Pop Culture

Kinder, gentler Simon judges the ‘Idol’ men

This episode could be titled "Simon on Prozac." A week after the supposed feud between Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell made the cover of People magazine, Cowell came through with far more positive comments than normal. He even resisted making fun of Ryan Seacrest's tight T-shirt, part of an outfit that made it look like he'd just come from the gym. Since Seacrest is far shorter than most of the contestants, it looked like somebody's little brother had wandered onto the stage with a microphone.

The old Simon might have ripped on that for the entire hour, but on Monday night he was oddly positive. Maybe he was trying to win a bet with the other judges.

Mario Vazquez, 27, New York: He rocked the house closing the show last week, then did Paula proud by getting the crowd involved with the O'Jays "I Love Music." He's sounded better, but the showmanship was definitely there, and he even got Simon to say that Vazquez "didn't need our advice." Shrewdly, he said he wanted it anyway because the judges know what they're doing. Even when they don't, a little flattery never hurts.Grade: B+Stay or go? He probably did enough to advance even disregarding any of his previous performances, and the judges clearly are praying that he moves on. He'll make it to the next round.

Anwar Robinson, 25, Elizabeth, N.J.: Broke out the Marvin Gaye, and a little "What's Goin' On?" It didn't start off that great but — like many of the contestants who followed — he pulled it off with a nice finish. Simon said he sounded fantastic, which seemed like a great sign until he told most of the other men the same thing.Grade: BStay or Go? It was a very solid performance, and the showmanship helped him a lot. Robinson's in slight danger of being voted off because he went so early in the night. Other signers might have caught the viewers' eyes by the end of the show, but should survive for at least another week.

Joseph Murena, 26, Smithtown, New York: Went with Al Green's, "Let's Stay Together." Murena did OK, but it was mainly notable because Simon returned to cranky mode and broke out the dreaded "If I'm being honest with you" — which has never yet been followed by "you are a mortal lock to make it big in the record business." In this case, the resulting comment was "We could have been in a Portuguese nightclub in 1974." If nothing else, that's the most bizarre comment we've heard all season on the show.Grade: CStay or go? It says a lot about the quality of singers here that Murena's vulnerable, but he is. He did fine, but it's at the stage where contestants need to be outstanding to feel safe. He wasn't at that level Monday.

David Brown, 20, New Orleans: Sang "All in Love Is Fair," made famous by Stevie Wonder. Despite Brown's slow dance with the microphone, it was his second straight blah performance, and left the judges wondering where the spark they saw at auditions had flickered off to.Grade: C-Stay or go? Brown's the contestant in the biggest danger of being voted off this week. The performance just wasn't good enough to get the kind of support he'll need to advance.

Constantine Maroulis, 29, New York: Maroulis will last a long time singing songs like "Hard to Handle," an Otis Redding special brought back to life by the Black Crowes. The only problem is that he risks sounding like the lead singer in a cover band, which Simon pointed out in his commentary. In fact, if he loses this competition and his band dumps him as their lead vocalist, that might indeed be his fate.Grade: BStay or go? Maroulis doesn't have to worry for some time yet — he should make the final 12 and it would be a major upset if he didn't even make it through the week. But a long-term worry is that right now he's the second-best of the two rockers in the competition, and will have to do something to separate himself from Bo Bice.

Scott Savol, 28, Shaker Heights, Ohio: He was dull and boring last week, but stepped it up with a little "Never Too Much" by Luther Vandross. The mere thought of that probably made the judges cringe, but he pulled it off and was much improved over last week. All the judges agreed that he raised his game. But will that be enough?Grade: BStay or go? Savol was definitely not one of the worst two singers, but as he says himself, his appearance doesn't do him any favors. He probably did enough to advance, and if he goes it won't be because of his voice. Paula and Simon agreed that he raised his game, which should make the viewers who read People magazine very happy that they've worked out their creative differences.

Travis Tucker, 21, Manassas, Va.: "All Night Long" by Lionel Ritchie was not the most daring choice in the world and Tucker's vocals weren't great. However, the song did allow him to show off his dance moves. It turns out to have been a shrewd decision, as it led Simon to call him "a born performer." He also apologized for criticizing Tucker last week, saying that the performance looked a lot better on tape.Mark it down: Monday February 28, 2005 — the first Simon Cowell apology in recorded history.Grade: B-Stay or Go? Tucker would be in a lot bigger trouble if the judges had slammed him, but their focus on showmanship helps him a lot. If he makes it to next week, however, he'll have to really step up the vocals to make the final 12.

Niko Smith, 22, Town & Country, Mo.: Smith picked "Let's Get It On" — the Marvin Gaye version, not the one Jack Black sung in "High Fidelity." Simon called it 1000 percent improved from the previous week, but it started off very slowly before Smith brought it on home with a flourish. If it did nothing else, it made Paula Abdul all hot and bothered, which was more than a little disturbing.Grade: BStay or go? Smith is another guy who will have to step it up again to reach the finals, but he did enough to make it another week.

Anthony Fedorov, 19, Trevose, Pa.: At some point in the competition, he may have to stop singing ballads. In the meantime, he did a fine job with Foreigner's "I Want to Know What Love Is." It didn't start off great, but he kicked it up a couple of notches and blew the judges away, with kinder gentler Simon calling it a fantastic job.Grade: A-Stay or go? The judges all loved him, and will probably write some computer program that votes for him incessantly if they need to. Everyone clearly wants him to advance, and it would be a surprise if he did not.

Bo Bice, 29, Helena, Ala.: As Bice told the audience in the prerecorded bit they played before his performance, he'd been fired from his job because of the time he'd spent on "American Idol." So far, it's time well spent. He went with "Whipping Post" by the Allman Brothers, which may be the hardest rock ever played on the "Idol" stage. Fittingly, Simon ended the night by saying it was "so fantastic it just blows you away." If the camera had lingered on him longer, he might even have thrown a bouquet of roses on stage.Grade: A-Stay or go? If it's based on singing talent, Bice is one of the favorites to win this. However, he is much more of a traditional rocker than previous contestants have been, and that may not be what the viewers are ultimately looking for. But it would be a tremendous upset if he got the boot here.