Michael Slezak
February 17, 2010 AT 05:00 AM EST

American Idol

TV Show
Current Status
In Season
Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Ryan Seacrest
Reality TV

Much like the lightweight Katy Perry track covered by one too many season 9 contestants, tonight’s American Idol telecast ran decidedly ”hot and cold,” to the point where I could almost imagine the show’s producers sitting around a conference-room table cooking up peculiar plots to ensure the most tepid Hollywood Week episode of all time. Some of the things they said (in my head):

”We could get people excited this year by rolling out names of the top 24 semifinalists starting on Tuesday, but only after we make ’em endure 70 minutes of insomnia-curing conference-room footage!” ”Hey, let’s see if we can pull off that ruse again where we insist that singers who forget their lyrics are going home immediately, but then not actually follow through with our threats!” ”Oh, and yeah, we’ll let Jermaine through to the top 46 — but it’s gonna be that annoying Sellers dude, not Purifory! Psych!”

Such is the frustrating (but not unexpected) yin and yang of the Idol experience. For every David Cook, there’s a Kristy Lee Cook. For every cool new song cleared for usage (howdy, Coldplay!), there’s a seeming insistence that every third contestant cover either Colbie Caillat’s ”Bubbly” or Michael Jackson’s ”Man in the Mirror.” And for every refreshing water-like beverage served to the judges, there is a corresponding corporate-branded container.

Okay, that last example didn’t quite make sense, but neither did the abrupt elimination of worship pastor Tasha Layton (more on her in a minute). But since their future earnings potential now rests firmly in our hands, let’s first run down the seven singers who advanced to the semifinals tonight — and, more importantly, what their ”thumbs up” from the judges actually means to the season 9 proceedings.

Aaron Kelly: Proof that someone high up in the Idol food chain is either helpless to resist the rosy red cheeks of teenage male singers, or at least cynical enough to know a certain segment of fans must have a contestant whose head they can fantasize about squeezing off and dangling from their rear-view mirrors. Indeed, with Aaron’s ”yes, ma’am” responses and his big doleful eyes, it’s easy to see how the judges fell for his charms. But whether or not the kid has the emotional maturity and vocal confidence to actually contend for the season 9 crown, well, that’s an altogether different story.

I mean, can anyone out there imagine that two weeks from now, the kid will be ready to deliver anything in the same division, let alone the same league, as David Archuleta’s Top 20 Week take on ”Imagine” back in season 7? Sure, Aaron’s initial audition to Miley Cyrus’ ”The Climb” was impressive, but that was in a little conference room in front of only the judges and some crew members. Up there on the massive Kodak stage, Aaron struggled with the lyrics to ”Get Ready” during the group round, and again whiffed on ”Angel” on Day Three. And while the nervous quaver in his voice during the latter track added some poignancy to the proceedings, I couldn’t help but feel like the judges had prematurely sent a potential stick-ball prodigy to the Major Leagues for the aw-shucks irresistibility of seeing him swim around in a big ‘ole uniform. I hope Aaron proves me wrong, but somehow his step forward felt like a disservice to both him and the show.

Michael Lynche: Proof that the producers’ ”find us an everyman!” mantra is alive and well and annoying as ever in season 9. I hate to be the one to pop Big Mike’s balloon — in fact, I’m disinclined to say anything negative about a guy whose biceps are as big around as my noggin — but dude’s Day 3 rendition of Jason Mraz’s ”I’m Yours” was so breathy and flat, he might as well have been performing it while doing a light warmup on the treadmill. Weirder still, Simon couldn’t have been more wrong that the personal trainer got stronger throughout Hollywood Week, as his Day One performance of ”Waiting on the World to Change” was significantly stronger than his two subsequent performances.

Then again, maybe Simon simply meant that Michael’s b-roll footage, not his vocal had improved; having your wife deliver a baby mid-audition is the stuff that TV dreams are made of, as was the image of the burly contestant lifting Ellen, Ryan, and Kara (the latter wrapped in what looked like a gold, ribbed body condom) into the air out of pure joy. And while it’s hard to rain on the parade of a guy who exited the ”auditorium of doom” door with a jaunty shuffle-step, I can’t help think of ”nice” guys from past seasons like Matt Rogers and Michael Sarver, both of whom went a lot farther than they should have on the basis of their ”Personality, 10; singing, 3” formulas. Show of hands: If all of us had to place a vote right this second for Big Mike or the cocky-but-vocally-superior Todrick Hall, wouldn’t the former contestant win in a landslide? Speaking of which…

NEXT: Ode to at least one Jermaine

Todrick Hall: Fuel for my unshakable suspicion that Idol has an unfortunate issue with black male contestants. Granted, Todrick’s full-bag-of-tricks approach to ”I’m Yours” — which charged headlong from an effortless falsetto into a swooping growl and back to a false-voice scat — was as ambitious as it was tuneful. And yet so much of his b-roll — the ”Bad Romance” drama as part of the preposterous ”Destiny’s Wild,” that faux-playboy poolside interaction with him looking for a fiance among a trio of bikini-clad hotties — has been devoted to making Todrick look like a Grade A pillock, you get the sense that he’s out of the running for the season 9 crown before the gates have even sprung open. More comical, even, than those brown scarf-type things wrapped around Todrick’s jeans tonight was Ryan’s voice-over that his advancement into the top 24 lifted the spirits of his competitors in the holding room. Cut to contestant J.B. Ahfua looking like he was about to get a case of the voms.

And yes, I know it’s a fairly bold claim to say that the No. 1 TV show in America has ”an issue with black male contestants,” but with all apologies to Anwar Robinson, George Huff, Nikko Smith, Brandon Rogers, and Chikezie, how come the last time the show let us vote for an African-American male with a real chance to go all the way was back in season 2… with a guy named Ruben Studdard? Last year, Idol yanked Jamar Rogers right before the semifinals, and this time around, it inexplicably cuts the handsome and talented Jermaine Purifory in favor of cocky Todrick and ”not a chance in hell” Jermaine Sellers? You don’t need to be the Rev. Al to raise an eyebrow. While we’re on the subject of the dueling Jermaines, let’s meet for a quick sidebar: Yes, Mr. Purifory selected my favorite wedding reception dance ham (I meant to type ”jam” just now, but the typo seemed apt) in the Commodores’ ”Brick House,” but what’s wrong with bringing some funk to the Idol proceedings, especially when it’s lively, in-tune, and moves around the stage with an appealing hint of swagger? Heck, I saw Ellen getting down with the get-down right there at the judges’ table! So how come she and her cohorts put Purifory in doomed ”Room 2” and spared Mr. Sellers, whose ”Man in the Mirror” reflected a singer who was shrill, slightly flat, and served copious attitude to musical director Michael Orland? I understood Sellers wanting to explain why his Day Three performance went afoul, but he could’ve done it with a smile and a sense of humor. Instead, his terse finger-pointing at the Idol backing band had Kara sing-speaking some wise instructions: ”Don’t throw the band under the bus!”

Let me let y’all pause to recover from my use of ”Kara” and ”wise” in the same sentence.

NEXT: Look out for Lee Dewyze

Casey James: A case study for why Simon > Kara + Posh Spice. I approach this paragraph recognizing that a healthy groundswell of support has been building over the last two weeks for He Who Removed His Shirt in Denver. And though I’d agree that Casey’s group take on ”Closer” (with Jermaine P. and Janell Wheeler) was promising, I thought his Day Three rendition of ”Bubbly” was embarrassingly amateurish. I mean, didn’t the judges notice the way Casey kept awkwardly glancing down at his guitar while singing, a look of barely masked panic spreading across his face? Word of advice: Don’t go into an acoustic gunfight against Crystal Bowersox if you’re not sure you can handle your weapon of choice.

Also, #IdolPSA4Realzzz (sponsored by my @EWMichaelSlezak Twitter account): Do not Google Image Search ”Casey James” with your ”safe search off.” Because there is a lady with breasts that are each the size of newborn human babies, and I assure you YOU DO NOT WANT TO SEE THEM.

Lee Dewyze: Proof that underdogs should never ignore their style game. Every Idoloonie knows that in this post-Kris Allen era, it’s wise to keep an eye on contestants who haven’t been pimped early and vigorously by the producers, but who’ve displayed solid vocal skills whenever they’ve flashed across the screen. I’d argue Lee generally fits that bill — his growly ”You Found Me” made me snap to attention despite that botched intro into the chorus — but how come the dude showed up for the biggest performance of his life in a rust-colored knit cap and dowdy blue T-shirt? Lee, if you are reading this, please note that if the average Idol viewer (myself included) want to see a tatty frock covered with food crumbs, he or she will pick up a mirror or look to his or her significant other on the opposite end of the couch.

Project Runway-style bitchery aside, though, Lee’s post-advancement monologue ranks among my favorite ineloquent expressions of overwhelmed joy in recent show history. Let’s review: ”I’ll be dead honest: When I started this, I was like, ‘I don’t care. Oh, American Idol, whatever, I’ll just give it a shot.’ And now you learn to care about it so much, and you learn to appreciate music for everything that it is. This is like real people, really trying to make it. And I just sat out there with like 50 people right now that all want to do the same thing that I just got to do, that is make like the top 24 on American Idol, the biggest show in like the history of the world. And here I am doing it.”

Heck, I think I saw Lee fight back almost as many tears as his fellow semifinalist Didi Benami, who, I might add, was inarguably the strongest all-around performer to crack the top 24 tonight. Indeed, the way Didi has gone from strength (”Hey Jude”) to strength (”Terrified”) to strength (”Angel”) in the competition, I’m not exactly sure how Simon managed to call her inconsistent — inconsistently what? emotionally stable? — but he was right that when she’s good, she’s fantastic.

I wish I could say the same for Katelyn Epperly, the only other woman to crack the top 24 during tonight’s telecast. No doubt Katelyn is lovely — no, I will not squawk the term ”package artist” — but Ellen was right that her Day One take on ”Something to Talk About” lacked a visceral connection. I pretty much felt the same way about her solo take on ”Bubbly,” which felt downright ordinary compared to, say, the rich, full-throated cover of ”The Scientist” that Tasha Layton performed on her way to an unceremonious dumping in the dreaded ”Room Two” portion of the telecast. Perhaps the judges were given a quote of guitar-slinging gals, and Tasha just missed the cut? Perhaps they are operating on the premise that the success of the semifinal rounds hinge almost as much on beautiful disasters as they do soaring successes? Perhaps Randy just dug Katelyn’s purple knee-socks? These are the kinds of burning questions that keep me awake during Idol season, how about you?

And now, since a voice inside my head is shouting ”Exceeding Maximum Word-Count!” I will break down the remaining highlights/lowlights in the pithiest possible fashion, starting with some of the 37 ladies and gentlemen whose fates will be announced during Wednesday night’s telecast:

Siobhan Magnus: I appreciated Ellen telling her to lose her Miss Havisham Collection funeral dress, but I’m not sure the sleeveless jean jacket, gray legwarmers, and distressed pink prom dress from the Punky Brewster Collection was exactly the right alternative. Still, her ”Living for the City” showcased some serious pipes, even if she pushed ’em a little too hard on that last note.

Haeley Vaughn: I think she gets away with all those bum notes because as she’s delivering them, her facial expression is one of pure delight. It’s kind of like she’s willing you to say ”Oh, but she and her adorable hair flower are just too winning to be this bad!” But a caveat: I think some of us may have felt the same way about Sanjaya back in Hollywood Week of season 6.

Angela Martin: For the first time all season, I get why the judges are digging her. ”American Boy” was both contemporary and nuanced — and didn’t contain a single jank note.

Tori Kelly: Gets points for slowing down the tempo of ”Hot and Cold,” but the tone of her voice is not a pleasing one. Also don’t love the way she pronounces ”me” as ”may-ay-ay-ay.”

NEXT: Crystal drives Michael to muted praise

Lilly Scott: Maybe over-sang a little on Hall & Oates’ ”Rich Girl.”

Andrew Garcia: His stripped-down ”Chasing Pavements” was smooth and lovely — much like every one of his performances to date this season.

Joe Munoz: Wispy moustache has got to go!

Janell Wheeler: Better start with twice-daily doses of Emergen-C, because her fabulous instrument sounded a little wrecked on her Day Three cover of Taylor Swift’s ”Love Story.” Also: That sequined gold, silver, and black sequined top was way too mother-of-the-groom-at-the-rehearsal-dinner for one as young as her.

Ashley Rodrgiuez: You already vaguely resemble Jordin Sparks. Therefore you should not be offering a pale imitation of ”Battlefield.”

Thaddeus Johnson: ”Man in the Mirror” was a tad TMTH (gah! I just accidentally made a Danny Noriega reference!), but it was hard not to get swept up in his hilarious mom’s spirited enthusiasm and root the kid all the way into the semifinals, no? Also: Please be advised he is not ”Bubbly.” (Thank heavens for that, too!)

Alex Lambert: If I can see on your face that you’re barely hanging on to your lyrics, then all the ukelele in the world isn’t gonna help you, kiddo. Hey, at least Mary Powers isn’t in the top 24 holding room getting ready to scream at you.

And (saving the best for last) Crystal Bowersox: What can I say about your slowed-down, bluesy twist on ”If It Makes You Happy”? Shall I praise your dual use of harmonica and acoustic guitar? Shall I wax poetic about the richness of your voice, or the way you made sure every word of Sheryl Crow’s amusing romp got its proper due? No, I shall remain silent on these matters, because I do not want to jinx you from taking your rightful spot in the top 24. Who knows if you’ll crash or flourish under the pressure of performing for a TV audience of 25 million, but I’m sure looking forward to finding out.

What did you think of last night’s episode? Did you find yourself wishing Jessica Furney had taken a page from Shelby Dressel on how to get eliminated with class and poise? Were you surprised to see wobbly voiced Tim Urban and uni-monikered Theri (she of the bad bad bad ”Bad Romance” harmonies) surviving in Room One? And were there any other cuts or MIA contestants that bothered you? Sound off in the comments section, and if you need to procrastinate a little longer, be sure to catch up on our latest episode of Idolatry, embedded below!

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