American Idol: The Girls Who Sang With Fire

Ever have that nightmare where you’re headed into a classroom for a huge final exam, even though you’ve only attended one class all semester? That’s pretty much the conundrum facing American Idol fans after Wednesday night’s season 10 women’s semifinal: Based on a single night of live performances, we’re being asked to toss at least half of the top 12 women onto the Idol scrap heap, where their sparkling dreams of superstardom will be violently ground down and repurposed as body shimmer for Jennifer Lopez. And inevitably, we’re bound to get some answers wrong.

Is Lauren Turner just a few mentoring sessions away from emerging as the season 10 dark horse? Would Kendra Chantelle be more interesting if the producers let us hear her speak? (Spoiler alert: Nigel Lythgoe plans to outfit her with a bedazzled muzzle should she somehow survive into next week’s performance show.) How would Ashthon Jones’ diva pipes sound on a song that contains an actual melody? I’m guessing we’ll still be pondering at least one — if not more — of these burning questions even after Lauren Alaina hops aboard the bus for the Idol Summer Tour. And that’s a damn shame.

Heck, even Ryan Seacrest couldn’t help but point out the inherent cruelty of the one-night-only semifinal format. “Now we have a problem. How do you pick your favorite?” he asked at the conclusion of Wednesday’s show, which, incidentally, was pre-taped on Monday evening. (For what it’s worth, I was far less troubled by this question after watching the men’s performances on Tuesday.) Anyhow, considering that the voting public can only catapult five of the 12 female hopefuls into the season 10 finals — which will also include five male singers, and a still unknown number of judges’ wild card picks — let’s start by going backwards and crossing off the three women whose dreams were shattered with all the dignity of a crash-test dummy hurtling through a windshield.

* Ta-Tynisa Wilson: Oh, Ta-Tynisa, where to begin? The sudden appearance of a dash in your first name (making a “ta-ta, Ta-Tynisa” joke all too tempting)? The fact that you submitted to the Idol styling team’s sudden obsession with tulle petticoats? Your extraordinarily displeasing white boots, which, from a distance, looked like battered high-top sneakers? No, let us begin with the way you delivered Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In the World)” like a blindfolded carnie failing disastrously at a game of “shoot the rubber duckies”: Note after note after note passed by, without a single one being squarely hit. But fret not, Ta-Tynisa, we’ve got some consolation prizes made up of bald-faced (but well-intentioned) lies from the judges. “A beautiful way to open the show,” said Steven Tyler. (Translation: It can only get better from here.) “It was just oh-kaaay,” said Randy, for once eschewing his love of hyperbole. “You brought it all the way home,” said J.Lo, imagining you on a plane headed back to your city of origin. If things work out as planned, you’ll be there by the weekend!

* Julie Zorrilla: I’ve never been completely sold on Julie’s potential — there’s a calculatedness to her performances that makes me feel like cold breeze just zipped across the back of my neck — but I can’t say I’d have ever foreseen her getting smashed like a chipmunk under the tires of Kelly Clarkson’s 18-wheeler ballad “Breakaway.” As Randy correctly pointed out, if you’re going to cover the original Idol right there on the Idol stage, you’d better infuse the performance with something new and different. And no, by new and different, we do not mean “pink cupcake dress,” “Barbie princess updo,” and vocals as flat as an iPad screen. Even Julie’s competitors (who raucously cheered on their cohorts all evening) could only manage a polite golf clap when her last note was finished. “Do you really want to break away?” asked J.Lo. After those critiques? I’m thinking probably yeah.

* Rachel Zevita: Here’s a case study in doing everything you’re supposed to do on Idol — pick an unexpected song! whip up a daring rearrangement! infuse the whole affair with a sense of drama! — and yet having everything turn out wrong. Still, Rachel’s horns-heavy, almost unrecognizable arrangement of Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” might’ve been forgivable, her goofy cape-removing choreography overlooked, had her pitch been spot-on. Unfortunately, by the time the quirky New Yorker hit the bridge — and the platform behind the judges — her vocals had gone so far off the path, it was like Hansel and Gretel losing their trail of crumbs (and probably getting baked alive by a cannibalistic witch).

With Rachel, Julie, and Ta-Tynisa (I really need to stop typing that name, stat!) out of the way, we’re left with nine women vying for five spots, but based on steadily plummeting ratings for beauty pageants over the last two decades, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict the ouster of Karen Rodriguez, too. From the aquamarine, one-shouldered gown to the ridiculously literal gestures (a clenched fist on the word “strength,” an outstretched palm on “hope”), Karen’s interpretation of “Hero” redefined the word “irrelevant” for the post-Haley Scarnato era. I know, I know, Karen delivered half the song in Spanish, and J.Lo commended her for showing us her “flavor,” but so what? The overall effect was about as Latin as Arthur Treacher’s. Sashay away, MySpace-sponsored contestant!

Then again, Karen might be able to survive under Clause No. 387 of the American Idol Handbook: “Each season shall include one incredibly maddening member of the Top 12 who outlasts far more talented vocalists through the twin powers of good looks and unparalleled determination. (See: Cook, Kristy Lee.)” Yet if that slot doesn’t go to Karen, it’ll go to the Queen of All Idol Affectations, Haley Reinhart. Before we talk about Haley’s shameless mugging and gyrating and oh-oh-ohing, though, can we please acknowledge how she explained in her intro how she wants to be “an inspiration” and “a visionary”? Oh, Haley! In the girl’s defense, though, she managed to hit most of the notes of Alicia Keys’ “Fallin’,” and even displayed a little restraint on the first verse (there’s always a first time for everything!).

Speaking of rarities, should Clause No. 387 not be invoked this season, or should it end up applying to a male contestant, that still leaves us with seven solid singers competing for five precious spots, three of which are locked down like a state penitentiary after midnight for producers’ pets/current front-runners/pimp-spot holders Thia Megia, Sixteen-Year-Old Lauren Alaina, and Pia Toscano. Let’s break ’em on down:

* Thia Megia (aka Miss America 2017): Yes, folks, I’m gonna have to eat at least a tablespoon full of my words right now — and there’s a big bowl of ’em in the fridge that I’ll probably have to choke down over the next 12 weeks, too — since last week on Idoloonies, my cohost Melinda Doolittle and I both said Thia would our No. 1 selection to remove from the season 10 roster and replace with another singer (hello, Hollie Cavanagh and Jessica Cunningham!). Naturally, this led to Thia getting the best reviews of any contestant this week, with Randy comparing her to “the late, great Michael Jackson” and Steven declaring her the epitome of pitch perfection.

I’m still not completely convinced: There’s no denying Thia’s incredibly sparse arrangement of “Out Here on My Own” — performed under a stark spotlight, with an a capella intro — was a stunner, the kind of quiet Idol moment that can resonate so much more powerfully than a lot of Bandzilla’s shenanigans. But the near-constant quaver of this kid’s voice can be grating, and her personality  remains a giant question mark. “No matter how old or young you are, you can do anything you want to do,” Thia said at the start of her intro package, which inexplicably made me shudder. Ditto for her strained/possibly evil laugh after Ryan said he needed proof that Thia was only 15. Girlfriend has already buried Melinda Ademi alive, and she can do it to you, too!

* “Sixteen-year-old Lauren Alaina”: If the juxtaposition of Lauren’s heart tank-top and Ryan’s top-of-episode “Who do you love?” was too subtle for you, how about Randy comparing “my little Lauren” to a mashup of the franchise’s two most successful graduates: Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Undewood. (From your lips to Uncle Nigel’s cash register, dawg.) I can’t lie and say Lauren didn’t deliver a solid performance of Reba McEntire’s “Turn on the Radio” — even if she hit a couple of rough patches while she stomped around the stage — but the kid has a way to go before she matches the emotional impact of previous teen belters like Jordin Sparks, Allison Iraheta, or even (on her best days) Paris Bennett. We’ll see how the season plays out, but I’ll keep my mind (and my ears) open as long as Lauren dials back on the overly familiar banter with the seasoned adults of the Idol machine. “Peaches” Seacrest? Girl, no.

* Pia Toscano: Send the sexy makeup artist directly to the top five, and don’t even think about asking her to pass ‘Go’ or collect $200. Granted, there’s no way I’d put Pia’s lovely, heartfelt rendition of “I’ll Stand By You” in the pantheon of all-time great Idol performances (there goes Randy again, hitting the hyperbole button), but it would probably come close to cracking the top 200, and for Week One, that’s more than enough. For starters, Pia showed excellent taste in selecting the Pretenders’ gorgeous ballad, which makes me think that maybe she’ll go on to record actual music I might want to hear on the radio/purchase on iTunes. (That’s more than I can say for Karen Rodriguez.) And secondly, while Pia may have just been a teensy bit sharp on the first of the three gigantor notes that ended her performance, I liked the fact that she was willing — and more importantly, able — to put a big diva twist on Chrissie Hynde’s template.

So that brings us down to just two spots left in the finals — and four very promising ladies who really ought to bury Thia’s ass/get at least one more chance to prove their worth to the voting public: Naima Adedapo, Kendra Chantelle, Ashthon Jones, and Lauren Turner. I’m hoping if America votes correctly, and each of the judges gets a Wild Card pick (making it a top 13), we’ll end up with seven women and six men in the finals, leaving only one of these chicas on the sidelines. Actually, scratch that: I’d be even happier if all three Wild Cards went to women, giving us an 8-5 split and potentially robbing us of more “wacky” interplay between Seacrest and James Durbin.

Anyhow, back to our “fierce foursome”: It’s hard for me to rank these ladies, but if I had to do it (and I kind of do, don’t I) here’s how they’d stand:

* Kendra Chantelle: Note for note, I’d say Kendra’s “Impossible” was as technically potent as any semifinal performance we saw this week — and with 33 percent less melisma than Christina Aguilera’s original. Yeah, the judges’ feedback was just a tiny bit muted — or as muted as it can be when Randy’s (weirdly) comparing you to Lauryn Hill — but Kendra isn’t one of Nigel’s Angels; as J.Lo pointed out, she’s had to fight her way into the top 24. “I feel like there’s more in you,” said the sparkly judge, “like we’re just scratching the surface.” And it’s true: Kendra dazzled with an origami-delicate “Blackbird” (with Paul McDonald) in Vegas, and yet tonight she showed Big Diva Potential. That’s the kind of versatility that often makes for great Idol contestants. Slow clap, people! Ken-dra! Chan-telle! Ken-dra! Chan-telle!

* Ashthon Jones: Okay, I admit it: I’m hypnotized by Ashthon’s gorgeous mane and dazzled by her diva expressions. It may, in fact, be distracting me from the fact that the pipes don’t exactly match the swagger. But I think a Top 12 (or 13) without Ashthon would be a little less glamorous and a lot less entertaining. Sure, Monica’s “Love All Over Me” isn’t exactly the kind of song you find yourself humming to yourself while you fold your laundry — it would need a discernible melody for that kind of task — but Ashthon sold it like Cinnabon at a food court. And unlike some of her younger rivals, Ashthon’s performances are imbued with the kind of life experience that can’t be faked. Paired with the right material (how about Diana Ross’ “Theme from Mahogany”?), she could be a serious tour contender.

* Naima Adedapo: Yes, Randy had a point that her uptempo arrangement of “Summertime” — and the silly opening choreography — had a lounge-act vibe to it, but one performance does not an Idol sink, right? (Even if she foolishly dared to walk in the path of Miss Fantasia Barrino.) The truth of the matter is, Naima’s got a great big instrument that can easily carry her from soul to rock to showtunes, and she seems like the type of exotic flower that could really bloom under the careful watch of Jimmy Iovine.

* Lauren Turner: J.Lo compared her to Bette Midler, but when I look at Lauren, I see Jessica Sierra, Gina Glocksen, Nadia Turner, and a host of other scrappy Idol belters who fell just below the top tier of contestants, but had some terrific moments along the way. The difference between those ladies and Lauren, however, is that the season 10 version comes with a brassy personality and perhaps just a tad more “oomph” in her vocals. As with most of her performances, Lauren’s “Seven Day Week” had more power than polish, but her interplay with J.Lo during her critique cracked me up, with Lauren saying she’d never thought about infusing her performance with personality, then adding, “I’m sarcastic, America, just so you know!” The thing is, though, J.Lo was right: Lauren needs to physically embody the spirit of the songs she’s singing. A more flattering choice of clothing wouldn’t hurt, either. Time, experience, and a team of Idol stylists can only help, no? Let’s just hope that if she makes the cut on Thursday night, nobody tries to put this bad-ass chick in tulle.

And now, on to the letter grades for tonight’s performances:

Pia Toscano: A-
Kendra Chantelle: B+
Thia Megia: (ugh) B+
Ashthon Jones: B
Lauren Turner: B
Naima Adedapo: B
Lauren Alaina: B
Haley Reinhart: C
Karen Rodriguez: C-
Rachel Zevita: C- (hey, at least she tried something different!)
Julie Zorrilla: D
Ta-Tynisa Wilson: D-

What did you think of the Wednesday night performance show? Which five contestants deserve to advance to the finals, and is there a sixth (or seventh) who deserves another chance via Wild Card? Which contestant disappointed you most? And when are J.Lo and Steven gonna stop doing their Ellen DeGeneres impressions and start judging, dammit? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol coverage, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV.

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