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Ann Powers on 'American Idol': The Pile-Up, Part 1

February 18, 2009 |  9:12 am

Jackietohn0217250 Well, "Idol" watchers, now you know what it's really like. Reality television has long been confirming the adage that everybody's a critic, but Tuesday's kickoff to the semifinals actually replicated the weird mix of over-stimulation and despair that often afflicts today's (few remaining) working music journalists.

It's so often like this: Faced with a huge pileup of unfamiliar artists and the pressure to make snap judgments in accordance with the hyper-information age, we skim the surface of the music confronting us, attracted by a sexy image, well-mined nostalgia or a big, bold gesture. We music writers usually face this problem while wading through promotional CDs or MP3 downloads instead of televised performances, but the result is the same.

We can overlook some good stuff and overreact to mediocrity; we fall victim to hype and dismiss music with real potential. An artist whose dream we threw on the discard pile might very well turn out to be a favorite in future months or years.

The new structure of "Idol," which eliminates more than twice as many singers per week during the semifinals, plunges America into a frenzy of knee-jerk reactions. So many of tonight's disappointments were the kind that, in previous years, led to a better performance the following week.

There was Jackie Tohn, caught between her soul and her funny bone. There were Brent Keith and Michael Sarver, not yet sure how to be both sweet and macho in that country-hunk way. There was Stephen Fowler -- still a real talent, I believe -- unjustly condemned by the judges for singing a Michael Jackson song, even though he did so reasonably well. There was Ricky Braddy, vocalizing better than anybody else but unable to sell himself.

Read the full story.