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American Idol Recap: Darling Nicki

AMERICAN IDOL: Drama and desperation escalate behind the scenes as the pressure mounts during the intense "Hollywood Rounds" which kick off with the guys, competing on Wednesday, Feb. 6 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) and Thursday, Feb. 7 (8:00-9:00 PM ET/PT). The girls get their chance to win over the judges beginning Wednesday, Feb. 13 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT)

It’s solo day! (Again.) The most important day of Hollywood Week! (Unlike the first solo day, which was the most intense, or group day, which was the most grueling. Like students in a small-town high school, each day of Hollywood Week gets its own superlative.) It’s their final shot! (Until their next shot, and the shots after that, and the eleven more shots that await them if they make the top twelve. It’s possible that Idol’s writers are Red Bulled up and in a hurry.)

Definitely feeling the manufactured pressure is Paul Jolley, who’s pacing and sweating and futzing backstage. He hits the stage for his final shot on his most important day and just lets it all out like he’s in group therapy: “I’m so nervous. I want this so bad. I’ve worked so hard.” He finally gets around to singing, and his version of “Blown Away” is actually pretty impressive. Dude’s got a big, belty voice, and if country music is looking for a show-tune-y kind of guy, he’s it. And then Nicki demonstrates why this season needs her so badly: “Jolly, you came out so defeated ... and that really irritated me. It was such a turnoff. Just give us one minute of professionalism.” Let’s contrast this with Randy’s advice when Paul said he was nervous: “Just walk around.” Season twelve of American Idol would be lost without Nicki Minaj. Double what you’re paying her and make Mariah fetch her Cokes.

I will point out here that Ms. Minaj is dressed like the club-kid little sister of Ms. Frizzle from The Magic School Bus.

Lazaro Arbos continues to do his thing, which you’ve seen by now. He’s got a nice voice, but its major feature is not stuttering, and I’m beginning to wonder whether that will continue to be enough. He sings Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory,” and his physical affect is very gay-cruise-magician. I’d like to see him take on Phil Collins’s “Sussudio”; would that be too on-the-nose? Anyway, he makes it to the next round.

You know what Curtis Finch Jr. is? He is eager to please. Ingratiating. Occasionally unctuous. He is determined to charm his way into the top twelve, and I’d bet on him doing it. Here’s how charming he is: His version of “Jar of Hearts” doesn’t make me fall asleep and wake up with a long, white beard. Well done. Through.

Eighteen-year-old Devin Velez jizzes all over “What a Wonderful World,” and Randy and Mariah can’t stop shaking their heads and making noises like they’re eating something yummy. Listen: It’s not that I don’t like runs, it’s that I don’t like these runs. They’re some generic-ass, karaoke-night, two-voice-lessons runs. (Also, I don’t like runs. Just sing the song.) Calling all Devin Velez runs — there is a new announcement: You’re basic. Needless to say, he’s in.

Gurpreet Singh Serin, who I have decided to stop calling the Turbanator because it’s probably racist and definitely wack, does a soulful take on “Georgia on My Mind,” Cortez Shaw oversings “Sunny,” and then it’s time for Matheus Fernandes to remind us that he’s tiny. Oh, he hits the stage and does the “I’m 22 ... not 10” joke that he’s already done at least three times, and reminds us about his struggles and his inner strength, and sings Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” because of its relevance to his size, and it’s shaky and off-key, and then it’s time for another installment of Truth Corner With Nicki Minaj. “Sometimes things go from being inspiring to becoming you wanting a pity party. And once you’re great, we don’t even notice your height. You don’t have to bring it up anymore.” This is crucial advice, delivered with the precision of a sniper. Too bad we won’t get to see him take it, as he’s out. Gurpreet and Cortez: in.

Ryan tells us, “No one has more at stake than Nick Mathis.” This show is piling on the specious superlatives tonight. And indeed, there is much for him to fight for: He has two young children, a picture of whom he shows to Ryan. Ry puts his hand on Nick’s shoulder and says, “They’ll carry you through, man,” and then I go into my shower and scrub my body like Meryl Streep in Silkwood. Anyway, Nick kind of biffs it a little; the key keeps changing, he gets out of breath, it looks like it might be curtains. 

Papa Peachez says that “most people who try out for American Idol are more or less puppets, but I’ve got my own thing going on.” Peachez’s own thing is being a flat singer who looks like a Berlin drag queen dressed as Jenna Elfman. His take on Gaga’s “You and I” is utterly lifeless, and Nicki lets him have it: “I’m pretty sure that your flame is now completely burnt out.” I’d argue that there never was a flame in the first place, but maybe you had to be there.

Jimmy Smith, who is almost handsome but somehow is not handsome — it’s like all of the ingredients are there, but it’s not fully cooked yet — sings “Landslide” and does it well, and I will have much more time to figure out why his face doesn’t work, because he’s through to the next round, and Nick and Peachez are going home. Nick snaps, “Get that camera out my face,” like so many before him. Maybe people don’t understand how television works, so I’ll explain: It involves cameras in your face. Welcome them.

Also through: Nick Boddington, who does a lovely take on Grace Potter’s “Stars”; Burnell Taylor and Marvin Calderon, both of whom sing Christina Perri’s “Jar of Hearts”; and Johnny Keyser, who we don’t know what he sang, but he’s hot.

The presence of Charlie Askew in this competition — this endearing weirdo in a sea of polished, show-choir hackery — is like a smaller version of when Beck showed up on the radio in 1993. I sort of can’t tell what’s going on, and I like it. He does a cabaret-ish intro to “Somebody That I Used to Know,” about the rainbow-head girl who showed up to the first with him, and Simon would have hated it, but he’s too busy trying to coax a nervous breakdown out of Britney Spears, so Charlie is through. Nicki says, very plainly: “I’m going to eat him.” America is about to catch a case of Charlie Askew Syndrome.

And then we kind of speed through some judgments, because this is just a one-hour show and suddenly we’re in a great big hurry. JDA is through and for some reason wearing a funeral shroud. Mathenee Treco, who never gets enough screen time: THROUGH! Not through: rock shouter Gabe Brown, li’l sweetie Sanni M’Muriena, and child-of-deaf-parents Nate Tao. Finally, mouth-nerve-deficient Micah Johnson, who sings a curiously snoozy Randy Travis song. He seems to have aimed his audition at Keith Urban, when it’s obviously Nicki who’s drunk-driving the bus here. And indeed, he doesn’t make it. It’s a little bit sad, but I’m taking on kind of a Debbie Allen–in-Fame attitude about the whole thing. You got big dreams, people? You’d best bring it. I’m tapping my cane against the floor and drinking whiskey. We’re tough bitches, Nicki and Debbie and me.

AND THEN THERE IS A SHOCKING TWIST. All 28 of the remaining boys are called back on stage to be told that ... eventually they will be whittled down to 20. Which I think they knew. Do they also know that only one person will eventually win this thing? Is that too shocking to reveal just now?

Next week: The ladies face Hollywood Week, with probably 80 percent fewer tears and 250 percent more Christina Perri.