Adam B. Vary
April 28, 2010 AT 10:40 AM EDT

Image Credit: Ray Mickshaw/FoxAs I walked through the CBS Television City parking lot to the Idoldome last night, I passed two massive black steel abstract trees, and a pair of park benches with backs that looked like giant bloody razor blades. “Ah, country week on American Idol,” chirped my snark demon, Smirkelstilskin. “It always takes me back to that glorious winter of 1986, when I headlined a West Berlin production of Waiting for Godot.” (I’ll get back to the trees and benches, promise.) After I got to my seat, Smirkel then caught sight of season 6 runner-up Blake Lewis hobnobbing with one of the sway pits, sporting a frosted emo haircut that made it clear he’d gone to his barber with a worn-out copy of Us Weekly, pointed to a picture of Kate Gosselin, and said “I wanna look like this — but just the front part.”

With that, Smirkel was sated indeed, and curled back into his roly-poly shell. Which is just as well, really, since the rest of the evening proved decidedly uneventful. It all skipped by with barely a hitch, but there’s still plenty of behind-the-scenery to chew on regardless. So if you’ll skip with me over the jump, I’ll give you the full breakdown of what got Shania Twain swaying in her seat, whether Casey James really cares if he wins, and how Kara managed to stumble into yet another compromising double-entendre after the show.

After his extended time meeting and greeting the sway pit, Blake walked back to his seat in the front row, and remained standing, his body turned toward the audience, his eyes methodically scanning the crowd to see if anyone recognized him. Cory the Warm Up Comic, meanwhile, asked the audience to lift up their signs — my favorite: “My Staff LOVES American Idol!” When Cory saw two girls and a guy respectively holding up sequential signs reading “Simon” “is” and “hot,” this was his lovely reaction: “Why is the guy holding up the ‘hot’ part of the sign? [Tepid audience tittering] Hey, it’s Hollywood man, whatever you’ve got to do.” Yes, of course, because in Hollywood, the way for a man to get ahead is to hold up a sign proclaiming that he finds Simon Cowell “hot.” Oh how I fantasized at the moment for Ellen to race out into the audience and launch into an impromptu game of “Know or Go” with Cory.

Finally, Cory brought out the judges, Debbie the Stage Manager brought out the top six, a PA brought out Shania Twain, Debbie barked at Lee to stay on his mark, Ryan reduced each of the contestants to their most relatable trait, and this…was my first hour-long episode of American Idol of the season. Watch it zoom by!

Lee’s vocal track on “You’re Still The One” — by far the most recognizably Shania song for me of the evening — sounded extra amplified to me in the room, which may be one reason why Shania was swaying in her seat the entire time, and why the audience rose into a spontaneous standing ovation at the end of it. When Simon called it “the perfect song” choice, Shania even pumped her fist with excitement. (Me, I’m with recent Idolatry guest Dave Karger when it comes to the acquired appeal of Lee’s growly pipes.)

As Debbie started counting us back from the first ad break, like the puckish little brother he is, Ryan grabbed her into a bear hug (well, more like a cub hug, really), delighting in watching Debbie squirm her way out of his embrace and scamper across the stage on live TV. Big Mike sang a lovely rendition of “It Only Hurts When I’m Breathing”; I wondered if the song held a special meaning for anyone who’s fallen victim to one of Big Mike’s grizzly hugs; Shania swayed. After Simon called the performance “wet,” however, Shania raced up to Simon at the ad break and appeared to (playfully) lay into him — at least, I assume that’s what she was doing, as I was distracted by (A) The fact that her hair does not appear to move according to basic laws of physics and (B) She was wearing capri jeans with a french roll. After Shania went back to her seat, she was promptly surrounded by a small platoon of swaybots, who the PAs were placing around the rear catwalk, the better to bask in the subtle sheen off of Casey James’s sultry mane. (So I’m told.)

While “Don’t!” may be Casey’s best performance, I’m going to predict in the here and now that the tall Texan will be the one heading home tonight. I don’t normally proffer that kind of prediction in this Idol on-the-scene column, but Casey himself told the press backstage after the show that standing under a confetti shower at the Nokia next month isn’t his top priority. “I go week to week,” he said. “Every week I’m here is another chance to perform in front of millions of people. I honestly feel like, for my life, winning isn’t as important as representing myself in a way that people will know who I am, so when this is over, I can continue my music and have fans, you know?” In that spirit, I don’t feel so bad forecasting that Casey could easily find himself this season’s casualty of He-Went-Out-After-His-Best-Performance Syndrome come 9:55 p.m. EDT tonight.

But I digress. In the ad break after Casey’s performance, the PAs rolled out Crystal’s special rug, brought out Crystal’s special mic stand, and generally transformed the Idol stage into what one might imagine we’ll see on Crystal’s inevitable club tour next summer. Ryan showed Crystal his set of questions for her, and she approved with a nonchalant smile: “This is fine.” Shania clapped along as Crystal’s “No One Needs To Know” let everyone know that her boyfriend needs to put a ring on it. At the end, said boyfriend immediately sprang to his feat, his arms outstretched as if to say, “You are simply, truly amazing — oh, and I think I got the message, thanks!” After the show, Crystal explained to the press that she’d given her boyfriend a heads up that she was going to “embarrass” him on national television. “You know, he’s just shy,” she said with a smile. “It was really for his family, to make his family laugh, because they keep going, ‘Why don’t you marry that girl?!’ It’s alright, though. It’s about love, not marriage.” For what it’s worth, Crystal also implied that they’d more-or-less tied the knot during their Elvis week sojourn to Las Vegas.

Anyscooters, back to the show. Shania approvingly bopped her head while 9-year-old 17-year-old Aaron sang a sweetly modified “You’ve Got a Way” to his mother. Indeed, he’d won the hearts of so many moms in the audience that when Simon told Aaron he felt the infant kid had struggled over the last few weeks (one of Simon’s classic “fake out” wind-ups to a crowd-pleasing compliment), Debbie let out an exasperated and quite audible “Awwwwwww!” while standing in the wings. Backstage after the show, the Aaron wasn’t exactly exasperated with all the judge talk about how he’s basically a walking zygote so remarkably mature for his age, but he was at least a little perplexed. “I don’t really get what they mean when they say that,” he said. “Just because I’m 17 and on the show doesn’t make me any different than anybody else — we’re all going through the same thing….It’s definitely a little harder when we pick songs, because I have to pick something that is age appropriate and that I can change to fit my age and style, like I changed up [“You’ve Got a Way”] to make it a little more fitting to my age.” Was he embarrassed at all that Kara pointed out he’d changed the lyrics about “making love”? “Not at all,” Aaron said. “I think it’s a good thing, so people can see that I’m trying to change up songs, that I’m not deliberately singing songs that are too old for me.”

In the ad break following Aaron’s performance, Shania hopped up to the judges table for an extended powwow with Randy and Simon, looking all kinds of comfortable up there among the judges and causing me to wonder if Slezak’s frequent speculation that she could be Simon’s replacement next year is more than simple wishful thinking. Meanwhile, Blake talked with one of the bodyguards, every so often throwing a longing I-wanna-be-a-the-popular-kids’-table look over at Simon, Randy, and Shania.

Even before Siobhan’s final glory notes during “Any Man of Mine,” her performance was spiked by several moments of high-pitched feedback. Still, the crowd didn’t seem to mind, launched as they were into mild hysteria after The Quirky One unhinged her vocal chords once more — well, save the little girl in front of me, who turned to her father and gave him a pouty thumbs down. As for Simon’s complaint that she’s beginning to sound like a woman in labor, Siobhan had this to say backstage: “Well, how would he know? He doesn’t have any kids. I don’t think it’s a bad thing — I wouldn’t know yet, but I know a lot of women who have given birth, and I respect that so much. It’s like girl power, Spice Girls style. That’s something only women are capable of, and so I take pride in my singing being compared to something that’s one of the hugest miracles there is.”

And just like that, we were done — well, not really. After the Idols snuck a goodbye hug from Shania before getting pulled off stage, everyone kept to their seats, including the mentor and judges, so Ryan could tape a results show promo that’ll play before Lie To Me tonight. Then Debbie turned the cameras on the judges for what turned out to be a video message wishing American Idol and 19 Entertainment impresario Simon Fuller a happy 50th birthday. Everything unfolded pretty much exactly as one would expect — Randy attempted to make a joke about how celebrating birthdays is out and “the newest thing is to celebrate the anniversary of your birth” — until Kara, who had been doing so well all season, told her boss, “You took me from the back…of the studio, and put me in front of the camera.” As families with small children looked on, Simon, Randy, Ryan, and Ellen all took Kara’s unwittingly ribald choice of words and ran with it; everything unfolded pretty much exactly as one would expect.

Oh, I almost forgot: Those giant black steel trees and razor-blade benches turned out to be set dressing for, who else, Lady Gaga. (I mean, seriously — if the former Stefani Germanotta doesn’t evoke 1980s German Theater of the Absurd, who does?) She’s not set to perform tonight, obviously, but since I watched said set dressing wheeled into the Idoldome last night after the show for some kind of rehearsal, the duchess Gaga could very well be pre-taping her Idol performance today. Check back here tomorrow for a full on-the-scene report; in the meantime, who do you think is in risk of heading home tonight, Popwatchers? Does Casey’s lack of conviction to win surprise you? Do you think he has the right attitude, or lack the killer instinct he’ll need to succeed outside the warm confines of the Idoldome?

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