The first wave of finalists are singing live tonight on AI and the show finally shifts all the power into the audience's hands. We'll finally find out how many of the 36 finalists are just idle filler with little talent and how many are predestined to be in the top 12. Already some of them look too polished, have been featured too heavily and are just a bit too in our faces. In other words, the AI machine is well oiled and hurtling down the tracks like a loaded freight train.
The setting is the usual round stage studio arrangement which seems fairly intimate in a way; the judges are seated at their own table and ready to offer up nuggets of criticism that will either sink or elevate a contestant. Randy tells it like it is: You've got to blow us all away. He makes it sound like that's all it takes. Meanwhile, some of us are still looking for an explanation – and an apology - for the likes of Sanjaya and Pickler. Kara seems cool as a cucumber for a newcomer to the live AI spectacle and advises people to lose their nerves and just be themselves. I'm sure they would all like to do that.
Seacrest, the face of AI, explains that out of the twelve finalists singing tonight, only three will make it to the top twelve: the top girl, the top guy and whoever comes in third. This will be repeated for the next two weeks until nine people make the finals. The final three spots will be filled with the judges' wild card picks. Thanks AI for again coming up with a formula in which some people are more equal then others! What if the top vote getting guy or girl is actually the 7th highest vote getter but they'll still make it because they're the top ones... in their gender? Hmm? In the end you might have 9 people, at least 3 of whom should probably be nowhere near the finals. I'll just try to keep this fact in mind in the upcoming weeks when I bitch about people who can't sing being in the final 12. Onward.
The theme tonight is: Hits from the Billboard Hot 100 since the charts began. Gee, that's such an unfairly narrow theme.
A little less Tohn
Being first can be a good thing or a bad thing. In Jackie Tohn's case, it's probably a bad thing. Seacrest calls her Ms. Personality and, ironically enough, her song is Elvis' A little less conversation. I doubt anyone will be inclined to converse about her performance which is neither inspiring nor inspired. What might get people talking, when they stop laughing hysterically, that is, is her outfit. Imagine skintight, shiny spandex pants, hi-tops, a wide pink belt last seen in a John Hughes movie and a white tube top with black polka dots. Sometimes, high definition TV is a bad thing. The screaming and the facial expression bonanza finally dies down and it's time for the judges to weigh in. Randy didn't see it as her best vocal, but he liked the show she put on. Kara and Paula agree about the vocals being weak but graciously give her props for “being herself”. Simon, as usual pulls no punches calling her performance clownish, gimmicky and thinks she blew her chance. Do I even have to talk about the first predictable boos from the audience upon hearing that critique? The AI formula is alive and well.
The backstage interviews with loved ones always struck me as being a bit unnecessary because really, who cares to hear their mommies or wives tell the world how awesome these contestants are? Like they're going to say anything else! I'm all into trimming the fat so I think unless somebody strips naked, has a super funny meltdown or starts kicking Haircrest in the shins, I'll keep the backstage reportage to a minimum and spare you a few hundred extra words. You can thank me later.
Escape from Chicken Finger island
Ricky Braddy was largely ignored during the preliminary rounds and it seems that was for a very good reason. Ricky's big story is that he was sick of serving chicken fingers and decided to become a singer. I'm not usually interested in contestants' pathetic sob stories that are mostly a ploy to wring votes out of a soft-hearted public, but maybe a story that involves chicken fingers is better left untold in a sea of woe-is-me tearjerkers. Can Ricky Chicken Fingers sing? His interpretation of Leon Russell's A song for you is decent and he's got a fairly pleasant voice but poor Ricky feels like standard filler material already. A quick fast forward brings me to the judges' comments. Paula gives him a standing ovation, Randy and Kara both say it was a great performance and Simon says it was “very, very good” but bemoans Ricky's lack of star quality.
Sometimes having a 21-year-old-single-mother-to-cute-toddler story is not enough to make one memorable. During her first audition, Alexis Grace, looked cute but ordinary, yet she still stood out with a good voice. However she was told to do something about her look. She now has a very bad haircut topped off by a very bad pink dye job that somebody probably told her will make her stand out even more. Perhaps it will but it also makes her look like a sad victim of the AI machine. In her own words she “wanted to dirty up [her] look”. Smashing idea. To go with that new dirty look, Alexis chose to sing such a rebel anthem as Never loved a man by Aretha Franklin. Dressed in what looks like a nightie, with red lips and long pearls, Alexis yells and squints her way through the song. She can sing but do we really need a third rate, circa 2002 Christina Aguilera right about now... or ever? Randy loved her new dirty look, Kara says “the genie is out of the bottle”, Paula hails her ability to “project so much soul” while Simon says she's the best contestant “by a mile” calling her a dark horse and even comparing her to Kelly Clarkson. Groan. The pimping starts already.
Back to Hicksville
Brent Keith from Ohio may or may not have been seen before; I honestly don't remember him. He's got generic good looks and a standard backstory about financial hardship and dreams of a great future. To achieve that great future, Brent is stepping into the limelight with some country song called Hick town, proclaiming that that's who he is. Perhaps he should have waited with that revelation till later because this song is not going to propel him anywhere except back to his basement in Ohio. Randy liked the return to roots, Kara liked him but thought he was safe while Paula wants America to remember him. She even compares him to Bucky Covington. Bucky Covington? I had to think about that one for a minute, and then I sadly remembered who he was. Oh, Paula! If that comparison is not damning with faint praise, I don't know what is. Simon pretty much says as much and adds that Brent is a nice guy but he's unoriginal and forgettable. Brent thinks country fans will remember him. If they can tell him apart from Bucky, that is.
How to burst your own bubble
Seventeen year old Stevie Wright thinks her auditions were good but she didn't feel the love from Simon, who told her she sings like an 8 year old. Ouch! Stevie is determined though. She wants to get past sounding like an 8 year old and wants to move on to sound like a “bubbly teenager”. 'Cause that's so much better. To this end, Stevie picked a song by that poster child of country bubbliness, Taylor Swift, best known for some silly breakup with one of those interchangeable squeaky clean Jonas brothers whose name I can't be bothered to Google. Not only is she singing embarrassingly bad lyrics about girlfriends, boyfriends, cheer captains and jocks, but she sings them badly. Her voice cracks, she's all over the place, and things are made worse by her lack of tune, power and nuance. Besides, I'm not sure that even the sub-tween voting block would buy this much cheap bubblegum from a 17 year old. Randy wasn't feeling it. He thinks she might not have made it through had she gone with that song earlier. Kara says Stevie has an identity crisis, Paula agrees with them and is disappointed. Simon goes right to the point saying she was out of tune on a terrible song that will not put her through to the next round.
Many of you might remember Anoop Desai as that clean cut, slightly geeky guy who never sang a bad note during the auditions aside from earning the nickname Anoop-dog from Randy. He has no captivating sob story, just a good voice and a desire to sing songs that are totally him. His pick for his one and only big chance is Angel of mine. It's one of those songs that has been overplayed and because of that pretty much everyone knows how it should sound. Anoop doesn't precisely kill it, but neither does he add anything special to it. The vocals are decent if a bit self-indulgent in places, especially toward the end. Randy kind of liked it but thought he was sharp during the song. Kara agrees he didn't nail the riffs while Paula thinks America connected with him and he has a Brian McKnight thing going on in his voice. Simon questions his song choice, saying the song was too old and too serious for him but admits Anoop's got likability on his side.
Casey Carolson is pretty and current looking in a Camp Rock meets Hannah Montana kind of way. She was featured a bit during Hollywood week; even got good reviews for her rendition of Jordin Sparks' Tattoo. One could easily imagine her winning the teen worship sweepstakes much the way Jordin did a couple of seasons back and Casey freely admits to liking that idea. Why does she then choose to sing Every little thing she does is magic? She says it's because it's a feel-good song. Funny, I always thought that song was about a guy who was too chicken to talk to the girl of his dreams. Oh, well. I'll spare you descriptions of Casey's version of the great Police classic. I can be merciful that way sometimes. Suffice it to say, she won't be walking the red carpet at the Grammy's any time soon based on that performance. Randy said it was weirdly karaoke, Kara thought it was all wrong for her, Paula praises Casey's beauty but feels the song didn't work for her. Simon says the singing was atrocious, the arrangement was bad and he feels she threw away her only chance.
You wanna be something or other
Remember the oil rig guy, Michael Sarver from Texas? If you don't, no biggie. If he makes it to the top 12, you'll be seeing the amazing story of the hardworking oil rig worker on every damn episode until you'll start genuinely hating the guy. It's pretty much a given. For now, the annoyance factor is still at a very mild level, just dimly buzzing around in background, especially since Michael can actually sing. His song is I don't want to be by Gavin DeGraw with which he does a decent job. I'm no fan of a song with nebulous lyrics like “I don't want to be anything other than what I've been trying to be lately” set to an oddly flat melody that has half a hook and little imagination, but Sarver makes the most of a bland choice. Randy thought the pitch was off but wanted more soul. Kara didn't think it was his best performance. Paula thought he was good and cites Bo Bice as one previous AI contestant who tackled it. Like that's supposed to say something. Simon is a bit less enthused, but then he always is. Simon says Michael needs a break but this wasn't his best vocal but he might make it through because people like him.
Ann Marie Boskovich, 22, from Nashville, did relatively well in the early rounds. She even got some good reviews from Simon, camera time and attention despite a complete lack of sad circumstances, money problems, cute little kids or other standard hardship stories that AI so likes. Can she go on without at least one small tragedy in her background? Perhaps the fact that she picked to sing Natural woman can qualify as her personal sob story because even though she is singing it pleasantly if not with great depth, this song is a bit, well, old. There has to be a happy medium between Taylor Swift's frilly jocks and cheerleaders concoctions and a song that has been in commercials for everything from shampoos to feminine hygiene products. Randy didn't feel it was natural for her. Kara felt the song was old fashioned and not her. Paula thinks Ann Marie did better than in the auditions but the song was too big for her. Simon brings out the “hotel singer” comparison, which is close to the cruise ship singer and Vegas also-ran comparison. In other words it's not good. He says that she just doesn't have the voice for this song and feels that it destroyed her.
Between a rock and a forgotten place
When you walk off the stage in Hollywood in the middle of your song because you forgot the lyrics, you pretty much guarantee that people will remember you, just not because you were so good. Steven Fowler feels that he hasn't shown who he is as an artist yet. In previous seasons forgetting the lyrics might have been the kiss of death, but on this season forgetting the lyrics can earn you filler status, especially with a song choice like Rock with you. Is there anybody under the age of 50 who should be attempting that song with a straight face? I'm not sure even Michael himself could come back to sing that one and be believable without a cheesy 70's Technicolor backdrop. Fowler does his best but if Unnatural woman felt old fashioned, this feels even more so. Randy didn't expect the song from him. Kara felt the song didn't help him. Steven admits that he's not comfortable singing without an instrument. Well, at least he's honest. Paula is glad he didn't forget the lyrics and wanted him to sing the David Cook song he messed up during Hollywood week. Simon saw an exercise in futility and a waste of his big chance.
Saving all the crazy
Lovers of cheap thrills, and I do mean that in the most literal way possible, may look at Tatiana del Toro and see somebody who can entertain simply by virtue of a cringe-worthy personality. There's something to be said for being so contrived that you're almost genuine. Almost. But I look at her and all I see is that damn shower curtain mermaid dress she wore at the auditions and all I hear are horses neighing in the background. That's a hard impression to squelch, not that I'm looking to do that, but even if I were I'd need to see the artifice drop, the theatricality squashed and something of quality come forth from her. I'm not holding my breath. My take on her matters little, however, as I'm neither a voter nor a judge. Tatiana's choice for tonight is Whitney Houston's Saving all my love for you. Inviting comparisons to Whitney on your first live AI outing is rarely a smart thing, but Randy felt the performance had a few moments. Kara agrees with Randy but doesn't get who this subdued Tatiana is. Paula doesn't get the new, demure Tatiana either and wants the old girl back. Tatiana claims she is not usually like she was in Hollywood. Of course not. Simon says Tatiana is a desperate, fame-hungry drama queen. I'd say that about sums it up.
Hero but not Superman
The last contestant of the night is Danny Gokey, the church music director from Wisconsin whose wife died. We know this because we've been told at least once in every episode so far and if Danny makes it forward to the top 12, we'll never heard the end of it ever again. Danny's pick tonight is Hero by Mariah Carey. Danny wants people to take home a message from his story and be inspired by it, which is why he chose this song. Isn't it a bit early to pontificate, you know, before you even have a voice in public? I say save it for when you're in the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. In light of Danny's explanation, every line of Hero he sings now feels almost like a lecture. This is not to say that he's bad, in fact he's very good, but I hope we won't be preached to every week from now on because that can get really old, really fast.
The judges holler and squeal and offer short but sweet praise. From Randy it's “demon of the night”, from Kara “hero” and from Paula “sold-out arenas”. Simon brings everyone back to Earth saying Danny was very good but the arrangement was a bit heavy-handed, the middle a bit so-so and over all good but not fantastic. Trust Simon to tell it like it is. Danny takes all this with a relaxed smile on his face - perhaps too relaxed. Almost self-assured. I hope he's not too comfortable though. One more Mariah Carey screamer and he might just join his good friend – the one without the three-hanky sob story - in the audience. At Seacrest's helpful prodding, we get some more preaching from Danny about people rising above and such, but I'll spare you. It's just too early in the season for that kind of self-serving malarkey.
The results will be announced Wednesday night and we'll found which thee contestants managed to garner enough votes to make it to the top 12. MotherSister my wonderful co-capper will be here to dish the dirt on the filler and deliver the news.