And then there were 24. On Tuesday and Wednesday night's "Hollywood week" episodes, Simon, Randy, and Paula winnowed the field of 172 contestants to a dozen male and a dozen female semifinalists. The also-rans were sent packing with brutal swiftness. "You're no good. You're going home," Simon barked at singer after singer. The shows had some drama, though much of it was manufactured in post-production, where low-level tension between contestants during the group round (when Idol hopefuls were forced to team up) was inflated with tricky editing and portentous background music, resulting in epics of intraband strife worthy of the Beatles circa April 1970. Exhibit A was the bickering trio of Antonella Barbra, Amanda Coluccio, and Baylie Brown. Their halting performance of "This Old Heart of Mine" resulted in "commercial with a capital C" Brown being sent home. Further bickering ensued, with Coluccio declaring, vis-à-vis Brown's dismissal, "God likes good people." The next day, Coluccio herself got the ax. Perhaps there is a God.
The musical highlight, by a mile, was the slick boy-band version of "How Deep Is Your Love" (the greatest wuss-pop song of all time) by Blake Lewis, Chris Sligh, Rudy Cardenas, and Thomas Lowe, complete with beat-box breakdown courtesy of Lewis. There were some decent performances of Aretha's "Until You Come Back to Me," with lots of help from Idol's house background singers. (Why aren't they in the competition, again?) Other than that, the usual: a parade of bitter and heartbroken contestants railing against the judges, rending their clothes, flipping the bird to the camera. By contrast, you had to admire the dignity and military bearing of dismissed Navy intelligence analyst Jarrod Fowler. "Today wasn't my day," he shrugged, while to port and starboard, fellow contestants sobbed in the fetal position.
The show proper—in which "America" casts its votes, with alternately gentle, bullying, and incoherent guidance from the judges—can now begin. Which means that we'll actually get to hear some songs. The early weeks of an Idol season have an oddly staccato rhythm. There's the nearly constant barrage of "comedy" (terrible singers in ridiculous outfits) and "pathos" (the weeping, the wailing), punctuated by up-close-and-personal segments introducing the contestants, and, only very occasionally, some music. The a cappella auditions aren't songs, per se; they're at most 30-second song fragments. Even during Hollywood week, musical snippets are all we get. Next week, for three nights (the show airs Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday) we'll at last hear the would-be Idols navigate songs from first note to last.
Demographically, the semi-finalists are an interesting group. I count 13 Caucasians, seven African-Americans, two (possibly three?) Latinos, and a couple of Asians. Seventeen-year-old Sanjaya Malakar is doubtless the most ethnically exotic, at least by Middle American standards. In fact, a decent case could be made that by reaching the Idol knockout stage, Malakar instantly and automatically becomes the most well-known South Asian in the United States. (Who else is there? Gandhi? Salman Rushdie? The girl from Bend It Like Beckham?) The regional breakdown is interesting, too. There are only seven Southerners, raising the possibility that this season will yield the first blue-state Idol. There are six Californians (four of them straight outta Los Angeles), three from Washington state, a couple of Chicagoans, and a Philadelphian. And there's 25-year-old Nicholas Pedro from deep-blue Massachusetts, the state where gays, Communists, and extraterrestrials are legally permitted to walk the streets in broad daylight. The North shall rise again! Another sign of creeping blue stateism: A full 25 percent of the semifinalists do not invoke Jesus, God, or faith in their "Fast Facts" survey answers on the show's Web site. Is America ready for a godless Idol? Is God? Is Amanda Coluccio?
OK, prediction time. Based only on the snatches of singing seen so far, and my laserlike pop critic's intuition, I am prepared to call the Idol competition before it begins. The final five will include vocal virtuoso Melinda Doolittle, suave Brandon Rogers, Jack Osborne doppelganger Chris Sligh, and gorgeous Antonella Barba, the Jersey Shore beauty worthy of a Springsteen ballad. But the winner will be my personal favorite, Blake Lewis, from Bothell, Wash., the funkiest blond boy this side of Justin Timberlake, and the only American male who owns more hair products than Ryan Seacrest. You heard it here first. Disagree? Care to make it interesting?