American Idol Recap: One-Night Standing

jessica sanchez idolWatching this week’s American Idol performance show was like going to a four-star restaurant for an incredible multi-course meal (under the watchful eye of head chef Stevie Nicks) only to get pestered by the Three Busboys of the Apocalypse to fill up on the stuff jangling around in their white paper McDonald’s bags: “Yes, yes, the Maine Peekytoe Crab with maroon carrot, volcanic garlic, and pickled carrot sorbet looks sublime, but this McRib with a side of McNuggets is what’s going to bring you to your feet with ecstacy!” Say what now?

There are, of course, a few different ways to interpret J.Lo, Randy, and Steven’s inexplicable standing ovations for middling performances by Heejun Han and DeAndre Brackensick. Maybe they were operating under Uncle Nigel’s instructions to create a “night of redemption” theme involving last week’s surviving Bottom 3 contestants that Ryan Seacrest could tout midway through the telecast. Perhaps they wanted to give some extra encouragement to the two weakest links in the Season 11 chain. (Tangent: Oh how the combo of “chain” and “Stevie Nicks” makes me want to open my iTunes and play this on repeat.) Or maybe the Idol judges are simply predisposed to any contestant who possesses a ‘Y’ chromosome, seeing how they jumped to their feet for four of the five men left in the competition (and heaped lavish “contender for the title”/”threw down the gauntlet” praise on the fifth).

American Idol: Advice (and Fantasy Set Lists!) for the Season 11 Top 9

To paraphrase Elise Testone’s Vegas Week solo, Idol is a man’s man’s man’s world. It’s just a shame that the three people with the Coke cups and multi-million dollar contracts seem to have forgotten it would be nothing without the franchise’s most successful women and girls. Take J.Lo’s response to Elise’s riveting end-of-episode take on Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”: “I didn’t wanna get up, but you made me get up!” Hrmmm…where was that ambivalence about rewarding Elise’s male compatriots?

Okay , okay…enough griping from me. Like I said at the top of this recap, we’ve got an incredible multi-course meal to discuss, so let’s dig in!

Colton Dixon: Lifehouse’s “Everything”
Note to Colton: You can tell the judges and mentors that you’re singing your “favorite worship song of all time” till you’re blue in the face, but nothing — I repeat, nothing — will convince them you’re not singing a romantic ditty for the lay-dees. I mean, dude, learn to keep the focus on what’s important, for me for you. Naturally, even Ryan’s intro tried to play up Colton’s dreamboat status — “Girls, here we go, it’s Colton Dixon” — but Colton just kept on keepin’ on, delivering the hook-free Christian rock anthem with a dewy-eyed earnestness that found him dropping to his knees to end the performance. The end result was tender and heartfelt — even if it wasn’t particularly distinctive — but I have to admit I heard several bum notes when the verse forced Colton into the lower end of his register. Randy kept chanting throughout the night that Colton had “thrown down the gauntlet” for his competitors and was a real “contender for the title,” but I wish he’d just taken the direct route: Don’t forget to vote for Colton just because he went first!

Idology: Erika Van Pelt on Wardrobe Snafus, Charges of Oversinging, Her ‘Old Lady’ Status

Skylar Laine: Miranda Lambert’s “Gunpowder and Lead”
Continuing a trend of unfortunate Ryan-isms, did anyone else wince over our host saying how Skylar would show her “sexy side” after the commercial break, only to discover that this season’s country phenom was tackling a song about a woman’s murderous response to violent physical abuse? And while Jimmy Iovine predicted Skylar could wind up in “a little bit of jeopardy” for picking a track with a “really narrow melody,” I sure as heck hope he’s wrong. “Gunpowder and Lead” may be a straight-shootin’ ditty without a lot of room for vocal runs and swooping holleration, but it allowed Skylar to show off what J.Lo called her “unbridled, can’t-keep-it-in-the-can energy.” Better still, when Skylar hit the final refrain, the ferocity of her delivery — and the physicality she brought to the stage — drove home the underlying menace of the story she was telling. I’m not ashamed to say I got chills. Still, I’m worried the No. 2 performance slot combined with muted praise from the judges and an unfortunate/bulky ensemble might lead to Skylar’s first Bottom 3 encounter.

Colton, Elise, and Phillip: Fleetwood Mac medley!
Just being completely honest, Elise’s fantastic, whiskey-soaked “Edge of Seventeen” was the meat in the sandwich of Colton’s serviceable “Landslide” and Phillip’s borderline manic “Don’t Stop.”

Heejun Han: Donnie Hathaway’s “A Song for You”
Look, I’m happy that Heejun is taking the competition seriously, and that he doesn’t want to disappoint his fans, but while his good intentions weren’t exactly the paving stones to hell, let’s not pretend he performed a miracle of Elliott Yamin proportions with his cover of “A Song for You.” And let’s not pretend that the judges did Heejun any favors by offering a standing ovation for a performance peppered with pitch problems, breath-control issues, and dicey diction. Heck, Randy himself admitted that Heejun “wasn’t perfect,” so instead of leaping to his feet and applauding, why not offer him some “constructive criticism” (air quotes courtesy of the Dawg) about hitting the consonants and extending his notes at the ends of his phrases? The worst part of the judges’ unfounded praise is it’ll probably buy Heejun another week or two in the competition — at the expense of more talented competitors.

Hollie Cavanagh: Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel”
Speaking of which, I’d say Heejun’s likely survival could spell doom for Hollie, who seemed to miss Stevie’s whispered entreaty that it’s not the size of the voice — or the shouting of a glory note — that matters. Had Hollie processed that advice, maybe she wouldn’t have barrelled through Carrie Underwood’s first post-Idol hit with foot pressed down on the accelerator, arms stiffly clutching the steering wheel, her big Cadillac of a voice thundering along with not nearly enough emphasis on nuance and finesse. But ultimately, it was Steven Tyler’s feedback that resonated most: “I wish you’d sung a different song.” Indeed, what’s frustrating about Hollie is her almost robotic approach to song selection and delivery: Because Hollie keeps picking Big Diva Ballads and delivering them without any deviation from their original arrangements, she inevitably ends every performance reminding you that she’s not quite Xtina or Whitney or Celine or Carrie, instead of driving home the point that — with a little honest coaching — she’s unquestionably more ready for prime time than, say, Heejun or DeAndre.

DeAndre Brackensick: Eric Benet’s “Sometimes I Cry”
Look, there’s no doubt in my mind that DeAndre possesses the tools to be a successful singer: He was terrific in Vegas week tackling “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” and his Top 13 take on “Master Blaster” was a fun, funky trip. But for the life of me, I can’t fathom what (aside from Uncle Nigel sending volts of electricity into their chairs) prompted the judges to give Deandre a Standing O for a vocal this week that was about as pleasant as listening to a Snowy Owl sink its talons into a frightened prairie dog and carry it back to the nest for disembowelment. The problem wasn’t so much DeAndre veering off pitch — although his big glory note went noticably askew — but rather, that he doesn’t possess the emotional maturity to connect with an adult song about heartbreak. Without the deep well of loss and longing that informs Eric Benet’s original, DeAndre’s cover became a whole lot of screeching and caterwauling, signifying nothing. Then again, he’s a guy, so maybe we should follow J.Lo’s instructions: “Pick up your phones and vote for DeAndre” to give him “a few more weeks” in the competition. After all, there are still four more girls to get rid of before we have to start picking off the boys, right?

Jessica Sanchez: Beyoncé’s “Sweet Dreams”
Jessica has a serious problem: She’s performing at such a high and consistent level, the judges won’t really give her effusive praise till she makes a blind man see, or cures a child’s broken limb, or at least brings a few new adjectives to Randy’s mumblemouth. Not only did Jessica’s spooky-slow riff on Beyoncé’s uptempo hit (and enigmatic “red door” staging) prove she’s willing to take risks and show some real artistry — whether or not Beyoncé has slowed down the jam in concert is beside the point — but her vocal was a thing of pitch-perfect, high-drama beauty. The way Jessica uses her ridiculously huge voice to alternatelty shimmer then bulldoze then glide across the words of her songs makes me think she’s got the potential to conquer radio, and maybe serve as fodder for RuPaul’s Drag Race lipsynch-offs for the next 10 seasons.

DeAndre, Joshua, and Heejun: Michael Jackson medley
Um, nice moonwalk, Joshua! Solid vocal, too, buddy!

Phillip Phillips: Jonny Lang’s “Still Rainin'”
After last week’s torturous mentoring session with Diddy — seriously, I’m still skeeved out about the availability of a pack of chicks stored somewhere in the recording-studio lobby — it was so nice to see Phillip come face-to-face with an adviser who really appreciated his musical point of view (even if she did add a footnote about him being “gorgeous”). I have to admit I couldn’t help but be swayed a little farther onto the Phillip bandwagon after hearing Stevie Freakin’ Nicks tell him that he’d surely have been invited to join Fleetwood Mac had he been pals with her and Lindsey Buckingham back in the day. I mean, come ON! And Phillip’s cover of “Still Rainin'” lived up to the hype. I loved his little ad-libs on the chorus, and J.Lo was right, the guy brings such an intensity to his performances that you can’t help but fall into his musical rabbit hole. In other news, Randy is friends with Jonny Lang, but there’s still no explanation for why he’s lasted 11 seasons on this show.

Joshua Ledet: Harry Nilsson/Mariah Carey’s “Without You”
Joshua once again took off his jacket — emotionally, not literally — while performing what Jimmy Iovine called (rather definitively) one of the five most challenging songs of all time. But while much has been said about Mr. Ledet Gospel-izing this season, I thought “Without You” was a huge departure from his standard-operating delivery. Oh, sure, he started quiet and gruff, and steadily built the song to a frenzied, howling climax (amidst a very weird forest of decaying trees). But this performance tapped into a well of pain and despair that Joshua really hasn’t drawn from during his Season 11 run. When he hiccuped for a moment — missing a note as he fought back actual tears — Joshua opened up and showed us he’s capable of breaking hearts, not just stirring souls, and maybe going farther in the competition than some pundits might’ve anticipated. In other news, I have to say that I am coveting my neighbor’s black-and-white braid-patterned jacket! And also, Randy spoke with Mariah Carey on her birthday. Or he got her voicemail. Or he posted a note as Dawg10213 on her fan site message board. One of those three things happened, I’m pretty sure.

Skylar, Jessica, and Hollie: Madonna medley
What this hodgepodge medley lacked in polish, it more than made up for in nice mini-moments for its participants. In particular, Hollie sounded incredible on “Borderline” — reinforcing the opinion of the Idoloonie Nation that it’s time for her to tackle some non-ballad fare, and by someone other than a Monster Diva Vocalist. Jessica, meanwhile, got to flex her vocal muscles on “Like a Prayer,” and dang if Skylar didn’t completely command all my attention strutting her stuff on “Express Yourself,” even if her mic seemed to go silent for a third of the performance.

Elise Testone: Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”
As much as I am flipping out over the opportunity to purchase the studio version of Elise’s Led Zeppelin cover on iTunes, I can’t lie: I loved her rehearsal-room duet with Stevie Nicks on Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” even more. (We need a full version, and we need it to happen on the Idol finale.) But back to the subject at hand. I got nervous when I heard Elise had picked “WLL,” especially since Adam Lambert had performed it with such hip-thursting gusto back in Season 8. But Elise brought her own energy to the song that was equally mesmerizing. Whereas Adam’s vocal and staging were utterly in your face — and, with his “every inch of my love” sneer, just a little nasty — Elise’s performance was more subtly seductive. The way she covered her face with her hand on the chorus, the way she reduced her voice to a sexy coo as she faced off with the guitarist, the sandblast power of that final “love” (preceded by an almost Shakira-like hip shimmy). Everything about this worked — and worked double overtime. How the judges weren’t already on their feet as she was delivering the final note is a mystery of Smoke Monster proportions. But who cares if J.Lo didn’t want to get up, or if Randy had to water-down his praise by noting “everybody wants to do this thing, they want to win this thing. It doesn’t really matter. Elise continued her climb out of the Bottom 3 basement, and along with Jessica and Skylar, proved that the Season 11 ladies are in it to win it — even if the judges are ambivalent about standing for (or with) ’em.

Letter grades for the night
Elise Testone: A
Jessica Sanchez: A-
Phillip Phillips: A-
Skylar Laine: A-
Joshua Ledet: A-
Colton Dixon: B
Hollie Cavanagh: B-
DeAndre Brackensick: C
Heejun Han: C

What did you think of this week’s show? Who was your favorite? Who’s in trouble? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol news, interviews, and recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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  1. Marianne says:

    Geez, Michael, I thought Deandre was good last night. Do I like him singing an all-falsetto song? Not entirely. I prefer to hear it nuanced with his excellent mid-range and really cool lower register, but he chose one of his idols in Eric Benet. The bigger issue I have is that all you could say about the MJ medley was in praise of Joshua?? I thought Deandre STOLE the show on that medley!! He has a lot of showmanship for a boy of 17! Shame on you.

  2. david7118 says:

    Phillip is simply a Dave Matthews voice in a Joe Cocker body. Not a fan.

  3. syb says:

    My only quibble with your best article yet Michael, is that this reformed Hollie hater thought she did much better this week at nuance and emotional connection with the song. It didn’t last all the way through, just as I was ready to say, “she did it!” out came the misplaced contesty glory note in an emotionally inappropriate place. But I have to give Hollie some credit for at least turning the blender down a speed or two this week.

    Other than that, I pretty much agree with all of the above.

  4. Jeff says:

    A Song For You has been performed numersous tims on Idol and it is alsways referred to as Donnie Hathaway’s song. It is a Leon Russell song. I think the songwriter should get the credit.

    • darcy's evil twin says:

      Welcome to my Hell, Jeff. I think this goes along with being old. When I hear “Hard to Handle” referred to as a Black Crowes song I go into a tailspin. No one will ever replace Otis Redding!
      Even though Leon Russell wrote “A song for You” (and I’ve already mentioned this) I love Karen Carpenter’s version.

      • Joe Strummer says:

        Or when “Without You” is credited to Mariah Carey or Harry Nillson. It’s a Badfinger song Written by Pete Ham and Tom Evans.

        • darcy's evil twin says:

          True – but Nillson’s version is the one most people probably remember (didn’t he win a grammy? Wow, that’s been a long, long time ago).
          Sometimes a re-do is better than the original. I never cared for “Diamonds and Rust” (or much of anything else by Joan Baez) but I loved the Judas Priest version.
          I still remember when I was playing Aerosmith’s “Big Ten Inch”, only to be shocked to find out my mother knew every last word and have her tell me it was an old song. :-)
          So this is nothing new, I suppose.

  5. I think for the first time ever I disagree with a couple things. I actually think Hollie is really good. It is true that she isn’t artsy & doesn’t change up the songs & make them their own, I understand that. But voice wise- come on – beautiful! At least I think so. And I feel the judges seem to be against her already – will she be this season’s Haley now that Erika is gone??
    The only other thing I disagree with is that I think Joshua should not sing Michael Jackson. His voice was too deep for it or something. *shudder*
    Hoping DeAndre goes home this week and my girls are safe.
    And so sick of Randy Jackson – I’d love to see Simon show up on the live show, drag him out of his seat & take back over.

  6. MamaLis says:

    Seeing that a few folks, here, have accused Slezak of being unfair to DeAndre, I decided to hit the DVR & give it a rewatch. Um.. it def was a “false” etto mess! I’m 44 years old. I literally used to hang with the jimmy jam/terry lewis/prince gang and have had plenty of make-out sessions to Reasons & That’s the Way of the World. I get it. While DeAndre has potential, last night was painfully executed. One more thing – how impressive was Stevie Nicks? So elegant and smart and warm and encouraging! Wow.

  7. darcy's evil twin says:

    Great recap, Mr. Slezak. I pretty much agree with your opinions. Has anyone called you a racist yet for not loving Heejun’s performance? ;-) Now you’re sort of being called a man-hater, which is rather funny since you’re gay, but again – you only told the truth. the judges gave Heejun (????) and Deandre (?) undeserved standing ovations.
    Like MamaLis I also went back and listened to Deandre again because there are so many people here that loved the performance. I didn’t think it was that bad but didn’t think it was the greatest thing since sliced bread, either. I like Deandre. I think he’s talented and has potential.
    My favorites last night were Elise and Phillip. I predict a bottom three of Heejun, Deandre, and Joshua, with Heejun going home.

  8. paisley says:

    Hejun was most improved but still not any better than the other remaining finalists and he really should be the next to go, or else Deandre, but I am afraid it will be Hollie or Jessica. Hollie’s performance did not live up to Carrie’s, not even close. Jessica was vocally beautiful but the song was kind of boring. I think both song choices were unwise. With the long-standing Idol voting trend of kicking off females likely to continue, I would not be surprised if one of the ladies winds up in the bottom. Hopefully, the judges would use the “save.”

  9. joelscorp says:

    The biggest shame is that we finally get a season of diverse, mostly talented artists pulling out all the stops — and the judges are just a complete and utter waste of time. I remember fondly those days when I’d FF past Paula and Randy, so I could listen to Simon share some truth. But it’s really hard to conjur energy to watch when you have to FF past ALL THREE JUDGES. So why do I watch?

    I guess Jessica and Phillip (and EVP) for talent, Heejun for trainwrecks, and Elise for surprises. I couldn’t stand hat-wearing Elise, but rocking Elise is pretty fun to watch. So long as she doesn’t put on a hat or try to be melodic, it works for me.

    Colton is this year’s Gokey — not in style, but in being a very overrated singer who comes off as way too calculated. I thought he massacred PIANO MAN last week; do the words “sad and sweet” mean anything to him?

    What’s most striking to me is how Joshua is a 100% improvement over his gospel-ly forebearer Jacob Lusk; Phillip is 100% more talented than his growly forebearer Casey Abrams; Elise is (sorry) 100% more talented than sultry forebearer Haley; even Jessica is an improvement over powerdiva forebearer Pia. Colton is the only one who pales by comparison to his predecessors, though I probably like him better than Lee DeWhatshisname.

  10. Peter says:

    Michael, I love you, but I found your review of Heejun’s performance borderline racist. He has a thick accent, and that’s what causes the “dicey diction.” I, for one, find it endearing and think him correcting it would take away part of what makes him unique.

    • Jennifer says:

      Seriously. I think Michael just wants either Heejun or Deandre to go instead of his favorites, that’s why he couldn’t help mentioning that. But I don’t know if you can really correct Heejun’s “diction.”

    • darcy's evil twin says:

      THERE it is – the “racist” comment.
      To commemorate this moment I am officially firing my Asian stockbroker.

  11. Marcie says:

    Why isn’t Jessica on this poll?

  12. Krista says:

    For me, Skylar Laine is the worst of this bunch. She sounds the same every week: nasal and shrill. I love that she stomps around fiercely, but to me, her voice is the most unpleasant to listen to.

  13. Eman says:

    This was the best night of Idol in years as far as the contestants are concerned. They really stepped up to the plate and allowing them to pick songs they like and reltate to made a big difference. So please stop artist theme weeks. If you want to do a theme week make it broad like this week so the singers can find songs they know and can relate to!

    Best four performances Elise, just outstanding, great vocals, great energy, great control and a great song. Phillip singing a song I don’t know but now own and just getting into it and connecting so well, he is really growing on me. Jessica is so vocally talented with technique beyond her years. Being a vocalist myself and having sung for most of my life I can appreciate true vocal quality and control. She is rarely off pitch, has great breath control and her phrasing is excellent. Loved her take Sweet Dream. Skylar comes out every week and entertains me and while she can get a little breathy, probably because she is stomping around the stage with such passion, I just love her fire!

    While both Deandre and Heejun improved neither of their performances were stellar and certainly did not merit a standing O from the judges. One of them should go home tonight.

    Now what wasn’t great last night were the judges. A standing O should be given for somthing truly great and when you hand it out for perfromance that were off pitch, and for singers who struggled to breathe properly and/or who had poor phrasing it just diminshes the meaning of a standing O. How they were not standing up and rocking out with Elsie until after she finished was ridiculous and the only reason they stood up is because the crowd went wild and they realized they would like idiots if they didn’t stand up. I would love to hear any of them explain how they could stand up for Deander or Heejun’s very average performances and then somehow demean Elsie’s by saying like JLo I didn’t want to stand up, what does that frigging mean? The judges are just flat out awful.

  14. NedPepper says:

    There is something….off about the whole Colton package. I don’t get it. Maybe it’s the ambivalence with the whole Jesus stuff, mixed with his fondness with women’s clothing, the hair, Idol trying to make him into a heartthrob. (Jesus seems to be the one “he’s down with.” Nothing about Colton seems to gel. And I’m not buying him as “rock star.” On paper, the dude plays piano, he’s got an interesting voice…seems like a guy I would root for. But something just isn’t working for me. And trying to ram him down everyone’s throat could very well backfire? Anyone else getting a strange vibe from Colton that seems kind of….disingenuous?

    • Justin says:

      Colton is easily my least favorite of the remaining nine. For starters, I honestly do believe he is the least vocally talented of the bunch. His performances are always so forced and his inflictions are irritating in the extreme. Second, he is clueless enough to believe being “edgy” can be accomplished solely via wardrobe and hairstyle. Third, this guy is as close to being a rock singer as Justin Bieber. Everything about Colton’s singing style and posturing screams “boy band.” He is EXTREMELY contrived and pretentious. It is laughable he is being pushed as a “rock star” when he is nothing of the sort. That said, he is playing this game perfectly. He knows constantly name dropping Jesus and proclaiming his faith while shedding crocodile tears is gonna win him tons of votes from the huge older Southern female voting demographic, and his “look” is going to appeal to tween girls. He won’t be going anywhere until at least the Top 5 and has a chance of winning the whole thing. Let’s hope not, but it wouldn’t surprise me (especially with the massive pimping he’s been receiving).

      • NedPepper says:

        That’s the problem. The whole Jesus stuff…it just seems so tactical, if that’s make sense. It’s a way to survive this show. It’s the way to win it. And you’re right. He’s extremely pretentious. Bleh. I’m ready for him to go….but even if America voted him out next week, the three morons behind the table would save him. HE HAS BEEN CHOSE BY THE ALLMIGHTY…..LORD NIGEL.

  15. We can all agree Uncle Nigel is a VLB all the way! BTW, it means Very Lucky Bastard. After 11 years, the level of raw talent AI is boasting this year is staggeringly high! No wonder Jimmy Iovine brought the legendary Stevie Nicks as mentor this early in the competition. Come on, guys, these are the top 9!!! A-freaking-mazing!!!

  16. rhubarbandcream says:

    Heejun does have a really nice voice, so I would like him to stay for a while and see how he does with more R&B songs suited for his voice. I feel bad that both Heejun and Deandre are getting dogged on regardless of a good performance because people just hate them for whatever reason.
    I think the “rockers” and screeching divas will always get an unfair pass in their performances since they are automatically considered more legit. And I prefer Elise’s voice when she does more jazzy numbers as opposed to rock, as that shows off how nuances her voice can be.

  17. Stephie says:

    Elise was AMAZINGLY FANTASTIC!!! I loved her performance for the first time, she just won me over. Heejun and DeAndre were clearly the two weakest of the night and should NOT have gotten a standing O from the judges. The judges seem to be working for VFTW! But overall, this was the best group of performances I’ve ever seen on AI.

  18. idolmania says:

    I thought Ryan said ‘sassy side’ instead of ‘sexy’ for Skylar??

  19. Gisele Glen says:

    You know what i give colton props for putting his religion in it he is a good guy who loves god it is actually really refreshing for me lol it does help that he is cute though

  20. no randy says:

    How about a new drinking game – everytime Randy name drops! He never misses the opportunity, no matter how tenuous, to say he knows somebody or worked with somebody famous. UGH!

  21. sir says:

    Jessica sanchez is an experienced singer. she’s singing beyonce since the age of 7 on stage. dont you consider that experience. Talent should be determined by age.

  22. Laei says:

    Why is Jessica not a choice on the polls?

  23. Volcfom says:

    To the people who gripe about Skylar needing to slow it down and do a ballad: she had already done two since the live shows have started – “Where do Broken Hearts Go” and “Shameless”.
    To those who gripe about Jessica doing all ballads: “Love You I Do” and “Turn the Beat Around” were uptempo.
    So ssshhhh…
    However, was anyone else hoping the hear “Single Ladies” when Ryan said Jessica would be singing Beyonce? I think see could’ve rocked an attitude and strut (I still loved her choice though).