'American Idol': On the scene for Top 4 performance night...and chaos

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After a series of terrifying events during dress rehearsal, tonight’s broadcast of American Idol somehow came off without a hitch — unless you count Danny Gokey’s Dementor-like inhalation of the big note in "Dream On" — and while I may have given this show a lot of crap over yea these many weeks in the Idoldome, it is with utmost admiration and respect that I congratulate the staff and crew on accomplishing that feat.

There’s nothing funny about what happened, so I’ll give it to you straight: At the start of dress rehearsal, beloved stage manager Debbie Williams stood at the top of the massive glowing staircase. The first three steps are fixed, but the rest roll out from under the band deck; as she followed Seacrest down the stairs, she was caught in the gap when they began to prematurely retract. Observers told me she slipped, then grabbed onto the railing and dangled for a moment before falling the 20 or so feet to the ground. She suffered a severe cut on her leg — amazingly, according to one crew member, no broken bones — and was taken to the hospital by paramedics. My thoughts go out to her in hopes of a speedy return, as she is without question an invaluable member of the Idol family, and has never been anything but kind to me and my colleagues.

Dress rehearsal continued, at which point the spinning Idol gyroscope atop the stage right tower came unmoored, showering the stage with glass and causing them to evacuate the theater. Given the way they pack the kids into the "mosh pits," it’s a genuine miracle more people weren’t hurt. Chaos reigned for the remainder of the preshow, as they struggled to re-seat the audience and tape the contestants’ performance clips before airtime. All credit to the stage managers, CBS pages, and — yes — Cory the Warmup Comedian for keeping the crowd (marginally) calm and getting everyone situated with about 30 seconds to spare. This…was the most extraordinary thing I’ve seen in a while.

And so it came to pass that the presence of confirmed rock god Slash in the Idoldome was by far the least interesting thing that happened tonight, an event I’d place somewhere right beneath "Danny Gokey admitting he is a total joke" on the scale of improbability. If I were a superstitious person, I’d say the gods didn’t want tonight’s show to happen. But this is showbiz, PopWatchers, and that shizz, it goes on. After the jump, a complete breakdown of the evening, including a sneak peek at tomorrow’s performances from No Doubt and our very own Paula "Actually Was On Painkillers That Whole Time" Abdul.

addCredit(“Ray Mickshaw/American Idol/Getty Images”)

Something was definitely amiss when I arrived at CBS Television City this afternoon, but I assumed it was just a delay in dress rehearsal, or an audience-loading hitch as they tried to pack in the people for both Idol and Dancing with the Stars. (Did you know those poor suckers have to dress up?) The line for Idol stretched farther down the street than I’ve ever seen it stretch, and at 4:20, when we finally passed through the gates, I overheard the guards referring to some sort of "incident." I met up with a journo colleague, and the two of us strode past the hundreds of people on the holding benches outside and walked right into the studio and up the stairs to find what was clearly the fallout from said "incident": a giant hydraulic lift was in the "mosh pit," and crew members were working on the gyroball atop the stage right fang, which was clearly askew. We sat in our seats — the only audience members in the studio — until a large member of the security staff kicked us out, then hovered beneath the seating risers until about 4:35, when the crowds outside finally began to make their way in.

"Ignore your tickets! Grab the first seat you see!" a page yelled, as people haphazardly wandered down the aisles. "No tickets! No tickets! Just grab a seat!" The audience seating process usually takes a good hour or so, and they were having to do it in 25 minutes; families were wandering aimlessly throughout the studio, dragging signs and small children behind them. A woman wearing an Idol laminate came up to explain the full extent of the "incident" to some people in the row behind me, which was how my journalist friend and I learned about Debbie’s scary fall. The pandemonium continued. "Whose call was it to avoid tickets?" I heard one page say as she passed me, trying to herd the masses. "Ricky Minor to the stage, please," a stage manager said over the P.A. "Wherever your seat is supposed to be, sit in it!" another page said. The band played the first few bars of "Dream On," confirming what had been my all-day suspicion that there was no way the Glambot could resist that song.

With 15 minutes to go, Cory appeared (in a jaunty scarf!) and, skipping his usual antics, began to plead with the audience to sit down. "Just be accomodating if you can," he asked, then explained that since dress rehearsal was cancelled, they needed to tape short snippets of the Final Four’s performances for the recap package at the end of the show. If ever there was a time to make the argument that this practice of taping dress rehearsal is ridiculous, given the ability of pretty much everything everywhere ever to utilize instant replay technology, this would be the time — but tonight was so fraught with hysteria I just don’t have the heart. Glambert took the stage in his chesty leather jacket, Cory asked us to make this "the most energetic 15-30 seconds of your life," and the band started into "Whole Lotta Love." Not "Dream On." Huh. Next was Allison — looking downright hott in her leather pants and fancy hair — and "Cry Baby"; then Kris and "Come Together." Which meant there was only one man who could possibly be singing "Dream On," and it was not the man for the job. "He can’t hit that note!" I said to the journalist in front of me. "No way does he have that note!" And yet — omg, Danny Gokey was fully of the belief that he could hit that note. I grabbed my friend’s shoulder. He aimed for the note, landed in a neighboring county, trailed off. With four minutes to go, they started his snippet again. He aimed for the note again, and this time landed four states to the south, but there was no time to be precious about it. With 30 seconds to spare, the judges walked in. At 20 seconds, I could see production assistants still teaching the "mosh pits" how to clap above their heads. Cory began to count down to air, one second ahead of the actual stage manager doing the exact same thing.

"We are coming to you very live," said Ry-Ry after he’d successfully navigated the death stairs. He then made reference to Slash — who’d snuck in amidst the pandemonium and was seated, I assume rather uncomfortably, right next to the big security guard who’d kicked me out earlier — and went straight into Adam’s performance. As the song began, Simon swiveled in his seat and asked the G’n’R guitarist if that was his band; I couldn’t see what Slash replied, nor am I sure what would constitute "Slash’s band" at this point in time. Rickey Minor was workin’ it, though, dawg, and the audience was on its feet. Towards the end, Glamberrrrr paused, and several people clapped as though he was done. But he wasn’t done, PopWatchers, because there’d been no glory note, and Glamberrrrr without a glory note is like Christmas without presents. During judging, Kara threw Nixon-esque peace signs instead of devil horns, and Simon asserted that "Nobody can top that." Hey, at least they finally made the Glambomb go first. Across the room, a woman held up a sign that read, "Thank You, AT&T! You Rock!"

I used this commercial break to dash outside and use a security guard’s cell phone to try and call work and report on the "incidents," but ended up on an editor’s voicemail. Came back in for Allison’s attempt to top Adam, which — no matter how much I love her — she did not do. (You can find my reaction to her song choice and, frankly, the song choices of everyone this evening at my new blog, If All You Watched Was This Show You Would Have A Very Limited Understanding Of The American Musical Canon Dot Com.) But did she deserve to get slaughtered by the judges? No. To repeat, for emphasis: NO. And let’s be clear: If she’d gone with "Piece of My Heart" instead, they would have compared her unfavorably to Kelly Clarkson, and if she’d sung a Queen song, they would have compared her unfavorably to Queen. I began to seethe, ever so slightly.

After Ms. Iraheta gamely talked back to the judges, Simon used his first few smoke-break steps to playfully shake his finger in a tsk-tsk manner at the redhead. Cory brought a kid up to the stage behind the judges’ table to give him what I presumed would be an iPod but turned out to be an "Allison Is My Idol" t-shirt, courtesy of Cafe Press, a company I last thought about when I was using it to make crappy merch for my lit mag in the early part of this decade. Then it was time for the Danny/Kris duet, which was a terrifying enough notion, even before Ryan said they’d be singing a Styx song. I mean, would it have killed them to do an actual duet? Am I insane to harbor strange fantasies of hearing those two do "More Than Words," with Kris on guitar? Every kid at my high school could play that song in 1990. But no, "rock" = bombast, and bombast we did get. Also, when did we agree that picking up the whole entire mic stand is important when one is trying to = "rock"? Whatever. I wanted to walk down and whisper to Randy that the solid harmonies on the chorus were largely due to the backup singers. I laughed out loud when Paula called it "powerful" and "compelling," and a blond girl in front of me shot me a glare. While Ryan was giving out the numbers after Simon said Danny was better, both Kara and Randy swirled in their seats to shove at the overpaid Brit. "You’re so bad," I saw Kara mouth.

During the next break, Cory talked to a man in a sombrero, and I noticed a sign saying Flat Stanley is an Adam fan. With all the madness at the top of the show, I’d forgotten to look for celebrities, so it was nice of Cory to unearth Diana DeGarmo, who is now sporting a mane of long black hair. "Diana! I want to talk, but we have 12 seconds!" Cory said. "Gosh! Why are we always doing a live show?" And then we were back, to hear Kris Allen tell the most boring story possible about how he picked "Come Together." I like Kris. I want Kris to succeed. But may I redirect your attention to this Carly Smithson video?

Commercial. Cory gave an iPod to a pretty coed from UCLA. Danny took the stage and a woman behind me who was 28 if she was a day started to scream like a nine year old, and wave not one but two signs. As Gokey squeaked the first slide up to "Iiiiiiiit went by like dust to dawn," the judges exchanged looks. Oh yes, I thought. They are about to put the Go in Gokey, at last! Because this is horrific! Danny added a little doo-doo-doot between choruses one and two — which he didn’t do in dress rehearsal, meaning the clip they’d pre-taped was now essentially useless — and then he went for The Note.

I have no words. I mean, I have like a gazillion words, but I’m going to leave the irate to Slezak. Instead, I’m just going with this:

Yeah. But you gotta love those judges: always on message. He had swagger! He gets an A+ for effort! No, an A++! He handled a "tricky" genre with ease! (Wait. Rock is a "tricky" genre??) And even though Kara and Simon called him out on That Note — the latter earning a cry of "I’d like to see you try!" from a woman behind me, who clearly didn’t understand that we are just giving out grades for effort around here now — any marginal criticism was completely negated by Paula’s solicitation of cheers from Gokey fans, a move I’d consider completely shameless if we weren’t talking about a season in which someone put a weeping toddler in Randy’s lap.

MOVING. ON.

Elliott Yamin surfaced during the next break, still sporting his mullet, and a pair of what looked like Blu Blockers. And then it was time for the Adam/Allison duet, which had the potential to change lives but turned out to be a dueling-tonsils match on a stupid Foghat song. (Again, would it have killed them to dig a little deeper? I’m not asking for much. "Under Pressure," maybe. "Hunger Strike"? "Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now"? That’s right, I would have preferred Starship, people, and I’m not afraid to admit it.) Still, the crowd was pleased, and a chant of "Top 2! Top 2!" started up in the house right bleachers. "She just beat Kris," said my journalist friend, and as much as I adore Kris, I hope it’s true. (Hey, I’m sure he’s in a rush to go make an album with Jamie Foxx, and will be fine.) Also: Count me among the supporters of a future Adam/Allison collaboration, especially after watching their adorable sibling-esque nuzzling on stage. As we went into the recap package, Adam helped Ms. Iraheta reattach the mic pack she’d flung off with all her rocking, and I snapped back to video attention in just enough time to notice that, thanks to the doo-doo-doot improv, the guys in the truck were forced to edit Gokey’s recap clip down to just The Scream. Somewhere, I hope Howard Dean is smiling.

That was it! Except it wasn’t! Because we still had to pre-tape both No Doubt and Paula Abdul for tomorrow! And for the next forty minutes — during which the valiant crew labored to strike the small fortress of amps and drum risers from the stage — we were left to our own devices. I borrowed a BlackBerry from a friend (she’d snuck it in with her tampons, because male security guards don’t like to touch those) and filed a report on the preshow disasters. Two little girls from my row went down to hug Kara like she was an amusement park furry. Diana DeGarmo went to talk to Elliott Yamin. Randy talked to Slash. Chris Richardson materialized. Cory ran out of iPods and sent someone to go buy more at the Grove, then pulled aside DeGarmo for an interview. (She has an EP out now, and will be appearing in a revue called Back to Bacharach at the Music Box Lounge until the 17th; then she’ll head home to finish recording — what else? — a country album.) Ace Young showed up in the corner, wearing a neon green shirt, and the Final Four snuck in to hide in the back row until the pit kids spotted them and started absolutely losing their soup. "We know you love Kris," said Cory to a particularly vocal patch. "That’s why we put him as far away from you as possible." The front row did a UCLA cheer.

At 6:40, the men of No Doubt took the stage, drummer Adrian Young going with a demure tutu in favor of his usual thong. When Gwen Stefani appeared atop the death stairs in a white tank top, it was clear that — since they’ve got no new material and are heading out on this tour so they can write some — they’d be bustin’ out an oldie; turned out to be "Just A Girl," which Stefani literally launched herself into with such flailing fervor she made Bruce Springsteen’s Super Bowl halftime performance look like a Leonard Cohen show. She leapt, she spidered about, she did pushups behind the judges’ table like Jack Palance reincarnated. The vocal mix sounded horrible, but I figured there was no way she could do it all again… until she did. Second take sounded better, and was no less contained. I’m not quite sure what I thought about any of this except that the people at Mommy Group are going to be giving Gwen a wide berth from now on.

At 7 p.m., No Doubt finished, and the poor traumatized crew struck the stage again, this time for Paula Abdul’s number. The Final Four had vanished. Cory started hosting an in-house version of Don’t Forget the Lyrics, stumping the blond girl who’d glared at me earlier with "Billie Jean" ("I’m sorry, I don’t know Prince," she explained) and giving one crew member the chance to demonstrate that he’d memorized all the moves from the "Bye Bye Bye" video. His was, hands down, the performance of the night. Then Paula’s backup dancers/spotters began to practice their twirls on the stage, Ms. Abdul herself appeared atop the infernal staircase to blow a kiss, and I stayed for one take of "Here for the Music." I can neither confirm nor deny that she was actually singing, even though at one point she was (probably not exactly) singing into two microphones at once. I can say that Lady GaGa is now free to accuse Paula Abdul of copping her "art," which I believe is the pop music equivalent of an ouroboros, and that I have surprising feelings of warmth towards both Lady GaGa and Paula Abdul these days. Those warm feelings were welcome as I fled into the L.A. night, back to my car, home to scarf down dinner, and write to all of you.

Ta-da! The comment section is open. I’m sure you’ll find a use for it, but since she’s been known to haunt these halls, I hope everyone will take a second to send a little get well soon message to our gal Debbie. I’m trying to get an address where well-wishers can send cards, or Diet Cokes, or blended margaritas. Stay tuned, and I’ll see ya tomorrow night. Meanwhile, rock on, if it’s not too "tricky" for ya.


Comments (294 total) Add your comment
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  • Elizabeth

    Poor Debbie – I hope she’s going to be OK.
    Here’s the suckiest thing about last night: Kris was going to be railroaded from the beginning because apparently rock means shreeking your way through a song. I didn’t get the “indulgent” or the “no one else has any business singing that song than the original” on Adam (he did a good job- chillax Glambots, but you can’t tell me that was in his songlist at the show he did in LA); Allison could’ve picked a better song, and Gokey – I can’t even begin on that one.
    But there’s good ol’ dependable Kris: sang a song, played along, and did a good job. I keep coming back to my initial feeling about this season: who would make a CD I’d want to buy that wouldn’t sound the same song to song?

  • JenR

    Can someone at EW check to see if they don’t have clearance to do Queen songs. That’s my only possible explanation for why there hasn’t been one this season. I mean, Glambert would definitely have gone there.

  • Mridula

    OMG The Note. Could anything be worse? My two year old cousin can even scream in tune. I appreciate that its a difficult nnote, but no one ever asked him to pick that song!!
    Sheesh, I cant listen to that song again without hearing his awful end note.
    Adam wouldve killed it. Just sayin’.

  • Trish

    Fabulous recap. I love the irony of Gokey thinking he was improving a classic Aerosmith song with scatting, and then that same scatting being the reason The Scream is the last thing people saw of him tonight. That is so beautiful, I’m nearly crying. And by “crying,” I mean “laughing.”

  • Linda

    Adam rocked, I have no words to describe how good he actually is. Every week he keeps getting better.
    I LOVED his duet w/ Allison – too cute for words, they looked so happy and it was a perfect way of ending the show, imagine if Danny had sang last and nobody after him? God that would have bene awful.
    I just can’t believe NO ONE told Danny not to sing that note, or even that song. Slash could’ve told him it was a bad idea. On the other hand, people are gonna talk about him now LOL, that note will forever live on. Haha

  • Kevin

    They do have at least some clearance for some Queen songs, they have done Bohemian Rhapsody before. With all of the options out there, it does amaze me that some of them pick the songs that they do. Is no one there to advise them. Either you can stretch your range within the limits of your voice or your to narrow of an artist to succeed.

  • wendy

    I am nervous people voted for Danny because they felt sorry that he would have to live with that note in this modern day youtube-era for THE REST OF HIS LIFE. Kris might have been boring, but at least he can competently sing a song from start to finish.

  • Ramszilla

    When I heard Danny do that finishing I literally cringed in my seat. That was horrible to listen to. I am a Danny fan and think he has talent, but that was just something awful. Simon had it right when he said it was from a horror movie. It sounded like an animal screaming in pure agony!! I hope he’s safe as Kris was the worst last night. But if I ever hear that Danny version of Dream On again .. it will be too soon.

  • margie

    They have to get rid of Gokey…he is so full of himself. I, too, thought Chris did a great job!

  • Rich McGregor

    Adam covering Zeppelin and Foghat – finally, American Idol featured some real Rock and Roll!!!

  • Simon Cowell

    Waits a sec.
    What about the “Simon Cowell King of Common Sense” sign?

  • LT

    To Jen R: Yes they have clearance for Queen songs. They had a whole Queen theme a couple of seasons back, and BoRhap has been done numerous times. Michael Johns did We Are The Champions last year.

  • LT

    To Simon- I forgot about the “common sense” sign! I wonder if that was planned or if the camera man hates Gokey, lol.

  • Adam Fan

    I’ve said it before, I’ll repeat it here: Adam has a career ahead of him equal to the Beatles and Michael Jackson. He is just spectacular. His interaction with Allison during the duet was awesome. The one with experience leading the one without. He has a huge voice with impossible range but his character is why I’m his fan.
    I just have to add that Gokey’s copycatting was so evident tonight. Danny? You can never be as good as Adam – you’re just not made the same way. So be yourself and stop trying to one-up Adam. You make a fool of yourself.
    GO ADAM!!!
    The saddest part of seeing this season end will be the weekly, fantastic Adam concert!!!

  • J T

    Poor kitty!

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