The real fun for American Idol kicked off last night as the 13 finalists took the stage. For the most part, things were more of the same -- yes, the stage is very pretty, the mosh pit between the judges and the stage has been replaced by a screen upon which performers can walk (which led to the humorous image of Jasmine Murray on the screen seemingly looking up the skirt of Jasmine Murray in real life), and rather than Ryan introducing the judges to us, we were introduced to them via a separate announcer as the judges emerged from the stage in a very dramatic and pretentious fashion. But the more things change, the more they stay the same. Simon was in his usual attire, Paula's outfit was a little over the top, and when Simon was introduced, you could hear Randy leading the boos. (Which I always find incredibly rude and inappropriate -- as my sis yells every time, "He is your CO-WORKER!!")
Ryan confirmed what we all knew -- that this week was a Michael Jackson-themed week, which makes me say, "Really?" How many times over the past seasons have contestants been told that MJ is "untouchable"? How many times over the past seasons have contestants been ripped apart for tackling a Michael Jackson song? So here's a great idea -- after spending seven years lambasting singers for singing Jackson, let's make them ALL sing Michael Jackson. I guess they all go down together or soar together.
And for the most part, they did a pretty decent job. This seems like a pretty deep season in terms of talent, and last night was a relatively enjoyable evening. So let's take a look at our contestants and see who soared and who might be needing to pack those bags for home.
1. Lil Rounds: This is the producer's attempt to prove that they aren't trying to pimp singers over others. They place one of the "chosen triumvirate" first, which everyone knows can be a really big handicap for a singer to overcome. Her video introduction played up her sob story -- she and her husband and their three kids are living in an extended stay hotel after their home was destroyed by a tornado. When Lil took the stage, I was struck by her pretty icky looking outfit. I hated the mom pants and the fluffball at her shoulder. (The pink was a lovely shade on her, and I did like her makeup, as Paula pointed out) Her performance of "The Way You Make Me Feel" was quite strong and a good, energetic way to kick things off. Lil reminds me a bit of Fantasia Barrino (one of my all-time favorite Idols). Lil has the sort of powerhouse voice that Fantasia has, but Lil lacks Fantasia's sense of abandon. Lil always seems 100% in control of her voice whereas it often felt like Fantasia was 10 notes away from bursting.
2. Scott McIntyre: Scott was the first finalist to tackle an instrument, sitting behind the piano for his quite nice rendition of "Keep the Faith." Simon called Scott's performance "old fashioned," and while I agree with him, that's really what I liked about it. I love those old singer-songwriters like Billy Joel and James Taylor, and Scott really fits in with that era. Scott could release an album and sell a lot of copies, but the buyers would all be people my age and older, which is, unfortunately, not the demographic this show is going after. A couple other things about Scott -- can we please let go of the inspirational message crap? Yes, the guy is blind. Yes, he's had to overcome that to become an accomplished and gifted musician. Can we just leave it at that and not turn every performance into a Lifetime movie? To me, it's more insulting to fawn over his "magic" than just appreciate a good performance and let the blind thing go unmentioned. And speaking of Scott's "magic", we have my favorite quote of the night when Kara said, "It's so magical to see your instrument at your fingertips." Oh, Kara . . . that's what she said.
At this point, too, I have to applaud Simon for being pretty blunt and honest this season about the purpose of the show. During the Wild Card episode, Simon flat out said that they were "casting" the show and looking for personalities. Last night, following Scott's performance, he said, "It's fine being artistic -- just not on this show." After eight seasons, we're finally being honest. This is NOT an artistic competition or even a singing competition -- it's about style and personality. That's how we get winners like Ruben Studdard, Taylor Hicks, and Jordan Sparks. I've understood that from day one. I'm just glad we're finally all honest about it.
3. Danny Gokey -- Okay, I've been back and forth on Danny all season. Initially, I was touched by his story -- until I was fed his story for hours on end by the producers. Last night's video, I think, did a lot to help win back those people who liked Danny at the beginning. Never once was Danny's dead wife mentioned. Instead, we met his family who had the charming habit of basically narrating life through song. That sounds lame, I know, unless you're someone like me who does the same thing. I sing to my cat, sing to my sis, sing to my car . . . constantly. I also think Danny is super cute, but super cute has never swayed my voting. Honest! On top of it, Danny sang one of my favorite Michael Jackson songs when I was in junior high -- "PYT." And he was really good. Yeah, his dancing was kind of lame, but at least HE knew it. And as someone who also has been known to flail a little spastically when singing . . . I understand!
4. Michael Sarver -- I honestly keep forgetting this guy is even on the show. His video was nice, but did anyone else find his kid a little creepy. (Who was creepier last night -- Sarver's kid or Scott's sister who appeared behind Randy during his critiques? I know Scott's sister is blind, but her stoneface was still a little offputting at times.) Michael performed one of my least favorite Michael Jackson songs, "You Are Not Alone." I guess it was an okay performance. The song is just so damn treacly that I couldn't get over that. On top of it, Michael seems to have the faint whiff of jag about him -- that same sort of douchey-ness that I often sensed about Josh Gracin. Being placed middle of the pack may not help Michael's chances much either.
5. Jasmine Murray -- I just find Jasmine exceptionally dull. She's this sort of precious teen who seems way more mature than she should be, which is probably due to the big age difference between her and her siblings, but still! Her performance of "I'll Be There" was just kind of boring. My sister said it felt like she was auditioning for "Annie," while I thought it felt more like the talent portion of the Miss Teen USA pagaent. When even Paula is critical of your performance, kid, you know you're in trouble.
6. Kris Allen: Okay, this guy is really flippin' adorable. (But again, my votes are not based on cuteness . . . but if they were there would be a whole lotta calls to 1-866-IDOL-06 on my phone bill next month!) He also brought out his instrument (THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID) for his performance of "Remember the Time." It seemed like kind of an odd choice for an acoustic guitar performance, but he does have a sort of John Mayer-y vibe that could help him out. That and that smile. (I couldn't help but laugh when Simon told him he had brought out the wife too soon . . . and thinking, "Someone shoulda told that to Danny Gokey!")
7. Allison Iraheta: Wow. Hair dye really can change your ethnic appearance. Allison is Salvadoran which I can totally see now (and after having seen her perform with her natural hair color at what appeared to be a Latin Costco) but had no clue of before. She sang "Give In To Me," a lesser known song. Not knowing the original version, I don't know how much Allison changed the song to give it that awesome rock edge. She really kicks a lot of ass. I think she's my favorite!
8. Anoop Desai: First off, Anoop picked "Beat It." Wow. That's ballsy. It is perhaps one of the most iconic songs in the Jackson canon. Anoop has good presence, but the performance just didn't work for me. His range wasn't really evident, and it did sound a tad karaoke.
9. Jorge Nunez: Jorge also pulled out a Jackson 5 tune -- "Never Can Say Good-Bye." It felt really odd and dated. I think Jorge is a decent singer, but I kind of wonder if he's not a little out of his league here. And it doesn't help that he now represents to me that Ju'not is at home and NOT competing even though he should be.
10. Megan Corkery: Another Jackson 5 tune -- "Rockin' Robin." Megan is cute, but man, this was a cheesy performance. By this point in the night, I was growing really tired of all this.
11. Adam Lambert: I will start this off by acknowledging that Adam has a great voice. He does. The thing is, I always feel like Adam is playing the part of a rock star rather than BEING a rock star. Compare him to someone like Chris Daughtery. Chris felt real and raw and genuine. Adam's performance of "Black and White" was solid in terms of notes and voice and pitch and all that jazz, but there is a lack of realness to this guy, this sense that he is the robo-Idol, manufactured somewhere in a lab to become the ultimate American Idol -- "We'll take a little bit of Daughtery, maybe a splash of Constantine, add a little Clay Aiken for good measure . . . ." I just don't know if my love affair with this show can last if someone so crassly manufactered wins the competition.
12. Matt Giraud: Another musician -- Matt broke out the piano for "Human Nature." It was an all right performance -- nothing particularly memorable. And he did have the misfortune of following Adam.
13. Alexis Grace: Poor Alexis thought she was getting the pimp spot. Unfortunately, Alexis was the unlucky 13th contestant of the night. For those of you who don't know, it turns out that Idol did not own 1-866-IDOL-13. That number belonged to a phone sex hotline, so Idol had to scramble and came up with 1-866-IDOL-36. So people who wanted to vote for Alexis had to overcome that handicap and hope her voters were smart enough to call the right number. Her performance of "Dirty Diana" felt kind of rushed and just didn't quite work for me, even though I do still really like her.
In all, it was a strong night. I would guess that the two contestants heading home will most likely be Jasmine and Anoop, although Michael or Jorge will probably join them in the bottom three. I think once we get rid of some of these safer, more boring performers, though, this season could really be a hot one -- even if Paula has already determined that it will be a Danny-Adam final.