It's been a grueling (and often annoying) audition tour, but American Idol has finally made it to Hollywood week. So everything's going to be better, right? Guess again. The night's big positive, however, was Ellen DeGeneres, who made her debut at the judging table. How did she do, and which singers are still in the competition after the first round of hell week? Plus: How was Paula Abdul's presence felt on the show? Let's find out.
Let me begin by saying that I've been cynical since the moment DeGeneres announced that she had been picked to replace Paula Abdul. While I haven't seen enough of her to really make an assessment (thanks, editors!), I will say that she's not only cracking jokes, my major concern after her one-off judging gig on So You Think You Can Dance. "I do know what its like to stand on stage and try to please a bunch of people," Ellen says before Day 1 begins. "It's a hard thing to do."
So, let's examine those who pleased us tonight, and those who were even more annoying than Kara. I'll be breaking the groups down by who stayed in the competition, and who was sent home crying. (BTW, these selections are all sponsored by Vitamin Water. Did you notice the judges' new drinks? Goodbye huge red Coca-Cola cups!)
Katie Stevens, "For Once in My Life"
OK, Idol. I don't need a reminder of the weepy packages you've already shown me. In any case, Katie, who cares for her grandmother with Alzheimer's, delivers a powerful, controlled performance of the Stevie Wonder hit. Simon says she's very good and Randy remembers her natural talent. See you in Group Round, kid.
Andrew Garcia, "Straight Up"
This kid has Top 12 written all over him, and it has nothing to do with his rough upbringing. His acoustic-guitar backed rendition of Paula Abdul's classic was flawless and infinitely listenable. And it gives reason to do an impression of her predecessor's overhead hand clap. Leave it to Kara to ruin it by comparing the guy to Adam Lambert and his ability to re-interpret songs. Re-interpret, yes, but not screech annoyingly.
Janell Wheeler, "American Boy"
Also performing an awesome acoustic re-interpretation, Janell made me wish we'd seen more than 30 seconds of her auditions earlier. I think she will sail through to the Top 24, and probably much further.
Haeley Vaughn, "Change"
Her dream to be the first black pop country artist stays alive. Her guitar playing was distracting, but her voice was even better than when we first saw her. (She's an impressive 16-year-old.) Which naturally means Randy can only call her "interesting" and point out how intriguing it is to hear her singing country. Where was he the first time around?
Mary Powers, "Sober"
She did her full on rocker-mom thing with this song, which to me sounded a little copycat to Pink's original. The judges still think she has an amazing voice, and Ellen says she was very in the song. Mary breaks down, again reminding us that she's in this to win it for her young son.
Lilly Scott, "Lullaby of Birdland"
Although her hair needs serious work (oh geez, I'm turning into Kara), her rendition of Ella Fitzgerald's song was solid top to bottom. Kara says it was "perfection" and that she loves her uniqueness.
Michael Lynche, "Waiting on the World to Change"
Big Mike starts with some stand-up comedy, threatening to pummel anyone who doesn't agree that he's the next American Idol. Also: His wife is going into labor as he sings. Anyway, his guitar-backed performance was nicely arranged and a drastic departure from his overly-soulful audition. I like the versatility, and his voice is still smooth and enjoyable. As Ryan says, "Baby is on board for group day."
Tim Urban, "Come Back to Me"
He was shaky in his audition, but Simon gave him another chance. I though he was plenty shaky tonight, and not just in the chorus, as Kara notes. When he was hitting notes, he was good, and that must have been enough to get him through. I think he might need to put down the guitar until he nails his vocals.
Casey James, "I Don't Need No Doctor"
Casey is the surprise of the night. Though I still stand by my hatred of Kara's request that he take off his shirt in the auditions, he makes good on his promise to "show what he can really do" in Hollywood. What he can do is play a mean guitar, and the bluesy singer-songwriter in him comes out nicely. As long as he keeps his clothes on, he might be one to watch.
Didi Benami "Terrified"
Another lock for the Top 12, in my book. I can't tell if she's trying to suck up to Kara by singing her song, but she blows it out of the park. (And she plays the guitar.) Simon then pulls a Kara and comments that seeing a waitress make it as a singer is what the show's all about. She's brainwashing them all, I tell you!
Crystal Bowersox, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman"
She absolutely tears the song up, with some added backing vocals from the audience. The judges say she has a "real" quality, and I look forward to hearing more of her, hopefully with her guitar as well. (This is the season of instruments!) But sister has got to do some teeth whitening. (Sorry!)
Antonio "Skiiboski" Wheeler, "Ain't to Proud to Beg"
His singing was better than I remember from his auditions, but Ellen rightly points out that his singing face is frightening. "Sexy and scary is a fine line," she says, comparing him to a leopard in a cage stalking the judges. The judges pass, despite his protestations. Randy offers his most meaningful comment of the season: He tells Antonio to stop calling himself Skiiboski.
Vanessa Wolfe, "No Rain"
This simple Tennessee girl made it all the way to Hollywood on an "aeroplane," but her horrible song choice did her no favors. (I love that song, but she did so well with country in her original audition.) Even though Ellen likes her unique quality, she tells her she has to love the nerves. Ultimately, they do her in, and Vanessa cries, saying she "took a risk and it didn't pay off." Back to jumping off bridges, it seems.
Cornelius Edwards, "Cowboy Take Me Away"
"Why did you chose that song?" Simon asks in exasperation. To that I say, "Why did you idiots put him through just because he split his pants doing the splits?" He was terrible then, and little has changed.
Maegan Wright, "Who's Lovin' You"
Like many who performed with instruments (one of the few montages of the night I enjoyed) her piano arrangement was all over the place, according to Kara. Her voice is serviceable, but she's young. And she didn't have her little brother to help put her over the edge this time.
Jay Stone, Unknown Beatboxing
Simon cuts him off after a few seconds calling it ridiculous. "Something's wrong with his microphone," Ellen jokes. Unlike Cornelius, at least Simon protested to ever putting this clown through in the first place.
Justin Williams, Unknown Song
The cancer survivor plays at the piano, and the shoddy editing really only allows us to hear him riffing on a note at the end of the song. And then, the only comment we hear is from Randy, who calls it interesting. Since he went home, I guess it wasn't worth seeing anyway.
Maddy Curtis, "The Nearness of You"
She has a solid voice, but I wholeheartedly agree with Simon that it was an awful song choice for the youngster. On vocals alone, I wish she'd gotten another shot, but the judges sent her packing. I hope to see her back on the show once she has a couple more years of experience under her belt.
All in all, 96 contestants remain. Along the way we lost Barney kid-turned-dominatrix Erica Rhodes (her En Vouge audition should have never put her through, anyway) and the sisters from New Jersey, even though we didn't get to hear them sing. Italian family man Amadeo Diricco also didn't make it, even though he begged. Tomorrow night is group round, an always drama-filled evening.
What did you think of Ellen's debut? Have any favorite singers?
It's been a grueling (and often annoying) audition tour, but American Idol has finally made it to Hollywood week. So everything's going to be better, right? Guess again. The night's big positive, however, was Ellen DeGeneres, who made her debut at the judging table. How did she do, and which singers are still in the competition after the first round of hell week? Plus: How was Paula Abdul's presence felt on the show? Let's find out...