If you only started watching "American Idol" in the post-Simon Cowell era, over the past two seasons, then you were undoubtedly very confused when you tuned in for this Thursday's Season 12 Hollywood Week episode. What was this? An "Idol" judge giving actual advice? Having strong opinions? Not just telling everyone they're "beautiful" and "in it to win it"? Yes, on Thursday, newbie judge Nicki Minaj stepped it up and officially became "Idol's" new Simon Cowell, proving once and for all, to all doubters and haters, that Fox honchos actually knew what they were doing when they controversially hired her.
Sure, after two years of former judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler's softballing and spinelessness, not to mention Randy Jackson's overall ineffectiveness (and, three years ago, the checked-out emotional state of lame-duck judge Simon and the like-it-never-happened embarrassment that was Ellen DeGeneres), it was easy to at first be taken aback by Nicki's blunt, sometimes brutal, approach. It'd been a long, long time since viewers had heard such frank feedback from any "Idol" judge. But really, nothing Nicki blurted out this Thursday was any meaner (or less truthful) than anything Simon used to say in his heyday. The only difference was sometimes she dropped a (beeped-out) curse word or two. And even if Nicki's unminced words were sometimes difficult for the contestants (or viewers, or censors) to take, she said many things that everyone truly needed to hear. Seriously, it was about time that "American Idol" included some actual critiques again.
For instance, Nicki really turned on the tough love for one of her pet contestants, androgynous free spirit Papa Peachez--but her harsh words seemed to come from a good place. At least she seemed like she cared; remember, this was a contestant that she'd passionately fought for earlier in the week. "I'm pretty sure that flame is now completely burnt out. I'm so disappointed," Nicki scolded. "I can't believe you would allow this competition to suck that amazing quality out of you. I just hope that you realize how special you are."
When the judges then axed several contestants (including Papa), Nicki told them, "This was the one time to fight for your life, and if you didn't fight for your life, then you'll probably be pretty upset with yourself. You should be." And after Peaches exited the stage, she snarled to more mild-mannered judge Keith Urban: "I'm so f***in' disappointed...What the f*** was that?"
You know, Nicki was right.
And when country singer Paul Jolley shuffled onstage to sing his solo, already quivering with nerves, psyching himself out, and whining about his self-doubt to the judging panel, Nicki sternly told him: "You walked out so defeated, and that really irritated me. It's such a turnoff. Just give us one minute of professionalism!"
And Nicki was right.
And when 4'9" hopeful Matheus Fernandes came out and once again self-deprecatingly poked fun at his height (or lack thereof), Nicki chastised him for milking his sob story too much, barking: "Sometimes things can go from being inspiring, to like you wanting a pity party. And once you're great, we don't even notice your height. You don't have to milk that ever again. Be you, be great, and just rest in your talent after today." (Side note: I was more annoyed by Matheus's golly-gee claims that he'd never sung with a live backing band before, despite the fact that he'd been a finalist on another major TV singing competition, "The Glee Project," less than two years ago.)
AND NICKI WAS RIGHT.
By the end of the hour-long episode, only 28 of the 43 guys remained. (Eight more will be cut later, with 20 boys eventually moving on to Las Vegas.) Matheus and Papa were among the contestants expectedly sent home, but some of the other cuts were much more surprising, like botched-tonsillectomy survivor Micah Johnson, sign-language teacher Nate Tao, R&B powerhouse Sanni M'mairura, and fun-loving hairy rocker dude Gabe Brown. These cuts seemed like big mistakes on the part of Nicki and her fellow judges. (Nicki was not right, this time.) But maybe "Idol" editors made the bigger mistake here, by investing so much time in creating story arcs for contestants who wouldn't be sticking around for very long. Now Season 12 is left with a bunch of guys who've received comparatively little screentime and therefore have comparatively smaller fanbases.
So next Wednesday, it will be time for the Hollywood Week female hopefuls to compete. Will Nicki give the girls similarly honest, no-holds-barred critiques? I imagine so--if anything, Her Minajesty might be even harder on the girls. And I say...bring it on. Being The New Simon is a dirty job, but someone's gotta do it, and judging from what I've witnessed so far, Nicki does it very, very well.
But that's still six days away. This Thursday's Hollywood Week episode focused on the male singers' solo round, during which the contestants were finally allowed play instruments (obviously an advantage for pretty much any male contestant on "Idol," as evidenced by the last five seasons). And although there were some Nicki-infuriating stumbles (and fan-infuriating eliminations), for the most part everything went much more smoothly than it did during Wednesday's disastrous group round episode, which seemed more like a particularly terrible episode of "Don't Forget The Lyrics."
These were the standout Thursday contestants who advanced:
Curtis Finch Jr. - Curtis came across as a bit of a villain earlier in the week, when he showed little sympathy for his ailing Couch Potatoes groupmate Charlie Askew, but there was no denying that his solo performance of Christina Perri's "Jar Of Hearts" was stellar. If Curtis can just turn on the charm a little bit more, he might attain his "goal to touch and reach the hearts of people."
Devin Velez - Devin didn't get any screentime until this week, but he was worth the wait. His cover of "What A Wonderful World" was wonderful indeed. Devin had Randy hootin' and hollerin' like a speaking-in-tongues churchgoer, and his odd but intriguing mix of Clay Aiken-meets-Matt Giraud might elicit equally enthusiastic responses from "Idol" voters.
Gurpreet Singh Sarin, aka "The Turbanator" - I'd previously assumed that Turb was a novelty contestant, especially after his group B-Side's bizarrely awful Estelle cover this past Wednesday. But when he picked up a guitar, sat down on a stool, got serious, and prettily crooned "Georgia On My Mind," I was impressed. Suddenly I had an urge to see more Turb. Is it possible that "Idol" might crown an "IGWG" champion this season?
Nick Boddington - A returning contestant from Season 11, Nick got another deserved chance to shine when he brought out the piano for a lovely rendition of Grace Potter's "Stars" (not an easy song to take on, especially for a male vocalist). He gave me a bit of a Daniel Powter vibe, in a good way, and he just dripped talent. Perhaps this will be Nick's year.
Charlie Askew - Everyone keeps saying this is the season that a girl will finally win "American Idol," but I simply cannot wholeheartedly root for that outcome, because then Charlie would not win Season 12. And he must win. I seriously need to come up with new synonyms for "adorable," because I've used that adjective way too many times to describe this ginger kid. I adored everything about his quirky cover of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used To Know," including his long-winded and dorky intro (which Nicki called "smart"). Somehow, Charlie made one of the most overplayed songs of the past year sound fresh and new again. Charlie should not be somebody that "Idol" used to know. He should advance to the top 20, and then the top 10, and then the top five, and so on. Charlie should be a star. And then he and Nicki Minaj can continue to "glorify weirdness" in pop music for years to come.
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