There was a time not so long ago when the setting for this last phase of Hollywood
humiliationelimination was a big bare room at the end of a long elevator ride and an equally long stark corridor. It seems the days of low budget artificial drama are over. Now that Kelly Clarkson, Daughtry and Jennifer Hudson have made it big, AI can afford to stage high budget artificial drama. The final 54 will have the distinct pleasure to be tortured, and some of them summarily executed, from the comfort and shelter of AI's very own rented Hollywood mansion. It's big, it's got an imitation Italian garden, and imitation Italian villa feel and everything else imitation to make you feel in awe including imitation frescoes on ceilings and arched windows.
100% gold plated imitation cheese
With the dubious honor of being judged in style in a knock-off Italian villa comes a hefty price. Only 18 contestants will be eliminated in this round, so pretty much two thirds of the people in the holding room are staying, and I'd bet my yearly shoe budget on the fact that the judges have already made up their minds about who stays and who goes. Telling the contestants straight up and allowing them their dignity, however, is so... pre-Grammy-success, so egalitarian, so pedestrian, so not fitting with AI's swanky new image. These 18 are going to help foot the bill for their grotesque surroundings by singing for their lives, or more precisely, by singing to fill up two whole hours of this charade. I'll be happy to pare this down for you as much as I can; perhaps my disgust will abate somewhat in the process as well. Let's get to it.
Cheesecrest is here to explain the proceedings. Gone is the low-rent elevator, gone are the spartan rented loft and the long corridor. Instead, they're replaced by a walk through a long room then the aforementioned imitation Italianate garden and through most the house to get to the room with the judges. They sit in majesty in four overstuffed armchairs in front of a huge fireplace complete with columns supported by two large female figures and some rams' heads for good measure. What, no imitation of Michelangelo's David? I'm crushed. Once in the room, some contestants will get the go-ahead, others will get a pink slip, yet more others will be the lucky ones chosen to
pay the billskill or be killed, I mean, be part of a sing-off with another contestant. All very classy and dignified.
First up is Anoop Desai who gets a general review, some stone faces and finally a big yes to be in the top 36. Cue happiness and relief! Von Smith is next, and he is nervousing. His Hollywood week was erratic but Von Smith knows that singing is his life. In front of the judges he manages to suck up to Simon by acknowledging that he was self-indulgent, but he blames it all on his parents somehow. I'll spare you his lengthy explanation, I'm sure we'll hear plenty about the minutiae of Von's feelings in the future because he is through to the top. Gee, I'm surprised.
Pistols in the afternoon
Cody Sheldon from the Phoenix auditions, creator or homemade horror films, is the first to undergo the dreaded sing-off. He sings Love remains the same very well actually. The judges nod in approval in places but in the end he is asked to wait in another room. He sees his buddy Alex Wagner Trugman arrive and suddenly they both realize that they're in a sing-off. In a perfect world, this is where both would leave, with their dignity and self-respect intact. But this is not a perfect world, it's not even a real world, it's AI world, and in AI world you need to be ready to kill. Randy tells him to get singing, Paula admonishes him to make sure “it's the right song” while the others pretty much smirk. Alex sings Don't let the sun go down on me, as his friend listens in the next room. Wow, what an inspired song choice! And what an unbelievable coincidence. After a minute or so, they're back in front of the judges, music from a horror movie swells in the background, the judges stare them both down and Randy delivers the verdict. Cody is gone, Alex is moving on. They walk out, devastated to meet Seacrest who says “it's the most uncomfortable, awkward situation to be in”. I'm waiting for him to add “just the way we planned it, suckers” but of course he doesn't say that.
The lucky not-so-few
Adam Lambert has been featured, profiled and highlighted plenty during the prelims. He was the one who belted out that crazy Cher song during the solo round for which I might never forgive him. Upstairs in front of the judges – because it turns out that there is a long staircase to climb too in addition to the garden walk and the long corridor – the mood is stoic. He gets his big dramatic yes from Simon while the slasher movie music plays in the background and Adam is relieved. He should be, they didn't make him sing after all.
Taylor Vaifanua struggled during the previous Hollywood rounds, however the judges liked her because she is quickly through to the top 36 as are Jasmine Murray, Arianna Afsar, Casey Carolson, Megan Corkery, Mishavonna Henson and Stevie Wright. Joanna Pacitti forgot many lyrics during Hollywood week and mostly mumbled her way through. Paula wants to know how she feels about her performance and Kara wants to know when – after previous label deals – will she be able to “step up”. Joanna assures them that she is ready now and will deliver. She gets a unanimous yes to go to the top 36 after which she dissolves into tears of gratitude.
Barbie or the Cabbage Patch doll?
With so many girls in a row through to the next round, it's turn for some guys to find out their fates. T.K. Hash, whom I don't remember at all, is quickly dispatched back to the big cold world. He is followed by Chris Chatman and Reggi Beasley. Seacrest intones dramatically that “one by one they exit with their dreams crushed”. Why, thanks Seacrest! We barely would have noticed otherwise.
Kendall Beard faces the judges and Paula delivers the sad summary of Kendall's not-so-shining Hollywood Week performance before giving her the good news. As if on cue, Kendall starts bawling and thanking them profusely. You'd think one of the judges just donated a kidney to save her life or something, the way she's carrying on. Moving on.
Time for another sing-off. This time it's between Jill Korbee, whose husband was eliminated earlier in Hollywood, and Kristen McNamara. Jill sings a Dixie Chicks song with a lot of feeling while Kristen listens in the next room. Simon tells her to sing and she launches into a portion of I will always love you. The deliberation is very short but involves Simon asking whether they'll keep the good looking one or the other one while Kara argues they should keep the one that can sing better, all within earshot of the contestants. AI is nothing if not refined and tactful. Kara tells the pretty one, Jill, that she picked the wrong song while Paula tells Kristen that she picked the wrong song as well and the wrong outfit to boot. Kristen is through to the next round, even though Simon says he disagrees with that decision while Jill, the pretty one, is eliminated.
Between bad and worse
Young mother, Alexis Grace has a good backstory, a good voice, a cute kid and a lot of pink in her platinum blond hair. She is easily promoted into the next round. Good backstories are hard to come by after all. Scott Macintyre, the visually impaired guy from Phoenix, had a fairly decent week and he will be going on to sing some more in the top 36. Lil Rounds will also be back.
Felicia Barton, Ashley Hollister and Devon Baldwin are not so lucky. Neither was prominently featured in earlier rounds, so that's not a surprise. Frankie Jordan was featured but she is still picked to be in a sing-off. The judges “encourage” her by saying stuff like “this is for your survival”, “take a deep breath” and “pick the right song”. Gee, they're so helpful. Frankie finally breaks into a really bad rendition of The Story which prompts Simon to say that she's “made it easier” for them. Ouch! Jessie Langseth has a deep, somewhat contrived voice but she uses it so sing something that Simon usually calls self-indulgent. This time he calls it terrible. Simon wants to dump both and after a short wait they're back in front of the judges where Jessie finds out she's through. Simon is honest and tells Frankie she wouldn't have won anyway and thinks Jessie won't either. Ouch again!
Next time, bring a tragic story!
Shera Lawrence, virtually unseen before, Derik Lavers, also barely mentioned, are called in and given bad news. Their genuine distress and tears is AI's final pound of flesh, so cliché by now that I'm usually hard pressed to even care, however, the whole posh setting is underscoring the contrast between the AI haves and the have nots this season as never before and I can't help but marvel at such calculated ruthlessness. Just when you think AI can find no new lows to sink to, they scrape the bottom of the barrel.
Sixteen year old Allison Iraheta displayed good singing chops in Hollywood while covering Kelly Clarkson and she is going to the top 36. The judges call her a raw talent and dark horse. Allison didn't have a good sob story, however best friends Jamar Rogers and Danny Gokey do, aside from having really good voices. They're both called to see the judges because what can be better and cheaper drama than needlessly pitting two best friends against each other? Well, the better drama would be if one of them doesn't make it. At least there's no sing-off, which would not prove anything anyways beside the fact that they're both good indeed. Danny is sent through on the strength of his powerful voice and his dead wife sob story, while Jamar, lacking in a dead wife, and any other painful circumstances that can be handily exploited, goes home. When asked by Paula whether he'll come back, he says yes. It all just seems like an excuse for AI to film the stunned reactions of Danny and the rest of the people downstairs.
Rubberstamping the freak show
After getting rid of Jamar, Ricky Braddy makes it through, as do Matt Giraud, Jorje Nunez, Ju'not Joyner and Brent Keith. Some we've seen, others are completely unknown quantities. Steven Fowler messed up on the piano in Hollywood, but he is put through nonetheless.
Remember Nick Mitchell, aka Norman Gentle, or is that the other way around? Well, he lost the stupid costume and he somber in a black jacket now. Paula says Nick is a tricky contestant and Kara tells him she missed the character. Nick confesses that in his dreams he'd really like to perform as a singer and be the character at the same time. Paula says that he's lucky he said that because that's what AI is looking for. Expect to see the revolting Nick Gentle back and up to his old shtick. At least until people start voting. Then it will be a quick goodbye to the gimmick and to Nick. Hopefully.
Is one freak enough in the top 36 or should there be more? Somehow, I have this sneaking suspicion that the nutjob train will be full when it arrives into the station. Call me crazy.
A genuine star equine
Jackie Tohn from New York, just wants to perform and after Randy is done reciting the script about how this is a long and hard day and they had to get rid of so many good people, and so on and so forth, she will get that chance. Jackie is ecstatic and runs out to hug Tatiana del Toro. Man, I'd love, love, love to just ignore this dumb chick, but I feel that in the name of faithful reportage I'm obligated to recap her segment. You can imagine the pitiful, theatrical bawling, the fake tears, the stupid attention grabbing tactics, such as her Paula star bracelet, and the whole calculated drama. She squeals like a halfwit in front of the judges, then cries then starts talking about the stupid bracelet. Finally she neighs like a horse when Paula gives her her own star ring that she just happens to be wearing. What a coincidence? Simon says the decision was not unanimous, however she is through to the top 36. Cue the annoying horse-like neighing, wailing, bawling, squealing accompanied by more calculated glances into the camera. Enough to make you throw up your breakfast, lunch and dinner combined.
Coincidence, thy name is AI
Jackie Midkiff and Nathaniel Marshall have become friends, but now they're forced to be in a sing-off . Ironically, Jackie sings When a man loves a woman with the lyrics “turn his back on his best friend”. Gee, I wonder who made him pick that song? Jackie walks out while Nathaniel walks in. He is that specimen with the headband and piercings who bawled on the Hollywood stage and created lots of drama on group night. He gets a whole segment in which we find out that Nathaniel has lived with all his relatives because his mother was a drug addict. Simon tells him to sing and prove to them that he should be in the top 36. Imagine my surprise when he belts out a song with the lyrics “I'm already there, take a look around”. Gee, what were the odds? You get a cyber chocolate chip cookie with rainbow sprinkles on top if you guess who made it through. Nathaniel bawls again before they're both called back in front of the judges for the “tough” verdict. Nathaniel and his headbands will go on, while Jackie, clean cut and sadly incapable of providing any drama whatsoever, goes home. Oh, yeah, a real shocker there.
It's the final countdown
Jeanine Vailes, Kai Kalama, Anne Marie Boskovich and Kris Allen all make it to the next round without much fanfare. We're nearing the end of the day at the judges' overdecorated mansion. Two hours of manufactured drama have led up to one big finale which will be provided by the likable welder and the likable oil rig worker. Matt Brentske did well in Kansas City while Michael Sarver impressed the judges in Phoenix. They both have similar stories of wanting a better life through AI for their families. Can't they just pick a name out of a hat and be done with it? Now why would AI do that when they can stage a big showy standoff instead? Matt is asked to sing first and miraculously he picks a song with the fitting lyrics of “If I fell at your feet, would you ever notice me, would you just pass me by” which Simon says he didn't like. He is followed in by Michael Sarver who sings a song with the lyrics “I know everything is gonna be alright”. I'd laugh, I really would, if I weren't so irritated with the staged cheesiness of it all. The judges debate, the dramatic music swells in the background as the two men are brought in for the final judgment. In the end, they both make it through. Yeah, 'cause nobody saw that one coming.
As is the custom by now, the show ends with a look at all the contestants who made it to the top 36. Since there are 36 of them, and I'm just too lazy, I won't list all their names here. Next week, 12 of them will take the stage to perform for the first time in front of a live audience. From there on it will be in the voters' hands. Hopefully we won't end up with another clunker.