Will she be there? If so, will she be able to give a decent performance? Those were the questions hanging over tonight's "American Idol," thanks to yesterday's hospitalization of Crystal Bowersox. As a result, the Top 10 Girls performance show carried a dramatic thrust that it usually doesn't have.
So was it self-defeating incompetence, a pressing urge to reassure viewers that Bowersox was OK or a helpful assist to an ailing singer who might have been waiting to hop back into bed that she was the first of the evening? Probably all three. Certainly, keeping her under wraps until the end would have amped up the suspense and made every other singer have to compete with a performance that hadn't even happened yet.
But "Idol" brought BoSox early to sing Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Long As I Can See the Light," which she did in exactly the gospelly, organ-drenched way you'd expect a blonde, dreadlocked, acoustic-slinging woman to do it. The judges praised her enthusiastically, with Simon Cowell going so far as to compare it to the moment that they realized what they had in Kelly Clarkson.
And thus did every other singer have to compete with a performance that had already happened. A couple of them pressed forward through the time-tested method of sucking up to the judges.
Lacey Brown, in either a very smart or very craven move, heard Kara DioGuardi tell her last week that she should have sung Sixpence None the Richer's "Kiss Me" and basically said, "You got it, boss!" Perhaps taking that as a challenge, Paige Miles took it one step farther by singing one of Kara's songs, Kelly Clarkson's "Walk Away." Neither moved the judges much, and Simon halfway called Brown out on her pandering and fired a warning shot across Miles' bow.
Finished pandering to the judges? Why not take it directly to the audience? Seventeen-year-old Katie Stevens would like you to know that she can say "give me a kiss" in six languages. She did not share the end to which she learned this. Her "Put Your Records On" seemed to reveal her as Katharine McPhee: The Early Years. Randy encouraged her to tackle more difficult melodies even as he told her that Corinne Bailey Rae's not-so-difficult melody was giving her trouble. No contradictions there.
For another show of contrasts, there was Didi Benami and Haeley Vaughn. Both were panned — Benami for "Lean On Me" and Vaughn for Miley Cyrus' "The Climb" — but the judges seem to have written Vaughn off by now as too inexperienced, whereas Benami was given a pass for what they expect to be her future success.
In the "baffling comparisons" department, Ellen compared Siobhan Magnus (singing Aretha Franklin's "Think" in what appeared to be a prom dress over a mall top) to a Snuggie. Meanwhile, Randy Jackson responded to Lily Scott's "A Change Is Gonna Come" (deemed her first "moment" by Kara) by bringing up Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams and Björk, none of whose songs have been performed this season, in reference to how unique this season's singers are.
Probably the most at risk this week were Katelyn Epperly, with her sloooooow version of Coldplay's "The Scientist," and Michelle Delamor, who hoped to wow Simon this week so she chose ... "With Arms Wide Open." Wow, Hinder and Creed on successive nights? Is this some beautiful dream? No, it was all too real, and before she even opened her mouth, she seemed doomed unless she opened up with a LaToya London-style note in the middle of the song. She did not. You will probably not see her again.
One final note: Ryan Seacrest has now brought up Justin Bieber unprovoked for the second show in a row. Does he have some sort of financial stake in that kid?
Marc Hirsh is a writer in Somerville, Mass.