"They've made it past the auditions, lived through Hollywood Week and survived the final judgement," Ryan Seacrest says, kicking off Tuesday (Feb. 17) night's first "American Idol" performance episode of the Top 36.
The same can be said for all of us.
We survived the preliminaries. Now let's hear people actually sing.
Group One gets to tackle songs from the Billboard Top 100, any year and any genre. That means they can pretty much sing whatever the heck they want. Will it pay off?
Complete recap after the bump... Click through...
Singer: JACKIE TOHN
Song: "A Little Less Conversation"
My Take: Jackie is all a-shimmy with an arrangement of "A Little Less Conversation" that I've never heard before. But really, how can you top Jon Peter Lewis' epic rendition of this song? How?!? Jackie's shaking (or lurching) whatever her her momma gave her, but I'm distracted by her black stretch pants. And her early-90s Air Jordans (or some sort of trainers, as the British would say). Jackie also has a giant red belt and a polka-dot top. She makes me want to Jazzercise, rather than sing along. Jackie's an entertainer, but not an entertainer who's satisfied with just, you know, letting listeners be entertained. She requires that her desperate need-to-please be rammed home with flailing limbs and obscure gestures. Sometimes she sacrifices singing for growling and at least once distracts the cameraman so badly he films his feet. Well done.
Randy, Kara, Paula and Simon Say: Randy asks her to check it out. He doesn't know if he was blown away by the whole vocal thing, but he thinks she's an entertainer. Kara raves that Jackie can work the stage, but agrees with Randy that the vocals weren't the best. A discussion of her trousers ensues. Paula tells Jackie that perfect is sometimes boring and that she makes everyone fall in love with her. "I think that you actually played the clown tonight," Simon says, calling the performance "ungainly" and the song gimmicky. The boos cascade in early.
Singer: RICKY BRADDY
Song: "A Song For You"
My Take: I have no idea who Ricky Braddy is. You have no idea who Ricky Braddy is. He's got a hard task, since few singers were less exposed in the early episodes. I'm not sure about his stagecraft, which is a little too faux sincere, or his personal, which is geek-turned-lounge-lizard, but he has good voice. A strikingly good voice, in fact. I'm not the hugest fan of his falsetto moments, but through most of the song, he sounds like he deserves a longer run on this show. I can't see him advancing out of this group simply because of the disservice that the show's producers did in not featuring him at all previously, but we'll see him again in the Wild Card. Ricky may be one of those contestants most hampered by the shift to a Top 36 format.
Randy, Kara, Paula and Simon Say: Randy, who says Season Eight started with Jackie, correct himself and says that *this* is actually the start of Season Eight. Kara thinks he killed it, calling it effortless and incredible. Paula's proud that America is finally getting to see how talented he is. Simon's not jumping out of his chair. He doesn't think Ricky has star quality.
Singer: ALEXIS GRACE
Song: "Never Loved a Man"
My Take: The judges' advice to Alexis to "dirty up" hasn't quite taken. Two streaks of pink doesn't equal dirty, it's Jem and the Holograms. The swaths of bright-red lipstick aren't helping matters, nor are the mismatched pearls. Someday Alexis will figure out her persona and here's hoping we get to see the progression. She has the potential to be fantastic. She doesn't have quite the chops to do Aretha. She has to battle sounding whiney rather than soulful in the melody's higher moments, but on other parts of the song, including the end, she stands out.
Randy, Kara, Paula and Simon Say: Wait wait wait. This is where Season Eight starts for Randy. You know what's crazy for Randy (other than the obvious)? He thinks she "done found the dirt." Randy's loving her right now. Kara observes that Alexis has released something inside, that she's become a new girl. Paula thinks she presented soul and passion and confidence. Simon calls Alexis the best of the night, calling her a dark horse and comparing her to Kelly Clarkson.
Singer: BRENT KEITH
My Take: "American Idol" hates the already anonymous Brent Keith so much that he can't even get a clip package at first. Eventually they work it out before going into Brent's song. Brent, who finished sixth on a past season of "Nashville Star" turns a decent enough country performance. You can tell he's done this before, because he has at least some sense of how to work the stage and play to the audience. But it feels like a mid-tier "Nashville Star" performance and all it declares is "I'm ready to put out a so-so country album." He's better than Josh Gracin, but is he better than Phil Stacey? Not based on this limited choice.
Randy, Kara, Paula and Simon Say: You know what Randy liked? He liked that Brent has returned to the country, envisioning some oddball chilli cook-off that he might someday attend with Brent and Simon. The day Randy goes to a chilli cook-off with Simon is the day Paula goes to a Mensa meeting with Sharon Stone. Kara wanted to see more of Brent's soul and to see him take more risks. Paula agrees with Kara, but she can see him as a country artist. Simon needs to be refreshed on Bucky Covington's relative success on the country charts. Bucky's moved albums. He thinks Brent was safe and forgettable. Brent warns Simon that country fans won't forget. Does that count as talking back to Simon?
Singer: STEVIE WRIGHT
Song: "You Belong to Me"
My Take: Stevie is the night's first performer to begin with any evidence of nerves. She sings a Taylor Swift song because she thinks it will make her look young. Indeed, it does make her look you and inexperienced and out of her depth. The opening verse is really wobbly and rough and even when she gets to the chorus, you can hear the uncertainty. Where is the old soul with the splendid tone we heard in the auditions and in snippets from Hollywood? This was, alas, the night's first train wreck. I'd pegged Stevie as one of the group's favorites. Ooops.
Randy, Kara, Paula and Simon Say: It was not hot for Randy, who calls her a better singer than the song choice or the performance. Kara warns that Stevie may have an identity crisis, that singing a young song wasn't enough. Paula agrees with the first two. Simon comes right out and calls it terrible. Stevie smiles and nods. He says that there's zero chance she's advancing off of that performance. If they're smart, they'll give her a chance to come back and prove herself in the Wild Card round.
Singer: ANOOP DESAI
Song: "Angel of Mine"
My Take: Really, Anoop? A Monica song? What is this supposed to prove? Or is this some sort of folkloric experiment on gender-swapping pop songs, their interpretation and popular reception, on reality talent shows? "Ethnic R&B Reappropriation: Indian As The New Soul." He sounds shrill and nasally and not at all like the Noop Dogg who broke out of the audition episodes. If I'd never seen him before and he popped up for the first time on this episode, I'd wonder how he got so far.
Randy, Kara, Paula and Simon Say: Randy has mad love for Anoop, but he correctly criticized him for mostly being sharp. Kara doesn't think Anoop has the capability to "nail it the way it needs to be nailed." Yikes. That's what she said. Paula thinks that America has already connected with Anoop and compares him to Brian McKnight. Simon thought the song was too grown-up for Anoop. Simon didn't like the song, but says Anoop has "massive likability." Anoop is gracious and personable and polite, which will go a long way to keeping viewers on his side.
Singer: CASEY CARLSON
Song: "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic"
My Take: Argh. Casey is just too adorable for words. But why is she trying to sneer and be a growling bad-girl? And why isn't she trying to do it on a Police song? As contestants have discovered in the past, the hardest part of doing the Police isn't the melody, but the rhythm. Casey isn't quite on the beat. She isn't quite on the melody either. There is a history of "Idol" fans getting behind attractive women who try to open their mouthes extra wide in an effort to swallow the mic. Screenshots of Ms. Carlson may be very popular in days to come. Audio recordings of Ms. Carlson are unlikely to be as popular.
Randy, Kara, Paula and Simon Say: Randy oohs and ahhhs and calls it "weirdly karaoke." Kara hates cute girls. Kara wants to see Casey do a young, girlie anthem and takes her to task for trying to do the Police. Paula acknowledges Casey's beauty, prompting a lovely cutaway to Casey, pouting delightfully, lower lip quivering. She looks to be on the verge of tears as Simon looks for something positive to say. The best he can come up with is "The singing was just atrocious." He blames the musical director for letting her sing the song at all.
Singer: MICHAEL "THE ROUGHNECK" SARVER
Song: "I Don't Wanna Be"
My Take: OK. I know that Michael worked on an oil rig, but I haven't been this sick of an "American Idol" backstory since Matt Rogers, Rose Bowl Hero. The only thing that kept this song from being a banal, generic song is that Gavin DeGraw has a distinctively gruff and raw voice. Michael is making it sound generic and poppy. He misses several big notes leading up to the end, but hits the last note well. This is a song that's been sung over and over again on "Idol" and Michael's version isn't on the same level as Bo Bice or Elliott Yamin's covers. Chris Richardson's take? Maybe?
Randy, Kara, Paula and Simon Say: Randy agrees that Michael can sing, wishing he'd done more of "the soul thing." Kara thinks the song will please the crowds more than the ears. Paula thought Michael did "a real good job" and showed a different side of him. She was distracted by his microphone swapping. Simon says we've heard worse vocals tonight and if he makes it through, it will be because people like him.
Singer: ANN MARIE BOSKOVICH
Song: "Natural Woman"
My Take: Is this an intentionally ironic song choice for a singer who had to have mid-audition makeover in order to make it to Hollywood? She looked great before the makeover and she still does. It's a solid and by-the-numbers rendition of the song. There's nothing you'll remember about this performance as coming from Ann Marie Boskovich. She doesn't overplay to the crowd or attempt much performance, beyond a little arm raising and rocking side-to-side. This is not-unpleasant and forgettable.
Randy, Kara, Paula and Simon Say: Randy's struggling with the song choice again. Kara thought the song was too old-fashiong. She throws out a song suggestion and Ann Marie replies, "Something that's not as good?" Nice. Paula thinks Ann Marie is getting better and that she wasn't playing it safe at all. "If we were searching for the best hotel singer in California, then that would have been quite good," Simon says. Ann Marie kills her chance for a post-song interview by plunking down next to Ryan, squirming and declaring "I just sat on the hard part." Ryan can't get anything else out.
Singer: STEPHEN FOWLER
Song: "Rock With You"
My Take: This isn't a good song choice for Stephen, because I associate it -- in "Idol" terms -- with Brandon Rogers, a quickly eliminated singer who I mostly think of as wasted potential. Like Brandon, unfortunately, Stephen adds nothing to the performance beyond an occasional smile and a nod to the audience. Like Brandon, again, Stephen's vocals are just fine, at least until his voice cracks several times on what ought to have been the climactic high not. Neither Brandon nor Stephen was able to take into account how central personality is to Michael Jackson's version of the song and neither man was able to bring any personality of their own. This show started off so well. What happened, y'all?
Randy, Kara, Paula and Simon Say: Randy's losing his enthusiasm for this episode, saying this wasn't the joint for him to be singing. He praises the high note, which wasn't even any good. Kara doesn't think he was connected to the music. She also liked the high note. I really hope the judges go back and listen to that note. It wasn't there, dawg. Paula and Kara both miss the connection he had when he was on his piano. "I actually wish you had forgotten the lyrics," Simon grumbles.
Singer: TATIANA DEL TORO
Song: "Saving All My Love For You"
My Take: The desire to throttle Tatiana, who even cries in her clip package, is so very strong. Tatiana's just sloppy. If she were as attractive as she thinks she is -- either in looks or personality -- she'd be Katharine McPhee. But she isn't. The camera swings around and around and around and every time it comes near her, she curls her lip and nods at all of us. I try to close my eyes and just listen to the vocals. She's better that way. Eyes closed, the notes she hits sound OK. The notes she misses sound brutal. But at least I'm not seeing her.
Randy, Kara, Paula and Simon Say: Randy says Tatiana had some moments, but only a couple moments. Moments! Moments! Kara compares her to a rollercoaster. "Is she a character or an artist?" Kara asks. Tatiana stares her down and tells her that she fits everywhere. Paula doesn't know the meaning of the word "demure." Tatiana may not be as bonkers as sometimes, but she still isn't demure. Simon dubs her a drama queen, comparing her to Paula in terms of her desperation for fame. "Actually, surprisingly, it wasn't bad at all," he says. He also misuses "demure."
Singer: DANNY GOKEY
My Take: No singer received more positive screentime (as opposed to Tatiana or Norman Gentle screentime) in the audition and Hollywood Rounds than Danny Gokey. So is anybody really surprised to see Gokey in the pimp slot for the season's first performance episode? Or that Jamar is in the audience rooting him on? Or that he's singing an inspirational super-ballad? Ladies and Gentlemen, the first person in this season's Top 12... Danny Gokey. It helps that he's good, passing Ricky Braddy for the title as the night's best male singer. He's not faux-sincere, he's real sincere. Or he makes me believe it.
Randy, Kara, Paula and Simon Say: "The redeemer of the night," Randy raves. "Danny, you are the hero," shouts Kara. "Sold-out arenas," Paula cheers. Simon halts the coronation saying, "I'm just not buying the hype." Sorry, Simon. Danny is The Redeemer. He's The Hero. He may be this season's David Archuleta, The Chosen One.
TONIGHT'S BEST: The night's three best performances were from Danny, Ricky and Alexis and I'd expect Danny and Alexis to advance (he's a sure-thing and she ought to be). It's my assumption that Ricky's lack of screen exposure will keep him waiting for the Wild Card, so who will take the other spot? If America votes on who they like most, I think Anoop is in good position. If America votes on who they hate most, Tatiana lives to torture us all another day. Michael could also sneak in on likability.
TONIGHT's WORST: It makes me so sad to say, but Stevie gave the night's worst performance and it wasn't close. I don't think she's in any way the worst singer in the group, but sometimes bad nights happen. Casey and Jackie also stood out poorly. Maybe this is why the judges kept saying the men were better.
What'd you think, readers? Who stood out? Who should make the Top 12? And who do you never ever want to hear again?