American Idol Review: It’s a (Wo)Man’s World

Full speed ahead, readers! We’re midway through the semi-finals, which means at this time next week, we’ll be anxiously awaiting the definitive assembly of Season Nine’s Top 12. Can you believe it? Seems like yesterday the world was without knowledge of “Pants on the Ground,” anyone with the name Siobhan and more than one version of Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up.” Today, at least one faithful viewer (ahem) is now riddled with Bowersox fever and contempt for all things Jermaine – two conditions unbeknownst mere weeks ago.

Tuesday night’s installment of American Idol begins with the unexpected, eleventh hour twist of having the guys perform first instead of the girls. Speaking of Bowersox fever, this season’s arguable front runner has been hospitalized for undisclosed reasons, thus delaying the girls’ performances one night and giving the guys less rehearsal time than they’d planned. Seacrest says the guys “agreed” to switch and perform first, which seems unlikely (I seriously doubt they were presented with a choice), but they’re troopers nonetheless.

Cue the staircase-descending parade of this evening’s lineup and even more redundant judges’ introduction. Simon is booed, as usual (people really don’t like the truth, do they?), and Kara gives the audience a pageant-friendly wave. Randy doesn’t think the last-minute switcheroo will ultimately matter, because at this stage of the competition it’s still “guys versus guys and girls versus girls.” In light of Crystal’s absence, Seacrest asks Ellen if she’s ever “missed a show,” referring to her namesake daytime juggernaut. Without missing a beat, Ellen deadpans that she misses American Gladiators. Oh, E.

With two less contestants each on Tuesday and Wednesday, yet still the inexplicable two-hour time slot to fill on both nights, Seacrest says we’ll be given “a little more insight” into each performer – a slick way to warn us of the fluffy time filler ahead. Big Mike is up first, and I’m hoping “more insight” in his case has nothing to do with a certain cherubic addition to his family. Thankfully, it doesn’t. Instead, we learn Big Mike was a theater geek as a kid, and even went to a performing arts high school. He balanced out his time on stage with football and weightlifting, all this culminating to the musically inclined personal trainer we now know.

Tonight he’s singing “This Is A Man’s World” by James Brown, and I can tell he’s trying to depart from the guitar-strumming Top 40 Big Mike we’ve seen so far. Within the first measure, it’s already shaping up to be a great way to open the show, and by the last measure I feel like I’ve seen Big Mike really perform for the first time. His voice sounded much clearer than usual, and this style of song fits him like a glove. I’m quite impressed overall, and I can’t imagine the judges being anything less than delighted by this surprise showstopper. Indeed, Randy starts shouting with glee almost immediately, calling Mike an “R&B star” and even gives him a standing O. Ellen says he’s “the one to beat,” Kara admits she “didn’t get it…until tonight,” and Simon agrees it’s his best performance yet. I’m joining the club and stamping my approval. A

What poor sap has to follow that? It’s Northwestern student John Park. After underwhelming everyone last week with “God Bless the Child,” John wisely decides to join the 21st century this week by singing “Gravity” in a strategically worn v-neck t-shirt and jeans. In the “more insight” pre-performance clip, John hilariously says “Purple Haze has been very supportive” of his stint on Idol, then quickly specifies that Purple Haze is the name of his a cappella group at college. Ha! John also grew up speaking Korean and learned English as his second language.

The song choice this week is an undeniable improvement, and he does have a technically good voice, but there’s no way this kid could possibly win this thing. Randy agrees he doesn’t have the star power needed to be a successful recording artist, and Kara says he lacks connection to what he’s singing. Simon succinctly declares he thinks, “Purple Haze may be getting their singer back” this week, and I have to acknowledge this as a distinct possibility. Not bad, John, but not good enough, I’m afraid. C+

Casey James has never watched American Idol. Fair enough, but upon further insight we learn Casey has gone entirely without television since age six. What has he done with all the free time? Why, he has purchased and renovated his own house, and learned to shred the electric guitar – the latter evident in his rendition of Gavin DeGraw’sOne Tree Hill theme “I Don’t Wanna Be,” a song I don’t hate but would be okay with never hearing again for the rest of my life. Casey proves he’s a bona fide musician, but his vocals this evening are disproportionate to his instrumental skills. His phrases sound choppy and unpolished, and I have no choice but to acknowledge the vast superiority of last week’s performance. Randy loves the guitar work “from one musician to another,” but Kara says he “took two steps backwards,” a statement with which I sadly agree, and Simon says he lacks “grit,” and comes across as someone “trying to be a rock star.” I personally think he’s just having an off night and has possibly focused too much energy on the guitar. My high hopes for Casey remain intact despite tonight’s slip. B

Alex Lambert is up next, and the not-so-fun fact about him is his debilitating propensity for stage fright. He goes so far as to tell us he “usually throws up” before nerve-racking events such as football games and singing on the highest-rated television show in the universe. His off-kilter demeanor tonight isn’t quite as, um, alienating as I’ve found it in previous episodes, but he does explain the invention of his own language in sixth grade that helps him in the songwriting process. The demonstration sounds like he’s speaking in tongues, and we’re not given any subtitles or translation – I’ll be up all night wondering what he said. Tonight he’s singing “Everybody Knows,” by John Legend, and he’s accompanying his vocals with an acoustic guitar.

You could knock me over with a feather right now, because I actually find this an endearing and successful performance. Seriously! There’s not a bad note in the bunch (a true rarity on Idol) and his stage presence is much calmer and more discernible (read: it exists) than last week. The judges are also pleasantly surprised: Ellen remarks it’s like the “unripe banana” was “put in a paper bag,” and Kara says “people would die to have that tone.” Randy is enthused because he also has his own language. Huh. Believe it, folks. A-

Todrick Hall has some damage control to take care of after last week’s confusing showcase of style over substance. He’s rather articulate and conversational, though, as evidenced when he explains his choice to sing Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” It’s partly, he says, because the judges won’t be able to compare him to the original artist. Smart. I can really tell how badly he wants this and is putting genuine thought into his performances, but the execution, sadly, falls flat. A for effort, but the hackneyed move of using one’s fists to indicate emphasis is a deal breaker for me. I know he’s trying to sing more and dance less, per the judges’ recommendation, but Simon dismisses it as a “theme park” performance and Ellen says the song choice won’t garner votes. I think Tod’s in trouble. C+

Brace yourselves, readers. My disdain for Jermaine Sellers is reaching epic proportions, as is his own unbridled entitlement. First, a ridiculous video of this guy simultaneously wearing a do-rag, aviators and a onesie with dinosaurs on it pollutes my vision. Then, his shrill, obnoxious rendering of Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Goin’ On” defiles everything within my range of audible sound. More violations of the senses courtesy of Jermaine? Let me count the ways: His use of a steam mask (he breathes out of it, people!) prior to performances. His remark “Them judges was cutthroat,” regarding the spot-on reaction to the abomination he presented last week. His apparent theft of Fonzworth Bentley’s wardrobe. The attempt to scat during the bridge of “What’s Goin’ On.”

These are merely examples. The icing on the cake is Jermaine’s dead-serious statement “I know God!” when the judges suggest he may not be the divinely gifted singer he is certain he is. Upon hearing this, Simon wonders aloud why, then, anyone even bothers with the phone lines. Hee. I don’t know if I can stomach another week of Jermaine. If you or anyone you know has voted for this man, please enlighten me with your reasoning. D for the song alone, F with the attitude taken in to consideration.

Okay, deep breath. Luckily, Andrew Garcia is next, and his pleasant attitude is rather infectious despite is inability to live up to his own hype thus far in the semi-finals. No matter, I still like him. Oh, and he can breakdance! Tonight he’s singing “You Give Me Something” by James Morrison, sans guitar. Nothing is wrong with it, per se, but Andrew is definitely losing steam. The judges’ constant comparison to his domination of Hollywood Week with a certain cover of a certain former Idol judge’s certain hit single does not help. How can America move past it if the judges can’t? I’m still rooting for Andrew, but sugar, we’re goin’ down. B

Aaron Kelly is either one of the most popular kids in his high school, or a constant swirly victim. I can’t quite discern which scenario is more likely. After it’s revealed the song he’s chosen to sing tonight is “My Girl,” I’m inclined to lean towards the latter. Not that it’s a bad song, by any means, but it isn’t something I’d choose to sing on American Idol if I were a 16-year-old boy. He has the entire Billboard repertoire at his disposal, and this is his choice? Yikes. I thought he was much better last week, but the judges, save for Simon, disagree. Randy even says Aaron has improved “200%” and Kara thinks he’ll “keep getting better.” Ellen compliments the overall performance, but admits it’s a lame song, and Simon sums up my thoughts by saying Aaron has traveled backward this week. Is there such a thing as an atomic swirly? C

Tim Urban really has no reason to be nervous since he couldn’t possibly perform worse than he did last week. Also, he’s got the girly vote locked down and, we now know, he’s one of ten children, so he’s pretty much grown up with a constant audience anyway. Tonight, he’s singing “Come On Get Higher.” He’s playing a guitar, and he isn’t totally sucking. He’s not pulling a Lambert, Jr. or a DeWyze with me, though. I still think he has no reason to be in the Top 24, but I acknowledge he seems like a perfectly nice guy from a perfectly nice family. Ellen hits the nail on the head when she suggests he should try acting – his camera-friendly looks could still be put to good use, and he’d maybe get the chance to sing once in a while for a brief moment or two if he wanted. Everyone wins! A for Ellen’s ingenious suggestion (I have a feeling Tim’s parents are already on the phone with talent agents), but C for Tim’s vocal ability. Sorry, ladies.

Lee DeWyze is closing the show, and we learn he’s a former juvie kid! Okay, not quite, but he did admit to “bad decisions” that landed him in an “alternative” high school. Apparently, an inspirational teacher named Amy helped set Lee on the right path. I’m positive Amy is criminally underpaid. Lee is singing Hinder’s “Lips Of An Angel,” a song whose title alone grosses me out, frankly, but with the most objective perspective I can muster, I admit it’s a good choice for Lee’s voice. He sings it exactly as I expected him to, and Kara makes the astute observation that Lee already sounds like he’s on the radio. I agree, and, with the same objectiveness I have to remind myself to implement, I liken him to a lead singer of Nickelback or Daughtry proportions. I’m confused by my conflicting feelings – “I hate Nickelback, but I like Lee! Lee sounds like the singer from Nickelback, but I hate them!” – so I keep trying my best to separate Lee from his predecessors. B+ from me, and Simon goes as far to say he’s “head and shoulders above” the rest of the guys. I think Lee will stick around long enough to carve his own niche and stop making me compare him to music I don’t want to think about.

The show’s over until next week for the guys. I’m sure a few of them are thrilled to have this week behind them. As for Thursday’s voting results, I predict possible doom for John, Todrick, Aaron and, if there’s any logic or order in the cosmos, Jermaine.

On to Wednesday, this week’s impromptu ladies’ night. I’m thrilled to see a healthy Crystal Bowersox descend the staircase, apparently our first performer. A brief chat with Seacrest cryptically alludes to her mysterious illness, but she sounds great and looks fantastic, actually. She runs backstage to prepare while we say hi to the judges – an “esteemed panel,” according to Seacrest and his sudden, peculiar attempt at a British accent. Randy  says the guys “were hot” last night, had “fire in their eyes” and were “trying to win this thing.” I wonder to which guys on what show Randy is referring. I kid. Big Mike rocked it, Lambert Jr. surprised the hell out of everyone, I still like Casey and Andrew, and Lee’s still growing on me. The rest? Meh.

Since Wednesday’s show is also a two-hour Coke advertisement, we’ll be treated to “further insight” on the girls, as well. Turns out Crystal has a twin brother named Carl, and he’s a “square.” I love that she calls him that, and he probably doesn’t. She also talks about a pouch of sentimental trinkets she carries for good luck, and her experience singing at subway stations, referring to Simon’s swipe at her last week. Crystal hilariously notes that Simon would never take the subway anyway, since he has a two-story trailer. Then we see a picture of said trailer. It’s bigger than my apartment. Ugh.

Crystal’s singing CCR’s “Long As I See The Light,” and it’s honestly like watching concert footage. This girl’s already a seasoned veteran. This statement is proven for me by my realization that she’s the only contestant I could possibly envision myself paying to see. I have no negative comments. Neither do the judges. Randy garbles something involving the statement “Truth is reality,” Ellen notes Crystal’s “raw, natural talent,” Kara says she makes her performances look “effortless,” and Simon says he officially considers her a “serious artist.” ‘Nuff said. A

Haeley Vaughn has the unfortunate post-Crystal second slot. She likes to make headbands and other hair accessories for fun. It’s easy to forget some of these contestants are honest-to-God children. Her constant effervescence annoyed Simon last week, and she tries to dispute this by attempting to make a “mean” face – unsuccessfully, I might add. In fact, it seems Haeley cannot not smile. I’ll go further and say I’m not sure she can entirely close her mouth. She’s singing Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb,” which should be a good choice, but it turns out to be anything but. Oh, Haeley. The novelty and forgiving power of her cuteness is wearing off. This is an undisputed train wreck, and would remain so even if she were only trying out for her high school’s talent show. Kara goes easy on her and says she has the basis for a good voice, but needs further training. I’ll echo that. Randy, however, calls it “excruciating.” I’ll echo that, as well. C-

Lacey Brown has some serious ground to cover to make up for the “Landslide” of last week. I remain shocked she’s still here. I’m surprised to learn she took Kara’s advice from last week so literally and is actually singing “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None The Richer. She says she had planned to sing it at some point anyway, but still. At least try to make it look like you came up with your own idea. It’s a huge improvement and I wish she had done this last week, but it’s not enough to push her through to safe territory, I’m afraid. Superficially, I have to say I probably just want to like her so much because I think she’s so darned cute. I love her style and I wish I restored antique furniture, too. Unfortunately, she can’t highlight the quirky quality of her voice the way, say, Lilly can highlight hers. Her awkward response to the judges’ comments doesn’t help matters, either. B-

The strange woman-child called Katie Stevens is next, and I’m still not sure what to make of her. She exudes nothing but sheer normalcy on the surface, but with a closer look it’s as if she’s actually 35-years-old and a victim of some kind of arrested development. She describes her useless hidden talent of being able to say “give me a kiss” in six languages (“including English,” she hilariously clarifies) exactly how you would expect a kid to explain such a thing, but she then sings Corrine Bailey Rae’s “Put Your Records On” like some kind of plucky divorcee. I’m confused. When the judges ask her to name a young artist she’s a fan of, she completely blanks and can’t think of anyone. What 17-year-old can’t name a famous wunderkind whose songs they like? Overall, she has an impressive voice, but I need more evidence she’s actually a kid. B

Didi Benami is up next, if she and Seacrest could stop with the googly eyes. They’re chatting about how Didi observes the judges, or something, and she actually says “I could talk forever,” and then Seacrest actually says “It’s alright, we’ll listen, we won’t cut you off.” Um, yes we will. To Seacrest’s credit, Didi looks exceptionally lovely tonight, and I’m really waiting for her to hit a breakthrough like she did in Hollywood with Kara’s song “Terrified.” However, it won’t be this week, considering the borderline cop-out choice of “Lean on Me.” It’s really mundane and disappointing because I would like her to do well, but she really needs to bring her guitar on stage! We haven’t seen it yet in the semifinals, which I find baffling. Simon is particularly harsh, and poor Didi is so close to tears she can’t speak. A bear hug from Seacrest garners a modest smile, and I wonder if Didi could actually be in trouble. B-

Here comes the impossibly gorgeous Michelle Delamor. As she chats with Seacrest in the Red Room, what bothers me about her comes to full fruition as she pronounces the word “important” as “im-porr-ehn.” Ugh. The way she speaks and carries herself reminds me of the Kardashian sisters or something. She teaches kids’ choir, though, which is pretty cute. Oh, my God, CREED? She’s singing CREED? I get that she wants to deviate from the predictability of Alicia Keys, but CREED?! It’s the most trite, heavy-handed Creed song out of a laundry list of trite, heavy-handed Creed songs, of course: “With Arms Wide Open.” Wow. Here goes. I find it snooze-inducing and truly unremarkable. Imagine my surprise when Kara raves it’s her favorite performance of Michelle’s to date. Huh?! All Randy and Ellen can talk about is her outfit, so I don’t think I’m off on this one. Seriously, Creed? C

Lilly Scott, in addition to the six-string guitar, can also play the twelve-string, moog and “a bit of piano.” I may be off here, but it seems as though this season has more instrumentalists than previous seasons. I enjoy this because it seemed in the past people who played instruments weren’t as accepted on this show because they tended to not have the traditional, powerhouse voices the solo vocalists did. No way we would have seen Lilly on stage with Clay Aiken. Lilly expresses gratitude that the judges seem to “get” her. Today she’s singing Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and it’s great along Bowersox, true-to-your-artistry lines, but I think Lilly has to try a bit harder than Crystal. Love the authenticity, nonetheless. This girl knows what she’s good at and doesn’t deviate from it in order to appease the judges, whom apparently don’t need appeasing. Randy, Ellen and Kara all rave across the board, while Simon feels the need to say he thought Crystal was better. Unnecessary. A-

Katelyn Epperly is much more appropriately dressed this week and I’m pleased to see a piano on stage (see above paragraph). Prior to Idol, she was apparently studying to be a recording engineer. Huh. Her credentials just keep increasing the more we see of her. This week she’s tackling Coldplay’s “The Scientist,” and it’s…reeeaaalllyyy…slllooow. She sings well and shrewdly alters the melody and key signature a bit, but the original builds up to a culmination that never sees the light of day in Katelyn’s version. Randy and Ellen agree with me wholeheartedly, while Simon adds that she needs to work on her corny facial expressions. Kara “kind of loves” her. I’m still in like. Overall? B+

Two girls are left, and I’m so excited to see Siobhan I forgot about Paige Miles. Again. This girl is so inconsequential for me. Her status does not increase when she talks about her love of coloring. Like, in coloring books with crayons. She’s working on a hippo at the moment. Good lord. She’s singing Kelly Clarkson’s “Walk Away,” and it’s light years ahead of last week, but I still can’t bring myself to care. Ellen loves it, but everyone else is as ambivalent as I am. I’m about to forget about Paige again because Siobhan’s next so I’ll brand her with a quick B+ before it’s too late.

Did you know Siobhan gave herself a mohawk 18 months ago? Neither did I, but now I can add another reason to keep her as Close Second on my ranking of Season Nine ladies. Pictures are shown, and I think she could have kept rocking the hawk during the competition. Today she’s belting out Aretha’s “Think,” which she says is the kind of “meaty” singing she loves to do. I can’t wait. There’s a bum note or two, but overall she kills it, changing octaves like it’s as natural as blinking. I’m not quite as taken with it as I was “Wicked Game” last week, but she hits a jaw-dropping note at the end that brings the house down. Randy, Ellen and Kara can hardly contain themselves, and Simon looks at her like she’s some kind of puzzle to solve. Someone’s finally stumped him. A-. Fin!

I’m afraid for Didi, Michelle, Paige and Lacey – Haeley would be on my chopping block if I didn’t think she had a gaggle of fans wearing off their fingerprints voting for her as we speak. Thursday is nearly upon us! Don’t forget to vote for your favorite.

For another take on this week’s episodes, check out The Ladies Outperform the Fellas by Inisia Lewis.

Season 9, Episodes 16 and 17: Top 10 Male & Female Semifinalists Perform (originally aired March 2 & 3, 2010)

For more on American Idol, click here.

Photographs courtesy of Fox Broadcasting Company, Michael Becker and IMDbPro.

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