There may have been a seizure-inducing new set with more flashing blue lights than a K-Mart on the first-ever top-13 performance show Tuesday on “American Idol,” but one thing stayed exactly the same: Adam Lambert, Danny Gokey and Lil Rounds killed it.
The three top contenders for this year’s “Idol” crown didn’t disappoint, each delivering a unique, totally different take on the night’s theme: the catalog of King of Pop Michael Jackson. You could tell some things were going to be a bit different, though, from the opening moments. For the first time, the four hosts were announced onto the stage and walked out shoulder-to-shoulder, with Paula Abdul doing her best hip-swiveling model walk down to the judges’ pit.
Host Ryan Seacrest was next, bouncing down the long center staircase and teasing Simon Cowell, “You are loving that.” Also different? At the top of the show, Cowell announced that because of the added contestant this year, two singers would be sent home on Wednesday night (March 11).
Then, at the end of the show, Ryan announced that there was going to be a surprise change unveiled on this week’s results program. Simon said the public might not like this change, and Seacrest added that it “kind of changed the entire theme and concept of the show.” Immediate speculation centered on the possibility that the two lowest vote-getters would have to sing for their survival, with one getting a lifeline from the judges.
But on to the performances …
First up was Lil Rounds, who chose the slinky “The Way You Make Me Feel,” putting her Aretha Franklin soul grit onto the lightweight pop tune. Randy Jackson liked her bluesy vibe. Kara DioGuardi warned the rest of the contestants to watch out and said she hoped to hear Rounds on the radio someday. The solid start was marred by Simon, who said he thought the song choice was a bit lazy and critiqued Rounds’ white pants and ruffled, champagne-colored one-shoulder top.
Ryan reiterated several times that the 13th contestant would have a “special” phone number. That’s because the IDOLS13 number “Idol” would have used for the first-ever 13th slot is otherwise occupied — by a phone sex line.
Fellow front-runner Danny Gokey gave “P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)” a shot, slowing down the intro to the song into a fireside ballad and then bursting out into a funk groove. He punched the air and stomped his way across the front of the stage as he gave the song a raucous gospel flair that got three of the four judges out of their seats dancing.
“The true mark of an artist is when you can hear somebody and know exactly who they are,” Paula said, predicting Gokey was already on his way to the finals. Simon said the vocals were “brilliant,” comparing his white-guy soul to Michael McDonald, but docking him some points for his “hideous” dancing.
Adam Lambert has emerged as the one to beat, and the Michael Jackson fan and musical-theater veteran leaned heavily on his falsetto for the funky “Black or White.” His way-amped performance gave the song a “Rocky Horror Picture Show”-meets-’80s-hair-metal vibe that once again blew the judges away.
“Never in the history of ‘American Idol,’ have we … seen someone so comfortable, seasoned on the stage. … You’ve got the whole package,” Paula said, bringing tears to Lambert’s eyes.
“That was, to me, in a totally different league to everything else we’ve seen and heard tonight,” Simon said, praising Lambert’s ability to do an original take on Jackson and not be afraid to go over-the-top with it. Kara said it was so good she hoped MJ was watching the show.
As for the rest, Scott MacIntyre was back where he’s most comfortable, behind a piano, for Jackson’s inspirational but obscure ballad “Keep the Faith.” He gave the song a Ben Folds-like bounce, and Kara was glad to see him back at a keyboard singing a song with a hopeful message that fits his inspirational story. Simon said he hated the song because nobody knows it and told Scott to be artistic, “but not on this show.”
Texas roughneck oil-rigger Michael Sarver brought out his sensitive side with the big-screen weeper “You Are Not Alone,” standing center stage and putting some soulful gospel fire into the tune. Simon said that despite not being the best singer in the competition, he made up for it with “passion, heart” and effort.
Jasmine Murray, 17, went with the Jackson 5 classic “I’ll Be There,” wowing the crowd with the strength and clarity of her voice. Randy couldn’t help but notice that Murray did a nice job mixing the Jackson version and the Mariah Carey cover (did he mention that he worked on it?). Kara said Murray really sold it with her great stage presence. Simon called it a good attempt that was a bit robotic at times and once again urged her to lighten up and act her age, not “like a little girl acting like a grown-up.”
The first and only guitar of the night was strapped to Kris Allen, who strummed his way through “Remember the Time,” giving the sharp-edged song some softer, blue-eyed soul vibes à la Jason Mraz. “One thing’s for sure, the girls love you,” Kara said over the squeals of the ladies in the crowd. Paula called him “adorable sexy,” while Simon thought the song didn’t really suit the guitar, which made it clumsy.
This year’s youngest contestant, 16-year-old Allison Iraheta, chose the fairly obscure “Give in to Me,” rocking it up with her signature growl to give it a Pink-like edge. Paula called her a rock star, and Simon admired her confidence, saying it was clear she knows what kind of artist she wants to be. Randy predicted that Iraheta was the one to watch in the competition.
Anoop Desai took a major risk by choosing the iconic “Beat It,” popping the collar on his gray jacket and rocking a bit of a sneer as he strutted defiantly across the stage. Paula uncharacteristically brought some bad news, calling the song “untouchable” and said anything else sounds karaoke. Simon said it was plain horrible, adding that “it was all very lightweight. It actually looked a bit stupid … like someone trying to be Michael Jackson and failing.”
Puerto Rico’s Jorge Nuñez also went with the Jackson 5, dipping into the disco-ball smoothie “Never Can Say Goodbye.” Sounding a bit like Diana Ross with a frog in her throat, he brought a smiling, sunny vibe to the melancholy song of yearning. Randy said it was a bit too old-fashioned, and Simon agreed.
Unlike so many of this year’s performers, Megan Joy Corkrey said she’d never really sung in public before auditioning for the show. But you would have never guessed it from her throwback ’50s, malt-shop take on the Jackson 5’s “Rockin’ Robin,” during which she growled and squeaked adorably while adding a few more shakes and shimmies to her signature dance, as well as a crow call at the end. “You have a way of putting your signature on everything you touch,” Kara said. Simon was not so kind, lashing her for her “stupid” song choice, tepid and “ridiculous” vocals, and an overall awkward performance.
Matt Giraud went the ballad route, sitting at a grand piano for the candlelight slow burner “Human Nature,” once again channeling Justin Timberlake, down to the stubbly beard and silky-smooth falsetto runs. Randy praised his Thicke/Timberlake style. Simon said it was good, albeit “meat and potatoes” compared to Lambert’s throwdown, which came just before him.
The night ended with Alexis Grace, the 21-year-old Memphis belle who stepped up to “Dirty Diana,” initially rushing the lyrics, but then settling into a sandpaper-and-silk Tina Turner power vocal with a gospel edge. “You’re back!” Kara said, adding, “You’re a naughty girl, and I liked it.” Paula warned her to watch the over-singing. Simon said it was a bit over-the-top and not as good as she might have thought. Of course, as the unlucky 13th contestant, Grace also faced the extra hurdle of the awkward IDOLS36 phone number. If she gets the boot on Wednesday, get ready for her supporters to blame it on a phone snafu. By Gil Kaufman