‘American Idol’ Recap: Hollywood Week’s Big Changes — More Instruments, Less Drama

Who decided the show would be better without fight-inducing group numbers?

New and improved Hollywood Week on “American Idol” can be summed up in two words: blue lollipops.

For me, it wasn’t about the “So You Think You Dance”-inspired changes in format, or the fact that contestants could now play instruments as they warbled a tune. Nope, all I could think about during Tuesday night’s episode was Carly Smithson’s and David Cook’s nasty blue tongues. Have Dum Dums replaced Coca-Cola and Ford as the major sponsors of “Idol”? (Hey, they would have perfect spokespeople with Randy and Paula on the show.) Or maybe, as a co-worker so, ahem, colorfully suggested, there was a Smurf backstage swapping bodily fluids with the contestants. Did a PA get fired for doling out suckers backstage? Seriously, this blue tongue thing really unnerved me. And it no doubt unnerved Carly “Green Card” Smithson’s tattooed hubby, who must have had some pretty awful thoughts after watching a male contestant perform with a similarly stained tongue moments later. Shame on me for starting trouble.

Before I break up any more marriages, let’s take a closer look at each of the radical changes and how they impacted the contestants.

Change #1: No eliminations for two days?!

“Idol” employed a new “second chance” safety net for all 164 Hollywood-bound singers. After the contestants performed their solo with barebones accompaniment, the judges could say one of two things: either “We like you! You may skip directly to round three, where you perform with a full band,” or “We hated it, but you have one more chance to not screw it up in a couple of days.” I call this Baylie’s Law. (As any “AI” diehard knows, the very talented Baylie Brown got chopped last season after forgetting the lyrics in Hollywood week. You just know the producers wished they had given that potential gold mine a second chance.) This new three-round system also eliminated the need for that anticlimactic “let’s split everyone up into three rooms” nonsense that always hogged valuable screen time.

Who This Helped: Syesha Mercado and Kyle Ensley. During round one, Syesha “Camera-Ready” Mercado struggled through Bryan Adams’ “Robin Hood” theme thanks to a hoarse voice, and Kyle “The Mayor” Ensley made “Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)” unbearably cheesy (so much so that it sparked a series of events that ended with Simon storming off the set). But both of these contestants impressed in round two, which led to them knocking the judges’ socks off in round three. I was really feeling Syesha’s final “Chain of Fools,” but I just didn’t understand the acclaim that Kyle received for his theatrical “You Raise Me Up.” Maybe it’s because I think he looks like Christine Ebersole in a brown curly wig.

Who This Hurt: Latin lover Ghaleb Emachah. Randy, Paula and Simon gave out a lot of zany Golden Tickets to people who they knew had no chance in hell in making the top 24. Like Ghaleb. This poor guy had to sit around all week listening to 163 much better singers (when he wasn’t busy, you know, sexually harassing the female contestants), and then had to feel the sting of the judges’ rejection not once, but twice! ¡Qué lástima!

Change #2: Holy crap, these kids know how to play instruments?

During round one, in which Bryan Adams earned enough residual checks to last him through the summer of 2069, the hopefuls were allowed to show off their musical prowess by picking up a guitar or sitting behind a keyboard (or for one poor soul, a drum kit). I imagine this addition would have silenced “Idol” critics who call its contestants mere karaoke singers, if only producers hadn’t limited instrumentation to the first round of a preliminary audition (or approximately 20 minutes of screen time). The preseason hullabaloo about “Idol” now allowing contestants to tickle the ivories now seems like much ado about nothing.

Who This Helped: Brooke White, who kicked off the auditions behind a keyboard and reminded the judges of Carole King. It’s important to note that Carole King is known more as a stellar songwriter than an amazing vocalist (or pianist!), so Brooke shouldn’t get too flattered, but nonetheless her “singing piano-player chick” shtick made Simon very, very happy.

Who This Hurt: Everybody else. After Brooke’s successful audition, it seemed like Simon had negative things to say about everyone’s band-inspired tryout. True, some had no business picking up an instrument. Alisha Dixon, Michael Sanfilippo and he-just-has-to-be-in-a-wedding-band drummer Jack Mellema all looked distracted pulling double duty. But even the true “musicians” like Josiah Leming (who rocked Mika’s “Grace Kelly,” of all songs) and David Cook will probably get hurt in the long run, when the judges worry that they won’t be as comfortable onstage without an instrument. Did anyone else get the impression that Simon downright detested this new rule?

Change #3: Sayonara, sob stories!

Aside from the instruments, the other big season-seven tweak “Idol” producers promised was “more contestant back stories.” During the audition episodes, we certainly got enough tears to last three seasons of “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” but almost every single memorable back story was booted by the end of round two!

Who This Helped: Asia’h Epperson. If Asia’h makes it to the top 24, she’ll have less competition in the cry-’n-dial department. Lucky for viewers, her father’s sudden death is not the most interesting thing about her, as evidenced by her invigorating Mary J. Blige offering. But if any holdovers from the Jim Verrarros School of Voting are still watching the show, Asia’h should sleep easy knowing she’ll have their full support. (David Archuleta’s “I almost lost my voice in some vague illness that I never properly explained” baggage doesn’t really count as a sad-sack story, but I can’t talk about Tuesday night’s episode without giving this kid some love. His rendition of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” was breathtaking and easily the best performance we saw all night. Team David!)

Who This Hurt: Angela “Not Only Is My Daughter Severely Handicapped But My Dad Just Got Killed” Martin, Kayla “I Was in a Horrific Face-Smashing Car Accident” Hatfield, Angelica “I Don’t Get Along With My Dad” Puente, Perrie “Widower” Cataldo and Suzanne “Single Mom” Toon should all receive T-shirts that say, “I told millions of Americans the innermost depressing details of my life and all I got was this lousy rejection.”

Change #4: What happened to the group number?

Hollywood Week has always been synonymous with “group number.” It’s when the contestants are split into clusters and forced to sing and choreograph a mini-production number as a team. It’s also the season’s one guarantee for big fat awesome drama and literally my favorite thing about “American Idol.” In fact, I’d go so far as to say I’d want to watch a group-number spin-off show (and starting Monday, I plan to). Imagine my dismay when Seacrest announced that this year the group exercise would be living in the Dunkleman Memorial Bunker. Has “Idol” lost its damn mind?

Who This Helped: Josiah Leming. I don’t blame the kid for having few interpersonal skills. He is, after all, living alone in his car. So perhaps his flying, er, driving-solo lifestyle explains how, in less than 72 hours, he managed to piss off and isolate the backing band with a unique “arrangement” and difficult disposition. Or why he snapped at the judges after they gave his painful interpretation of “Stand By Me” a lashing. Simon astutely pointed out that his “annoying” display made him lose a little of his charm. Imagine the damage this kid could have done to his reputation if he had three other singers to collaborate argue with!

Who This Hurt: Me (and other viewers too, I guess). How will we vote without knowing a contestant’s true colors? Last year’s group numbers helped establish the friendship story line between Blake Lewis and Chris Sligh, the general awesomeness and relatability of Gina Glocksen, and my downright hatred of Antonella Barba. Cutting out the one-time shot at reality-show drama eliminates the only way I pick whom to root for for the rest of the season! How will I find my favorite singer this year? By their talent? That’s cuckoo! With so many semi-professionals in the mix this season, the tension in a group dynamic would have been palpable. I want to see fights in a hotel lobby at 4 in the morning! I want to see hairbrushes being used as microphones! I want to see what these people wear as pajamas! I want blood!

Change #5: Vocal coaches steal the show!
This season, vocal coaches appeared front and center throughout Hollywood Week. One was “Idol”-commissioned, and one was not, but I’d invite both of them over to my house for dinner any day of the week. (Hope you like Chinese food, ladies!)

Who This Helped: Debra Byrd. The “Idol” coach’s handling of the late-night Josiah meltdown showed her to be a strong source of discipline and a warm voice of compassion. After sternly pointing out to the weeping singer that he was the reason the rehearsal went poorly — and not the band that he had been bashing on camera — Debra generously offered her services for some additional rehearsal time later in the night (which he apparently declined). And then she hugged the twerp! Give this woman a raise!

Who This Hurt: Amy “the Abstinent” Flynn. Sixteen-year-old Flynn brought her vocal teacher, Angel, to Hollywood with her. (This abstinent girl is so devout, even her singing teacher has a name from the heavens!) The sassy Angel knows all about Hollywood Week, having experienced it herself three seasons ago. But this trivia tidbit brought up two good reasons why Angel might not be the best vocal coach out there. One is that she may have made it to Hollywood, but she wasn’t good enough to make it to the top 24. Two is that when “Idol” featured a clip from her season-four experience, it showed her not singing. In fact, she was jumping up and down with crazy eyes, chanting, “Hollywood! Here we go!” (Which, by the way, made me want to hang out with her immediately.) Not surprisingly, the little virgin who butchered Taylor Dayne ended up exactly like her teacher, an “Idol” reject (except not nearly as awesome).

Change #6: An un-American Idol?
“American Idol” has never so prominently featured foreign imports before (not counting Ukrainian-American Anthony Fedorov), but this year two of the front-runners might make the producers rethink the show’s title. Will audiences embrace their accents?

Who This Helped: Michael Johns. The white soul singer’s appeal is definitely multiplied by his Down Undah accent. It doesn’t hurt that he can sing really well, either. Johns made “Light My Fire” sizzle more than Jim Morrison ever did, and his final high note was one for the record books. (It even caused Randy to harmonize perfectly!) I wasn’t as sold on his “Bohemian Rhapsody” — it sounded like he was shouting, and he wimped out of using his falsetto on the “carry on, carry on” — but the Aussie (who looks like Michael Ian Black’s studly younger brother) is sure to make America swoon.

Who This Hurt: Carly “I’m Allergic to My Dog” Smithson. No matter how much “Idol” producers have tried shoving her down my throat, I have yet to be blown away by the Irish lass’ windbag pipes. To paraphrase “Idol” scholar Simon Cowell, “She’s not as good as they think she is.” It also confounds me that Carly’s singing voice adopts the same accent French-Canadian Celine Dion employs, despite not being French-Canadian nor completely nuts.

Some Things Never Change!

In addition to Simon’s obscene plunging neckline and the inane music montage set to the new “Bad Day/Home” song called “Hollywood’s Not America,” the episode also managed to sneak a hidden gem into the fold, as Hollywood Week often does. Tuesday night, we were introduced to David Hernandez, a guy who looks like a reject from 98 Degrees and sounds like Kenny Loggins with a head cold. But I mean those two things in a good way, if that’s possible. His trill-filled “Love the One You’re With” inspired Paula Abdul to invent a new mathematical figure: “100 trazillion percent.”

The episode ended with Randy, Paula and Simon poring over the remaining contestants’ Polaroid headshots. Given that Polaroid announced last week that they will be discontinuing their Instamatic cameras and film, what will “Idol” use during the deliberation process next year? I guess that’s one change we can look forward to in season eight.

What did you think of the brand-new Hollywood Week? How much therapy did Paula need after being the one to decide ousted Brooke Helvie’s fate? What happened to likable, humble, homeless little Josiah? Were you sad to say goodbye to the Lampkins? And most important, why didn’t we see more of my favorite randy-for-Randy singer, Corliss Smith?

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