Now in its third — yes, THIRD — month on TV, the ninth season of American Idol has finally cut the fat, whittling down the contestants to the top ten guys and the top ten gals. Unfortunately, the show taking place onstage every week has done little to live up to the considerable buzz created by the backstage drama this season (Simon’s leaving! Abdul flew the coop! Ellen signs on!). Yes, it’s still early in the competition, but, as of right now, there’s not a star in sight.
And so far, the judges have offered the contestants little help, spewing out schizophrenic criticisms (change up the arrangement; you changed up the arrangement too much) that have resulted in a bunch of confused — and terrified — wannabe Idols. Last night, the men took the stage, offering up their take on various “Billboard hits” — whatever that means. There were some definite improvements from last week and (inspired by this Ann Powers column) we’ve ranked each guy based on the risk he took with his performance and the response it got from the judges.
1. Michael Lynche
Risk Level: 4
An early favorite because of his powerful voice and tug-at-the-heartstrings personal story (his wife gave birth to their first child during Hollywood week), Michael rebounded from a disappointing showing last week to offer up a suitably soulful take on James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.” The song played to his vocal strengths and exhibited that Michael has impressive control over his voice. Choosing a song from the sixties is where he could have gone wrong, as the judges have come down hard on contestants who don’t sound current enough. In the end, Michael’s powerful vocal delivery won the judges over with Ellen labeling him as “the one to beat.”
2. Lee Dewyze
Risk Level: 2
Season 9′s resident mainstream rocker (think Chris Daughtry or David Cook), Lee stayed true to form last night with a solid version of Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel.” While not the best singer (he frequently goes off-pitch when holding notes), Lee’s gravely voice suited the song and he clearly knows who he is — or he’s supposed to be — as a performer. He’s got a commercial look and sound and has clearly become one of the judge’s favorites. And he didn’t disappoint them, with Simon noting that vocally he’s “heads and shoulders above” the rest of the guys. We expect to see him in June of 2013 (or whenever the season finale actually is).
3. Todrick Hall
Risk Level: 9
So, Todrick is this season’s most inventive performer in terms of changing up a song’s arrangement, tempo, and even melody in order to make it his own. The problem is that it has blown up in his face every time. Last week’s funkified interpretation of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You’ve Been Gone” garnered him some of the harshest criticisms from the judges. This week, he chose to turn another song completely on its head. His slow-groove take on Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” again landed him in front of a trigger happy firing squad. Simon called it “corny” and added that it had “no relevance” to today’s musical landscape. We couldn’t disagree more. We thought Todrick completely updated the song as a 2010 R&B gem and exhibited some seriously soulful singing chops, despite his background as a dancer. If the audience’s reaction was an indication (they were on their feet and dancing halfway through his performance), we’re confident he’ll make it through to next week.
4. Alex Lambert
Risk Level: 2
Call him the comeback kid! After a disastrous performance last week that was, at times, hard to watch, Idol‘s newest Lambert made a wise decision by strumming his guitar to John Legend’s “Everybody Knows.” Not only did it give him the opportunity to sit down during the performance (a blessing since he has ZERO stage presence), it shifted everyone’s attention off of his deer-in-headlights face and onto his voice — which is actually quite good. Though not a particularly difficult song to sing, the simple melody suited the natural grit in his mid register. The judges were quick to note that his performance was a huge improvement from his previous go-around and that America will be eager to vote for him on account of his likeable personality. We agree. After all, who doesn’t love an underdog?
5. Aaron Kelly
Risk Level: 1
The heir apparent to Clay Aiken and David Archuleta (we’ll pause for the wretching to stop), Aaron has been a big judges’ favorite from the very beginning — why, we cannot fathom. His saccharine take on country band Rascal Flatts’ “Here Comes Goodbye” earned him tons of praise last week and he stuck with what he knows for his follow-up performance, a cheesy take on The Temptations’ “My Girl.” He definitely didn’t reinvent the wheel here, keeping the arrangement and his own vocals very close to the original. The judges were split; with Randy and Kara loving it and Ellen and Simon saying the song choice was a bit boring. We’ve no doubt, however, that America’s teens will take to phones to vote for him in droves. Once the competition ends, the best Aaron can probably hope for is a starring role in an Off-Broadway revival of Godspell.
6. Casey James
Risk Level: 2
Payoff: 4 + 2 points for being good-looking = 6
Another early favorite (and, thanks to his long blond locks and endearing smile, Kara’s late-night fantasy), Aaron Kelly was taken down a few pegs after performing Gavin DeGraw’s “I Don’t Want To Be.” A predictable song choice for the season’s other guitar-strumming rocker, Casey tried to change-up the arrangement by swapping his acoustic for an electric and giving the song an ’80s hair band feel. Unfortunately, the judges agreed that while his take on the song highlighted his guitar playing, it did nothing to showcase his voice, which was definitely weak last night. Still, its clear Aaron will be around for a while and that his striking… artistry (cough, shirtless audition, cough)… has already gained him a legion of female fans.
7. Andrew Garcia
Risk Level: 2
Payoff: 3 + 2 points because he’s our fave guy
Andrew Garcia is a one-hit wonder — and he isn’t a professional singer yet. His inventive acoustic take on Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” during Hollywood week (which reeked of Kris Allen’s similarly stripped down version of Kanye’s “Heartless” last season) set the bar extremely high in the judges’ eyes and, in their opinion, he has yet to offer them anything quite as a good. They completely blasted last week’s folky cover of Fall Out Boy’s “Sugar, We’re Goin Down” (completely unfairly, may we add) and didn’t react any better to his by-the-book performance of James Morrison’s “You Give Me Something.” We think Andrew should have ignored the judges’ comments from last week altogether and trusted his instincts. He’s definitely one of the strongest guys this season but he completely abandoned his originality to please the judges. We hope he learned his lesson.
8. Tim Urban
Risk Level: 1
Tim Urban didn’t have to do much to improve upon his showing in the competition thus far (for the record, we think he’s DEFINITELY one of the guys who should have gone home last week). This week, the smartest move he made was to put on a tight T-shirt before he hit the stage. It certainly wasn’t his singing that kept him around, so it’s encouraging to know he, at the very least, recognizes and exploits his strengths. His version of Matt Nathanson’s “Come On Get Higher” was vastly better than last week’s take on One Republic’s “Apologize.” That being said, it was still no better that what you’d expect to see at a high school talent show. All of judges agreed, except for Simon, who offered a surprisingly glowing critique of his performance. In our opinion, that sealed Tim’s fate. If America kept him around after being torn apart by the judges, a recommendation from the show’s most respected critic is sure to keep him singing another day.
9. Jermaine Sellers
Risk Level: 8
Jermaine Sellers vocal shrieks give us scary flashbacks of Adam Lambert and, thankfully, they appeared minimally during his smooth jazz version of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” Unfortunately, his restraint didn’t score him any points with the judges this week, who all felt he basically committed sacrilege by turning this legendary song completely on its head. We definitely give Jermaine props for thinking outside the box, but we must agree. The whole vibe was budget cabaret and with no compelling back story or personality, we think he could be in serious trouble.
10. John Park
Risk Level: 1
After failing miserably with Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child” last week, John Park continued on his collision course with disaster by delivering a boring performance of John Mayer’s “Gravity.” He definitely took the note about choosing more contemporary material and the song played to his strengths as the college-kid-turned-professional-musician, but, in the end, it was completely forgettable. Not a particularly difficult song to sing, it didn’t even give John the opportunity to show off vocally — something that we think he can do. The judges, not surprisingly, were unimpressed, blasting John for not being connected emotionally to any of the songs he sings. Randy went as far as to say, “You didn’t bring anything new to the song. It wasn’t as good as the original.” See ya John!
Come back tomorrow, when we’ll rank the top 10 girls.