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Semifinal Round One

The first 12 semifinalists competed last night on American Idol, and only three will advance to the finalist round. The judges will add three "wild cards" of their own.

This marked the first live show for new judge Kara DioGuardi, and host Ryan Seacrest commented, "It's starting to look like The View over here."

The contestants chose songs from the Billboard Hot 100 chart, going back to since the charts began. Since the contestants had a wide selection of tunes, many of them seemed to flounder when it came to song choice.

Alexis Grace and Danny Gokey

Jackie Tohn, 28, of New York, said that her goal was "to get Ms. Abdul up on her feet." For her performance, she selected "A Little Less Conversation" by Elvis Presley. Perhaps her outfit was a tribute to Paula Abdul, because she looked very much like Paula back in the day: black leatherette pants and a wide red belt, paired with a fitted polka dot top and black-and-white high tops. All she needed was a fluffy ponytail on top of her head.

Her version of the song was very bouncy and kind of jazzy, punctuated with extra shrieks and grunts. Her quirky performance got even stranger as she continued, throwing her arms around, then jumping and shouting. (This song has been performed on AI at least twice before: by Jon Peter Lewis in season three and by Chris Daughtry in season five, both of whom had fun but turned in more solid performances, vocally.)

Judge Randy Jackson liked it, saying, "Way to start Season 8." But he admitted he didn't know if he was blown away by the vocals. Still, he called her "great entertainment" and said she had a good look. Kara remarked, "You can work a stage, girl." She said that Jackie had a big personality and showed it, even though it "wasn't the best vocals." Randy interjected that he liked the trousers, and Jackie joked that they were from his Journey days: "Thank you for lending me these, by the way." Nice judge Paula Abdul said that Jackie had succeeded in getting her to dance. She admitted it "wasn't a perfect performance, but perfect sometimes is boring." She said that Jackie makes everybody fall in love with her. Tough judge Simon Cowell said that Jackie's got a good voice but "played the clown tonight." He called the performance ungainly and the song gimmicky, adding, "I don't think you did yourself any favors tonight, and I don't think the public are going to like that very much." He concluded that she might have blown a great opportunity, adding that he didn't like what she was wearing at all.

Each of the contestants had supporters, usually parents, in the red room, where Ryan interviews contestants before and after their performances. Ryan tried to goad them into responding to Simon's comments, but they were uniformly smart enough not to take the bait.

Next up was Ricky Braddy, 26, from North Carolina, who got almost no air time during the audition shows. Ryan interviewed him in the red room about making the decision to leave his job to audition for the show, but it seemed like his mike wasn't even on!

He performed “A Song For You” by Leon Russell, wearing a burgundy velvet jacket, a button-down white short, and dark pants. Throughout the song, he demonstrated poor mike technique and poor breath control, popping his "p's" and blowing air into the mike. While his vocals were better than Jackie's, he will probably prove forgettable to voters.

Randy praised the performance, saying that he'd kicked off the season. Kara agreed: "You killed that." She liked his riffs and called his interpretation "effortless." Paula acknowledged that he hadn't been featured in the audition shows, so she said, "I'm proud that America gets to see how talented you are. You deserve to go very far." Simon said that, while it was very good, "I'm not jumping out of my chair." He added, "I don't think you have any star quality. You have a great voice, but I don't think you have the self belief or charisma right now." He called him just "a nice, shy guy with a great voice" and urged him to believe in himself.

His parents showed a sense of humor, wearing T-shirts that said, "I'm in "The Braddy Bunch." They even plugged their fan Web site for him, which I think is the first I've seen that done in five seasons of watching.

Single mom Alexis Grace was next, revealing in her video segment that she had "dirtied up her look." This mainly seems to have meant adding a fringe of hot pink to her bleached blond locks.

She chose to perform "Never Loved a Man" by Aretha Franklin, wearing a black slip dress with harsh red lipstick, knotted pearls, and high-heeled Mary Janes. Her performance was sweet and soulful, proving she's got a voice, along with a lot of confidence.

Randy said, "You found the soul," adding that "You worked it out." Kara said, "The genie is out of the bottle. You released something inside." She continued: "It's a pleasure seeing you step out of your shell." Paula got all choked up as she gushed that people don't expect that a 21-year-old would "have the ability to present so much soul, so much passion, so much confidence." She praised her "quiet confidence" and added that she is "wonderful, beautiful, fantastic." Simon said that, she, "by a mile," was the best contestant heard that night so far. For once he agreed with Paula: "You actually do have soul. You have self-belief and confidence." He called her a dark horse in the competition, adding that she reminds him of Kelly Clarkson eight years ago. "You're one to watch," he concluded.

When Ryan tried to show the tape for Brent Keith, it initially didn't work, so Ryan walked him down to the stage, planning to interview him live, but then they got the tape working again.

Apparently not thrown by the glitch, Brent did the rocking country song, Jason Aldean's "Hicktown." He wore a gray button-down shirt with jeans, sporting a slight beard. He has a nice country voice, but the second verse started out too low for him. He struggled from that point onward. Ultimately, it's a case of a bad song choice.

Randy said that he liked that Brent had returned to his country roots. He said he could see him performing at a chili cookoff, which strangely, Randy didn't seem to mean as an insult. Kara said that "This song wasn't rangy enough for me," adding, "You have more in you than what we saw tonight." Paula urged America to remember his auditions, when she says he took more risks. In an effort to say something nice, she added, "I can see you as a country artist" and reminded him that previous contestant Bucky Covington (a finalist but not a winner) has forged a career in country. Simon called him a nice guy with a nice voice. He said that the song was forgettable and "you're not going to have any impact whatsoever." He concluded that he "might have blown a major opportunity by being forgettable."

Perhaps the most painful performance of the night came from Stevie Wright, 17, of Phelan, California. She chose "You Belong with Me" by Taylor Swift, because she thought it was appropriately young for her. She started really low and quiet, dressed in an awkward-looking '80s outfit which combined black leggings, pink Converse sneakers, and a white lace shirt under a blue tank with a black belt. At times I wasn't sure if her mike was even on, because she was outsung by the backup singers. She was very flat during the bridge and then missed the subsequent high note.

Randy said it's "not hot for me. I wasn't feeling that at all." He added that she's a better singer than this performance, but if she'd performed this way the first time, she wouldn't be in the semifinals now. Kara said that the judges had wanted her to be young, but she'd picked a song that has nothing to do with who she is as an artist. Paula agreed that it wasn't the right song, that the range was too low. She added, "This wasn't the Stevie Wright we fell in love with." Simon minced no words, calling it terrible. He said the song was OK, but that she was out of tune and looked really nervous. He urged her to put it in perspective: "At least you got some experience from this." He summarized, saying she has "zero chance" of making it through to the next round.

Early favorite Anoop Desai, a.k.a. "Anoop Dog," had impressed viewers of the audition shows with his down-to-earth personality and his vocal promise. For his first competition song, he did "Angel of Mine" by Monica, wearing a dark jacket, a button-down gray shirt over a green T-shirt, and jeans. I found his singing a little nasal, especially in the beginning. His performance was pretty good but a little cheesy.

Randy liked it, proclaiming, "Anoop Dog in the house." He called it an interesting song choice and said the whole song was a little sharp and never quite settled. "But I'm still a huge fan," he assured him. Kara agreed with Randy but took it further, saying that it's a "hard song to sing" and that she's "not sure you have the capability." On a brighter note, she said, "I believe you when you're up there." Paula observed that "America has connected with you in a large way already." She said that this song represented "a different side of you" but praised him, saying, "I think you have a Brian McKnight feel to your voice. I believe in you." She proclaimed, "Anoop Dog's here for a while." Simon said the song was "A little too grown up for you" and called it "a bit too serious." To this, Anoop said that he chose the song because it's "all about being grateful for the people behind you." Simon quipped, "Just say 'thank you' to America now. We'll forget that you sang that song and we'll try and remember what we liked about you before, hopefully." He said Anoop has real likeability.

The very cute Casey Carlson, 20, from Minnesota, said that she selected "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic" by the Police, because "it's a song that makes you feel good." She looked great, in a stylish shiny, gold dress with a bow at the waist and a pleated skirt. Her performance was strange, to say the least. She started flat and later in the song, added a little bit of a country twang. She also dipped too far into the key change near the end and made some strange faces as she sang.

Randy said it wasn't good, saying, "That was kind of weird for me." He said the song was completely wrong for her and was "Weirdly karaoke at this point." Kara said, "Everything about that was wrong," which spurred Randy to sing,"Everything about that was wrong" to the tune of "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic." Kara said she'd had high hopes for Casey because she's a "package artist" but cautioned her against performing iconic songs by groups like The Police:. "You don't touch them." She said she wants to hear her do a young anthem. Paula said there's no mistaking that she is "the most exquisite, beautiful girl." But she critiqued the song chose and said, "Your phrasing was weird." Simon said that she looked good, but the singing was "just atrocious," that she "could not have chosen a worse song." Furthermore, he added that she shouldn't have been allowed to sing it. He explained, saying that the song choice "doesn't tell anyone what kind of artist you want to be." He concluded that she'd thrown away her "one massive opportunity."

Michael Sarver, 27, of Jasper, Texas, works on an oil rig and therefore is the "everyman" of the competition so far. But he chose to try the much-performed Gavin McGraw "I Dont' Wanna Be," (previously performed by many American Idol contestants before him ). His opening was really rough, but he added a country flavor to his version, growing more comfortable partway through and rocking out. He wore a button-down shirt with embroidery on the left shoulder. By the end of the song, he turned on the charm, smiling at the audience, dancing along, and proving he's got personality.

Randy said that the good parts is that "you've definitely got an instrument." He noted that he "started out rough, pitch-wise" and that "the first verse was a little weird." He said that he liked him better doing "the soul thing." Kara called it a great crowd-pleaser song, but said it's not his best performance: "You have more in you." He praised him, though, for being likeable. Paula said that he did a real good job, and liked that "you showed us a different side of you." She gave him one pointer: that it was distracting when he changed hands holding the mike. Simon called it "a tricky one." He said the show is about giving "people like you an opportunity," saying, "We put you here because we like you." But he added that this wasn't the best vocal they'd heard, even though they'd heard a lot worse tonight. "If you get through, it's because people like you," he said, adding that "I hope America does pick up the phone and give you another shot."

Anne Marie Boskovich wore a blue strapless tube dress to sing the Aretha Franklin classic, "Natural Woman." As she started out, she had great tone, but the performance was a little lifeless. Later on, she adopted the strange habit of punctuating her performance with her mike, but pulling it away rapidly after a phrase. She also fell victim to the amateur habit of pointing at the audience while singing, "You make me feel."

Rand said, "This song was not the right choice for you." He explained that it's a "big, huge vocal song," saying that Anne Marie fell below par. Kara agreed: "That song is so big you have to kill it." She said it feels old-fashioned, and that she wants to hear her sing something fun and girly, such as "Love Song" by Sarah Bareilles, to which Anne Marie responded that "I don't think it's as good." Paula observed that "It is a huge song that requires a lot of soulfulness" but acknowledge that she did better than in Hollywood, when she had played it safer. Simon said, "If we were searching for the best hotel singer in California, that would have been quite good." He said her voice is not good enough for that song, adding that it's "very old-fashioned and sort of irrelevant" and concluding that she may have ruined her one chance.

Stephen Fowler, 26, musician, who attracted attention when he walked off the stage during the third round of the Hollywood Week auditions, tried to redeem himself by singing "Rock with You" by Michael Jackson. He wore a dark blue button-down shirt and pants that made him blend into the background. In the very first phrase, he had some bad notes, and the rest of his performance was uneven, at best.

Randy said he never would have thought he'd choose that song, saying it "wasn't even in the right place for you." Other than the solid high note near the end, Randy said it "started off pitchy" and that he was "right underneath the notes" for most of the song. Kara said that she liked him better at the piano, even when he forgot the lyrics. She criticized the song choice, saying, "That song doesn't give you any room to interpret." At this point, Stephen admitted that he's "not yet comfortable with singing without playing." Paula said that it would have served him better if he had sung the David Cook song that proved his undoing during Hollywood Week. She said "Rock With You" is a song that "belongs to one artist, and that's Michael Jackson." Simon said, "I wish you had forgotten the lyrics." He called it a pointless performance for someone of his experience "to do this terrible song with, I have to say, terrible arrangement with that awful keyboard." He called the whole thing atrocious. Grudgingly, he said that "the last ten seconds were OK." He said, "You'll watch this back and realize you've made a huge mistake." He added that the performance was corny, and "You're not a corny guy." Strangely, there were no family or friends there to support Stephen.

Next up was the contestant who had attracted the most drama in the audition shows, Tatiana Del Toro. She performed "Saving All My Love for You" by Whitney Houston, saying in her video segment, "I love what I do. It makes me feel good. I hope it makes you feel good, too." We got a much more subdued version of Tatiana that night, not at all the drama queen we'd seen so far. She wore a summery dress with orange and pink flowers, paired with gold heels, which while quirky was still her best ensemble so far. Her rendition started out really smooth, but on the chorus, her sustained notes were pitchy. She has a tendency to shout in an effort to add passion to the performance.

Randy said that "when I heard you were singing this song, I thought, 'Oh no'." But he admitted that there were some moments when he thought, "She actually can sing." The second verse, though, he said the "melody was really weird." Kara said, "It's like a roller-coaster ride with you. I never know what you're going to pull." She noted that tonight was "a very reserved Tatiana." While she said that Tatiana hit some of the notes, she doesn't know who she is in the industry? "Where do you fit?" She asked if she's a character or an artist. Tatiana insisted that she fits everywhere. Paula admitted that she wasn't used to "this demure Tatiana." She called her closing note beautiful but said she also had "pitchy moments." In response to Paula saying she missed the crazy Tatiana, Tatiana said, "I'm not crazy. Sometimes I get very excited." Simon called her "a complete and utter drama queen," saying, "You are desperate to be famous." Surprisingly, though, he said the performance wasn't bad. "It was better than I expected." He advised her to lose the slightly weird demure thing, which he said, "makes me nervous." The judges all urged her to laugh strangely, which of course, is one of the things viewers remember from the audition shows. This had to be the reason they put her through: hoping for drama that would make good television. Should she make it through, perhaps they'll see her weird side again.

Last to perform was church music director Danny Gokey, whose wife had died shortly before he auditioned for the show. He chose "Hero" by Mariah Carey, saying he wanted to inspire people. He wore a button-down white shirt with embroidery on the shoulder and knocked out a very solid performance for the first time out. Not only did he stay on pitch, but he built the emotion throughout to a powerful ending. At the end, he had the judges cheering and jumping to their feet. In a cutaway, we saw his best friend, Jamar Rogers, in the audience, applauding. The two had been together throughout the auditions, but Jamar had been cut before the final 36.

Randy called him "the redeemer of the night," while Kara proclaimed, "You are the hero. You give us all hope. That was great." Paula called his performance "stellar" and predicted sold-out arenas. Simon was less ecstatic, saying it was good but not fantastic. He said the beginning was OK and that the arrangement was heavy-handed. But he added, "You're a very good singer." He concluded, "I like you; I'm just not buying the hype right now."

Kudos to Danny Gokey and Alexis Grace, who should be assured a spot in the final 12. Of the other performers, Ricky Braddy and Anoop Desai will probably vie for the third slot, unless viewers vote through someone who had previously shown potential, like Anne Marie Boskovich or Michael Sarver.

The folks at Vote for the Worst are campaigning for Tatiana Del Toro, probably because she's annoyed so many people. However, she actually wasn't the worst performer on this particular occasion. I think that, had we not seen so much of her during the audition process, she probably wouldn't even register in the popular consciousness as more than an also-ran.

In the right field of competitors, simply staying on key makes you sound amazing.

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Tags: american idol, music, television

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