American Idol did Dallas last night, showcasing some of the purdiest voices in the great state of Texas, and some other folk who dun sounded like a hound dog with a spur in its hide. What, sounds cliché? At least we didn't trot out the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders like some shows we know. As in Tuesday night’s episode, the guest judges were once again polar opposites: One was intensely entertaining (Neil Patrick Harris) and the other was a cyborg (or as they are called these days, a "Jonas Brother"). It would be near impossible to contrast their two styles, given that Joe Jonas rarely extended his critiques beyond the word “yeah.” His judging style was “don’t offend the record-buying public,” and while you have to applaud that all-American devotion to profit, he made for the blandest (and thankfully shortest in terms of screen time) Paula-replacement judge.
Neil Patrick Harris, however, did not disappoint. He was charming, clever, and honest. He was not afraid to embrace his inner Simon, and yet stood up to his model with class — although it was irritating that they showed most of their sparring matches without giving us footage of the singers in question.
The best singer of the night was Kimberly Carver, who impressed with an original song (good enough that she could have called it an obscure Nina Simone number and gotten away with it) and a unique voice saturated with jazzy soul. She was the rare Idol contestant who used her vocal flourishes to benefit the song and not to show off her voice. Simon, however, decried it as — gasp — “nothing current and nothing interesting.” Oh dear, she committed the cardinal sin of pop, not being current. That’s a recurring problem with Simon’s taste: He’s always looking for the next Leona Lewis — someone whose adept but bland voice can change to meet the pop trends — and he does so at the expense of talent that isn’t easily pigeonholed.
Thankfully, NPH took immediate umbrage, pointing out that this is a singing competition and her vocal phrasing was fantastic. Simon’s response: “Yeah, if it was Jazz TV.” Apparently vocal jazz styling is an immediate disqualification these days because no one likes it: Perhaps we all dreamed the Norah Jones tornado that demolished the charts while Ruben Studdard was struggling to survive on the shelves. Regardless of the pop-only grump, everyone else approved of Kimberly and she made the cut.
But what’s more exciting than real talent? Trashy talent! Who wasn’t thrilled to find out that Erica — who came in dressed in leather and wielding a whip — had been a Barney kid in the early nineties? Well, probably her mother, but for everyone else it was a delirious, surreal moment that displayed Idol at its best: an opportunity for people to reinvent themselves as something more fabulous than what they are in real life. That being said, Erica didn't seem to entirely believe in her own transformation; she still came across as a lovable teddy bear in prostitute’s clothing. Like, “Aw, look at that cute girl. She thinks she's a dominatrix!”
After they forced her to sing an awkward verse of “I Love You, You Love Me” that likely made many teenage viewers reevaluate their childhood, Erica was in her element singing En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind,” snapping her whip and attacking the lyrics with a powerful vocal punch. She was more than a singer — she was a performer mixing the edgy with the sweet. That combined with her “Girl Scout gone rogue” life story should be enough to propel her forward.
A kid by the hybrid name “Todrick” performed an original song that directly addressed each of the judges. Everyone braced for something cloying and contrived, but somehow Todrick pulled it off and managed to make the gimmick seem heartfelt and clever. His lyrics accurately predicted “Simon’s face looking so unimpressed,” and then he deftly skipped through every possible Idol reference, from the line “Sitting there like a bump on a log, Randy, what I got to do to be your dawg?” to name-checking William Hung. With that undeniably winning number, as well as his camera- and visual metaphor–friendly ability to do backflips, Todrick made it to Hell Week, where we’ll see if he can actually perform.
Other memorable hopefuls:
• Maegan, whose little brother informed the camera that if she got a ticket he “may give her a big ole hug and never stop,” then proceeded to raise the roof. (Are kids still doing that? Should we also talk to his hand?) His sister’s voice was fine, and she showed admirable restraint, but she could have spared us the exuberant hand-flapping.
• Vanessa, an optimistically tone-deaf girl singing Etta James. She was dressed all in pink, but informed us, significantly, “I really like teal, too.”
• Lloyd, a dockworker with a smooth voice whom the judges couldn’t get enough of. NPH provided Lloyd with the only worthwhile feedback, telling him to pull out some personal style next time.
Next week Idol hikes up to Denver, and we’ll see if the thinner air causes the judges’ tempers to reach the boiling point any faster. It looks like Posh Spice is back for some still-indeterminate reason next week (British cabal?), but the fond memories of Dr. Howser trying to cure fans of their Idol ennui will live on.
HitFix's Daniel Fienberg noted that "This is the second straight episode with a good original song. Will wonders never cease?"
TV Fanatic had mixed feelings toward Erica: "She used to be on Barney and Friends as a child. Shouldn't she be punished for that?"
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak said you might have mistaken Joe Jonas "for Kara's bright-eyed personal assistant, given his utter lack of instructive and/or opinionated comments."