American Idol Top 10 Girls Recap: I'm Sorry, Mr. Jackson, Are You for Real? [Updated]

american-idol-season-13-top-10-girls-performance-recap-majesty-malaya-mkI’ve always been a sucker for an inspirational, never-give-up, success-in-spite-of-insurmountable-odds story arc: The Little Engine That Could. Seabiscuit. Fantasia’s “I Believe.”

But for the love of all that’s holy, how is the caked-on gravy that is Randy Jackson still clinging to the American Idol platter on its 13th cycle through the reality TV dishwasher?

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The Artist Formerly Known as ‘The Other Judge’ assumed his new role as in-house mentor tonight, and the results were, um, well… why don’t I just quote some of Randy’s “specific,” “actionable” advice: “You’ve gotta give it your all. And you’ve gotta give your best performance.” Dude misprounounced at least one singer’s name, didn’t offer a single smidge of advice about song choice or arrangement and acted as if he’d never watched a single second of performance footage of any of the women who sat in front of him.

Honestly, Idol probably had to slash its budget and cut the guy who sorts J.Lo’s M&Ms by color just to get The Dawg’s input? No me gusta!

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Even more distressing was the fact that the show cut one-third of Season 13’s Top 15 girls — before they’d sung a single note — based in large part on footage of Randy’s pre-season workshop (which, mercifully, was heavy on footage of glowing, talented Idol grads Adam Lambert and Chris Daughtry). Ryan also noted that contestants’ dress rehearsals played a part in the decision. And — I’m just gonna assume it was all Randy’s fault — five really promising vocalists (Kenzie Hall, Austin Wolfe, Andrina Brogden, Jillian Jensen and Brandy Neelly) were all slashed in favor of the a couple women who’d given no prior indication of being ready for primetime singing stardom. (Spoiler: Their names respectively rhyme with Pia Buh-Bye and Larry Hell Cellars.)

A funny thing happened, though, on the way to creating a dramatic “Rush Week” forum. None of the 10 women who would eventually sing for America’s vote knew in advance of the live show whether or not she’d actually get a chance to take the stage. One at a time, the judges would introduce a singer, ask her to run through a backstage gauntlet, grab the mic and perform her ditty.

And as J.Lo astutely noted, the long run to the stage, the adrenaline and fear of the last-second announcements and the inability to fully prepare for a major television debut resulted in an evening of uneven, tentative, out-of-tune performances. In other words, reality TV drama was the night’s big winner; but lost in the contrived setup was the feeling that we were looking at multiple legitimate contenders to own a piece of The House That Kelly Clarkson Built.

That may not be a fair assessment of the Top 10 women’s skills, but it’s cast a pall over exec producer Per Blankens’ otherwise sparkly Idol reboot. Let’s hope Top 13 performance night allows the Season 13 lineup the full opportunity to look (and sound) like future Fantasias and Candices and Adams and Daughtrys, yes?

With that said, let’s jump to letter grades for tonight’s performances:

Majesty Rose: Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” — Grade: B+ | The gap in her tooth! The glorious hair! The dancing eyes! The little pops of range and power percolating throughout her acoustic take on Pharrell’s glistenining electronic jam! Majesty may not have delivered the most spotless semifinal performance in Idol history, but it may have been one of the most effervescent. And dagnabit, she actually went uptempo, to boot!

Kristen O’Connor: Adele’s “Turning Tables” — Grade: B- |  There wasn’t a whole lot wrong, per se, with Kristen’s pitch or tone or delivery — save for the few instances where she fell out of time with the band (good catch by J.Lo!). The problem, though, is that with her visible nerves and vacant smile, Kristen didn’t really capture the emotional heft that Adele brings to the complex ballad. The end product was like a postcard of a painting from a museum: The shapes and colors were there, but at a 99 cent price point, you couldn’t exactly swap it out for the original.

Briana Oakley: Demi Lovato’s “Warrior” — Grade: C+ | I loved Briana’s Hollywood Week performances — so much so that I had her ranked at No. 3 in my pre-live shows countdown. But not only did her choice of “Warrior” highlight some of the more strident aspects of her vocal tone, she also delivered it with all the confidence of a giraffe trying to navigate an Olympic luge course. Granted, I don’t think the background vocalists were helping Briana’s cause — every time their voices met, the blend was as natural as current Bachelor Juan Pablo at a Gay Pride parade — but Harry’s “fine job” critique was about the kindest way you could describe Briana’s downfall.

Jena Irene Asciutto: The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” — Grade: B- | A couple hours after the fact, and I’m still not sure how to sum up my feelings about Jena’s performance. J.Lo was spot-on that there was “a nice, sulty quality” to the vocals,  and yet while I appreciated some of Jena’s dramatic flourishes, the whole just didn’t feel equal to the sum of the parts. Maybe it was the arrangement, which seemed to stack verse on top of verse without giving Jena any room to play with the melody or build the drama or find some quieter spaces to let the song breathe. And maybe (just maybe) the whole number was pitched just a wee bit high for Jena’s instrument. When it’s all said and done, though, I still believe that She Whose Name Was Repeatedly Mispronounced by Randy proved she’s got a big enough range, a unique enough tone and enough natural charisma that she deserves a spot in the Season 13 Top 13.

Bria Anai: Melanie Fiona’s “Wrong Side of a Love Song” — Grade: D+ | Gack! Girlfriend definitely put the “wrong” in “Wrong Side of a Love Song,” a ballad I was unfamiliar with prior to the show, and certainly never wish to hear again. Keith tried to be gentle when he said Bria “overshot the runway,” but isn’t that just another way of calling the performance a plane crash? The tragic part of the wreckage is that Bria (whose mom hilariously describes her style as “an appropriate Rihanna”) showed glimmers of spunk and vocal ability, but clearly needs a few more years to be ready for the big stage. If she’d been left in the Holding Room of the Damned, it might’ve been the best thing ever to happen to her musical aspirations.

Marrialle Sellars: Katy Perry’s “Roar”– Grade: D- | Would Alanis Morissette describe it as “ironic” that Marrialle mostly gasped and mewled her way through a song called “Roar”? Perhaps. But a more accurate description of Marrialle’s performance might be “catastrophic,” with a questionable grasp of tempo and a lower register that fell away from her like it had dropped through an unexpected trap door at center stage. The worry is that Uncle Per has invested so much time and backstory into contestant voted Most Ready to Star in Her Own Teen Vogue Fashion Spread that he’ll instruct one of the judges to award her the Wild Card. But if girlfriend didn’t know enough to break out the acoustic guitar and break down Katy Perry’s into something that could unearth the allegedly pleasant parts of her range, how can anyone be confident that she’ll be any better by this time next week?

Jessica Meuse: Luke Bryan’s “Drink a Beer” — Grade: B | For a gal who comes off kinda brassy and brash and hard-charging, Jessica sure picked a low key (or as my hubby described it, “completely unchallenging”!) country-blues ballad for her introduction to the voting public. But as Keith noted, the pink-haired one-woman band is a believable storyteller — one with a really unique tone — even when her facial expression doesn’t totally match the material she’s singing. And so while this wasn’t exactly the slam-dunk she probably needed to overcome the “drama queen” edit she’s gotten the last few weeks, I can’t help but feel like the season will be more interesting if there’s still a place for her in it.

Emily Piriz: Grace Potter & The Nocturnals’ “Paris (Ooh La La)” — Grade: C | Some folks on Twitter called it “slut shaming” when Harry pointedly asked Emily about the lyrics of his possible least-favorite song, and whether “that’s really what you want to sing?” But I wasn’t bothered in the least by his query — and here’s why: Yes, Emily probably ranked No. 3 or 4 tonight in terms of staying on pitch, but there wasn’t an ounce of believable sexuality coursing through her performance. It was all H&M dressing room poses and scrunched up faces and faux vocal grit without any real rock sensibility. For a song that begins with the query, “you’ve got me down on the floor/ So what’d ya bring me down here for?” Emily’s performance was never in any real danger of hitting the carpet. And at this stage of the competition, it’s not just about knowing your vocals, but your inner voice as well. I’m not saying I have a problem with innocence (or any variation on said theme): Just don’t put sexy on the menu if you haven’t perfected the recipe.

MK Nobilette: John Legend’s “All of Me” — Grade: B+ | What MK lacked tonight in technique — and yes, there were a few nervous pitch fumbles and a couple glitches in her phrasing — she made up for with a palpable passion and a lovely, lilting tone. Granted, her openly sobbing family and friends probably increased the emotional effectiveness of the performance by 10 percent. But her delivery of the lines “Love your curves and all your edges/ All your perfect imperfections” really hit me square in the gut, so much so that I won’t even dock MK points for being the first singer of Season 13 to activate those bloody heinous SwayBots(™).

Malaya Watson: Ray Charles’ “Hard Times (No One Knows Better Than I)” — Grade: B | The opening few lines of Malaya’s performance were pitched so low that it rendered her barely audible, but so what? On a night marked by tentativeness, misguidedness and future night terrors, Malaya at least proved willing to get a little crazy, boom out some notes with abandon and throw her whole body into the task at hand. The end result didn’t exactly transform me from the skeptic who ranked her No. 15 (out of 15 girls) in my pre-Live Show countdown into a full-fledged fan, but with a little more experience and a little more nuance, she could be an acutal contender (for, like, fifth place).

Oh, and in other news Ben Briley beat Neco Starr for the No. 15 slot among the dudes. (Can you imagine if the judges elect to cut him anyhow? #thisisreal)

And with that, I turn it over to you.

What did you think of the Top 10 women? Who were your faves? Which pre-performance cuts made you most upset? Take our polls below, then sound off in the comments!