Before we say anything else about the first live American Idol show this season, we’re going to need to talk about Steven Tyler’s shirt. Steven Tyler came out wearing this impossible-to-figure silky blouse-y thing with pictures of gigantic lips all over it, and you’re going to need to Google that shit, since no description I could ever give would do it justice. If I’d found this thing in a thrift shop when I was in high school, I would’ve laughed. Hard. I would’ve shown whoever I was with. I would’ve taken pictures if I’d had a camera with me. I would’ve told the story about finding this ugly-ass shirt with the lips in a thrift shop. I might’ve even bought the thing, just to give my story some credence. It would’ve become my own personal legend, like that one faded purple T-shirt I found in Value Village on York Road, the one that said, “THIS ISN’T A BALD SPOT IT’S A SOLOR PANEL FOR A SEX MACHINE.” The fact that a millionaire would wear this shirt on a highly rated television program . . . well, I just don’t know what to do with information like that.
But in a way, Tyler’s shirt fit in just fine because, on the male side at least, this season of the show looks like it’s going to be all about the freaks and weirdos. The guys who tried to sing popular songs in a professional manner just dropped off the TV immediately; it’s hard to imagine more than a couple of them sticking around in the weeks ahead. The guys who popped out were the ones who gave bizarre, distinctive performances, and we had so many of these guys that I’m suddenly convinced we’ve got a great season ahead of us. My favorite was Jacob Lusk, who went with the truly ballsy idea of singing a Luther Vandross song and making it gayer. Lusk, dressed in an absolutely beautiful suit, flirted and preened and whooped and wailed his way through “A House Is Not a Home,” displaying the absolutely absurd range and love of oversinging that set him apart during the show’s audition shows. He actually seemed to hold back a bit, saving the big leaps for the song’s more dramatic moments, and it fit him well. If this guy can stick around long enough to sing an honest-to-god disco song, faces will melt.
Painfully self-conscious Glee stock character Jacob Loewenstern similarly threw a ton of histrionics and sass into his read of the Doors’ “Light My Fire”; the judges joked about how many times he tossed his hair. The song is terrible, but Loewenstern’s unpredictable phrasing at least made it interesting. Paul McDonald, who I was convinced I’d hate, wore an insanely tight all-black thing and sang “Maggie May,” doing a weird druggy strut that channeled Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies more than any actual rock stars. James Durbin forced me to stop making Tourette’s jokes ever again by singing motherfucking Priest and basically blazing the fuck out of it. His “You Got Another Thing Coming” was a bit hammy and overdone, especially with all the devil horns, but the mere fact that someone sang a Judas Priest song on American Idol, fully committing and singing it well, is cause for very real celebration; I’m hoping he busts out with, like, “Two Minutes to Midnight” next week. And Texan beardo Casey Abrams got to close out the show by doing Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You” as a full-body conniption. To sing that song, you only really need to look like you’re about to completely lose your mind. He qualified.
Next to those guys, anyone who played it straight just immediately died on the screen. Jordan Dorsey and Stefano Langone both already pulled the desperation move of singing songs that are actually on pop radio right now, and though the quality varied (Langone strong, Dorsey shaky), neither one did himself any favors. Loathsome Clint Jun Gamboa showed the world that he can’t dance for shit when he tried to get funky on Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” a song that needs to get banned from American Idol forever. Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be” also needs to go away, and Jovanny Barretto sang it like he was waiting for a bus to hit him. The only two who made it out relatively unscathed were Scotty McCreery, whose “Letters From Home” was so fully in his wheelhouse that it got boringly professional, and Robbie Rosen, who did some nice sensitive-dude falsetto things with Sarah MacLachlan’s “Angel” and managed to be not as boring as I was afraid he was going to be.
As for the hosts, they worked pretty well. Steven Tyler turned out to be more cogent on live TV than I’d hoped/feared, and everyone at the table seemed willing to shit on a bad performance. The show is still missing a Simon-type figure who can definitively swoop in at the end and say whether or not a performance was any good and why. Randy Jackson tried to be that tonight, and he worked better than anyone could’ve expected, but he’s still got his laser-focus on pitch control, and I absolutely hate the way he says “false” when he means “falsetto.” Also, someone taught him the word “remix,” which is a shame.