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‘Idol’ judges come down hard on favorites

The "American Idol" judges were tougher on some of their favorites on Grand Ole Opry night. Could it be that they're trying to disprove a newspaper report that the fix is already in, and the final four set?
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

On Wednesday, the New York Daily News reported the rumor that the “Idol” judges and producers have already decided on their favorite choices, and are going to make sure that Lil Rounds, Alexis Grace, Adam Lambert and Danny Gokey make the final four.

It’s doubtful that’s true, because the show would have so little to gain and so much to lose by doing so, but it doesn’t take someone wearing a tinfoil hat to wonder if the judges saw the story and decided to be more critical of the quartet on Tuesday’s Grand Ole Opry night, just to be on the safe side.

First, the judges panned Lil Rounds’ performance of Martina McBride's “Independence Day.” Rounds tried hard not to let her normal R&B style override the country theme, but she might have been better off just sticking with her strengths. Except for Paula Abdul, who was her usual positive self most of the night, the judges greeted her with agnostic indifference.

Simon Cowell even acted like he didn’t know her name, calling her both “Little” and “Lil” and saying he wanted her to be more like Mary J. Blige. Note to Simon: Mary J. Blige = Not country. If that’s what the judges want the finalists to sound like, perhaps a different theme would be in order?

Randy Jackson thought that Alexis Grace went too far in the other direction with Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” making it too much blues and not enough country. Moreover, she lost her pitch in the middle, and the judges dinged her for that. Her performance was easily the worst out of the four supposed anointed ones, and she is the member of the quartet in the biggest danger of being voted off early.

Adam Lambert decided to ignore the country theme as much as he could, and somehow found the most bizarre arrangement of “Ring of Fire” ever. Guest mentor Randy Travis looked like he couldn’t decide if Lambert was kidding or not, especially when he heard the sitar.

“What Randy [Travis] was trying to say was “what the hell was that,” Simon said when it was all over. “I thought it was absolute indulgent rubbish.” That shouldn’t have surprised him, since every Lambert song is a vehicle for his over-the-top performing style, and Lambert agreed with Travis that he wasn’t likely to be made a Grand Ole Opry member anytime soon, or ever.

It didn’t look promising for Danny Gokey when he chose Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take The Wheel,” especially when he kept screwing it up in his session with Travis. It was uncompelling on the big stage as well, until he hit the chorus and some big notes. “When you hit your stride, it’s like none other,” Kara DioGuardi noted. “I wish I had 10 minutes of that and not the front part.” Anoop is backThose singers not allegedly among the desired final four generally got better feedback, with a couple of the men in particular sounding solid just when they badly needed to do well.Anoop Desai was criticized last week for his song choice of “Beat It,” to the point where Simon regretted putting him in the final 13 at all. He went in the opposite direction this week with “You’ Were Always on My Mind” a classic most associated with the legendary Willie Nelson. “This will be the best anyone has heard from Anoop,” Travis predicted.As far as the judges were concerned, Travis was right.  “You just managed to go from zero to hero,” Simon said. “I take back what I said (last week). You definitely deserve to be on this show. Glad to have you back.”Matt Giraud came up big by singing Carrie Underwood’s “So Small” in front of the piano. “I think you’re quite similar to Danny [Gokey]. Tonight, I think you outsang him,” Simon said. He also compared him Michael Buble, making Giraud the only singer ever to be compared to both Buble and Justin Timberlake.

The risk Kris Allen took was coming out on country night without his guitar, abandoning his instrument on the night it would seem to be the most appropriate. Singing “To Make You Feel My Love” as a slow and heartfelt ballad could have bored everyone to death, but the judges managed to stay awake,  and Simon said that for the first time Allen struck him as someone who could do really well in the competition. Megan Joy (she's dropping the "Corkrey," apparently) was sick enough with flu that she went to the hospital and missed the final run-through, but though she had a hard time keeping her eyes open, she managed to save her coughing until after she finished Patsy Cline's “Walkin' After Midnight.” She performed it with her patented stand-on-a-dime stage presence, not moving from her spot in front of the microphone and doing nothing more dramatic than putting her hand on her hip. The effort under strain paid off, as the judges praised both her vocals and her fortitude. Allison Iraheta was one of the judges' favorites with her “Blame it on Your Heart,” and Kara said she could sing the alphabet and do it well. Then the judges started a debate on whether calling her a little precocious was a compliment or not, and the positive feedback lost some momentum as they all but broke out the Webster’s Dictionary.

Nobody did poorly enough to get truly slammed, but a pair of the men did less well than the rest.Michael Sarver took a chance by singing “Ain’t Going Down (Til the Sun Comes Up).” For starters, it’s a fast-paced song with a ton of lyrics, and it’s also not one that features the big notes that Sarver hit in earlier weeks. Sarver pulled off the words enough to impress Kara, who apparently assumes that memorizing words is difficult for oil rig roughnecks. But it also marked the second time in a row that when Sarver has chosen a country song, he’s done a fun one instead of a challenging one, and he was criticized for that.  Scott MacIntyre got lucky with Martina McBride’s “Wild Angels.” None of the judges liked it much, but they violently disagreed on what was wrong and so MacIntyre got more praise than he would have in a normal week. Paula wanted him to be more of a showman, saying “The piano may be a bit of a crutch now, and that separates you from the audience.”Simon called her out, asking “Paula what do you expect him to do?” MacIntyre is the first blind finalist in the show’s history, so it’s not like he can emulate Abdul’s dance routines, but when Simon was done likening MacIntyre to Elton John and Billy Joel, he criticized MacIntyre’s song choice. Both Sarver and McIntyre took the views in stride. “If we were all perfect, we wouldn’t need this show,” Sarver said. He’s hoping that he gets another week of that music education.

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