A new format gave American Idol a much-needed face-lift last night as Ryan Seacrest moved among sequestered contestant hopefuls. Each one whose name was called followed Seacrest through a backstage labyrinth crawling with connections and equipment. As they reached the massive doors, which would part like the waters of the Red Sea at the proper time, he or she was stopped for a few brief words from Moses – I mean Ryan. He was reminding them and the viewers that not even the judges knew who had made it through, which I thought was a great new touch. Even better would have been a split screen showing a close-up of the contestant, and a close-up of the expressions and responses of the judges. As it was, it was as if the cameras tried to get the whole sweep of contestant, judges, and audience, and it watered down both the entrance and the responses.
But instead of prolonging the drama prior to the grand entrance, the pauses became increasingly awkward. Contestants naturally wanted to face the door through which they would be revealed, and Ryan kept turning them to face the camera behind. The kids were hyped and couldn’t concentrate properly on what Ryan was saying, nor could they respond in any coherent fashion. One girl, I think it was Angela Miller, just flat-out told him she couldn’t focus right then and poor Lazaro got Ryan bogged down in band music technicalities, from which Ryan was hard-put to get the boy to shut up. I began to wonder if the guys and gals even knew they were live on camera instead of being taped for future publicity spots, because it certainly did not look rehearsed. The producers might want to smooth this out a little bit next time by giving future Top Ten contestants a heads-up.
Beginning with the boys, ten tense faces looked at Seacrest for the results that would start them on the road to stardom, or end their dream of being the next American Idol. None of them looked as if they had it in the bag. In fact, the room looked pretty solemn.
First to make his grand entrance, as Seacrest commanded the massive doors to part, was Paul Jolley, who sang his victory song, “How Do I Get You Alone”, rather badly. But Paul wasn’t the only one to let nerves get the best of him, and Keith kindly noted that Paul had “channeled his theatrics into passion”.
The second guy to hear the ring of his name from Ryan’s lips was Burnell Taylor, the survivor from Louisiana, singing “I Am Ready for Love”. He made the judges happy and got a standing ovation. Mariah gave her signature jumbled commentary, saying she “applauded” his performance, reminded the audience that most were not aware of the intricacies of what Burnell had done vocally, and told him, “I felt you”. Truth to tell, I’m not “feeling” a whole lot of anything so far this year, and can only hope it gets better as the competition heats up.
Curtis Finch, Jr. was enormously happy to hear his name called. Randy gave him “big props”, not only for his making it into the Top Ten, but for his performance of “So High”, by John Legend. Devin Velez gave a great performance of “The Power of One”, which brought Keith to his feet, and prompted Nicki to call him “consistently good”. She especially liked Devin’s now signature Spanish/English renditions, which she said had never been done. Lazaro Arbos did a shaky rendition of “Bridge Over Troubled Waters”. Nicki was smiling, but said he was singing too low, and Mariah said, “People related to you on several levels. America loves you.” But, even though I love him, he’s going to have to get it together a whole lot better than that to make it very far.
Among the girls, third time competing was the charm for Janelle Arthur, who was first to make an entrance and first to get a standing ovation. In fact, it was the best she has ever sung on the show. Nothing like a little confidence booster like getting into the Top Ten to bring out the best in a singer. Nicki’s face lit up because she was so happy her “little ladybug”, her “little marshmallow”, had made it through. “It’s the best you’ve ever looked and sounded,” she said. “I believe you’ll be a humongous country star.”
Next to be called was Candice Glover, who couldn’t contain her explosion of delirious happiness. She got two standing ovations from the judges — one for her entrance, and one for smacking Rose Royce’s “I’m Going Down” out of the ballpark. Randy said, “This girl can really really sing!” And, yes, she really really can.
To my ears, Angela Miller got off to a too low beginning for “I Was Here”, but picked it up very well the rest of the way. Upon her entrance, both Randy and Keith stood, and by the end of her victory song, all the judges were on their feet. Keith said he was “virtually crying” and told her she was “completely ready”. “You’ve got vocals to burn,” he said.
Amber Holcomb, another great voice, didn’t so much knock her song out of the ballpark as just punt it a little bit. It wasn’t her best, but she got a standing ovation from all but Nicki. Mariah just said she wanted to continue to vote for her.
By this time, sister Katie and I were getting nervous. We had called each other every commercial, and were standing on our heads waiting for Kree Harrison’s name to be called. There are any number of shoo-in’s on American Idol who have gotten booted out for some inexplicable reason, and we were prepared to scream and rave if Kree got robbed of this opportunity. But not to worry. Here she came, putting the proof on “Evidence” and bringing the judges to their feet. I would have leaped up, too, but I was doing the blog reporter gig and was loaded down with pen and paper. You wouldn’t believe how heavy that pen gets. We hated there wasn’t time for judges’ comments for Kree, but the standing O said as much as the words anyway.
All in all, it was a better evening and kicked off a better season for American Idol, who netted 39 million votes, up considerably over last year. I enjoyed it. Did you?