Amid throngs of song-choice criticisms and "show me some personality" pleas, the first "American Idol" semifinalists were voted off last week, leaving the remaining 20 contestants to belt it out on the hit show's sixth season.
We caught up with the four castoffs to talk about what they would have done differently and what they'll do next.
The 25-year-old from Saratoga, California, sang Wham!'s "Careless Whisper," which ended up being a reckless decision. The judges praised his earlier auditions but said the song didn't work. Simon even called Kim's performance a "third-rate version of the song."
Q: We haven't seen many Asian-Americans on "Idol" before, except for William Hung. How does it feel?
A: It kind of bothers me how when you watch television or in the movies, you see Asian men portrayed in such a stereotypical way. They're always portrayed as really short in stature, really unathletic, just really bookworm-nerd types. And that stereotype really offends me because that's what America sees, and that's what America thinks it's like. I was kind of on this quest to prove this wrong. I wanted to get further in the competition, but people did get to see me. I was in the spotlight for a little bit, and they got to see that I'm 6-foot-1, athletic, that I can see, that I can sing, and I'm not the bookworm type — and I got a horrible SAT score!
Q: You were known on the show as being "the barefoot guy." Why wouldn't you wear shoes?
A: I've actually been performing barefoot for years. I'm a soul singer, so I like to be free up there on the stage. Looking back, it can seem as if it was portrayed as a gimmick to try and get more votes, but it's me trying to be me. They might have asked me to change my hair or change my clothes, but I wanted one thing that was me. And I did it because I feel as if I sing my best and perform my best when I am comfortable, and that's being barefoot.
Q: Did the lack of shoes make dressing hard?
A: You have to coordinate your outfit so it doesn't look stupid with no shoes. I had to look a little earthy and natural.
Q: The judges really blasted the song choices of those who were eliminated. Do you think that's what hurt you?
A: I definitely think it was song choice. I had a list of songs that I wanted to perform, and my top five didn't clear, so I had to go with option number six, which I wasn't really comfortable with. So that's what I had to sing. And obviously it showed in my performance that I wasn't really feeling the song, and that's probably why I got sent home.
The 22-year-old from Federal Way, Washington, got blasted for her rendition of Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me." "When you sing, you have the personality of a candle," Simon candidly said.
Q: Was the criticism from the judges helpful, or do you think they really are too harsh this year?
A: It definitely was helpful. I think for me, I got a lot of comments about personality things, which is a little bit of a cheap shot, but I understand where they are coming from. You have to be likeable. People sell records based on whether people like them. So hearing Simon say some of that cut a little deep because it cut personally and not just as me as an artist and as a musician. But it was really helpful also because both Randy and Paula kinda agreed. When you have three out of the three saying there is something you have to work on, it's kind of more an "a-ha" moment. I just want to be the best performer that I can be. And I hadn't gotten a whole lot of critiques during Hollywood week, so as much as I said I wanted a critique, maybe that came to bite me in the butt a little bit.
Q: Do you think America got to see who you really are?
A: Every time you're onstage — especially on a show like "American Idol" — you want to be personable and have people remember you. I tried so hard not to come off as being a camera hog and not being fake and really tried to stay genuine. But I think there's a fine line between doing too much and not doing enough. And I don't think when I was on camera that I took full advantage of really letting myself shine.
Q: Were you satisfied with your song choice?
A: I absolutely loved the song. Unfortunately I wasn't as tuned into the fact that I did a lot of uptempo songs during Hollywood week and I chose a ballad based on that. But unfortunately America didn't get to see those uptempos, which kind of went with the whole personality thing. So I think if I would have checked into that a little bit more, I would have chosen something that was uptempo for sure; just because it was the first time anybody really saw what I could do, really saw my personality and who I was. And I think that an uptempo would have been a better choice, and to later have done the Bonnie Raitt song. You can then branch away from your style when you've established what that is.
Simon said Tranquillo can sing, but stressed that "song choice is very important." The 20-year-old from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sang Rufus & Chaka Khan's "Stay," adding some electric hip-shaking to her performance.
Q: Do you regret your song choice?
A: I have no regrets about what I sang. I thought that the song I sang was definitely me and my style and it definitely did fit my voice, I thought. But it might have been nice to sing a different song and see how it would have turned out. Maybe people didn't dig my song. I don't know.
Q: In hindsight, what other song was on your list?
A: I would have loved to have sung "Barracuda." That was the second song I was going to sing.
Q: You saw what goes on behind the scenes. That spat between Simon and Ryan on the last show ...
A: I think they kind of tease each other, and I also think it's quite comical. They kind of have that brotherly teasing going on. Like Simon's the older brother and Ryan is the little young one. They have this sibling rivalry. I think it's really funny.
Q: What guest mentor were you looking forward to working with?
A: J-Lo. Absolutely! Jennifer Lopez all the way. When I saw her face up there on the screen, I was like, "Oh my God, please let me meet her when she is here." Unfortunately, that didn't happen. She's someone I admire so much because I'm a dancer as well and she's a triple threat. I strive to have a career like she's had.
From the start, it seemed that Simon had it in for Rudy. The 28-year-old from North Hollywood, California, admitted that he didn't think Simon was his biggest fan. "I must remind him of someone. Maybe his tax guy," he joked. Cardenas opened the show with the Edgar Winter Group's "Free Ride," after which Cowell said, "I don't think you have a distinctive voice."
Q: How did you feel about your song choice?
A: I have been getting a little heat about picking that song. But I just wanted to come out and sing a really fun song that people would really enjoy. I knew I was going first, and I just wanted to grab the attention of the American public and say, "Watch this show. We really can sing!" And I thought it showed my range, and I just really wanted to have a good time with it. And it's so difficult going first, but I just gave it my all.
Q: Was "Free Ride" personal to you?
A: I do love the song. I know it like the back of my hand. And I wanted to pick something that even if I was super, super, super, super nervous, I knew that I could still at least sing the words correctly and the melody correctly without being overly nervous about it. That had a lot to do with it. Also just me being comfortable with the song. But I love the song, and I've sung it a lot of times over my career. I think it's a fun song.
Q: There seemed to be some tension between you and Simon. Why?
A: I have no idea. For one reason or another he just gets ticked off at me. I mean, not ticked off, but ... I think he's passionate about his opinions and he's not afraid to show it and say what he thinks. I just happen to be on the wrong end of that. It hurt, obviously. His comments hurt. But you have to take all that stuff with a grain of salt — the good and the bad. And take from it what you will and become a better musician.
Q: How was it performing first?
A: It was absolutely hard. It was funny because I was just talking to the guys right beforehand and they were wishing me luck and reminded me that I'm about to open the biggest show to ever hit the airwaves. Basically, "Good luck, don't suck!" And, yeah, it was tough opening up the brand-new season and I wanted to just go out there and kill it. Did I overdo it maybe a little bit? Maybe a little bit, I don't know. Thinking back, maybe I would have picked a different song. But there are no regrets.
Q: You're going back now to recording with your band M-Pact. Tell us about your group.
A: M-Pact is a vocal jazz/pop/funk group. We're similar to Take Six, except without the religious undertones. We're a contemporary vocal group with a lot of jazz influence, R&B/jazz/funk style. It's something I enjoy doing, and it challenges me.