American Idol: It's Just the Beginning

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It begins: Last night was the first full-on competition episode of American Idol, the one that really looks like American Idol, all blue glitter and crowded stages and live-in-color histrionics. That giant logo on the big screen never stops swirling, and the in-show shout-outs to Coke and AT&T and iTunes are in full swing. We've gone through the cattle calls and the big cuts to get here, where the 24 finalists start to perform. While previous eps were taped and crazily compressed, now we're live week to week. It's tempting to call it a midpoint, but really, it's just beginning.

After a brief intro showing off the guys (Big Mike is still around, despite word to the contrary) and girls, Ryan wasted no time and got right down to wasting time by chatting with the judges. The series is plagued by a feeling of hurry up and wait, and it's weird when breathless intros and promises of high drama are met with empty, awkward banter between hosts. The initial chat even featured a fake video edited to look like Simon had made a pass at Ellen during Hollywood Week, and it was so powerfully unfunny and random I can't quite believe it aired. Simon's pained grin showed he barely tolerates this stuff, as well. He'd rather get down to business.

Four contestants will be cut this week and the next two weeks -- two per week per gender -- until it's down to 12 finalists, and from there I'm guessing it's one or two a week until someone's left standing. Watching this feels like being in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

First up was Paige Miles, who hails from Florida but lives in Cypress and as such is being considered a Houstonian for as long as she gets press. She sang "All Right Now," and though her vocals were strong, Simon was right that the song was a weird fit. That problem cropped up several times throughout the night, as some of the girls performed songs that were too low, too high, or just not suited to their voices. Still, Paige was one of the betters ones of the night.

Ashley Rodriguez did a passable job of Leona Lewis' "Happy"; that's a nice tie-in because Lewis got famous on England's The X Factor, created and produced by Simon Cowell and which is being repackaged for Fox in 2011. At this point, Idol has entered the echo chamber. Janell Wheeler's cover of Heart's "What About Love" was ripped by the judges for being weak and derivative, with Randy saying she needed to "bring something interesting and different." The problem, though, is that these contestants have grown up on, well, interchangeable pop songs sung by bland vocalists who stay on the air for a summer, and they've seen it all happen on American Idol (a show that's been on the air for half the lifespan of the youngest contestants, which is too surreal to contemplate at length). The singers berated for their lack of originality were just copying what they'd seen.

I'm not going to run through all the numbers because you get the idea. Three girls covered Beatles songs, but the best was Lilly Scott doing "Fixing a Hole": It was moody, interesting, and set apart from the diva-esque vamping of, say, Michelle Delamor's masturbatory and melismatic version of Alicia Keys' "Fallin'." I hope she sticks around for a while, if for no other reason than it's nice to see an instrumentalist do well on a show that made its name on cheesy vocals. Ditto Crystal Bowersox, whose cover of Alanis Morisette's "Hand in My Pocket" sounded pretty typical but was enjoyably different from Katie Stevens' middle-of-the-road performance of Michael Buble's daringly boring "Feeling Good." I want the girls who don't look like pop stars to stick around. It's more interesting that way.

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