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American Idol Recap: Avril Lavigne Versus Katy Perry, a Study in Contrasts

American Idol returned home to L.A. last night, and to celebrate they featured not one, but two celebrity guest judges over the two days of tryouts — Avril Lavigne and Katy Perry. Apparently the theme for the evening was “top 40 stars laboring under the impression they’re alternative even though they co-write songs with the people behind Hilary Duff and Britney Spears's hits.” Or something like that.

There was nothing complicated about Avril’s judging technique; she seemed to think suppressed giggles (from beneath a devil-horned hoodie, no less) sufficed as constructive criticism. Especially when compared to Perry, she came across as a spoiled brat, a high schooler just thrilled to be sitting at the cafeteria table with the cool kids. She acted as though her money and fame eliminated any obligation to actively engage in the world around her — which is technically true, it’s not like this embarrassing stint will affect the sales of her next album — but it’s sad to see someone coasting by on reputation when these auditions mean so much to budding singers who don’t have the privilege of a mall tour.

Perry, on the other hand, proved herself a discriminating judge of taste by successfully straddling that thin line between sharp-tongued honesty and cruel mockery. In fact, the Californian, doe-eyed hopefuls weren’t the only ones stinging from her barbs; Perry pulled no punches when talking to Kara or the other judges, either (perhaps bad boy Russell Brand is — wait for it! — rubbing off on her in more than one way). Some choice quotes:

• Before Simon, Randy, and Kara’s modest entrance from the sky: “I hear the judges are arriving by helicopter and I think that’s ridiculous.”

• Perry’s reaction when Kara was coo-cooing a contestant: “Is she talking to a puppy?”

• “Well, don’t ever put someone through because you feel bad,” she scolded Kara, then later admitted, “I’m gonna pull a Kara,” when she did the same.

• Perry informed Kara, “This is not a Lifetime movie, sweetheart,” when the pushover judge cited a contestant’s rough life as a reason to move him forward. “You have to have talent,” she continued. “Everyone has amazing stories.”

And what about that talent? Well, if we’re being Katy Perry honest, most of it was somewhere between “meh” and “maybe it's time to finally see why so many people watch NCIS.” The soft-spoken Andrew was one of the highlights: He came in armed with one of those dastardly hard-knock stories (escaping Compton and its gang life), but his effortlessly smooth vocal phrasing confounded all expectations. Thirty seconds of his croon and even Simon was repeating adjectives of praise. Of course Randy had to ruin the moment with some rhetorical wisdom, informing us: “My theory is, if you can sing, you can sing anything.” It’s hard to imagine even he believes that, especially sitting one chair away from Katy Perry.

Twenty-eight-year-old single mom Mary Powers also came across as a real contender, belting out a Pat Benatar power ballad which Avril applauded as “punk rock.” Considering this is the woman who pioneered text-message speak in pop music with “Sk8er Boi,” she probably thinks Joan Jett counts as metal. Regardless, even by-the-numbers hard rock is a welcome diversion on Idol. Plus, it was impossible not to be charmed by her 8-year-old daughter, who rushed in after mommy got the golden ticket to inform Simon he was her hero, because “he’s the only negativity one.” Aw, cynical kids say the darndest things.

The rest were singers with nice pipes but no awareness that entertaining is more about showing off your personality than your technical vocal prowess. One such singer was Tasha, a minister-by-night, Joss Stone–lite singer. That isn’t saying much, because half of the time Joss Stone is Joss Stone lite.

Chris — who sported Corbin Bleu curls and a genuinely sad backstory about twenty different foster families — was similarly diet-cola R&B. Nothing to be ashamed of and good enough to get that ticket, but hardly unique enough to leave a lasting impression.

Neil was the requisite nightmare contestant; the IQ of 168 he boasted apparently didn’t translate into honest self-appraisal. He sang a Meat Loaf tune but brought to mind the bombastic rocker more in terms of sweat output than vocal styling. Ignoring the assertion that he couldn’t carry a tune, Neil informed Simon, “There is no reality other than what we make for ourselves, man.” Alas, Simon is apparently not a fan of Terminator 2, and within a minute, damp Neil was out of there. That is, after a quick "confused attempt to go through the wrong door" move that only seems to happen to the freaks. Do good singers just have better exiting instincts?

Jason Greene made even Katy Perry feel dirty when he sang the Divinyls’ “I Touch Myself,” and somehow made his occupation — “I’m a student” — sound pornographic. A round of cringing dismissals didn’t stop him from propositioning Simon as he exited the room, using a string of double entendres right out of Michael Scott's Big Book of Bawdy Ripostes (see below). And with that, he helped Simon kick off yet another year of "Ryan is gay" jokes. And to think they held back for five whole episodes this year.


Other Recaps:
Neon Limelight's TJ thinks Andrew could be "This year’s Danny Gokey, but less annoying — so far."
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak actually found "Tasha's choice of Joss Stone's non-hit ''Baby Baby Baby'' brave and unexpected — she delivered it impeccably."

Photo: FOX