American Idol Recap: Women on the Verge of a Righteous Breakthrough [Updated]

idol season 12 womenNever 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!

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. Amy says:

    Watching last night On Demand now, (only caught Kree and Candice last night)…but can someone please tell me….
    what is Zoenette’s backstory that the judges keep referring to: “coming from all you’ve come from, and her saying “having my family here after all they’ve been through.” I don’t recall if we heard what “all that” is? There were parts of auditions and Hollywood week when I didn’t see the whole episode, so maybe I missed that.

    • HTGRWHOM says:

      Liberia. Civil wars killed a quarter million there in the 80s. Very unusual country in that it was established by freed and escaped slaves from the U.S.

  2. waterbug says:

    Kree is ok, not grand i don’t understand all the hype about her.

  3. Sandy says:

    “. . . about as musical as an old attic door being slowwwwwly opened by the Ghosts of Brenna Gethers, Camile Velasco and Carmen Rasmusen.”

    You know you’re an Idol junkie when you remember all 3 of these contestants and their respective seasons without having to Google. Nice one, Slezak, although I think Tenna deserved better than a D.

    That being said, as long as Candice and Kree go through, I’m happy.

    • deedee says:

      That’s exactly what I thought when I first read that line. It actually made me laugh out loud for several minutes – especially Brenna Gethers. I mean, what was she .. like top 18 on season 5 or something? Talk about obscure Idol contestants!

  4. HTGRWHOM says:

    Oh man…. sure hope Dial Idol is way, WAY off! Does anyone remember how they do in this tricky big cut week?
    If dial idol is correct we possibly get Zoanette and Adriana and lose Amber!?!!! and Aubrey! Although since Zoanette is just barely 6th and wouldn’t likely be taken as the wild card maybe it would end up a bit different but I bet they’d take Janelle over Aubrey even though I wouldn’t.
    Anyway according to Dial Idol it goes:
    1. Adriana
    2. Angie
    3. Candice
    4. Kree
    5. Breanna and Zoanette more or less tied
    If Zoanette pulls ahead of Breanna it will be really rough since that still leaves Amber,Breanna,Aubrey left out. Even if they take two WC girls since TPTB seem to love Janelle it seems we’d still lose two of Amber,Breanna,Aubrey!
    Dang it could easily be that the Adriana, Zoanette, Janelle all make it even though they were bottom four on the poll here, Michael’s ratings, most comments, etc.
    Janelle and surprisingly Aubrey are far and away at the bottom and then you have Amber and Tenna tied for rest of the bottom?!

    • HTGRWHOM says:

      On some weeks their raw numbers work better, going by the busy it is:
      1. Angie
      2. Tenna ??
      3. Candice
      4. Kree
      5. Amber, Breanna, Zoanette, Adriana more or less tied
      still ugh
      going by RAW RAW which actually worked best for top and bottom many weeks from what I recall:
      1. Angie, Janelle, Kree all tied
      4. Aubrey, Candice, Amber all tied
      10. Zoanette far away last

      • Name That Tune says:

        This is a numbers game. The degree of reliability is dependant on large numbers and statistical significance. I’ve followed Dial Idol for years and find the score to be unreliable with more than 5 singers. You get a better picture with the raw numbers at this point. But times have changed. Social Media like Facebook and Twitter will give you a better idea of who is trending. Hell, they even studied this last year at Cornell and found Twitter to be highly accurate at predicting these trends.

        • HTGRWHOM says:

          OTOH Carly on X-Factor S2 had a billion youtube views and tons of twitter and the cowboy had barely any and yet he won.

    • deedee says:

      Dialidol has been rendered fairly irrelevant with text and online voting.

      • HTGRWHOM says:

        If you read it right it did surprisingly well for The Voice last fall in terms of who went home, I believe. I forget but I think you actually needed to look at RAW for that.

  5. LeahKittyS says:

    This is for everyone who’s thinking (or panicking) that Zoanette could possibly be in. Nigel Lythgoe tweeted earlier today that he totally agrees “100%” with who America chose as the Top 5 girls. Let’s face it: The production team sabotaged her last night. They had her go first, they tamed her look, and they gave her a song (no way she picked that entirely on her own) that showcased everything bad about her being there. So if Nigel’s happy, it means his manipulation worked and she’s done. It probably also means we will be hearing more from Amber, Angie, Candice, and Kree (yay!)

    • HTGRWHOM says:

      Probably means Janelle instead of Aubrey or Breanna though. And it probably means no wild cards….

    • deedee says:

      Well, no doubt Nigel agrees with America’s choice because there were obvious standouts and obvious clunkers last night. Very little grey area in this round, as evidenced by the general agreement by the posters on this site. Nigel maneuvered and manipulated so much this year, that it’s virtually impossible to go against his chosen ones, unless the voting public suddenly decides – in unison – to employ VFTW tactics.

  6. Amy says:

    Ok Michael, you made us pick 5 above, but really only 4 were people I personally love and am looking forward to hearing more of..not necessarily in any order (it keeps changing…so basically I like them all for different reasons, and depending on the performance and song is which one I’m excited about most that night…all that said…Kree, Candice, “A-aangie” and my this week’s favorite “quiet contenter”…Amber! AmbeR. Beautiful. Nicki had that JUST right …as I watched I thought…for the first time ever on Idol, someone “took on Whitney” and it didn’t overshadow the performance one little lady-bug bit! All I heard and saw was a smooth, effortless, beautifully toned performace. Usually whoever sings Whitney automatically starts “below the bar”…but her performance was easy and beautiful. AND I am finally connecting with her (I loved Funny Valentine too though)…seeing her humble, sweet, grateful, again…easy nature and personality…all winning qualities on Idol. I’m rooting for her. But still loving Kree, mostly for her style of emotional connection, song choice…she’s just a kind of singer I love. Candice, because she’s just plain good. She made me like a style…that “old school jjazzy” stuff you mention, Michael, isn’t usually my thing…she made me love listening to it. I like her. And I started this season thinking Angela was #1…now she is in this mix of these girls I love…but she definitely has her own unique talent, sound, and then there’s that golden ability to write. She does come off a bit retro, old-fashioned looking to me…the big hair? But maybe some styling…but I’m nit-picking only cuz it’s something I just feel everytime looking at her….like a girl from an old yearbook picture from 1975. LOL…still…like Randy says (sorry Michael) she’s goin’ places anyway…
    Well I stand corrected from the beginning of the season when I thought the girl hype was just that…they basically are the only ones I’m watching this year. Still curious if Nick will make me interested like he did Hollywood week. And Vincent can sing but isn’t someone’s records I’d buy. Neither are any of the rest. So…I guess it IS a “girl’s year” after all.
    Btw…why is it such a deal that they finally get a girl again?! Because they’ve been the most successful for the Idol machine in the past, numbers-wise? Because it hasn’t mattered to me if guys or girls won in equal amounts…only someone I love to listen to and buy records from. Just wondering…

  7. Amy says:

    oops…I NEED SPELLCHECK…”quite contender” sorry. I’m sure I have other typos too, owell.

  8. Amy says:

    LOL “quiet.” Point in case. Done now.

  9. Mafs95 says:

    I know have that “underdog” feeling about Breanna. She didn’t quite catch my attention in the early rounds (specially in Group Rounds) but after “Bust Your Windows” and this performance, I’m starting to enjoy her a lot. Probably, she won’t be part of the Top 10 but in a certain way, I wish she was. There’s a lot of potential in her.

    I don’t want to make early predictions but I’m kinda feeling the same way I did with Haley when the voting rounds began: first, I didn’t like her and was really confused about why she was chosen but then she totally got me and she even became my #2 American Idol contestant EVER! I don’t believe I’ll love Breanna that much, I only gave this example to show how she’s showing development and star quality.

    America has already made its decision about the girls, so there’s nothing we can do to change the outcome. I just hope that at least some people voted for this girl, she’s not the best but she has something and somehoe she’s starting to intriguing me.

  10. Matt says:

    Thank god Mariah is last because I felt bad for Charlie getting ripped to shreds tonight. The judges put him through, so it’s weird for them to now criticize him. Anyway, Mariah gave him a bit of dignity. Ha.

    I loved Mariah’s advice to Lazaro about how to find songs for his voice.

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