For those of us who toil in the American Idol vineyards, it seems that negativity, like tomorrow, is only a day away.
We came away feeling pretty good about ourselves and about life after Wednesday’s show. The 10 women performed pretty well for a first night – there were a couple of really tough cuts – and the judging panel was as close to being on the money as we’ve heard them in years, with solid performing tips and praise doled out in the proportions it was due.
But Thursday’s debut for the men in the “sudden death” round in Las Vegas was the exact reverse image of the previous night. Where the women had shone, the men struggled – and yes, while the gap between them could have been foreseen from the auditions and the Hollywood round, the male ineptitude was beyond anything we could have feared.
What was most shocking was the total abdication of common sense on the part of the judges, with the startling exception of Randy Jackson. Several performances Thursday were out-and-out bad and only one even qualified as arguably good, but if anything, the judges went easier on the men than they had on the women. Keith Urban seemed too reluctant to play bad cop on a night one was desperately needed, and while we could have expected Nicki Minaj to fall for the “outrageous” performers, it was less predictable and more than a little creepy that she openly admitted more than once that she was issuing praise based on who she found physically attractive. (Yes, Mariah Carey was there too, not leading the undeserved praise parade but not doing much to slow it down either.)
Yes, I’m in a mood! Here’s the carnage as it went down:
Paul Jolley (“Tonight I Want to Cry,” Keith Urban): How many Keith covers will we hear this season? Over/under is set at 18. Everyone who sees Paul comes up with the same observation, which is that he’s trying to somehow merge show choirs with Nashville, and not fully satisfying either audience. He’s the musical equivalent of plain yogurt, but he’s a nice white kid from the South, he nails the big climaxes to his songs, and there’s not one male in the bunch you can look at today and say “possible winner.” Some guy is going to go at least top 3, and he has as good a chance as anyone. B-
Johnny Keyser (“I Won’t Give Up,” Jason Mraz): What if we give up for you? Man, do not get me started on the song selections tonight … Johnny came across last season as someone who could both rock a little and croon a little, but he got off to a nervous start here where he was almost inaudible in the lower register, and never really got it back on track. As we would learn later in the evening, if you’re going to come out with a shaky vocal, do something on that stage to make yourself memorable otherwise. Johnny looks too much like an orderly in the background of General Hospital to pop with America. C
J’DA (“Rumour Has It,” Adele): I wanted to like this; the judges damn sure wanted to like this … and I actually did like the fact that these were clearly the five gayest minutes in Idol history, a history that includes moments like Adam Lambert singing Cher’s “Believe.” You couldn’t judge this one merely as a vocal, since the Chicago salesman of “luxurious French cosmetics” was putting on a full cabaret show, and the audience – remember, this is the Mirage, where these singers have to compete with a freaking volcano – ate it up. It was left to Randy and (surprisingly) Nicki to point out that the empress had very few clothes, vocally speaking (and covering Adele didn’t exactly help to cover up that issue). Props of sorts for daring to go onstage with a visible beard. C+
Kevin Harris (“Everything I Do,” Bryan Adams): Given his lack of airtime before now, I’d say Kevin would have stood a chance of going down as the single most anonymous person ever to make it to an Idol live audience phase … except that giving the worst performance on one of the worst ever nights of Idol is immortality in itself. Nicki bafflingly called this performance “perfection,” and I would agree in the sense that he may have been off key for the entire song. At one point, coming out of the bridge, he literally croaked. Fortunately, Randy was there – you read that right – to bring some semblance of sanity to the panel. I hate myself for typing that, and now I hate you too, Kevin. Damn you, seriously. D+
Chris Watson (“Dock of the Bay,” Otis Redding): I have very few rules for Idol performers, but not disrespecting Otis is one of them. Chris looks the part of a star, but his mugging and grinning through the rueful lyrics of this classic were off-putting. Even had he brought the right emotional connection, the similarity between his voice and a goat’s would have sunk the performance in its own right. Nicki, deep into crazy mode by this point, called Chris “the prettiest man I have ever seen in my life” and said she wanted to “marry his vibrato.” I wouldn’t even buy his vibrato a drink. D+
Devin Velez (“Listen,” Beyonce): It’s a sign of how bad that first half was that Devin, who I think is too inexperienced and obsessed with runs to really contend, was the guy who helped pull the night out of the gutter. The kid’s effort wasn’t perfect – he seemed uncertain in the early going – but a brief foray into Spanish seemed to right his ship, and he was able to sell the big crescendo at the end. Male teen ballad types tend to have a ceiling of the mid-finals or so, but this was the best he’s sounded yet, so there may be room to grow between now and April – or May? B
Elijah Liu (“Talking to the Moon,” Bruno Mars): He looks current and performed a recent song by a pop artist, which put him ahead of almost everyone else this night. But the judges’ praise for this awful vocal was an overreaction to that. He sounds like he’s about 13, and his attempt at falsetto was laughably bad. Nothing was really right about it, but Keith and Nicki seemed obsessed with his “marketability,” while Mariah Carey weirdly added “I love that you’re Mexican and Chinese.” Nicki was so far over the top she came around the other side. “I don’t care about that song – you are a superduperstar, little boy. I want to have your babies … you’re my new favorite boy, I am obsessed with you.” America, you’re gonna have to take care of this. D+
Charlie Askew (“Rocket Man,” Elton John): America’s self-proclaimed Weirdest Kid got maybe the single strangest comment of the night from Keith, who praised him for his “fearlessness” when he was actually as visibly nervous as anyone ever gets on this show. His biggest problem, other than this being a very difficult song, is that he easily gets out of breath when he moves around, which he did a LOT here. But by being so “outrageous,” he fed into the emerging Charlie Brand and guaranteed himself praise from the judges and a huge reaction from the audience. He’s not being helped when the crowd hoots down the one mild attempt to give him actual criticism (from Randy), and his hamminess belies the idea that he’s some kind of fragile flower. This was the judges’ last chance to get rid of him on their own, and I think they may regret not doing that in a few weeks’ time. C-
Jimmy Smith (“Raining on Sunday,” Radney Foster, Keith Urban): A night where contestants were almost entirely being judged on personality was definitely the wrong time to have a name like Jimmy Smith and sing a snoozy country number. It didn’t have obvious problems, but it was SO forgettable – he makes Paul Jolley seem like 1973 David Bowie by comparison. Nicki told him to his face that she was too busy thinking about other recent performers to even pay attention, which is definitely rude but probably spoke for a lot of people. I thought this guy had potential to go places, but I suppose Franklin, Tenn. qualifies as a place. C+
Curtis Finch Jr. (“Superstar,” Leon Russell, Luther Vandross): Every season, there’s at least one Idol performer to whom my reaction is, “America is NOT going to want this character in their living rooms from now till late May.” In 2013, that honor belongs to Curtis. He’s one of the few males this season with above average vocal ability, but he goes over the top so often with his imploring gestures, facial tics, and vocal frippery that you can’t watch him without stifling the urge to vomit. He’s what would have resulted if Eddie Haskell had somehow had a kid with Marvin Gaye. If he can restrain himself even a little, he’s a final 10 lock, but America isn’t going to find him at all likable. As a pure vocal B; throw in the ‘tude and it’s a C+
Final judgments! Curtis was safe, meaning he gets to try to sell us another car next week. Jimmy and Kevin were bid goodbye. Elijah made it, as every Muse, and possibly every member of Muse, wept. JDA was praised for his uniqueness, which he will have to keep pursuing in between cosmetics sales.
What followed was never really explained: we were told that the judges had “deadlocked” 2-2 on advancing Paul Jolley, which meant Jimmy Iovine was heard from for the first time this season as the tiebreaker. After astutely saying that Paul was “singing a Keith Urban song while auditioning for Phantom of the Opera,” he said Paul’s voice merited him going through. All well and good … but if there was a deadlock, didn’t the deadlock have to be with someone? What was never explained was who would have gone through if Jimmy had said no to Paul. Unless, of course, this was all manufactured, which is probably the case.
Chris was dropped next, as everyone suddenly realized he sucks; while Charlie, who also sucks, was sent through. Finally it came down to Devin and Johnny, and while sending Devin through was an easy choice, the elimination of Johnny throws a further roadblock in the path of yet another male winner. Like him or not, he’s the sort of singer you can imagine Idol voters backing, but they won’t have that chance now.
The 20 singers we didn’t hear from this week will go next Wednesday and Thursday. What did you think of the guys? Worst Idol night ever, or merely one of the worst?