American Idol once again harnessed its power to reach millions of Americans last night with its Idol Gives Back telethon, a two-hour-plus event that featured performances from rock icons (Elton John), international pop sensations (the Black Eyed Peas) and guitar greats (Jeff Beck), along with jokes from late-night comics (George Lopez and Wanda Sykes), and moving explorations of how poverty and disease erode communities and threaten the lives of young people in the U.S. and Africa.
The night began with a message from Barack and Michelle Obama and ended with the elimination of Tim Urban, leaving six finalists who will sing songs from Shania Twain’s catalog when the country star arrives to mentor next week. The Obamas praised the Idol program for having raised more than $140 million so far, and in homage to judge Randy Jackson, President Obama concluded with, “Y’all my dawgs,” likely marking the first time the word “dawg” has passed a sitting president’s lips on national television.
Ryan Seacrest broadcast live from the show’s usual Hollywood studio and Queen Latifah emceed a second stage in Pasadena, where the Black Eyed Peas brought a high-energy performance of “Rock That Body” complete with futuristic dancers and glowing lasers. Jeff Beck and Joss Stone were joined by the Jubilation Choir for a powerful version of “I Put a Spell on You,” and Idol superstar Carrie Underwood sang a strong “Change,” later revealing she’ll be donating 36 cents of every ticket sold for her fall tour to Save the Children. Annie Lennox — who was scheduled to perform in California but was grounded due to volcanic ash — performed “Universal Child” and appeared in a touching taped segment that demonstrated how simple drug treatments saved the life of a child whose mother died of HIV/AIDS-related illnesses in Africa.
Alicia Keys, who mentored the Top Seven this week as they took on “inspirational songs,” roused the Hollywood studio with “Unthinkable (I’m Ready)” from The Element of Freedom, then segued into “Empire State of Mind (Part II),” pounding out its allusions to Billy Joel on the piano as she belted the track’s soaring chorus. Mary J. Blige later took the stage with guitarist Orianthi, Travis Barker, Steve Vai, record exec Ron Fair and Randy Jackson to perform her new cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Elton John wrapped the show by asking viewers to get tested for HIV and a performance of “Your Song,” which he recently rocked alongside Lady Gaga at the Grammy Awards.
In between the musical performances, Idol showcased segments featuring Jennifer Garner (who traveled to Appalachian Kentucky, where 45 percent of children grow up in poverty), Jane Lynch, David Duchovny, Justin Bieber and Joe Jonas (who spoke about gifts they’d last received from their mothers), Victoria Beckham (who urged viewers to support Save the Children), and Idol‘s own Ellen DeGeneres, Jackson and David Cook, who examined hunger in America and the struggles of young women in Ethiopia. Seacrest also interviewed two of the night’s most prominent philanthropists, Bill and Melinda Gates, about their work on the global health crisis. Throughout the broadcast, viewers were reminded that for small contributions, books, food, mosquito nets, vaccines and hope could bring big differences to needy people’s lives.
To inject the serious proceedings with some levity, George Lopez roasted the Idol judges, critiquing Jackson’s overuse of “dawg,” Kara DioGuardi’s nightly note “I wrote that song,” DeGeneres’ spats with Simon, and Cowell’s tight T-shirts. Wanda Sykes also poked fun at the British judge’s chest, insisting you can tell he’s bored when “he sits and plays with his nipples.” Jonah Hill and Russell Brand brought even bigger laughs from their semi-fake celebrity phone bank, where some impersonators (Woody Allen, Marilyn Monroe, Tom Cruise from Top Gu n and Tom Cruise from Risky Business) manned the phones alongside the very real Slash, Idol season eight drama queen Tatiana del Toro and Octomom.
Idol has aired two previous Idol Gives Back shows over its nine seasons — the show skipped last year — during which there has been only one elimination. During the season six show, the judges spared the hopefuls in the spirit of giving, however Michael Johns got the boot during the seventh season. Though he’d dodged a few bullets this season after lackluster performances, time ran up for Tim Urban, who was joined in the bottom three by Casey James and Aaron Kelly. And though Wanda Sykes joked about the traditional farewell song, poking fun at the fact that the show asks the eliminated contestant to “remind America why they didn’t vote for you,” Idol was out of time last night, and Urban didn’t get his chance to take the stage one last time.