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Boys prove boring on ‘American Idol’

Safe song choices and weak vocals dominate the first night of men's competition.  By Craig Berman
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

It was apparent from the auditions that this year’s group of “American Idol” men was short on rockers. Tuesday’s first semifinal heat, however, showed that they might be short on talent and showmanship as well.

Blake Lewis showed he’s more than a beatboxer, Chris Sligh proved he can sing and crack jokes at the same time, and Phil Stacey showed that he has a very forgiving wife who doesn’t care that “Idol” came before being at her side for the birth of their second child. Besides that, it was a night full of forgettable, boring performances.

Sundance Head is in big trouble, but any one of a half-dozen others could be voted off without it being a shock. About the only positive is that the bar has been set very low for the women, who begin their semifinal competition tomorrow.

Rudy Cardenas, 28, North Hollywood, Calif.: It’s always tough to start the show, particularly when 11 other singers are poised to follow. There are two approaches to take: a daring song that makes the singer stand out, or a safer one that’s sure to entertain. Cardenas took the latter approach with “Free Ride” by the Edgar Winter Group, and while the audience appreciated the uptempo number, it looked like more like a Carnival cruise performance than a song from a pop star in the making. It didn’t cause any fans to lose faith, but at this early stage it’s more important to be noticed than to simply hold serve. Cardenas didn’t manage that. Grade: C
Stay or go?
Cardenas was just the first of a series of mediocre numbers — but he was first, and nearly two hours passed between his performance and the opening of the phone lines. That makes him a threat to be voted off early.

Brandon Rogers, 28, North Hollywood, Calif.: The judges told the former background singer in Hollywood that he was ready to take center stage, but he sang Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You” with a lot of affectation. He was a little too soft at the beginning, and then tried to do way too much with it at the end. It wasn’t a terrible performance, but Simon was right when he told Rogers afterwards: “You’re better than that.”  Grade: C+Stay or go? Performing so early in the show won’t help his chances any, but Rogers has probably gotten enough face time to overcome that and advance. It would be a shame if he didn’t — he was one of the stars of the audition round.

Sundance Head, 28, Porter, Texas: If Head makes it to the next round, it will be because voters remember his original audition. Since that fateful day he’s chosen to mess with success, and as the judges pointed out, it probably wasn’t smart to get away from the bluesy vibe that brought him to this point — and singing the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” doesn’t qualify. Somewhere in the audience, Thomas Daniels — beaten out by Head for the last spot in the semifinals — has to be shaking his head and wondering at what might have been. Grade: D+Stay or go?: Unless people like his personality enough to overcome a series of missteps, Head is probably gone.

Paul Kim, 25, Saratoga, Calif.: Randy and Paula both cited Kim as one of the best voices in the competition, but the viewers will have to take them at their word, because he hasn’t been featured much so far. The barefoot contender, he sang Wham’s “Careless Whisper,” but didn’t really pull it off. On the other hand, he did get Ryan to take off his shoes as well, in order to show off his new pedicure. Grade: CStay or go? It wasn’t a very memorable performance, which will hurt him. But he’s just one of several who will have to sweat it out until Thursday’s results show.

Chris Richardson, 22, Chesapeake, Va.: Richardson gave himself a tough task by picking Gavin DeGraw’s “I Don’t Want to Be.” Not only was his performance not as good as DeGraw’s, it wasn’t as good as Bo Bice’s version from the fourth season of the show. On the other hand, it was a lot better than the singers who came before him. Grade: BStay or go? Richardson is likely safe.

Nick Pedro, 25, Taunton , Mass.: Singing a Richard Marx song on “American Idol” is never a good idea. Not ever. Pedro didn’t sound a whole lot better with “Now and Forever” than those who came before him, and Simon may have been wishing more than forecasting when he said “I think you’re definitely going to be back next week.” If that’s the case, it’ll be because Pedro’s airtime last season and in the audition round garnered enough support for him to skate by with a forgettable performance. Grade: CStay or go: The bar was set low enough early in the show that Pedro will probably stay, but he missed a big opportunity here to stake out a position among the favorites.

Blake Lewis, 25, Bothell, Wash.: Unlike his fellow competitors who tried to play it safe, Lewis took a risk by abandoning the beatboxing style that got him here and singing his vocals straight up. It paid off. A whole lot of people who have only seen him as a gimmick up until now got evidence that he could actually carry a tune when he pulled off Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know.” It was a huge step forward for Lewis on a night where a lot of the men went backwards. Grade: A-Stay or go? Lewis is in no danger of being voted off.

Sanjaya Malakar, 17, Federal Way, Wash.: Malakar is the latest example of the “Idol” phenomenon known as the teenager who the judges seem to immediately regret picking. He sang “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” originally by Stevie Wonder, and predictably was smacked down by the judges for daring to tangle with a tune from the Great One. In truth, the performance was more like a lounge singer’s than a pop star’s, but the real issue is that Malakar’s voice just isn’t developed enough to match that of many of his rivals here. Grade:C-Stay or go?  It’s very early in the competition, and the fact that Malakar at least stands out as being the only teenager on the male side of things won’t hurt. But he’s definitely in the danger zone.

Chris Sligh, 28, Greenville, S.C.: Sligh is the only one who talked about this as a game, saying that his strengths were strategy and song choice, and noting that while he liked his fellow competitors, only one could win. So the most unique contestant picked the most unique song (“Typical” by Mute Math), and again marked himself as something more than a novelty candidate by showing some strong vocals and performing skills. He also got into a verbal sparring match with Simon, which may not be the best strategy to follow for the long term — Sligh’s sniping about how he doesn’t sing Il Divo or Teletubbies tracks seemed to annoy Simon more than most snarky comments do.
Grade:
A-Stay or go? Sligh’s in no danger. It would be an upset if he didn’t make the final 12.

Jared Cotter, 25, Kew Gardens, N.Y.: Cotter did fine by covering Brian McKnight’s “Back to One,” and probably bought himself a ticket to next week. But for a guy who hadn’t had more than a few seconds of airtime up until now, it was a safe choice that didn’t make a strong impression. Grade: B-Stay or go? Cotter wasn’t one of the best performers, but he wasn’t one of the two worst either. If he goes, it will be because of the lack of airtime in the early rounds.

AJ Tabaldo, 22, Santa Maria, Calif.: Tabaldo made an ambitious song choice in Luther Vandross’ “Never Too Much,” and his voice was too thin to truly pull it off. He did get a backhanded compliment from Simon afterwards, as the acerbic Brit said “Maybe you’re better than I originally thought.” On a night where few of the men fit that description, Tabaldo will take it. Grade: C+Stay or go?: He’ll probably stay, in part because he sang right before the voting began, but not many people will remember the performance by the time Thursday’s results show rolls around.

Phil Stacey, 29, Jacksonville , Fla.: Stacey started off so poorly on “I Could Not Ask for More,” originally by Edwin McCain and later by fellow reality TV star Sara Evans, that it looked like even his smiling wife in the audience couldn’t pull him through. But Stacey pulled through by nailing the chorus, making the whole missing-the-birth-of-the-baby-daughter thing worth it. Randy called it the best vocal of the night, which was both an exaggeration and damning with faint praise. Grade: B+Stay or go?: Stacey’s in good shape. He finished strong and closed the show, so he’ll get enough votes to move on.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.