Frank Micelotta/American Idol/Getty Images(2); Michael Becker/Fox
Michael Slezak
April 08, 2009 AT 04:00 PM EDT

Let’s kick things off with a list of things I don’t need to see or hear ever again on American Idol: Scott MacIntyre playing an electric guitar. The judges engaging in a seven-minute discussion about the still uncovered and (possibly) mythical power of Lil Rounds’ vocals. Any contestant attempting to perform in what might be described as the seventh circle of hell, surrounded by mechanically swaying, dead-eyed teenagers. Simon Cowell giving advice about how to win a Miss Congeniality plaque. Randy Jackson invoking the name ”Keyshia Cole.” Kara DioGuardi using numbers in a critique.

Aaaaaaand…end of rant! Okay, not really. But in a season of Idol that’s kept me emotionally at arm’s length, tonight’s top 8 performance episode — which fell under the always popular ”Songs That Make You Realize You Were a Functioning Adult When Allison Iraheta Was Born” banner — gave us more than a few reasons to celebrate.

So what if the judges are in the midst of a season-long dinner party in which certain contestants — no matter how well they sing — will never be allowed to graduate to the big kids’ table? So what if one contestant’s bunky song arrangement gets labeled ”self-indulgent,” while another one’s is labeled ”great”? So what if the term ”pimp lighting” reached new and ridiculous definitions tonight? The theme of this column is ”Eight Things I Loved About Tonight’s Show,” and I am as single-mindedly committed to it as Ken Warwick and Cecile Frot-Coutaz are to seeing an Adam-Danny finale. With that in mind, let’s start the TV Watch!

1. Matt Giraud — wait for it — actually smiled like he meant it. Yes, Idoloonies, the guy whose performance-night facial expression over the past few weeks has been set somewhere between ”I’m smelling burning hair” and ”I want to kick someone in the nads” finally looked and acted tonight like he was getting the musical opportunity of a lifetime when he tackled Stevie Wonder’s ”Part Time Lover.” Now, I’ll admit, I gasped when I first heard his song choice, but anyone who can still remember Kevin Covais’ season 5 cover — and is therefore still grappling with PTID (Post-Traumatic Idol Disorder) probably did the same. But remarkably enough, Matt slowed down the tempo a bit, infusing the performance with a sexuality that I’d dare say is (blasphemy alert!) missing from Mr. Wonder’s somewhat frantic original.

Sure, like an overeager culinary student trying to wow his audience, Matt added one teaspoon of vocal riffs too many, but the end result was nonetheless tasty, thanks to an on-point falsetto, and a vibrato that was modulated with enough care to never go off the rails. (Well, except for that unfortunate final transition from squeak to growl as Matt went from ”so right” into ”yeah”!) You know if I’m not making fun of the guy’s Timberlake-ian fedora, he had to be doing something right. And when you add his goofy reminiscence of scoring a whopping 72 lines as the lead in his childhood performance of Angels Aware, well, let’s just say the guy deserved Paula’s ”a pox on Kara!” critique: ”Two words: ‘Standing. O.”’ (O. Yeah. She went there!) Too bad Simon didn’t have the courage to challenge his own pre-ordained pecking order, tempering his praise for Matt by merely noting he was ”a million times better than last week.” Would a ”one of the best of the night” have been so tough, even if the cranky Brit wanted to save his most effusive praise for the evening’s final contestant?

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