American Idol

The Top 24, Team Awesome, and Howard Stern
Obsessive analysis of American Idol.
Feb. 11 2010 11:17 AM

American Idol

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Howard Stern. Click image to expand.
Howard Stern

Who will American Idol's top 24 be? Well, this week we had some flubbed words and some floods of tears, some begging, some choosing wrong songs, some waitresses becoming artists, and artists with unbecoming behavior—so, you do the math. No, really, get out your calculator. With Ryan's announcements of the 181 arriving in Hollywood, 85 cut from the first round and another 25 in the second, 71 going through, plus the four judges, a missing mother, and even one birth, the shifting numbers meant chaos in the Kodak—so many faces and so many voices that I wouldn't be surprised if one or two contestants missed their call and are still wandering the wings or practicing in a closet somewhere. As it turns out, we really did lose one along the road to Hollywood (I guess you seriously need a GPS in Los Angeles), and singer-songwriter Kat Nestel cracked under the pressure of Hell Week, abandoning hope and her poorly rehearsed group before they even stepped on the stage. And I thought at first that Ellen was messing with the "step forward, step back"Chorus Line routine for shtick's sake, or to see what it was like to be mean—even Simon called her a sadist for it—but now I wonder whether she was actually just as confused as the rest of us, trying and failing to keep everyone straight.

The masses of singers were mostly identified in snippets nearly as brief as that disconcerting spotlight/evil-eye graphic flashing after the American Idol logo. (You saw that, too, right?) It made everyone seem especially vulnerable and as temporary as the Vitaminwater Zero cups that have mysteriously replaced the Coke on the judges' desks. And I ended up feeling like I'd missed something—we didn't even get to hear the song that made Kara think of Katie Stevens as "a potential winner." But as the montages whizzed by of contestants we may or may not ever have heard of before, Ellen settled into her new role with a stable presence and a keen ear. Maybe she's not the vocalist Paula Abdul is … but that's probably because she's had some singing lessons. She pulled no punches and assessed the state of things in her understated way, though it felt a little like she (or the editing) was holding something back. In any case, I have a feeling she'll hit her comedic stride when things get serious, and live, with the top 24.

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Among those who remained onscreen longer than 0.25 seconds, some of our most consistent performers continued to justify Kelly Clarkson's faith in the show. Andrew Garcia gave Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" his own twist, which had Kara dancing on our beloved ex-judge's behalf and Ellen doing the Paula and applauding with her hands above her head. Haeley Vaughn made a splash getting her Taylor Swift on (and sounding infinitely more country than the Grammy winner) with a "Change" I think I can believe in. Well, she's no Carrie Underworm yet, but she has potential. Her guitar strumming set the tone for half a dozen others, including the genuinely skilled bluesman Casey James. It's great to see the singers showing their musical chops like this—but after the endless parade of acoustic axes and Yamaha keyboards, I was dying for a ukulele or an auto harp or, like, a tuba or something. You just know Maddie Penrose has a nose flute in her purse along with her 20 pairs of crazy spectacles. Vered "Didi" Benami was another standout, offering a sensitive, dead-on Kara DioGuardi impersonation with "Terrified," the only one of the judge's songs so far that hasn't made me, or Simon, reach for the remote. And Mary Powers impressed Ellen but, I'm sure, lost some fans when her single-mom take-charge attitude crossed the line into domineering. (Not dominatrix—Erica Rhodes went home.) Of course, she made it through because the group auditions are not about finding singers to form the next 'N Sync. (Simon Fuller has another show for that.) They're about watching the contestants interact with one another as their real selves slip out, and slip up; about sussing out the competitive, the combative, the determined, the stoic, and the sweet, who will make up the most promising cast of TV characters; and there's always a contrary Mary around at least until the voting starts.

Even if it meant that Wednesday's pacing was rushed, I loved the new attention to group dynamics. We saw them one-upping each other by choosing the same song and rehearsing increasingly loudly in close proximity, we saw them getting yelled at and/or comforted by awesome coaches Michael Orland and Byrd, and we even learned a few team names: I caught Faith, Phoenix, the Mighty Rangers, Three Men and a Baby, Middle C, Mary and her contentious peers in The Dreamers, and from Mike Lynche's group my favorite title—Team Awesome. Destiny's Wild and its nemesis, Neapolitan (like Southern Italians? like the ice cream? the legally dictated pizza recipe?), squared off with Lady GaGa's "Bad Romance," and about 100 people forgot the many, many words to "The Sweet Escape." That was a mystifyingly popular choice, when Gwen Stefani's one-pitch patter does exactly nothing to show off the voice and is so brutally hard to memorize.

OK, I've reached the end of my post, and I suppose I've put off mentioning this week's big Idol news as long as I can. Actually, you know what? I don't remember any big Idol news this week—I am certainly not in denial about any suggestion that certain radio shock jocks might be in talks to replace certain judges who are leaving certain TV programs. I (and apparently the PTC) can't imagine how that would work with this Fox family show, unless the censorious American Idol logo were constantly hovering over Howard Stern's face, and most likely his middle fingers, and maybe some other body parts. Probably even his hair. Oops, but I didn't hear anything about Howard Stern this week. Stop hyper linking. I didn't! I'm not listening! La la la … moving on to next week and the selection of the top 24!

Katherine Meizel is the author of Idolized: Music, Media, and Identity in American Idol and a visiting assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Oberlin Conservatory.

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