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Ann Powers on 'American Idol': Putting away the chair

February 12, 2009 | 10:36 am

Two hours' worth of teasing, and all we got was one legitimate surprise. I'm talking about Jamar Rogers getting booted off, not Tatiana Del Toro, who's already water-cooler conversation gold, being granted a stay. As anyone who's seen "Dead Man Walking" well knows, executions make for higher drama when they're drawn out.

Tonight's "American Idol" was a long way from reality television at its best. Here's what was missing: actual suspense; any real insight into the judges' decisions (though most choices were stunningly obvious); and, oh yeah, music. We knew we wouldn't get much of the latter during this, the "chair" episode, which always captures heartbreak and delight in sobs and mad hopping, not Diane Warren songs.

Yet if we must endure all this faux tension over the judges' decisions, couldn't there have been some mention of what makes an "Idol" voice viable? Simon kept repeating that it's all about the mix, the judges look for certain things, it's more than just raw talent, yadda yadda yadda. But I didn't catch many specifics, beyond Paula chiming in that welder Matt Breitzke is "likable" (as opposed to Michael Sarver, the Manwich? As if they weren't going to let the next Dierks Bentley through!) and everybody getting on Awesome Adam Lambert's case about being a musical theater geek.

Let's go back to Jamar, the perfectly nice, obviously gifted guy holding Danny Gokey up through every round. What was his failing? Was it his Andre 3000-style wardrobe? The precision of his vocal style, which reflected a harmony singer's humility more than a lead's bravado? The teardrop tattoo on his cheek? That irritating Jason Mraz-style twist he gave the Plain White T's "Hey There Delilah" at the Kodak? We'll never know. I suspect that the producers just wanted to make the recently bereaved Gokey feel more alone without his BFF nearby, so he might wallow in both grief and survivor''s guilt, and get those ratings up.

Jamar deserved a sing-off, at least. I'm sure he could have triumphed over Norman Gentle/Nick Mitchell, whose not-that-hilarious schtick might eventually prove as disruptive to the "Idol" flow as Tatiana's sobbing fits.

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