Give the folks at “American Idol” some credit. They're not afraid to tweak a product that works.
In previous years, making it to the finals was a combination of skill and luck. Contestants had to stand out in their semifinal heats in order to advance, which often depended on who else happened to be in the group. That wasn't a tremendous thrill to those stuck in the first semifinal heat last year, and the five who didn't make the finals probably lost sleep wondering who they pissed off to be placed with winner Fantasia Barrino, runner-up Diana DiGarmo and eventual wild-card selection Jennifer Hudson.
But hey, it could have been worse. They could have been in the Season 2 semifinal with Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken and Kimberley Locke. Yup, the final three in the standings were all in the same heat. What chance did poor Rebecca Bond have? A full 60 percent of the Backstreet Boys wouldn't make it out of that group, much less someone the viewers had never seen.
Maybe it was all the angry letters from Katie Webber and Jennifer Fuentes fans, but this year's semifinalists didn't have to knock it out of the ballpark their first week — just make sure to perform better than at least two other people. Or, rather, get more of a following than two other people. Some had ample opportunity to lay the groundwork for that in the audition stage by virtue of having Ryan Seacrest and the ubiquitous cameras following them around incessantly.
Others were not so fortunate, and on Wednesday night it contributed to four of them losing their dream of being this year's “American Idol.”
Camera time helps
With the initial rounds over and done with, the semifinals are the first chance the audience has to influence the outcomes. The only thing is, not everyone starts on a level playing field. That's particularly true in the new format, where a comparatively small voting block can be enough to live another week.
Scott Savol, for example, picked a song he couldn't do much with and proceeded not to sing it very well. But Savol has been featured so much already that he probably would have had to forget the words entirely to lose enough support to move on. If he'd had to finish in the top two, he'd have been in big trouble. It takes far fewer votes just to avoid rock bottom.
Lindsey Cardinale was in a similar spot. She came up very small with a ballad that put small children to sleep, but anyone who had seen her in the auditions knew that it was a case of a good voice having a bad night. She, too, got the benefit of the doubt.
That's not a luxury Melinda Lira had. She, too, picked a ballad Tuesday night — Celine Dion's “The Power of Love” — and while she didn't butcher it, she didn't do enough to make the audience take notice. Still, when she took center stage with Janay Castine, she had to know she had a great shot at surviving if the voters based their selections solely on Tuesday night. Castine had been shaking with nerves at the start of her song and probably performed the worst of any of the 24 semifinalists.
But that's not what the voters remembered. They recalled Castine's footage from earlier in the competition so she survived. Lira, they apparently forgot entirely. She became the first of the 24 to fall, stood on the stage in shock for a moment, and then blamed the lack of exposure compared to other candidates.
That's certainly a factor, but Nadia Turner found herself in the same position Tuesday night. The difference was that instead of playing it safe and picking a ho-hum ballad, Turner picked a different “Power of Love” — this one by Ashley Cleveland — that allowed her to really play to the crowd and shine. While Lira's performance was forgotten as soon as she walked off the stage, Turner took advantage of her debut to leave an impression that's likely good enough to pay dividends down the road.
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But too few of the new faces took Turner's approach, and the combination of lack of familiarity and poor song selection doomed Jared Yates and Sarah Mather as well.
Yates was in the tougher spot, since it seems like the guys have gotten a lot more airtime than the women at this stage. Anthony Fedorov, Scott Savol, Constantine Maroulis, Bo Bice, Mario Vazquez, Anwar Robinson … a full half of the 12 finalists have been featured enough that we practically know their seventh-grade GPA.
The 18-year-old Yates, consciously absent from the list of previously-featured performers, chose to sing “How Could I” by 98 Degrees, and wound up blending in with the other ballads when he really needed to stand out. Out he went.
Mather took more of a chance, but it was a dumb one — picking “Get Ready” by The Temptations. It's a great song, but a song from a band, designed to be sung by a band, and not ideally suited to a soloist.
Her voice is almost as distinctive among the semifinalists as Cardinale's, but the viewers saw her a lot less before Tuesday night, and the lack of exposure in early February combined with an average performance when it counted was too much to overcome.
Mather was the only eliminated contestant to get real solace from the judges, with Simon telling her “it's absolutely not the end of your world” and saying she'd have done well in previous years. Sadly, however, Mather doesn't get to go back in time and go head-to-head with Kelly Clarkson. She got the boot instead.
Only one elimination was really a surprise, and that was Judd Harris.
For suspense purposes, it was a shock because Ryan Seacrest first told his row that everybody could relax, brought six semifinalists on stage and made them sweat — and then told them, two-by-two, that they were all safe before calling Harris out.
But Harris picked a song that seemed to get the audience's attention, a little “Travellin' Band” sandwiched between a couple of ballads that stood out. The judges didn't love him, but didn't slam him either.
Simon told Harris on Monday night that “a lot of girls will vote for you.” Clearly, not enough did.
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington. D.C.