It can't be a good sign that the American Idol judges are making more news right now than the contestants are. The time bomb we've been waiting for since the summer finally went off this week, as Paula Abdul said that she thought adding a fourth judge to the panel was a bad move, ostensibly because it doesn't give anyone time enough to give a good critique. Well, we certainly wouldn't want to be deprived of any of Paula's "you can sing the phone book" opinions (a silly cliche that made its first 2009 appearance Wednesday). Not surprisingly, that fourth judge, Kara DioGuardi, shot back that she was disappointed Paula had not confronted her directly.
The judges were also central to one of the more drastic changes ever made in the Idol episode formula, as the quartet took turns leading off their evaluations of the various singers. The drama here was that Paula would have to find something original to say about three of the contestants without having heard what Kara and Randy Jackson thought of them first. But while things did not start out promisingly -- she told Jeanine Vailes she had great legs before kicking it over to Simon Cowell -- overall, Paula appeared more lucid than usual, offering some real diagnostic help on occasion. So while the viewer might miss the convention of Simon always getting the last word on every singer, the new policy was on the whole a positive.
Not that anything really helped the twelve who sang Wednesday, who were every bit as erratic as their counterparts last week, with the same weird song choices and inability to stand up to pressure. The only benefit to viewers was that the backstage segments with the singers and their families disappeared this time around. The big news on this night was that two singers who seemed to be major contenders absolutely crashed and burned, while an obscure-till-now teenager pretty much wrote her ticket to the finals.
1. Allison Iraheta ("Alone"): Here's how you can tell that the judges really loved this 16-year-old: they didn't chastise her for "taking on" the original Ann Wilson vocal or the puzzlingly iconic Carrie Underwood Idol version. While Allison really needs to work on her interview skills (she answered questions as if the words were taking ten seconds to reach her ears), there's no denying that she has a voice as big as this song requires, with only a few bobbles on the higher notes. In fact, Allison, whose tiny appearances before now were promising but did not give an indicator she had this much potential, may be the first really great female rock singer spawned by this show. It's no coincidence that Kara, who helped write the current Pink single "Sober," seemed to be spitting dollar signs through her eyeballs when she critiqued this girl. A-
2. Adam Lambert ("Satisfaction"): If you're doing this song for your debut on the Idol stage, you're all but announcing that you consider yourself the favorite. Adam may strike many as smug and his sudden leaps into the vocal stratosphere aren't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but there's no doubting that he has a stage presence now that singers like Underwood and Kelly Clarkson didn't acquire until years after Idol. Simon is correct to say that this performance seemed to weirdly combine elements of greatness with sections that were intolerable, and that Adam will prove to be polarizing. But since Idol has no mechanism for viewers to register their hatred, polarizing is really one of the better things one can be. B+
3. Kris Allen ("Man in the Mirror"): It took a lot of guts for Kris, till now seen only briefly as part of a group in Hollywood, to do a Michael Jackson song after watching Stephen Fowler rock his way into oblivion last week. He started slow, but it was fun to watch him gain comfort as he hit the final chorus, putting real conviction into the message anthem. I was surprised that instead of dismissing Kris the way he did Ricky Braddy, Simon chose to give him some qualified praise. It likely won't be enough to overcome his overall lack of an image, but the wild card might be an option. B
4. Matt Breitzke ("If You Could Only See"): The welder switched things up by pulling out this Tonic hit from a decade ago. It's fair to say that he was merely decent on a song that's not that difficult, and needs work on stage presence, but he was superior to his bluecollar colleague Michael Sarver. Matt's problem is that with Sarver now through to the final twelve, the judges made it clear that his usefulness to them is at an end. And his overall surly demeanor isn't the sort that will win sympathy either. B-
5. Megan Joy Corkrey ("Put Your Records On"): The tattooed mom from Utah has added a middle name since the last time we heard her. The Corinne Bailey Rae hit has become the Idol song of choice for women who want to show that they are quirky and not just another belter. Megan sounded a bit winded by the end of the performance, and is fortunate that what sounded like missed notes could be chalked up to her playing with the melody a bit. As for her dancing...well, let's hope they can hide her on the group sings. Simon obviously likes her and made the same pitch that he did last week (successfully) with Michael Sarver, saying he hopes America gives her another shot. This could be the boost Megan needs over the singer just below, who Simon does not like. C+
6. Jesse Langseth ("Bette Davis Eyes"): In theory, she picked exactly the right song to mix pop appeal and the bluesy peculiarities of her voice. There will be many contestants denied a chance to build a fanbase by the new semifinal format, but Jesse could be particularly hurt because while we haven't seen much of her till now (Wednesday was the first time we learned she is a mother), her casual chatter with the judges about why she liked this song revealed hints of an interesting personality. And a female singer without the traditional Idol belter's mentality really needs more than one week to get viewers hooked on her. It's a shame that either she or Megan (possibly both) will never get that second opportunity. C+
7. Kai Kalama ("What Becomes of the Brokenhearted"): It was Kai's misfortune to dive back into the mid-1960s (it's amazing this standard has never been performed on Idol before now) on a night when almost everyone else stuck to the recent past, because everything about it seemed like it was out of the early days of Idol. It's becoming clear that unless you're one spectacular talent, doing a ballad on your first night is a huge risk, especially if you're a male. He has some charm, but the package is forgettable...except that Kai does have the good backstory. He just might sneak through. C
8. Mishavonna Henson ("Drops of Jupiter"): Mishavonna's problem, aside from the fact that I hate this song with a fierce and uncompromising hate from the depths of my immortal soul, is that she is a teenager who has the sensibility of someone ten years older. Idol isn't looking for an eighteen-year-old Brooke White (hell, they didn't even want the mid-twenties Brooke all that much). She has an interesting husky tone to her voice, though. Too bad the girl with the guitar didn't get through Hollywood last season, when the show seemed to be more receptive to the offbeat. C
9. Jeanine Vailes ("This Love"): Unlike Ricky Braddy last week, the leggy bartender is not going to have a legitimate gripe about her lack of airtime. The Maroon Five single could be a good showcase for someone with finesse (as it was for Blake Lewis two seasons ago), but Jeanine seemed to lose the melody about ten seconds in. Time for the 28-year-old to be the best bartender she can be. D+
10. Jasmine Murray ("Love Song"): Someone forgot to tell Jasmine that I picked her two weeks ago as the female most likely to win this thing, because even though going first would have put her in huge trouble anyway, she was so wobbly on the Sara Bareilles cover as to jeopardize any shot of a wild card callback -- this even though the judges really want to be able to save her. Randy said she should have done something by Rihanna, and look what the best producers in the world have been able to do with that cute but tone-deaf package. Jasmine had shown signs of inconsistency before now, and this song proved way too tricky for her. D+
11. Matt Giraud ("Viva La Vida"): More like sayonara. The dueling piano player went from being a real contender to a likely one-and-out, all because he made one of the most inexplicable song selections in Idol history. Why a guy who has been compared to a poor man's Timberlake thought this song would be just the vehicle for faux-soul runs and a falsetto attempt from hell is anyone's guess. There hasn't been an act of self-sabotage like this since Larry Craig walked into the bathroom at the Minneapolis airport. D
12. Nick Mitchell ("And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going"): He chose to make his one and only (please?) full-length Idol song an audition tape of sorts for whatever else he might want to do in the future, hamming it up as Norman Gentle and in the process, hopefully ruining this song for at least the next several years of this show. Was it fun to watch him play with diva cliches? Sure was. Did he sing at all well other than holding one big final note? Not at all. Part of me almost hopes he is voted through to teach Idol a lesson, but respect for people like Jesse and Kris, actual singers who could have really used the airtime given to this character, compels me to be a harsh grader. F
Voted into the final twelve: Adam, Allison, Megan
Wild card possibilities: Jasmine, Jesse, Kris
It's the end of the road for you, dawg: Matt B, Matt G, Jeanine, Kai, Mishavonna, Nick/Norman