Since 2002, American Idol has maintained key sponsorships with Coca-Cola, Ford and AT&T, and that’s all good — seeing how it ensures the show’s weekly themes aren’t always variations on “Gregorian Chants” and/or “Tunes That Have Entered the Public Domain.” Still, after yet another gut-wrenching Hometown Visits episode featuring the Season 12 Top 3, I can’t help but wonder: Isn’t Fox long overdue to pursue a partnership with the good folks at Kleenex?
I mean, if you didn’t tear up watching Candice Glover pull up in front of her family’s house in a limousine or Angie Miller marvel at all the “Boston Strong” signs in her hometown or Kree Harrison visit the ramshackle house where she grew up with her late parents, then you’re made of stronger stuff (or disinclined to sip a glass of stronger stuff during Idol) than I am.
Emotional as those carefully edited video packages may have been, however, they’re not really going to factor into which (if any) of these ladies manages to conquer radio and concert halls and the iTunes charts in the coming months and years. Which is why I wished that the show’s producers had allowed Kree, Angie and Candice at least one “Contestant’s Choice” round with which to display their artistic vision a mere eight days out from the Season 12 finale.
Instead, the ladies received their trio of songs — Judges’ Choice, Producers’ Choice and Jimmy Iovine’s Choice — like packages from Zappos with no return packaging and a strongly worded missive: “If the shoe doesn’t fit, you better squeeze your foot into it, grit your teeth and smile your way through it anyhow. Your future earning potential depends on it!”
Like it or not, though, young artists navigating the major-label system don’t typically have total autonomy over which ditties they’ll be recording. And so despite the judges’ mostly bland feedback about growth and purity and genuineness, it was fascinating to see which contestants thrived and which ones stumbled when saddled with less-than-suitable material. With that in mind, let’s cut to the set list — with letter grades and full reviews:
Kree Harrison: Pink’s “F***in’ Perfect” | Don’t get me wrong: I love Kree. I love her warm butterscotch sauce tone. I love her compulsion to hug every human being who comes within a five-foot radius. But her rendition of “Perfect” had all the energy of a half-deflated party balloon that gets stuck behind a credenza — right down to that final halfhearted arm raise and subsequent “oh, I give up” drop. Granted, the song was an odd fit: Kree’s country-blues languidness is in a different zip code than Pink’s raucous pop-soul abandon, after all. But I was disappointed that — despite her packed schedule — Kree didn’t rethink the song or the arrangement in any discernable way. Instead of reaching into the shriekbot pit and touching the hands of young girls, I’d have loved to see Kree seated on a stool, accompanied by nothing other than a twangy acoustic guitar, turning “Perfect” into a soul-searching country ballad. (Because “Perfect” really could be country.) That kind of bold risk would’ve announced to the world that Kree had arrived back in Hollywood determined to fight for a Top 2 position, but instead, all we got was Kree’s admission that she’d have never picked “Perfect” for herself and her dubious claim that she’d “had fun.” (Question: Why do contestants break out the “I had fun” card immediately after performances that look about as joyous as slamming one’s head into an open kitchen-cabinet door?) Grade: B-
Candice Glover: U2′s “One” | I’m pretty sure I could count on one hand the number of bum notes Candice has hit during her entire Season 12 run, which is why it was jarring to hear her go sharp three or four times over the course of U2′s booming rock anthem. The bigger problem to me, though, was an arrangement that jumped too quickly to the “love is a temple, love is a higher law” climax — with not enough of buildup to make the payoff satisfying. (Side note: I didn’t set my stopwatch, but the Round 1 performances all seemed particularly rushed — which is annoying considering how much time was devoted to the judges’ yapping, no?) In the overall scheme of the season, I suspect this isn’t “One” for which Candice will ultimately be remembered, but it still wasn’t too shabby. Grade: B+
Angie Miller: Elton John’s “Sorry Seems to Be the Hardest Word” | I can’t believe the judges griped — again! — about Angie not performing at the piano. (Side rant: This is not a piano-playing contest! It’s about singing! No one should have to be chained to any instrument! Maybe given her packed week she wanted to focus on the vocals! WHY AM I SO ANGRY BY THE END OF THE IDOL SEASON!?) Perhaps even more nonsensical, though, was the griping from Randy and Keith that Angie could’ve or should’ve “held back even more” than she did. Um, what did they want, exactly? A whispered performance? One done entirely through the art of mime? Maybe one where Angie hid demurely beneath a burlap sack? To me, this was one of Angie’s finest vocals of the season — bell clear, genuinely emotional and landing right in the sweetest spot of her range. Her diction was still sharp, but not blood-drawingly so, and the way she dug deep and delivered lines like, “What’ve I gotta do to be heard?” had me focused only on her — and not even thinking about the fact that the song has really been done one too many times before on the show (including a cover by a Season 10 contender whose name rhymes with Makeup Musk). If the collective opinion of the Internet is right — and Angie’s a lock to win the whole enchilada — then this is one of the performances that will make said victory go down easy (even for a raging Candice fan like me). Grade: A-
Candice Glover: Emeli Sande’s “Next to Me” | To my ears, this was the most creative arrangement of the night — sparse and slowed-down to start, rollicking and energetic thereafter — with a hand-clapping, band-on-hold interlude that reminded me a little of David Cook’s breakdown on “Laying Me Low” during last week’s results show. Candice cut through every note like a Top Chef contestant julienning veggies, laid down those glory notes with the ease of a bodybuilder lifting a 10 lb. weight, and even added a little gravel to her tone when she hit “you won’t ever find him where the rest go.” This was yet another exhibit in the mounting pile of evidence refuting folks who don’t see Candice as having massive sales potential and/or fail to recognize that she could be the American Adele. (Yes, I’m using “American Adele” once more. Randy says “in it to win it” eight times every episode and he still has a job. For now.) Oh, and speaking of Randy and his irksomeness, what the HELL was with his comment about Candice proving “you can come from absolutely nothing”? I mean, it’s not like her family home was a tin shack with a dirt floor. Sheesh! Nicki, for her part, credited Candice with being “the most confident woman on that stage every single night,” a compliment that had Candi Girl openly weeping and admitting she used to be “the most insecure person ever.” That just can’t be the case anymore, can it? Not after a performance this rockin’. Grade: A-
Angie Miller: Pink’s “Try” | Interestingly, I feel like Angie lived up to the song title on this performance in that she took a gritty rock number that didn’t quite suit her and made a valiant attempt to conquer it — stalking the stage, punching the air, and occasionally throwing her whole body into phrases to add extra emotional oomph. Alas, though, all that physical effort didn’t result in Angie’s strongest vocal: She began to sound winded about halfway through the proceedings and there were moments the band threatened to overpower her. To make matters worse, the fresh-scrubbed quality of Angie’s tone left the overall impression of someone taking Pink’s gritty original and sanding down the raw edges. I’m sure Angie was thrilled to hear, however, that the original was written by a good friend of Randy Jackson’s, and that it was okay for Mariah to compare her to a “homecoming queen” during her hometown visit package because, like Angie, Ms. Cary is “festive” too! (Seriously, Uncle Nigel, we get truncated performances to make room for this kind of gobbledygook?) Grade: B
Kree Harrison: Rascal Flatts’ “Here Comes Goodbye” | Without a doubt, Kree’s hometown visit was one of the show’s most tear-inducing moments since Elliott Yamin and his mother wept along his parade route in Season 5. And when Kree said that visiting her childhood home was like hanging on to a little piece of her parents, and then broke down at the end of her concert rendition of “See You Again,” I had a lip-trembling, eye-watering moment of my own. A lot of those emotions got carried into “Here Comes Goodbye” — both for Kree and for the audience. I enjoyed the scaled-back piano intro and the solemnity of Kree’s delivery, and the way all of the song’s emotions played across her face. Unfortunately, though, the extended glory note at the midway marker veered so far off its intended mark that had this been a game of darts, it would’ve gone kerplunk onto the sawdust-covered floor. That said, I have to admit that on first listen, the errant note hit my ears like Q-tips driven home with sledgehammers, giving the overall impression that what came after it was shaky, too. Upon second (and then third) listen, however, I’ve come to realize I graded Kree too low the first time around. One hinky note — even a lengthy one — does not a song ruin. Hopefully one misjudged performance — even in Top 3 week — does not a recapper’s credibility tarnish. (The deteriorating sentence structure showcased in this paragraph, however, is another story.) Grade:
Angie Miller: Emeli Sande’s “Maybe” | I was pretty shocked by the judges chirpily positive feedback on this performance, even though it contained passive-aggressive zingers like Nikki’s “you weren’t staring straight into the camera like a zombie!” To me, it seemed like Angie started the performance in a key that was way too high, causing her to go flat at increasingly frequent intervals throughout the performance — and ultimately sound as shrill as a middle-school substitute teacher scolding her students into silence. Mariah hinted at the problem (“I don’t feel that was easy.” “It was quite a high key.”) but ultimately devolved into psychobabble including “you were you and you were present.” Um, yes, she was on stage for the duration of the performance, Mimi. Thanks for that. Grade: C
Kree Harrison: The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two” | Brazenness, thy name is Nigel Lythgoe. I mean, how galling was it that “The Producers” chose a song for Kree — whose lost her dad at age 12 and her mom at age 19 — about a woman telling her man, “If you go before I do/ I’m gonna tell the gravedigger that he better dig two”? And what other end result could we expect than a dazed-looking Kree limping her way through the song with all the enthusiasm of a strict vegan trying to order something off a steakhouse menu. OK, could Ms. Harrison have willed herself to try just a little bit harder, make the performance a little more dynamic? Yeah, sure. Can I legitimately sit here and rail against her because she didn’t? Not a chance in hell. And it’s not like her tone wasn’t lovely as always. Grade: B
Candice Glover: “Somewhere” (from West Side Story) | On paper, I wasn’t sure how Candice would be able to use a big Broadway ballad going to silence those “she’s not commercial!” criticisms that get lobbed her way. But then, as she opened her mouth and began to sing a sublime, achingly patient rendition of the West Side Story chestnut that dialed back on runs and ad-libs — and relied more on the stunning ebb and flow of her instrument, as well as her ability to get inside a song and completely inhabit its lyrics — I realized something: Candice is simply too remarkable to go chasing whatever ridiculous formula has made Ke$ha a star while Haley Reinhart gets dropped by her label. As Harry Connick, Jr. told Candice last week — she can’t build a career stressing over whether the 14-year-olds will get it. And frankly, with good collaborators and a decent promotional budget, I bet there are plenty of teenagers who’d get excited about a Candice Glover record. I dunno, maybe her voice just makes me optimistic, but isn’t that the power of Idol anyway? That young women with the ambition and raw talent of Candice (and Kree) (and Angie) can overthrow the tyrrany of Aut0-Tune and regurgitating lyrics that literally say “Blah! Blah! Blah!” to rule the charts and run the world? Somehow. Someday. Somwhere. Grade: A
And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of Season 12 Top 3 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!