American Idol Recap: The Iron Ladies

skylar laine idolSome days, it’s depressingly easy to take the cynical approach to recapping American Idol: Like when Randy makes a “doo-doo” joke, or Steven bats over .500 in using “beautiful” to describe the night’s performances, or J.Lo serves her patented “intense/meaningful” facial expression with all the practiced ridiculousness of a RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant.

But after Wednesday night’s installment of Idol — during which the Season 11 Top 12 women took the stage — an altogether different kind of emotion is the order of the day: Earnest excitement.

Oh, sure, Randy still managed to deliver jaw-droppingly misguided/embarrassing references to Lauryn Hill, Beyoncé, and Lana Del Ray. And there was certainly a higher percentage of catastrophic caterwauling compared to Tuesday’s night telecast (featuring the Top 13 guys). But a trio of electrifying performances from Jessica Sanchez, Elise Testone, and Skylar Laine — and four additional rock-solid vocals from Erika Van Pelt, Holly Cavanagh, Hallie Day, and Jen Hirsh — were enough to make me optimistic about sacrificing every Wednesday and Thursday night over the next three months at the Church That Fantasia Barrino Built.

So let’s break down all 12 ladies’ performances with an eye on which five are most likely to advance to the finals during Thursday’s results-show telecast. (For the record, the top five vote-getters from the men’s and women’s pools will advance directly to the finals, with the judges filling out the remaining three spots with their Wild Card selections. And let’s give a moment of thanks to the judges for trying to offer a bit of constructive criticism, and to Randy — Randy! — for admitting he and his cohorts were “a little lenient” with the guys on Tuesday.)

Chelsea Sorrell, Carrie Underwood’s “Cowboy Casanova”
“Next time.” Those might be the two saddest words in the English language when they’re spoken by an Idol semifinalist who hasn’t quite processed what 20 million viewers already know too well: In 24 hours, Ryan Seacrest will be putting her Idol dreams to sleep with a syringe marked “your journey ends tonight.” But you can’t really blame Chelsea for wanting to believe she’ll somehow get another chance to prove she’s finals-worthy. Her “Cowboy Casanova” wasn’t dreadful; it was just stiffer than a bowl of brutally beaten egg whites. Chelsea hit most of her notes, but she delivered the entire song with a tightly clenched jaw and half-closed mouth that turned the lyrics into a strange syllable salad, with a line like “run for you life” turning into “run for you uhhhhh.” Adding to the uncomfortable vibe: The sight of Chelsea’s heaving bazooms trying to bust their way out from beneath her black, sequined shirt-dress. There’s nothing wrong with being a wrestling fan, but the main event shouldn’t be occurring underneath your blouse, sister!

Baylie Brown, Lonestar’s “Amazed”
Speaking of breast-binding fashion, Ryan reported that after her performance, Baylie told him that the criss-crossing salmon-colored tourniquets at the top of her ball gown actually made it hard for her to breathe during a disastrous cover of Lonestar’s “Amazed.” Unfortunately for the audition-round favorite, though, it was her — and not the Idol styling team — who hit a lower percentage of notes than a drunk, blindfolded frat boy playing a game of Whac-a-Mole. “You’re very pretty,” said Steven, sprinkling a spoonful of sugar over the bowl full of Shredded Dreams cereal that Baylie received as a consolation prize. Chin up, Baylie! You can always try X Factor — and maybe the third time on a reality singing competition will be the charm for your wayward nerves.

Haley Johnsen, Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”
“I’m gonna prove you wrong next time,” Haley said to Randy, following a grisly rendering of a classic Annie Lennox number in which her vocals were flatter than a penny on a railroad track and her sense of rhythm was less convincing than Season 10’s Paul McDonald in a choreographed dance routine. Alas, “next time” for Haley will occur next Friday night at 2 a.m. in a Portland, OR, karaoke bar. Maybe if she uploads it to YouTube, the Dawg will take the time to watch it and post some encouraging words in the comments section? Yeah, probably not. (Side note: I have to give 10 points to J.Lo for this exquisitely generous put-down — “I’m not sure the song and the way you chose to sing it were perfect.”)

Skylar Laine, Faces’ “Stay With Me”
I think I became a fan of this Mississippi firecracker from the minute Ryan was forced to phonetically sound out the words “muddin’ around on her ATV” — you know Seacrest doesn’t speak hillbilly — during Skylar’s intro package. But even so, I was wholly unprepared for the explosive energy she brought to the Idol stage for her cover of “Stay With Me.” Who cares if the song isn’t the rangiest animal in the country songbook? Who cares if Skylar’s outfit looked like a faded costume from the 1977 Icecapades Christmas Spectacular? When she did that bouncy little dance at the mid-way marker — just because there was so much ferocity and feeling in her body that she couldn’t possibly get it all out through her vocals — I literally let out a howl from my living room couch, seal-clapped like I was Paula Abdul, and hit the rewind button on my DVR for a second serving. Skylar completely embodied the raucous energy of Faces’ ode to a one-night stand, didn’t miss a single note, brought the entire risky number right to the precipice of disaster, and yet never lost control of it. Plus, she didn’t have to defensively declare “I had fun” like so many Idol contestants before her. As they say in any basic writing seminar: “Show, don’t tell!”

Jessica Sanchez, Jennifer Hudson’s “I Love You I Do”
If this is Jessica’s voice with a sore, swollen throat, then Los Angeles may expeirence gale-force winds when the spritely teenager returns to full power next week. Not only was the kid under the weather, but the sound mix for her performace was the worst of the night (on a night where the sound mix was an utter failure). I like that there’s a slight bit of crazy in Jessica’s delivery — a bombast that’s so casual, you wonder if she’s even aware of her vocal strength — and I like that she actually went with an uptempo number for her opening salvo. My super-gay iPod is already all kinds of excited for Jessica’s next decade’s worth of dance remixes!

Elise Testone, Adele’s “One and Only”
I’d be on Team Elise just for the fact that she wove her room-service flowers into her hair for her first nationally televised performance. But the sandpapery beauty of her voice, and the emotional break she experienced as the enormity of the moment hit her on the line “I promise I’m worthy” may have been the first step in a very special Idol journey. (OMG, I hate that I just used “Idol journey” in an unironic way. I told you this performance night made me earnest!) If Elise doesn’t make the Top 13, I won’t mention Haley Reinhart’s “Bennie and the Jets” in my recaps for the rest of the Idol season. How’s that for confidence in the Lady Testone?

With Chelsea, Baylie, and Haley doomed, and Skylar, Jessica, and Elise practically guaranteed spots in the Top 10, that leaves us with six women competing for two additonal viewer-driven berths in the Finals. These include:

Jen Hirsh, Adele’s “One and Only”
“Two Adele ballads enter! One Adele ballad leaves!” That was the vibe of the ThunderDome twist Idol producers brought to ladies’ night. (Reportedly, contestants submitted lists of songs they wanted to sing, and the producers made the final choice.) In the case of Jen, they not only gave her the same song as her rival Elise — and a WTF “field of wheat” backdrop! — but they signaled to the world which rendition was “better” by putting Jen in the dreaded No. 3 performance slot, and saving Elise for the end-of-episode pimp slot. And for once, I can’t really argue with Uncle Nigel’s favoritism. While the ladies certainly have two very different vocalist styles — Elise is the street fighter to Jen’s ballerina — there was something a little sterile about Jen’s version, and a shrillness to her glory notes, that detracted from her rock-solid pitch and undeniable power. And thanks to the head-to-head comparisons, I’m pretty sure Jen will now need a Wild Card to have any hope of surviving into next week.

Brielle Von Hugel, Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”
In all honesty, Brielle’s Idol dreams ended the minute the producers chose her for the Hollywood Week She-Beast edit, and even if she’d been possessed by the spirit of Kelly Clarkson singing “Stuff Like That There,” she’d still have had to contend with the worst backdrop of the night: A literal image of a dilapidated dock with some waves rolling in. I half-expected to see a dead fish drifting behind Brielle’s head, just to complete the awfulness. As it was, Brielle’s vocal was solid, if not spectacular, and Steven was right: Her delivery of the word “Georgia” was the highlight of the performance, and most likely, her entire run on the show.

Erika Van Pelt, Heart’s “What About Love”
Erika’s chances of winning America’s vote will depend on whether or not viewers respond to the gorgeous, husky tone if her voice, and the effortless power she brings to the table, or her unfortunate mother-of-the-bride jacket and color-within-the-lines choices on Heart’s mid-’80s hit. Personally, I’d really love to see Erika get the chance to grow as a performer, get a little more confidence in front of an audience of millions, and see if she can become a dark horse contender for the crown in the pattern of Jordin Sparks or David Cook or Kris Allen. But methinks Randy’s dismissive critique — “Yo, if this girl DJs half as good as she sings!” — and lethal No. 2 performance position might relegate her to an all-too-early exit.

Hollie Cavanagh, Christina Aguilera’s “Reflection”
Speaking of sigers who should improve with a little more experience, how ’bout young Hollie, who looked so petrified at the start of her song that I wondered if J.Lo had donned a Medusa mask when the cameras weren’t looking? Said stage fright may have been the cause of some of Hollie’s peculiar inflections in the opening half of a Disney princess ballad, but there was no denying that when the Season 10 “Green Mile” reject went for the glory notes, her monster voice was big enough to threaten, if not slay, the Xtina dragon in the room. I’ll confess I couldn’t bring myself to vote for any singer who’d choose such a saccharine ballad — and the literal backdrop of Hollie singing into her own gigantic reflection didn’t help matters, either — but she’s way too talented to only get a one-week run on this show.

Hallie Day, Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”
Hallie wins a special demerit badge for breaking out the “I had fun” sound bite in Week 1, but honestly, I’ve never heard any contestant sound so glum while saying it. Of course, the same can be said for her rendition of “Feeling Good.” Yes, the vocal was spot-on, and Hallie brought a certain sensuality to the table that makes her distinctive from the other women of Season 11, but her energy was so muted — practically zombified at times — that I wanted to greet her refrain like Cam on Modern Family: “Are you feeling good, Hallie? Are you?” Combine that peculiarity with her off-putting choice of cerulean blue pants, silver-and-white sequined top, and ill-fitting black jacket, and the gentle waitress from Baltimore is probably about to have her lunch eaten by a certain pageant-type from Florida. Speaking of which…

Shannon Magrane, Kathy Troccoli’s “Go Light Your World”
“Representing the Sunshine State — a young lady who comes from an athletic lineage, and enjoys singing and volleyball and being tall! She’s all about bringing hope to the hopeless, and lighting the candle from within, and wearing her hair in a potent cloud of AquaNet: It’s Miss Hillsborough County, Shannon Magrane!” Literally, if this girl makes Randy Jackson think of LAURYN FREAKING HILL, then he should be institutionalized in a Hospital for the Criminally Tone Deaf. And yes, J.Lo, I got goosies, too; from the abject terror of being introduced to one of the most mawkish ballads ever to muck up the Idol stage. No. Me. Gusta.

Your turn. What did you think of the Top 12 ladies. Which five will sail thorugh to the finals without the help of a wild card? Take our poll below, then hit the comments to expand on your opinions!

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