American Idol wants a female winner worse than Simon Cowell wants you to believe in the steroid-induced relevance of The X Factor: USA. It wants a female winner more desperately than Randy Jackson needs to repeat his fifth-grade vocabulary lessons. It wants a Kelly Clarkson-Fantasia Barrino-Carrie Underwood-Jordin Sparks “I Believe This Is My Moment in Heaven” moment with the burning intensity of Jennifer Lopez’s jealousy listening to the dulcet tones of Haley Reinhart. (File that last memory under: #YouAndI #NeverForget.)
Ryan Seacrest wasn’t bashful about pushing this agenda, either. “It’s clear Idol has never seen this much talent from the lay-dees,” he chirped, pronouncing the last word of that sentence like The Bachelor host Chris Harrison watching 25 mildly inebriated chicas exit rows of limousines in the hopes of snagging a marriage proposal from some blandly handsome lugnut.
Except in Idol‘s case, the stakes are so much higher. (Oh come on, let’s not pretend scoring a major-label recording contract and a platform on which to build a life-long career making music doesn’t trump a fake marriage proposal, a very public breakup on the cover of People magazine and a grotesque turn on Bachelor Pad.)
Idol went so far tonight — during an episode devoted to the women of Season 12 tackling their Hollywood Week a capella solos and group performances — as to give us a couple of women so vocally exciting that they might be able to shrug off the weight of runaway hyperbole and excessive pimping to turn themselves into true fan favorites come the live voting rounds. Yep, I speak of Candice Glover (pictured) and Janelle Arthur, who appear to possess not only lethal instruments with which to cut down the competition, but the kinds of outsized-yet-sweet personas that speed-dialing crazies can get behind.
Candice and Janelle weren’t the only exciting females by any stretch, though, so let’s break this episode all the way down, focusing on the good, the wretched, and the criminally insane. (Caveat: I’m not covering every single contestant shown during the two-hour telecast. There’s only so much one can glean based on a nanosecond or two of singing, ya dig?)
As always, things kicked off with rows of 10 contestants lining up, then one at a time belting a capella numbers. Randy, eloquent as ever, looked into the camera and yelled “We ready to slice and dice, baby!”
Best in show prize (sorry, Westminster still on the brain) went to Janelle Arthur, whose rendition of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (one of the best songs ever, for me for you) showed tremendous depth and power, and yet also included moments (like the phrase “too blue to cry”) that were so tender you could’ve cut ‘em with a spoon. Uncle Nigel & Co. set up a silly faux rivalry with fellow “country” singer Rachel Hale (who gives off more of a soulful folk vibe, but is from Arkansas, and therefore has only one genre into which the producers can stuff her), but they both advanced in the end. Rachel, who had one of my favorite Season 12 auditions, proved quite solid this time around, but to my ear, she could’ve eased up just a little on Grace Potter’s “Nothing But the Water” — especially that final blast where her voice wound up verging on a squeak.
Other women advancing to the Group Rounds included Angela Miller, who brought passion and intensity to Jessie J’s “Who You Are”; Candice Glover, whose twist on “Impossible” was perhaps even bigger and beltier than Xtina’s original; Victoria Acosta, whose runs went slightly awry on “Killing Me Softly”; The Artist Formerly Known as Christina “Isabelle” (now just Isabelle, sans quotes), whose audition-round “Summertime” was less fussy and more effective than this Hollywood Week cover; Briana “was once on Jerry Springer Oakley; and Kez Ban, despite putting “Knights in White Satin” on the rack and stretching it to uncomfortable places. The wacky “fire dancer,” though, landed a pretty solid zinger before she took the stage, declaring, “If I go home, I still had fun. If I don’t go home, that’s even scarier!” (And no, her cold-induced caterwauling didn’t make me any less obsessed with “Azure Sky.”)
Among the A Capella Round evictees were Mariah “recovering from anorexia” Pulice, who offered a pretty version of “Gravity” that frayed a little in her upper register, as well as Ashley “Blondie” Smith, Sarah “Super Bass” Restuccio and Ann “Surprised on a Football Field by Randy” Difani (none of whom were shown singing). The only cut that irked me a little was Megan “Auditioned on Crutches” Miller, whose infusion of twang on La Roux’s “Bulletproof” was totally in tune and rather intriguing.
After that, producers divvied the 76 surviving ladies into 19 groups, each of which was able to choose from a list of 20 songs and then head off to their respective nooks where they rehearsed, wept, bickered, wrote lyrics on their hands and decided whether or not dinner was a life priority. (Spoiler alert: Dinner is always a life priority.) Before I get to what stood out — good and bad — among the Groups, two observations:
* I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that at least 50 percent of the Group Round decisions by the judges can be summed up by this candid comment from Nicki’s eyeshadow rival Stephanie Schimel: “Why did they let me through? I totally botched that thing!”
* Did anyone notice that just before the elimination of Seretha Guinn, despite giving what was clearly the best vocal of her “American Boy” group, we caught a brief glimpse of Nigel Lythgoe walking away from the judges’ table and back to his throne at Castle Voldemort? Sometimes, when there’s absolutely no logic in the judges’ decision-making process — seriously, Tenna Torres sounded like she was auditioning for the female lead in the next Alvin and the Chipmunks sequel, and got praised out the wazoo by the panel — you need to look for the simplest explanation: And perhaps said explanation has something to do with an experienced television producer making certain he has the right “mix” of contestants/”personalities” around whom he can build a top-rated reality series over the next four months?
Okay…with that conspiracy theory business out of the way, let me cut to the night’s best (not counting Randy missing half the groups due to being “tied up in the studio” — insert your own punch line there) and worst moments:
* Ever since her unjust elimination in Season 11 Vegas Week, I’ve been dying for the Redemption of Candice Glover. But when I realized she and her fellow Swagettes were covering Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!)” — a fast, furious jam that’s been a musical Bermuda Triangle to many a promising Idol hopeful — I got worried. Turns out I fretted for nothing: Flanked by fellow Idol Hollywood Week vets Denise Jackson and Melinda Ademi, as well as Kamaria Ousley, Candice served world-class VOICE, FACE and ATTITUDE (yes, all caps were necessary there) while getting solos on the classic “Solé and Mia” line and a final raging glory note that had her teammates keeping a distance (lest their vocal cords crawl into their stomachs and dissolve in a bath of gastric acid). The group as a whole was very good; Candice’s contributions, however, were grrrrreat!
* Lost in the drama surrounding Janel Stinney‘s troubling pre- and post-performance meltdowns (and total lyrical strikeout) was Cristabel Clack‘s really special performance and unique sandpapery tone on the Band Perry’s “If I Die Young.” Somehow the judges seemed to cop an attitude that Cristabel hadn’t done much to warrant their praise, while Nicki instead spouted utter rubbish to Janel. “You didn’t sing one word and you kept me engaged because of that!” Oh come on! The only thing Janel is going to keep viewers engaged in is whatever Fox’s network rivals counter-program on Wednesday and Thursday nights through the end of May.
* In a brief snippet of “If I Can’t Have You,” Shubha Vedula hinted she might turn out to be the contestant Christina Aguilera tried to create for three straight seasons of The Voice.
* There were at least a half-dozen incidents tonight where the judges zigged when they should’ve zagged (hello, Daysia Hall!), but perhaps none was more egregious than the ouster of Brandy Neelly. Okay, maybe Brandy was not quite pitch perfection on Dixie Chicks’ “Sin Wagon,” but she delivered a solid B+ that could’ve only been deemed worse than teammate Haley Davis if she’d ended her performance by slaughtering a lamb next to Mariah Carey’s Coke cup. (And even then, at least somebody could’ve turned the carnage into medium-rare chops.) Meanwhile, Haley was one of those gals who scrawled the bulk of her lyrics on her hand, then repeatedly peeked at said appendage in an effort to not careen off the cliff to a Wile E. Coyote-style demise. As Nicki noted, it was a “disrespectful” move, and Haley’s subsequent excuse about going to bed early due to a “stomach bug” didn’t change that. Still, Haley survived to the solo round while Brandy got the boot? It made about as much sense as Randy trying to sound out a word with five or more syllables.
* Similarly, on Four U’s “Somebody That I Used to Know,” the aforementioned Stephanie Schimel missed her cue and bungled her lyrics, while Holly Miller disappointed by remembering all her words — and thus subjecting us to her terrible, shouting tone. The only person in the quartet who showcased an appealing instrument and didn’t visibly forget her words was Kalli Therinae, and yet she was dismissed as hastily as Mariah Carey sending a minion to grab some ice for her lukewarm beverage.
* And then we had front-runners Janelle Arthur and Angela Miller (along with Breanna Steer) getting paired up with incessantly “wacky” Kez Ban. I’ll admit, I howled when Kez, noticing the skyrocketing tension during rehearsal, asked her trio of comrades “Do we need a back-massage circle?” But as the Chicago fire performer began making gagging sounds about possibly having to sing “pop” songs and failing to wake up in time to catch a morning rehearsal with her teammates, my patience began to wear thin. I mean, be wacky, be original, be a little spazzy — all things we enjoyed about Kez’s audition. But above all else, you have to be in tune and connected to your lyrics — qualities that escaped Kez in Hollywood. I was put off by her hint of a British accent while singing, and by the fact that her antics took focus off the way Janelle masterfully played with the rhythms of “Be My Baby,” adding just a touch of melancholy to the longing lyrics in the process. Angela, for her part, overbaked the vocal, though she absolutely deserved to move to the Solo Round, but Breanna, to my ears, hit the target on less than a third of her notes. Then again, if the judges had no choice but to advance Kez Ban, then I guess they had to take everyone from her group along with her, eh?
* Finally, let’s talk about Zoanette Johnson. Actually, you know what? Life is short. And I’m not sure there’s any benefit to picking apart a performance of “Knock on Wood” that was so gnarly it might well serve as a jumping off point for Season 3 of American Horror Story. (Did I mention that somehow, though, it was enough to score a pass to the Solo Rounds? Who wants to call time of death on common sense and/or music in general?)
Anyhooo…there were plenty more solid performances and total disasters on Night 3 of Season 12 Hollywood Week, but I’m going to leave it to you to point out anyone else worthwhile I missed. What did you think of the episode? Did you call “foul” at any of the judges’ decisions? And who was your favorite contestant? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!Follow @MichaelSlezakTV