By People Staff
February 24, 2010 12:00 AM

The voting has begun! Idol‘s 12 female finalists each had a go at singing a number live for the first time on Tuesday. Before that, though, longtime fans experienced a jolt when they beheld the new lineup of the judges. The quartet were seated as if they were at a dinner party, girl-boy-girl-boy: Ellen, Randy, Kara and Simon. Anyone who follows Idol knows that these things are significant, possibly even karmic. Ellen jokingly explained that she’d had to move away from Simon because he kept putting the moves on her during Hollywood week, then showed a gag clip of his fingers dancing on her leg. It was the rare Idol joke that was actually funny. Ellen has earned her salary!

When Ryan tried to get Simon to hype the overall talent of the girls, Simon demurred: “Some are good. Some are not.” This is an accurate assessment of the night, which was less stellar than expected. An exasperated Simon at one point noted that everyone seemed to be aping Duffy and Adele — which may well be. Are we moving past the era of contestants trying to copy Whitney and Mariah?

Paige Miles kicked it off with the Free classic “All Right Now.” She sounded wobbly, but the judges were fundamentally pleased. Simon, who complained in his dry way that he hadn’t been informed that he’d be weighing in first, singled her out as having the best voice of the girls, but thought it was a lousy song for Idol. The Four said she’d survive the night. Paige was apparently glad just to escape backstage. “I’ve been waiting to pee for like five hours,” she told Ryan.

Forty minutes in, Lilly Scott was the first singer to really make an impression with the Beatles song “Fixing a Hole.” Her voice is very unusual — baby girl, jazz-pop — like a girl from a Scandinavian band. Does that explain her white-blonde shag?

“You stand out because you’re not like everyone else,” said Ellen. Simon liked her, too, but shadowed his praise with concerns that she doesn’t generate star power.

Also, while she was still onstage, bantering with Ryan, something weird happened: The cameras cut away to Kara and Simon having a heated discussion about something. But what? “Sergeant Pepper?”

Crystal Bowersox also charmed the judges with her version of Alannis Morisette’s “Hand in My Pocket.” She has a lovely voice, and she’s confident and rooted in an Earth Mother kind of way — plays harmonica nicely too. Randy loved her originality and her honesty. Simon and Kara both appreciated what a refreshing quality she brings to a show like Idol, but both stressed that she needs to transcend the coffeehouse-singer image.

Katelyn Epperly, with a great mop of blonde hair and dressed in a neat little pleathery black dress, sang a foxy, somewhat show-bizzy “Oh, Darling.” “You’re kind of quirky,” said Simon. “I like you a lot.” Kara said she preferred Katelyn looking a little less slick, but had no complaints about her singing. “You know your voice very, very well.”

Most divisive performance: Haeley Vaughn, 16, who added a nose piercing since advancing to Hollywood. Singing the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” placed her at a natural disadvantage coming after Lilly. But she has genuine teenage energy in her voice, and that’s something you don’t hear much on Idol. “You just shine,” said Ellen.

Technically, Kara admitted, the performance was all over the place. But Haeley’s sense of fun was infectious. Simon wasn’t buying it. He called her “a windup doll that never stops smiling.” Ellen countered: “If it was a mess, it was a hot mess.” She’ll survive.

Oddest performance: The highly touted Katie Stevens sang the oldie “Feeling Good” with a surprising amount of rhythm and a surprisingly mature voice. She seemed to have turned from 17 to 47. The judges were actually unsettled by the whole thing. “I want to see you be 17,” said Ellen, who considered it too conservative a song choice. Simon agreed: “It started to become annoying.” Besides, added Kara, her singing was offkey. But she’s too precocious to be booted so soon.

Unfortunately, Lacey Brown’s cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” was a wipeout. “I thought that was terrible,” said Randy. Simon: “I thought it was quite depressing.” Kara hoped, at least, she’d be given another chance. Don’t bet on it.

Who else’ll go on Thursday’s results show? Ashley Rodriguez, perhaps. She sang Leona Lewis’s “Happy.” Well, none of the judges were. Ellen appreciated her voice, but thought she needed to take a bigger risk. Simon worried that she was actually regressing — not what you want to hear in your first night in from of an audience of millions. Her biggest mistake was admitting how much she likes Jordin Sparks.

Better to mimic Duffy. –Tom GliattoFOX