“American Idol” Top 10 Guys: Was Keith Urban’s “Cabaret” Critique Homophobic?

American Idol’s Top 10 men have one thing in common: Like the best/worst politicians, they’re sure that their “sincerity” and teary-eyed stage presence warrant massive attention. Please, Curtis Finch Jr. Admittedly, this is a batch of mostly good vocalists and fine dressers (with a couple of notable exceptions, like the now-deflated phenomenon known as Charlie Askew), but the male half of season 12 reeks of eager-to-please spinelessness. I wouldn’t write off a few of these chaps, though. Not by a long shot.

Let’s rank ’em all, worst to first. Be sure to look out for my livid appraisal of Keith Urban’s horrible judging. Cheers! 

10. Charlie Askew, Genesis’ “Mama”

Dear lord. I don’t know what’s more grating: Charlie’s elfin whine or his entitled attitude and crocodile tears. After screeching this Genesis tune with as little attention to pitch as possible, Mr. Askew proceeded to fuel his own breakdown during the judges’ critiques. Yes, I believe he was sincerely upset and even debilitated by Keith, Nicki, and Randy’s reactions (though from what I could tell, it seemed like Charlie didn’t process anything any of them said), but I also believe he considers his post-song preaching to be the most important part of his presentation. He stammered about wanting to show off his “angry” side, and that was even more uncomfortable than any of Tatiana del Toro’s season-eight fits. Guys, she had like 30 fits. Charlie’s an unqualified amateur who isn’t ready to proceed any further, even if his intentions are harmless. And weird. That’s that. But shudder — that mustache.

9. Cortez Shaw, Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven”

See, this is the kind of American Idol performance that bothers me even in theory. Cortez clearly picked this song because he could imitate Bruno Mars’ vocals, yet he’s not as strong a singer as Mars, so it’s an altogether unnecessary performance. The man is dashing and modelesque enough for a comely iTunes single cover, but his vocals seem to be more strained, more indistinct, and less meaningful with each passing week. Also: What was with that infernal instrumental beeping in the middle of his song? I wrote down “JAZZ KAZOO?” in pain. But man. He hot.

8. Vincent Powell, Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” 

I guess when you perform last, the judges are likely to shower you with kisses and heart-shaped happy tears no matter what you do. This? Was annoying. And not just because “End of the Road” is one of the lamest gigantically huge singles of the 1990s. (Second only to Mariah and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day,” of course.) Vincent’s “graciousness” is a big put-on, and I thought his vocal last week was light years better than what he gave us this week: an overcooked wedding reception performance with plenty of stinging vocal misses.

7. Curtis Finch Jr., R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly”

Yeah, and speaking of The Worst Of The ’90s: Gentle Christ. How is it even legal to choose this song anymore? Is Lola Bunny a line producer on Idol or something? I can’t fathom the judge’s extreme overreaction to this performance, which contained one of the most gruesomely bad final notes I’ve heard in some time. Hell, Zoanette got that kind of right. I admit that Curtis’ stage presence is stronger than his competitors even if it’s hammy as hell, but I thought this was among the cheesier offerings in a very Velveeta-filled night of Idol. He is not welcomed back to the Space Jam. 

6. Lazaro Arbos, Nina Simone/Michael Buble’s “Feeling Good”

Lazaro is adawwwwrable in his mall-brand glamoooor. His voice is very cute. His attitude is perfect. But there’s no way he’s ready for this big a stage just yet, even if his vocals last night were the best they’ve ever been. What he lacks (in a way that is much different and way less hair-raising than Charlie Askew) is professionalism, which entails that casual understanding of a song’s intention, as well as righteous stage command. Candice Glover understands every lyric of every song she sings. Kree Harrison too. When you’re missing that key element, you can only seem like a poseur, and I find myself watching Lazaro nervously, hoping he can make it through the song without being completely disoriented by the words he somewhat absently spouts. With one or two years of extra focus, he’d be great in this competition. At this point I’m watching him sweat a little too much.

5. Paul Jolley, Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton’s “Just a Fool”

What exactly does Paul Jolley think his edge is? “I don’t want to just be country — I want to be the kind of country they play at Starbucks!” This was yet another obvious song choice for the Tony Perkins twin, who picks tunes based on how easy it is to fabricate the original artist’s “vulnerable” wail. At this point he’s still proudly wasting our time instructing us he can sing, rather than singing with any distinct quality, connection, or urgency. And yet, I’ll defend the Jolley Rancher when it comes to (you guessed it) Keith Urban’s ridiculous, insulting, and unfortunate critique. The sandy-haired Mr. Kidman had the nerve to tell Paul — for the second week in a row — that he’s not “believable” as a country star because he’s too damn theatrical.

How, I ask? Because he blinks a lot? Because he moves his hands? This isn’t exactly a Kabuki superstar like J’DA or Zoanette we’re talking about. It’s vanilla, parent-safe Paul. After Nicki Minaj goaded Keith into clarifying himself, Mr. Urban actually advised Paul to “un-cabaret” his performance. Look, Keith: If you want to criticize Paul Jolley for being boring or feigning sensitivity (which he does every single week), that’s a legitimate criticism. But when you stumble over your words to tell a contestant to be less flamboyant (actually, “un-cabaret your performance” is more offensive), what you’re actually doing is being a prick.

Judging by Paul Jolley’s Instagram pictures with a cozy male friend and the probability that he’s gay anyway, maybe Paul Jolley uses effete hand gestures and fluttering eyelashes because that’s who he f*cking is. I was confused when Urban shuddered at the thought of Paul as “the male Taylor Swift,” because that’s pretty much a fair description of what Paul could be. Thing is, Keith thinks Paul’s proper parallel is the awful Gary Levox, so he’s basing Paul’s credibility on one of the thousands of straight male country stars who are all competing to exhibit the least individuality and, ultimately, the most masculinity. Paul is inherently not like those guys. And he shouldn’t be. Because you know what country music needs less of? Run-of-the-mill Keith Urbans and Gary Levoxes (Levoxi?).

While Paul has miles to go before he can convince me he’s a self-owned artist and not just a smug karaoke champ, I hope the last criticism he heeds is Keith’s weird ick-factor problem with his gay arms and face. In fact, if I were Paul, I would intensify my “country cabaret” antics and maybe weep atop a gyrating mechanical bull right over Baby Tee Urban’s head. That’s a cabaret I’d like to see. Saddle up, Paul, or as I now prefer to call you: Lasso Minnelli. I might actually be rooting for you again. 

P.S. Mysteriously, Randy gave fantastic critiques last night! His note to Paul about straining when attempting to hit his “sweet spot” was dead-on. Props and golf claps and gay lassos to him.

4. Nick Boddington, The Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris”

Get this: Horrible as City of Angels and Johnny Rzeznik’s Final Fantasy VII haircut are, I really thought this was a perfect song for the ever-diplomatic Mr. Boddington. It’s just old enough to be a clever selection. Nick’s the most jovial and likable member of the Top 10, so you want him to rise among the determined beigeness of his competition. Which is why I winced — hard — at the way the bald balladeer approached “Iris,” since his delivery was a bit too chipper in a Gordon Lightfoot way to make the song’s melodrama believable. He also tried “playing with the melody” (my favorite nonsense Idol phrase), and that wasn’t smart. But the chops are there, and I’d rather he stick around than some of the contrived, abrasive also-rans. Hell, I’d pay money to see him cover the greatest City of Angels jam, Alanis Morissette’s “Uninvited.”

3. Elijah Liu, Rihanna’s “Stay”

I’d hate to give credit to Nicki Minaj for constantly pointing out how adorable Elijah, is, but come on. That boy looks like a seal pup Beanie Baby named “Feelings.” Damn cute. He’s certainly the shape of a 2013 pop star, in that dimunitive Bieber-meets-Harry Styles way, and I’ll vouch for the heart-throbby pangs of kindergartener passion in his vocals too. That works. Elijah does garble his lyrics a bit, and the nasally quality in his voice occasionally makes him sound young in an untrained, less endearing way. Like Nicki Minaj, his voice is often a dead-ringer for the dragalicious Long Island moan of the late Venus Xtravanganza, and that actually makes me like him more, thank God. With the exception of a couple of off-key “woo-woos,” I thought this was a cool, bankable performance that illustrates Mariah Carey’s critique: “Your relevancy is your strongest point.” A little backhanded, yes, but it’s more than a lot of these H&M mannequins have going.

2. Burnell Taylor, The Color Purple’s “I’m Here”

Like Kree Harrison last night, I knew Burnell was going to rank near the top of the leaderboard the second he opened his mouth to sing. Amazingness burst forth right away in this inspired jam, and I thought he exhibited an ease and coolness as well (plus a number of contrived gestures too, but that’s sort of a theme tonight). I like the ache in his wail, and I can’t do anything but appreciate the fact that he’s clearly one of the best crooners in the game.

1. Devin Velez, Perry Como’s “Somos Novios”

Apparently the judges are a little nervous to call out Devin’s bilingual performances as gimmicky voter bait, but that’s OK for now. This was the crispest vocal of the evening paired with the crispest outfit. Ow-ow, that red! Well done, Develez. (That’s my new nickname for him.) Maybe this is personal bias, but Devin has a very friendly air that makes his glory notes seem sweeter than showboat-y. I just believe him, I guess? That’s an awfully weird thing to say about a contestant on this glitzy jamboree. Devin’s precious and potent and a darling vocalist, and if he doesn’t go through, this night has been a total waste. Go, vermilion-shirted child!