American Idol Recap: Some Kind of Wonder-Ful

joshua ledet idolYou can’t always get what you want, as Mick Jagger (and later, Crystal Bowersox) once sang, and that adage has certainly been applicable to most of American Idol‘s first 399 episodes.

On Wednesday, however, in celebration of the 400th installment of the reality-competition granddaddy, Uncle Nigel took a page from Burger King’s ad department and produced an episode that let the Idoloonie Nation have it their way: A Top 13 packed almost entirely with solid (and varied) vocalists. Specific, constructive critiques from the judges. A mentor with serious chops, good humor, and spot-on advice. A clear, unmuddied sound mix. Plenty of ketchup and onions. And not a single “vote for her ’cause her maw-maw got her leg caught in a combine” sob story.

Oh, sure, Randy Jackson wore a ridiculous chipmunk-fur collar and sequined Powerpuff Girls pin (an homage to Idology, perhaps?) and started nearly every critique with the word “Yo!” Jennifer Lopez kept trying to make “goosies!” happen. (It’s not gonna happen, gurrrl.) Steven Tyler trotted out the word “beautiful” 11 times over the course of 13 performances. And those blasted Sway-Bots arhythmically raised their hands in front of the cameras during each and every ballad. But let’s be honest: Getting through an Idol episode without anything to mock or rage against would be like ordering a burger without the fries.

Of course, what made Episode 400 all the more impressive is that it managed to achieve near greatness while clad in a threadbare patchwork coat of Whitney Houston/Stevie Wonder ditties. And it wasn’t just that the songbooks in question have been among the most tirelessly flogged in Idol history: Producers made things even less imaginative by requiring the guys to do Stevie, and the women to do Whitney. (How dreadfully gender-normative!)

But anyhow, let’s get to the performances, and try to sort out which guy and which gal will be the lowest vote-getters among their genders, and be forced to sing for their lives for the judges on Thursday night. Yep, J.Lo, Randy, and Steven are grabing some power from all of us (or a nation of speed-dialing moms) tonight. In the words of Colton Dixon: “Interesting.”

Joshua Ledet, “I Wish”: Joshua spent much of his pre-performance package talking about how he was totally out of his comfort zone, which is another way of saying this kid has absolutely no idea where his strengths lie. Sure, he can deliver a Gospel-inflected ballad with the best of ’em, but he’s also got a magical way with uptempo funk. From his “I see ya, J.Lo!” shout-out to his dance interlude in front of the horns section, the dapper Joshua tore through the syncopated rhythms like a paper shredder to a piece of junk mail, riffing magnificently with his feverish rasp and sending me into “elated stank face” palpatations for a good 90 seconds. And hey, if we’re gonna spend four hours a week on the couch watching Idol from now until May, we really need at least one contestant who can get our cardiovascular systems fired up.

Elise Testone, “I’m Your Baby Tonight”: It was clear trouble was brewin’ from the moment guest mentor Mary J. Blige made her “nuh-uh” face during Elise’s cover of “The Greatest Love of All.” But if Mary and Jimmy were determined to switch up Elise’s track, why not go with latter day Whitney in the vein of “Heartbreak Hotel” or “My Love Is Your Love” or even “It’s Not Right (But It’s Okay)”? Whatever the case may be, I actually enjoyed how the gravelly throated songbird switched up the cadence of a stylized midtemo number that didn’t really fit her intrument or her vibe. The languid way Elise approached the chorus, the almost gutteral notes she struck on the opening verse, were interesting at a bare minimum, and maybe kinda lovely (if you’re already an Elise convert). Randy was right that she needn’t use every note to drive home the power of her voice, but the judges’ comments seemed harsher than necessary, almost as if knowing Elise’s potential, they were holding her to a higher standard than, say, Jermaine or Shannon. Here’s hoping the Dawg’s comment that Elise was “boxing” the song wasn’t a subliminal way of signaling she’ll be the Season 11 punching bag.

Jermaine Jones, “Knocks Me Off My Feet”: If justice and logic, those perpetual Idol underdogs, prevail this week, we’ll be looking at a Jermaine-Vs.-Shannon Bottom 2. Granted, the “Gentle Giant” (I can’t believe I just typed that again) hit more notes in the opening verse than Eben Franckewitz did during his entire Adele cover last week, but even so, Jermaine’s vocal had all the energy and spirit of a carnival goldfish in a plastic bag of water. Like J.Lo said, the guy just doesn’t seem to be connecting to his lyrics. (Pop quiz: Without looking to the top of this paragraph, name Jermaine’s song this week!) And by the time he got to the chorus, Jermaine began to lose his grip on pitch, too. “When you hit the chorus, for me, I did not enjoy,” said Randy, in a typically brilliant turn of phrase, but Jermaine did not agree. “I think I did a pretty good job,” he told Ryan. To which I say, “Dude, making me side with Randy Jackson? That is not cool.”

Erika Van Pelt, “I Believe In You And Me”: First things first: Erika has some fantastic raw material to work with. I mean, those rich, buttery notes she hit in front of MJB were sublime. But somehow her cover of “I Believe in You and Me” fell short of her rehearsal package. Was it the red gown with bedazzled straps, which immediately made me wonder how many times Erika’s been a bridesmaid, and whether or not we’ll see her in floral taffeta by Top 10 week? Was it the random guitar player placed at stage left, who should’ve brought a little more grit to cut through all the cheese? Was it that Erika colored a little too carefully inside Whitney Houston’s template? Perhaps it was all of the above. But I agree with J.Lo that there’s a real contender lurking just below the surface of Erika’s skin, and it’s high time she came out to inspire a nation of speed-dialing crazies.

Colton Dixon, “Lately”: You could accuse Colton of being Season 11’s most strategic contestant, the way he uses his skinny (to the point of shrink-wrap) jeans, his “smoldering eyes to America” (Ryan’s words, not mine), and his plaintive rocker wail to make everything seem like it should be accompanied by a moodily lit video with Colton in all-black, storm clouds rolling in on the horizon, and a CW starlet running through an eerie forest-scape. Or you could say this is a guy who knows what kind of artist he wants to be, and knows how to execute his vision while hitting 90-95% of his notes. Whichever side of the debate on which you land — I’m still undecided myself — I think there’s one cause that can unite us all: That Colton never again wear a backwards baseball cap in rehearsal.

Shannon Magrane, “I Have Nothing”: True confession: After hearing this Bodyguard soundtrack ballad covered seven times over the course of Idol‘s 11 seasons, I’d probably have a hard time getting excited by it even if it was delivered in perfect three-part harmony by Fantasia Barrino, Allison Iraheta, and Haley Reinhart. And yet the latest rendition by Shannon (or “sweet baby,” as J.Lo so menacingly called her) has inspired my inner songwriter (set to the tune of “I Have Nothing,” naturally).

Don’t make me hear this once more
Come on girl you’re making me snore
Please stay in tune, if you can
That last note could not have been planned
Don’t take Elise’s spot
Don’t you dare take Elise’s spot!
Idol has nothing (nothing) (NOTHING)
Pageants won’t give yooooouuu

Deandre Brackensick, “Master Blaster”: I could spend an entire paragraph describing my surprise and delight at the way Deandre brought in the noise, brought in the funk, and heeded MJB’s sage advice to ugly things up vocally, but instead, I’ll quote Deandre as he watched tearful backstage footage of himself from Wild Card night: “Oooh! Lawd have mercy!” (And I mean that in the best possible way.)

Skylar Laine, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go”: Another contestant, another strong piece of mentoring from the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul. Indeed, in rehearsal, it seemed as though Skylar was trying to match Hollie and Jessica glory note for glory note, but Mary J had her dial it back. Because Skylar going full-bore from the get-go would be like Superman trying to use the Bat-Mobile, or Spiderman attempting to work Wonder Woman’s golden lasso. Skylar’s real super power is in her ability to tell a story, to bring a clarity and a purpose to every word that comes out of her mouth. And that’s why, perhaps more than any contestant in the Top 13, she made her cover this week sound like an original that had been written expressly for a Skylar Laine album. (Oooh! A Skylar Laine album: I hope the good folks at 19 like the sound of that as much as I do.)

Heejun Han, “All in Love Is Fair”: Heejun’s mentoring session was the one time I vehemently disagreed with the Lady Blige, though in her defense, she was probably thrown off her game by Heejun’s hilariously autographed photo: “I love you more than Jimmy.” I thought the funny guy’s instinct to go stripped-back and subtle was absolutely correct. Aftfer all, sometimes it’s the quietest moments on Idol that resonate the loudest. And indeed, there were moments in Heejun’s performance, especially the break in his voice on the line “the writer takes the pen,” where you could hear a guy mourning the end of a relationship, and not just a reality-show personality trying to muddle his way to an Idol tour slot. No, Heejun probably won’t be able to improve enough between now and April to prove worthy of a Top 5 slot, but he shouldn’t be dismissed as Sanjaya 2.0 just because he conjures up solid zingers like that one about J.Lo hugging Jeremy, and not him, on semifinal results night.

Hollie Cavanagh, “All The Man That I Need”: There’s something jarring about the sight of waif-ish Holly — who looks like she could easily hold up an empty bowl and ask for some more porridge — belting out notes that sound like they should come from someone 10 times her size. I mean, it’d be kind of like seeing the Taco Bell chihuahua lay Godzilla-like waste to Tokyo, if you can even wrap your brain around such an image. But there’s also something thrilling about this kid. She didn’t miss a note of “All the Man That I Need,” and she certainly projected more confidence than she did on her semifinal rendition of “Reflection.” But she’s still a diamond that’s not quite ready for the jewelry case at Zales. Hollie needs ot learn to modulate her voice, to learn that a whisper can be just as powerful as a yell, to tap into that deep reseve of soul bubbling just beneath the surface. Discovering whether or not she’ll be able to accomplish that goal over the next 11 weeks may be one of the most compelling reasons to sacrifice our Wednesday and Thursday nights from now till the end of May. Or, to put it in the words of J.Lo: “We might have a sing-off between two girls in the finale. That’s what i’m hoping for!” (Side note for discussion: Was that sound bite spontaneous, or the first bit of foreshadowing leading to Uncle Nigel’s carefully scripted Hollie-Jessica Final 2?)

Jeremy Rosado, “Ribbon in the Sky”: As Jimmy Iovine pointed out, Jeremy is a great kid with a big heart and a lot of vulnerability. (He also dresses like he’s headed for a Saturday afternoon at the mall.) But at this early stage of the competition, you can sometimes court more sympathy votes with a full-fledged disaster than you can for a solid, mid-pack showing like Jeremy’s pretty, though occasionally/slightly strained, “Ribbon in the Sky.” If the kid winds up on the chopping block, will fairy godmother J.Lo have enough power in her magic Louboutins to save him again?

Jessica Sanchez, “I Will Always Love You”: Jessica certainly won the jackpot for Most Dramatic Performance Staging of the Week. The floor had so much fog, I half-wondered if the cameras had cut to a performance of The Hound of the Baskervilles, but no: Out came Jessica in an ice-blue gown, bathed in the glow of 100 gorgeous spotlights, her own visage reflected on the screens behind her, a giant fan blowing her hair back, Top Model-style. And then she opened her mouth, and with just four words — “If I. Should stay.” — everything else became superfluous. Sure, Jessica’s rendition sounded eerily like Jennnifer Hudson’s Grammys tribute to Whitney Houston. And no, 90 seconds is not enough time to properly build to the “and I-ee-I-ee-Iiiii” climax. But there’s such depth to Jessica’s voice, and such ease in how she wields it, that I understood how J.Lo was struck speechless. Sure we can ask for a song choice next time that reveals whether Jessica possesses grit and soul to match her vocal horsepower, but did anyone really want more runs, or more riffs on the melody, or some kind of accoustic rearrangement on Whitney’s most iconic ballad, just weeks after her death? Sometimes you have to let the prevailing winds lift you off your butt, and give a much-deserved standing O, y’know?

Phillip Phillips, “Superstition”: Look, I don’t care if the guy closely matches the “White Guy With Guitar” template that’s dominated Idol for several seasons running. There’s no denying he’s a talented and charismatic fella, or that he’s shown a refreshing willingness to avoid basic karaoke and try to make his arrangements a little more intriguing. That said, how come none of the judges called out Phillip for essentially SCREAMING the last two thirds of this Stevie Wonder classic? Yes, Phillip needed to make sure he could be heard over the blast of horns and guitars and whatnot, but there was such a relentless quality to his delivery that I kind of felt like I’d just endured a half-hour of X Factor by the time he’d finished. (And I don’t mean that as a compliment.) Yes, Randy, you’re not wrong that Phillip drives his own car in his own lane, but that doesn’t mean he’s Darrell Waltrip just yet. A little more constructive criticism, a little less hot air, please?

Letter Grades for the Night
Joshua Ledet, “I Wish”: A
Jessica Sanchez, “I Will Always Love You”: A-
Deandre Brackensick, “Master Blaster”: A-
Skylar Laine, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go”: B+
Hollie Cavanagh, “All The Man That I Need”: B+
Elise Testone, “I’m Your Baby Tonight”: B
Colton Dixon, “Lately”: B
Heejun Han, “All in Love Is Fair”: B
Jeremy Rosado, “Ribbon in the Sky”: B-
Phillip Phillips, “Superstition”: B-
Erika Van Pelt, “I Believe In You And Me”: B-
Jermaine Jones, “Knocks Me Off My Feet”: C
Shannon Magrane, “I Have Nothing”: C-

Should Be Bottom 2
Shannon and Jermaine

Will Be Bottom 2
Shannon and Jeremy

Who did you like best? Who’s going home? Hit the comments with your thoughts!

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