Whatever doesn't deafen you makes you stronger: Grantland's Jay Caspian Kang, Mark Lisanti, and Emily Yoshida have returned, bowed but not broken, to tackle another season of American Idol. Who can keep riding their pro-Idol high fueled solely by energy harvested from Nicki Minaj's eyelash flutters, and who is one Elton John cover away from launching a full-scale cyberbullying campaign against a certain pasty 17-year-old? Find out as we forge bravely onward into Vegas Week!
Another round, another format change. Are you feeling this "Sudden Death" business, or does it take some of the anticipation out of the actual live shows?
Kang: Here are the two choices: You can go with last year’s model, where the contestants walk down an impossibly long marble runway into some weird indoor island to cry with J.Lo and Steven Tyler. Or you can go with what we saw this past week, which mostly involved a bunch of freaks on stools. Both formats make for pretty dull, fast-forwardable television, but of the two, I prefer last year’s model because it at least weeded out some of the pretenders without subjecting us to their singing. There were waaaaaaay too many people this week who had absolutely no shot of making it through to the Final 20. Why put everyone through the torture, contestants and audience both? Do we really need to watch a bad drag queen writhe onstage and sing Adele that badly?
JDA, we could have had it all: You could have sung one of my favorite songs: “The Origin of Love” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch and forever held the crown for the greatest drag-queen moment on American Idol ever. Instead, you sang Adele … Of course you did.
Yoshida: I kind of like the idea of the Top 20 being whittled down in a hermetically sealed, fog-filled backroom of some Vegas resort before being let loose on the voting public; this format somehow seems contaminated by comparison. I don’t want the judges and producers to know that Johnny Keyser doesn’t really make girls other than Nicki and Mariah scream; and I’d rather see JDA and Charlie try to sustain their brand of peacocking in an empty room. Half the fun of the first live shows is that we’ve got 20 people who we’ve each seen perform a handful of times, we’ve been told they’ve clawed their way through this rigorous judging process, and we have a pretty good idea of their strengths and weaknesses; but there’s still a big chance that someone could fall on their face once the lights hit them and they see the crowd. The pretaped Vegas live show is like crash-testing your egg-drop device right before your OM team goes before the judges. Not exactly cheating, but it takes the surprise out of the whole exercise.
Lisanti: I can never even remember the format year-to-year. If they hadn't told us, repeatedly, that they were doing something new with this round, my brain would have automatically backfilled this information to last season's Top 40 round and invented memories of a spandex-clad Phillip Phillips shimmying up and down a Cirque pole to an orchestral arrangement of "Ants Marching" on this very same Las Vegas stage. So I guess I'm OK with it, if Randy and Cecile Frot-Coutaz tell me I'm OK with it. They know what's best. They figured out a way to get rid of Johnny "Preppy Murderer" Keyser AND Jimmy "I Kind of Look Like Dave Pirner With a Dye Job, Perm, and Mystic Tan" Smith in the same night.
Was the fallen Johnny Keyser our best "cute white boy" candidate for the Top 13? Or will Elijah Liu’s multi-ethnic Bieber shtick be the new model for how to get the tween vote?
Kang: Don’t know how I feel about Elijah Liu. I get that he’s a great-looking young kid with a “commercial” voice (read: prepubescent, slightly creepy, but proficient in titillating tweens and their seemingly unlimited spending power), but he has absolutely no power in his voice. This wouldn’t be a problem if he could (a) dance, or (b) sing something dirty. But he seems to be a really nice young kid whom they stuffed into a leather jacket and some tight pants. What would his YouTube video even look like?
Yoshida Though I promised myself I’d never let myself be reminded of anything from the last season of the Show-That’s-Not-Idol-With-Britney-Spears-and-Demi-Lovato’s-Ponytail-in-It, I got major Arin Ray vibes from Elijah Liu. That’s a compliment, but it’s also a problem: Both are cute, hip-looking teenage boys with perhaps not the best vocals in the world but a lot of “star potential,” which is plenty exciting to watch in its own right if you delude yourself into thinking that American Idol is still in the superstar-making business. But if Arin is any indication, sometimes this stuff doesn’t read the best on TV — he made an unimpressive 10th place on a show that even admits it's more about star quality than singing ability (a shockingly unsuccessful formula so far, for what it's worth). I’d say Elijah needs to learn to dance or something, but he’s got that guitar, which, on Idol, as we know, is a much smarter weapon in the long run. If Elijah skews more Bruno than Bieber (I saw that fedora, Liu; I know you got it in you!), he might last a minute.
But it doesn’t really matter, because at this point they’re pretty transparently shutting out any conventionally attractive and bankably heterosexual males this season — Johnny Keyser and his alarming, catlike face would've been the closest shot. The five girls who made it through this week were better than the five guys by a few miles, Tenna and her inexplicable, musty-looking wig aside.
Lisanti: Elijah does nothing for me. That's almost certainly a huge point in his favor. It's a little painful to watch how meticulously he's putting together his entire package, like he's reverse-engineering Bieber, young MJ, and tweenpires, because he thinks that's what people will respond to. He's probably right about everything; Nicki's ready not only to sign him, but to adopt him and/or harvest his DNA for immediate cloning into an army of "Thriller"-jacketed Mini-Biebs.
A word of warning: "Yeah, I've been successful with the ladies." Those who fail to learn the Mr. Steal Your Girlfriend lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them and join the Dave Leathers Jrs. in the footnotes of Idol history.
Obligatory Charlie Askew check-in: He's gone shopping on Hollywood Boulevard since we last saw him. He also sang “Rocket Man” with a baseless mic. Should they just leave him in Vegas?
Kang: Sorry, Charlie, I’d like to Askew some questions: Can you describe "Charlie Askew Syndrome" to me? Can you explain how your social anxiety manifests itself? Can you detail one incident in your childhood that would warrant an actual clinical diagnosis? Are your parents the type of psychologist/therapist parents who over-diagnose their own kids to quell their own professional anxieties?
Because, Charlie, I’m getting more than tired of your whole “I’m a snowflake dandelion dragonfly” act. How about instead of eye-fucking the camera to show the depths of your “mad genius,” you actually just sing a song the way it was meant to be sung? Countless numbers of gangly dudes have proven that just sort of writhing around onstage while mumbling to yourself can be the recipe for short-term commercial success (R.I.P., SHANNON HOON), but at least most of those guys don’t act like they’re standing up for every real mental illness in the world by performing an ear-splitting version of “Rocket Man” on a televised singing competition.
It’s true: I'm riveted by your performances, Charlie. But I'm also riveted by the girl who stands in front of the Gelson’s on Hyperion and dances with the "Tax Services" sign. And she, at least, doesn’t buy wooden turtle necklaces on Melrose because she thinks it'll signify hope for the millions of downtrodden kids in America.
You’re not awkward. You’re on American Idol and seem to have made plenty of friends on the show already. You’re one of those assholes who quit the soccer team in seventh grade because you’ve smartly realized that you have a higher hand-job ceiling in the whole arts crowd, who love you for slumming it with them.
Oh, and I’ve already noticed that you have exactly ONE vocal trick in your bag. That thing you do when you bend over the microphone and scream up the register, that thing that sounds like massive engine failure? You did it twice during Hollywood Week and THREE times in one performance last night. It’s gotten old already.
Yoshida: He’ll have a stylist for the live shows, so I think he’ll be OK. [ducks down into Charlie Askew Situation Bunker, curls up on a beanbag chair, rocks back and forth mumbling “Nature Boy” while trembling and weeping]
Lisanti: He's an awkward, authentically strange kid having a moment in front of 13 million people a week. (For contrast, nothing Elijah does feels real; he's on the exact opposite end of the authenticity spectrum.) I think he's really into turtles. And magic. And YouTube videos of Freddie Mercury. I don't begrudge him any of this, and I can't get mad if he's playing up the weird. Weird's what he's got. Good on him and his turtles.
But he has literally no idea what he's doing. It's charming, to a point, and I think that point is probably two weeks from now, when the judges realize they don't have room to keep any cute pets around, and Nicki comes out dressed as a technicolor Koopa Troopa in tribute to her fallen favorite. Soon after, he'll be on a plane back to high school, where Jay Kang will be waiting to give him the swirlie of his life, whispering "Let's see how many turtles you can see in the bottom of this toilet!" into a feathered-earringed ear as he plunges Charlie's head over and over again into the churning, purifying waters. "Never mess with Elton again!"
Who wants it more: Angela Miller or Adriana Latonio? Important reminder: Adriana Latonio really, really, really wants it.
Kang: I must be in a terrible mood this morning because you’ve hit on Pet Peeve No. 2. Hey, contestants, please stop telling everyone how badly you want “this.” Of course you want “this.” Everyone wants “this,” and as every Eastern philosophy text from Lao Tzu to the Upanishads says: Wanting “this” is what ensures you will never get “this.” You don’t get special treatment because you feel entitled to fame and fortune just because you think it would be cool to be famous and fortunate. If anything, your inability to channel that intense desire into some skill or product makes you a much worse candidate for “this.”
Nobody wants “this” more than Curtis Finch Jr., who is somehow my favorite contestant and a whole bag of terrible at once. I love Luther Vandross and listen to him on the regular, but it took me a few bars to recognize whatever the fuck it was that Curtis Finch Jr. decided to do to “Superstar” last night:
It’s hard to imagine how Idol could strut out JDA and then follow up that whole pony show with something even more theatrical and ridiculous. It’s like watching a really constipated version of Kenan Thompson in that SNL sketch “What Up With That?” (Lorne: Let’s make a “What Up With That?” movie already! Easy setup: They’ve gone broke and need to raise money to save the church by throwing a gigantic concert. Duh. You start with the last “What Up With That?” ever, do some stuff in the middle, and end with the NEW AND IMPROVED “What Up With That?”)
Yoshida: I have a try-hard tolerance threshold, after which my brain actually filters out the entire memory of a contestant’s performance. All I remember about Adriana this week was that if there was a camera anywhere, she’d find it, tilt her head, and smile for all she was worth. It’s cute to know she cares, but during the guys’ night it got to the point where if they were just showing a wide shot of the audience and you happened to notice someone in the corner grinning so forcefully that their veneers started to pop off, even without HD you could safely bet it was Adriana. All I remember about Angie is that she's a dead-ringer for Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls, and I wouldn't be surprised if she puts someone in the hospital before this thing is over.
You know who wants “this” just enough? Amber Holcomb. HOW ARE YOU SO TALENTED AND WELL-ADJUSTED, AMBER HOLCOMB?
Best song choice of the season thus far. I have a new favorite, which means she’ll come in ninth place.
Lisanti: Merely invoking the name "Kenan Thompson" in reference to CFJ has me off his team. He's ruined for me now. I'll never be able to watch him sing without imagining Jason Sudeikis doing the Running Man behind him and Lindsey Buckingham leering from a nearby couch. Though in Curtis's favor: He's a 24-year-old kid who somehow feels like he's 54. Aging-up like that is a tough trick to pull off. The tweens are gonna love that!
I remain 100 percent on Team Angela. Her latest performance wasn't nearly as good as her piano-side coming-out party last week, but it was still one of the better efforts, and was better than anything we saw on last night's sad showing from the guys. Angela can definitely bring it. Her week-to-week challenge will be song selection, and choosing whether or not to get out from behind the piano. And then, as happens every season to the most talented female contestants, she will be placed on an ice floe by the 10-to-16-year-old, text-voting girls of America and floated out into the chilly oblivion of the Idol tour. I miss her already. R.I.P., Singing Marnie from Girls after a Dallas makeover.
Is Nicki just trolling Idol at this point? Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Yoshida: Just a note to the control booth for the live shows: When in doubt, never go for the Keith Urban one-shot. ALWAYS go for the Keith-and-Nicki two-shot.
And yes, please please please get your Barbz behind Charlie Askew. I can’t wait to see Randy Jackson finally keel over and die when he’s the last guy standing at the end of April. This is going to be an amazing season.
Lisanti: In two weeks, Nicki will have Keith Urban's head turned into her ultimate bus-driver hat.
Jay Caspian Kang wants this.
Emily Yoshida really wants this.
Mark Lisanti, eh, he could take this or leave this.