Sadly, the attention was partially taken from them by the rumor that Jennifer Lopez was leaving the show. The suggestion was that she was "too busy." This surely was incomplete. The entire version must have been that she was "too busy to have found any new scriptwriters of platitudes."
Still, the contestants, if you can remember them, had to perform three songs: one chosen by the judges, one by themselves and one by Uncle Jimmy Iovine.
First was Joshua Ledet. Randy Jackson said he and his team had chosen Etta James' "I'd Rather Be Blind." Ledet continued in his retro vein. He fondled the retro mike, as if he was a fortune-teller and it was a crystal ball. The Ledet formula is to start slow and build to an extremely forceful climax. This was excellent, professional and veering toward being slightly too sophisticated for the little girls in their pink fluffy bedrooms who might decide the winner. Steven Tyler called it "surreal." Jennifer Lopez called him a "throwback."
In the audience, Heejun Han talked about his "work in progress hairstyle," but not about his singing career.
Jessica Sanchez was next to sing. Jennifer Lopez introduced her and revealed the judges had chosen, gosh, a Mariah Carey song. They made it sound like a revolution.
The president of the Phillipines, Benigno Aquino III, is reportedly rooting for Sanchez. I wonder whether he would have been moved by this highly professional, relatively sultry, but ultimately odd performance.
"We tell people never to do it," said Jackson of Sanchez singing a Carey song that he, presumably, had a hand in choosing.
Lopez was delighted that Sanchez had shown her tenderness and not reached for huge notes.
"I hope you just get used to encores," said Tyler. He also reached for the phrase "over the top." Which, for him, means excellent, rather than excessive.
Sanchez seemed very pleased with herself. She does let her competitive skirts show on occasion, but this was, again, an unbelievable performance - in the sense that her sincerity with the words seemed absent, because she just doesn't have the life experience.
Tyler said they'd chosen "Beggin'" for Phillip Phillips in order to get him to finally, finally carry a melody. This was, supposedly, the Madcon version of the Four Seasons classic. Actually, it turned out to be a fine surge of originality, with two drummers driving him from behind like a Boxster's engine.
Of the melody, Lopez said: "You can't help it. You had to mess with it."
This was harsh. Phillips allowed it to be recognizable. Which was a little as if he'd suddenly agreed to wear Prada and wing tips.
"It's so beautiful to watch you unfold here," said Tyler. "I'm hoping you write your own songs," he added. Then he suggested Phillips might be the next Springsteen. And to think Tyler was doing so well until that point.
ROUND ONE WINNER: Phillip Phillips (For performance and originality.)
So what had Ledet chosen for himself? Oh, in a minute. First, we had to go back home with him to Westlake, La.
"They are really acting like I'm Barack Obama," observed the charming Ledet, as a police motorcade shepherded him from the airport. Large ladies wanted to hug him. Large men wanted to hug him. For his parade, he rode on the back of an open-top Mustang with his little niece.
A woman with an eye patch wanted to take a picture. So did a dog wearing a top hat (It's just that the dog didn't have a camera). And he packed out the Burton Coliseum, for the first time ever. What was wonderful about this is that it showed just how much of a showman Ledet can be and how he appeals to a very broad range of humanity.
His choice was "Imagine." This was exceptional, because he managed to take a song of revolution, drag it into church and make it far more moving than the original - which was, in truth, a slightly miserable little ditty. Ledet does pain and he uses it for good.
The producers cut to Hollie Cavanagh, who had tears in her eyes.
"Every time you sing, you take it over the top," said Tyler, offering a pointless coda to something that had been so very good.
"You have an incredible instrument," said Lopez. She praised him for digging deep into the meaning of the song in order to find a true performance. Tyler could learn from that.
Sanchez revealed that she had been home schooled and hadn't had any friends as a kid. It's hard not to infer from this that she had been schooled to be a singer for a very long time - perhaps too long. Everything she does on stage seems trained, rather than natural. Everything seems professional, rather than human. She has a wonderful voice, but - unlike Ledet - any emotions she offers aren't believable, largely because they can't be.
We drifted back to Chula Vista, Calif., her hometown. It was hard not to see someone who had wanted this from age 5 and was finally experiencing it. But it was like a bookworm getting into college.
Her song choice was "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing." Yes, the Aerosmith attempt at pathos.
This was neither contemporary, nor relevant, nor even especially good. It was Advanced Pageant Standard. Somewhere in Manila, President Aquino might have begun to worry a little more.
"You just took a great song and made it greater," bluffed Tyler.
"You do not know what a big deal that is," explained Lopez. No, really. Tyler was really impressed, apparently. Jackson admitted that it had started slow. Ryan Seacrest pointed out that Sanchez had been 3 when this song had come out.
Phillips went back home to Leesburg, Ga., to see a sign that said "Phillip, you still owe me $10." Perhaps he could go to his dad's pawnshop to get the money. His dad was there in the pawnshop, with a ready hug in his heart and a gun in his holster. Phillips, who has been unwell - as Iovine keeps pointing out - looked overwhelmed by the reception he received from a town whose real hero is the San Francisco Giants' Buster Posey.
With no sense of irony at all, Phillips picked Matchbox 20's "Disease."
This was Carlos Santana low-key. It was if he was saying: "Dear 'Idol,' take that." It certainly wasn't bad, but it was also what was once called an album track - one of those songs that create an interlude between the hits.
"I didn't feel like it was the 'wow' performance," observed Lopez.
"It wasn't over the top, but it was Phillip Phillips," said Tyler.
"I didn't like it either," said Jackson. "You can do those things in your sleep."
Didn't these people see that Phillips Sr. has a gun?
ROUND TWO WINNER: Joshua Ledet (By a lot.)
Each of Iovine's song choices would say a lot about how he saw the performers. What would he choose for Ledet? Mary J Blige's "No More Drama" was it. It really was.
This required, as Iovine had suspected, Ledet to rise to his demented best at the end. He Mary J. Obliged. As his excitement (and the audience's) rose toward Goosie Mach 3 and beyond, he shed his glitter-epauletted jacket. He gained even more respect. This was genuine talent, performing without restraint, shedding all inhibitions and expressing fully the intent of the song.
Cavanagh, Elise Testone and Shannon Magrane in the audience couldn't help but stand and give themselves over to it.
"You have laid everything on this stage that there is to lay," said Jackson, with accidental accuracy.
Lopez loved how he'd taken off the jacket. Sadly, Tyler could only describe it as "over the top."
Iovine chose the Jackson Five's "I'll Be There" for Sanchez, because it appeals to older people, but was sung was someone of lesser maturity.
It was hard to listen to Sanchez instead of stare at her shoes. They looked as if they'd been borrowed from Herman Munster's daughter. Her performance was pleasant, but again lacking in anything that might be described as character. She's good. Really good. But ultimately, she's really mechanical good.
"You almost sounded like Michael," said Lopez.
"I liked it OK," said Jackson with another bout of sudden perspicacity. "There was never a 'moment' moment."
Sanchez looked positively annoyed and she could have done real damage if she'd swung those shoes.
Phillips, like Sanchez, got a big box from AT&T that told him his Iovine selection. It was Bob Seger's "We've Got Tonight."
"The melody is so great that Phillip is going to want to stick to it," said Iovine.
Phillips showed marked sartorial respect by wearing all black. The violins and cellos began to soar, as he tried to whip his voice to follow the melody. His face was pained because this is not the sort of song he wants ever to be seen singing. This was Iovine pawning him onto pop - with a gun in his holster.
He tried to get through it, but a couple of times he was all at Seger. The song exposed his lack of range. His face strained for the bigger notes, but his voice resisted. The judges, though, stood to applaud.
"The perfect song at the perfect time and your best performance on the show ever," opined Jackson.
"There's 20 million girls out there who wished you were singing the song to them," said Lopez.
"You sang like you just didn't give a s---," observed a more observant Tyler. He added that it didn't matter if he didn't sing the notes right - a view from the voice of experience, perhaps.
He may be right. The little girls in pink pajamas knew it was late. They knew they were weary. But still they had to vote 300 times for the one they love best. We'll see what they - or, as Machiavellians might suggest, the producers - decide.
ROUND THREE WINNER: Ledet (By even more than the second round.)