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Idol Watch: Girls Just A-ight, Ellen a Little Too De Generous

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American Idol moved into its live phase last night, with a performance set from the twelve semifinalist women. (The semifinal contestants will be singing music “from the Billboard Hot 100″: i.e., popular songs from pretty much any time, ever.) And it was a bit of a letdown for two heretofore heavily praised entities: the girls themselves, and new judge Ellen DeGeneres.

Simon Cowell, who usually makes some noise this time every season about which gender group is stronger this year, has proclaimed this the girls’ year, and from the Hollywood round performances, there was little reason to doubt him. (Though the guys also have a few strong-looking challengers, like Andrew Garcia.) But last night was a flat outing for most of the women, with a few out-and-out duds; and even the obviously stronger contestants didn’t deliver a blowout performance.

Let’s start with the positives. The best performances of the night came from exactly where I’d have expected. Lilly Scott gave a charming jazzy rendition of The Beatles’ “Fixing a Hole,” which—as Simon perceptively pointed out—was impressive not just for the singing itself but because it indicated that she has a guiding sensibility and taste beyond simply picking what she assumes the home audience will like. Crystal Bowersox, meanwhile, showed potential to induce the Kelly Clarkson Effect, namely, getting me to enjoy songs that I absolutely hate, in this case Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket,” which I’d hoped we’d buried in the ’90s. I also enjoyed Siobhan Magnus, who has a bit of a nasal tone—and I’m not sure has the stage presence to go all the way—but also seems to have a lot of confidence and vocal control. (I seem to recall liking Didi Benami too, but can’t recall anything about her performance the next morning, so take that for what it’s worth.)

The rest of the night ranged from the boring to the interesting-not-necessarily-in-a-good-way to the awful. Haeley Vaughn’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was kind of a train wreck, but kind of an interesting one, veering wildly across genres. I’m not sure Haeley has really defined who she is as a singer, but there’s something unpredictable and engagingly odd about her that makes me want to see what she’ll do next, which is a plus. And the worst? Tough call, but I’ve got to give it to Lacey Brown, just because doing a lousy version of “Landslide” is like a chef screwing up a recipe with foie gras: it’s inexcusable not to do better with such great material.

Now for the judges’ table. When I praised Ellen DeGeneres, along with much of the Idol-watching world, during the Hollywood round, I had one reservation. Ellen’s a great TV personality, and she was bound to come across well in a taped show; but the test would be when she had to give criticism off the cuff, live. And her first night, she seemed tentative and too determined to be the nice one.

I was a little worried about that last part when watching the Hollywood rounds. If you take a look at the final-cut round, you’ll notice that Ellen pretty much only ever got the job of delivering good news. That’s fine, and she was entertaining at it, but that ain’t all there is to Idol: at some point, you have to get your hands dirty and tell somebody that their dream just is not going to come true.

Last night, Ellen—understandably for a comic with a career as a likeable talk-show host—seemed to like pretty much everything, unless another judge had disliked it first, and then she simply agreed in the most positively phrased terms. Look, not everyone needs to be Simon Cowell: it’s probably a good thing for contestants to have someone in their corner when they have a bad night. But Ellen’s repeated deflecting of bad news—telling singers that they must be good to have gotten this far, etc.—got pretty repetitive pretty quick.

It also made me think that this might be about Ellen: is the problem not just that DeGeneres does not want to hurt singers’ feelings, but that she doesn’t want to hurt her own nice-gal reputation? This is Idol, not her talk show. She can be Ellen De Generous if she wants, but she has to give some criticism where due for it to have credibility.

It was one night, though, and live TV is a much different thing from taped, so I don’t want to judge her too definitively from one night. Making snap judgments without being able to edit is tough, and I can imagine Ellen must be somewhat reticent because she’s not a music professional. But she needs to remember that she’s on that stage because she’s not a music professional. She’s there as a viewer, and a fan with opinions—a stand-in for the rest of us.

And the rest of us who know nothing about music—like me—aren’t holding back judgment in our living rooms. Neither should Ellen.

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