Did the ‘Idol’ Judges Hear What We Did?

HOLLYBLOG: ‘American Idol’s’ first live show brought a host of inexplicable critiques

Last Updated: February 25, 2010 @ 12:27 AM

Was something wrong with the sound on “American Idol” on Tuesday night?

The greatest delight of watching “Idol” is the inevitable moment when a judge – usually Simon Cowell – crushes or uplifts a contestant by saying exactly what you, the viewer, were thinking all along.

So … did Fox/Fremantle quietly decide that Tuesday, in addition to being ladies’ night, was also Opposite Day? Had the judges raided the medicine cabinet in Paula Abdul’s old dressing room before taking the stage?

Or – and this is the scenario we’re betting on – was something dramatically off-kilter with the sound mix?

The first live show of the season was dominated by pitch problems, ham-fisted phrasing and, perhaps at the root of it all, a sound mix that seemed to have the vocals turned up to 11, totally blotting out the band. And the way it looked on TV, many of the critiques by Simon, Randy, Kara and Ellen were nearly as off-base as the performers were off-key.

Good performances were panned; obviously inferior ones were praised. It was, to borrow a phrase, utterly bizarre.

To wit:

The judges laid into Katelyn Epperly, whose soulful rasp brought a new layer of soul and pain to the Beatles’ “Oh Darlin’” (one of three Beatles covers for the night); it was a pro-quality, emotionally charged performance that played on TV like a showstopper. In the room, the judges cringed, calling it “forced” and “screaming,” while focusing a good amount of derision on Epperly’s new street-walker look.

Conversely, they were over the moon for Lilly Scott’s warbling, awkward mishandling of “Fixing a Hole." Her strange facial expressions and odd-duck, far-from-pitch performance had us squirming on our couches; to the judges, it was something else. "I think that’s what we’re talking about,” Ellen said. “It’s such a random song choice, and you did such a great job with it."

Meanwhile, Janell Wheeler’s hapless, vocally klutzy cover of Heart’s “What About Love” should’ve made her the first contestant to be summarily thrown off the show – it was that bad. But the judges went easy on her; Randy said he liked her voice, and Simon’s evenhanded review ended with him assuring the attractive blonde that she’d be “OK.”

But perhaps the most out-of-left-field critique went to Haeley Vaughn, the 16-year-old with the big, sparkly smile, who turned “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” into a contemporary blues-pop joint. While most contestants use their guitars as a crutch or a prop, her syncopated playing actually added something, and her vocals, while far from perfect, brought a bouncy freshness to a song that would have surely otherwise been been a heavy, old-fashioned dud. Cowell was unequivocal: “"It was a mess. It wasn’t very good."

To anyone who’s ever performed live music, it’s no secret that the sound dynamics of a room are thoroughly different from what comes across in a recording (or in this case, a television broadcast). That’s the special challenge for the “Idol” sound engineers: the need to reconcile the difference between what the judges hear at 30 feet, and what comes out on TV speakers of some 30 million Americans.

Until Tuesday night, they seem to have done a pretty good job of it. Contacted by TheWrap, Fox did not immediately comment on whether there were sound problems on Tuesday night, or whether they even agreed that it sounded like there might have been. 

There were other disconnects, too, both obvious and subtle. And there were dozens of calls the judges got right – enough to rest assured that someone hadn’t mismatched the performances and critiques in the editing room (though we still have our doubts on some of these).

To their credit, the judges — particularly Cowell — have, in the past, amended their thoughts after watching the telecast back at home. 

And on Tuesday, Cowell hit the nail on the head enough times to remind us that he’s the most effective keeper of truth in the room (Didi Benami’s vocals on ”The Way I Am” was, as Simon astutely pointed out, a near-criminal ripoff of the sharply curled stylings made famous – and now ubiquitous – by Duffy and Adele. THANK you, yes they were).

This all just brings home the point that without Simon, this panel is sunk. The maddening jumble of mealy-mouthed (Randy), awkward/inarticulate/vacant (Kara) and now, airtime-gobbling (Ellen) commentary we currently get is tolerable, knowing that the truth will come out — as soon as they fix the cameras stage left.

For the sake of TV’s most watched, most beloved show, here’s hoping Fox and Fremantle/19 Entertainment get the mix just right when it comes to filling that seat.

Josh Dickey is deputy editor of TheWrap.