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American Idol Recap: Paul F. Tompkins Sees the Light at the End of the Tunnel

Man! Home stretch! Feels good! And also like I’m not done! Maybe that’s how our final three have been feeling, cooped up in Hollywood all this time. As Seacrest foretold, the kids get to go home and rub everyone’s faces in it. All three of them are so excited to be going back to their hometowns. Watching them makes me yearn to go home, even though I am already there. That’s how much this show has worn me down. My home, which I am currently in, feels a million miles away. Not helping: The information that the contestants will be singing three songs each. I am two thirds dreading this. Oh, and it’s a two-hour show. It’s possible to sing nine songs in under 30 minutes, in case anyone was wondering. Next time, ask me first.

The judges are introduced. Steven Tyler has toned down his costumery and looks almost tasteful, for him. J.Lo looks amazing, like she has just arrived from a sexy funeral in the future. Randy is dressed like Mr. Weatherbee. In the audience, we see someone in a dog costume standing next to someone in an Elijah Wood costume.

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After doing some promotional research, I learned they were there to subtly (?) promote (?) their upcoming FX show, Wilfred. Too bad, because how great would it be to hear Ryan say, "Tonight's theme is music inspired by The Shining!"

Also, in the audience? A young girl from Anytown, USA, who just wants to express her gratitude to the Ford Motor Company.

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What explanation could there possibly be for this? This girl is that happy that an American company is sponsoring Idol? Had she heard about a possible deal with Fiat? “We fought those rats in WWII! It was bad enough that Pia’s name ended in a vowel!” At least the dude in the upper right corner has the common decency to sniff at this.

The big-deal music industry mentor this week is Beyoncé. The package that intros her is the longest and most produced yet. There is a brief moment where I think I’ve fallen asleep and missed the show, waking up to Beyoncé’s E! True Hollywood Story. You can imagine my disappointment once I realize this has not occurred. Some Beyoncé trivia, from Ryan’s voice-over: “She has smashed the common goal of becoming a triple threat two times over.” What? Wait. Let’s make sense of this. When you say becoming a triple threat is a common goal, are you saying this is a goal that most people share? Worldwide? Like, a lot of people say, “I want to own my own business,” and a lot of other people say, “I want to be known for being good at three things”? We’re agreed that a “triple threat” is someone who is equally talented at three things, right? So are you telling me that Beyoncé does six separate things at a very high skill level? It’s not that I doubt Beyoncé’s competence, it’s just that your sentence required more work than I expected to be responsible for while watching video clips of Beyoncé just walking around. Maybe I’m just in shock because our common, global goal has been smashed. More than once.

In rehearsal, Beyoncé says how much she loves Scotty, although she seems as blasé as someone can be when talking about loving someone. It’s the same level of excitement someone would demonstrate while declaring his or her love for the E-Trade baby. Plus, you can barely make out what she’s saying over the loud clanking of her bracelets. Look, all of us who talk with our hands have to make a choice at some point: continued expressiveness or loose, chunky jewelry. Beyoncé, it’s time to decide. Scotty sings Lone Star’s “Amazed.” Man, I am just bored to tears with this kid. I bet he’s nice, you know? I’m sure he’s a fine young man, and this is the kind of music he likes. But I am not onboard. And I don’t think I ever will be. I would be by now, right? If it was going to happen at all? I’ve been watching this kid since January, and he’s sung modern country almost exclusively (Lauren, too!), and I haven’t warmed up to it even a little. I think I’m immune. Maybe I should try singing it; maybe I’d like it better. Perhaps I’m just a carrier; a Typhoid Shania, if you will.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo loves that Scotty is using his vibrato, like she told him to do. Randy says when Scotty looks into the camera, “That’s money!” What refreshing honesty.
ME: I don't even know what to say about Scotty. Every performance, “Youngblood” aside, is just the same to me. Same tempo, the songs all sound alike … what else can I say? Slow and steady wins the race.

Lauren meets Beyoncé, and Beyoncé is the same strange combination of caring and bored she was with Scotty. She encourages Lauren to develop a stage alter ego to help deal with shyness and insecurities. The name “Sasha Fierce” is not mentioned, and I wonder if we’re all supposed to do the polite thing and forget that ever happened. Lauren sings “Wild One” by Faith Hill. It’s a sprightly tune, and, unfortunately, Lauren has trouble with fast songs. She never seems to have enough air or control to sing the end of a word that completes a lyric before starting the next line in the song. It’s more of the kind of country I don’t listen to or enjoy. I wish I liked everything. But I don’t! But guess who does.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says Lauren attacked it and that’s what she had to do and it was very good! Randy says when Lauren lets herself go she’s at her best, “so good luck with that.” He really does say that. Wow.
ME: As I have with Scotty’s, I think I’ve said all I can say about Lauren’s performances. There are only so many ways I can tell you that I’m bored. And they’ve still got two songs left. Each. That’s a quadruple threat that is smashing my common goal of not watching them sing anymore.

When Beyoncé says that Haley is going to sing “What Is and What Should Never Be” by Led Zeppelin, I laugh out loud. Like, from my very soul, this bark of joy comes out of me. I don’t even care that much about Led Zeppelin. This is just different. I also laugh because the first time I ever saw a bong, the dirtbag who owned it said, “Its name is ‘What Is and What Should Never Be,’” and I had no idea what he was talking about or that people named bongs. It would be years before I got into and then out of Led Zeppelin. I haven’t thought of that story since. Haley, I love you. The moment she starts, I laugh with joy again, for real! I am thrilled that she is singing this song. She is accompanied not by Idol’s in-house “Six-String Strangler,” but by her own father. It is a great moment. Having said that, I am fully aware I would not be enjoying this moment if I hadn’t been watching this whole miserable season from day miserable one. It’s like when there’s a nice day in New York: The residents are fooled into thinking that it’s a magical occurrence that could only happen in the enchanted hamlet of Manhattan, when really, it’s so awful there day in and day out that only those who live through the default misery can ascribe deep magic to what is really just, y’know, a nice day. Haley marches down to the judges and sings to them, at them, all around them. Then, on her way back up to the stage, she trips and almost wipes out. She recovers amazingly well and hardly misses a beat in the song. Why is there not a ramp instead of those stairs? I bet Beyoncé could tell you this would be a good idea. Even with that literal stumble, Haley really comes alive physically while singing this song, in a way she hasn’t before. Her dad shreds. At the end of her performance, Randy is the only judge to stand. He gives her a Randing ovation.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo commends Haley for persevering, noting that everyone falls onstage at some point. Why, even J.Lo herself, J.Lo herself reveals, recently had the sound go out at one of her very own concerts, in front of 20,000 people. The best you can do is keep going, and that’s what Haley did. Randy says this was one of her best performances and informs Ryan that Haley is in it to win it.
ME: I liked Haley’s performance. Anyway, Ryan reveals he was there when the sound went out at J.Lo’s concert, and when it did, J.Lo’s reaction was to smile sweetly and say, “Somebody’s getting fired.” J.Lo laughs. This story makes her less attractive to me, but only somewhat. Ryan asks Haley to excuse herself so he can talk to the judges in confidence. As Haley exits, she further endears herself to me by saying “See yas.”

Ryan asks who won the first round, and the judges are unanimous: Haley. I agree, but no one cares what I think.

Back from the break, we get another glimpse of the dog costume and Elijah Wood. I am hoping that Ryan does not chat with these guys at all. It’s not so much that it's an annoying promotional "stunt" so much as I know how awkward Ryan will be at trying to be clever in the situation. “So. Shouldn’t you be watching the show from next to a fire hydrant because of you’re a dog? And Lord of the Rings in there somewhere?”

Before Scotty’s second song, we take a look at his audition from way back when. Ah, a chance to revisit the magic of “Baby lock them doors and turn the lights down low,” the song with no title. I forgot how short Scotty’s hair was, as if there’d just been a lice scare at his school, and wouldn’t you know it, the day before American Idol auditions! Producers, good call on making Scotty grow his hair out. He looked like someone being court-martialed for the Mai Lai Massacre.

Jimmy Iovine had nothing better to do and is picking the songs for the next round. I believe it was Spider-Man’s uncle who said, Power corrupts, absolute power chooses bad songs. For Scotty, Jimmy has selected “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not” by Thompson Square. It’s a modern country song, are you familiar with this genre of music? Jimmy is thrilled to hear Scotty sing this, Scotty is beyond thrilled to sing it, I am thrilled that computers also do things like allow you to check your e-mail whenever you want. Like, say, during a boring performance of a boring song. Jimmy “project drops” the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album Damn the Torpedoes, which he produced and which he claims is similar in feeling to this song that I am about to half pay attention to. Even before I’ve heard the first note, I know this is crazy. And I’m right. As soon as Scotty starts singing, it’s another bland, non-threatening country song. Fine. I will check my e-mail. I don’t have to live like a refugee. From what I can hear, Scotty sings the song and it is going great guns!

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo commands Scotty to remember that feeling of being in the zone! Randy says tonight Scotty approached a Garth level! At Randy’s prompting, Ryan guesses correctly that Randy feels Scotty is in it to win it.
ME: J.Lo requests that Scotty shave his head again for the finale. “Am I only one who loved him with that short hair?” he asks. Well, loathe as I am to answer a question with a question, HOW DO YOU KNOW HE’S IN THE FINALE, J.LO? I mean, of course he is. And he is most likely going to win. But are we abandoning the pretense, now? Can we wrap this up early? I’d love to have tomorrow off.

Next, we’re treated to Lauren’s first audition. I completely forgot that she had a friend with her who used to have cancer or something. Did we ever see that person again? Or did she accomplish her human-interest mission for Lauren and skedaddle? Jimmy picks “If I Die Young” by Perry for Lauren, and reveals that since he met her he’s wanted her to sing his song. At last, Jimmy Iovine has his way! You’ll never get to sing this song, Miley Cyrus! Lauren starts singing, and I realize I’ve heard this song before but never really paid attention to the lyrics. It turns out that title isn’t fooling around. This is a song about a young person dictating a living will. Now, the creepy part isn’t Jimmy Iovine making a teenager sing this song. The creepy part is telling that teenager, "Ever since I met you I wanted you to sing this song." Lauren’s singing the song prettily enough, but she stops singing at one point. I’m not sure if she drops some lyrics or misses a key change or what. Mostly I notice that her performance of the song doesn’t really match the emotion of the song. She’s a little too smiley. I realize now that she has been smiling for every song, no matter what. It’s good to mix it up a little, you know? Like if you’re singing burial instructions.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says Lauren has the most beautiful tone of all the finalists and felt her honest moment. Randy says it was great when Lauren missed the modulation and recovered. I guess that’s what happened. An honest moment caused Lauren to miss a modulation. Thus, we discover yet another drawback to honesty.
ME: I believe I’ve covered Lauren. And really, even the judges are so reserved in their praise of her. There’s a real “dead man walking” vibe surrounding Lauren that’s becoming downright unpleasant to witness.

Next we get to revisit Haley’s audition. She has actually changed the least in terms of appearance but the most in terms of performance. I was so unforgiving of what she did early on — all the runs and show-offy stuff — but now that I see it in the context of the audition, I understand it better. And maybe a lot of the other contestants better as well, God help me. I will concede that it’s maybe not a bad strategy to try to show every single thing you’re capable of when the audition entails singing a cappella for an audience of three. I still don’t like the music, so that’s as far as I can go. Speaking of music again, Jimmy Iovine has chosen “Rhiannon” by Fleetwood Mac for Haley. Haley likes this, and she and Jimmy chat for a moment about I don’t remember what. Haley gets up to leave and attempts to high-five Jimmy, but Jimmy goes in for a hug. When they part, there is an excruciating moment where Haley leaves and Jimmy awkwardly sits back down in his director’s chair. Thankfully we cut back to the studio before we can see Jimmy heave a huge defeated sigh. Haley’s "Rhiannon" starts out slow but quickly picks up. Someone has the good sense to turn on a huge fan and a fog machine, and off we go, into the production-value STRATOSPHERE! The low notes are really low, and I have always felt this to be Haley’s Achilles' heel. They probably should have taken it up a half-step. That’s music talk. You think I don’t know anything about this shit? I do. I’ve known the whole time. I just Sixth Sensed you.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo thought it was a beautiful moment but Haley could have taken it even further. Randy thinks Haley did a good job with it and that Haley is in the zone!
ME: It’s just fine. Just a little bit of a letdown after the Zeppelin song. I am willing to blame Jimmy Iovine. For most anything! Let me know what you’d like to blame Jimmy Iovine for, readers! Let’s see if we can’t make that guy our National Scapegoat!

Ryan shoos Haley away so he can ask the judges who won round two. Steven says Lauren. J.Lo and Randy say Scotty. Ryan asks Jimmy, who’s in the audience next to Neil Sedaka, who’s wearing a somber-patterned Cosby sweater. Jimmy says Scotty transformed into a rock-country star tonight, as if Garth Brooks and Bruce Springsteen had a baby. Hmmm. I had a hard enough time granting that one song any similarity to something in the realm of Tom Petty; it’s an exponentially more difficult task detecting any traces of Springsteen in Scotty. I guess they’ve both worn denim jackets. Then we must also acknowledge the equally obvious influence on Scotty of the Reverend Jim Ignatowski. Ryan introduces Mr. Sedaka, who is from a classic school of show business that teaches when you are introduced, you stand up and blow kisses. As the crowd dutifully cheers, my wife says, “Those kids don’t know who he is. I barely know who he is.”

Oh! Everyone! It’s time for the world premiere of Beyoncé’s video “Run the World (Girls).” Or, as Ryan delivers the title, “Run the World, Girls.” Clever, Ryan. By ordering the girls to run the world, you maintain male dominance. These videos. Why do they bother with this “world premiere” hype? It’s just airing on TV. And I’ll bet you were able to see this thing online for a week before this special event we’re supposed to feel privileged to “attend.” Ryan goes on to say that the full version is at Beyoncé’s website. So we’re world premiering … a clip? That’s not a premiere, that’s a commercial. For something that’s essentially already a commercial. Oh, and if you do want to see the rest of that video, you better know how to type an accent aigu or you will be attending the world premiere of “404 Not Found.”

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Here’s what we get to see of the video: Beyoncé rides a horse through Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. A lion is hanging around Mad Max–ily. A roving band of non-girls confronts Beyoncé in her postapocalyptic under-bridge lair. Beyoncé and some underlings do an urban Riverdance at them for a while. Then we see quick cuts of Beyoncé in a bunch of different outfits, dancing about running the world. Then the video abruptly fades out and we cut to a commercial even more abruptly. This is television at its shoddiest.

Back from the break, it’s at last time for round three. We see Scotty back home, visiting the gang at his old grocery-store job, when suddenly he gets a text message “from the judges.” It’s kind of sad they share a phone, but maybe they made bad investments in the past and they’re getting by the best they can. Scotty, reading the text from his luxurious private cell phone, is informed that he is being drafted to sing “She Believes in Me" by Kenny Rogers. No sooner does he reveal this then there he is in the studio, singing “She Believes In Me” by Kenny Rogers. As he begins, I think, Oh yeah, I remember this one. It’s pretty boring. And now that J.Lo has called attention to Scotty’s vibrato, I notice that his vibrato is actually not so good! But he’s doing it, J.Lo. Guess it remains to be seen if your will is strong enough to make him shave his head.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says they picked that song because they wondered if he could hit that chorus, and she guesses he showed them! Randy says this is what it’s all about at this point: Scotty stretching out of his comfort zone.
ME: Kenny Rogers is kind of a low-impact singer, right? When you hear Kenny Rogers sing, you don’t find yourself saying, THE SHEER POWER! How is this a stretch for Scotty? It’s not a stretch for anyone. Scotty’s dad is (a) in the audience and (b) proud of his son. Ryan makes Scotty’s dad sing “Baby lock them doors and turn the lights down low,” Clan McCreery’s family tartan of a song.

Lauren’s in her hometown in front of an AT&T store when she gets the fateful text. The judges have put all their thumbs together to ask Lauren to sing “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack. Lauren asks the throng before her if she sang such a song, would they not be entertained? The members of the mob all roar their approval, blood in their mouths! Now we’re in the studio and, oh yes, the Game of Thrones Fiddler is back. Lauren sings this song that is like a card your grandma would give you for graduation. The songs Lauren sings are a real drag. Here’s a line for you: “May you never take one single breath for granted.” Fucking come on. Life is hard enough without feeling guilt over breathing. Lauren sings this blandly scolding song nicely enough. The end. Of my caring.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says Lauren gave her “goosies from head to toe.” Randy drops that he and Lee Ann Womack are good friends and then eventually gets around to quietly telling Ryan that Lauren is in it to win it.
ME: Steven has to mention that he also is good friends with Lee Ann Womack. You’d think if these guys were such palsy-walsies with Lee Ann they’d have seen each other at her house for a cookout or something. I call bullshit. I bet Lee Ann couldn’t pick these two out of a lineup.

Haley’s text comes to her as Our Lord Jesus Christ will come to Earth this Saturday: in a town car in Chicago. The judges are pushing the limits of their texting allowance to force Haley to sing Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know.” Haley seems okay with this. Her attitude seems to be, I get why they want me to do this, but it wouldn’t be my first choice, necessarily. Back in the studio you don’t have to wait long to see how they’re going to handle the line about going down on someone in a theater. I don’t know how “perverted” it is to go out with someone to a theater, unless you consider that theater is a dead art form and then maybe it’s a necrophilia angle? Again, the low notes are pretty low here, even lower than “Rhiannon,” but when it gets loud, Haley wails pretty well. And then I understand Haley’s town-car reaction: Not my favorite, but I can see how it’s a good choice for her on this show. Haley makes the most of it, running up to the judges and singing to them, almost like she’s making fun if it a little. I may be projecting. Ultimately, though, the number never really takes off, and I wonder how much that had to do with the song’s arrangement. I also wonder if I am losing perspective on Haley and life in general.

JUDGES: Steven likes it! J.Lo says it was a really good job, especially the choruses. Randy cries, “Haley is in it to win it!” Still!
ME: I’m so glad she did that Zeppelin song.

Ryan checks in one final time: Who won round three? Steven says Haley. J.Lo and Randy say Lauren, but I’m afraid this validation is a parting gift. I think Lauren will go home tomorrow night. I hope Lauren will go home tomorrow night.

I need Lauren to go home tomorrow night. In order to get through two long evenings of television next week, I need a 16-year-old girl’s dreams to be crushed. If I’m out of line, just tell me.

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