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American Idol Recap: The Competition Starts NOW?

AMERICAN IDOL: Angie Miller performs on AMERICAN IDOL airing Wednesday, March 13 (8:00-10:00 PM ET/PT) on FOX.

American Idol, you have made some bold choices tonight, and they’re either really going to work, or this ratings freefall is about to become a national incident.

First, the show begins by telling us THE COMPETITION STARTS NOW. Though technically true, this seems to me like an explicit admission that Idol has been straight jerking us around for the last eight weeks. This show is only now starting to resemble the show you picture when you think of American Idol, and it is the middle of March. This season began in the dead of winter, and now in parts of the country it is light outside when an episode starts. That’s a long windup, and now that they’ve finally pitched the damn ball, it feels both sudden and long overdue.

Second, tonight’s theme is “Songs From the American Idols,” which is now apparently a genre unto itself. This worries me; the last six or so Idol winners have sailed by more on charm than on vocal ability, and since none of the top ten has the easy magnetism of a Phillip Phillips (or even a David Cook), I fear we’re going to be stuck with a night of mawkish ballads. (And indeed, except for one country song Scotty McCreery tried out in season ten, all the songs are from Jordin Sparks and before.) It’s like Idol is desperate to convince us that things can be like they used to, and hasn’t noticed that we’ve all moved on.

Also, Nicki is late, so the show begins with only three judges. Ryan informs us that she’s stuck in traffic on the 405, and Randy hollers, “I thought it was the 101 HA HA HA.” Yes, Randy: The 405 and the 101 are both popular freeways in the Los Angeles area. Are you aware that you don’t have to be a part of every conversation? Here’s a bit of advice: If Nicki is not there, don’t start the show. Turn it into some kind of telethon until she shows up. Raise money to widen Los Angeles’s freeways.

(At the very mention of Nicki’s name, Mariah goes all stone-faced and stares off into the middle distance. You have got to loosen up about this whole thing, Carey.)

Curtis Finch Jr. kicks us off. Boy, is this guy a suck-up. He beams with a teacher’s-pet smile at all times, which gives him all the grown-up sexual appeal of the happy little Mandarin orange on a box of Cuties. He does Fantasia’s “I Believe,” her season-three victory song, which of course he does. It’s all very overrehearsed and tricky. The judges love it. I get bored immediately.

Janelle Arthur is aggressively folksy. She is, like, charming at you. On the upside, she’s finally showing off the Zumba instructor body a little bit in her performance of Montgomery Gentry’s “Gone.” It’s exactly like the kind of thing you’d see on one of the three country music awards shows that happen each month, and it’s served with the tiniest little taste spoon of sass. The kind of sass that’s like, “Hello, I am sass. Do you mind that I am here?” The judges don’t love the song. I don’t care, and neither should Janelle, as she’s already up for seven Country Music Association Awards, including Entertainer of the Year.

Here’s a theory I just made up: Because Idol forced us and the judges to make such massive cuts all at once, the only people who have survived are the overly ingratiating types. In past years, we’d get to know a top twenty, and vote the bottom off a bit at a time. This year, we spared the top half over and over, we only kept the people who made impressions with their too-wide smiles and their too-sad stories, and now we have a very nice, very dull top ten.

Devin Velez is the poster boy for this year’s very dull top ten. Though tonight he wears big scarves and raves that Jimmy Iovine has worked with Madonna and Lady Gaga. This not only provides circumstantial evidence that he’s gay (and he was the only one of the boys I suspected might be straight), it proves he has no sense of history. Saying Jimmy Iovine is significant because he worked with Madonna and Lady Gaga is like saying Steven Spielberg is important because he directed Vin Diesel. Anyway, he does “Temporary Home,” which I guess is a Carrie Underwood song. Bold move! Fewer places for him to go Spanglish! It’s about a foster kid, so you kind of can’t hate it, though I know we all put in our best effort. Keith doesn’t like it, Nicki does, Randy says words, Mariah sighs and looks at whichever of her minions is just off camera right.

Angie Miller tries “I Surrender,” with which Kelly Clarkson pulled ahead of the pack in season one. One important facet of season one is that we weren’t yet super fatigued with these kinds of shows. But anyway, it’s now now and we are, and I’m literally fighting to stay awake, even though she does a perfectly competent job. She’s not the powerhouse that Kelly is, but she’s got a talent that’s all her own, plus undeniable charm. Nicki tells her, “Your legs are giving me everything I needed in life.” I want to hang out with Nicki so much, you guys.

Ryan tells us that Paul Jolley is going to channel his sensitive side. That’s a little like Randy Jackson channeling his bellowing jackass side, or Mariah Carey channeling the right side of her face. We have seen it, is what I’m saying. Jimmy Iovine tries to warn him not to oversing, which is a valid piece of advice, but he starts it like this: “You know how when you see a Broadway show ... ” and Paul immediately says, “YES.” Like Jimmy was trying to engage him in a conversation about Sunday in the Park With George. (He wasn’t.) (Oh, also his advice is bullshit, because the charts are full of oversingers and have been since the arrival of one Mariah Carey.)

Paul sings Lonestar’s “Amazed” and takes Jimmy’s advice against oversinging by singing more quietly, which is not the opposite. Nicki says, “This is the first time you’ve stimulated my sexual appetite,” which is kind of what I was thinking. Randy counters just the way you knew he would: “HA HA I’m not going to talk about the sexuality HA HA.” Do you get it? Because he’s a boy and so is Paul, so there’s no sexuality there? Do you get it?

Candice Glover does “I (Who Have Nothing)” and gives it a much livelier arrangement than we’re used to hearing (and we have heard this song at least once a year). It’s obviously supergreat. Nicki hits it on the head: “It would be in everyone’s best interest to never perform that song again, because you just destroyed and annihilated.” Randy says he can tell when all the judges are into it: “Keith is moving in his chair, Nicki’s smiling, Mariah’s eyes are closed,” and at the Mariah line, Nicki and Keith look at each other and giggle. Can we deploy an investigative reporter to the Idol set, please? I want to know what’s going on here.

Lazaro stutters. Did you know that? It’s true. Did you also know what should be a stutterer’s best friend? AN EDITOR. Given that these intro packages are heavily edited, it might be time to start saving this kid’s bacon. He does Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway.” You can barely hear him. He also sweats like he’s in a Turkish bath. Afterward, Keith asks Lazaro why he chose the song, and of course, Lazaro TELLS HIM. It’s not a short story. And the poor kid is left to twist in the wind, stammering out his answer for what seems like an hour. It’s a curious thing: I am on his side, though I’m not crazy about his singing voice, and I admire his pluck for overcoming his speech impediment, but ... can we get the kid a dry-erase board? The rest of the judges are equally lukewarm on it.

And then there’s Kree. Kree solves everything! She is now being styled for the first time, which explains the Suze Orman jacket as she sings Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” and the whole thing is sexier than it has any reason to be. The judges love it. Nicki gives us an extended syrup metaphor that is the best thing on television tonight by far: “You know how sometimes you want a waffle, but you have to put that Aunt Jemima syrup in the microwave and get it nice and warm? That’s your voice.” So of course Randy has to be involved: “WHAT KIND OF SYRUP IS IT HA HA HA.” God dammit, dude.

Burnell does Ruben Studdard’s victory song “Flying Without Wings,” and although his tone is unique and totally appealing, all I can think of is how wack these victory songs used to be. Jimmy warns him not to do too many R&B ballads, but again, in a Miguel and Trey Songz world, that’s bullshit advice. He is great! This song is not. Judges = pro-Burnell.

Amber Holcomb is in the Pimp Spot with her version of “A Moment Like This,” which is a terrible song and you can’t tell me it isn’t. But I’ll be damned if Amber doesn’t make it sound like a standard. Nicki calls it the best performance of the night, and that it is “giving [her] Whitney.” Mariah says “HASHTAG POW,” just like that, all out loud and everything. Amber’s stepmother runs onstage to give her an early birthday gift, and just as the two of them embrace, Ryan murmurs, “I LOVE YOU,” to both of them or nobody or himself. And then I turn off my television, because this is starting to feel like a health risk.

Tomorrow, one person must be sent home! I think it should be Lazaro, but I get the feeling it’ll be Curtis. I know it will take 5,000 years. Your thoughts? Lay your picks on me in the comments!

Photo: Ray Mickshaw/FOX