Never judge a book by its cover. And never judge an American Idol judge by a pre-taped, carefully edited episode. That message was made troublingly clear by the shenanigans that occurred during Season 12′s first live telecast — featuring the Top 10 women squaring off for (presumably, but hopefully not) only five spots in the finale.
Keith thought pretty much everybody — even the excruciating Tenna Torres — was just great. Nicki Minaj lowered the bar by treating contestants as if they were on the menu at KFC, drooling over their breasts and legs. And Randy Jackson pronounced vibrtao as if it rhymed with frittata, one of at least 100 instances of straight-up foolery that had me praying that he’d be snatched up and carried away by a savage band of Dothraki.
Yeah, the judges occasionally gave clear, actionable feedback, too, but the irksomeness-to-awesomeness ratio was off tonight for sure. (Khaleesi would not be pleased.)
But wait! Why am I talking about the judges when five of the Season 12 ladies entered the semifinals with roaringly good performances that backed up the judges’ claim that it’s the year of the female contestant? What hurts is that six, maybe even seven of ‘em, made at least a reasonably good case that they deserve spots over most of their male counterparts. And the five-women/five-men gender parity favored by Uncle Nigel means a couple of gals will get the shaft — unless Randy’s hints of a Wild Card turn out to be true.
But enough of my yapping! Let’s cut to the set list and my letter grades and reviews for tonight’s performances, shall we?
Zoanette Johnson: Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It” | What happens after the Emperor (or in this case, the Lion Empress?) is exposed as being truly, upsettingly naked — thanks to botched lyrics, lethargic stage presence and a pair of short shorts that should be sent back to the bargain bin from whence they came? Nicki purses her lips, Mariah makes an “Oh dear!” expression, and Keith is forced to praise the “exhibitionism” of it all. In a few weeks, we’ll forget this performance ever happened. It’s the circle…the circle of liiiiiiiife. Grade: D-
Breanna Steer: Beyoncé’s “Flaws & All” | Okay, so maybe I was a little hard on the judges in the intro of this recap, but their lack of enthusiasm for Breanna’s performance had me wondering if they were reading off cue cards written by Nigel Lythgoe himself. (Oh who am I kidding? Nigel wouldn’t write his own cue cards — he’d dictate them to one of his junior minions!) In all seriousness, though, Breanna’s vocal restraint and expressive phrasing had me completely transfixed from beginning to end — even if there might’ve been a flat note or two in that final set of runs — and she’s got a quiet confidence that adds to the believability of every lyric she delivers. I couldn’t believe Nicki said Breanna was “straining throughout the performance” when, in fact, every note that came out of her mouth sounded utterly effortless. I mean, if Idol truly wants to produce a pop star who can knock the Katy Perrys and Rihannas of the world off their perches (without having to take out stock in Auto-Tune), it might be time to invest in a Breanna-as-underdog story arc. (Now here’s hoping it won’t take a Wild Card to get her there.) Grade: A-
Aubrey Cleland: Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry” | Aubrey is the grilled chicken sandwich of Season 12. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with her long legs and her pretty (if not particularly distinctive) tone or even her generic “I need to show my personality” answers to Ryan Seacrest’s questions. As Nicki pointed out, she displays genuine humility (even if she occasionally holds the mic a little too close to her mouth). And as a result, I won’t object if she’s one of the last 10 options on the menu. But if we’re keeping it really, really real, I’d rather have the bacon cheeseburger or the loaded nachos or the fried calamari or the Philly cheese streak or even the mini pizza, y’know what I mean? Grade: B
Janelle Arthur: Elvis Presley’s “If I Can Dream” | Look, I know Uncle Nigel has invested a lot of time and energy over the last two months convincing us that Janelle (along with Angela and Candice) are the three women who can bring back some much-needed girl power to The House That Kelly Clarkson Built. And for a while there, I thought he might be right. But after two straight lackluster showings from Janelle, maybe it’s time for Nigel to simply admit — as the old Meat Loaf song goes — that “two out of three ain’t bad.” While Nicki and Keith and Randy and Mariah were all paid handsomely to utter empty phrases like “best vocal of the night so far” and “you have that America’s sweetheart type of thing,” I couldn’t get past the awkward breaks and copious flat notes that pushed Janelle’s performance to the corner of Desperate and Depressing. At this point, Janelle is sounding less to me like Season 12′s answer to Lauren Alaina than she does the second coming of Kristy Lee Cook or Baylie Brown. Grade: C+
Tenna Torres: Faith Hill’s “Lost” | Tenna seems like a sweet gal, and I kinda dug her slinky navy-and-tangerine minidress with the criss-cross bodice, but…uh…how do I put this tactfully? The bleating, tremulous tone of her voice — at least to my ears — is about as musical as an old attic door being slowwwwwly opened by the Ghosts of Brenna Gethers, Camile Velasco and Carmen Rasmusen. (Memories…) When Tenna hit the line “I’ll scream if this isn’t love,” all I could think was, “But wait — she’s already screaming!” I know, I know…I was trying to be tactful and instead I’ve just hurled a verbal martini into Tenna’s face. But I feel like somehow I need to counteract the uniformly positive feedback this woman got from all four judges — with Randy calling the vocal “so beautiful” and Keith declaring it a “really good job.” I mean, how far can Tenna get based on her attendance at Camp Mariah a decade and a half ago? Sheesh! Grade: D
Angela Angie Miller: Colton Dixon’s “Never Gone” | There are a lot of things I like and appreciate about Angie. The way her voice really comes to life, as Keith noted, when she’s at the piano. Her clarity of purpose and absolute confidence to choose a recent Christian-rock it from a very recent Idol alum that the average home viewer probably hasn’t heard before. And then there’s her undeniable charisma. There are moments where she pushes her vocal a little harder and farther than it needs to go — Angie needs to always treat that instrument of hers like she’s sitting on top of a dressage course, not imploring old Bessie to finish plowing the field before sundown — but she’s a mortal lock to crack the Season 12 Top 10 — and she absolutely deserves to be. Solid vocals and song-choice risks need to be rewarded like that, no? Grade: B+
Amber Holcomb: Whitney Houston’s “I Believe in You and Me” | While Amber earns the dubious distinction for the night’s least imaginative song choice — remember, this is the same bit of treacle Randy assigned to Melinda Doolittle the week she was eliminated in Season 6 — and while she delivered it without a great deal of originality, the jaw-dropping breeziness with which she executed incredibly difficult runs and ad-libs should absolutely carry her to the Top 10. (A standing ovation from all four judges won’t hurt, either.) Keith gave excellent advice that it wouldn’t hurt Amber to occasionally hold a note without any embellishment, but what’s exciting is that the kid has a rawness (and what I sense is a lack of experience) that hints she might be weeks — maybe months — away from reaching her peak. How crazy-good could she get? And how much do Idol voters love themselves an improvement arc? [Side note: Can we all agree the less said the better about that awkward moment where Ryan Seacrest confused Amber's mom and stepmother for the same person? Okay, good, thanks. Now back to your regularly scheduled recap.] Grade: B+
Kree Harrison: Faith Hill’s “Stronger” | Listening to Kree’s voice is like going to a cabin in the mountains or a secluded lakehouse after too many months in the big city. She’s got such a pure and refreshing tone that you just want everything to go quiet — except for maybe a handful of birds and a cricket or two — so you can breathe it all in. When she hit that massive high note on the word “cry” — I think that’s the one Keith called “an F-sharp above high C,” but my technical knowledge doesn’t extend that far — I let out a “whoop!” of approval from my living room couch. Like Nicki noted, even when she’s stretching her range to its fullest, she never sounds abrasive, and that’s a rare quality indeed. It can only help Kree, too, that she’s got a sly sense of humor that allowed her to engage in some hilarious banter with The Lady Minaj. After Nicki made several comments about their betrothal, Kree finally grinned to Ryan that she was just trying to do her wife proud. That’s the kind of moxie-to-talent balance we saw once upon a time from a gal named Kelly Clarkson, no? Grade: A
Adriana Latonio: Destiny’s Child’s “Stand Up for Love” | Adriana’s performance was so pageanty, I expected her to end it with a speech about promoting world peace and “education like such as in South Africa and, uh, the Iraq.” I know, I’m a nightmare, but I’ve been flying my bitch flag for so many seasons that I don’t know any other way. Grade: C-
Candice Glover: John Legend’s “Ordinary People” | It’s always a good sign when I don’t take any notes on an Idol performance, since that usually means I’m throwing a Gospel hand/hands, chair dancing, or hitting my husband’s arm and yelling nonsense like “GET IT, Candice! You better WORK, lady! [Insert two or three excited expletives!]” And yeah, that pretty much describes my response to Candice’s superb reading of “Ordinary People” — which proved to be the perfect marriage of modern R&B swagger and old-school jazzy inflections. If Candice’s instrument is the expensive sportscar of the competition, then girlfriend is its Helio Castroneves, rounding each bend in the melody with hairpin precision, knowing exactly when to throw in a growl or a run, and when to just hit the note head-on. She understands every word of the songs she chooses, which is why she was able to bring to vivid life Legend’s relationship-situation jam. (Damn that final “maybe we should take it slow” was breathtakingly pretty, wasn’t it?) Nicki’s silent salute and Mariah’s “the goosebumps continue” weren’t effusive enough, but my guess is they’ll have a few more months ahead of them to full board the bandwagon. Grade: A
Ans with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of the American Idol Season 12 Top 10 women? Who absolutely must advance to the finals? Who surprised you? Who’s definitely a goner? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!