While the overall standard of the competition in this year’s American Idol has been, I think, better than the last couple of years, the first two weeks of this finals run has lacked a big water-cooler moment, a lightning strike of “did you see that?” drama to really kick-start the season into high gear. Generally it takes the form of an exceptional performance (either good or bad) a spat between the judges, or even a surprise result.
We got that first moment in last night’s top 11 results show as Casey Abrams, one of the early favourites, finished last in the public vote and forced the judges into using their one ‘save’ of the season. As a result, all eleven remaining contestants (rather than the usual ten) will now participate in the Idol summer tour, but two will be eliminated next week without the potential net of the save to rescue them. And they will all know now more than ever that any of them could be vulnerable in any given week.
But I’m jumping ahead. Here are four thoughts from the results show.
There’s going to be drama – I really mean it
You may have missed Ryan Seacrest – who is not only the Master of the Overly-Dramatic Pause™ but also Idol‘s nominated Stater of the Bleeding Obvious™ – telling the viewers this, but only if you had the sound turned down or fallen into a deep coma. Over and over again he reminded us to stay watching until the very end because, y’know, something immense was going to go down. By the fifth time I think even an amoeba with learning difficulties would have worked out that one of the favourites was in big, big trouble.
It all starts pleasantly enough. Scotty, Pia and Lauren are summoned centre-stage, and quickly sent back to the sofas. James and Paul, the two wrestling buddies (more on that in a minute), are also returned to safety. Which means that only half the remaining six can avoid a trip across the stage to the Stools of Doom™.
Next up are Jacob, Thia and Stefano. Ryan imparts good news to Jacob, then in turn sends first Thia and then Stefano to contemplate the abyss.
Which leaves just Naima, Haley and Casey, all of whom are wishing they had applied more deodorant. Just in case we had somehow missed his earlier subtle hints, Ryan reminds us:
Interesting night, folks. Make sure you stay with us for the entire show.
I’m so glad he reminded me of that. Obviously, I had been intending to watch only the first 55 minutes of padding and then skip the five minutes where something actually happens.
Anyhow, Naima is returned to the comfort of the sofas – and then so is Thia, leaving Casey to sweat it out behind his beard and compose himself to sing Ray Charles‘ I Don’t Need No Doctor. But he has barely started when R-Jack stops him mid-performance and S-Ty interjects to tell us the obvious: that they are using the judges’ save to rescue Casey.
It’s a great moment of drama, even if it is carefully stage-managed. The bottom line is that all eleven will now go on the post-season tour and, in the shorter-term, all will be back to sing again next week.
Serendipity is a wonderful thing. The link between the results of the public vote and the return of Jennifer Hudson – backed up by fellow former contestant George Huff – was a glorious coincidence, given the pair’s key roles in arguably the most shocking results night in Idol‘s history.
Season three had been shaping up to be the year of the diva, with Hudson, Fantasia Barrino and LaToya London all bringing their belting voices into the top 12. But on results night in the round of the final seven, Ryan Seacrest split the three divas into one group, and underdogs Diana DeGarmo, Jasmine Trias and John Stevens into another – and then asked Huff to join the three he thought were safe. He started sidling over to Hudson’s group, only to be directed to the other. Even though DeGarmo and Trias would eventually finish second and third, it was a totally unexpected result. And without the safety net of the judges’ save, it meant one of the divas had to go home – it was Hudson. Huff would go on to be the highest-placed male in that season, finishing fifth overall.
Elimination did not ultimately do Hudson’s career any harm whatsoever. She won an Oscar for her role in the film version of Dreamgirls, her debut album reached number two on the Billboard album chart and she gave birth to a son in 2009. So it was good to see her back, having clearly slimmed down a hell of a lot compared to her pre-birth image.
From a purely personal perspective, we happened to be in Los Angeles in 2004 that very week when Hudson was eliminated, and we got to see her perform a short set live with Barry Manilow, as the picture below shows (if you look very closely). Little did we know back then that we were watching a future Oscar winner.
This week’s padding
It’s S-Ty‘s birthday this week – he turns 63 today (Saturday 26th March) – so the producers filled up some time by throwing an impromptu party for him, including an appearance by Motown’s favourite son – and official Friend of the Show™ – Stevie Wonder with a brief rendition of his classic Happy Birthday. Okay, it was padding. But it was kind of cool too, and at least it fitted with the week’s theme.
Whereas the video revelation that James likes to spend his down-time watching wrestling – personally, I’m with Naima in that I’d rather watch paint dry – and had bonded with Paul over his love of the ‘sport’ was one of the most tangential pieces to camera we have ever seen. As it transpires, this was just a thinly veiled excuse to set up the arrival of Hulk Hogan on stage to tell James and Paul they were both safe, and then oh-so-hilariously (not) biff Seacrest into the audience.
Oh, how we laughed – if laughing involves punching the fast-forward button on your remote, that is. Still, James looked genuinely thrilled to see one of his WWE idols in the flesh. So that’s okay, then.
Walking the knife edge
As Casey discovered this week, there is a fine line between having a distinct persona which marks you out as an individual artist and becoming stereotyped in a way that starts to alienate all but your most ardent fans. It is that knife-edge between the judges’ mantra of “know who you are” and becoming a self-parodying caricature of yourself.
It is a trap which Jacob fell into in the first two weeks but was able to extricate himself from here, and one which Scotty is also in danger of being drawn into. There’s no question Casey is immensely talented as a musician, a vocalist and a showman, but this week he took his growling, maybe-I’m-cuddly-maybe-I’m-a-psychotic-serial-killer performance schtick a bit too far.
It’s hard to know exactly where that dividing line is until you cross it, though. And even then you can still get away with it. Carrie Underwood rarely deviated from her straight-down-the-line country positioning, Taylor Hicks played his ‘Soul Patrol’ card and “whooped” his way to victory, and last year’s winner Lee DeWyze‘s unwavering slightly-gruffer-than-Paul-McDonald style and rabbit-in-the-headlights stare proved to be an irresistible combination.
Will Casey recover from this blow of being saved after being singled out as the lowest vote-getter this week? In season eight, duelling pianist Matt Giraud was the first beneficiary of the judges’ save at the top seven stage. He survived only one further week before finishing fifth. But last year Michael Lynche was saved in top nine week and made it all the way to fourth. So it need not be a fatal blow.
One thing we do know for sure. With the safety net now removed and with two contestants sure to depart next week, it will be a tense affair. Expect those nerves to show in some of the performances. There could be carnage.
Next week’s theme: Elton John. If anyone does Circle of Life from The Lion King – and I suspect Thia, Pia and Jacob are all desperate to do it – I will not be held responsible for any subsequent damage. The same applies to any attempt by Paul to perform Your Song. You have been warned.
American Idol posts
Top 11: Performances
Link: American Idol website