Any edition of "American Idol" in which Paula Abdul bursts into tears can't be considered all that bad. But Tuesday's much-hyped performance debut of this year's final 12 contestants ranks as something of a letdown, given the inability of any of the contestants -- save, perhaps, for Jordin Sparks -- to rise above the standards they'd set for themselves during the early rounds.

Any edition of “American Idol” in which Paula Abdul bursts into tears can’t be considered all that bad. But Tuesday’s much-hyped performance debut of this year’s final 12 contestants ranks as something of a letdown, given the inability of any of the contestants — save, perhaps, for Jordin Sparks — to rise above the standards they’d set for themselves during the early rounds. Worse, several previously promising contenders actually suffered meltdowns this week, leaving just four or five truly enjoyable performances. If this keeps up, it’s going to be a long three months until May’s finale.

To borrow a page from the Abdul playbook, let’s start with something positive: Everybody looked really good Tuesday night. It’s always amazing how the Average Joes and Janes in jeans from the audition rounds can morph so seamlessly into People magazine-ready paparazzi magnets, particularly Haley “I’ve Got the McPheever” Sarnato. Even Sanjaya “The Hair” Malakar finally seemed like he belonged on stage (well, until he opened his mouth).

If only the singing talent matched the costuming.

The first night of the finals is a great time to reinvent yourself, to throw down the gauntlet and declare yourself the heir to the “Idol” crown. That should have been doable given that the song theme was Diana Ross, who boasts a broad catalog of aud-friendly hits that spans from Motown to disco to lush ballads.

But this year’s group of 12  seems to suffer from seriously poor judgment — be it song choice or arrangement.

Until now, the worst putdown Simon Cowell could level at a contestant was that he or she offered up a karaoke-style performance (Chilean karaoke, if he’s feeling really pissy). But Tuesday offered a case study in what happens when “Idol” finalists decide to overthink things in an attempt to break away.

Chris Sligh and Blake Lewis, two of the most intriguing singers early on, seem to be believing their own hype. Sligh’s decision to turn “Endless Love” into a bad Keane/Coldplay song made no sense, particularly after Ross firmly warned him about the importance of melody. Lewis gets points for at least trying to be entertaining with his odd reworking of “You Keep Me Hanging On,” but even with the Jacko dance moves, it ultimately didn’t work.

Randy Jackson was spot on with his assesment: “Sometimes, you don’t need to do anything to the classics.” That’s why the folks who played it the safest Tuesday scored the best performances.

As has been evident for weeks, this year’s “Idol” remains a battle of the divas, with Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones the only contestants capable of producing goosebumps. That said, while both were technically brilliant, neither singer soared this week — Abdul’s tears for Doolittle not withstanding. While they proved (again) that they can sing amazingly well, their selection of boring ballads left audiences hungry for much more.

Middle of the pack consisted of Gina Glocksen, Phil Stacey and Stephanie Edwards, though the judges rightly called out Edwards for teasing viewers with the intro to “Love Hangover”. And Stacey’s bald head is… odd.

As for the worst of the bunch: The judges were inexplicably kind to Scarnato, who simply massacred “Missing You” (when she actually remembered the words). Cowell can be forgiven for being blinding by her beauty, but that doesn’t make it right — even though Scarnato’s post-song sobfest ensures she’ll be back next week.

Sligh and Lewis also risk an appearance in the bottom three for their misfires, while Chris Richardson’s rendition of “The Boss” offered little reason to support him.

Meanwhile, for the umpteenth time, Malakar turned in another William Hung-quality groaner of a performance. Of course, he’ll likely live on for a few more weeks.

Most likely saying farewell this week, unfortunately, is Brandon Rogers. His “You Can’t Hurry Love” was hardly the night’s worst, but it was passion-free and forgettable. There is no bigger crime on “Idol.”

American Idol - Week Nine

Fox, Tue., March 13, 8 p.m.)

Production

Taped in Los Angeles by 19 Prods. Executive producers, Nigel Lythgoe, Ken Warwick, Cecile Frot-Coutaz, Simon Fuller; director, Bruce Gowers. Running time: 2 HOURS.
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