Contestants can’t win American Idol with a great performance in the semifinal rounds—but they sure can get themselves eliminated with a poor one.
That doesn’t mean a bad effort is a deal-breaker — after all, Janay Castine is still here after two subpar weeks in a row — but it does make a contestant vulnerable. Someone like Aloha Mischeaux, who sang so well last week in the first week of semifinals, may find that too many viewers quickly forget what happened in previous weeks and focus solely on the moment. That ended things quickly for the 19-year-old from St. Louis, in the biggest surprise of the season thus far.
In such a crowded field, it doesn’t take much to get viewers to vote for someone else. A judge’s criticism, a bland song choice, or just plain old bad luck can be enough to get a contestant on the wrong side of the line.
Fans matter, but maybe not yetThe whole point of Idol is that performers build up a fan base every week they’re on the show. By the end of the season, that base is (the show producers hope) enough to catapult a former unknown into a recording star who can take a debut album to platinum. By the middle of the season, it’s sometimes enough to keep a struggling contestant in the game for an extra week or several, as the extended run of John Stevens illustrated last year.
Right now, it’s a little too early for the contestants to be so easily divided into “future superstars” and cabaret singers, and the amount of choices available make it harder to form strong loyalties toward a particular person. Therefore, the judges still have a lot of power to influence audience impressions. Praise of a risky song choice can help overcome a struggling performance, while a withering comment or two can easily prove fatal.
The studio audience might boo, especially when the offending judge is Simon, but the viewers tend to remember those comments when it’s time to call those 866 numbers.
Take the case of Celena Rae. She didn’t sing badly — and certainly wasn’t one of the worst two performers in her group of 10 — but she’s the one who Simon said would soon be singing in a hotel instead of a stage. And out she went, with the fewest number of votes among the women.
Who got Simon-ed on the men’s side? Why, Joseph Murena, who Cowell said could have been singing in a Portuguese nightclub in 1974.
Bizarre? Of course – how many people watching the show have ever been in a Portuguese nightclub? Fatal? Maybe. Murena chose to place the blame on his lack of exposure, and his bland performance may be the real culprit. But the judges’ criticisms certainly sealed his doom.
Murena was joined in the airport limo by David Brown, whose main sin was being uninspiring on a night when the competition stepped up.
Compared to Travis Tucker, the other man Seacrest brought on stage, Brown was far less of a showman. When Simon called Tucker “a born performer” — stressing the positive of his dance moves rather than the average vocals — that probably got him the votes he needed to advance.
Both Murena and Rae expressed confidence that they’d be back. Perhaps the judges will see them singing a duet the next time they’re in a Portuguese hotel.
Just two surprises
That made for a results show with only two surprises. The first was the early exit of Mischeaux, who wasn’t great on Tuesday night but gave perhaps the best performance of the first semifinal. The second was that Ryan Seacrest actually made Mario Vazquez come up on stage, as though he was in genuine danger of being voted off, to stand nervously through a commercial break before being allowed to sit in the safety zone.
It’s difficult to believe Vazquez would have been so near the firing line after two nice performances in a row. He did appear without one of his trademarked hats, so perhaps Seacrest was just looking to give Vazquez’s hair more time in the spotlight.
The judges expressed surprise at Mischeaux’s ouster — but really, they could have saved her by being a little less harsh when she opened Tuesday’s show. Ryan Seacrest revealed on the results show that the Alicia Keys song she went with was something like her fourth choice, with her earlier requests nixed because of rights issues. Presumably, that contributed to her feeling unprepared when the lights came on.
But the judges didn’t comment on that Tuesday night. Instead, even Paula said that it wasn’t her best performance, and Simon criticized the song choice. Stressing the negatives at this early stage may have been intended as constructive criticism, but instead cost her the votes she needed.
Perhaps they underestimated their own power. Or perhaps they were confident she would survive, because the comments to Celena Rae and Janay Castine were worse. Simon told the 17-year-old Castine – who already looks terrified enough out there — that she was “like a little doll who’s been programmed to be a pop star.” Apparently that wasn’t enough. Who knows what he’ll say next week?
Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.