American Idol Vegas Round (Part 1) Recap: Sudden Death and the Maidens [Updated]

american idol season 12 top 40 girls vegasA few of the details might’ve varied, but tonight’s installment of American Idol was, at its coal-black, mercenary heart, a less dusty reenactment of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.

Oh, sure, Ryan Seacrest went with his standard, “This…is American Idol!” intro (as opposed to the more ominous “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, dyin’ time’s here“). And no, there weren’t any feral, bloodthirsty ragamuffins in the front row (just some smiling or occasional booing family members of the contestants). But there was indeed a chiseled Australian dude (sporting better highlights, a more exacting ear, and a shaper sense of humor) and a dominatrix overlord (played by Nicki Minaj instead of Tina Turner).

Make no mistake, though, the “two men enter, one man leaves!” carnage was no less brutal or bloody. Ten wannabe Kelly Clarksons entered the Las Vegas stage that typically houses The Beatles: Love show, but only five advanced to the semifinals and a chance to find out if America’s speed-dialing populace wants to hold their hands, so to speak. (Ten of the guys will compete Thursday night, then 10 more ladies next Wednesday, and 10 more guys next Thursday, leaving us with 20 semifinalists in total.)

The 120-minute telecast featured only a few full-fledged train wrecks, but three or four performances which hinted that — with a little improvement/confidence boost — our Season 12 winner might possibly be in the house. If a secondary story arc emerged, it was the exceptionally salient feedback offered by judges Keith Urban and Nicki Minaj (and occasionally Mariah Carey). Let’s hope these highly paid individuals continue to “knock it out of the park” and earn their salaries instead of falling back on empty “that was beautiful”/”you look beautiful” platitudes favored the last two years by Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez.

As for Randy Jackson, on a night where blood spilled freely as a Game of Thrones battle scene, the “fourth judge” somehow managed to avoid being told “goodnight” by Keith and sent to a hasty, tearful retreat down the exit ramp of doom. Oh well, there’s always Thursday night, or one of next week’s episodes, right? (Yes, Nigel Lythgoe, it’s never too late to trim the panelist whose feedback is a haphazardly welded combo of whatever Nicki and Keith already said.)

Anyhow, let’s cut to the set list for the first “sudden death” episode in Idol history — along with my letter grades for every performance:

Jenny Beth Willis: Trisha Yearwood’s “Heaven, Heartache and the Power of Love” | As someone who’s covered Idol for a living for nine years running, I pride myself on having a pretty good recall of the show’s myriad contestants and their bodies of work. Alas, though, aside from the fact that girlfriend tried to make a public case for the ghastly union of pink tulle and black lace, all other details of her performance have already washed away from my memory banks like common decency and good judgment from the brains of a Kardashian. (Oh, don’t be upset — I’m just kidding: The Kardashians don’t have any brains!) Grade: C+

Tenna Torres: Natasha Bedingfield’s “Soulmate” | In all fairness to Tenna, I’ll admit I had as much of a problem with her piteous song choice as I did her actual vocal. I mean, really, you want to make your first impression on Idol voters with the lyric “most relationships seem so transitory”? Why not sing a few lines from the U.S. Tax Code or the list of ingredients in a can of Red Bull? Anyhow, despite the judges’ praise for Tenna’s “vocal control,” I heard quite a few rough patches in the lower notes of the opening verse, and some hinkyness of tone when her voice opened up on the big, belty parts of the chorus. Still, I’ve got to hand it to Nicki for pointing out that Tenna’s super-heavy hairstyle aged her by a good 10 years. Since she’ll be back on our screens for the semifinals, here’s hoping she also scraps the severe blue eyeshadow and troweled-on clown-blush, too. Grade: C

Adriana Latonio: Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way” | I’m not sure why Ray Chew and the Idol band gave Aretha’s R&B classic such a tinny, soulless arrangement, but Adriana brought to it a rich, husky tone and a relatively unfussy delivery that catapulted her from potential cannon fodder to legitimate contender. Keith and Randy’s standing ovation perhaps set the bar a tad low for that sort of thing — what the heck would they have done if confronted by Joshua Ledet’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”? Showered him with hundred-dollar bills? — and left me wishing the judges had instead used their time to give the 17-year-old some constructive advice. Like, for instance, she ought to tackle something upbeat and current on Top 20 night to avoid any dismissive pigeonholing as an old-fashioned or outmoded balladeer. Grade: B+

Brandy Hotard: Travis Tritt’s “Anymore” | I have to admit it took me a few seconds to realize that Brandy hadn’t been tied up in her dressing room and replaced by The Bachelor’s crazy/vicious recent evictee Tierra LiCausi. (Seriously, I wouldn’t put anything past Tierra if it earned her more primetime exposure. Also: She and Brandy could totally be cousins!) Unfortunately, though, that kind of backstage drama wasn’t available to add a little spice to a vocal that was as basic as an egg-and-cheese sandwich at your local diner. Brandy wasn’t terrible by any stretch — as Mariah noted, she had some lovely moments in her middle register — but the psych nurse’s flaws, however, allowed Keith and Nicki to flex their astuteness. The former noted an “emotional-connection inconsistency,” while the latter wondered “why are you smiling when you’re singing ‘my tears, my resistance’?” In Season 12, a “pageant delivery,” as Nicki called it, just isn’t going to hold up. Grade: B-

Shubha Vedula: Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” | Shubha’s performance was as a little like her silver space pants: Not entirely right, but certainly not boring. I loved the way she began “Born This Way” while seated at the piano, slowing the Gaga track down to a cabaret-style ballad. After just a few bars, though, Shubha was on her feet — and the arrangement took on a stiff, midtempo vibe that found the 17-year-old over-enunciating and shimmying arrhythmically while throwing in run after unnecessary run after unnecessary ruu-uh-uh-uh-uhnnnnn-uh. Still, while Keith was right that the performance became “confusing” by virtue of Shubha trying to “cram a lot” into a 90-second window, it has to be pointed out that she deserved credit in three areas: Hitting a good 90 percent of her notes right on the nose; showing some real creativity in reimaging a well-known hit; and choosing to go uptempo on a night dominated by ballads. Alas, though, the judges weren’t quite ready for such a complicated jelly, choosing safer (but blander) performances over Shubha’s flawed but daring effort. Grade: B

Kamaria Ousley: Kelly Clarkson’s “Mr. Know It All” | I hate to side with Randy Jackson on anything, but he was speaking the truth when he said there was nothing redeemable about Kamaria’s vocal this week. As Nicki pointed out, it was as if the experienced background singer decided to put some “throaty-twangy” effect on her voice — my notes read “sounds like she’s swallowing a giant vitamin while singing” — and barely hit a single note in the process. I mean, things were so grim I was actually relieved when Mariah dug deep into her bag of “say something nice” and complimented the woman’s shoes. (Fashion side discussion: Should Idol keep Kamaria on staff to help Kree, Tenna, Adriana and Amber pull their looks together? I’m voting “hell yeah”!) Grade: D+

Kree Harrison: Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain (MLK Song)” | I’m not sure I quite concurred with Nicki’s assessment that Kree made sweet love to “Up to the Mountain” this week — to me, she sort of tapped into its positive life force via some kind of musical Reiki — but it definitely was the climax of the first Season 12 Vegas telecast, if you’ll pardon the expression. Kree’s got a wealth of experience in her voice and a casual weariness to her delivery that sets her apart from everyone else in the competition. I loved how Keith highlighted that while Kree is being labeled “country,” that there are clear blues and Gospel influences in her voice as well. And just as important, girlfriend never oversells a note or forces a run. If Kree is willing to take some risks with unexpected song choices and daring arrangements, there’s a chance she could do one better than the woman who first brought a Patty Griffin tune to the Idol stage: The incomparable Crystal Bowersox. Grade: A-

Angela Miller: Jessie J’s “Nobody’s Perfect” | Angela certainly ranked among the week’s Top 5 vocals, but I found it fascinating how the judges focused mainly on the self-penned track she performed during Hollywood Week rather than on what she did with a Jessie J cover this time around. “Don’t overdo it. Don’t force anything,” pleaded Nicki, without ever coming out and saying that there more than a few moments where Angela’s vocal got overly bombastic and threatened to veer off pitch. A little constructive criticism about contrasting big notes with softer touches might’ve helped. On the plus side, though, the Massachusetts teenager stalks the stage like a seasoned veteran, and wore the heck out of that little black front-button romper. Grade: B

Isabelle: Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child” | There’s no doubt Isabelle’s got a beautiful, robust voice, but I felt like she threw more runs into “God Bless the Child” than Usain Bolt’s entire track-and-field career. That lack of subtlety extended to her phrasing and her peculiar rhythmic choices, too, making the whole number seem as labored as Kree’s felt effortless. As Mariah noted, Isabelle might’ve fared better with no accompaniment aside from a simple upright bass and piano. A last name might not have hurt, either. Grade: C

Amber Holcomb: Rodgers & Hart’s “My Funny Valentine” | And finally, from The Office of Contestants Uncle Nigel Has Made Sure Were Neither Seen Nor Heard Over the Last Two Months of Idol, we welcomed the very lovely and very talented Amber Holcomb to the stage. I mean, if you’re beasting through a song so easily that Mariah Carey threatens to smack you, then you know you’re doing something right. And indeed, Amber knew exactly when to press down on the gas (vocally speaking) and when to ease up — the contrast between her simple notes and her complex runs was delightful. No, her phrasing was not as delicate or refined as Melinda Doolittle’s back in Season 6 (thus my initial instinct to give her a B, not a B+), but if I’m being fair, Amber is a different kind of singer. I’d like to see what the kid can do with an uptempo Amerie or Toni Braxton track. Heck, she might even be able to take one of Britney Spears’ classic melodies and infuse it with 100 percent more humanity! The good news is, if she continues down the path she began tonight, Amber should have plenty of time to show us what’s in her bag of tricks. Grade: B B+

And on that note…

Put through to the Top 20 by the judges: Tenna, Adrianna, Kree, Angela and Amber.
Eliminated by the judges: Jenny Beth, Brandy, Shubha, Kamaria and Isabelle.
Robbed: Shubha (Okay, the performance was a little peculiar, but at least it wasn’t dull!)

With that intel in your ears, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of the first Vegas round of American Idol Season 12? What did you think of the judges’ feedback in a live setting and how did you feel about their decisions? Who was your favorite? Did Shubha get robbed? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!