Well, that was painful. Girls' night on "Idol" suffered from a traveling flu, and a bigger case of almost everybody trying too hard. This year's women performers have great buzz -- in some karaoke universe, anyway, where personality is defined by the number of notes "blown" (to use Randy Jackson's phrase) and qualities such as rhythmic sense or emotional nuance have no weight. But in the real world -- even the Plasticine corner where "Idol" takes place -- nervous imitation, however cheerily executed, doesn't get you far. That's what I saw from the ladies Wednesday night -- and by the time you read this, two of them will be gone.
The best, though, found their footing within styles that the judges showed little sign of recognizing: Asian pop, punk blues and acid jazz. Ramiele Malubay was rightly praised for dusting off Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me" with aplomb, and her secret ingredient was a dollop of the elegant cheesiness that typifies Asian pop. Malubay's serious pipes are fast defeating "Idol's" anti-brown bias -- along with David Archuleta and Danny Noriega, she's forcing the show's producers to acknowledge that not every talent comes in black or white.
Rock 'n' roll nurse Amanda Overmyer (say it fast three times; it's fun!) gave a raggedy read to the blues number "Baby Please Don't Go," throwing in some very Van Morrison-esque vocalese. Overmyer reminds me a lot of Dilana Robichaux, the robbed runner-up on "Rock Star: Supernova." These women's attitude and raw vocal power defy the rules of reality TV; they demand to be turned up to 11, and your remote doesn't go that high. Everyone expects Overmyer to exit quickly, but raw power's not so easily dismissed.
Finally, "Idol's" very own Lil' Mama, Alexandrea Lushington, dared to be what Paula Abdul claims the show is all about -- original -- with a twist on the Blood, Sweat & Tears jam "Spinning Wheel" that fell somewhere between the club groove of Brand New Heavies and the showy sass of Amy Winehouse. High schooler Lushington came off like a Missy Elliott Bratz doll in her suspenders and mini-bouffant, and who cares if she didn't hit every note? She has style. Simon Cowell looked like an idiot, not getting it.
These three stood out, though soul belters (and virtual anagrams) Asia'h Epperson and Syesha Mercado earned predictable praise. And then there was Carly Smithson -- the much maligned former MCA recording artist who, hate to say it, might be the season's shocking dud. Her pre-gig interview had her admitting that she had released a major label album seven years ago, but it was too little too late: She came off as arrogant. Then she chose to blow on a song that deserved to be caressed. "The Shadow of Your Smile" is a Johnny Mandel mood piece with a bossa nova flavor, but Smithson ran over it like a Hummer.
Maybe Smithson's controversial biz experience is really just a "School of Rock"-style hoax. She surely seemed like an amateur on Wednesday.