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American Idol Recap: Paul F. Tompkins Judges the Top Thirteen

More than a few people expressed disappointment that I did not recap J.Lo's video last week. I'll tell you why I didn't. Nothing happened in it. It was a music video. J.Lo lip-synched and so did Pitbull. There was dancing. It took place in a club. What'd you think there would be? Oh, J.Lo and Pitbull were dressed like Diane Keaton and Warren Beatty from Reds and then the camera zoomed into Pitbull's eye and George Washington Carver married a peanut and their baby fast-forward grew up to be the next incarnation of the Buddha and the grown-up Buddha was played by a CGI Heath Ledger. I cried.

And now, the show. We are told the top thirteen (inelegant number; irritating) will be working with producers from Interscope records. This is a big deal, because the music industry is doing so great! One of the Interscopers is legendary record producer Don Was, who looks like he is wearing a scarecrow. I don't mean he is dressed like a scarecrow. He looks like he is wearing a whole scarecrow. Maybe a scarecrow of Johnny Depp. I keep thinking birds are going to fly out of him.

Tonight the contestants will sing songs by their personal idols. First up is Lauren, who idolizes Shania Twain and sings Shania's "Any Man of Mine." I'm not familiar with this song and find it fairly boring, so I don't know if Lauren is doing a bad job or if she's breathing new life into a boring classic and this is the best it's ever been.

JUDGES: Steven doesn't like it. J.Lo wants Lauren to kick it into high gear. Randy thinks it's merely "good." He also mentions Shania's "great collaborator," Mutt Lange, the guy whom Shania divorced after he had an affair with her best friend. To Randy's credit, he did not identify Mr. Lange as "legendary husband Mutt Lange."
ME: I thought that song was boring. I know I said that already. I guess that's indicative of how boring it is. Maybe it's cursed or something, and any version of it will be boring. After the critiques, Lauren explains she didn't want to do a ballad because "that's what everybody does." Out of all the contestants, she seems the most obviously contestive.

Legendary record producer Jimmy Iovine is back to condescend to people! Jimmy needlessly coaches Casey on the Joe Cocker arrangement of "I Get by With a Little Help From My Friends." As Casey sings, the judges are enraptured. I'm sure Jimmy Iovine takes credit for this. Casey sells it and seems to be having fun, and the audience loves him.

JUDGES: Steven liked it! J.Lo says that when she watches Casey she feels, "I am watching somebody impor-int!" Randy says Casey made it fun! Randy, I co-sign!
ME: I like this kid. Casey is a real showman, who seems like a professional singer where pretty much everyone else in this competition seems rather green. The only downside to his self-assurance is that it occasionally causes him to blurt, Whatchoo you talkin' about, girl! in the middle of a song.

Weirdly enough, after being compared to Diana Ross last week, Ashthon has opted to sing a Diana Ross song this week. After hearing her rehearse, Jimmy Iovine thought it was so good, he had to invite legendary Motown founder Berry Gordy to see tonight's show, so we could all see that Jimmy Iovine knows Berry Gordy. Ashthon sings "When You Tell Me That You Love Me," and it's not great. It's not even good. It's bad. I hope I eased you into that harsh reality gently enough.

JUDGES: Steven … liked it? He says he knows Ashthon is going to be great and he has confidence that in her. Randy was worried when he heard the song choice, but felt like Ashthon did okay. J. Lo noticed that Ashthon had problems but compensated, and thinks she is awesome. They're all crazy.
ME: Well, Berry Gordy is indeed in the audience, sitting next to Jimmy Iovine. I guess when Jimmy Iovine says "jump," Berry Gordy says, "Fine. But you better book me a car service. I don't waste my own gas watching little kids sing anymore."

Paul's idol is Ryan Adams. We see Paul and Jimmy Iovine in the rehearsal studio, and I am overcome with the certainty that Jimmy Iovine wears strong cologne and it's a bummer in close quarters. Paul sings "Come Pick Me Up" and gets off to a sketchy start. All of the contestants seem to have trouble starting these songs. Your average Applebee's waiter has more consistency starting "Happy Birthday." Paul makes up for the unevenness of the vocal by never stopping moving, ever. I do not see a red laser dot on him at any point, but perhaps he is confounding assassins. Paul loses me forever by doing the smile-into-the-camera ending.

JUDGES: Steven … likes it? He warns Paul of pitchiness. J.Lo says the audience loves Paul and she hopes America "gets it." She doesn't know Ryan Adams or that song! Randy loves the character Paul is.
ME: There is a weird moment when Steven Tyler wraps up his critique, then pops something into his mouth. (Watch it below.) Now, Steven's famously sober, which we all know and think about all the time, so if it's not some kind of drug, what is it? A Hall's? Altoid? Vitamin? Whatever it was, it couldn't wait till the commercial? Or at least till the camera moved to someone else? Popping a narcotic actually would have been more polite because at least he wouldn't have been in control of his own actions.

Pia's up next. Legendary record producer (but who isn't?) Ron Faire — who looks like Richard Jenkins disguised as Joe Pantoliano — is on hand to help out. Pia's idol is Celine Dion, and she's chosen "All by Myself." I wonder, Is there any chance — any chance — that this will be overwrought? What a waste of a wonder! Of course it was. At the song's climax, Pia goes for a big note that stops being a note and becomes just yelling.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo is almost speechless. Then she makes a short speech that concludes, "Really, really beautiful." Randy says Pia hits those big notes dead on! Randy! What are you talking about!
ME: Steven Tyler also wishes Pia a "happy National Women's Day." International Women's Day was Tuesday. Did he lose a day, or was this recorded the day before? What did he put in his mouth? Also, of all people to acknowledge International Women's Day. Sorry, women.

James says his idol is Paul McCartney, and I just know he's going to do "Maybe I'm Amazed." Two seconds later, we see rehearsal and it is confirmed. James gets out there, sans scarftail, and sings. It sounds exactly like you'd think it would.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! Randy is amazed by James's versatility and does not know how to use the expression "turn the other cheek." He thinks it has something to do with versatility. The expression actually comes from the lesson of forgiveness taught to us by Our Lord Jesus Christ. But I will … let this go.
ME: I hope James's baby is watching at home, saying, "Come on, come on, come on dad, I am starving and just ate my last diaper!"

Haley's idol is Leann Rimes. What the fuck. How old am I? She is getting some help from the super tough-sounding Rock Mafia! It's a dude and a lady who produce teenybopper music that sells obscene amounts. You know, a Rock Mafia. Haley is going to sing Leann's "Blue." Haley goes for it, replete with uneven yodeling, and I'll give it to her for trying. But it's not up to Rock Mafia standards, I'm afraid.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo commends Haley on being able to mix it up. Randy finds it a little boring.
ME: I found it all the way boring. Haley persists in looking like that person I don't like, so I am still against her. This is how life works, Haley. Nature has arranged your features in such a way as to indicate to me that you are my enemy. Sorry.

Back from the break, we are treated to a backstage moment with James, who declaims, "My whole livelihood is at stake. It's all for my family. I made it this far, so to me I've already won." Wait, wait, wait. Do you get a bunch of food and diaper money for being in the top thirteen? Are these kids on salary? I assume they get some kind of per diem, but I hope James doesn't think the mansion where the show is putting him up is his new home, and he'll send for his family later, like it's the Potato Famine or something.

After revealing that Jacob's day job was answering phones at a spa, Ryan forces some weird role play with Jacob, pretending to be a customer calling Jacob at work. It's uncomfortable because I don't know how long it's going to go on. Jacob says his idol is R. Kelly, and I get crazily excited for a fleeting moment, thinking, What if he does a chapter of "Trapped in the Closet?" I mean, I got a fluttering in my chest thinking this was going to happen. Instead, Jacob sings "I Believe I Can Fly." It starts off dull and then Jacob goes typically Jacobean with it, oversinging to beat the band. To death, presumably.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says it's hard to judge Jacob because he makes them feel so much. Then she says it's anybody's game. But that Jacob is at the top of the list. So, good? Randy takes a moment to congratulate himself for picking the contestants, then praises his favorite oversinger for oversinging.
ME: The thing about Jacob is, would you listen to a whole album of that? Every performance is apocalyptic. It'd just be like an assault. You'd start to succumb to PTSD before you even got your earbuds out.

Thia idolizes Michael Jackson and sings "Smile," which Ron Faire informs her was composed by Charlie Chaplin. Thia later says "Charlie Chapman," but so what? She's a child and that song didn't even have lyrics until the fifties. I Wiki'd it. No citation needed! The arrangement Thia uses features a jazzy second half that is most unwelcome.

JUDGES: Steven … likes it? Thinks it was a little pitchy, but he loves her. Randy still likes Thia's tone, but didn't care for the jazzy part. J.Lo likes seeing Thia move a little (a really little).
ME: Thia has a pleasant voice, but doesn't bring anything to anything. I wish they hadn't let these young kids in. They're not interesting singers. Or people, probably. No offense to 15- and 16-year-olds, but God, you're boring. Talk to me when you feel yourself hurtling toward the grave, like I do, every day. Yet this is how I spend my time. O, what a piece of work is man!

After the break, we are backstage with Thia, who is crying. She hopes America will give her another chance. See what I'm saying? Is this fun to watch?

I forgot Stefano was in this competition, but there he is. I cannot deny the evidence of my senses, sir! His idol is Stevie Wonder, and he does an uptempo version of "Lately." Stefano has nice moments, but many not-nice moments. In this song, I mean. I am not saying anything about him as just a dude.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo likes it but it wasn't perfect. Randy says that he wasn't sure where Stefano was going at first, but by the end he was soaring!
ME: Stefano seems nice, but he will not go the distance. I'll be sad for him when he is voted off. But there is a mercenary voice in my brain that reassures me, One less person to write about.

MySpace's Karen Rodriguez tells us her idol is Selena. Hasn't she told us this already? Every episode? She sings "I Could Fall in Love" and it's pretty uneven. She seems nervous.

JUDGES: Steven didn't like it. J.Lo can tell MySpace's Karen Rodriguez was having trouble, but that she is one of the strongest girls. If I were the weakest girl, I would be insulted. Randy felt like she was kind of fighting the song and that it was a little sleepy. This is an odd critique. Personally, I love sleepy fights.
ME: Selena, Selena, Selena. I GET IT, MySpace's Karen Rodriguez.

Scotty sings his idol Garth Brooks's "The River." As the song begins, Scotty throws some extra twang on it, and I think he sings, "You know a train is like a river … " which seems like insane songwriting! So that one country metaphor is like that other country metaphor? Then I realize he pronounced "dream" as "drame," which sounds like train and that starts with T and that rhymes with B and that stands for babylockthemdoorsandturnthelightsdownlow! Do I miss that song? Something has … happened to me.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! Randy says don't change a thing — he loves it! J.Lo says she saw Scotty open up as a performer, and now he's taking us all on the ride with him.
ME: Ryan and Randy poke fun at the pictures that were shown on the big screen during Scotty's performance, thus insulting the show's art department, who are working harder than anyone on this bloated pseudo-spectacle of a show. Imagine all of this with no graphics or effects. Then take your head out of the oven.

Naima's idol is Rihanna, and she closes out the show with "Umbrella." It is a spirited rendition, with dancing and a reggae break in the middle. The vocal isn't flawless, but the performance provided some much-needed energy. But provided it too late.

JUDGES: Steven … likes it? He points out some pitch problems and gets booed for the first time. What took so long? People should have been booing this guy since "Rag Doll." J.Lo doesn't care about pitch problems! She says Naima is doing it! And needs to work on control! Randy does care about the pitchiness, which everyone knows. He is the Champion of Pitch, and he will defend it to his dying "dawg!" He orders Naima to make a whole reggae version of the song!
ME: Talking to Ryan, Naima says she can "overstand" what the judges are saying. There are no quotation marks in her voice, and it doesn't seem like she misspoke. I don't know if she's coining a term or if this is perhaps some sort of Chaucerian Englishe, a word from another age, long since fallen into disuse. Hey, I am not a college graduate. I'm still worrying that I used metaphor when I should have used simile a paragraph ago.

On the next episode: Not a hoax! Not a dream! A contestant GETS ELIMINATED! Tomorrow I'll have a mini-recap for you, because there won't be much to write about once you subtract all the product placement. For that, please check out my product placement fan fiction. There's a hot story about Ford kidnapping Coke. (Spoiler alert: they fall in love.)

You can listen to Paul F. Tompkins's podcast here, or subscribe on iTunes. He is also on Twitter as @PFTompkins.

Photo: Ray Mickshaw / FOX