International Women's Day. (It was Tuesday, for those of you who were confused by Steven Tyler's salute after Pia Toscano's rafters-shaking performance of "All By Myself.") I wish the female contestants who had made it through to the Top 13 were more interesting or just better, but only Naima Adedapo and Pia Toscano were able to put compelling spins on their songs or, really, be any good at all. If only Rachel Zevita and Lauren Turner had stuck around!)
13. Karen Rodriguez. Her devotion to the late Selena was better revealed by her doll collection and the home videos of her dressed up as the singer than by her awkward rendition of "I Could Fall In Love." Poor girl was just swallowed up by the whole night.
12. Thia Megia. Oh great, another young singer who doesn't realize when she's singing a sad song. (Here, "Smile.") Does America really need this again?
11. Haley Reinhart. Started off-key, attempted to yodel, smiled a bunch throughout "Blue," which, you might be interested to know, is a longing song about unrequited love. At least she matched her dress to her song choice!
10. Lauren Alaina. Like those before her, Lauren was done few favors by Shania Twain's slightly manic "Any Man Of Mine," although it should be noted that she kept her wits about her better than Mandisa did in Season Five and way better than Siobhan Magnus did about a year ago. Still, her movements around the stage were awkward and her pouty-faced reaction to being mildly criticized for picking a song that didn't really show off her talents definitely did not help her case one bit.
9. Ashthon Jones. Taking the Diana Ross comparison that Randy gave her last week to heart, brain, and body, she showed up in a flowy silver sheath and sang a Miss Ross tune that she hoped would show off her "elegant" side. If by "elegant" she meant "slightly yelly and making lots of dramatic hand gestures," it worked!
8. Scotty McCreery. Scotty's laid-back drawly country aesthetic is pretty much the antithesis of my thing, but he wore it well during his performance of Garth Brooks' "The River" and will probably have a successful touring career after he's eliminated during Top Five week.
7. Stefano Langone. Taking on Stevie Wonder is a risk for any Idol contestant, and the pepped-up arrangement of "Lately" that he put together with Polow Da Don made me wonder if their chief inspiration for the song had been Polow's charge Lloyd. This is not a bad thing! If anything, the idea of Stefano as an ascendant R&B crooner is something that makes me very excited—in a year when the phrase "total package" has been used over and over again, his combination of good looks and heart-melting cuteness adds up to exactly that.
6. Pia Toscano. Yes, she hit most of her marks on her Celine Dion-inspired cover of Eric Carmen's "All By Myself." And her voice had a full quality that distinguished her performance from that of her Québecois idol's. But would it have killed her to have filled out more of her 90 seconds of singing time with something that wasn't the words "all," "by," and "myself" repeated ad nauseam? Technical prowess is not very intriguing when it's delivered in such a rote fashion.
5. Naima Adedapo. Say what you will about her windedness in parts on "Umbrella"—and again I say, why does anyone sing Rihanna in this setting when even she can't—but the reggae breakdown, which Naima apparently cooked up with the original track's producer, "Tricky" Stewart, added quite the jolt to the end of the night and made me want to just hear her perform like that every week.
4. Jacob Lusk. Whoa, bringing out the gospel choir already, Idol producers? Jacob's take on "I Believe I Can Fly" meandered a bit at the outset, but when he got back on track he got back on track, going high and basically trying to turn the Idol stage into his own personal revival tent.
3. James Durbin. To these ears he still sounds kind of like Adam Lambert after a partial removal of his diaphragm, but his take on "Maybe I'm Amazed" was more restrained than his previous performances and I was surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did. Perhaps getting his hair cut in the same style as Ryan Seacrest's tamed him a bit?
2. Paul McDonald. Yes, his dancing was awkward and made me hope that he wasn't planning to sing "Mr. Bojangles" next week. Yes, Ryan Adams isn't exactly Idol material. But his performance was pretty solid, if a little off-pitch here and there, and the way he oozes charm means that he's definitely safe this week. (Also, does Jennifer Lopez's ignorance of Ryan Adams mean that she's never been to a cocktail party with Mandy Moore? That kinda bums me out!)
1. Casey Abrams. He first heard "With A Little Help From My Friends" on The Wonder Years! Probably in reruns, since that show went off the air when he was two years old. (Oh man.) Anyway, he went all out for his performance, even trying a Joe Cocker-like yelp that at first threatened to go a little bit Gokey Scream but that righted itself just fine. Not sure why the producers gave him and Jacob the backup-singer treatment that's usually reserved for important occasions like the finale and "Idol Gives Back," but here's hoping that it isn't a prelude to thw two of them being given the Lauren Alaina Hard Sell.
WHO I VOTED FOR: Paul, Jacob, and Naima.
WHO SHOULD PROBABLY GO HOME: Karen struggled, but Thia was completely boring and way off the mark in her interpretation.
WHO WILL GO HOME: But Thia has the "oh she's so cute" vote sewn up, so she's probably safe this week. Look for Karen—who even got the "you look so nice" Paula Abdul treatment from Jennifer Lopez about the horrible sequined pantsuit she designed, because there was nothing else good to say about her inert performance—to get sent packing.
Next up: One person goes home! And Adam Lambert shows up, which should really make James Durbin happy.