Holy shit, only one hour this week! Do you guys know what this means? It means we don’t have to sit through endless inane video packages about every contestant’s favorite fruit or whatever the fuck! It means the next contestant is onstage before the previous one is off! Last night was the best kind of American Idol episode: The kind with no fat. And this show can be just a ridiculously strong hour of TV when everything is working in its favor like that.
This whole show had kind of a depressing subtext: On last week’s elimination show, only people of color got kicked off. The week before, the same thing almost happened, and I don’t even know what that means. When Seacrest introduced all tonight’s singers in rapid succession last night, it went like this: white chick, white chick, Paige Miles, white chick. And everyone who got kicked off last week deserved to get kicked off, so it’s not even a matter of American turning into a KKK Teabagger nation overnight, I don’t think. But maybe they should’ve finally let Angela Martin through this year?
In any case, disturbing overtones or no, this did turn out to be a really strong hour of TV, with most everyone pulling out whatever they had left in their back pockets and everyone still competing actually looking like they deserved to be there. When the male contestants take over tonight, we won’t be so lucky; there’s still the Tim Urban Problem to deal with. But last night, nobody was actively embarrassing, and kinda-meh was the worst we heard. For Idol, that’s a true rarity.
Best of the night was one of my perpetually rotating top three: Siobhan Magnus, who murdered “House of the Rising Sun” with the kind of controlled-burn intensity that she’s just had on lock the past three weeks. After she was done, Simon Cowell called Siobhan “a little bit weird” and “a bit dark”, the code words he pulls out when he wants to remind the world that his picture of pop music is actually a bizarrely narrow one. Magnus was gripping. When she started singing, my daughter was digging in her toy basket and babbling to herself. But after a couple of seconds, she went quiet, stopped rummaging, and just stared at the TV. She only does that when either Elmo or the “On to the Next One” video is on. Magnus has something.
Part of the secret: Siobhan basically started out the song acapella, with only a barely-audible organ-sustain keeping her company. That’s a nicely effective way of neutralizing the persistently hacky house band, whose gloopy arrangements dependably trip up at least one contestant per night. The night’s other standouts also found ways of deading the impact of Ricky Minor and his lackeys. Up until now, Didi Benami has been the show’s Freck Billionaire Memorial Also-Ran. But last night, she sang a fragile acoustic version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon”, finally knocking off all the pageanty smiling for once. She seemed controlled and connected throughout, and the moment at the end when the backup singers came in was just really nice. I was a bit nervous for reliably badass Crystal Bowersox to go midtempo, and Tracy Chapman’s “Give Me One Reason” is a song that seems to completely destroy one contestant per year. But by building enough open space into the arrangement, Bowersox got to come real raspy without ever losing the song’s melodic thread, and it worked. Lacey Brown’s makeup job was teetering on clown status, and her quiet, plainspoken version of a Brandi Carlile song I’d never heard was low-key enough for her to get lost in the shuffle of a fast-paced episode like this, especially coming after Siobhan. But rewatching her via DVR (I’m dedicated like that), all the things that threatened to bury her also made it a really likable, unshowy performance.
This week’s house-band casualty was Paige Miles, who didn’t quite body “Smile” the way Jermaine Jackson did at MJ’s funeral (or the way I’m told Janelle Monae does every night), but who sang it well enough, and who gave us one of those nice little Idol meta-moments when she sang it after Kara told her to stop smiling so much last week. But the band’s godawful diffuse-jazz arrangement just sent her straight to hell. (Also, Paige forgot the cardinal Idol rule where you shouldn’t sing anything that’ll seem emotionally devastating if you have to sing it again after being eliminated; word to Haeley Vaughn doing “The Climb” last week.)
The others: Katie Stevens did Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth” and gave it a strong, professional reading, but that wasn’t enough to overcome the fact that “I Feel the Earth” is just a horrendously cheesed-out song in absolutely any context. Katie Stevens is trying so hard, but she can’t hang as an MOR holdout in a season full of spirited weirdos, and she fucked up “Breakway” by not being Kelly Clarkson. And Lilly Scott, one of my favorites, did a shittily retro version of Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” and came out looking way too She & Him. Simon called it “cute” and “quirky”, using both words as dismissals, and he wasn’t wrong. If she’s gone next week, I won’t die.