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Song Choice or Star Power?

The Top 12 girls of season 9 of American Idol got their chance to shine in live performances for the first time this season.

The Top 24 contestants

First, there was the little matter of welcoming the new judge, Ellen DeGeneres. She will be sitting at the opposite end of the table from Simon Cowell, next to Randy Jackson. When host Ryan Seacrest asked her why, she said, "It's safer over here. The problem is Simon wants me. It's not going to happen." Then they showed videotape of Simon trying to grope Ellen, which was obviously a skit done for fun.

Opening up the program was Paige Miles, 24, a school teacher who'd had very little exposure on the audition shows. She performed "It's All Right Now" by Free, wearing a black, lacy tunic with a white silk belt and black leggings. Out of the box, she was just ordinary, but she smiled really big and bounced up and down, trying to sell the song. It just was the wrong song for her. At the very end, she tried the diva move of lifting the mike high above her head, looking for all the world like she was trying to eat it. [VIDEO OF PAIGE]

Simon kicked off the remarks by saying that out of all the girls, she has the best voice (which made me want to turn the show off right then). He criticized the song choice, saying, "It's a wedding singer type of song." Kara DioGuardi disagreed, saying she thought the song was brilliant. Still, she thought Paige could have done more with the chorus. Randy also felt the song wasn't the right choice but that it showed she's "got a powerful, big voice." Ellen DeGeneres conceded that, as the first performer, Paige was probably nervous. Still, "You were so there, so present. I loved it." She also felt Paige had a great look.

Next up was Ashley Rodriguez from Chelsea, Massachusetts. She chose the Leona Lewis song "Happy." Her look of a white blouse, gold collarless jacket, skinny jeans, gold necklaces, and high-heeled pumps somehow made her look older. Perhaps it was because her hair was pulled back. The opening was just OK, but then she picked it up with more energy. She had a tendency to go flat at the end of phrases and had a couple other pitch problems. [VIDEO OF ASHLEY]

Kara called it a "big song to take on," dubbing Leona Lewis "the Mariah Carey of this generation." While she said there were some nice moments, "there were moments that weren't great." Going forward, she advised her to be more creative with song choice. Randy cautioned her against choosing songs that will set up a comparison with big singers. Ellen thought it was a "great song but predictable." She added, though, "You're good, you're here, you're beautiful. Take a risk." Simon thought it was clumsy and didn't like the arrangement. "I think you're going backwards," he observed, adding, "I don't feel you as a contemporary recording artist, just somebody who sings other people's songs, not very well."

Janell Wheeler, 24, a wine sales rep, selected "What About Love" by Heart. She wore a one-shoulder purple top with skinny jeans and dark nail polish. She gave a very heartfelt delivery in the intro and, when the tempo kicked in, moved with the music, shaking her hips in a sort of odd dance move. She was, however, in tune for most of the song, which puts her ahead of the first two. Her hand holding the mike was trembling noticeably on the last note, but her voice was in control. Listening to again, though, it is lacking something. [VIDEO OF JANELL]

Randy disliked the song choice but still liked her voice. He said that "the song is one of those huge songs" and added it's "hard to bring something original to it." Still, he "got vibes from you." Ellen liked the song choice and thought she sang it very well. She conceded there were "a couple notes off" but observed that Janell "moved easily on stage." Simon assessed it thus: "You gave it 100 percent and probably delivered 65 percent." He said it started off OK but started to go off key. Still, "There were moments when I do like it." He advised her to to choose a song "that makes you original." Kara said, "I like you, but I have to agree the song was way too big for you," since it was by Ann Wilson, "one of the best rock vocalists ever."

Now is probably a good time to note that the judges engage in this sort of criticism every year. They knock contestants who try to do songs by the biggest stars and yet criticize them for choosing obscure songs that the audience would fail to recognize. Clearly, it's not so much about choosing a song by a lesser-known artist; it's about choosing a song that the contestant can make shine.

Lilly Scott, 20, of Denver had been living out of her car and playing in the street before auditioning. She went with the Beatles song "Fixing a Hole," accompanying herself on guitar. She wore a short green and white sun dress. Her guitar was actually distracting, because it was a little out of tune, but she took an interesting take on the song, injecting it with her own personality. [VIDEO OF LILLY]

Ellen said, "I think that's what we're talking about." She said it was "such a random song choice," but that Lilly "did such a great job." She praised her unique voice. Simon said it was "definitely the best we've had so far, mainly because I felt you sang this song because you liked this song and it portrayed you as an artist." Still, he was not feeling much star power, which he attributed to nerves. Kara praised her: "You're believable. You come from your heart." She liked that Lilly was comfortable on stage. Randy loved her and said she was "more like a real indie artist."

Nineteen-year-old college student Katelyn Epperly also went with a Beatles song, "Oh Darling." Her look was straight out of the '80s, in a bad way: a black vinyl dress with fishnets, big hair and bright red lipstick. While none of the judges seemed to realize it, I recognized the version, which she borrowed from the Beatles movie Across the Universe, sung by Dana Fuchs And Martin Luther McCoy. Still, she had a strong voice, and it almost managed to distract me from her weird hair clip. [VIDEO OF KATELYN, VIDEO OF DANA FUCHS AND MARTIN LUTHER MCCOY]

Simon said that "even though there were elements where you screamed that song and it was messy, I like you." He called it a good choice of song but said she "will need an awful lot of work." Kara praised her for knowing her voice very, very well and for switching up the song. Still, she said, "The makeover isn't working for you," pointing to the bright red lipstick. She'd liked Katelynn more natural. Randy gave Katelynn props for paying attention to the tone and the melody. He liked her "whole vibe" but advised her, "Don't box yourself in." Ellen said she "couldn't tell if you were pushing too hard or if that's natural for you." Nevertheless, the song was "interesting to me and made me want to pay attention to you."

For some odd reason, high-school student Haeley Vaughn got her nose pierced when she found out she'd made it to Hollywood. Maybe she thinks that's what stars do. She was the third one to choose a Beatles song: "I Want to Hold Your Hand." She performed with her guitar, wearing a very short, white frilly dress, paired with dove-gray stockings with white dots. On her head was a white lacy hairband, which could possibly be useful for repairing holes in the dress if it gets caught on the guitar. She was screaming the chorus, and the light jazz background made it sound like kind a Top 40 '70s remake. For no real reason, she hit a really high note in the middle that made her sound like she was yodeling. For the rest of the song, she messed around with the melody. Considering that this is the girl who wanted to be the "first African-American pop country singer," this wasn't very country. [VIDEO OF HAELEY]

Kara said "from a technical standpoint, there were some issues," such as, for example, the fact that she didn't always hit the notes. But she liked that "Every time you hit the stage, you have fun." Randy loved her unpredictability but said at the top of the vocals, it was "not as pleasing as it could be." He suggested that maybe she drop the key lower. Ellen pointed out the fact that she's 16 and has a lot of stage presence. "You just shine." Simon, however, "thought it was verging on terrible." He compared Haeley to "a wind-up doll that never stops smiling" and felt that was why the vocals were all over the place.

Lacey Brown, 24, had made it to Hollywood last year but not into the Top 24 until this year. She did the Fleetwood Mac song "Landside," sitting on a stool and wearing a forest-green tank top with a one-shoulder flowered tunic, copper belt, and leggings. She was trying to give it her unique flavor, but it just sounded off. In the beginning, the range was a little too low for her. Definitely the wrong song. [VIDEO OF LACEY]

Randy said it was "not the right song for you," adding that it was "pitchy all over the place." Ellen said, "I think you're better than that." She loves the song "but just didn't think it worked out." Simon called the performance "quite depressing. After about 15 seconds I was working out how much longer we had to listen." He also felt it was "kind of indulgent" and "boring." Kara said that, while usually Lacey hits the notes with ease, tonight it felt more forced. She advised her to do a song by Sixpence None the Richer like "Kiss Me" or "Sundays": "That's your vibe." Simon, perhaps in an effort to be nice, added that Lacey has nice eyes. (She does, by the way: bright blue, which contrast against her dyed red hair.)

Ryan asked Lacey why she'd chosen the song. Lacey replied that she just loves that song and that it's about growing up. Ryan goaded her into saying she disagreed with Simon about the song being boring. For new viewers, it's generally a bad idea to be perceived as "talking back" to the judges. It often costs contestants votes, especially if they do it repeatedly. Hopefully, someone will tell Lacey this before next week.

Looking and sounding every bit the professional, Michelle Delamor did the Alicia Keys song "Fallin'." She wore a brown button-down silky top with slightly puffy sleeves and faded jeans. She was aiming for the diva vibe, inserting lots of runs and showing off. The performance was pretty solid, despite a bad last run. [VIDEO OF MICHELLE]

Ellen felt it was fantastic but said, "It was safe just because it seemed so easy for you. You have more in you." Simon: said she was a "very professional singer." He added that the performance sounded close to the original, but "not as good." The performance did not make him say, "Wow." Kara observed Michelle is "very commercial looking." She went on, "When you hit it right, it sounds great. But there were moments when it wasn't great." She advised her to work on believability. Randy said she did "pretty good" but urged her to "try something else, jump out of that comfort zone."

By the way, why was everyone wearing wireless mikes in addition to holding mikes or talking into mike stands? Just wondering.

Didi Benami, 23, of Los Angeles, went next, wearing a black tank top, a multicolored crocheted vest, black pants and high heels. Her version of "The Way I Am" by Ingrid Michaelson showed off her unique voice, and I found it mesmerizing. She seemed to really listen to the words and not just smile insanely through all of it, like some of her predecessors had. It's a good initial showing, but I think she can do better. [VIDEO OF DIDI]

Simon said, "I think you are a good singer" but added there are "too many people trying to sound like Adele and Duffy." He found it "a bit indulgent" and the song "dreary." Kara said that the song is good, and that "while your voice is derivative," she'd made some changes. She found it a bit pitchy, as well. Randy asked her "Where's the star factor?" He said she didn't have that "outward oomph." Ellen said this would be good "If you were doing a show and this was one song," but said it might not have been the best on the first night "to reach out to millions of people." She called the performance "a little low key."

Siobhan Magnus, a glass-blowing apprentice, performed "Wicked Game" by Chris Isaak, wearing a black dress with a split in the front and also wearing a flower in her hair. The song started too low for her, but overall, it was pleasant. [VIDEO OF SIOBHAN]

Kara said she wouldn't have picked it "but kind of liked you on that song." She said, though, Siobhan was "a little nasal at times." She liked that "You're in the moment when you're singing." Randy said she has a great voice and should "Play to that. Reach for bigger things." Ellen loved it. "For a minute I forgot I was at a singing competition" and she was "just being entertained." Simon said, cryptically, "You really are a funny little thing, aren't you?" He didn't love the song, which he called very dark. He asked her why she chose it. Siobhan said it's "a beautiful song, haunting, memorable," and that she's always loved it. Simon seemed to think this might not be the best reason to pick it, but he kept his mouth shut. Perhaps he didn't want to waste too much air time, considering that a couple more performers still had to sing.

Twenty-four-year-old mom Crystal Bowersox has never before watched the show but auditioned because she wanted something better for her son. She did the Alanis Morisette song "Hand in My Pocket," accompanying herself on guitar and harmonica. She wore a blue velvet V-neck and dark denim jacket with jeans. Her version was fresh, complete with a harmonica. She sounds like she could be doing concerts today. [VIDEO OF CRYSTAL]

Randy called her one of his favorites and said he loves her originality and loves that she comes out "wearing the harp" like Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan. For him, it "doesn't matter what the song is. I like you, like the honesty. I'm a fan." Ellen chimed in, "I, too, am a fan. I think we're lucky you decided to audition to Idol." She said Crystal adds "something fresh to the show," concluding, "If I'm at home watching, I'm voting for you." Simon said it was good and that "we like you, like your baby" but "The truth is, there are thousands of you doing this outside subway stations... If I met you in real life, and heard that, I wouldn't stop in my tracks and say that was the most original thing I ever heard." He said that for her, doing Alanis Morisette "is doing a sound-alike" and she should do something original. He suggested David Bowie, to which Crystal said, "David Bowie would be fun." Simon concluded, "You're refreshing." Kara said she was good tonight but "I think you have greatness in you." She advised her, "Don't be just a coffeehouse performer; fill the stage." Ryan asked Crystal who had autographed her guitar, and Crystal told her it was signed by Melissa Etheridge and Shania Twain. Love this girl.

Katie Stevens got the pimp spot, closing the show. She did "Feeling Good" by Michael Buble, wearing a short black dress, a red belt with a rose, a red hair band, chandelier earrings, and red pumps. She was good, but I kept thinking of Adam Lambert's performance of the same song last season, and she's no Adam Lambert. Add to that the fact that on the bridge she went off pitch, and I'll reserve judgment on her for now. [VIDEO OF KATIE]

Ellen said it was good, "but you're 17, and it was very conservative." She didn't like that it was such a serious, intense song and said she wants "to see you be 17, be fresh and modern." Simon said he "absolutely, totally" agreed with Ellen. He said it was "like your mum and dad had dressed you and given you this song" and that the performance "started to be annoying." He agreed that "You've got to be a young recording artist" and summed up the performance as "very pageant-y." Kara put her finger on it: "If you killed the song, we wouldn't be saying that." She worried that maybe Katie couldn't hear yourself onstage: "You were all over the place." Still, she felt that Katie has "a natural gift." Randy said that she was "pushing so hard, all the notes were going sharp." He agreed that she's "got a big voice" but the performance was "just too old for you."

For the first time out, kudos to Crystal Bowersox, Lilly Scott and Didi Benami with a nod to Janell Wheeler, Katelyn Epperly, and Michelle Delamor.

Fighting it out for the bottom this week are Paige Miles (who has the double whammy of going first and not getting much airtime during the audition shows), Ashley Rodriguez and Haeley Vaughn. Haeley is probably safe because she's interesting and people will want to see more of her. Despite the fact that Paige got praise from the judges, she might find herself heading out the door before she's barely gotten started.

Tonight: the top 12 boys take the stage, live.

It's not as much about song choice as it is about performing the song well.

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Tags: american idol, music, television

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