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American Idol Recap: Paul F. Tompkins on Contestant Impersonation Night

All right! Back home, on my own couch, eating American snacks, and watching television on a television! Even though I’m watching American Idol on that television, I am still happy!

We open with a montage of the contestants’ first auditions, and everyone, including the judges, looks 25 years younger. These auditions took place mere months ago. I quickly run to the mirror. I do not recognize the wizened old man who stares back at me. The judges are introduced, and as they enter we see that Steven Tyler has a gigantic lipstick imprint on his face. I find this immediately and intensely tiresome.

The theme this week is “The Music of the 21st Century,” so get ready to hear some songs you have only very recently grown tired of. The strains of Pink’s “So What” (see?) are heard, and wait, what’s this? Naima, Ashthon, MySpace’s Karen Rodriguez, Thia, and Pia have returned from the television dead to sing a song that is out of their collective comfort zone. It builds to a climax, and out steps … Paul. Oddly, Paul does not help the situation. Hey, Paul, we don’t need your assistance to make this cover sloppy and rushed! Sisters are doing it for themselves. Hey, it’s a little taste of the summer tour, everybody! That tour is still happening!

With … that dispensed with, we can concentrate on the contestants whom the audience has yet to telephonically ostracize. First: Scotty. There’s a little package about him where the rest of the gang makes sport of Scotty’s Über-annoying microphone technique. They all hold the mike at that weird 90 degree angle, like it’s a flute. Accurate, but they miss what is to me the most annoying detail: It’s not just the angle at which Scotty holds the mike, it’s also how gingerly he cradles it, as if the microphone is fresh from the oven. Scotty’s 21st-century song will be “Swingin’,” a song from 1982 that LeAnn Rimes covered in 2010. I hate loophole covers. Jimmy Iovine waxes Iovineic on this song choice: “Scotty is doing what he does because that’s what he does, but what happens on a show like this is, people can become complacent. And that’s a little bit of a danger — not Scotty, but the audience.” I don’t know if Jimmy doesn’t know what “complacent” means or if he suddenly decided to get super-honest about what is going on with this show, because that is exactly what has happened. The song begins and it’s just like every Scotty performance we’ve ever seen or ever will see. The only thing that comes close to a moment during the song is when Scotty drops down an octave on the second verse. He has no comprehension of performance dynamics, so one of two things happened: Either no one talked him out of this drop, or they actually instructed him to do it. I would think it’s pretty basic that as a song progresses, going from lower to higher adds energy to a performance, and going from higher to lower might have the opposite effect. If only my theory had been put to the test two seconds ago.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo loves Scotty’s storytelling quality but thinks Jimmy might be on to something when he encouraged Scotty to push out of his comfort zone. Randy says it was actually kinda boring and Scotty’s song choice could have been better.
ME: These people have one hell of a nerve. They have let this kid do the same thing week in and week out and have told him all along not to change a thing. I did not imagine this. What is the point of the judges at this stage? Maybe they shouldn’t have stuck around once America started voting. Let Ryan introduce stuff and cut 45 minutes out of this bloated karaoke contest. I am actually kind of angry.

Under the watchful eye of Coca-Cola, Ryan intros James, who is dressed like a hesher from The Matrix. In James’s Idol-pals-giving-him-the-business package, everyone pokes fun at James’s scarf tails.“Hey, James, your baby told me he wished you really did have a tail, because maybe then you’d be hunting down some food for him to eat,” nobody jokes, but I wish they would have. James will sing “Uprising” by Muse to show he’s contemporary. Was that an issue? Has anyone complained that James is too old-fashioned? As with Scotty, the judges have encouraged James to keep doing what he’s been doing, and people are voting for him, so why are we bothering with this pretense that he needs to show anyone anything? The song opens with a marching band drum squad — hey, has anyone ever done anything like this before? Anyone at all? It seems too inspired an innovation to be happening for the first time. I expect a lot of people will steal this idea, so I hope James mailed it to himself! For his performance, James has added a jacket that brings to mind Jack Skellington at Valley Forge. James, who knows how to add some dynamism to a song, lets his voice soar higher and higher and higher and fucking STOP IT!
JUDGES: Steve likes it! J.Lo thinks it’s (theatrically) the best performance of the night. Randy says he knows that Matt Bellamy from Muse sent James an e-mail, challenging James to up the octave of the song on the chorus, and James rose to that challenge!
ME: Okay, if all of these professionals are so in love with this kid, does he need to win it? Can he leave now and start his career tomorrow? What are we doing here anymore?

Package time! All the kids tease Haley for her growls and we are led to believe that Haley and Stefano have a love-hate relationship. Will they or won’t they, right? Make me interested in their off-stage existence, that is. The answer is no. They won’t. Haley will sing Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep.” Jimmy asks her what the song is really about, as if he’s some half-assed therapist. Although Haley looks lovely — yes, I will say it, that’s how much I’ve grown as a person since I started watching this show — she remains a rather awkward physical performer.
JUDGES: Steven likes it! J. Lo says there were moments when Haley made everyone forget Adele. Randy thinks Haley chose a perfect song for herself, and some sharpness on the choruses aside, it was a great performance.
ME: I thought Haley did a good job with this, and it was a good vehicle for all of her signature vocal tricks. And she looks nice. I never forgot Adele, though. Not even for a moment. Adele is never far from my thoughts.

Package me! The gang calls Jacob a diva. Jacob protests. I guess if anyone thinks Jacob a diva, it’s because that person is actually the diva. Jacob is going to sing some Luther Vandross. This is like Harry Potter covering Voldemort. (Are they friends in those books? I am not overly familiar with the Harry Potterverse.) Jacob will sing “Dance With My Father,” in honor of his dad, who passed away when he was twelve. Jacob gets choked up just rehearsing the song. Fucking great. I really, really wanted to make fun of him. Jacob starts the song and quickly removes his in-ear monitor. Is there a problem with the in-ear monitor? Where is Marc Anthony?! Are these things still under warranty?
JUDGES: Steven likes it! J Lo says it was a beautiful performance — emotionally. Randy thought it was good emotionally, but it didn’t make him jump up and down. He tells Jacob to “go for it.”
ME: I’m not so cold-blooded as to mock a guy with a dead dad singing a song about dead dads. But I am totally secure mocking the song and the arrangement. It’s all pretty schmaltzy. Granted, my dad is still alive, and if it had been a dead mom song, I might have been weeping uncontrollably. Jacob reveals there was a problem with the track playing behind him, and that’s why he had to abandon his in-ear monitor. I guess you’re off the hook, Marc Anthony. This time. But just know Jacob has kept his receipt and the original packaging, including the plastic twist ties that came wrapped around the cord.

Package, please! The kids all put on fake beards to josh Casey. Everyone except Jacob, who is not a diva (unrelated). I have to say, these kids are all really good at imitating each other. Maybe that should be the show: one month of establishing who they are as individuals, then one month of them mocking each other in clip packages. Oh, and it wouldn’t air on television and no one would have to write about it. Casey sings “Harder To Breathe” by Maroon 5, accompanying himself on guitar and pronouncing “unacceptable” as “unaccepti-bole.” Casey stalks around to touch hands with the people on the edge of the stage and does it like someone ordered him to do it; it brings to mind a sullen child marching to the car, unhappy that his destination is church. Casey does some Jack Black-ian vocal goofery towards the end, then walks right up to J Lo and sings right in her face. J. Lo turns away and Casey KISSES HER ON THE CHEEK. I actually exclaim, aloud, “WHAT?!” when this happens.
JUDGES: Steven likes it! J. Lo loves it. Randy loves that with Casey, it’s always about surprise, and he advises Casey to continue to keep taking chances, he loves it!
ME: Everyone in the studio loses their minds when Steven gushes that Casey is “so fucking good.” Luckily, the sound is dropped out, so America does not break into bits and sink into the sea. Hey, gang, can we get past casual swearing? As a society, I mean. Ryan walks out wearing the fake Casey beard from the joshing package. He congratulates Casey on kissing The Most Beautiful Woman in The World. Casey asks if Ryan will do it too, now that he’s got his beard, Ryan says, “There’s a joke there, but I’m not going to it.” Is Ryan Seacrest actually doing his own “Is Ryan Seacrest gay” jokes now? Casey rips the beard off Ryan’s face and Ryan jokingly complains that it hurts, asking, “This is what it feels like to be a man?” You go, girl.

Yes, I will sign for this package! The kids all tease Stefano for being a big flirt. It’s telling that this is a characteristic that is observed off screen and there is no definable characteristic about Stefano that we are all familiar enough with to appreciate the fun. Stefano will sing “Closer” by Ne-Yo, and when he rehearses, Jimmy Iovine suggests Stefano change up his physical performing style, pointing to what Stefano is currently doing and advising him to “Fuck that shit.” Stefano, backed by The Kates Bosworth, prowls the stage in the confident manner Jimmy Iovine recommended. Stefano also rips out his in-ear monitor! What is going on with these things? Do we need to sue Marc Anthony? Should there be an investigation? Will this turn into an Erin Brockovich situation?
JUDGES: Steven likes it! J. Lo, speaking for the girls in the audience, thinks it was very very good. Randy thought it would be bad, but it was good! This is what every performer wants to hear.
ME: Stefano’s outfit was kind of unfortunate this evening; it put me in mind of 1980s skinheads. And there has been something… I don’t know, just some thing about Stefano that has nagged at me since day one, and I’ve never been able to intellectualize what it is. Every time he’d come on the screen I knew there was something about him that I needed to identify and verbalize, but that just wouldn’t come to me. But tonight, I finally realize what it is: his uncanny resemblance to Tony Danza. At last my uneasy mind shall know peace.

There is a commercial for Kotex that is advertising maxi-pads with “cool” designs on them. The commercial implies that women have been longing for a fun-looking maxi-pad. I say this on behalf of all non-women: Sorry, women. Unless of course you really have been waiting for something like this. In which case… congratulations?

Back from the break, the lipstick mark on Steven’s face is explained — it came from his daughter, Mia. Oh, okay. I’d gone past the point of caring, but thanks.

Package package package! Everyone makes fun of Lauren’s accent and how much she talks! My wife gets in on the fun, saying, “If Lauren gets famous, she’s going to get addicted to drugs.” LOL! Lauren is going to sing “Born to Fly” by Sarah Evans. Jimmy Iovine wants to test Lauren, so he brings in Rock Mafia. Not the Rock Mafia test! It’s the kobayashi maru of singing contests! Jimmy discloses that Rock Mafia are, in fact, Miley Cyrus’s producers. When Jimmy reveals this, he smiles wickedly, and the rehearsal pianist actually plays a dramatic, silent-movie sting. So Iovine is clearly winning the legendary Iovine-Cyrus grudge match! He has bent Miley Cyrus’s lieutenants to his will! Lauren gets nervous and pulls back in front of this audience of two people. This is aaaaall according to Iovine’s plan to get Lauren past her own performance blocks. Will it work? We are about to find out!
fiddle guy Idol.jpgThe song kicks off with a guy from Game of Thrones playing fiddle, and it sounds like the next iteration of the Folgers jingle. I cannot tell if Lauren has overcome whatever problems I have only recently discovered she had, but I can tell that this is a boring performance. So then, maybe, no?
JUDGES: Steven… likes it? He wants to hear Lauren cover artists like Allison Krauss (interesting!) Faith Hill (far less so!) and Shania Twain (zzzzz!). J. Lo says Lauren is capable of more than Lauren thinks Lauren is and Lauren needs to cut loose! Randy agrees with J. Lo and tells Lauren that she (Lauren) can do anything!
ME: I guess it’s true that Lauren has gotten more and more timid as the show has gone on. I guess I am also grateful for that. In a strange way, she is acting more her age now than she was when the competition started. Kids acting older than they are always and forever bum me out. It’s not preciousness, per se; it’s when they seem to have skipped past childhood entirely. So the days that the judges are waxing nostalgic about, the days when Lauren would sing with Steven Tyler, I am happy to have behind us. The music business is a brutal industry and throwing children into it and telling them to stop acting like children is kinda gross IMHO (in my human opinion).

Aaaaaaaand there you go. After the refresher clips of all the performances are shown and we are exhorted to vote, the judges gush about how great all the contestants are, with Steven enthusing, “And you, Casey! God says all men are created equal? Only some are more equal than others!” First of all, God didn’t say all men are created equal. We said that. People. We attribute the creating itself to God. And the “some are more equal than others” part is from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. And it wasn’t meant to be positive, idiot. In closing, I would like to remind everyone that words mean things.

See you tomorrow for eliminations!

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

Photo: Michael Becker / FOX