American Idol invited 181 singers to Hollywood Week and on last night's episode — the season's first to feature new judge Ellen DeGeneres — 95 made it through to the collaborative torture known as Group Night. The hopefuls took the stage at Los Angeles' Kodak Theatre and faced a panel of judges that will be obsolete at the end of Season Nine, when Simon Cowell decamps for The X Factor and his replacement — Howard Stern, perhaps? — takes over. But last night's story was DeGeneres, who dressed like an extra from a Gap denim ad but took her judging duties very seriously, emphasizing critique over easy laughs.
The stand-up and talk-show vet once again made her case for being an Idol judge despite having little experience in the music biz, stressing to the singers that she knows what it's like to stand on a stage trying to please a roomful of people. Then she got to work being honest, but not brutally honest, lightening the mood when tension threatened to take over the room. "You were like a leopard behind a cage," she said to overly enthusiastic Skiboskii. "Sexy and scary, it's a fine line." She told another singer, "It was crazy — in a bad way."
The episode featured one major nod to departed judge Paula Abdul: Andrew Garcia reinterpreted her 1988 hit "Straight Up" on acoustic guitar — an arrangement that recalled great moments from David Cook, Kris Allen and Adam Lambert and had the judges predictably raving. "That was genius. Paula would be screaming and yelling and clapping and dancing," Kara DioGuardi said as DeGeneres threw her hands over her head and approximated Abdul's enthusiastic applause.
The episode's strongest singers were predominately women (though country gal Vanessa Wolfe failed to make it through with a warbling, nervous rendition of Blind Melon's "No Rain"). Janell Wheeler scorched Estelle's "American Boy," Lily Scott breezed through "Lullaby of Birdland," Crystal Bowersox had her fellow hopefuls singing backup on "Natural Woman," rocker mom Mary Powers powered through Pink's "Sober" and Didi Benami scored by covering what she said was a Kara DioGuardi song called "Terrified" (it's on Katharine McPhee's latest album).