It’s Simon Cowell’s last year on American Idol, and he just does not give a fuck anymore. And so, an Idol first last night: After bubbly nonentity Didi Benami got finished with a particularly godawful performance, I’m pretty sure I heard a microphone catching Cowell muttering something about this being a “really bad show”, thus marking the first time he’s ever been full-on across-the-board merciless toward the show that pays his bills. The funny thing: He was sort of wrong.
True, last night had plenty of total stinkbombs, most of which came during the same particularly dispiriting stretch. Benami unforgivably sang around the melody on Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me”, shoehorning in tons of extra notes that shouldn’t have been there. This is exactly what you don’t want to do with a song that actually means something to people, and the judges were accordingly bloodthirsty. (Benami’s secrets week secret: She meows. Oof.) Teenage striver Katie Stevens, who brings an uncomfortable Tracy Flick vibe to everything she does, sang “Put Your Records On”, one of the worst songs in the history of the universe, and her version was exactly as appalling as every other version. (Katie’s secret: She can say “give me a kiss” in six languages. Yeah, that’s really it.) Michelle Delamor (secret: kids’ choir) sang a Creed song and wore those weird gloves that are all finger and no glove, which is about the worst combination I can imagine. Poor little Haeley Vaughn (secret: Etsy) just seems lost, and she’s apparently somehow developed a lisp since last week. Lots of dead weight to clear out here, and sometimes it’s like the Royal Rumble before Undertaker inevitably rushes the ring and tosses out six dudes in quick succession.
But the show’s biggest problem was actually a pretty good problem to have: Every performance existed squarely in the shadow of the night’s first song, which Crystal Bowersox just fucking bodied. (Crystal’s secret: She’s a twin, which either makes her Undertaker or Kane; I can’t figure out which yet.) This week, the whole show got switched around to account for some sudden mysterious illness that Bowersox had, and it was weird how the judges and Ryan Seacrest all danced around the particulars of what happened. But with her intense, churchy take on Creedence’s “Long As I Can See the Light,” Bowersox proved that she was probably worth all the schedule rearrangements. She left a smoking crater at the outset of the show, and nothing I’ve seen this season has really approached it. Nobody else had a chance.
People tried, though. Stalker-Blossom Siobhan Magnus (secret: once had a mohawk) actually didn’t come across quite stalkery enough; her version of Aretha Franklin’s “Think” lacked the riled-up intensity that the song demands. But her one big final note, a feral cat-screech that came out of nowhere and frankly astounded me, went a long way toward redeeming everything else. Paige Miles (secret: likes to color) sang Kelly Clarkson’s “Walk Away”, a smart left-field choice for a soul belter. She had trouble keeping up early on, but she built up to something pretty cathartic. Katelyn Epperly (secret: studied recording engineering) jammed some ill-advised big notes into Coldplay deep cut “The Scientist” but still came through with a pretty nicely understated take on the song. Lacey Brown (secret: Etsy again) looks more and more like Annie Potts in Ghostbusters 2 every week, which I’m pretty sure was a good thing. It was pretty lame how she sang “Kiss Me,” the exact song Kara suggested, a week after Kara suggested it, but she actually came across flirty singing it, something Idol contestants almost never successfully pull off. I didn’t like how the judges shitted all over her.
“Kiss Me,” it turned out, was a good suggestion, and the judges have been almost shockingly on-point this week. They’ve figured out, once again, that Simon should always talk last, which does away with some of last week’s awkwardness. They’ve ironed out some of their weird chemistry problems. Ellen’s gotten a little more comfortable telling jokes. Kara, unbearable early on, has mostly stopped mugging for attention and mostly started dispensing sharp and insightful advice. (About time someone called Idol contestants out on smiling during sad/angry songs.) Randy Jackson still never says anything, but even Cowell’s not quite phoning it in, his evident distaste for this particular night notwithstanding.
But other than Bowersox, my favorite of the night was Lilly Scott, someone the judges have no idea how to process. (Jackson invoked Bjork, and his pronunciation was so weird that I had to rewind to figure out what he was saying.) Scott’s secret was that she plays Moog, pronouncing it right and everything, and my wife Bridget nailed her deal exactly: She’s what would happen if Joanna Newsom tried out for Idol. Pretty fascinating cultural experiment! This week, Scott sang Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” a song fifteen bazillion times too big for her, and managed not to embarrass herself too bad. And it’ll be fun to watch the judges spend the season tripping over themselves figuring out how to praise her, whatever goofy ideas she attempts.