Wednesday, March 4, 2009

American Idol Season 8
Top 36 Group 3

Simon: I just don't get the shopping thing.
Kara: I mean, I wanna know what she's like.
Simon: I mean shop what? Shoes? Popcorn?
Kara: Wait! I'm trying to see what she's like as a person, personality. Is she bubbly? Is she sweet? I'm not getting that.
Simon: What breakfast cereal do you like?
Randy: Do you like soy milk or regular milk?
Simon: Exactly.

The above exchange during Taylor Vaifanua's review Tuesday night essentially summed up the problem with Season 8 of "American Idol." Why are the judges looking for shallow, superficial qualities -- such as Kara wondering, "What's it like to go shopping with Taylor?" -- instead of just worrying about whether contestants are viable singers? Frankly, we don't give a rat's ass about what it's like to go shopping with anyone. We just want to know if their music is going to move us.

Though Group 3 was far from perfect, as a whole they were much better than Groups 1 and 2. They were mostly -- but not always -- in tune. And if we are going to spend 11 weeks listening to singing, we'd certainly rather listen to the better singers, not just the three fortunate enough to squeak through from each group. What is inherently wrong with the Wild Card system is that better singers in stronger groups lose their shot, while lesser contestants from weaker groups make it through. We'd rather listen to Von Smith, who is doomed unless he grabs a Wild Card slot, than Michael Sarver. And was Felicia Barton dragged back to Hollywood after Joanna Pacitti was disqualified, just so medicore-but-blind Scott MacIntyre or Kris Allen could steal the spot she deserves more than them?

When you let people grow week-by-week and eliminate the ones who receive the least votes, instead of putting through the ones with the most votes, you have a better chance of getting the best mix of singers into the finals.

Plus, the way things are shaping up, the finals will be top heavy with guys. Right now, the count is 4 boys, 2 girls. And it looks as if it will be 6-3 going into the Wild Card round. So unless the judges pick three more women in that round-- which is highly *Anoop Desai* unlikely -- it will be, at best, 7 guys vs. 5 girls.

One interesting note: Many of the song titles seemed to fit the contestants who sang them on Tuesday.

We're the first to admit that we hated Von Smith prior to Tuesday night, and were prepared to turn our nose up once more at the overly dramatic, shouting singer who vaguely resembles Michael Bublé. But guess what (and this is why week-to-week growth is more interesting to watch than a one-shot selection)? He turned us around with his performance of Marvin Gaye's "You're All I Need to Get By" [fitting song title alert]. He toned down the theatrics while at the same time giving the song a contemporary vibe. And, he didn't shout. Although we didn't necessarily agree with Simon Cowell, who said Von was reminiscent of Clay Aiken, we thought it was the best opener thus far. Though we could have lived without the pointy-head hair.

Watch video of Von Smith singing "You're All I Need to Get By" by Marvin Gaye

Any high hopes we had for Taylor Vaifanua after watching her audition in Salt Lake City were dashed with her weak performance of Alicia Keys' "If I Ain't Got You," [fitting song title alert] though we do give her the prize for most-improved post-audition appearance. She's become quite stunning since getting to Hollywood. Unfortunately, the transformation didn't carry over to her voice, which seemed overwhelmed by a song that was bigger than it was. Other than leaving Kara DioGuardi "cold" and wanting to go shopping with her, the judges found Taylor's performance bland and boring. We'd have to agree and throw in pitchy, as well.

Watch video of Taylor Vaifanua singing "If I Ain't Got You" by Alicia Keys

We bestow the "Trainwreck of the Night Award" on Alex Wagner-Trugman, who we previously found gawky, or in his words, "dorky." Brooke White warned you Alex: Don't Google yourself. His rendition of Elton John's "I Guess That Why They Call It the Blues" [fitting song title alert] started out OK, then went totally spastic, both physically and vocally. Alex started doing jerky dance movements, eventually accidentally dropping the mic stand, and added, as Simon said, a "ridiculous growling" element to his singing. Though Alex said he was just trying to have fun, the whole thing came off as comical, and nor in a good way, like Nick Marshall. It went way beyond dorky, all the way to weird. The judges had nary a kind word to say, though Paula Abdul tried to couch the criticism -- and laughter -- with "You certainly are the showman."

Watch video of Alex Wagner-Trugman singing "I Guess That Why They Call It the Blues" by Elton John

Coming in a close second for the trainwreck award was Arianna Afsar, who has a powerhouse voice, but made a hot mess of ABBA's "The Winner Takes It All" [fitting song title/lyrics alert: The winner takes it all/The loser standing small/Beside the victory/That's her destiny]. Trying to put her own spin on the song, her voice went all over the place, as did her tempo: at times was in ahead of the music, other times she was behind it. It sounded as if she had never rehearsed it with the band. Plus, the first half of the song trudged along interminably. When the judges asked her why such as sunny, cute-as-a-button girl would sing a song that was so dark, depressing and dreary (Simon compared the first half to a funeral), Arianna said she knew it was an old song, but she tried to make it contemporary. Cowell put it succinctly: "Well you didn't," adding that it was her "worst performance by a clear mile."

Watch video of Arianna Afsar singing "The Winner Takes It All" by ABBA

Fortunately, the show took an upward turn at this point (hey, it only took four contestants). We had been rooting for Ju'Not Joyner since last season. We think this year is the young father's time to shine. He once again sang the Plain White T's "Hey There Delilah," and was even better than when he sang it in Hollywood. It was his own R&B spin on the song. Ju'Not made it tender and sensitive. He hit a bad note here and there, but overall it was a really nice performance, and we're pulling for him to get that third finalist's spot tonight (there's no stopping the dynamic Lil Rounds or the less-than-dynamic Scott MacIntyre). The judges give him good reviews, with Randy Jackson telling Ju'Not that he loved the way he switched the song up (so did we). Though calling it "a little bit safe," Simon said Ju'Not the performance was better than he thought it was going to be.

Watch video of Ju'Not Joyner singing "Hey There Delilah" by the Plain White T's

Though she has a powerful voice that we never quite expect, something that we can't define about Kristen McNamara has annoyed us since her audition. She puts a not unpleasing spin on Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason" [fitting song title/lyrics alert: Give me one reason to stay here/and I'll turn right back around], but to parrot Kara, the whole thing left us cold. Kara and Paula both praise her voice, but would prefer to hear a song with more of a rock edge, something by Kelly Clarkson or P!nk. Simon and Randy can't figure out who Kristen is (maybe they should go shopping with her :b), with Randy adding that she did too much with the song.

Watch video of Kristen McNamara singing "Give Me One Reason" by Tracy Chapman

Nathaniel Marshall like's to stand out: He has studs in his face, tattoos all over his arms and wears what Simon calls an Olivia Newton-John headband (and who Randy twice refers to as Elton John, duh!). Sadly for Nate, the one thing that doesn't stand out is his voice. Truth be told, we fell asleep during his performance and had to rewind the DVR (OK, we didn't rewind it, we heard enough to know we didn't want to hear the part we missed). His version of Meatloaf's "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" [fitting song title alert, even Simon remarked on it] was boring. We kept hearing from the judges and Nathaniel himself that he's a fun guy. So much fun, in fact, that instead of shopping, Kara wants him to be her karaoke partner (doesn't she have any friends?). But we didn't have fun. Whereas Simon called it excruciating, for us it was quite literally a snooze.

Watch video of Nathaniel Marshall singing "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" by Meatloaf

So, this is our first time to really get a good listen of Felicia Barton after seeing maybe a 3-second clip of her audition. Know what? She sounds good. In fact, she sounds a lot better than Joanna Pacitti did during her time on "Idol." So the question is: Why the hell didn't Barton make the Top 36? She certainly has a better voice than 80 percent of the women in that group. Did she resemble Pacitti too much to win a spot? It makes no sense. We're impressed with her look (as Kara would say, she's got the whole package) as well as her rendition of Alicia Keys' "No One." Unfortunately, she'll never make it past Lil Rounds tonight, but hopefully the judges will be wise enough to award her a Wild Card slot. She deserves it. The judges pile on the praise, with Paula telling her that her "gift is unbelievable," Randy saying it was hot and Kara saying she had attitude and presence. Only Simon takes a step back from the tongue bath, calling it "a bit copycat."

Watch video of Felicia Barton singing "No One" by Alicia Keys

Scott MacIntyre was probably the contestant most viewers were waiting to hear -- but for all the wrong reasons. Will they continue to love the visually impaired singer? Of course. We were only waiting to see if he was as boring and vanilla as his audition. Guess what? He was. There are many things to admire about MacIntyre, but his vocals aren't one of them. He chose to sing "Mandolin Rain," by Bruce Hornsby and the Range. It's not even a great song when Hornsby does it, and was less so by Scott. He had trouble with some of the notes. The power note at the end was OK, but really, it was too little, too late. The audience applause was way out of proportion with the performance. Randy says it wasn't the most perfect vocal and that there were some problems, but the parts that were great, were really really great. Kara talks about his passion and says, "And when you have issues with the vocal, it doesn't matter, because it's coming from your heart." Paula calls Scott "one of our finest." Simon says he wasn't crazy about the song or lyrics, but that Scott is growing on him because he is beginning to believe in himself and that Scott's the one he'll remember from tonight (why?). Cowell also predicts that Scott will sail through to the next round. Sadly, we're sure he's right.

Watch video of Scott MacIntyre singing "Mandolin Rain" by Bruce Hornsby and The Range

We remember once saying the Beard wasn't a great last name for a female singer, but that was about all we remembered about Kendall Beard. Oh, yes, she was the blonde Texan who was the first contestant to make it through in San Juan. Savvy move, we guess. She's definitely a country singer and proved it with her rendition of "This One's for the Girls" by Martina McBride [fitting song title alert]. It started off better than it ended, getting, as Cowell called it, "a little shrilly at the end," adding that country isn't his cup of tea. Still, Kendell has a decent voice, a nice country vibe and what Paula proclaims is "the best outfit." Randy thinks the song choice was right, even if the vocals weren't her best. Probably doesn't matter. She won't get through tonight. A Wild Card opportunity? Maybe, if only because they want a country artist. Then again, maybe not.

Watch video of Kendall Beard singing "This One's for the Girls" by Martina McBride

The final male slot of the evening goes to Jorge Nuñez. We think the "Idol" producers desperately want a Hispanic in the finals, even possibly as their champion. It's a market they haven't really tapped yet. We are reminded that Kara told Jorge at his audition that he had some trouble with his English pronunciations. Problem fixed! He's been taking diction lessons (Who pays? Him or the show?). The lessons are so successful, there's not even a trace of an accent on Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" [fitting song title alert]. But the diction is almost too perfect, killing some of the passion in an otherwise very well-sung song. Paula gushes over his hard work and performance, telling him she just wants to squeeze him. Simon tells her to go ahead (she doesn't) then adds, "You heart him, don't you?" Then Simon says, "You know what? I think we were wrong to say to you that you shouldn't sing with an accent, because why should we? You're from Puerto Rico, you've got a good voice, it makes you different. I think you should be who you are. You're actually a very very good singer. And I like the fact that you sound a bit different. I mean, there are, [with a bit of sarcasm] believe it not, Spanish artists who've actually done incredibly well. They have an accent because they're Spanish. Who cares?" Paula then astounds Simon by saying to Jorge, "Will you just speak so we can hear your accent?" Jorge becomes tongue-tied, while Simon looks dumbfounded, rolls his eyes and says "I'm sorry, but that is so patronizing." And he's right. Randy and Kara lavish Jorge with more praise. He tears up. We're angry that he won't claim his rightful spot tonight because of Scott. So there.

Watch video of Jorge Nuñez singing "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" by Elton John

The pimp spot goes to Lil Rounds. We liked her in the past, but without the hot passion others have for her. However, Tuesday she did blow us away with Mary J. Blige's "Be Without You." She looked great (though her booty makes J.Lo's look small) and the vocals were spot on. She owned that pimp spot and assured herself a place in the finals. Simon said, "Lil, I'm going to keep this very brief -- brilliant," also telling her "I think you have great, great prospects in this competition. And I think you are, undoubtedly, one of the best singers we have found this year. I like you." The other judges were similarly effusive, with Randy telling her "You kept your swagger on," whatever that means. (We'll have to look it up in our Randy-English dictionary). Paula called her "first class," then cutely added, "I have a sneaking suspicion we're gonna see you for many more lil rounds."

Watch video of Lil Rounds singing "Be Without You" by Mary J. Blige

Who should get a finalist slot tonight: Lil Rounds, Jorge Nuñez, Ju'Not Joyner
Who will get a finalist slot tonight: Lil Rounds, Scott MacIntyre, Ju'Not Joyner

Our ranking of Tuesday's performances, from best to trainwreck:
Lil Rounds
Jorge Nuñez
Ju'Not Joyner
Felicia Barton
Kendall Beard
Scott MacIntyre
Von Smith, Kristen McNamara (tie)
Nathaniel Marshall
Taylor Vaifanua
Arianna Afsar
Alex Wagner-Trugman

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© 2009

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