‘American Idol’ Vegas Rounds, Part 2: The Guys Glorify Weirdness

After an excellent start to the “American Idol” Vegas rounds this Wednesday with a batch of 10 girls, the show returned to the Cirque du Soleil theater on Thursday to do it all over again with 10 boys. And what a diverse group of boys it was. Performing in front of a live studio audience—a first for “Idol’s” top 40 semifinals—the male contestants ran the gamut from conservative country to old-school R&B, from Spanglish Beyonce to a Pete Burns/Phil Oakey/Prince clone named Josh "JDA" Davila, who gave possibly THE most outrageous “Idol” performance of all time. And interestingly, there was nary a guitar-wielding Lee DeWyze or Phillip Phillips clone in sight. Seemingly determined to ensure that a girl wins this season—or at least that a “WGWG” doesn’t—the show’s powers-that-be stacked the deck with some very atypical contestants this year.

And the most atypical was gender-bending JDA, of course. Rocking an outfit that was sparklier, gothier, and girlier than what many of the female contestants wore on Wednesday—spike heels, fishtail hairdo, backless leather harness top, some sort of fortune-teller gypsy skort—JDA pranced out ready to “star in his own movie,” and I was ready to pass the popcorn and watch the director’s cut. While other boys of the night stuck to mostly bland balladry (and sometimes even sat on stools), JDA rolled around on the stage floor like Madonna at the 1984 VMAs to Adele’s sassy “Rumour Has It"; coyly sang, “Rumour has it he's the one I’m leaving you for"; and later declared, “I gotta represent for the gays!”

Oh, he represented, all right.

“We haven’t seen this much glitter since Adam Lambert’s season,” quipped Ryan Seacrest. C’mon, JDA was so “glistening and glittering,” he made Adam Lambert look like Scotty McCreery. Unfortunately, JDA didn’t exactly possess a Lambertian vocal range—his voice was merely decent. But he entertained. He brought a little Vegas show(wo)manship to Vegas Week. And he delivered possibly THE wildest live-show “Idol” performance in all 12 seasons, aside from Norman Gentle’s “And I Am Telling You” in Season 8. But at least JDA had Norman totally beat in the wardrobe department!

“Well, we are in Vegas, so you certainly were right at home on that stage. I commend you for putting on a show. I also applaud your originality,” said judge Keith Urban. Nicki Minaj didn’t think JDA’s vocals were on point, but she still affectionately called him “Miss Lady” and a “superstar” and exclaimed, “Werk it, gurl!” Randy Jackson was also unimpressed with JDA’s voice, but admitted, “If we gave an award for best performance, it would go to you.”

In the end, though, JDA’s fearlessness, fierceness, and fabulosity were not enough to award him a spot in the next round; he was told to sashay away when it came time for the judges to cut five of Thursday’s 10 boys. Too bad. JDA may not have been the best singer in the bunch, but he certainly had the X factor. But I think there’s another reality competition JDA should consider auditioning for, and it ain’t on Fox: When does Season 6 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” start?

At least Charlie “Glorify Weirdness” Askew carried on the spirit of JDA, by taking the stage in a Hollywood Boulevard vintage-store ruffled blouse and a hip-slung rhinestone belt literally borrowed from JDA’s closet. Charlie, who miraculously and somewhat thrillingly did make it to the next round, delivered a bizarre, goofball performance of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” that was equal parts Brett Loewenstern, Jon Peter Lewis, Jackie Tohn, and Heejun Han—or, as Keith described it, like “if Freddie Mercury had a lovechild out of Woodstock.” The kid just went nutso—dropping to his knees, wielding his mic stand like a golf club (he’d actually practiced with a golf club backstage earlier), nervously bugging out his eyes like a Looney Tunes character, and hitting dog-whistle-decibel notes that even Mariah Carey would not attempt. This was some amazing, weirdness-glorifying television, right here.

“No matter what people are saying at home, I bet no one left the TV for that performance. It’s like, what the hell are you doing? But somehow you make it work,” said Keith. Nicki, the panel’s resident weirdo and obviously Charlie’s kindred spirit, gave Charlie a standing ovation and declared, “Your weirdness and awkwardness excite me. It’s fresh. It’s crazy. I want to cradle you in my arms!”

Some of the other boys who made it through on Thursday weren’t nearly as exciting as Charlie the little “awkward turtle,” like old-fashioned soul balladeer Curtis Finch Jr. and bland country balladeer Paul Jolley. But Bruno Mars-channeling Elijah Liu (perhaps the most modern and relevant contestant among this week’s boys) and bilingual belter Devin Velez seemed like strong contenders, so I look forward to seeing them compete alongside Charlie in the top 20. And as for JDA, maybe Charlie can pull some strings with producer Nigel Lythgoe and get JDA hired as his personal wardrobe advisor this season...

Here's how the other male contestants—the ones who made it through, and the ones who didn’t—performed on Thursday:

Paul Jolley – It was a risk for Paul to do a Keith Urban song in front of Keith Urban, a bigger risk than even his tendency to wear unflattering white trousers. (Paul needs some fashion advice from JDA, too.) Paul’s cover of Keith’s “Tonight I Want To Cry” was fine, but it started off so sedate, it made me want to cry out of boredom. Then Paul tried to get all theatrical and showy, and that didn’t really work either. While Keith was flattered by the song choice, he sternly told Paul, “You don’t need to compensate with a lot of over-performing.” Nicki also criticized Paul for trying too hard and told him, “We’re not feeling that raw emotion.” Randy, on the other hand, appreciated Paul’s "ginormous range,” which he compared to that of Rascal Flatts’ Gary LaVox. Mariah found Paul’s “flexibility”—i.e., his ability to lurch from quiet to loud—“refreshing.” In the end, Paul made it through, but only after a tie-breaker vote from in-house mentor Jimmy Iovine. I usually agree with Jimmy, but this time, I wish he’d sent Paul home.

Johnny Keyser – Johnny, despite possessing the sort of blandly pretty Ken-doll face that usually lights up “Idol” switchboards (and lights up flirty judge Nicki's face), went into Season 12 with a preexisting likability problem—because when he made last year’s top 60, he callously kept on singing after his fellow contestant fainted onstage next to him. But tonight, all he had to do was impress the judges, not voters. Unfortunately for him, he impressed more with his dreamboat good looks than with his voice. “You look real sexy tonight…you don’t have the great voice, but you have a nice sparkle in your eye, and I think girls are gonna love you,” cooed Nicki. “I don’t want to get in trouble with my husband, but you are giving the masculinity and sexiness,” said a similarly smitten Mariah. “I don’t know if you’ve got the greatest voice. For me it felt just okay,” shrugged Randy. Keith was the kindest, telling Johnny, “That’s the best you’ve sung.” But it turned out Johnny’s cover of Jason Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up” was not prophetic. It was his time to give up after all, as he was once again eliminated from the show, for the second season in a row.

Kevin Harris – By singing the sleepy and dated “Everything I Do, I Do It For You,” by Bryan Adams, this also-ran all but ensured his irrelevance on the show. The fact that Kevin actually followed JDA’s tour de force only made him seem even more dull by comparison. Keith loved Kevin’s range, Nicki called him “perfection,” and Mariah said his vocals were “100 percent,” but for once I agreed with Randy, who grunted, “I was bored. I felt it was karaoke.” Randy must have somehow convinced his fellow judges during the deliberations, because in the end, Kevin didn’t make the cut.

Chris Watson – Chris had the look I wanted to know better (very Karate Kid meets Breakin’ 2, in a good way), and Nicki was certainly feeling Chris’s look as well: She actually told him, “You are the prettiest man I have seen in my life!” But he didn’t possess the prettiest voice. His cover of Otis Redding’s “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay” was entertaining and energetic (he too had the X factor), but his vocals lacked power. Three of the judges went easy on Chris, though. “In a lot of ways, this is more of a connection competition [than a singing competition]…the voice wasn’t the best it could have been, but I think you have so much confidence onstage. You’ve got a lot going for you,” said Keith. “I want to marry your vibrato; every time you sing, it gets me. I am obsessed with you. I love everything about you!” gushed Nicki. “It was not best vocally, but certain things, like that beautiful face, have overridden that,” admitted Mariah. Only Randy was tough, once again, saying, “I’ve been looking for people to show me something vocally. The song goes nowhere for me. It didn’t give me enough. I was bored.” I sort of agreed with all of the judges; Chris was one of the fence-sitters for me this evening. But in the end, he ended up on the wrong side of the fence, and Chris and his fabulous headscarf were eliminated.

Devin Velez – Sweet, unassuming Devin didn’t receive much screentime this season until Hollywood Week, but he’s been a standout ever since. And with his Spanish-inflected performance of Beyonce’s “Listen” this week, he became a real contender, a real one-to-beat. He sounded pretty much perfect, and both the judges and audience were over-the-moon for him. “You walk out there and you can sing. You made a connection with your voice. You didn’t have to do anything else except be in the song,” noted Keith, possibly making a small dig at crazier, more gimmicky performers like JDA and Charlie. “You made a smart choice as an artist to sing in Spanish, because that opens you up to another world. You have a nice spirit, a warmth about you that shines through your eyes,” said Nicki. “Dude, I love you. I thought it was amazing,” raved Randy. “I can’t wait to see what a producer does when you get in the studio,” said Mariah. It was no surprise that the judges unanimously voted to put Devin through to the top 20.

Elijah Liu – Elijah ran the risk of being labeled a Bruno wannabe by covering Bruno Mars’s “Talking To The Moon” (he did it well, but not as well as Bruno). But he really came across as the most modern and marketable contestant of the night, when most of the other boys did old-fashioned cabaret ballads while dressed in (non-Timberlakian) suits and ties. There was a nicely androgynous quality to his clear voice, and his boy-band image and what Randy called “swagged-out” style didn’t hurt either. Keith admitted that Elijah’s performance had been “fairly shaky,” but quickly added, “You look like a freakin’ pop star, and you have a way about you that’s so relevant. It’s really refreshing.” Nicki totally fangirled again, howling, “You are a super-duper star, little boy. I wanna have your babies. You’re my new favorite boy. I’m obsessed with you. I would sign you today. You’re ready now, now, NOW!” Mariah nostalgically, affectionately compared Elijah to New Edition. Only Randy was critical of Elijah, but even he believed the guy was “capable of more.” And in the end, Elijah got a chance to prove that, because he made it to the top 20 round.

Jimmy Smith – This country golden boy seemed marketable—certainly more so than Paul Jolley—but his rendition of Radney Foster’s “Raining On Sunday” (which was once famously covered by Keith Urban) fell flat. It was marketable, but not memorable. Keith merely said, “I thought you did a really good job tonight,” and left it at that. Nicki admitted she was distracted, still thinking of Charlie’s performance from earlier in the night, and said, “I thought it was a good vocal, but I was little bored.” Randy agreed: “Definitely a little bit boring.” Mariah, a fan of Jimmy, said it wasn’t Jimmy’s best, but asserted, “I still think there’s something about you that America should be able to see.” But America won’t get that chance: Jimmy got cut at the end of the show.

Curtis Finch Jr. – This gospel showboater and early frontrunner got the pimp spot and sang the Luther Vandross version of “Superstar.” He sang the heck out it, really. But it was still too old-fashioned for my tastes. Why must every male R&B singer on “Idol” be the second coming of Ruben Studdard? Curtis is only TWENTY-FIVE, and both Randy and Mariah advised him to loosen up, relax, and choose songs more suited to his age. But none of the judges could deny the power of Curtis’s voice, no matter what he sang. “Preach on, brother Curtis! I feel thoroughly cleansed of my sins. I think that was really beautiful,” said Keith. “Darling, you are well on your way. You’re ready, you’re poised, and it’s your time,” said Nicki. Randy called Curtis “unparalleled…you can sing anything. You can really go there.” Mariah was “moved to tears.” So naturally, Curtis moved on to the next round. We’ll see if he youths it up the next time he competes.

So next week, “Idol” will do this again, with 10 more girls and 10 more guys. And among the 10 girls on Wednesday will be zany Zoanette Johnson, who might even manage to make JDA and Charlie look tame. I can't wait. See you then.

Parker out.

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