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American Idol Recap: Now We’re Getting Somewhere

Golden oldies reinvented for a new generation! A creative spirit triumphing over illness! Teenage girls revealing their LOL-sooo-random habits! Vera Wang in the audience! Okay, maybe the fashion-mogul cameo was senseless (especially because you could never really see her), but overall it was the first episode of this season in which we saw hopeful contestants grow into competitors and talented front-runners morph into burgeoning artists. Which is to say, season nine of American Idol is finally fun to watch. Instead of cringing while likable contestants miss high notes or indulge in tired imitations of ubiquitous singers, Wednesday’s episode found at least half of the top ten girls using Idol to showcase their talents instead of gathering pity votes. Hey, at this point, we'll gladly take .500.

Crystal Bowersox and Lilly Scott pushed the season forward by reaching back to two slow-building soul classics and reminding us why they’re still relevant and fresh. Bowersox — who was hospitalized yesterday, and actually quite sick, according to Simon — offered no explanation as to what had happened the day before. Her secrecy was puzzling, but admirable: It sent a wordless message that she wants to be supported for her talent, not her problems — not that she needs a sob story to propel her forward. Bowersox’s take on Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long As I Can See the Light” was easily the most satisfying performance of the entire season. Complemented by a teasing gospel organ, Bowersox revealed softer, more melodic shades of her sassy vocal husk, and she demonstrated that within her range, she really knows how to phrase a song. Check out her fan-making rendition of the CCR ballad below.

The ladies continued to surprise when Lilly Scott — the platinum blonde indie girl — definitively proved that she’s more than just a quirky charmer with her unexpectedly fabulous take on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” It was energetic but tempered with moody pauses; she provided vocal punch while maintaining an admirable simplicity. Lilly just may have the idiosyncratic musical prowess to take this show; plus, it’s hard not to root for a hipster-class hero who extols the virtues of a moog in front of millions of Americans.

The “Things You Didn’t Know About Me” segments last night continued to do more harm than good to contestants’ likability: Didi Benami meows before performing, Katie Stevens knows how to say the phrase “Give me a kiss” in five different languages (a far more teenager-y identifier than any reflected in her song choices), and Paige Miles fills in coloring books: not because she's infantile and possibly stunted, mind you, but because she’s endearingly unique. No, not infantile or stunted at all.

Other notable singers:

Lacey Brown: Last week Kara recommended she try singing Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me," and this week Lacey shocked America by proving that Kara isn’t the only person in the world who still remembers that song. When the performance was over, you could tell Kara regretted mentioning them in the first place.

Katelyn Epperly: She sat down and tickled the ivories while moaning a slowed-down take on Coldplay’s “The Scientist.” It wasn't great, but the love she exuded for the material was at least engaging, and still a notch above most of the remaining contestants.

Didi Benami: The same love for source material could hardly be said for a person who goes for Bill Withers but opts to sing “Lean on Me.” On the other hand, this should not be surprising from a girl who had to look up "indulgent" in the dictionary to see if it applied to her singing. Short answer: Yes, it does. Long answer: Don’t tell us you had to look up indulgent in the dictionary.

Paige Miles: She sang "Walk Away," a Kelly Clarkson song co-written by Kara, and injected a modest slice of soul into the rock song. Kara chided her for smiling while singing it, though, babbling something like, "If you knew the guy I wrote this song about, you would be really angry!" Thereby establishing how important it is to read a songwriter's mind before interpreting anything they've ever written.

Siobhan Magnus finished off the show with a surprisingly adept version of Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” She can’t boast the vocal command of Lilly or Crystal, but she certainly could blast out the song’s finale, and in ways the chaotic spunk she brought to that imposing soul classic was more thrilling, if only because you half expected her to fly off the rails at any moment. The judges all decided she slayed the tune, but Kara ruined the moment by trying to attribute Siobhan’s success to her former career as a glassblower, reminding us that we are indeed watching American Idol — because no matter how good things get, someone is always there to make things stupider.

Other Recaps:
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak gushes on last night: "I felt giddy — maybe even a little proud — to be partaking in a shared, (mostly) shame-free reality-TV experience."
The AV Club's Claire Zulkey was less impressed, declaring "It's hard to pick which two girls should go home when there are about six of them."
Television Without Pity's Jacob finally appreciated Bowersox: "This show has always treated her kind of like we're in church and lucky to be spending time with her, but this time it's actually like that: Jesus and Mary fly out of the screen at your face; little doves twitter about, placing laurel leaves among her dreadlocks."

Photo: Frank Micelotta/FOX