American Idol Semifinals (Week 2) Recap: What Are They Listening To?

One of the great mysteries of American Idol‘s farewell season is its failure to snag Red Bull as a sponsor for its semifinal rounds.

There’s been a “blinked? you missed it!” Usain Bolt-ish pacing to these telecasts, in which a dozen performances and 36 individual critiques — plus some pithy “meet the contestants!” packages — get crammed into approximately 42 minutes of airtime.

In other words, if you need more than, say, 20 seconds to process your feelings about a particular song choice or vocal, you’ll get left behind like Randy Jackson at a meeting of The National Association for the Advancement of Vocabulary. (Oh, c’mon, jokes about the Dawg’s reign as the barnacle on the side of the U.S.S. Idol never really go out of style!)

What struck me as peculiar about Week 2 of the Season 15 semifinals, though, was the way the judges latched on to the old “song choice! song choice! song choice!” criticism — but for all the wrong reasons.

Anyone who knows their Idol history is aware that oftentimes, obscure ditties (“Mad World,” “Falling Slowly,” “Stuff Like That There,” “Blue-Eyed Lie”) create the greatest magic. But J.Lo, Keith and Harry tonight balked at the lack of sing-along hits this week, while giving a free pass to C.J. Johnson’s boneheaded choice of Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be” — one of those done-to-death-on-Idol anthems that desperately needs to relinquish its jersey to the rafters and settle into a nice retirement community in Boca Raton.

Before I invoke memories of “Against All Odds” (aka “That Whose Title Shall Not Be Spoken”), let’s get to my letter grades for the second dozen semifinal performances of Season 15:

Shelbie Z, Gretchen Wilson’s “Work Hard, Play Harder” — Grade: B | You could ding Shelbie for predictably choosing an uptempo, southern-gal, good-time anthem — to date, she has yet to show much in the way of nuance or vulnerability — but unlike a lot of her competitors, she scores points for rock-solid pitch and a real comfort level on stage. If that’s not enough to advance to the Top 14, then I’m pretty sure her fate was sealed before she ever took the stage.

Manny Torres, Coldplay’s “Adventure of a Lifetime” — Grade: B- | I liked the way Manny moved and grooved through his Coldplay cover, but all that bopping around left him downright gaspy during the final third of his performance. If he manages to advance to the Top 14 — and I don’t think J.Lo’s done ogling him yet, so… — he needs to learn to fully inhabit a song like it was written just for him, and promise never again to dress in a bellboy uniform with the outline of a piece of toast across his chest.

Kory Wheeler, James Bay’s “Let It Go” — Grade: C- | I’ll be honest: I was hoping Kory could overcome his “Have you seen this singer?”/face-on-milk carton edit. But dude kept settling for single axels (vocally speaking) when the song called for triples, and his “Yeah, I like that!” shout-out on the first verse was cheesier than a fondue-pot of cheddar.

Amelia Eisenhauer, Avicii’s “Wake Me Up” — Grade: B- | Amelia’s shift from a slow and haunting intro into the original version’s uptempo styling was deeply jarring, and led to a few moments where she came thisclose to losing control of the song. But there were some lovely moments mixed in with the missteps, and her bracing tone is among the season’s most recognizable. After Jeneve’s advance last week, though, will the judges make room for two long-haired teens who play string instruments?

Jenn Blosil, “Sorry” (Justin Bieber song) — Grade: D+ | I’ve loved Jenn’s Bjorkian quirk all season, but her rendition of “Sorry” was as out of tune as a garage-sale guitar that’s spent the last couple decades in a cold, damp basement. Much like last week’s collapsing front-runner Emily Brooke, I’m not sure there’s anything Jenn can do during Thursday’s duet round to salvage her Season 15 fortunes.

CJ Johnson, Edwin McCain’s “I’ll Be” — Grade: C+ | As mentioned above, CJ’s song choice activated my eye-roll of ennui, but when dude gestured for the Sway-Bots to get swayin’, it was like the affable rocker was openly embracing signaling he’d have been more comfortable in, say, Season 3 than Season 15. That’s a shame – dude’s muscular voice could’ve stood out on some blues or genuine hard rock — but when he wobbled at the top of his register, I think his Idol dreams came crashing down from the shelf.

Lee Jean, Ed Sheeran’s “Runaway” — Grade: C | I’ll admit: I’m probably definitely still holding a grudge over Lee’s “audience shushing incident” from his Dolby Theater showcase. But Lee’s lackadaisical delivery and reliance on iffy falsetto here didn’t do anything to win me over. The judges seemed hellbent on making excuses for the forgettable performance – J.Lo and Keith blamed song choice, Harry encouraged Lee to practice singing and playing guitar simultaneously (!) — and that’s got me worried he’s primed to be this year’s Daniel Seavy.

Trent Harmon, Chris Stapleton’s “What Are You Listening To?” — Grade: A- | Trent needs to be super careful about runaway vibrato on his big, emotional notes — less will definitely feel like more as the season progresses — but there were hints of Bob Dylan and old-school soul in his country cover, and he brought to the song a genuine heartache and emotional connectedness that was absent from most of the night’s covers.

Tristan McIntosh, Carrie Underwood’s “Good Girl” — Grade: C+ | Uff da. The girl whose heartstring-tugging backstory audition was pinned atop Idol‘s Twitter and Facebook feeds for what felt like a month just hasn’t seemed to find her stride since her Hollywood Week Group Rounds meltdown. “Good Girl” was yet another miscalculation by a 15-year-old who may be under the misguided impression that her vocal tone is more mature and her vocal range more expansive than they actually are. Worse than the sharp notes at the top of Tristan’s range, though, was a slightly robotic presentation that would’ve looked more at home on the Miss Teen USA Pageant (if Miss Teen USA had a talent section). Tristan may yet win a reality singing competition, but her best hope is probably The Voice or America’s Got Talent four or five years from now.

Adam Lasher, Sam Sparro’s “Black and Gold” — Grade: B- | Harry had a point that this returning Season 14 hopeful never really seemed in control of his song’s driving tempo, and I think Adam may have sensed it too, given the shoulder-shruggy gesture and look of abject disappointment on which he ended his performance. That said, dude has a nifty, raggedy rock tone that stands out in this youth-centric season — even if the judges’ feedback was a pretty clear indicator we won’t be hearing any more of it after tomorrow night.

Dalton Rapattoni, Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” — Grade: B | I haven’t been a fan of Dalton’s this season, but I have to give him credit for taking a big swing with a slowed-down, super-emo arrangement of an ’80s pop-rock anthem — and for managing to be mostly in tune throughout. Still, there was something utterly groan-inducing about the long pause before that final “in the midnight hour… she cried… more.” Way to take the pumped-up nastiness of the lyric and deflate it like a tire that’s been punctured by a mascara brush!

Olivia Rox, Demi Lovato’s “Confident” — Grade: C+ | I was all set to love Olivia’s “Confident” when she started out on a stool, jamming out on her acoustic guitar and showing off her lilting upper register. But when she stood up and dove into Demi’s original uptempo arrangement, the whole performance collapsed like a half-baked soufflé tossed into a Polar Vortex. Olivia’s clenched enunciation and struggle to stay on pitch during the biggest, belty-est parts of the song set my teeth on edge, and left me scratching my head when Keith gave her a Standing O. I realize this puts me in the minority — and I say this as an Olivia fan — but even at my most generous, I can’t fathom giving this more than a B-.

Your turn. Who were your favorites from the Season 15 Semifinals — Week 2? Whose fate makes you most anxious? (NO SPOILERS, PLEASE!) Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments!


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