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'American Idol' Recap: Steven Tyler Smackdown

Idol's nicest judge switched his tune in hot pursuit of Simon

February 10, 2011 8:47 AM ET

Up until now, we've known what to expect from Steven Tyler. Sure, he has a thing for way too young girls. And he invades personal space, even if that person's in a wheelchair. Sometimes he strips off his shirt without any encouragement! But he's sentimental, and always careful with the more fragile kids who come on Idol as unwitting laughingstocks. He's basically a nice guy. And yet, last night, the show pushed a metamorphosis story of Steven as "the mean one."

Things started normally enough, with a Ukrainian woman-child belly dancing to the beat of Steven's table drums. Twenty-two-year-old Inessa Lee came to California to be a star. In pursuit of her whale, she's filmed "shower scenes" and other such works for YouTube. "I can be Britney Spears, I can be Katy Perry. I can be anyone you want," she told us last night, in the same breath as she called herself "unique." A mixed up little girl, that one, and Steven went to his usual trouble of mixing her up some more. "Do you love me or hate me?" Inessa basically asked. Because they – Jennifer and Randy – hated her. And Steven – loved her? "As far as cute, you're a hundred and ten percent," he said, inspiring her to scrunch her nose and talk in a baby voice. If cute was what he wanted, by golly, cute was what she'd give him! But no, that's not what he was saying. There was the voice is not there line, and the melody is all over the place bit. All kinds of criticism that took her awhile to hear, what with his winking and smiling and general carrying on. But this is classic Tyler! He's a mixed-signals kind of guy. Even if he thinks you're rotten, he wants to look like he can't get enough. He wants you to not hurt so bad.

In the third act, everything changed. Dave Combs, an unconvincing "rocker" with angelic locks who sang a middling version of "Oh! Darling" by the Beatles, showed up. It wasn't great, but to look at Steven, Dave was more heinous than anyone they'd seen all day – worse than the kid in the homemade Transformers costume. Worse than the boy dressed as a red tiger. Worse than the Ukrainian belly dancer. Steven looked like he'd been personally cheated on. He sputtered a string of putdowns and pointed at the Beatles shirt he happened to be wearing like his heart was exploding. "You were so off the melody, you were on another planet," he said. This from the man who could hardly whisper the first half of that phrase before without breaking into air kisses. More followed. He asked a kid named Rick if he'd been hit in the head on his way over, and told a girl in a shiny police costume she "should be arrested for that voice." And for the first time all season, he said no when both Randy and Jennifer said yes. Sure, it was an inconsequential vote, since they'd definitely pre-arranged to let Emily Ann Reed, with her compressed "old-timey" voice, in. But it was meant to be significant. Steven, the show was telling us, can be discerning and mean. Let's hope not for good, or who will be nice to the people no one's ever nice to?

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