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'American Idol': Top 12 finalists perform

At long, long last, American Idol is down to its Top 12 finalists. The women and men will all be competing together, and one can only hope that more of the chaff gets voted off quickly.

The show starts out with a big self-congratulatory montage about how awesome it is to have found Grammy winner Kelly Clarkson, double-platinum rocker Chris Daughtry, CMA and Grammy winner Carrie Underwood, Broadway star Fantasia Barrino and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson. (Missing from that? Winners Taylor Hicks and Ruben Studdard. Interesting.)

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The audience sure is psyched to be there. Hope they quiet down enough to let us hear the singers (well, in most cases, anyway). The theme this evening is the music of Diana Ross, and she will be "mentoring" the contestants. They do a bit about her history. In case there is someone out there who doesn't know who Diana Ross is. She meets with the contestants and tells them she is not a critic, but a helpful voice and a supportive voice for them.

Brandon Rogers is up first. He says he has been exposed to a bunch of celebrities in his career as a backup singer, but that Ms. Ross is in a whole other league. He sings "Can't Hurry Love," and she tells him it's "real good." She says when he gets nervous to go back "to [his] center." Now he sings it for the audience. You know, he has a pleasant voice (the one broken note in the middle notwithstanding), but the performance isn't that engaging. I think part of it is that he is playing heavily to the audience and not much to the cameras. Oh, no! He takes a second for a little dance move and then totally spaces on the lyrics for a couple of beats. Yikes. But he gets them back and manages to finish fairly strongly. Randy says he came out like he had "reverted back to a background singer ... but the last two notes of the song, you sounded like you wanted to be out front." Paula says it's not easy to do what he's doing, but that they don't need to tell him what he did wrong. (Um, you're a JUDGE, Paula.) Simon says it was "a complete letdown, a very predictable version, predictable arrangement, the dancing was terrible, you forgot the words, you came over as a background singer for a background singer. ... Absolutely not good enough. Sorry." He tells Ryan he thought it was going his way until he forgot the words.

Melinda Doolittle sings next. But first, Ryan talks to her on the interview stools. A viewer wants to know what the hardest part of the competition is. She says the high heels and the dresses, that she misses her tennis shoes and sweatpants. Ryan asks Simon if he has any advice, and Simon tells him he should know. (Ryan: "Stay out of my closet!" Simon: "Come out!") OK, I have some advice. Ryan and Simon's whole "You're gay," "No, you are!" thing is: stupid, lame, played out and offensive. No one cares! Knock it off! Let's let Melinda sing! Speaking of which, she says she is a Motown girl at heart and tells Diana she is a big fan. Diana tells her she has heard so much about her. Ooh, no pressure! But can you imagine? Then Diana says she gave her goosebumps. Melinda comes out to sing "Home." She knocks another one out of the park. She's about to cry, Paula already is. Randy says it wasn't his favorite performance of hers, but she still did an amazing job. "I give the girls 1, the boys 0," he adds. Paula says, through tears, she is one big goosebump. Simon asks her why she's crying, and she says because she hasn't heard anything like that (the crowd, I assume?) before. Simon says she made a very boring song fantastic. He says she reminds him of a Gladys Knight. Ryan asks her what it was like in front of all these people, and she says she doesn't remember. So ... call me crazy, but I think she's going to be safe.

Chris Sligh talks to Diana about how they have similar hair. He tells her he is going to sing "Endless Love" with some of the chords rearranged. She tells him to find the hook of the song, and he will be fine. I'm not sure about this rearrangement -- I'm not sure he took the advice about the hook. There really doesn't seem to be one. It's like Coldplay's "Clocks" crossed with "Endless Love," and even though he sings the heck out of it after a wobbly beginning, it's ... weird. I think voters relate to the songs more when they are recognizable. Randy and I are kind of on the same wavelength -- he compares it to Coldplay's "Speed of Sound." He tells him to not worry about the style and just sing his heart out. Paula says it is such a recognizable song (hey, more same-wavelengthing), that he is trying too hard to be hip and cool. Simon says he "murdered the arrangement. ... It was unemotional and uninspiring, and I would keep your glasses on, it's you." He says he liked his arrangement, and that the judges seemed to have more of an issue with the arrangement than the vocals, so he hopes to be back next week.

Gina Glocksen is so excited to meet Diana Ross and tells her that her parents have a video of her singing "Lovechild" when she was about 4 years old. That I would like to see. Diana tells her she needs to "pronunciate" every single word. She's a legend! She can make up words! Gina seems to be heeding the advice (though I can't help but wonder whether her tongue ring is getting in the way). She has fun with the song and definitely entertains the (giant) crowd. Randy says it wasn't his favorite performance from her, but that he didn't feel any excitement from her. Paula says it's a "feel-good" song and it makes you want to get up. That latter, sure. The former? Not so much. Anyway, she says she is better than she did tonight, and that at times she was shouting. Simon says it was OK, and it's one of those performances you can't say much about it. That it was a "middle-pack performance." Gina tells Ryan she felt good, at home on the stage.

Sanjaya Malakar is up next. Diana says he "is love -- I mean, you care about him." He sings "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." He starts right in with no intro, and she is concerned that he isn't on point or on beat. She tells him to get his "soul in there," and asks him if he can dance. He can hula dance! (Oh, wouldn't that be frightening on this big stage to this song.) Today, his hair appears to have been spiral-permed. In three weeks, he's had more hairstyles than Madonna had in three years! As usual, he sings so quietly, except for like four notes. He just doesn't have enough presence to work this stage or this venue. He seems like a nice kid, but he is out of his element at this point in the competition. Randy giggles and says he doesn't know what to say. Finally, "Dude, it wasn't very good." It really seems like this season, Randy has finally figured out how to deliver criticism when it's warranted. He still has to waffle for a while while he finds the words, but he has been finding them of late. "You know, thank God for the backup singers. That song was almost unlistenable for me; it was really weak." But ... "Hair Idol, you got it jumping off." Which is apparently the equivalent of Paula's "You can't sing, but you sure are pretty." Speaking of Paula, she says his smile warms people's hearts. She says he wasn't off pitch, he just needs to "jump out with reckless abandon and go." Oh, and she throws in, "You look adorable, though." Simon says, "When you hear a wail in Beverly Hills, that was Diana Ross watching this show." Everyone looks confused, and if they could hear me, I would be telling them, "That was W-A-I-L." Simon tells him he is very brave. Sanjaya tells Ryan he didn't even understand what Simon meant with the wail thing, and Simon clarifies.

Haley Scarnato is up next. (Or, as Simon would say, "Who?") She gets another viewer question. She is asked where is the craziest place she's ever sung. She says "here" and explains how crazy it is on this stage. She sings "Missing You" for Diana Ross, who says Haley has a "studio recording voice," and that she needs to project more. She says she recorded the song after Marvin Gaye's death. Haley says her goal is to sing and mean every word. Well, she might mean every word, but she doesn't sing them all -- she loses the lyrics in the middle, and I think she might be singing more quietly than ever before. She starts projecting more after she realizes she needs to recover from the missing lyrics. Randy says she already knows what he's going to say. He says forgetting the lyrics is bad and that her pitch was off. Paula predictably tells her she looks beautiful (and she does, but what is with the cinched hem of the dress?), but that that probably isn't what she wants to hear. She also mentions the lyrics and the pitch. Simon says he doesn't think it wasn't that bad (and she starts crying). He says people will remember her and she had presence and if she can hold it together, she will do better than he thought. She tells Ryan she "feels like a schmuck" for forgetting her lyrics and tells Simon how much it meant to her to get a nice review from him.

Phil Stacey brings back memories of dueting with Marvin Gaye to Diana Ross. He says he has had an issue with "gathering himself" before going on stage. She tells him to really look at the audience to connect with people. He says he's going "to start a lot differently and a lot more confident." Here's hoping! He sings "I'm Going to Make You Love Me." He starts a little better than usual, and gets much better after he gets warmed up. Randy asks how he thinks he did. He says "pretty good." Randy says the performance was boring, but he had the best male vocals of the night. Paula says it would have been better up-tempo. Simon says it shouldn't be up-tempo. He says it was OK, but that he needs to not shout his big notes. He says it wasn't outstanding or awful, but better than last week.

LaKisha Jones meets Diana. She asks her what her mom calls her. She says Kiki. She is singing "God Bless the Child" and says she's never sung it before. Diana gives her fashion advice and discusses whether to use a mike stand. She wears a long dress, just as Ms. Ross suggested. It wasn't as amazing as "And I'm Telling You," but she's still among the strongest performances of the night so far for me. She's comfortable on stage and doesn't look unnerved by the audience -- and you didn't have one second's fear that she might forget the words. Randy says it was the perfect song choice, great outfit and an unbelievable vocal, especially because she didn't overdo it. "That was sensational," he finishes. Paula says she is a beautiful performer and a beautiful girl and her heart comes through when she sings. "And that's the most important thing you can possess as an artist." The crowd pauses, as if they're wondering whether Paula's done. She is. Simon says you either have it or you don't don't, and she does. He goes on to say that she and Melinda "are in a different league. ... It was a very, very controlled performance, but you didn't look intimidated by this big stage, or the big orchestra; you were very much in control, performed like a star, outstanding." She tells Ryan she felt nervous on the inside, especially because she is so used to singing so big and so loud, but she wanted to tone it down a bit. It definitely worked in her favor.

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Blake Lewis takes a viewer question: What kind of music do you listen to in your spare time? He says underground hip-hop, electronic music ... He says his favorite artist of all time is "MJ ... Michael Jackson" and Prince. He says to prepare for the performance, he took the song and slowed it down and added beats. I would think it takes guts to beatbox a Diana Ross song in front of Diana Ross. She looks perplexed, but she says he was bringing the song into the present. He hopes she will like it. He sings "You Keep Me Hanging On." I don't know whether I loved the interpretation (wow, I sound like Randy), but he can definitely sing and perform. That is not in question. Randy says he's a big fan, that there were some good parts, but that he doesn't have to "Blake-ize" every single song. He says he can sing better than that, and that sometimes you can let the classics be the classics. Paula says there is a difference between what Blake did and what Chris Sligh did. Well, that's true -- you could still tell what song it was. Simon says he didn't get it at all. He says if Blake had heard that in isolation on the radio without all the context, he wouldn't have liked it. But he tells him he will be fine.

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Back from the break, Ryan is with the judges and Simon puts something in his pocket. I can't tell what it is, though. (Intrepid readers point out it was lipgloss. My friends snicker at the idea that I couldn't identify it. And clearly, I need HDTV.)

Stephanie Edwards is going to sing "Love Hangover," and she says she is so excited because she is in love with Diana Ross. Diana tells her she needs to deliver it with a more sexy vibe. This girl is 19? She is fearless on this giant stage with a big old band and orchestra. Randy says she forgot a few words (which this time, I totally didn't notice). He says it wasn't her best vocal, but it was good, and a strong finish. Paula asks why she didn't do the up-tempo part. She says there wasn't enough time. Paula says, "That's what arranging is for." Simon says it was a strange arrangement, that she teased everyone for the good part of the song and then didn't deliver, so she basically sang an "intro." He says she was outsung by LaKisha and Melinda, and it wasn't her best performance. Hmmm ... I didn't think she was that bad.

Chris Richardson sings "The Boss" for Diana Ross. She tells him not to be nervous around her: "I'm not any different than you except I'm older." That is a remarkably down-to-Earth thing for a celebrity to say. She says he needs to find the hook and work the audience. She tells him this is a "work the audience" kind of song. He takes the advice and gets on the part of the stage behind the judges, giving the camera a little grin on his way over. He does a good job. I don't always like when guy singers flip up into the higher range and back down, but it takes skill, and he definitely managed that well. He still looks kind of scared to me when he's singing. When he smiles when it's over, he looks totally comfortable -- I wish he showed more of that comfort during the performance. Randy says, again, that it wasn't his best performance but that he liked it. He does say he oversang the runs a little bit. I can see that. Paula says he nailed the blend of contemporary and classic (she didn't finish the thought, but that is where she was going). Simon says he thought the vocals were dreadful, with the personality and charm out of the equation.

Jordin Sparks sings "If We Hold on Together." Diana says Jordin is gorgeous and that you have to be able to project a song and tell the audience the story. Diana says she has an "inner light." The song is from The Land Before Time, which is possibly the cheesiest choice of the evening. She is a little heavy on the vibrato for my tastes. Randy says he is impressed with her at age 17, but that with that, she just made it a three-girl race. Paula says, "You are a natural gift." She says she drew her in right away. Simon says, "It was a little bit gooey, but having said that, I ... thought it was a very, very good vocal and absolutely you have put yourself in with a shot of being in the finals of this competition." Really? I mean, for 17, she was good and comfortable on the stage, but in my opinion, still nowhere in Melinda and LaKisha's league. (I just relistened to this song, and she still sounds shaky to me.)

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