Tuned In

Idol Watch: Man Up, Boys!

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At the beginning of the last boys’ night before the final-12 round of American Idol, the male contingent of the singing contest lined up on stage as if they were getting ready to die. Such a nervous-eyed, beaten-cur group of semifinalists I have not seen on Idol. You can talk about this season’s guys’ singing ability, their looks, their song choice, but—with a couple notable exceptions—what they simply need is some confidence.

There’s a been a lot of talk, pretty much justified, that the girls are the stronger group this year, and the boys seem to have let it get inside their heads, as if they’re just biding time before they go out to get machine-gunned by Crystal Bowersox and her crew. I don’t know if that’s actually going to happen; the side effect of having more strong girls is they may split the vote and leave an opening.

But many of the guys this season are only hurting their chances by bleeding stage anxiety. Aaron Kelly and Alex Lambert have strong enough voices, but they come across gunshy, as if expecting Ryan to give them the back of his hand, and they project all the assertiveness of Butters from South Park. Andrew Garcia, who once seemed like a contender, offered what Simon rightly called a “desperate” cover of “Genie in a Bottle,” retreating into his security zone and finding the closest thing to his much-praised cover of “Straight Up” without it actually being “Straight Up.” And whatever you thought of Tim Urban’s “Hallelujah” (personally, I think the song has become “And I Am Telling You” for boys; unless you can raise the dead with it, at this point it should be retired), the memory I’m left with is not his singing but his wide-eyed, Bambi-in-the-headlights look.

Now each of those guys may well survive this round. People seem to like them. But it’s a problem that a big part of the appeal of each of them is inspiring a feeling of protectiveness. Projecting vulnerablity on stage is something you can build a career on. Inspiring pity is not.

There are really only a couple guys at this point who actually seem like they believe they should be Your Next American Idol. (The Outlaw Casey James, whom I need to hear do Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page” at some point, is somewhere in between, I think.) The first was Todrick Hall, who puts some viewers off but has survived so far. Why? Not because he’s the best singer in the house. But because he’s a performer. He gets up on that stage and believes he owns it. Whether his talent justifies it—hey, that’s a matter of opinion! But wanting it and believing it are half the battle, and last night he had probably his best outing yet with “Somebody to Love.”

The best came last, though, as Big Michael Lynche came onstage and owned Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work.” The booming, strapping Lynche is about as much the opposite of Kate Bush as you can get, and yet his gender-bending cover was everything that Andrew’s “Genie” was not. It wasn’t shtick. (“Genie” only worked if you took it as comedy; there was nothing especially sexy about Garcia’s performance, and if you thought he actually wanted you to “rub him the right way,” it would just have been creepy.)

On the contrary, Lynche gave a completely felt, moving delivery of the ballad, and took the stage like he belonged there. On the one hand, Kara’s weepy reaction made me wonder if she’d been raiding Paula’s old dressing room cabinets, but on the other hand—yeah, it got a little dusty in the Tuned In living room.

(Update: By the way, as Adam Bonin pointed out on Twitter, Big Mike’s cover owed as much to Maxwell’s version of the song as to Bush’s, if that matters to you. Personally, I think that ever since Chris Daughtry, David Cook and Adam Lambert, the whole “____ covered it first” charge has gotten overdone; it’s not like Michael seems to be trying to take credit here for personally being a master rearranger, so I don’t see a foul.)

After that “This Woman’s Work” performance, Big Mike is clearly the guy to beat. He was twice the man—and twice the woman—of any other guy on stage.