Now it gets fun. Most of us only sit through the auditions and Hollywood Week to get to the live performances on American Idol. But before the singing began, the show smartly dealt with Ellen sitting as far away from Simon as possible. They just showed a joke video where Simon was hitting on Ellen. On the other hand, he did look a little peevish, but that might just have been Simon. He also said this year belonged to the women. But so far it only belongs to one. (Hint: she plays the harmonica.)
PAIGE MILES -- Sang "All Right Now," the sole Top 10 hit by Free. Paige looked cute and it was smart to get Tina Turner-ish on a rock song. But this tune has a very minor range and her attempt at a big last note ended abruptly. By the end of the night, however, I agreed more with the judges who were kind. Kara made a silly ghetto comment with "You got a ridiculous voice, girl!" But Randy had the best insight into why the song was a boring choice for a solo act: the chorus is a big sing-along moment and just sounds weaker sung alone.
ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ -- Sang "Happy" the #31 hit (#2 in the UK) from Leona Lewis's second album. Maybe she was trying to butter up Simon, since Lewis is the biggest act to come out of his show The X Factor. Unfortunately, it was so-so, with a slow start and many rough patches.
JANELL WHEELER -- Sang "What About Love?," the iconic Top 10 hit by Heart. She looked cute but the song overwhelmed her. She was rough on the verses, very thin on the big notes and only sounded ok on the chorus because the backup singers carried her. Not one good passage.
LILLY SCOTT -- Sang the Beatles classic "Fixing A Hole" from Sgt. Pepper. (Sounds awesome in mono, by the way.) Great choice with a good arrangement that's right in her wheelhouse. The only problem was her singing. She was draggy and flat at times and her scatting sort of "ow ow ows" felt forced. The bridge where she got a little spirited and sang with more passion was the only bright spot. But as the judges say -- however, I like her vibe.
KATHELYN EPPERLY -- Sang the Beatles classic "Oh, Darling" from Abbey Road, which was a #15 hit for Robin Gibb from the godawful Bee Gees film thingy of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I liked her choice but was annoyed the producers put two mid-tempo Beatles songs back to back. (That was before I realized there were three Beatles songs in a row. Still, they should have put other songs in between.) Lotta hair from Epperly and the leathery dress made her look too much like she was wearing a costume. But it was pretty good and straightforward.
HAELEY VAUGHN -- The third and final Beatles song, this one a huge smash and their US breakthrough "I Want To Hold Your Hand," which hit #1 for seven weeks here (not to mention the delightful movie by Robert Zemeckis, I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Rent it!) She started too high, which immediately got me worried and was flat at times and ran out of breath by the end of lines. But she's always had a little voice and the Jason Mraz vibe was fun. Fun is definitely the word. And sweet. But she needs to work better in her limited range; the cuteness won't be enough.
LACEY BROWN -- Sang Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," perhaps my favorite song on my favorite album of theirs, the eponymous Fleetwood Mac. (It didn't chart until Smashing Pumpkins broke into the Top 40 for the first time with it in 1994, then Fleetwood did a live version that went to #51 in the 90s and finally the great Dixie Chicks took it to #7 in 2002 on their album Home, one of the best albums of the decade.) It's a quiet song, but not slow; in fact, it's surprisingly light on its feet. Lacey seemed to be trying to slow it down and seemed uncomfortable every step of the way. Boring. Ellen said, "I think you're better than that," continuing her trend of being honest but supportive, sort of a sane Paula Abdul when it comes to trying to be a cheerleader for them to do their best without her being mindless. Simon was right to call it indulgent.
MICHELLE DELAMOR -- Sang "Fallin'" by Alicia Keys, which shows a notable lack of imagination for someone who should be trying to stand out. Overdone for auditions, performed all the time until the judges and we are sick of it. Of all the songs that have ever charted on Billboard (the very broad category for the night), was that really the best song she could choose? Kara kept talking to Simon but they were all kinder than I expected. She was breathy and had an ok middle but was basically forgettable.
DID BENAMI -- Sang Ingrid Michaelson's Top 40 hit "The Way I Am." She looked very cute and immediately struck me as looking confident. A rough last note was a shame because I thought she was pretty good overall. In the race to be Adele or Duffy (or Madeleine Peyroux) I thought she outpaced Lilly Scott tonight.
SIOBHAN MAGNUS -- Sang "Wicked Game" by Chris Isaak." I was so happy before the break when Ryan Seacrest announced she'd be singing Isaak. He has a catalog of terrific pop tunes that are immediately catchy a la Roy Orbison, which are perfect for mining on the show and yet not so familiar that they would seem obvious. Unfortunately, Siobhan chose the obvious tune, his only Top 40 hit and one that can be pretty draggy in unsafe hands. Siobhan had stood out for me so I'm bummed she went the dowdy, cocktail lounge route in her rendition, though she built a little steam on the emphatic bridge. But overall, too slow. Plus, the band sounded like it was in the next room (as it did on most tunes, obviously a choice by the producers). On the bright side, she had some cute friends in the audience.
CRYSTAL BOWERSOX -- Sang Alanis Morissette's #15 hit "Hand In My Pocket." Bowersox has been an early standout and now that increases by a factor of 10. She was an instant standout from the moment she began singing. Yes, Morissette is a singer-songwriter, but I don't think most think of her in the Dylan/folkie vein. Bowersox was her own woman (even during other people's songs when she seemed to just quietly watch from the balcony, rather than playing at cheering them on or clapping). And there was a harmonica break! Puts her way, way, way out front of the others in my book. The judges were more reserved when I would have given her a standing O right off the bat. Not a brilliant vocal or stunningly original arrangement but it felt fresh and genuine and real and I wished she could have kept singing.
KATIE STEVENS -- Sang "Feelin' Good" by (as Ryan Seacrest put it) MIchael Buble. No one's ever hit the Hot 100 with it, but surely this number from the Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse musical The Roar Of The Greasepaint -- The Smell Of The Crowd still belongs to Nina Simone if anyone. The 17-year-old looked too dolled up, which made the whole number feel like play-acting to me, like a girl dressing up and singing along in her bedroom. I immediately wrote down that Simon would tell her to act her age...but Ellen beat him to it. Randy correctly pointed out that her big problem was oversinging notes and going sharp (is it my imagination or is he stepping it up this season?) and Simon nailed it by calling her performance "pageant-y."
At the end, as the end credits rolled and the music played, some of the girls danced along, as they will. But Crystal sort of jokingly/half-heartedly danced along for a moment...and then turned her back on the camera to focus on people in the audience. A big deal? Nope, the show was over and maybe as far as she knew they'd already cut away. But that casual ability to not feel pressured into soaking up every second of face time speaks volumes to her confidence and sense of who she is. Bopping around on stage to the music wouldn't help her anyway, would it? If you haven't guessed, I'm a fan.
Impossible to say which two will go, so I'll just say that Bowersox is safe. It won't surprise me who else is eliminated. If social networking means anything (and at this early stage, your built-in fan base can keep you safe), it's worth pointing out that three women are in the bottom four when it comes to fans on Facebook and followers on Twitter: Haeley Vaughn, Michelle Delamor and Paige Miles (who also had the double whammy of going first).
Who was your favorite? Your least favorite? Any ideas which two will go home Thursday?
Thanks for reading. Visit Michael Giltz at his website and his daily blog. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his weekly music radio show at Popsurfing and enjoy the weekly pop culture podcast he co-hosts at Showbiz Sandbox. Both available for free on iTunes. Link to him on Netflix and gain access to thousands of ratings and reviews.
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