One of the most under-reported stories from the first night of American Idol performances was that despite Ryan Seacrest’s puerile attempts to pick fights with the judges (specifically Simon) for being excessively harsh, even Paula Abdul had to stretch to find compliments. When Paula gets grumpy, that means something. In this case, it means that men have some work to do.
Would the Top 12 Women show something more on Wednesday (Feb. 21) night?
Singer: Stephanie Edwards
Song: "How Come You Don’t Call Me?"
My Take: After the men last night, I’d forgotten what a really good singer sounds like. Stephanie has a torch singer’s swagger — she flirts and plays to both the crowd and camera — and a voice to match. Is she flawless? No. She misses a couple notes on her first shot, but she’s good at making adjustments in midstream. She’s even checked her Idol playbook to see that the judges like singers who get down on their knees mid-performance. She’s in another league from the stuff we saw last night.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simon say: Randy notes the difference from last night and says she set it off. Paula, in shock, calls her a star. I like the cuts to the men, who are already getting tired of hearing how much they stank, as well as one shot of Antonella Barba, who looks to be chewing gum. Simon calculates the improvement from last night at a million-times.
Singer: Amy Krebs
Song: "I Can’t Make You Love Me"
My Take: Bonnie Raitt may be one of our most underappreciated vocalists. That’s what I think every time I listen to an Idol contestant do a so-so cover, lacking the smoky character of Raitt’s voice. Amy doesn’t do anything wrong vocally, but she’s nearly expressionless throughout. Granted that her expression is placid and beautiful, but she turns a song that ought to be a manifestation of true melancholy into an "Aw shucks, I can’t make you love me so I’ll just date somebody else" statement of meaninglessness.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simon say: Randy goes with "boring, middle-of-the-road," and he calls it safe (he doesn’t appreciate Bonnie either). Paula agrees. Simon can’t remember her already and says she has the personality of a candle.
Singer: Leslie Hunt
Song: "Natural Woman"
My Take: Simon has just coined my new favorite expression: "You’re just this thing that sings." Leslie, like Amy, is just another thing that sings. Boots slowly making their way up to her neck, Leslie does the deodorant or female hygiene commercial version of "Natural Woman," all corny smiles and clumsy attempts to follow the camera, all sunshiny and bland. That make sense? It feels like a supporting or background performance.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simon say: Randy was hoping for definite greatness and says the song was too big for her. Paula thinks she did a great job, but warns her on song selection. Simon implies that her comfort zone is walking dogs and she looks embarrassed and ungainly. Leslie’s husband/boyfriend/father looks ready to hit him.
Singer: Sabrina Sloan
Song: "I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You"
My Take: Oooh… Can I be the first person to say that there’s something just a bit drag about Sabrina? Good. Her voice is going to be an acquired taste, because she can unquestionably blow, but it’s going to be hard to distinguish between when she’s singing and shouting. Every second we heard from the audition rounds, Sabrina was shouting, not singing. Tonight, she seems to be singing, right under the shout-threshold and she’s powerful and commanding. It will be a tightrope.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simon say: Randy tells her that she properly put things down and that it was hot. Paula gives her a standing ovation. Simon praises Sabrina for her improvement since the audition, calling it the best so far.
Singer: Antonella Barba
Song: "I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing"
My Take: Antonella’s a pretty girl. In the words of the little-seen Canadian gem Fubar, however, she needs to turn up the good and turn down the suck. She oversings the song into mush. My feeling is that if you aren’t getting the basic piece, trying to do advanced flourishes just makes everything worse, like putting rhinestone designs on parachute pants. She wasn’t getting the basic song or the flourishes. Pretty girl, ugly karaoke.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simon say: Randy wrings his hands before keeping it real and calling it pitchy and bland. Paula says she’s an amazingly beautiful girl and she wasn’t bad. Yes. Yes she was. "Well, the good news is you’re attractive, the bad news is it didn’t work," is Simon’s response and predicts she’s damaged her chances of remaining another week. "Antonella, it would be like Ryan doing the news," is Simon’s assessment of how over-her-head the song was.
Singer: Jordin Sparks
Song: "Give Me One Reason"
My Take: Jordin is likeable and composed for a performer this young, not precocious, just human. I don’t much like the arrangement of the song, because it makes Tracy Chapman’s already complicated rhythm harder to handle. Jordin has to battle with the backing music, but I think I had a good sense of her voice, particularly as she closes strong.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simon say: Randy says her natural talent is great, but she needs to challenge herself and that no song is too big. Paula tells her to go for it. Simon acknowledges Jordin’s voice and says that if she pushes herself, she’ll surprise some people.
Singer: Nicole Tranquillo
My Take: Nicole is proud of how hard she tries and I also find myself appreciating the effort she put into trying to get this right. The notes definitely line up to where they should be on the page and I can’t say she does anything wrong except for the things she doesn’t do right, like actually inhabiting the performance. It’s like she’s playing well-intentioned dress-up and I wonder what the right match of song and Nicole would be.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simon say: It wasn’t really Randy’s vibe. Paula doesn’t know how many people can hit the notes Nicole hit. "Aggressive," "Fake," "Unnatural," "Indulgent." Those words aren’t positives coming from Simon. The producers need to eliminate the part where the performers judge the judges. Putting these vulnerable kids on the spot is a recipe for making them say things that make me hate them.
Singer: Haley Scarnato
Song: "It’s All Coming Back to Me"
My Take: Once we eliminate Antonella (and perhaps even before), Haley’s the most conventionally attractive gal in the Top 12, which has only occasionally been a good sign and singing Celine Dion is an even worse sign. When you cover Celine, you’re almost never going to shock anybody by being better and you don’t get credit for just coming close (as people who do decent Aretha covers occasionally are). Haley’s pleasant, both aesthetically and, to a slightly lesser degree, vocally. Pleasant is good for a week or two.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simon say: It was just OK for Randy, who actually liked the song, but wanted to be wowed. Paula goes with "nice" as her adjective of choice. Simon says she sounded 40, "a bit like being at an actually reasonably good hotel."
Singer: Melinda Doolittle
Song: "Since You’ve Been Gone"
My Take: Brandon Rogers didn’t boost the profile of the competition’s background singers last night. But if Brandon has a background voice and personality, Melinda certainly has a center-stage voice. She’s technically fantastic and while she may not have Aretha’s range (see the above point regarding Aretha cover, she nails the notes she needs to. For now, her stage presence is a bit too much eyes-closed, big-smile, feeling-the-music and not enough direct engagement with the audience. She’s going to get better and I suspect she’s one of the two or three people to beat this season.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simon say: Randy says she blew it out da box, that she was hot and da bomb. She’s a firecracker to Paula. Simon has high praise and hopes Melinda does well.
Singer: Alaina "Don’t Make Me Go to College!" Alexander
Song: "Brass in Pocket"
My Take: Alaina has too thin and breathy a voice to sing Chrissie Hynde. Sorry. She’s really flat at times and she can’t hit any of the high notes. In fact, without the high notes or low notes, I’m not sure what she did. Despite only limited dancing, she manages to run out of air in a hurry. I’d say more, but she might cry. Don’t cry!
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simon say: When did "It wasn’t great" become Randy’s only insult of choice? Paula doesn’t she Alaina went for it. Simon thought it was a mess and that she lost it half-way through. Ryan needs to stop giving their backstories as post-performance monologues. He’s so gushy that Simon accuses him of trying to date her.
Singer: Gina Glocksen
Song: "All By Myself"
My Take: In the audition rounds, it looked like Gina was all about personality over vocals. Perhaps that’s why she chose an opening performance that was devoid of any personality at all? So I’ll grant that she’s got a good voice — not a remarkable voice, but a big voice, a confident voice. She misses the power note at first, but wrangles it down by the very end. Now can she bring back the personality and put it together?
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simon say: Randy announces "Big girl, big voice." It was the right song for Paula. Simon doesn’t think she hit the big note.
Singer: Lakisha Jones
Song: "I Am Telling You"
My Take: Oh my. It takes guts to do this song at all, much less five days before Jennifer Hudson gets an Oscar just for not botching it. She’s fantastic. The thing you have to keep in mind is that in the song, whoever’s playing Effie gets five minutes to work her way up to that point, to build and develop the degree of power that Lakisha had to just walk out on stage and clutch from nowhere. Just jumping right into it makes it even harder and Lakisha did it like a pro. I’m not going to say something silly like "She’s better than Jennifer Hudson" on the basis of 90 seconds, but I might pay to see Lakisha in Dreamgirls.
Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Simon say: "Jennifer Hudson watch out," Randy announces. Paula is on the verge of tears of pride. "I’m very tempted to say to 23 people ‘Book your plane tickets home.’" Love the shot of Nicole Tranquillo half-clapping.
THE NIGHT’S BEST: Lakisha, Melinda and Stephanie were a step above, with Sabrina, Jordin and Gina on the next level. All six were better than anybody last night.
IN DANGER: I’m not sure what Alaina and Antonella could do to survive, though Nicole, Amy and Leslie — less bad, more forgettable — might be under some pressure as well.
Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts on the best and worst of the night…