Don’t get on Nicki Minaj’s case for showing up late to American Idol‘s Top 10 performance night. Let’s be honest: If you had known you were going to have to endure her fellow judges heaping praise (with a side dish of almost imperceptible criticism) on Curtis Finch Jr.’s dreary, off-key Fantasia cover, you’d have tuned in 10 minutes past the hour yourself.
Okay, okay…maybe we should throw a little shade at Nicki. I mean, how many millions of dollars is she paid for working three hours per week at The House That Kelly Clarkson Built? I’d show up three hours early for $200 and a bottle of Trader Joe’s sauvignon blanc.
Still, by the end of the two-hour telecast, The Lady Minaj’s tardiness became a mere footnote to the real headline story: Season 12 of Idol isn’t merely shaping up as a woman’s year to win, it’s looking more and more and more like we might get ourselves an all-female Top 4 — something that hasn’t happened on this show since Season 3.
Honestly, if this was a horse race, Candice Glover, Kree Harrison, Angie Miller and Amber Holcomb would already be coming around the bend, with the weakest of the male contestants still standing in the starting gate. Come on, fellas! The doors have already sprung open…and the ladies have hit the ground runnin’ (yep, that’s a Haley Reinhart reference) (click here if you don’t get it) (you can thank me later) (holla!).
The biggest disappointment of the night? The GHASTLY song choices that came from a new (but not necessarily improved) theme: “Music of the American Idols” encompassed the songs previous Idol winners covered during their respective seasons, and also the songs that these champs have released in their post-show careers. Somehow, though, this translated to syrupy coronation themes, stale Idol staples, and nothing remotely funky. (Well, at least you could line dance to Janelle.)
With that said, let’s get to tonight’s set list (with letter grades for every performance)!
Curtis Finch Jr.: Fantasia’s “I Believe” | You knew Curtis was toast the minute
he put on that wretched paisley jacket his intro package found him uttering, “it’s not my goal to top [Fantasia's] performance.” Um, if you’ll allow me to go all Cher in Clueless for a moment: “AS IF!” Interestingly enough, though, Curtis’ usual brand of outsized confidence/hubris seemed to abandon him once he took the stage. His runs in the opening verse were consistently off pitch and laced with nervous jitters; plus, his cadence never quite lined up with the rhythm of the song. That peculiar dolphin squeak on “very best” and the bum glory note on the final “belieeeeve” were the proverbial wilted lettuces on a sandwich that had been sitting in the deli case a few days too many. And despite Keith, Randy and Mariah failing to directly call out the vocal woes — Keith at least hinted that “adrenaline” might’ve had Curtis singing above the melody “a lot” — dude is so getting the prize for Most Likely to Make a Bottom 3 Appearance come Thursday night. Grade: C-
Janelle Arthur: Montgomery Gentry’s “Gone” | Janelle almost had me hooked before she’d even sung a note: I mean, not only was she the lone member of the Top 10 to choose an uptempo track, but she was also rocking a shirt with a rearing mustang silhouette and a sassy beaded skirt that might rank in the 10 Best Idol Outfits Ever. Alas, though, the pre-performance sit-down with Jimmy Iovine, where he asked what would differentiate Janelle from all the other pretty blonde country singers in the market today (inappropriate much, Iovine?), proved all too prescient. There wasn’t anything memorable about her vocal — aside from the fact that she was covering a song usually performed by a dude — and what’s more, Janelle seemed to struggle with breath support as she worked her way through the wordy ditty. When she finished up and told Ryan she felt like there was cotton in her mouth, it seemed to be her way of telling viewers, “I know this wasn’t great, but can I get one more chance?” Seeing how she drew the dreaded No. 2 spot in the lineup (aka the Death Slot) and that she was the fifth-best out of the night’s five females, her chances of cracking the Top 9 look a tad tenuous. Grade:
C+ upgraded to B- for not being a ballad
Devin Velez: Carrie Underwood’s “Temporary Home” | No dis intended on the Season 4 champ’s songbook — and no dis, really, on Devin’s technical skills, considering he hit 95% of his notes — but the kid’s rendition of “Temporary Home” was like a glass of warm milk on the bedside table: The perfect mechanism for sending Grandpappy off to a restful night’s sleep, as opposed to the kind of number that might make him sit straight up and throw a Gospel hand in the air. I disagreed with Mariah’s feedback about Devin needing to “do more vocally,” because, frankly, boosting the number of ad-libs and cranking up the melisma-meter wouldn’t have helped matters. The vocal was as pleasing to the ear as it was unadorned. What Devin needs to do, though, is sit down and read the lyrics to his songs, then find a way to deliver them so compellingly that viewers won’t get tempted to check their email or tidy up the dishes or daydream about the weekend before he’s done singing. “Temporary Home” may be a sappy ballad, but when it’s done right, it’ll make your eyes go a little misty — and Devin just didn’t provide the emotional oomph to make folks reach for the Kleenex. Here’s a thought: Maybe next week, Devin could ditch the balladeer act and deliver a little youthful energy to the stage. He is only 18, after all. Grade: B
Angie Miller: Celine Dion’s “I Surrender” | Let Angie’s intro piece this week serve as a warning to herself and all current and future Idol contestants: Never, ever utter a comment like, “I think I can sing it as well as Kelly [Clarkson] did” — even if you believe deep down that you’re speaking the truth! Like a house guest going into Martha Stewart’s linen closet and trying to refold her fitted sheets, there simply isn’t any upside to such a boast. Anyhow, now that we’ve cleared up that matter, I’ve got to admit Angie fared better than I’d anticipated. Her voice made as powerful an impression as her bad-ass black leather dress (embellished with two rockin’ chains), almost certainly registering on the Richter Scale as she climbed and climbed and climbed to the peak of Mt. Celine, voice never once veering off pitch or quavering with uncertainty. Yeah, the song choice seemed a little uninteresting* for a gal who’s managed to sneak her own original compositions onto the show, and no, I’m not sure her springwater-clear take quite matched the heft of Kelly’s impassioned rasp, but it was still pretty damn good. Plus, Ms. Miller’s hemline inspired one of my favorite Nicki quotes of the night: “Your legs are giving me everything I needed in life today.” [* Side note: If your song has been covered on the show by Season 8's Lil Rounds, then you need to go back to the producers and say "Let's rethink this!"] Grade: A-
Paul Jolley: Lonestar’s “Amazed” | If Angie’s choice of “I Surrender” was uninteresting, then there hasn’t been an adjective invented that’s potent enough to describe the deep, unrelenting ennui I felt over Paul’s choice of “Amazed.” I mean, honestly, Josh Gracin didn’t exactly seem cutting edge when he tackled Lonestar’s 1999 ballad back in Season 2, and that was before it got passed down the Idol assembly line to Matt Rogers to Scotty McCreery to Baylie Brown. Paul’s rendition was competent enough, but that crafty cutaway to the seated, barely stirring audience told the real tale: Dude never manages to sneak even the smallest surprise or the tiniest hint of unpredictability into his performances. Nicki blurted something about Paul stimulating her sexual appetite for the first time, but the true test is whether he can stimulate anyone to pick up the phone and dial him anywhere past eighth- or ninth-place, let alone download his music. And no, Paul, a desperate grin into the camera as Ryan reads your 866 number isn’t gonna help. Grade: B-
Candice Glover: Shirley Bassey’s “I (Who Have Nothing)” | To coopt Nicki’s line about Angie’s legs, “Candice’s voice is giving me everything I need in my life today.” I mean, seriously people, stop drop and roll, ’cause this girl is on fire. She is Plinko and the Showcase Showdown and “Come on Down!” all at once. We’re talking a Father, Son and Holy Ghost type of party — with Lucifer outside the velvet rope shouting, “Please! I need to hear this woman sing live!” Okay, okay, I’ve gone off the deep end, but Candice’s combination of unbridled power and pinpoint control are what pushed me into the water in the first place. In all seriousness, I love how she paints such vivid pictures with her lyrics — and even in her intro package, the way she talked about relating the song to her real life. Better still, though, Candice infused her rendition with enough pulsing percussion and modern R&B riffs to separate it from previous/legendary Idol versions by Jordin Sparks and Haley Reinhart — and that’s no easy task. Am I crazy for thinking Candice could crack the Top 40 today with a track that was written 50 years ago? And am I ever going to recover from that unbelievably held out final “waaaaayyyyyy” and then the gentle falsetto of “the way-ay-ay”? And didn’t those fluttering red banners just make it all the more dramatic? When Mariah Carey loves your performance enough to admit she didn’t give a standing ovation because her skirt was too tight, you know you’ve done something downright magical. Grade: A+
Lazaro Arbos: Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway” | Oh no! Not only was Lazaro forced to perform in front of a backdrop that I’m certain was once used for a Claritin D ad, but he somehow made it through a whole week of rehearsals without anyone convincing him his voice is nowhere big or steady enough to handle a Kelly Clarkson tune. The opening verse of “Breakaway” was pitched too low for him, and yet the chorus seemed too high. And as he struggled to hang on to the melody, Lazaro lost any sense of emotional connection to what he was singing — so much so that even the judges had to admit the results were not good. Nicki amusingly blamed it all on Jimmy (saying the mentor shouldn’t have questioned Lazaro’s preparedness) but it was Mariah’s patronizing final verdict — “people are falling in love with the courage you have!” — that will probably keep the handsome fella in the competition longer than anyone (Lazaro included) thinks he should. Grade: D+
Kree Harrison: Roy Orbison’s “Crying” | Clearly, Jimmy Iovine hasn’t watched five minutes of Idol all season; otherwise, what would’ve possessed him to spend his mentoring session with Kree warning her against the perils of “oversiging”? Yep, the same Kree who’s shown nothing but glorious restraint since the moment she appeared on our TV screens. “Crying” was inarguably the night’s best song choice — not an iconic enough Season 4 moment for Carrie Underwood that anyone but the most hardcore Idoloonies would draw comparisons — and yet a perfect fit for Kree’s country-blues wheelhouse. The choruses, in particular, showed what a deft touch Kree has as a vocalist: Where most Idol contestants would’ve blasted through the melody with two tons of melisma, Kree took a more introspective approach. Her narrator’s heart was too broken to be bombastic, and hey, nothing gets folks attention quite like a whisper. I could go on at length about Nicki’s daft/awesome buttermilk waffles with Aunt Jemima syrup critique, but it’s best watched back on Hulu or YouTube. Just be sure to hit stop before Randy talks about Kree’s voice making him “feel good all over.” Just no. Grade: A
Burnell Taylor: Ruben Studdard/Westlife’s “Flying Without Wings” | Look, if Burnell can’t be bothered to choose something more interesting than Ruben Studdard’s mawkish Season 2 victory anthem, then I can’t be bothered to spend a whole paragraph critiquing him. I mean, dude sees himself as a strictly R&B artist and then covers a song originally performed by Westlife? And wears a cheetah-print silk shirt? And performs on a mini platform, enshrouded in dry ice? Nyet, no and j’enough! I haven’t seen this much talent wasted since Fox cancelled Lone Star (with the absurdly good-looking James Wolk) after just two episodes. Grade: B-
Amber Holcomb: Kelly Clarkson’s “A Moment Like This” | Jimmy is right that Amber’s a beautiful girl with a beautiful voice — and quite possible a beautiful ability to make his label a lot of money. But what Amber possesses in x factor, she often squanders in terms of musical knowledge and creativity. “A Moment Like This” is one of those songs that only works in a certain time (2002), in a certain place (the Idol Season 1 finale), and with a certain voice (Kelly Clarkson’s, obvi). So while Amber hit her notes with deadly accuracy and proved that her instrument cannot and should not be underestimated, she nevertheless fell short of the original. This song-choice lapse wouldn’t worry me so much, except for the fact that Amber also covered the highly predictable “I Believe in You and Me” and “I’m Every Woman” during Top 20 week. If girlfriend wants to have a shot to upend her more hyped female rivals (i.e. go further than 4th or 5th place), she’ll need to start choosing and delivering songs like she experienced and/or enjoyed music outside of the Idol-spehere. Oh, and she might want to work on her enunciation just a bit, too. Because, let’s face it: A powerhouse voice and a giant wind machine can only carry you so far in the competition. Grade: B+
And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of Season 12 Top 10 performance night? What did you think of the judges’ comments? Who was your favorite? Who’s going to be in trouble come results night? 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!