Last night American Idol showcased the ten remaining men in the competition, and for the most part, the singing was middling-to-good. But the performances were largely overshadowed by the judges' reaction to poor Charlie Askew, who wore an outfit that was straight out of a 1991 Auto Shop III class, complete with lengthy earring made visible by his ponytail, and sang Genesis's "Mama." His performance was imperfect, with some mumbled vocals and over-the-top theatrics, but it was markedly better than his effort last week; he wasn't shaking, and his voice landed more confidently, although his octave leaps paled in comparison to Adam Lambert.
But the judges were not having it. Keith Urban called out his realness; Nicki Minaj took his outfit to task and wondered, "Who stole my little kid?" Randy Jackson was perplexed by the whole thing and was probably the out-and-out meanest; it looked like he was holding back laughter at one point.
And Charlie was just flummoxed. The poor kid. He was skating through on nice comments that basically embraced his self-described weirdness, and to see all the judges pile on him at once shock him was absolutely uncomfortable television. At least Zoanette took her lumps well enough on Tuesday. It's worth noting that Ryan Seacrest was completely on point here, going into therapist mode and softening up just enough for the 17-year-old (ahem) to actually get some composure and tell the judges that he needed to let out the raw, deep feelings behind his constant smiles. (Perhaps here we can note that "Mama," according to Phil Collins, is "about a young teenager that's got a mother fixation with a prostitute that he's just happened to have met in passing and he has such a strong feeling for her and doesn't understand why she isn't interested in him.") He left the stage before Ryan tossed to commercial. That's how awkward it was.
I don't know if the combination of his meltdown and the judges' pile-on will result in him getting sympathy votes, and I honestly think that he might be best on the "fan favorites who didn't quite make it" circuit, where the spotlight can be a little less glaring if you don't fall down the reality-TV rabbit hole. But he did noticeably recover by show's end, blowing a kiss to the camera... just in time for the voting to start. So we might be seeing him again next week.
Other than Charlie's meltdown, last night had a couple of gender-bent performances (two half-Aguileras and a Rihanna), lots of praise to God, and one really overzealous backup singer. The contestants, in order of my personal preference:
1. BURNELL TAYLOR. Cheated a bit by reprising "I'm Here," his audition song, although he claimed that he did so because he wanted the viewers at home to hear more of the lyrics. Mm hmm. Still, he has the best pure voice out of all of the guys, and hearing him run this song up the flagpole once more was thrilling.
2. CURTIS FINCH, JR. Torched R. Kelly's "I Belive I Can Fly" closing-hymn style, and while there were parts of the performance that made me sad I missed Jacob Lusk's performance of Kells tunes in Montreal last year, the hosannas he recieved from all four judges at the end were well-deserved. Also, did you know that "Believe" came to R. Kelly in a dream... when he was nine?
3. PAUL JOLLEY. Taking on both sides of a duet is risky, especially when both singers involved are also judges from a rival singing show. Yet Paul's supple voice handled the Christina Aguilera/Blake Shelton duet "Just A Fool" quite well; sure, there were tonal shifts during his performance, but I didn't mind them as much as the judges seemed to.
4. VINCENT POWELL. I had high hopes for Vincent after his Top 40 performance, but he tried to do too much on his performance of "End Of The Road" last night—overseasoning the stew, or something like that. To be fair, Boyz II Men's early-'90s ballad is a showcase for harmonies as much as it is for any one singer, and that might have perplexed Vincent as far as figuring out an arrangement.
5. DEVIN VELEZ. Once again, the cherub-cheeked Chicagoan played to his Spanish-speakers-and-moms base by singing the 43-year-old "Somos Novios," which was originally recorded by Perry Como (in English) and which in the past 10 years has been recorded as an Andrea Bocelli/Christina Aguilera duet and as a solo track by Clay Aiken. (Again, playing to the base.) Like he did during top-40 week, he performed the song half in English and half in Spanish. His voice has an angularity to it that will suit the Latino pop world well, although I still think the combination of factors he has in his favor (young, cute, bilingual, loves his mom) means he'll be one of the singers who makes it to at least the first week of May.
6. NICK BODDINGTON. This year's lone remaining White Guy With An Instrument took to the piano for a performance of the Goo Goo Dolls' "Iris"—a completely savvy move that probably won him some votes by default. His voice has a bit of a Justin Timberlake whine when he's pushing it too far, but it also possesses a lovely roundness when he doesn't strain.
7. ELIJAH LIU. The chatter that the judges engage in after every single one of Elijah's performances is so strange—it's much more focused on his marketability than on his singing. He went first and performed Rihanna's "Stay," and was competent enough, if a little gesture-y and awkwardly phrased at points. He's definitely cute, though, and the judges just want to eat him up. Nicki showed her age by comparing the merchandise he could sell to that hawked by New Kids On The Block back in the day. Do you think she was a Donnie girl? She had to be, right?
8. CHARLIE ASKEW. See above.
9. LAZARO ARBOS. Lazaro is the feel-good story of this year's crop of guys, overcoming a speech impediment to make it all the way to the top 20. But his performance of the Idol standard "Feeling Good" was problematic, rife with diction and phrasing issues and a couple of spots that were out-and-out off-key. The crowd went nuts for him, with Randy even pulling out the old "in it to win it" chestnut (how am I already sick of certain catchphrases when we have two and a half months to go). Only Mariah pointed out the obvious issues with his performance, although she also praised his ability to throw himself into his song. Given Charlie's treatment last night, I can't help but think that if Lazaro makes it through to the Top 10 he's next to be thrown under the bus.
10. CORTEZ SHAW. Oh, man, this made me so sad. Cortez was the first person all week to do an uptempo song, choosing Bruno Mars's "Locked Out Of Heaven." But his performance was just not good at all. He lost control of his breath; he seemed more focused on his dancing, to be honest. Also, who was the backup singer who was really loudly scatting to the point of distraction? I get wanting to mimic the arrangement on the record, but that guy should get 40 lashes with a wet Unorthodox Jukebox booklet.
HOW I (WOULD HAVE) VOTED: 20 for Burnell, 20 for Vincent, 10 for Curtis.
WHO'S PROBABLY GOING TO GO THROUGH: Nick will appeal to those Idol viewers who have historically voted for your Matt Girauds and your Kris Allens; Paul will lock in the country vote; Devin appeals to both moms and the Latino audience. That leaves two spots that are utterly up for grabs. Lazaro's smooth looks and up-from-the-depths backstory might appeal, although his performance was way overpraised; the judges' banging the audience over the head about Elijah's "marketability" (and his admitted cuteness) could help him. Burnell has, pardon the not-intentional pun, a barnburner vocal style, as does Curtis—could both of them go through? (Honestly, if Vincent had performed a bit stronger tonight, he'd be a lock.)
The wild card here is Charlie. Will the judges' cutting comments and his reaction to them—not to mention the support of Vote For The Worst—result in lots of supervoting in his favor?
WHO WILL GET ROBBED: Cortez, unfortunately, robbed himself during his lackluster performance of that Bruno Mars song.
TONIGHT: The Top 10 is revealed in a 90-minute spectacular! And who knows, maybe it'll be a Top 12, given that the ladies are just so much better than the guys this year and the producers really want to get the dudes as out of there as possible.