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American Idol Recap: The ‘Vote for the Worst’ Lobby Still Wields Power

The New Vegan Ruben Studdard Sings Lighter R&B.

For a season that was supposed to be dominated by the ladies, things sure aren’t going according to Simon’s prediction: After last night’s episode, American Idol is down to nine contestants, only three of whom are girls and only two of whom — Crystal Bowersox and Siobhan Magnus — have any real staying power. Yes, America voted off teary-eyed waitress Didi Benami last night, and the judges didn’t step in to save her after her “Rhiannon” swan song. What, they’re gonna use their save so she can work her way up to sixth place?

The night began with season-two champ Ruben Studdard taking the Idol stage and reminding us what soul music sounds like when it comes from, well, the soul. His single “Don't Make 'Em Like U No More” was a much-needed refresher course in R&B stylings for this season’s too often fervor-free singers.

Studdard’s lesson was one last night’s celebrity guest performers might have taken note of as well: Usher and Diddy didn’t exactly bring the heat. If you can get over the fact that Usher’s new R&B club jam is called "OMG" (about five years too late to be hip) and features the seductive lyric “Honey’s got some booty like pow pow wow,” it wasn’t awful as far as those type of songs go. He sounded out of breath throughout the performance, but he gets credit for trying to sing an Auto-Tune–drenched single live without any technological assistance. On the plus side, his slick dance moves were reminiscent of Michael Jackson, but on the downside, they mostly brought to mind MJ as the Scarecrow from The Wiz.

The performance by Diddy — sorry, full credit where credit is due — the performance by Diddy-Dirty Money was not passable. The new single “Hello Good Morning” was little more than a repetitive “Drop It Like It's Hot” knockoff, but what do you expect? Diddy has as much to do with soul and rhythm as Olive Garden has to do with Italian cuisine.

Before Didi was ejected, Tim Urban and Katie Stevens joined her in the bottom three. Katie silently fumed but cat-of-nine-lives Tim hardly even flinched: At this point, he's worn a comfortable groove into his doomsday chair. The bottom three is where he thrives! A befuddled Kara once again tried to make sense of why Tim just guffaws when the judges attempt to melt his plastic smile with their harsh critiques. Look, it’s not that Tim doesn’t “get” what they’re saying, it’s that Kara doesn’t “get” that the judges’ barbs have zero influence on the swooning tweens who have kept this 2010 model of Peter Noone around so long. Realistically, Tim should laugh: No amount of hard work can fix the fact that he has the vocal range of a marmoset, but he’s still on TV, so he might as well enjoy his fifteen minutes.

That being said, at this point in the season, the whole "Vote for the Worst" campaign becomes a bit cruel when you realize it means non-talent like Tim outlasts people like Didi Benami, an emotionally fragile person who clearly cared a lot about her stint on Idol (and was a good singer).

Meanwhile, the escalating tension between Ryan and Simon continued to build. Simon seems too petulant for this to be contrived, which doesn't necessarily mean it isn't; it could just be that Simon has miscalculated how far he can push the "prickly" persona before it becomes off-puttingly divalike. But either way, their bickering has flipped from banter to sniping. When Ryan asked Simon to advise Aaron Kelly how to sing a love song when he’s merely a 16-year-old anthropomorphic chipmunk who has never been in love, Simon grimaced as if this were the most ridiculous question he'd ever heard and replied, “This is not the Oprah Winfrey Show." And, in a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, Ryan bested him by shooting back, “But you’re a judge, and advising him is your highly paid job.” Simon didn’t give in, and for a second it looked like Ryan was about to get all vice-presidential when he said, “You know what, fffffffffforget it.” Considering Simon's obscene wealth at this point, there is something sinister about his aggressive cynicism and indifference; imagine if an episode of The Simpsons ended with Mr. Burns shooting and killing Ralph Wiggum.

Other highlights:

• We watched a music video involving Casey Jones James being saved from the rest of the Idols dressed up like ninjas because he drove a Ford car. Obviously, “Kung Fu Fighting” was playing. After it wrapped up, you could see Crystal Bowersox thinking, I knew I should have watched this show before I tried out.

• Teenage singing sensation/Precious Moments doll Justin Bieber showed up to give support to Usher, who got Young Master Bieber started in the biz. “He shaped who I am as an artist,” Bieber told Seacrest, and we can only hope this means that one day Justin Bieber and R. Kelly will duet about unwittingly nailing the same girl.

The following priceless exchange occurred:

Ryan: Ruben, you’ve lost weight.
Ruben: Yes. I’m a vegan now.

• Oh, and duh, Ryan brought Big Mike onstage with Ruben to compare them in size because they are both big black men. In fact, that’s probably why they invited Studdard on the show in the first place.

Next week: The remaining nine tackle the Lennon-McCartney songbook. Five will get you ten that Tim follows the Stones’ “Under My Thumb” with Lennon’s “Run for Your Life.”

Other Recaps:
The A.V. Club's Claire Zulkey noticed that "Lee was back to his mumbly stumbly self as he explained how last night felt for him. If he's that way as a paint salesperson, all the walls in Mount Prospect are probably still white."
Entertainment Weekly's Michael Slezak spotted that "even the audience members labeled 'Tim's friends' looked incredulous" when Didi Benami was put on the cutting slab.
Television Without Pity's Jacob can't believe it has been "seven years since Ruben Met Clay. He's lost all manner of weight, and gone vegan, which by the nature of the universe must mean that Clay has taken up skeet shooting."

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX