"Now, you are in control." With those words, "American Idol" kicked off its popular-vote rounds, set to whittle the 24 contestants down to 12. Tuesday night put up all 12 women, of whom six will ultimately advance to the finals. While one or two were duds, the competition got off to a promising start overall.
The evening opened with Mandisa, whose confrontation with Simon over his remarks about her weight split public opinion late in the Hollywood rounds. Mandisa delivered a solid, confident performance of Heart's "Never" that united the judges in praise. Paula Abdul was perhaps overly impressed with Mandisa's courage in tackling Heart, but it was nice to see a good performance render a controversy largely irrelevant.
Mandisa was followed by the badly outgunned Kellie Pickler, who continued her effort to be the poor man's Carrie Underwood by obediently singing a Martina McBride song. If there's anything that will make a person appreciate Carrie Underwood, however, it's Kellie Pickler. Where Carrie was polished, Kellie is wobbly; where Carrie was composed, Kellie is irritating and chatty. Her closing story was painfully overtold, her "Pick Pickler!" battle cry was horrifying, and her singing ultimately left a great deal to be desired.
Also playing a weak hand was Becky O'Donohue, who sang "Because The Night," which she prefaced with a boring story. In addition to aping Natalie Merchant far too blatantly at times, Becky's pitch was weak, her enunciation was bizarre, and she managed to look like she didn't know the words, even as she was singing them. Both Simon and Randy gave her the odd "compliment" that while her singing was not very good, it was better than they expected. Not what she was probably hoping for.
Following Becky was dull, perfect Ayla Brown, who manages to be both good and terrible at the same time. As she did throughout the audition rounds, Ayla performed flawlessly while sounding as much as possible like every singer of every adult-contemporary ballad in the history of Disney movies, grocery stores, and figure-skating specials. If the entire playlist from a soft-hits radio station were dumped into a blender and then poured into a mold, the resulting plastic figure would look and sing a lot like Ayla Brown.
Let's hope we always have ParisNot suffering from any such energy deficit is young Paris Bennett, who gave a spectacular audition early on and then seemed weak in Hollywood. Happily, on the first night of voting, Paris did everything right. Her rendition of "Midnight Train To Georgia" was infectious, crowd-pleasing, musically rock-solid, and endearingly reminiscent of Gladys Knight without seeming like an imitation. Paris knows what she's doing, and she's just about the only girl all night who moved around the stage effectively, adding a measure of stage presence that will serve her well.
The undesirable task of following Paris fell to Stevie Scott, who has been notable throughout the audition rounds as the girl who sings opera. Scott chose a soft, unimposing song swiped from Josh Groban, and she sang it in a breathy, listless voice that may or may not have been a gimmick. It worked on Paula, but not on Simon or Randy — certainly not the first time that math has played itself out. Added to fairly serious pitch problems, Scott's odd performance style seemed to leave her vulnerable to elimination.
Then, it was time for Brenna Gethers, who gained a reputation in Hollywood for obnoxious, bratty behavior and smacking herself on the behind. Clearly intending to walk away from the Great Big Jerk persona before it completely swallowed her, Brenna switched gears to "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life," possibly the friendliest song ever written.
Had she nailed the song musically, no one would have questioned her decision, but her delivery was shaky and she seemed unconvinced by her own efforts at pep. The judges gave her a beating for abandoning her irritating essence, at which point she adopted it once again, meaning that she pleased neither people who took to her new "softer side" nor people who didn't. She's likely to stay a while simply as a result of getting so much attention, but she's not gaining many real fans this way.
Could Heather Cox be the first to go?Perhaps the oddest performance of the night came from Heather Cox, who had laryngitis in Hollywood and got through anyway. As Randy pointed out, one would expect her to come out firing on all cylinders. But Heather's watery, weak rendition of "When You Tell Me That You Love Me," a song popularized by past "Idol" contestants that sounds like something Joanie and Chachi would have performed, consistently seemed limited by either a new bout of throat problems or some serious issues of nerves. If there is one prime candidate for elimination after Tuesday night, it is probably Heather Cox.
Melissa McGhee came next, singing for the first time on television after, as she reminded the audience, being barely seen until Tuesday night. In her first few notes, McGhee was tentative and a bit off-pitch, but as her Faith Hill number built, her voice strengthened, and by the end, she had made a good showing. Like a few of the other women, she will battle her lack of early exposure, but there is more color to her voice than to that of, say, Ayla Brown.
The judges were awed by Lisa Tucker, one of the youngest performers in the competition, who sold a Jennifer Holliday number in a convincingly Jennifer Holliday-like style. Lisa can definitely belt, but her style is more admirable than it is interesting thus far, and the judges' praise of her seemed a little overheated. Still, she was likable and is obviously talented, and don't be surprised to see her hang around.
It was interesting to watch Tucker followed by Kinnik Sky, who is 28 to Tucker's 16, and was aiming at a similar target with her performance of "Get Here," a song that should soon cause horns to honk and balloons to fall from the ceiling when it is sung for the one millionth time on "American Idol."
While Kinnik was praised, Simon went out of his way to tell her that she was at a disadvantage compared to younger girls who were singing and performing better. As the age gap between contestants widens — Lisa is 16; Mandisa is 29 — it will be interesting to see how both the judges' expectations and audience reactions treat those at opposite ends of that continuum.
Finally, there was Katharine McPhee, who is precisely the sort of endlessly irritating "Idol" contestant who announces that music is her life but also believes that "Since I Fell For You" was originally performed by Barbra Streisand. Katharine is cute and all smiles, and she has certainly mastered the art of melisma. But just as with Ayla, there is something heavily manufactured about her.
The judges lost their senses falling all over themselves to drool over her, but there is, as they say, no there there. Much more than Kellie Pickler, she is this year's Carrie Underwood, and you know what that might mean.
Tomorrow night will bring performances from the 12 men. If one of them performs "Get Here," listen for the sound of honking.