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'American Idol' Recap: Soaring Ballads and Near Meltdowns Highlight Top 10 Guys' Round

Season 12's last night in Las Vegas brings plenty of power-belters to the stage but only half will continue on to the Top 10 and summer tour.

Charlie Askew Idol Top 20 performance P
Charlie Askew sings Genesis' "Mama"

Say goodbye to Vegas, boys, and hello to Hollywood! For real this time -- not that NORAD-like structure in the seemingly always-overcast Northridge, Calif. No, this was it. The Top 20 and last stop until America decides the touring 10.

Still, some of us found ourselves asking, where’s the sizzle? This was Sin City, after all. Why such doom and gloom in the guys’ song choices? Did someone’s grandparent die? Were they all unceremoniously dumped by their significant others in the same week? Are they feeling lonely? Homesick? Not knowing if they want the world to see them because they don’t think that they’d understand?

No matter what the reason, the result was the male equivalent of VH1 Divas circa 1998. As for what the final five will look like on Thursday night, your guess is as good as ours. But for now, a recap of Wednesday’s 10 performers.

Elijah Liu -- “Stay” (Rihanna): Nicki Minaj’s hands-down favorite boy, whose babies she wants to have, is looking more like a star with each passing week. His voice brings to mind Bruno Mars and, yes, a male Rihanna. And while the background singers help, he can hold his own. Whether Elijah’s face should adorn pillowcases and lunchboxes has yet to be determined, but the judges for the most part were right on the money: “Stay” suited his voice, and he demonstrated control and “stayed committed,” as Minaj noted, but also “never left first gear,” as Randy Jackson remarked.

Cortez Shaw -- “Locked Out of Heaven” (Bruno Mars): Another classic example of  just-because-you-love-the-song-doesn’t-mean-that-you-should-sing-it. Not only is the Bruno Mars hit challenging vocally (as in: Sting can handle it, others wouldn’t dare try), but it also has a bit of a one-note vibe to it. Even the band struggled to emote excitement from the arrangement, while the tune’s EDM tidings sounded like they were being played out of a toy Casio keyboard. As for Cortez, the moves were better than the vocals. Commented Minaj: “I can’t find the words.” Which is to say, she had nothing to say. Hear, hear.

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Charlie Askew -- “Mama” (Genesis): In what was no doubt the most divisive performance of the night, cute little weirdo Charlie Askew went way dark with the 1983 Genesis hit “Mama.” The choice was inspired. The execution, not so much. First, there was the issue of him starting to lose his breath. With his face turning beet-red at some points, it looked like he could faint, never mind whether he could actually get through the song. Keith Urban’s observation that the “expressions on peoples’ faces was varied” must have been spot-on, while those of us at home could barely look. “Something feels disingenuous,” Urban added. But, in fact, it seems the opposite was true. Charlie was hurting. He “needed to vent.” Maybe even have a good cry backstage. “A lot of people think I’m happy, and the only reason I smile so much is because I feel like I have to,” he said from the stage. Cue the side-stage therapist -- or Ryan Seacrest will do. Minaj’s comment, “I feel like someone stole my kid … I want my cute, cuddly Charlie back,” didn’t seem to help. Neither did Jackson’s jab: “I don’t get it.” But yours truly, for one, is firmly in the second-chance Charlie club. 

Nick Boddington -- “Iris” (Goo Goo Dolls): He chose a longtime American Idol favorite and hoped to make a connection, Nick Boddington said in the pre-performance package, but sitting solo at the piano is an almost instant barrier if you don’t work it just right. Think of what Lady Gaga does to get a crowd’s attention when she’s banging away on the keys. Boddington’s attempt to give it his best Gavin Degraw (meets season eight’s Matt Giraud) only carried him so far. Randy Jackson said “the Ryan Tedder thing” resulted in “a good solid performance.” No argument there.

Burnell Taylor -- “I’m Here” (The Color Purple): If one performance felt like a solo number during a high school musical it was Burnell Taylor’s. True, Keith Urban gave the soaring ballad a standing ovation and was correct in noting that Taylor’s voice is unique. And while the choice to repeat his audition song “was a risk,” as Minaj noted,  and did “grab your attention,” as Jackson added, the thrown-together outfit and backwards baseball cap were the furthest thing from showmanship.

Paul Jolley -- “Just A Fool” (Christina Aguilera feat. Blake Shelton): In a crossing of the singing competition streams, Tennessean Paul Jolley was looking to create a “good old shindig” vibe and get away from criticism that he was over-singing. To little avail -- it seems like it’s still an effort for the wannabe male Taylor Swift to sing those power notes. And even if it isn’t, it looks that way. Keith Urban rightly asks: “What sort of artist do you want to be?” To which Jolley replied, pop-country. But why does he sound like he’s auditioning for Journey?

Lazaro Arbos -- “Feeling Good” (various artists): Another favorite of Idol hopefuls makes its presence known in this semifinal round. But unlike when Adam Lambert sang “Feeling Good” on season eight -- and actually, you know, felt it -- Lazaro Arbos looked like he was going through the motions. And dare I say, his vocal tone can be  kind of grating. But you can tell by the judges’ reactions that there was little comment to offer either way. Minaj said it was a “strong vocal,” Randy Jackson relied on his old stand-by, “he’s in it to win it,” and Mariah Carey was back in Tom Cruise mode -- which is to say, she talks a lot, but ultimately offers very little.

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Curtis Finch, Jr. -- “I Believe I Can Fly” (R. Kelly): CJ cleansed Keith Urban of his sins and got another standing ovation from the country singer. Indeed, this Idol favorite got the pure soul treatment from Finch, who delivered at every turn. Minaj called it “raising the bar,” declaring that CJ was, in fact, bigger than American Idol and that he “has a calling.” He may also have a grander purpose in life that might not include a schmaltzy singing show -- and there’s nothing wrong with that.  

Devin Velez -- "Somos Novios (It's Impossible)" (Perry Como): The bilingual 19-year-old has an ace in his pocket in his ability to croon in Spanish, but that’s a tactic he’ll want to use sparingly. You could say the same of red sweaters and bow-ties. But one thing is for sure: He has a fan in Mariah Carey, who said, “That performance was incredible.”

Vincent Powell -- “End of the Road” (Boyz II Men): The 29-year-old’s choice in song may end up being prophetic, not because Vincent Powell had a bad performance, but due to the fact that he and Curtis Finch, Jr. are bound to cancel each other out. Still, Powell took it to church and up to heaven. He was singing Mariah Carey’s language, and while Keith astutely noted that “nerves got on top of talent,” it was the ultimate diva who would have the last word. Said Carey: “It was beyond.”

Who do you think is headed to season 12’s Top 10? Sound off on your favorites in the comments.

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin