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American Idol Recap: Twelve Women, Three Beatles Covers, Very Few Risks

American Idol went live last night for the first time this season, showcasing twelve aspiring female singers hoping to win America’s love through vocal chops and lockjaw smiles. Sadly, Ellen’s major contribution to her first live episode was a prerecorded bit showing Simon stroking her knee during auditions. (Her limited feedback in the rest of the show — “I enjoyed watching you!” — left a sour aftertaste.) Her scripted bit was not as amusing, however, as the moment when Ryan Seacrest told the crew to cut to Big Mike, who had accidentally elbowed the guy next to him because he’s sooooo big (they don't unoriginally call him Big Mike for nothing, people!), but the cameras ignored his request. How would you like it, Ryan, if the director barged onstage and started babbling about difficult life journeys and small-town girls with big dreams?

Falling particularly flat was Ryan's attempted joke linking Siobhan Magnus's former career as a glassblower with her ability to sing loudly: Winkingly telling someone they “know how to blow” and then looking mock-confounded by the titters around you, is about as original a thought as calling a big guy "Big Mike." (Though the double entendre did elicit a priceless shocked look from Simon.)

But on to the singing: In spite of the judges' constant harping on how this is “the girls’ season,” the overall talent quota did not validate that assertion. Most of the performers seemed too intimidated by the prospect of elimination to take risks, opting to imitate popular singers instead of being an individual. Michelle Delamor put as much effort into looking like Alicia Keys as she did into aping her style on “Fallin.’”

Speaking of imitation, Katelyn Epperly seems intent on a visual transformation à la Sandy from Grease. Last night she shed the teenage innocence of her early auditions and sewed herself into a leather outfit, completing the look with copious amounts of makeup, tacky leggings, and curly, buoyant hair. Kara sensibly called foul on her makeover, but for some reason the men disagreed: Apparently the student-by-day, hooker-by-night thing totally works for them. Oh yeah — she hummed a tune, too. Her come-hither version of the Beatles' “Oh! Darling” found her hitting all the right notes, but it lacked any real punch, and she loses points for having the safest Fab Four cover of the three we heard last night.

Three Beatles tunes in one night — what gives? It’s even more confounding because the theme for the evening was Billboard Hits, and Lilly Scott's "Fixing a Hole" didn’t even conform to that requirement because it was never released as a single. It was an interesting choice, but Lilly’s rendition of the existential ditty was disappointingly empty. She rephrased the melody in a Nina Simone vein without considering whether the end result was actually pleasing for the audience to listen to; the whole thing felt like it was primarily about proving she was “More a musician than a singer,” which was her self-proclaimed (though admittedly admirable) goal. Nevertheless, she does naturally exude presence, and she gives the judges an opportunity to pat themselves on the back for having a viable “indie” contestant on the show.

The next Beatle maniac was Haeley Vaughn, whose version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was — like it or not — easily the most memorable performance of the night. Haeley produced a legitimate reinvention of an endlessly overplayed song, the kind that forces you to pay rapt attention to it, if only in confusion. Some (most?) will undoubtedly hate it, but those decrying it as “all over the place” should listen closer; it does follow its own weird internal logic. Yes, she did miss some notes, but ultimately, the performance revealed Haeley has an idiosyncratic authenticity that few Idol hopefuls ever do. Her twangy, drawn-out notes, her fascinating phrasing, and her laid-back radiance are perhaps more entertaining than impressive, but ultimately isn’t that what this is all about? Listen to it below and decide for yourself if she’s a true artist-in-the-rough or just an untrained oddball.

The only other performer whose star potential merits mention is Crystal Bowersox, the dreadlocked single mom (the likable single mom — don’t worry, they already sent Mary Powers back to the karaoke bars) who sang a spot-on imitation of Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket.” Simon nailed it when he opined that although Bowersox is great, she’s doing the same thing dozens of subway singers do every day. Sure, she possesses a real gravelly charm, but a lot of girls these days are doing the Alanis/Etheridge thing. In spite of her great voice, she really needs to prove she has a unique musical identity if she wants to become the kind of artist people actually shell out money (and not pocket change) to listen to.

Tomorrow night, the reigning men from Hollywood week fight for top twelve status. Onward!

Other Recaps:
The AV Club's Leonard Pierce noted the judges limited vernacular: "Kara steals 'pitchy' from Randy when criticizing Didi, so he has to fall back on 'oomph.'"
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak urged Lilly Scott to "be aware of her mouth's position as it relates to the mic" on his live blog last night.
Television Without Pity's Jacob found Michelle to be "the fakest, scariest, Real Housewifest person I've ever seen. Of course she is from Miami: Every word out of her mouth sounds like not just a lie but a mean-spirited deception intended to get something out of you."

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX