As American Idol goes live, I wonder: What will this show do without Simon Cowell?
What is this program going to do without Simon Cowell?
Because, even as his fellow judges hemmed and hawed about song choices, pitchyness and how much they liked each of the 12 female singers who faced them Tuesday night, Cowell cut through the nonsense with a simple message.
You have got to make these songs your own.
"It's like your first kiss; it's got to be memorable," he said at one moment, exasperation heating his words. "You've gotta come out here, do something and prove to everyone I'm different, I'm unique and I'm a star."
And that's what was missing through much of Tuesday's two-hour broadcast, which was stacked with pretty, able-voiced ladies trying hard to win over the judges. Despite their obvious charms and vocal skill, the show felt like an interminable karaoke contest at times, as this long arrays of signers tried on various guises -- gutsy singer/songwriter, sultry chanteuse, bubbly pop crooner and beyond.
Through it all, Cowell struggled with a basic irritation that never seemed to leave him, even when he clearly liked a particular contestant. He might have a brutish, rude way of expressing it, but Cowell's goal was clear -- pushing these young performers toward the kinds of creative reinventions that led David Cook and Adam Lambert to soar above the competition when they were in the game.
Tampa resident Janell Wheeler was an early example, tackling Heart's pop hit What About Love in a straightforward enough manner, but without the big vocal payoffs that original vocalist Ann Wilson provided. "You gave it 100 percent and only got (back) about 65," cracked Cowell, sounding snide but making a valuable point.
And so it went through out the night. Some singers -- bohemian blonde Lilly Scott and giddy popster Haeley Vaughn for example -- had oodles of style but didn't really nail their performances. Others -- powerhouse vocalist Siobhan Magnus and streetwise troubadour Crystal Bowersox -- seemed to mute their styles a bit to fit in, sacrificing a bit of originality in the process.
And the judges themselves seemed conflicted, especially early on, consistently contradicting each other on whether a performer did well at all. It was notable that, despite all his talk last week of getting along with new judge Ellen DeGeneres, the live shows opened with the comic on the other end of the judging table from the Bratty Brit (and no, a lame joke about Cowell's wandering hands at the show's start didn't really cover that obvious change).
Much as the singers were feeling their way through this new challenges, so are the judges -- with DeGeneres providing a lot fewer laughs than you'd expect.
There is clearly loads of raw talent among the female contestants, and a gold star will go to the women who most quickly sharpen their song choices and begin to blow away the audience.
Lacey Brown, the haystack-haired church singer seemed the only performer clearly in danger of ejection, offering a warbly version of Fleetwood Mac's Landslide that even made Stevie Nicks' original version sound less abrasive. But with two women slated to go home Thursday, that leaves one more possibility for disappointment in wide open field.
Cowell's opened the door, however cantankerously, for every one them to find success. But which ones will have the talent and guts to walk through it?