Perched atop his intro platform in a dapper 5-button vest, Ryan Seacrest reminds us of the four sweetest words in television language: "This is American Idol."
The guys are up first, and they take turns mugging for the camera with a series of air punches and finger pistols. Ryan introduces the judges, and then a montage of happy memories introduces each of the contestants tonight, starting with Rudy Cardenas. Now that he's made the Top 24, he wants Simon to warm up to him. Rudy sings "Free Ride" by the Edgar Winter Group. Randy thinks it was corny. Paula says it was a fantastic start. Simon finds nothing unique in the performance.
Brandon Rogers has performed backup for Xtina, Usher, and Justin Timberlake. Now he's ready to be the front man. He sets out to prove it by singing a very gentle lullaby...no wait! It's Michael Jackson's "Rock with You." Brandon is put together well, accessorizing with an iron cross belt buckle and the hint of a possible pocket watch. Of course, his most valuable accessory is his soon-to-be-trademark smile. Randy breaks out the word 'pitchy' for the first time in Season 6. Simon feels that the performance was safe and predictable.
Looking to put the failures of a surprisingly challenging Hollywood Week behind him, Sundance Head steps to the mic to the dulcet tones of The Moody Blues. Singing the first two verses of "Nights in White Satin," Sundance doesn't look as sharp as he sounds. Randy says that the song was pitchy and suggests that Sundance has abandoned the bluesy tones that they loved so much in his audition. Paula feels that the song choice was poor. Simon says that Sundance reminded him of a dad at a wedding, criticizing the way he used his hands. This leads to a crossfire session between Ryan, Sundance, and the judges.
Shoeless Paul Kim wants people to be shocked, so he brings the Wham! His rendition of "Careless Whisper" starts with a whisper, then builds to a roar. Paul tries to channel his inner Ace Young, but the falsetto falls short. Randy thinks it started pitchy, got better, then not so good. Paula tells Paul that he didn't find his center, but he is worth pushing through there. Simon tells Paul to put his shoes on. Ryan tries to console Paul, joining him barefoot on the stage. Randy is amused...Simon, not so much.
Chris Richardson has enjoyed being compared to Justin Timberlake. Tonight, he takes the stage with JT's haircut and his wardrobe from the Grammys. Then, just when he should have donned a pair of P.M. Dawn sunglasses and cut a hole in a box, Chris settles for "I Don't Wanna Be," by Gavin DeGraw. Fortunately for Chris, he did not inherit his rhythm or fashion sense from his old man, whose support is clearly unconditional. Randy feels that Chris brought a unique flavor and encourages Chris to do even more. Paula really enjoyed the arrangement. Simon elicits a chorus of boo's as he opines that Chris's voice felt small to him.
A very emotional Nick Pedro questions why he has been so blessed in life, demonstrating genuine humility. Nick will have no problem maintaining modesty after this rendition of Richard Marx's "Now and Forever." Randy asks whether he should "keep it real" and, invited to do so, informs Nick that it was boring and not good for him. Paula states that the performance fell a little flat, leading to the biggest surprise of the evening: Simon liked it! Nick and Ryan bust out the "Vote for Pedro" reference, effectively robbing me of the only good joke I have left.
Blake Lewis is more than just some dime-a-dozen beatboxer from the Land of Grunge, and he's out to prove it with "Somewhere Only We Know," by Keane. Blake becomes the first contestant to sit for his song and may have just become the first contestant to forget a lyric. Wait! Dad knows all the words! Look at Dad! Blake recovers and sings very well, even without the benefit of vocal percussion. Randy tells Blake that he was surprised by the song, and liked it. Paula really loved the contemporary vibe of the performance. For the first time in recent memory, Simon echoes Paula's sentiment, stating that Blake was the first contestant to sound like he was singing in '07, not '77. Blake, Simon says, is by far the best of the night.
Not so fast, Simon. Sanjaya Malakar is on deck. After Shyamali was eliminated, Sanjaya was sad, but he now feels stronger because of her support. Sanjaya performs Stevie Wonder's "Knocks Me Off My Feet," a dragging disco ballad whose most conspicuous lyric is "I don't wanna bore you with this." Somebody cue Simon. Randy starts by saying, "on the bright side," then proceeds to say that it was bad. Paula loves Sanjaya's spirit and personality and wants him to put more of it out there. Predictably, Simon does reference the lyrics, stating that the performance was so boring that half of the band fell asleep.
Chris Sligh believes that his American Idol success has been due, in large part, to his sense of humor. No doubt. His Hasselhoff line is the single best utterance among six seasons' worth of American Idol. Chris has chosen to sing a song called "Typical." Randy is a Chris fan. Paula tells Chris that she is impressed by his strategy. Simon likes Chris personally, but felt that his performance was like a "weird student gig." Chris fires back, mocking Simon's association with Il Divo and Teletubbies. The verbal snipes are exacerbated when Simon calls Ryan "Sweetheart." Everyone feels awkward.
Save us, Jared. We don't know who you are, but you're the only one who can quell this discomfort. Tonight he is looking to introduce himself with a little help from Brian McKnight's "Back at One." Randy thought the performance was pretty good, but says that he didn't like the end. Paula likes the upbeat Jared better than the one who just performed. Simon tells Jared that he looks good, but feels that the song was unadventurous and nasally.
The evening's penultimate performer is A.J. Tabaldo, who is in his fifth season as an American Idol performer. His Idol experience has been "every word in the dictionary." Summarizing his own relentless nature, A.J. sings "Never Too Much," by Luther Vandross. Randy feels that A.J. worked it out in his own kind of way...for what that's worth. Paula thinks that A.J. can sing. Simon says that the performance was "theme-parkish."
Last but not least, Papa Phil Stacey, who is excited to have his wife and in-laws in the audience this evening. With his shaved head and big blue eyes, Papa Phil looks like a cross between Chris Daughtry and Gollum. He busts out a little Edwin McCain for the values voters in the audience and, after a slow start, sounds fantastic singing "I Could Not Ask for More." Randy says that it was hot "from the dawg." Paula really got into the song during the chorus. Simon felt that the beginning was "monstrous", but liked the ending.
Ryan keeps Phil on stage just long enough to throw down a Britney Spears bald joke. The Top 12 girls perform their happy dances once again, and Ryan tells us that the phone lines will be open for at least two hours. Then, just like that, Season 6 is in your hands.