Michael Slezak
February 21, 2007 AT 05:00 AM EST

American Idol

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

”American Idol”: A scary start to the semifinals

Paging Mr. Manilow… Mr. Barry Manilow! And while we’re at it, let’s queue up Disco Night. Heck, I’d even settle for ”Songs From the Year the Contestants Were Born” Night. Because one thing that’s frighteningly clear after watching the opening night of American Idol‘s season 6 semifinals: The top 12 men, for the most part, should not be left to their own devices.

There were excruciatingly dull song choices. There were keys the contestants couldn’t reach with ladders. There were hair and styling choices that would’ve drawn catty comments even from Ugly Betty. (Tip No. 1: If you can braid your goatee to your chest hair, it’s seriously time to invest in a razor.) There were moments I thought the evening’s theme was ”Random Selections From a Jukebox in 1979.” Sorely lacking, however, were performances that looked like they were coming from potential music superstars — let alone folks who could get a crowd of teenage girls worked up once the Idol top 10 tour commences this summer.

So where to begin? I guess with the good, considering how much bad and ugly we’ll have to cover in a moment. And tonight, there was no one better than spiky-haired beatboxer Blake Lewis, whose cover of Keane’s ”Somewhere Only We Know” was as lovely as it was unexpected. Randy was completely off-base (what’s new?), telling Blake he should showcase his beatbox skills every week. As Blake pointed out in his pre-performance interview, Idol audiences haven’t seen too much of his singing up to this point in the season, so his choice of an evocative mid-tempo number was an inspired strategic move. Not only that, he was the night’s only performer who seemed completely comfortable and confident in front of a national audience. Until proven otherwise, he’s the front-runner on the men’s side.

Still, there are five other spots in the finals for male singers, and somebody’s got to grab ’em, whether or not they’re on par with season 5 standouts like Daughtry or Yamin or Hicks. And while A.J. Tabaldo’s perky take on Luther Vandross’ rhythmically tricky ”Never Too Much” certainly wasn’t flawless, it was a whole lot of fun — a quality that was in woefully short supply during tonight’s two-hour telecast. Seriously, is there some rule that says these guys aren’t allowed to smile and cut loose during their performances? I thought the judges were awfully tough on A.J., especially considering he was on-key for at least 90 percent of his number. Plus, he got Paula on her feet doing her crazy dance; that in itself ought to win him safe passage to next week.

If A.J.’s severe screen-time deficit doesn’t derail his Idol dreams, he’ll likely be sharing the stage next Tuesday with Chris Sligh, whose take on Mute Math’s ”Typical” (a song I will admit I’ve never heard before) was probably good enough to maintain his already large fan base, but not likely to win him any new voters. Simon was totally right — the whole performance reeked of a ”weird student gig,” partly because of the lackluster song choice, and partly because Chris sounded surprisingly strained going for the bigger notes. And while Chris’ dig at last season’s Idol victory song, ”Do I Make You Proud,” was funny, I thought his self-ballyhooed sense of humor backfired on him when he tried to mix it up with Simon. It’s way too early in the season to be this smug, dude, even if you’re making fun of Il Divo.

Based solely on tonight’s efforts, I’d say Nick Pedro, Jared Cotter, and Phil Stacey are probably most deserving of the remaining berths in the finals — although they’ve all got tons of room for improvement. Nick was so restrained on ”Now and Forever” that I was vaguely worried he might slip into a coma, but there’s no denying he’s got a lovely voice — and hopefully he can shake off the nerves (and the Richard Marx ballads!) if America gives him a second chance. Jared, meanwhile, suffered from quite a different problem: His rendition of Brian McKnight’s ”Back at One” was reasonably strong (albeit awfully karaoke), but with the alarmingly come-hither looks he was throwing into the cameras, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Idol photography crew has grounds for a sexual harassment lawsuit.

And then there’s Phil. Now, while I could most certainly have asked for a great deal more from his cover of Edwin McCain’s ”I Could Not Ask for More” — for starters, how about not tunelessly mumbling your way through the song’s first third? — he did belt out the remainder in perfectly plucky fashion. Which is more than you can say for the rest of the guys — two of whom I’m predicting will head home on Thursday without drawing any tears from this Idol watcher.

I’m not sure if the excited judges saw the same version of Chris Richardson’s ”I Don’t Want to Be” that came through my screen. To be fair, the guy (who’s already hammering in the comparisons folks have made between him and Justin Timberlake — the nerve!) put his own twist on the Gavin DeGraw tune, but his version was nasal, tinny, and punctuated by boppy body language that looked straight out of ‘N Sync’s ”Bye Bye Bye” video. Plus, he oddly used the word ”prisoner” instead of the correct ”prison guard.” And while I’m complaining, why choose a number that’s already been Idol-ed to death by Bo Bice and Elliott Yamin?

That said, the song was a better fit for Chris than ”Rock With You” was for Brandon Rogers, or ”Knocks Me Off My Feet” was for Sanjaya Malakar. The former was so wobbly and listless on Michael Jackson’s jaunty hit, it’s got me wondering if he stretched the truth about his résumé, going with ”Christina Aguilera backup singer” as opposed to ”Christina Aguilera roadie.” And Sanjaya — oh, Sanjaya! — you’re really gonna make it that easy for Simon by repeating the line ”I don’t want to bore you with it” on a sluggish ballad that’s way too big for ya? And you’re really gonna keep going to the hairstylist with a photo of Gayle King that you ripped out of O magazine? I’ll give you this, though: You were relatively in tune — and I’m still hoping somehow you’ll survive till next week and surprise me with unexpected greatness, or not-awfulness, or something.

To get there, I’m hoping two of the following singers get unceremoniously dumped on Thursday: Rudy Cardenas, Paul Kim, and Sundance Head. True, Rudy didn’t hit many wonky notes during his episode-opening number, but the guy had his choice of a gajillion different songs and he picked the Edgar Winter Group‘s ”Free Ride”? Did he somehow think his segment was sponsored by Ford? An honest mistake, but not a forgivable one.

Shoeless Paul, meanwhile, drew dreaded comments of ”How you feelin’?” and something about failing to find his center from Paula after his take on Wham!’s ”Careless Whisper.” I’ve got to hand it to that Abdul chick; who else could find such kind things to say after hearing a person disembowel a cherished ’80s chart-topper? Sundance, meanwhile, treated the Moody Blues’ ”Nights in White Satin” even more brutally; the big dude’s body language was stiffer than a corpse, and not a single note was left unbloodied. Things got so ugly, I thought for a minute I was watching an episode of CSI: Miami. Cue David Caruso: ”The dream is dead, Sundance.” [Shades on.] ”The dream is dead.”

What did you think of this season’s very first performance episode? Like me, did you find most of the men’s performances exceedingly wack? Which two contestants do you think deserve to go home — and, more importantly, which two do you think are most likely to go home — come Thursday night?

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