Archive for February, 2010

Idol Thoughts — 02.25.10

Airtime. Airtime was the wildcard that affected the outcome last night the most on the season’s first results show of American Idol. There’s no doubt that three of the four sent home had been shown less than other singers in danger of leaving.

Did Joe Muñoz sing worse than Tim Urban Wednesday night? Absolutely not. But who is Joe Munoz? We barely know him. Little airtime. Tim Urban, on the other hand, we know as the guy who they brought back, who got a second chance. A familiar face from Hollywood Week and his audition. Plenty of airtime.

So Muñoz was sent home last night. Urban spared. Also heading to L.A.X. this morning, bags packed for home, are Ashley Rodriguez (a ghost since her Boston audition), Janell Wheeler (the exception to my thesis about airtime), and Tyler Grady (memorable audition, haven’t heard him sing much since).

The point being, at this early juncture, viewers vote for who they know. And they mainly know who they’ve seen. Airtime.

It also didn’t help that so many performers gave so-so performances this week. If you were trying to predict who was heading home, you could’ve made the case for 50 percent of the Top 24. Tough one to call. And “call it,” I did not! One for four. Ouch.

Before the results show, here’s what I said:

Here’s who deserves to go home: Girls) Ashley Rodriguez and Haeley Vaughn. Guys) Jermaine Sellers and Tim Urban.

Here’s who WILL go home: Girls) Ashely Rodriguez and Lacey Brown. Guys) Tim Urban and John Park.

Of course, Idol voters are notoriously attached to their favorites, and often push them through despite the vocal “evidence” to the contrary. That’s why I distinguish between who deserves to go–and who will.

Oh, well. At least that last sentence rings true. Here’s a recap, from the live blog version of this writing, of the rest of last night’s show:

At the top of the show, Ryan asks Simon Cowell why he was “harsher than normal” on the contestants last night. Simon denies this, giving that “I’m just Simon” explanation. And he’s right. Clearly Simon’s judging last night was not the “buzz of the nation” today as Ryan bombastically claimed. Fact is, the first two nights have been weaker than expected.

Then on to the group number (“American Boy” by Estelle). It’s really hard for the individual singers to distinguish themselves in these numbers. They’re basically lip-syncing. Hard to mix so many live mics and make it sound good. Really, that’s the reason. Idol producers have acknowledged this in the past. And with 24 contestants, “choreography” consists of following the person in front of you.

Last season’s fourth-place finisher, Allison Iraheta, is back, performing a song called “Scars.” One of my faves from last year seems more grown up. Maybe it’s the ballad she’s singing. I prefer her pop-rockin’ first single to this. This one’s getting away from her, a few reaches for notes that aren’t there. And I’m not sure Allison totally believes in the song, based on the quirky faces she’s making. Ummm, quirkier than usual for Allison.

Footage of Tyler Grady from yesterday’s rehearsal is pretty funny. Apparently he showed up in a bathrobe and boots, thinking wardrobe would have some clothes for him. They didn’t. Not a dress rehearsal. So he sings his song as is.

They take a pause to bring on Kris Allen and talk about Idol Gives Back and raising money for earthquake relief in Haiti. Kris does a version of the Beatles‘ “Let It Be” that feels heartfelt and right for the occasion. Kris’ song will be available on iTunes, the money going to relief efforts. Best performance this week–by far!

Montage of the four departing contestants is set to the song “Leave Right Now” by Will Young, the first winner of Pop Idol in the U.K. Listen here.

Greg Valentine
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Idol Thoughts — 02.24.10

So, I wasn’t gaga about the ladies last night on American Idol. And looking around today, a lot of people felt the same way. So with that backdrop, how did the dudes fare tonight?

Here’s the play-by-play from my live blog during the show:

Todrick Hall – “Since You’ve Been Gone” by Kelly Clarkson – Radically revamped. Slower and funky. Seasoned-performance coming from a seasoned performer (remember, Todrick has worked with Fantasia Barrino on Broadway in The Color Purple). I won’t be deleting Kelly’s version from my iPod for this one. In fact, re-watching it during the commercial break–and it’s a little harder on the ears the second time around. But clearly, Todrick shows enough potential and creativity to easily move forward. Not in trouble.

Aaron Kelly – “Here Comes Goodbye” by Rascal Flatts – When this kid first auditioned, I thought he might want to explore going down the country music road. His voice has some very nice qualities. But he’s lacking some power on this song. Except for the long, crowd-pleasing note toward the end of the song. Simon’s right…Aaron will benefit from some stage confidence. Aaron will do well. Got the ‘tween votes locked down.

Jermaine Sellers – “Get Here” by Oleta Adams – Great song. But the melody has gone M.I.A. I’m not a fan of this performance. And come to think of it, some of his others. Yup, Randy Jackson‘s right on the money. Jermaine tried to do too much. Sometimes less is more. Now, let’s put out an Amber Alert for the melody of that song!

Tim Urban – “Apologize” by OneRepublic – Umm, there was a reason they cut Tim in the first place. So much for second chances. Tim’s ability to hit those high notes must be hiding out with the melody of Jermaine Seller’s “Get Here.” Tim’s likely heading home again. If not this week, then soon. Sympathy votes could push him through. But if this is all he’s got, voters will lose patience.

Joe Muñoz – “You And I Both” by Jason Mraz – Has some nice moments. But it’s not all cake. So far, no one has been consistent enough to nail down a whole, complete song. Simon with the bulls-eyes. Where’s the star wattage? It’s one thing to sound OK, and do a nice job. But that’s not an Idol.

Tyler Grady – “American Woman” by The Guess Who – This guy studies–literally–all those 70s rocker icons. Well, he needs to throw away his “book learnin’,” and go with his own gut. What he’s doing here doesn’t feel authentic. It’s the difference between “I’m trying to impress you with my rock skills” and the much more genuine and direct approach of getting out there and just rockin’!

Lee Dewyze – “Chasing Cars” by Snow Patrol – I think he’s doing pretty well. Changes the song in a way that works alright. Yes, the song’s unrecognizable. But it suits his voice the way he’s decided to sing it. I’m not sure the advice from Kara DioGuardi (who looks like she raided Ace Frehley‘s closet tonight) is that great. I guarantee if Lee does a Bad Company song, he’ll get reamed by the judges for being “predictable” and sounding like a bar band-singer. Simon straight up disagrees with Kara. The voice of reason, as usual.

John Park – “God Bless The Child” by Billie Holiday – Not sure what to make of this one. Other than to say I wouldn’t hire this guy to sing at my wedding. And wedding singer and lounge singer is kinda the vibe he was sending out. Bad song choice for this competition. Fantasia Barrino could’ve pulled that off with this audience. John is no Fantasia. He’s got some voice in there, though. Will be interesting where this guy will go musically on the show if he sticks around. IF!

Michael Lynche – “This Love” by Maroon 5 – I just thought I heard a few little vocal similarities to Terence Trent D’Arby. A momentary thing. “Big Mike” definitely has a niche on this show. Kara makes a good point. On a different night, the judges (and the rest of us) would be more critical of this performance. Against the others tonight, his upbeat personality and a not bad performance are looking pretty good.

Alex Lambert – “Wonderful World” by James Morrison – This guy’s kinda off my radar. And he’s actually one of the better ones tonight. Bluesy and soulful. Simon hates how uncomfortable he looks performing–while acknowledging he has a voice. Kara says he sounds too much like James Morrison. To which I say, who’s James Morrison? And I know a lot of music. OK, I’ll need to look into it. Maybe I’m missing something good. Back to Alex, re-watching the performance, it’s clear he does need some seasoning in the performance department.

Casey James – “Heaven” by Bryan Adams – Good stuff. Opens the song with just acoustic guitar, spotlighting a tender vocal that continues through out with just the right amount of rasp. This guy’s a real contender on this show. I’ve said it all along. Called him a “ringer,” in the sense that Simon torpedoed his initial audition, calling him “boring.” Now that’s makes him the Comeback Kid. Good storyline for Idol. The judges comments for Casey turn into the comedic highlight of the night, with all the jokes about Casey’s model looks and Kara’s apparent crush on him. The first time this season the whole panel of judges, with Ellen DeGeneres, really gelled. For this stretch, it felt loose and comfortable like the old days with Paula Abdul. As for Casey, best performance of the night.

Andrew Garcia – “Sugar, We’re Goin’ Down” by Fall Out Boy – I like what this guy does–the re-arranging of songs on his acoustic guitar. I agree with Simon. Tonight, I was a little disappointed. For starters, I think he may have started the song in too high a key. And had to stick it out. But basically, the quibbles here are because much is expected from Andrew.

So there it is. Another so-so night. Dudes…you did it! You matched the ladies’ mediocrity. Those are my thoughts. What did you think?

Greg Valentine
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Idol Thoughts — 02.23.10

It’s the first live show of the season. And just for the heck of it, I tried a little live blogging tonight.

It was a little more efficient than my usual mode. Thoughts shared as they’re spilling out. Less time writing after the show. But all the damn typing! It did feel like I wasn’t actually watching the show at times. Just listening. So I started to rewinding the DVR during the commercials and re-watching performances.

That worked pretty well. And on a night that started with Simon Cowell hyping the girls, referencing his recent comments that a girl will win this season, things hit a slick in the road and swerved into a ditch.

There was much to be ambivalent about tonight. And the judges were hard on the hopefuls. Here’s how things went down.

Paige Miles – “All Right Now” by Free – Surprising song choice. Simon is right. This is one of those Wedding Singer-type of songs that can be hard to distinguish yourself singing. Wanted to like it more than I did. She’s got pipes. Pick a better song next time.

Ashley Rodriguez — “Happy” by Leona Lewis. Ashley’s a great looking woman. The singing got a little pitchy at times. I’ve been a big fan…up to now. This was a step backwards.

Janell Wheeler – “What About Love” by Heart – Hmmm. This is not very good. The singing’s flat and the performance feels nervous–awkward and too “mannered.” I’d suggest going back to chalkboard and rethinking song choice for next week. More like the Estelle song she did at Hollywood Week.

Lilly Scott – “Fixing A Hole” by The Beatles – One of the most unexpected song choices on Idol ever. This is a classic, to be certain. But it’s far from the Beatles best known song. Jazzy take on it. She’s doing her own thing. And it’s good! Nice job.

Katelyn Epperly – “Oh Darling” by The Beatles – Hard not to love a girl sportin’ Madonna‘s hair from the Like A Virgin album cover. This girl can sing. At moments, her voice reminds me (just a little) of Kelly Clarkson. My fave so far.

Haeley Vaughn – “I Want To Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles – Looks like those CD reissues and their Rock Band edition has this group of singers all over the Beatles catalog tonight. I like Haeley’s re-arrangement. In theory. Some notes were quite nice. But some others not so much. She’s got much potential. She just needs to be more consistent and pull it all together. Ellen nut-shelled this performance: “If it was a mess, it was a hot mess.”

Lacey Brown – “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac – I wonder if sitting down on a stool for your song on the first live show is a good idea. I say get up and let people see you. But maybe she’ll stick out by being different. First note wasn’t good. Thought maybe she’d turn it around. But she kept going back to some odd notes. Not my fave tonight. My guess is Lacey could be in trouble.

Michelle Delamor – “Fallen” by Alicia Keys – Wow. Sounds great and looks very comfortable on stage. She’s operating on a higher level than the others we’ve seen so far. I agree with Kara DioGuardi. She needs to develop more uniqueness and believability. Take risks, as Randy Jackson told her.

Didi Benami – “The Way I Am” by Ingrid Michaelson – Wondering how this will go. Didi’s known for the waterworks. Hope she’s ready for the judges comments, either way they go. She’s got some skills. But Simon’s got a point. There’s several singers in the competition going for the same sound. Simon and Randy riffing about tonight’s show, basically saying, “Where’s the star power?” Agreed. Some of these performances have been pretty sleepy.

Siobhan Magnus – “Wicked Game” by Chris Issak – Great Song. When Chris Issak sings it. Siobhan’s version is not working for me. A little too “formal” sounding for my taste. My friend Phil Stacey (Idol, Season 6) is making a good point on Facebook. The band is mixed very, very low behind her voice. He says that means they “are NOT helping her.” I hope he doesn’t mean that they’re doing that intentionally. I hope she sticks around. I’d like to hear more from her. She feels genuine.

Crystal Bowersox – “Hand In My Pocket” by Alanis Morissette – She gets a cheer for playing the harmonica. That might be an Idol first. Good stuff–but I was expecting to be blown away a little more. Like Randy and Ellen, I’m a fan. I suspect Crystal could make some music I’d want to listen to. Agree with Simon. She needs to expand beyond her “coffee house” sound.

Katie Stevens – “Feeling Good” by Michael Bublé – Good voice. But not doing her best tonight. A little of that “high school talent show” vibe goin’ on in the performance. Getting roasted by the judges for picking such an “old” sounding song. Adam Lambert sang this one last season. Of course, his version was based on the remake by the band Muse. Katie will be fine. This happens every season. Young singer does a song that makes them sound “old.” Gets spanked by the judges. “Youngs it up” next time around.

What did you think?

Greg Valentine
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Idol Thoughts — 02.17.10

Okay. Some people prefer the other 24 on FOX. But this is my 24–the Top 24 on American Idol! Although, I’m not sure I’d put the fate of the world, or the president, in the hands of these Glee-ful singers.

Oh, wait! Forgot about “Big Mike.” World, I think we got ya covered.

Here’s the way it was tonight:

JANELL WHEELER – This Florida cowgirl was the first of eight consecutive yeses from the judges. She seems passionate about this. I’m not sold on her chance of making to Top 12.

TYLER GRADY – “That 70s Guy.” Tyler’s a student of the classic rock gods. We learned tonight he watches concert videos of Robert Plant and others, learning their moves and style. There are worse ways to spend your time. I see this guy having no problem finding fans and getting votes. And that makes getting to the Top 12 a lot easier.

LACEY BROWN – She should have made it last season–considering the judges picked the annoying Megan Joy over her in one of those two-sit-down-but-only-one’s-gonna-make-it showdowns. We saw some footage we hadn’t before of Lacey singing “What A Wonderful World” from earlier during Hollywood Week. It’s really quite nice. I officially want to hear more.

ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ, ALEX LAMBERT, and JOE MUNOZ – These three were quickly given the good news in a montage. I’ve said since the first episode this season I expect to see Ashley in the Top 12. And ever since, they’ve given her little screen time. Odd. Alex, umm, it’s a shame, and it will undoubted confuse people who follow the show closely, that your name’s so close to last year’s runner-up. And I can’t recall much about Joe’s singing. I do feel bad that I can’t figure out how to put the accent over the “n’ in his last name. Oh, hang on. Viola:  Muñoz! Gotta love cut’n’paste.

CRYSTAL BOWERSOX – “What is it? Three million people watch this show?” I love it. Oblivious. Authentic. Refreshing. I get the sense Crystal doesn’t even own a TV. And if she did, she be tempted to sell it for peyote money. She’s really, really good. Too good. The kind of good that makes you wonder if America can handle it.

KATIE STEVENS – This 16-year old from the Boston auditions was a lock to make Top 24. So she did. I’d say a lock for Top12, too.

Then they cut a bunch people in a row, quickly, like pulling off a Band-Aid. Idol producers didn’t even put their names on screen. I wasn’t really sure who they were. Guess that’s probably why they’re going home.

ANGELA MARTIN – I mentioned it before. Angela seems to have a cloud following her around. And the cloud strikes again. They answer was no. So for the third time, she’s leaves the show after making some initial noise.

LILLY SCOTT – But it’s a yes for this one. Her jazzy, but not in that annoying “I’m a jazzy show-off,” voice got her to the Top 24, where she’ll need to step it up to stick around. That version of “Rich Girl” wasn’t that good–she had no connection to the song.

PAIGE MILES – Who?? Well, she’s in the Top 24.

SIOBHAN MAGNUS – I haven’t been following this one closely. So, let’s see what you can do. The ladies perform next Tuesday.

MICHELLE DELAMOR – Made it through. Same comment here as directly above.

JERMAINE SELLERS –  We didn’t get much new footage on any of these during this stretch of the episode. We’ll be better able to judge his progress when the guys perform Wednesday.

JOHN PARK – “The Asian Soul Singer.” That’s what I said after his audition. Again, we haven’t seen or heard much from him since.

TORI KELLY – She got frozen out by the judges, despite a sexy version the other night of Katy Perry‘s “Hot N Cold.”

HAELEY VAUGHN – Her mission to become the first black female pop country singer…continues. That’s despite some iffy singing during Hollywood Week. Judges see potential. Simon Cowell said she’s adaptable and a hard worker. Haeley’s going to need to become more consistent. And quickly.

THADDEUS JOHNSON – I think he strove to make his “Man In The Mirror” a massive performance. And I think he didn’t quite get there. But, Thaddeus almost ruined my prediction that no one from Neapolitan (Group Day) would make the Top 24. Thaddeus did…not make it. But wait! Paige Miles was in Neapolitan. Oh, that’s who she is. And as mentioned, Paige is a Top 24-er.

ANDREW GARCIA – Here’s another of my early picks to go far in this competition. And he’s on his way to the next level. Andrew told the judges he loves taking songs and messing with the arrangements. I’m a fan of what I’ve heard so far. Keep that up!

So there’s your Top 24. Umm, no. That’s 23. In the preview for next week, we learn that Tim Urban will be performing with the guys next week. We didn’t see Tim sing last night. Or Tonight. Nor did we see the judges tell him he made it. Hmmm. I say he didn’t make it, originally. Someone else must have, and Tim’s a last-minute replacement. Wonder what happened?

What do you think of the Top 24? Any that shouldn’t be there? Some that should? Lemme know.

Greg Valentine
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Idol Thoughts — 02.16.10

Who’s in the Top 24? That’s the question that was 29 percent answered on American Idol tonight. We learned 7 of them. The other 17 will be revealed tomorrow night. And you thought it was a cheesy tease when Ryan Seacrest says, “We’ll find out after the break.” This break is 22 hours long.

Right about 9:15, I realized they weren’t wrapping this up tonight. And in honor of this episode, which was very non-chronological, I’ll be tossing out my observations in whatever order they reach my typing fingers.

BIG MIKE – He made it. Top 24. Simon Cowell wondered if Michael Lynche, the laid-back 26-year old personal trainer and new dad, has the confidence to win…before giving him the good news. As genial as this guy is, he’ll need to really step up his game to make the Top 12. He sings with more conviction than most. And he should emphasize that. But opening up a little more to viewers and letting them get to know him will earn him as many votes.

Vitamin Water cups on the judges table. Orange and white. This is not right. Red and white! Coke! It just doesn’t look right any other way. But go figure. Coke owns Vitamin Water. So for Hollywood Week, they’re using their sponsorship clout to throw some spotlight on this product. Worry not. Coke cups return for the live Top 24 shows. The affects of uncaffeinated judges on who makes the Top 24 remain unclear at this time.

SHELBY DRESSEL – No. Does not make the Top 24. Shelby’s the first to hear bad news of the contestants that remain. Her countrified version of Boston’s “More Than A Feeling” was potentially inspired, started out great, but hit a real bad note going into what was a cheese-ball chorus. The last 45 minutes of tonight’s show were devoted to those scenes where the judges deliver the news, good or bad, to the contestants. They walked down a long aisle at the Kodak Theater to the stage where the judges wait with their fate.

Also not making the Top 24: everybody in Room #2. That was earlier in the show. And not surprising for anybody paying attention. That meant no shot at performing before a live audience and being voted on by viewers for rocker Mary Powers (another Idol cautionary tale about overconfidence, a frequent source of downfall on the show). Also eliminated in this fell swoop: Hope Johnson, who sang a very pitchy version of Daughtry‘s “Home”; Charity Vance, “Gravity” by Sara Bareilles being a nice song choice, but some of her phrasing didn’t work: Lloyd Thomas, who the further he made it in this competition revealed more his limitations, was the umpteenth person to sing Michael Jackson‘s “Man In The Mirror”; Christian Spear, who hasn’t been shown much since her audition; And Bryan Walker, the singing cop.

“Performances” tonight were generally small clips–maybe a verse and chorus. Not much. Ryan Seacrest got much more “vocal time” tonight, his dramatic narration attempting to hold together this swerving-all-over-the-place episode.

TODRICK HALL – He made it. But you knew he would. That’s why all episode, Idol producers tried to fake you out by showing the clip several times of Todrick’s reaction: “That’s it?” It was a reaction to a non-drawn out, “Hey, you made it.” Not, “It’s the end of the road.”

KATELYN EPPERLY – Yes. Top 24. Ellen DeGeneres does a bit about how cruel it is to string along a contestant before telling them yes or no…while stringing along the Katelyn. Amusing. But obvious comedic terrain for a long while now.

Oh, Room #1 and #3 advanced. That was earlier in the show. And if you sensed that #2 were the goners, then you know the news was good for the others. Forty six singers survived that cut and they make up the contestants vying for the 24 slots in the judges’ final cut.

CASEY JAMES – Kara’s crush from Cool, Texas (a real place) lands in the Top 24. I never doubted this. Said so here. Simon’s the one that created this guy’s “underdog” storyline by calling his audition boring and voting no while the other judges gave Casey yeses. Seems a lock to make Top 12.

DIDI BENAMI – Top 24. She cries. A lot. Tonight. And just about every other time we’ve seen her. I don’t know if it’s entertaining, like in a hot mess kinda way. Or annoying. But I’m sure the answer will be apparent soon enough.

AARON KELLY – The 16-year old the ‘tweens are gonna love and vote for. Personally, I’m not sure he’s ready. He’s faltered since hitting Hollywood. But I get it. He’s likable, marketable, has potential to grow, and definitely good for ratings with younger viewers. He kind of needs to be in there. So he is.

What do you think about tonight’s show?

Greg Valentine
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Idol Thoughts — 02.10.10

We learned two things last night on American Idol: 1) Group Day, where the contestants team up and sing together in small groups, is actually the easiest day of Hollywood Week to survive. More on this in a moment. And 2) Gwen Stefani‘s “The Sweet Escape” is apparently the quadruple axel of group vocals and should never again be attempted on this show!

The Group Day episode is usually filled with plenty of (often manufactured) drama and interpersonal conflict. It’s always chaotic and entertaining, even if the stakes are lower than producers would like you to believe. The night started with 96 contestants and ended with 71. That’s 25 people getting the ax. Or roughly 25 percent. For some perspective, the night before saw almost 50 percent of the Idol hopefuls packing their bags and heading home.

I’ve heard people ask why Group Day is necessary if American Idol is an individual competition. I guess the simplest justification is because later, when the show gets to the Top 12, Idol does those choreographed, group performances to kill time during the results show–not to mention several group numbers during the summer concert tour.

But there have been plenty of hopelessly flat-footed and awkward contestants in those group performances over the seasons. So for all its hoopla, Group Day is really about shining individually–and trying to lock down your place in the Top 24.

So who helped themselves last night? Well, generally talented singers who surrounded themselves with other talented singers. I know, it’s another one of Group Day’s contradictions. Even though contestants want to shine individually, performing next to lesser talents doesn’t make them look better. It actually makes them seem less bona fide and able.

Team Awesome, with Michael Lynche (“Big Mike’), Michael Castro, Tim Urban and Seth Rollins, is a perfect example of this. Big Mike’s been getting a lot of screen time, with his wife literally in the hospital giving birth to a daughter as her husband prepared with his group. Big Mike turned in a strong version of John Mayer‘s “Waiting On The World To Change” Tuesday night. But Team Awesome was merely Team Adequate on last night’s Motown classic, “Get Ready.” Big Mike and Tim Urban made it though. But Big Mike seemed less impressive.

Ashley Rodriguez, Michelle Delamor and Charity Vance performed early in the show as the group, Faith. Despite some heavy talent, I thought their version of Beyoncé‘s “Irreplaceable” was just pretty good, not fantastic. Theirs was a case of the parts being greater than the sum together. Great individual vocals that didn’t mesh as well as I would’ve thought. So much for team work. Anyway, they’re all through to the next round.

Much was made last night about the “showdown” between Neapolitan and Destiny’s Wild, who both chose to sing Lady GaGa‘s “Bad Romance.” Neapolitan featured Paige Miles, Thaddeus Johnson, Jessica Cunningham and Liz Rooney. Despite all of them being advanced to the next round, I didn’t hear a single Top 24 performer in there. They all seem like Hollywood Week fodder. Destiny’s Wild, with Siobhan Magnus, Jareb Liewer, Theri and Todrick Hall, represented the song better. It certainly was the most creative, with backflips and some sense of costume. But it was hardly the vocal standout of the night. Todrick Hall sang well. Everyone in Destiny’s Wild was also advanced to the next round.

Group Day rule: A really solid group effort can advance lesser singers (see paragraph above), while a really, really bad group performance can eliminate a good singer (see next paragraph).

I don’t know what these groups were thinking. “The Sweet Escape” by Gwen Stefani? It’s a hard song to master quickly, with its rapid-fire delivery and tongue-twisting lyrics. The job of pulling all this together and looking good on Group Day is hard enough without adding an extra level of difficulty. But apparently several groups chose the song, and from the montage we saw last night, and failed massively–including Big Dreams, which featured Matt Lawrence, who sounded great at the Orlando auditions (“Trouble” by Ray Lamontagne). Uncomfortable in the choreography, and singing a song that was all kinds of wrong for him, Matt, and everyone in his group, were dismissed. Matt’s not-so Sweet Escape maybe being the biggest surprise of the night.

For future reference, groups should also not attempt Barenaked Ladies “One Week” and R.E.M.‘s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It.” Just puttin’ that out there.

The Mighty Rangers, Phoenix and the Dreamers all got plenty of airtime last night–mostly thanks to juicy internal conflicts that made for interesting television. Their actual group performances were largely forgettable. Not sure what we learned from these three. Except that rocker Mary Powers (Dreamers) is pushy and probably not as good as she thinks she is.

The best groups of the night got the least airtime. I guess getting along and working well together to achieve something good isn’t as interesting as the histrionics of group dysfunction. Middle C, with Janell Wheeler, Jermaine Purifory and Casey James did a great version of Ne-Yo‘s “Closer.” And early standouts Andrew Garcia and Katie Stevens led the group Three Men and a Baby through a tasty version of Alicia Key‘s “No One.” Proving this point: surround yourself with other talented people. Best move you can make on Group Day.

Those are my thoughts this morning. What are yours?

Greg Valentine
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Idol Thoughts — 02.09.10

What was the most satisfying thing about last night’s episode of American Idol? That’s an easy one for me. How quickly the pretenders were identified and eliminated.

It was this season’s first Hollywood Week episode. The task: turning the number 181 into 24. As in, reducing the 181 contestants invited to California to the 12 women and 12 men that will make up the Top 24.

Entering stage right to help with this “mathematical problem” was the  night’s biggest story of all: the debut of Idol‘s newest judge, Ellen DeGeneres, who appears more contender than pretender. Aside from making Idol the television show with the highest percentage of stars with capital “G’s” in the middle of their last names, Ellen quickly offered this zinger (sure to be the first of many): “Hollywood is disgusting. You should put on some shoes.” With that quip to a barefoot contestant, an interesting irony became apparent. Idol replaced someone unintentionally funny (Paula Abdul) with someone intentionally.

Much of the discussion today will be about how Ellen did last night. I haven’t been a big fan of messing with the original chemistry. But change is inevitable. So Paula is gone. Simon Cowell is going. And Kara DioGuardi is just…there. From what we saw last night, Ellen was honest and direct (but kind with her criticism), nurturing, and above all, funny. Ellen says she wants to be the voice of the fans. She has the potential to genuinely bring something new and entertaining to an already successful formula.

That should be a big relief. We’ve seen situations like this go bad before. But Ellen’s no Dennis Miller, a seemingly unwelcome guest in the booth at odds with the viewers needs during those Monday Night Football broadcasts.

Now, to the singin’ from last night. Let’s start with those “pretenders.” I’ve tried to tag them in these blogs through out the auditions: people who were advanced based on personality and backstory over their abilities. Well, the deadweight was cut loose. Goodbye Motown-singing, street-hustla Skiiboski, Italian lug Amadeo DiRocco, Miami beatboxer Jay Stone, and grown-up Barney and Friends cast-member Erica Rhodes. And, no, Jersey Shore wannabes Bernadette and Amanda Disimone, the show doesn’t, as you claim, “need you.”

And it’s not Hollywood Week without some chokes and fails. Vanessa Wolfe, the small town Tennessee girl who demonstrated some country quirkiness in her Atlanta audition couldn’t find the confidence I suggested she’d need to advance, sounding nervous and not too great on an almost unrecognizable version of Blind Melon‘s “No Rain.” Vanessa got the slo-mo, dragging luggage, walking-away montage.

And there was Maddy Curtis, who I pointed out was the second best 16-year old at the Boston auditions. Well, that sadly proved true as poor song choice and a tentative performance detracted from Maddy’s otherwise pure singing voice. So Maddy goes home while the better 16-year old from that Boston audition, Katie Stevens, advances, turning in a smokey rendition of Stevie Wonder‘s “For Once In My Life.”

Several singers have excellent shots at the Top 24. Andrew Garcia, “the Latino Danny Gokey,” performed my second favorite cover-version of Paula Abdul‘s “Straight Up” (check out punk band Halifax‘s version for a transformational experience). Casey James, who took off his shirt in auditions at Kara’s request, is turning into the ringer I suggested he might be. Turns out Casey’s a pretty solid blues guitarist and vocalist. Lily Scott, who we apparently saw for the first time last night, gave a genuine and original take on Ella Fitzgerald‘s “Lullabye Of Birdland.” Jazzy and quirky, is Lily another Megan Joy from Season 8? Well, Megan was annoying as hell. So, no! I say Lily is probably everything Megan was supposed to be, but wasn’t.

Also with great odds of making the Top 24 are waitress Didi Benami, who sang a Kara DioGuardi song. (How soon before Idol contestants show up doing Ellen Degeneres dances? I’m just sayin’.) Janell Wheeler, who transformed Estelle‘s “American Boy” into a convincing earthy, country ditty. And Crystal Bowerson, the dreadlock chick from last week’s Road To Hollywood audition episode. This is a real singer. Great vocal on Aretha Franklin‘s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” Crystal has her own style. But that doesn’t mean she couldn’t benefit from a little makeover. And teeth whitening. I hate picking on something like that. It’s just…really noticeable.

They weren’t shown last night. But they did advance, and I say Ashley Rodriguez (pretty singer from Boston auditions who sang Alicia Keys) and Todrick Hall (The Color Purple) are likely Top 24-ers.

Anyone else from last night’s episode not mentioned by name here is in my “on the fence” category, and still has stuff to prove during Hollywood Week to advance. At least, that’s what I think. How about you? Leave a comment.

Greg Valentine
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