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

NEXT PAGE: Adam Lambert: Tangled up in (brilliant) blue

2. Adam Lambert performed from the gut, not from a script. Yeah, I know, the Internet is abuzz with breathless outrage from a handful of Idol fans saying that Adam’s performance was based on Gary Jules’ rendition of ”Mad World,” but let’s be fair: Unlike his competitors, Adam didn’t get to utter a single word after he’d finished his performance, so no one can say for sure whether or not he’d planned to credit Jules’ cover. What’s more, while Adam’s rendition, like Jules’, turns a somewhat obscure Tears for Fears track into a haunting, stripped-down ballad, the Idol front-runner made enough changes to the melody that you can’t really accuse him of being an actual copycat. Of course, there are still people who harrumph about David Cook’s season 7 cover of ”Billie Jean,” despite the fact that Ryan introduced it as Chris Cornell’s version, but said people might be described as ”impossible to please.”

I, however, consider myself a little less rigid. And the best thing about Adam’s ”Mad World” was the way it hit me emotionally — in a way not even his Motown Week take on ”Tracks of My Tears” managed to do. As Adam delivered the lines ”I went to school and I was very nervous/ No one knew me, no one knew me,” he managed to tap into that wellspring of pain and insecurity that pretty much every person on the planet has felt at one time or another: The kid at school who can’t find anyone to sit with in the cafeteria. The panic-stricken worker in the first week at a new job. The guest who shows up at a party and realizes, ”Oh, crap! I don’t know anyone here but the host.” There’s something really special about a musical performance that can transport you to any number of places or scenarios. And while a great song choice helped, and while that amusing interview package with Adam’s parents didn’t hurt either — especially Dad’s ”Sports, not so much.” — this was really all about Glambert. Sure, the guy pulled a Kris Allen and botched that final falsetto note, but so what? My only complaint was the way the producers bathed Adam in a tidal wave of blue light.

BEHOLD! HIS NAME IS ADAM! LET THIS LIGHT GUIDE YOU TO YOUR CELLPHONES AND TEXT-MESSAGING DEVICES WHERE YOU CAN DO YOUR DUTY ON BEHALF OF CONTESTANT EIGHT!

Seriously, people, two shades darker, and casual viewers might’ve worried that Fringe had been pre-empted by a test run of the hotly anticipated Fox variety show Blue Man Group Reloaded. But then Simon probably would not have leapt to his feet for a standing ovation.

3. The judges did not comment on Allison Iraheta’s (kinda awesome) dress, even though the bottom half may or may not have been sewn together from Elvira’s boudoir curtains. After last week’s maddening non-critique of Allison’s ”Don’t Speak,” I’d have probably been happy with anything that didn’t involve Simon, Randy, and Kara dragging Allison to the town square and putting her in the stocks for a public shaming. What a relief, then, to hear the new judge and the judge who needs a thesaurus catch up to Paula and heap praise on Allison’s heartbreaking twist on ”I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

Paula was right (again) that while Allison essentially used the same arrangement as Bonnie Raitt’s original, in the 90 seconds she was on stage, the 16-year-old with the heart of a truckstop waitress (I mean that as high praise) somehow managed to obliterate the memory of any prior renditions, including those by former Idols Kimberley Locke, Constantine Maroulis, and (I needed a Google search to remember this one) Amy Krebs. Paula was also correct (!) in pointing out that Alllison’s voice is so distinctive, it only takes a note or two to identify it. So how come the best Simon could do was spit out a ”very good,” and then go on with his standard damning criticism that she needs to work on becoming more likeable? I mean, really, would he and the show’s production team feel more comfortable if this budding young rock star wore a sash and a tiara and smiled like an overgrown reject from a children’s beauty pageant? Would they prefer the Lisa Tucker brand of perky ”professionalism,” the kind that’s been carefully polished from birth to voting age, until there’s not a single scratch or edge or hint of anything dangerous at all? Thank heavens Allison made me chuckle with her exaggerated ”nobody likes me!” response or I might’ve launched half a chicken club sandwich at my TV screen. And just keeping it really real, no one benefits from that kind of doomsday dinnertime scenario.

NEXT PAGE: Karaoke Lil

4. The judges’ critiques of Lil Rounds weren’t cooked up using a Mad Libs template and an inspirational words calendar. From her opening ”sexywalk” to the way the cameras caressed her gams to every last unoriginal bit of phrasing, Lil’s attempt on ”What’s Love Got to Do With It” was 100 percent pure karaoke. And while she didn’t hit nearly as many flat notes as she did last week on ”I Surrender,” there was still noticeable and unpleasant strain every time she pushed her notes and tried to out-Tina the legendary Ms. Turner herself. I will say I felt a little bad for Lil having to hear Randy babble on about ”Mary [J. Blige], Keyshia Cole, whatever,” seeing as how none of those ladies were rocking the charts back in 1985. Still, when Lil declared that next week she is ”gonna make a giant leap,” I couldn’t help but pray that promised long-jump carries her right out of the competition. After five weeks of the Idol finals, Lil has yet to give a performance that says she’s worthy of the season 8 crown. This doesn’t mean, however, that Simon should attempt to break her spirit in front of 26 million viewers, the way he did by declaring ”Overall, it’s quite good news” after all four judges finished drubbing the rapidly fading young mom.

5. As usual, Scott MacIntyre scored the night’s best punch line. If only his performance of ”The Search Is Over” had been as effortless as his ”it’s my punk side coming out” response to critiques about his ill-advised decision to tackle the electric guitar on ”The Search Is Over.” I’m embarrassed to say I suggested Survivor’s 1985 hit for the genial piano man in a PopWatch blog item earlier this week, but I hadn’t expected the dude would strip the song of any tempo or melody whatsoever, then mangle its bridge like a Rottweiler chomping down on a plate of rare roast beef. ”Ladies and gents, avert your eyes and ears! This will all be over in 90 seconds!”

6.Anoop Desai got his groove back. No, I’m not making a Taye Diggs reference — although now the urge to repeat Wilhelmina Slater’s insta-classic line about the actor from a recent episode of Ugly Betty has become all-consuming — but how sweet was it to see Anoop prove his musical mettle by adding a healthy dose of sway and a little smidge of swagger to Cyndi Lauper’s simple ballad? And not only that, the contestant voted least likely to impress me with his falsetto back in Motown Week actually delivered a soaring and darn-near perfect high note at the end of his performance. I’m sure it did his confidence a world of good when he was finished to hear Randy declare (with a great sense of shock): ”Dude, you can actually sing!” Yes, thanks judges, you’re the ones who used the Wild Card round to advance Anoop into the competition! So why is his baseline talent level coming as a huge shocker to ya? I’d have been more impressed if the judges had caught ‘Noop Dawg’s lyric flub (substituting ”so strong” for ”so small”), but that would’ve required them to pay attention for a whole 90 seconds. And trust me, they don’t get paid enough for that!

NEXT PAGE: Math in Karaland

7. Simon got some tutoring in math from Kara. Okay, folks, pay attention! In Karaland, 54 = 57; 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 6. And now, apparently, good + lazy + terrific = great! Or at least that was the confusing take-home message I gleaned from Simon’s critique of Danny Gokey’s — or as Ryan likes to call him, ”The Gokey” — Lite FM take on ”Stand By Me.”

Okay, okay, okay…let me give the guy a little credit. Danny may have put the ”flat” in Rascal Flatts last week, but from a pitch standpoint, he certainly delivered an improved vocal tonight. That said, his choice of arrangement was so thuddingly unhip, I was surprised someone didn’t trot out the old ”cruise ship/hotel bar/wedding singer” cliché. I know, I know, Gokey fans…I am unrelentingly tough on your man, but I just don’t see what kind of relevance or originality he brings to the Idol stage, which makes the judges’ unrelenting fawning over the guy all the more frustrating! I mean, what the heck was Kara talking about when she started going on about Danny’s ability to take the song ”one level, two levels, three levels”? Was that a thinly veiled reference to the fact that he made a timeless classic sound like elevator music? ”Third floor: Ladies’ evening wear, night glamour, and hackneyed arrangements!” Uh-huh, I said it!

8. Kris Allen tried to defeat the Audience-Bots. Unfortunately for Kris, he didn’t realize that the first rule of trying to defeat the Audience-Bots is that you don’t try to defeat the Audience-Bots. Your only goal as an Idol contestant, in fact, is to stay the heck away from ’em! True, these glassy-eyed beasts no longer sway out of time to the music (like they did for Jason Castro) or squeal frighteningly at a well-timed run (like they did to Archuleta), but they’re still there. And trying to perform in their home territory (AKA the so-called ”mosh pit”) is folly, because for starters, how can the audience look at anything but the ‘bot’s soul-sucking stares? And I’m sorry, even if the spirits of Janis Joplin and James Brown rose up and joined you, there’s no way you could rock that confined, horrible place. All that mosh pit needed was a strategically embedded fingernail in the wall and I would’ve been screaming for mommy like Brooke Smith in The Silence of the Lambs.

Not that Kris’s jarring, horn-centric arrangement of ”All She Wants to Do Is Dance” helped much. The clash of Kris’ folk-soul vocals and the ”jazz funk homework” being coughed up by the band (yes, I just quoted Kara) bordered on cacophonous, even if the guy managed to hit most of his notes. Here’s hoping America forgives him his one bad night, though. After all, they’ve extended far greater courtesies to Scott and Lil over the past five weeks. Maybe it’s time one of them actually paid the price for underperforming and left the season 8 heartthrob out of this bottom two business, no?

And now, our letter grades of tonight’s performances!

Adam Lambert: A
Matt Giraud: A-
Allison Iraheta: A-
Anoop Desai: B+
Danny Gokey: B-
Kris Allen: B-
Lil Rounds: C
Scott MacIntyre: D+

What did you think of tonight’s show? Who will and should go home? What moment thrilled you the most, and which made you most furious? Anyone stick around for Fringe? Let us know on the message boards below, but before you do, click here and check out my frequent Idolatry cohost Jessica Shaw channeling her inner Beastie Boy and listen to Simon Cowell share his DVR queue on the latest installment of Must List Live! And then get your beautiful beh…minds over to the EW.com Idol Prediction Challenge, where you can take on celeb players including Melinda Doolittle, Lisa Rinna, The Insider‘s Ross Matthews, as well as glamorous Idolatry contributors Kristen Baldwin, Missy Schwartz, Annie Barrett, Princess Thursday, and the aforementioned Ms. Shaw.

Idolatry: Megan on rude judges

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