I have been to a "death metal" concert. I watched as Ashley Simpson resorted to an impromptu Irish jig after getting caught lip syncing on Saturday Night Live. And I have listened to my tone-deaf college roommate put Aerosmith's "I Don't Wanna Miss A Thing" on repeat and sing along with it at the top of his lungs, through tears, for an entire weekend after having a fight with his girlfriend.

But I have never had a more painful experience listening to music than I did watching the Top 12 male American Idol contestants compete for a spot in the finals Tuesday night.

Baffling song choices, horrible sound production, and vocals that only Helen Keller could love were only the tip of the iceberg during the Idol contestants' first performances of the season in front of a live audience.

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The evening started off on the wrong foot when one of the cheesiest Idol contestants of all time, Clint Jun Gamboa, turned Stevie Wonder's "Very Superstitious" into a whiny and shaky mess.

For which the Idol judges - no surprise here - praised him.

Gamboa was followed by Jovany Barreto and Jordan Dorsey, who proceeded to butcher Edwin McCain's "I'll Be" and Usher's "Oh My Gosh," respectively.

I was sure that this trend would snap when Ryan Seacrest announced that one of my favorite male contestants of the season, Tim Halperin, was next. Unfortunately, Halperin - who wowed during multiple auditions up to this point, including his duet of The Beatles' "Something" with Julie Zorrilla in Las Vegas - fell way short of his potential with a choppy, at best, cover of Rob Thomas' "Streetcorner Symphony (Come On Over)."

Then Sideshow Bob look-alike Brett Loewenstern, who calls himself a "red apple in a pile of green apples," covered The Doors' "Light My Fire" with a performance that was more RuPaul than Jim Morrison. I thought his head was going to mercifully spin off at one point because he was flicking his hair around so much. But alas, his head stayed intact and for some reason J. Lo felt the need to compliment him on it, saying he did "more hair tossing than (she) and Beyonce have done in the past 10 years combined."

The awful performances wrapped up with Robby Rosen torturing my ear drums with an off-tempo and off-key version of Sarah McLaghlan's ballad "Angel," Stefano Langone shrieking his way through Bruno Mars' "Just the Way You Are," and Jacob Lusk with a more palatable, but still way over-the-top cover of Luther Vandross' "A House Is Not a Home."

Thank god for Scotty McCreery (John Michael Montgomery's "Letters from Home"), Paul McDonald (Rod Stewart‘s "Maggie May"), James Durbin (Judas Priest's "You've Got Another Thing Comin'"), and Casey Abrams (Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put A Spell On You). Each of these guys stuck with songs that perfectly suited their vocal abilities and had solid all-around performances that made their competitors look like the people you'd see singing in an Atlantic City karaoke bar at 4 a.m.

Usually it is scary when the American Idol voters get involved in the decision making process. But I welcome it this season, because the new trio of judge's has done an awful job thus far.

This week, voters will reportedly select the Top 10 - five males and five females - and the judges will get one wild card pick each to round out this year's group of finalists at 13.

Since the female contestants' performances will not air until Wednesday night, I will only give my picks for the Top 5 guys tonight. I will sort out the "wild cards" after I hear the girls perform.

Here are the guys who I think should be moving on, in no particular order:

- Jacob Lusk: The judges have been praising him enough to sway voters and he has a gospel sound that is popular in the south where Idol is king. So getting votes should not be a problem for him early on, even though I think most viewers from the rest of the country, like me, want to change the channel every time he opens his mouth. But bottom line: he will move on because he wasn't as bad as the others.

- James Durbin: Will have to stray from his screaming rock-n-roll style to go deep in the competition, but he is clearly among this season's best.

- Casey Abrams: The best all-around musician in this year's crop and has the on-stage energy worthy of a comparison to the great James Brown.

- Scotty McCreery: Had the best performance Tuesday night with - surprise, surprise - a sappy country song. The control that he has over his deep voice makes him sound like a country music veteran whose songs have been radiating from trailer parks for decades... yet he's only 17. But he could be in trouble if he has to sing anything other than country down the road.

- Paul McDonald: One of the most unique male performers in Idol history will be my favorite male left in the competition if Halperin gets eliminated. Like Lusk, I don't know how Idol voters will respond to him as the competition progresses because he does have such a different look and sound. But he has easily done enough to advance.


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