Tonight, the first 12 of the 36 semifinalists on American Idol will take to the stage -- live! And sorry, y'all. Jamar Rogers is still not on the list of semifinalists, but he is in the audience. (There was a lot of consternation last week when Jamar got cut.)

Host Ryan Seacrest looks like it's still rehearsal -- he's dressed down in a V-neck sweater and jeans. Judge Randy Jackson says that the contestants "have to be in it to win it tonight." Kara DioGuardi says they "can't let the nerves get to you. ... Just go for it." He then asks her how it is to be at the table, and Paula Abdul inexplicably interjects, "You've been under the table." Um, OK. Asked for her advice: "This is all your dream, right? You've got to hit that center stage and make magic happen in that minute and 20 seconds. And if you don't, look to the right, look to the left, whoever's better, you're going home." Which I think is the opposite of what she meant, but whatever. Simon Cowell discusses that they only have one shot to make it and then digresses to discuss Ryan's hair. *eyeroll*


From each group of 12, the highest female and male vote-getters will go to the finals, as will the next-highest vote-getter. That adds up to nine, and then the final three spots will go to wild-card choices. Whew! That's almost as complicated as the finals on Dancing With the Stars or the rules of a challenge on Survivor.

Tonight's theme is "Hits of the Billboard Hot 100 Since the Charts Began." What a mouthful. At least, though, it's not hits of the 1930s or something.

Competing in the first group is: Jackie Tohn, Ricky Braddy, Alexis Grace, Brent Keith, Stevie Wright, Anoop Desai, Casey Carlson, Michael Sarver, Ann Marie Boskovich, Stephen Fowler, Tatiana del Toro and Danny Gokey. And all I can think is, dang. There's a little chaff that can be cut here (TATIANA, PLEASE), but some of the strongest folks we've seen so far seem packed into this set of 12. Hmmm. I sense some let's-make-the-wildcard-as-dramatic-as-possible shenanigans. (Added after the show: Perhaps not so much on the "some of the strongest" thing I was thinking before it started.)

Jackie Tohn: Jackie is going to sing "A Little Less Conversation" and hopes "to get Miss Abdul on her feet." I, first of all, am not feeling the Lycra leggings and giant sneakers, but second of all, the performance is just ... weird and gravely and unsettling. Randy says he doesn't know if he was blown away by the vocals, "but it's all good on the entertainment side." Kara says: "You can work a stage, girl!" There's also some talk about her "trousers," and how they are similar to the ones Randy wore in his early Journey days. OK, that's kind of funny, though not a pleasant mental picture. Paula says she got her up dancing, and says that even though it wasn't a perfect performance, "perfect is sometimes boring." Simon says that even though she has a good voice, she "played the clown tonight." He calls the performance "ungainly," which is the exact right word for it. By the way, I just realized that because there are four judges, this is going to take even longer than usual. Backstage, Ryan talks with Jackie's parents. And suddenly, it's even more clear why this will be a two-hour broadcast.

Ricky Braddy: Ricky talks with Ryan about this dramatic decision he had to make about whether he should leave his other job to go to Idol. Also, his mike is totally not working. He left his job, and here he is. Fascinating. He's going to sing "A Song for You" by Leon Russell. He's not bad (except for a couple of the high notes), but he's gotten so little attention up to this point, I don't think he has much of a chance in this set of 12. Randy says, "That's the jump-off season eight, right there!" Kara calls it amazing and effortless. Paula mentions that he wasn't featured in the past three weeks, but she is so glad that America will get to see how talented he is. Simon says he was good, but he's not jumping out of his chair "like these three." He adds that Ricky doesn't have any star quality. (And sorry to be obsessing over the microphones, but the audio seems really shoddy so far. The judges' mikes in particular sound pretty terrible. Oh, and when Ricky goes backstage to talk to Ryan, you can still barely hear him.)

Alexis Grace: Alexis says it is hard to be away from her young daughter every day, but she's dealing. She sings "I've Never Loved a Man" by Aretha Franklin. Big song, and she does pretty well with it, though she gets overwhelmed by the backup singers during the low part of the chorus. Randy says she "found the dirty and found the soul. ... You worked it out!" Kara says, "The genie is out of the bottle with you. ... I love it; I'm diggin' it." Paula says people don't expect at her tender age to have so much passion and confidence, and then she babbles some. Simon, ever on point, says she is the best they've heard so far tonight, though he admits there have only been three. But then he compares her to Kelly Clarkson and calls her "one to watch."

Brent Keith: And amateur hour (at least in terms of production) continues, as Ryan introduces what is supposed to be a clip of Brent, but instead we see a still of Stevie Wright from her first audition. (Even the producers are like, who is this guy? Is he on this show?) Cut back to Ryan who says oops, they are having a tape problem, so he walks downstairs with Ryan, but then the clip is back. Oh, right. He's the one who saw Paula and Kara go under the table during his audition because they were annoyed with Simon. (Which makes that line from earlier make a little more sense. Kind of.) Anyway, he's going to sing "Hicktown." It's pretty meh. Randy says he could see him at a chili cookoff. Huh? He adds that he can see him as a country star. Kara says she thinks he has more in him than they saw tonight, that she didn't see any soul from him. Paula says she can see him as a country artist; "go for more risk." Simon says he had one shot, and he's a nice guy with a nice voice, but he was forgettable. Agreed. Brent backtalks and says country fans won't forget it. Disagreed.

Stevie Wright: Hey, now it's time for the footage of Stevie they tried to show earlier. Stevie says she's been watching the show since she was 9 (ack!) and she is so excited. She sings "You Belong With Me" by Taylor Swift. And wow, she starts off badly. I don't know if she is nervous or what, but the low part of the beginning of the song is so terrible. She gets a little better when it gets higher, but it's rough. Her voice isn't overtly horrendous, but she really was not ready for this. Like at all. Randy: "That was not hot for me. ... That was really safe." He adds that if that had been her first audition, she wouldn't be in the Top 36. Kara says the song really didn't work for her, and Paula says the low range wasn't working. They all say she has better skills than that. Simon says they are being quite polite and that it was terrible. "The good news is, you got some experience out of this, I guess." But he says she has zero chance of making it to the finals.

Anoop Desai: Anoop says he is choosing songs that he has wanted to hear over the course of previous seasons. He sings "Angel of Mine" by Monica. Huh. That's kind of a weird choice, and though his voice sounds fine, I don't think he's going to make enough of an impression. Which makes me sad because I've really liked him thus far. Randy says it was "an interesting choice for me for you." It's the return of "for me for you," my least favorite phrase. He says he's a fan, but it wasn't a great night. Kara agrees. Paula says America has already connected with him in a large way and that he has a Brian McKnight feel to his voice. Simon asks why he chose that song, and he says because it was the first R&B song he heard on the radio that he wanted to hear over and over. I do agree, though, that he should have done something more interesting. Simon does acknowledge that he has "massive likability."

Casey Carlson: Casey sang "Tattoo" in the finals of Hollywood because Jordin Sparks is her favorite. She sings "Every Little Thing [He] Does is Magic" tonight, and it's weird. Pitchy at times, off tempo here and there? Randy: "Yo ... that was weird. ... Really karaoke. ... The dog was lost." Kara: "Everything about that was wrong." Randy starts singing "Everything about that was wrong" to the tune of "Every Little Thing ..." I crack up. Does that make me a bad person? Kara says no one goes near Police songs, and she would rather see her do a girly anthem. She also calls out the weird dancing and expressions. Paula says Casey is gorgeous, but she didn't think about what she was singing, "and it just didn't work." Simon asks how it's gone, and she says she had fun. Simon says, "The singing was just atrocious, to be honest with you." He says she threw away her opportunity, and Paula starts to talk about her pulling of faces. Then she has to go upstairs and hug everyone. Her mom thinks she did great and loves her dearly. Awww.

Michael Sarver: Everyone's favorite oil-rig roughneck is back. He's going to sing "I Don't Wanna Be." He does OK, but to me, it's a little on the karaoke side, especially with the bouncy dancing. Randy says he can definitely sing, but the first verse "was a little rough." Kara says that's a great crowd-pleaser song, but that wasn't his best performance ever. Paula says she thinks he did a "real good job." (Dear Paula: Can we please use some adverbs this season?) Simon says he partly got through because they like Michael, and that if he gets through tonight, it's because people like him, not because he did a great job tonight. He hopes, though, that America gives him another shot.


Ann Marie Boskovich: She's going to sing "Natural Woman" with her own twist. Ruh-roh. Yeah, she is not fantastic. So far, Alexis Grace is clearly the best of the women. (And someone HAS TO beat Tatiana.) Randy asks her how she thinks she did, and she says she thinks she did pretty good. He says he didn't really get the song choice. Kara says it's been a challenge for her to come out and "lose the demo singer thing" (her other job). She says she would want her to sing something young and fun, like "Love Song" by Sara Barielles. Ann Marie asks, "even though it's not as good?" And things get weird for a minute, even though, hello, we are talking about an Aretha song. Paula says she thinks Ann Marie did better than her previous auditions, which is kind of insulting after everything everyone else said. Simon says it would have been quite good if they were looking for "the best hotel singer in California."


Stephen Fowler: Stephen is the guy who forgot his words and walked off during Hollywood week. He promises he won't do that again. He sings "Rock With You," and he's kind of all over the place. Randy is perplexed by his song choice, and adds that he was pitchy, "right underneath the notes." Kara says she got more from him when he was at the piano and forgot his lyrics. He says he is not 100 percent comfortable with singing without playing. Paula talks for a while, but my cable audio cuts out for a second, and I miss most of what she says. Simon says he almost wishes he had forgotten the lyrics because it was corny and terrible.

Tatiana del Toro: Like you don't remember Tatiana. She giggles, she annoys, sometimes she sings. Strangely, the editors don't jump on the opportunity to show all the annoying footage from the past. Are they trying to recast her? I think it's too late. She says she is going to sing "I Am Saving All of My Love for You." I hope she doesn't sing the words like that since the song is actually "Saving All My Love for You." This is a restrained Tatiana, and it's kind of bizarre. Well, restrained until she pulls a face at the end. What is the deal here? Up until now, she has been getting edited as this over-the-top character. Even at the end of last week's episode, Ryan narrated that they couldn't wait to see what she would bring to the live show. And now it's just oh, she had a little drama with her group during Hollywood week? Are they giving her a kinder edit now because apparently, she is one of the only women in this group who can sing live? Yikes. So, let's see what the judges think. Randy says she had some moments in this song that really impressed him, though the second verse was really weird. Kara says it's like a roller coaster with her and that tonight is "reserved Tatiana" (yes), but she wants to know if she's a character or an artist. Tatiana says she is everything; "it's world music!" Paula says she is one of the most talked-about contestants, and that she is not used to this reserved person. Tatiana says her friends said they were surprised she acted like that during Hollywood week. Simon isn't buying it. He calls her a total drama queen and (wait for it) says he hasn't ever known anyone, except for maybe Paula, who wanted fame so badly. Wow. "You are desperate to be famous!" "Oh, and you aren't," Paula says. Tatiana says she believes in marketing as a business so she is taking the opportunity to market herself. Anyway, he says the music was actually good, but she needs to lose the demure act. They tell her to do the old laugh, but she says her friends say she hasn't ever laughed like that in her life. Even so, the judges' table does the crazy laugh back at her. Hee hee. Ryan asks who is the real Tatiana. She says she is a multifaceted woman, and it's all her. She says she didn't know how she would react to the experience, but now she is being more her relaxed, real self. And she becomes a little more the real Tatiana we've seen before, when she says into the camera, "America, please vote. This is my dream, and it's up to you to keep it alive. Gracias." You can actually hear people in the audience downstairs totally cracking up. And really, who can blame them?

Danny Gokey: He's going to sing Mariah Carey's "Hero." Weird song (theme of the night!), but at least dude can sing! No wonder he is closing the show. Kara goes crazy, screaming "WOO" into her microphone. Randy calls him the redeemer of the night. Kara says he gives them all hope and he was great. Paula: "Two words with a hyphen: "sold-out arenas." Simon says, "back to the real world. ... You are a very good singer. I like you, I'm just not buying the hype right now." I felt somewhere in the middle of those extreme sentiments.

What the heck happened tonight? I was expecting a lot more from this set of 12. It felt like we were in the wayback machine, and it was season one, when the production values and the show budget were lower and the overall talent level (Kelly excepted) wasn't as high because people didn't know what the show was. But weirdly, a lot of these folks did great in the earlier rounds! I don't know. Alexis better have the top woman vote-getter in the bag. That's all I'm saying.


So (more than) enough from me. What say y'all about tonight's show?

(Photo montage of Top 36 by Fox)