Over the course of 14 seasons, American Idol has had its fair share of uncomfortable moments.
Chris Daughtry serving up a “Wait, I got eliminated?” grimace. Paula Abdul critiquing a song Jason Castro was about 45 minutes away from covering. (Fret not, old girl will be back in a judging capacity this summer on Fox!) Danny Gokey trying to out-Adam Adam Lambert — and failing like a 5-year-old taking the AP Physics exam — on “Dream On.”
Tonight, however, The House That Spawned Two Terrible Movies: From Justin to Kelly and That Fantasia Barrino Mess on Lifetime, reached a new level of awkward with a very unfortunate, very unnecessary showdown between sensitive artiste Quentin Alexander and the judgiest judge that ever passed too-hasty judgment, Harry Connick Jr.
If you missed it, here’s a quick primer: When Quentin’s name was called to perform, his BFF Joey Cook (whose wedding he’ll officiate later this year) and pal Rayvon Owen were left in jeopardy as the week’s Bottom 2. When he’d finished singing, the New Orleans retail worker looked sad, some might even say sulky, prompting the following conversation:
Ryan Seacrest: Tell me what’s on your mind.
Quentin: This sucks.
Ryan: OK, what sucks? Tell me what sucks?
Quentin (gesturing to Joey and Rayvon): We have two of the best vocalists… my best friend is sitting over there. This whole thing is wack. But I’m gonna shut up right now.
Harry (after making sure the cameras were still running): Quentin! Quentin! If it’s that wack, then you can always go home. Because Idol is paying a lot of money to give you this experience, and for you to say that to this hand that is feeding you right now — I think it’s highly disrespectful.
I’ll pause here to note that Quentin didn’t speak until prompted by someone with an immeasurably greater degree of live TV experience. And I’ll also add that it was pretty clear that Quentin wasn’t “disrespecting” the Idol process, but offering his authentic, unfiltered emotions about the reality that one of his friends (and fellow artists) was about to see his or her dream come to an end.
Have we reached a point in Idol‘s evolution where contestants should respond to “Tell me what’s on your mind” like they’re brainwashed cult members whose only emotions are shiny, happy and pre-chewed and who are angling for a guest spot on a Barney & Friends revival?
Quentin, who’d already left the stage when Harry began speaking, actually strolled back out to the judges’ table to explain to Harry that he wasn’t lashing out at the Idol process, but rather trying to say that “it sucks to see two people who I’ve grown to love going home.” (Come on, this was already obvious to 90 percent of viewers, no?)
“That wasn’t clear,” continued Harry. At which point Quentin, understandably exasperated, read Harry for filth: “And I’m glad that I got to clarify it for you.“
Update: YouTube embed of the incident now added to this recap (scroll below it for performance grades/commentary):
Whether you’re #TeamHarry or #TeamQuentin, though, the judge-contestant dustup sat as comfortably as a trip to an all-you-can-eat burrito bar in one’s stomach for the rest of the episode. And that’s a damn shame, seeing how
an entertainment pro like Harry shoulda known better the Season 14 Top 7 offered up some good-to-fantastic performances (with only a few stinkers in the mix)!
To make matters worse, Harry later told Clark Beckham that he was quite possible “the only musician left in the competition” — resulting in the first synchronized, six-person side-eye in live television history. And then, after Quentin’s second performance (and the contestant reiterating he’d meant no disrespect to the Idol process with his prior comments) Ryan Seacrest goaded him by blurting, “I honestly though you were gonna go hit him — and I was gonna have to step in.”
“I was raised way better than that,” responded Quentin, shutting Ryan down without the slightest hint of a smile. I wasn’t smiling, either, but rather, grimacing at Ryan raising the completely unfounded idea that a black male contestant was prone to violence. (Especially since Quentin’s been as peaceful as a yoga-class “ohm” all season!)
That said, keeping in mind that Idol is supposed to be about the contestants and their music, let’s get to tonight’s letter grades and performance reviews:
Tyanna Jones – Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers’ “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” — Grade: B- | A clean, pretty vocal delivered, unfortunately, with very little oomph or originality. I know she’s 16 and I know she’s crazy talented, but there’s got to be more to a Top 5 contestant than this, no?
Clark Beckham – Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” — Grade: A | I was momentarily thrown when Clark kicked things off (his back to the audience) strumming an electric guitar and scatting with abandon, but the jazzy intro set the tone for a grimy-soulful jam-band success. I loved how Clark kept rocking forward and backward toward the mic stand, as if he was feeling the music so deeply that it took total control of his body and how his face registered the vibe of his performance, too. The zhuzh’d-up hair and crisp white dress shirt helped complete what was Clark’s personal best this season.
Jax – Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” — Grade: A- | Jax is the seventh person to cover “Piece of My Heart” on Idol in 14 seasons — never a good ratio on a show that often rewards performances labeled “And now for something really different.” Jax’s brassy, soulful take on the song — with a few Janis-esque sing-speak interludes and some really fine riffs — had enough urgency and vocal horsepower that I fell under its spell and didn’t even think about all the prior versions from seasons past. Even with the help of a wind machine, that’s no small accomplishment.
Nick Fradiani – Tom Petty’s “American Girl” — Grade: B | Nick admitted in his pre-performance package that he’s been midpack all season — and declared he was ready for a rockin’ breakthrough moment. Yet while “American Girl” was a very solid cover, how was it really any different from anything Nick’s delivered over the past two months (or from Tom Petty’s original)? “Handsome guy playing acoustic guitar and singing earnestly while mostly in tune” is not the strategy to leapfrog Clark Beckham in the Idol pecking order. I’m still waiting for the guy lay bare his emotions on the Idol stage — to prove he’s willing (and able) to break hearts, get angry, raise pulses or any other response beyond making voters say, “Well that was nice!”
Quentin Alexander – Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way” — Grade: B | With his crazy silver mesh shirt and Aztec sun ritual vest, Quentin once again proved you can bring a little jaunt and excitement into viewers’ living rooms before you’ve sung a single note. Trouble was, not all of those notes landed where they should’ve — particularly in the garbled final third of the number. And yet at the same time, I agreed with Keith that Quentin’s ability to lay back into the band’s booming arrangement, to be the quiet at the center of the rock-n-roll storm, was hard not to enjoy. And hey, at least dude addressed the “Quentin only sings midtempo” critique he’s been getting all season.
Joey Cook – “My Funny Valentine” (from Babes in Arms) — Grade: B | There’s a beautifully raggedy quality to Joey’s voice when she goes inward and introspective — a trait that you could hear as the purple-haired beauty played around with the phrasing of the opening verse. Alas, though, as the jazz standard continued, and Joey hit a series of flat notes while attempting to “go big” and prove she’s got chops to match her quirk, there was a sense she’d gotten a tad too ambitious with song choice. (After all, “My Funny Valentine” shoulda had its number retired and hung from the rafters after Melinda Doolittle tackled it in Season 6.)
Rayvon Owen – The Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin'” — Grade: C- | Rayvon’s been fighting for his Idol existence for weeks now, and he chooses to do a synchronized shuffle (flanked by similarly moving background singers) while gasping for breath through most of the opening verse? On a song that has no real emotional heft? Who’s mentoring this kid? Randy Jackson?! OK, the vocal improved thereafter, but the multiple “come on, everybody help me sing this song!” shout-outs seemed like a slightly sad attempt to offer caffeine pills to an audience that was already cutting zzz’s.
Clark Beckham – “Moon River” (from Breakfast at Tiffany’s) — Grade: B- | As perfectly as Clark’s white shirt fit him on “Superstition” — yes, I had to bring it up again — “Moon River” felt a little tight on the Season 14 front-runner’s voice. There was something surprisingly haggard about his tone, and a lethargic quality to his delivery, that stood in stark contrast to the star quality that shone through on his earlier performance. Was it terrible? No. Will I remember it by the time summer rolls around? Highly doubtful.
Tyanna Jones – Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” — Grade: B- | I almost gave this performance a C+, except that Tyanna hit almost all of her notes, and that’s got to count for something, yes? The “take it slow” opening verse, though, was so sluggish that the high-energy second half seemed almost… forced? inauthentic? jarring? I’m not entirely sure why I couldn’t get on board with a number Harry insisted was nearly perfect, except maybe this song (by anyone other than John Fogerty or Tina Turner) screams “Talent show!” And by Top 6, you should be shaking off that cloak and proving to us the artist you want to be in the world when the show is done.
Nick Fradiani – Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young” — Grade: A- | Billy Joel’s tale of Catholic schoolgirl seduction is a tough one to truncate to 90 seconds. Yet while Nick’s cover left out any mention of “Virginia” (AKA the object of the song’s desire), his slowed-down, stripped-down arrangement, combined with the more universal vibe of the lyrics he chose, made this the night’s most interesting performance. In a note for note comparison, Nick’s probably not going to outlast Clark or Rayvon, so here’s hoping her keeps using his extensive experience and innate musicianship (yes, Harry, I called Nick a musician) to keep delivering unexpected treats.
Quentin Alexander – Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” — Grade: A- | J.Lo used Quentin’s second performance to lecture him about his prior emotional outburst. Harry made another swipe at the guy’s pitch. And I found myself screaming at the TV, “SHUT YOUR PIE-HOLES, JUDGES!” Because despite a couple bumps in pitch, Quentin’s moody, mystical cover was exquisite and oh-so-memorable. The guy is a great storyteller whose phrasing and shading make every word and every note resonate. Given the choice of being impressed by a vocalist’s technique or wowed by their depth of feeling, I’ll always choose the latter. And I’m not saying those things are mutually exclusive: In fact, I’d argue if Quentin’s technique was as subpar as Harry would have us believe, there’s no way so many folks would be floating along on the dude’s magic carpet — with no intention of ending the journey.
Jax – Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” — Grade: C | All season long I’ve bristled as I’ve read comments about Jax not being a genuine personality — or about her choices in the competition coming off as contrived. To me, she’s a very talented teenager who’s not afraid of taking crazy risks as she explores the outer limits of what she can achieve and who she wants to be as an artist. (Since when do we not want fun and fearless in our pop stars?) That said, to my ears, her arrangement and delivery of “Beat It” went past the aforementioned boundaries of Jax’s artistry and into “Oh girl, no!” territory. The way she growled like a wannabe hair-metal artist every time she hit the word “fight,” the way she dropped to her knees and played to the camera, the frenetic quality of her phrasing — it all seemed as highly charged and messy as Jax’s static-electricity-plagued hair. Do I respect Jax for going big? Heck yes! Am I worried it might lead to her going home? Just a little.
Rayvon Owen – Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind” — Grade: B+ | This was verrrry close to the kind of performance that might actually earn Rayvon a spot in the Top 5 (and on the Idol tour). I mean, “Always on My Mind” gave us all a reminder of the freshly-groomed chinchilla luxuriousness of Rayvon’s tone — and some of his runs were crazy-masterful, too. But while the little breaks in his voice on the chorus drilled down further into Rayvon’s emotional core than we’ve been since Hollywood Week, I’d still like to see him realize there’s a difference between delivering a pretty vocal and capturing the true beauty of music. This might just come down to song choice — the fact that “Always on My Mind” has been covered one too many times in the reality singing space or that it didn’t tell us if Rayvon’s capable of pushing outside his comfort zone and giving us some sense of surprise.
Joey Cook – Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love” — Grade: A- | If Joey had to leave at No. 7 — Gah! The woman who gave us “Fancy,” “King of Spain” and “Miss Independent” didn’t make the Idol summer tour?! — then I’m happy her final impression was a blugrass-y, O, Brother Where Art Thou?-esque spin on a classic rock anthem. On a karaoke rating machine, she’d probably have scored lower than Rayvon, thanks to a few nervous wobbles that pulled her under the melody here and there. But the raw originality and genuine pleading Joey brought to the tune, the way she broke up the propulsive rhythm of the chorus with haunting, growling verses, made for one heckuva rollercoaster ride. Actually, you could say that about her entire Idol journey.
Oh, did I mention Joey and Rayvon were this week’s Bottom 2 — with their dual performances serving as their pitches to the public to save ’em via Twitter? Naturally, this sent me into a tweeting frenzy:
Saved (again!): Rayvon
Should Be Next Week’s Bottom Two: Rayvon, Tyanna (Tyanna going home)
Will Be Next Week’s Bottom Two: Rayvon, Jax (Rayvon going home)
On that note, I turn it over to you! What did you think of Top 7 performance night? Who were your faves? Who’s at risk? Did the right contestant get “Twitter Saved”? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments!