A woman is going to win Season 12 of American Idol — even if executive producer Nigel Lythgoe is forced to stage a crossover episode with Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, plant a couple of hungry lionesses down in the SwayBot pit and let the male contestants get picked off in violent, carnivorous fashion.
Tonight’s live Semifinal performance telecast — featuring the Top 10 guys squaring off for (presumably, but probably more than) five spots in the finals — gave us a deeply uncomfortable preview of what’s to come, as emotionally fragile teenager Charlie Askew played the role of the baby impala, straggling behind the weary herd and laying down in the dusty plain before the predators had even arrived on the scene. His tearful post-critique collapse and explanation for why he needed to show a darker side of his personality — “all I can say is I needed to vent a little bit” — was one of the least enjoyable scenes in recent Idol history. Anyone tempted to vote Charlie through into the Top 10 because they hate seeing a child’s dreams get crushed should remember there’d be no kinder act than sending this kid home — and out of the national spotlight.
Still, while Charlie’s fall made for very bad TV, it still beat watching the judges rise to their feet and lavish praise on howling hyena Curtis Finch Jr., whose rendition of “I Believe I Can Fly” put the gas in ghastly. To sum things up another way, when I’m getting ready to speed-dial on behalf of Elijah Liu — a contestant whose most powerful note probably wouldn’t blow a feather off a baby’s hand — then maybe it’s time for the show to consider a six women-to-four men ratio, or maybe even a seven women-to-three guys split. Jesaiah Baer, where you at girl?
And don’t even get me started on tonight’s fashion choices: I haven’t seen this many white pants, unfortunate vests and acid-washed denim garments since the days of [insert your favorite mid-80s sitcom here].
Anyhow, before I kvetch any more, let’s get to tonight’s set list and letter grades:
Elijah Liu: Rihanna’s “Stay” | I’ll admit that after last week’s disastrous Bruno Mars cover and this week’s “I’m single and available” intro package — which was one slo-mo shower scene away from out-cheesing The Bachelor — I was ready to write off Elijah for good. Imagine my surprise, then, when the tall-haired teenager brought an appealing restraint and emotional honesty to the one song Rihanna knows how to sing live, too. Sure, Elijah can get a little mealy mouthed in spots, but he’s got a bright, pretty tone — and hey, at least he picked something that hinted he could survive in the Hunger Games of modern radio. I just wish the judges had given the kid a little more credit for his actual vocal and spend a little less time on his “relevance” and “marketability” (code words for: chicks will think you’re hot). Then again, considering Mr. Liu played the first hand in the ladies-man deck, I guess most of the blame falls on him. Grade: B+
Cortez Shaw: Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven” | I have to give some props to Cortez for choosing the night’s only uptempo number, but like a chef who tries cooking a gorgeous rib-eye in a pot of lukewarm water, Cortez really didn’t do right by the material. His inflections and intensity — and even the little foot-shimmy dance steps — were very Thursday-night-after-work karaoke excursion, and as the judges noted, the arrangement was pitched so high that Cortez sounded intermittently strained. Plus, the denim vest and khakis (which Nicki righteously pooh-poohed) made dude look like an extra in a Color Me Badd video. As a result, I’d peg Cortez as “Most Likely to See His Idol Journey End on Thursday” among the Top 10 guys. Grade: C+
Charlie Askew: Genesis’ “Mama” | You knew right from the intro package about Charlie’s wispy moustache that the producers had had fun playing with their new toy for a couple of weeks and were now ready to drop him in the recycling bin. Which is why it doesn’t feel right for me to take shots at the boy’s unfortunate tie-dyed tank top or the silly feather earring or even the disastrous vocals — not when he looked as if his entire world was unraveling in the face of the judges’ legitimate criticisms. (Or perhaps it was already unraveling, just merely sped along by Nicki’s “I don’t wanna see your arms!” honesty?) Either way, the moral of the story is that there’s a dignified beauty in being one of the world’s awkward turtles, but that doesn’t mean every one of ’em should scramble to the Sea of Reality TV upon hatching. Grade: D-
Nick Boddington: Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” | On paper, Nick is my favorite male contestant of Season 12. He’s got a soft-spoken charm and a drive that’s brought him back to audition for Idol over multiple seasons. He tends to pick big, sweeping pop songs that haven’t been done to death on the show, and uses his musicianship and piano skills to give them his own little twists. He’s the kind of guy who can handle Ryan’s obtuse, insistent questions about his love of hats with a breezy quip like “my 20s caught up with me” (instead of screaming, “Dude, back off! People outside of Los Angeles sometimes lose their hair!”) But in practice, “Iris” turned out to be something less than thrilling. Pleasant? Sure. Inoffensive? Most definitely. But I’m not sure a month from now I’ll really remember anything about it, nor will I be able to conjure up much outrage if Nick delivering a foreboding lyric like “I don’t wanna go home right now” turns out to be prescient. Grade: B-
Burnell Taylor: “I’m Here” (from The Color Purple) | Nicki was spot-on that the “struggle and pain in Burnell’s voice is undeniable,” and to me, it’s a little reminiscent of the Idol grad who popularized “I’m Here” during her own Broadway stint, Fantasia Barrino. No, Burnell doesn’t have ‘Tasia’s raw performance magnetism — or else his feet-planted, ballads-only stance on the show thus far hasn’t allowed it to shine — but if he can quash the affected hand gestures and learn to work the stage, the potential is there. Oh, and let’s just be honest: If Burnell really wants to win America’s hearts, minds and supervotes, the absolutely hideous backwards calico cap and acid-washed denim jacket will have to wind up in the Dumpster, too. Like Keith said to Burnell at his audition, the time has come to “dress for the occasion.” Grade: B+
Paul Jolley: Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton’s “Just a Fool” | Paul has a solid-enough country instrument (in the vein of Rascal Flatts’ Gary Levox, whose music I’d rate as somewhere between unbearable and “baseball bat to the head”). But there’s a desperation in his eyes that obliterates his connection to the music, a quality that was only reinforced by him eagerly telling the judges he wanted to be in the pop-country lane “if everyone else wants me to be!” And so while I’d rank his performance among the night’s Top 5 — at least from an technical/aesthetic standpoint — I wouldn’t be upset to see him get cut in favor of Vincent or Lazaro (or any of the seven best women who sang on Wednesday). Because when it comes right down to it, I’ll take a flawed vocal with a side of soul (and really, who doesn’t sometimes order based on delicious sides?) over a decent technician whose emotions come off like mere pantomime. Grade: B-
Lazaro Arbos: Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” | If there was an award for Most Improved from the Season 12 Top 20 this week, I’d give it to Elijah. But first runner-up would definitely go to Lazaro, whose lower register wasn’t quite flawless (as Mariah astutely noted, getting her first “booo!” of the season — congrats, girl!) but who nevertheless hit the bulk of his notes. Also on the plus side? Lazaro showcased a rich, warm tone that I honestly haven’t heard since his memorable audition to “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” But if the fella is going to advance to the finals — and obvs, he is — here’s a few areas for improvement. 1) He needs to work on his musicality and phrasing — sometimes it seems like he’s chasing after the rhythm and forgets the intent of the words coming out of his mouth. 2) He needs to quit rocking outfits — fuchsia shirt, white jacket, gray pants! j’no! — that look like they got locked in the back of Don Johnson’s storage locker circa 1988. 3) It might help if he expanded his musical knowledge base beyond “Songs Previously Covered on Reality Singing Competitions.” A three-step plan to a new dawn, a new day, and a new trajectory that goes past 9th place? Lazaro could be feeeeeeeeelin’ good. (Sorry.) Grade:
Curtis Finch Jr.: R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” | Yep, despite a Standing O from all four judges, I’m giving Curtis a C- — and that’s not even factoring in my usual rule of dropping down a letter grade for anyone choosing R. Kelly’s preposterous slice of moldy drek. Curtis’ rendition of “I Believe I Can Fly” was as tortured a vocal as I’ve heard on the Idol stage in almost two years — every note twisting and writhing like a trout at the end of a fishing line, desperate to escape its cruel, inevitable fate, every word of the song battered and yanked with ham-fisted aggression as Curtis showed us not what was in his heart and soul, but rather every trick that was at the bottom of his cheap magician’s hat. (Presto! He made all four judges get out of their chairs! How positively Houdinian!) The final injustice, of course, came in the form of that squealing glory note — the love child of the adjectives “unnecessary” and “unpleasant” — and a run of notes that veered off pitch like a runaway clown car going over a cliff. There were flashes of undeniable skill — I can’t lie about that — but the overall effect was almost comical in its awfulness. Could the voting public really be duped into voting for a guy who described his Vegas Top 40 performance as “epic”? Lord, I hope not! Grade: C-
Devin Velez: Perry Como’s “Somos Novios (It’s Impossible)” | No doubt about it, Devin gave the night’s best performance — managing to sound current and cool on a song that most TV network execs would dismiss for being part of the undesirable “over 40” set. (But wait! I still buy things!) The transition to Spanish at the midway point was a nice touch — especially considering it was composed in that language by Mexican writer Armando Manzanero (or so the Internet tells me) — and Devin’s red sweater, striped shirt, black bowtie combo was one of the few snappy outfits all evening. It might be a little too early in the season for Mariah to be spouting off about the kid’s “potential to reach an international audience,” but he sure as hell is going to reach the Season 12 finals come Thursday night. Grade: A-
Vincent Powell: Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road” | Had Vincent been placed second or third in this week’s lineup, his wobbly vocals and choice of Boys II Men’s very worst song might not have been quite as disappointing as it was stumbling upon ’em in the end-of-show pimp slot. But, alas, placement does indeed affect expectations, and that might be enough to keep the bespectacled soul singer out of the Season 12 finals. To be honest, I should’ve seen disaster (or its close cousin misstep) in the cards when Vincent’s intro package had him uttering the line “panties are good here and there” (yikes!), but far worse was the way Vincent began to oversing and overembelish the whole lugubrious number as if he was in an imbalanced Monster Truck vocal battle against Nathan, Wanya and Shawn. There’s no doubt the guy has talent, but if this is how he chooses to use it, maybe it’s time to invite Jett Hermano, Juliana Chahayed and Rachel Hale back into the competiton, no? Grade: C+
SHOULD GO THROUGH: Devin, Burnell, Elijah…ummm…errr…I guess Nick and Lazaro (or maybe Nick and Vincent?)
WILL GO THROUGH: Devin, Burnell, Lazaro, Paul and Nick
And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of the Top 10 men of American Idol Season 12? Who’s a lock for the finals? Who are you secretly worried for? Who’s definitely going home? 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!