American Idol Recap: Yep, They Just Made America Grate Again

American Idol Trent Harmon

Dear America,

We need to talk.

No, I’m not moving to Canada if Screamy McOrangeFace wins the presidency — I can’t live in a world where I have to wait three or four days to watch my programs, and let’s not forget the importance of doing our civic duty in the midterm elections in 2018.

But my fellow residents of the U.S., you didn’t just drop the ball with this week’s American Idol, you took an anvil, slammed it through the roof and all the way down into the basement.

Yep, the “America’s Choice” theme, in which contestants were limited to song selection suggested by Twitter users, resulted in way too many done-to-death-on-Idol ditties getting pummeled like a Hillary Clinton piñata at a Tea Party rally. Where were the out-of-left-field surprises? The album tracks and long-forgotten hits we’ve been craving for 15 seasons?

And before you say it takes a certified chart-topper to succeed in the Idoldome, look no further than tonight’s encore — Adam Lambert’s Season 8 cover of the barely known (in 2009, anyway) “Mad World”… the jam that I’d argue took him from reality singing contestant to household name. (How great did he sound on both his performances this week, BTW, and could Idol live on on Fox with a weekly alumni concert series?)

Of course, everything I wrote in the preceding four paragraphs is assuming that “America” actually chose the songs foisted on the Season 15 Top 6 — and not the show’s producers, regurgitating previously cleared/inexpensive tunes from their recently created, anonymous Twitter accounts. Or mentor Scott Borchetta, “curating” the song lists down to three. Or two. Or one. (Can you have a list of just one?)

With that in mind, let me get to my letter grades for the night’s 11 performances — yep, one of the Top 6 got booted after Round 1 — bearing in mind I’ll be back Friday morning to update this URL with more detailed reviews:

Round 1
Trent Harmon – OneRepublic’s “Counting Stars” — Grade: D+ | There was so much gulping and gasping and flailing in this number, I half expected Ryan to toss a life preserver around Trent’s waist and pull him to safety backstage. Yeah, sure, the rapid-fire lyric and manic tempo weren’t exactly Trent’s forté — but one can’t (or shouldn’t) win Idol on ballads alone. Trent could’ve at least pushed for an arrangement that didn’t force him to deliver two words at the same time (and with Allison Iraehta only a few feet away, he had the perfect partner to help him with some of the heavy lifting, no?). Opportunity squandered, dude!

Dalton Rapattoni – Linkin Park’s “Numb” — Grade: C | The judges did a whole lot of yammering about the lackluster rearrangement of this not-that-great-anyway rock jam. But the bigger problem was the way Dalton dropped the ends of phrases and struggled to stay on top of the notes on a song with a very limited range. C’mon, Harry, did producers ban you from using the word “intonation”?

La’Porsha Renae – India.Arie’s “Ready For Love” — Grade: A | The big challenge for La’Porsha at this point in the season is showing “growth” (historically, a major motivation among voters) when everything she’s done since her audition has ranged from “very good” to “utterly mind blowing.” I’d suggest the increasingly self-assured single mom gamble on out-of-left-field song choices, except that the completely-in-her-wheelhouse “Ready for Love” was soul-stirringly sublime. The way she finessed each word, shading each note with rumbling vibrato or delicate high notes, was, as Harry noted, “all about the feeling” (while managing to be a technical master class at the same time).

MacKenzie Bourg – Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” — Grade: B- | I dig MacKenzie’s occasionally tremulous tone — even in cases like “Wild World,” where it signifies a lack of horsepower/breath control more than it does a deliberate artistic decision. There weren’t quite as many dubious notes per minute as Dalton hit in “Numb,” but the judges not calling him out on pitch — Keith instead went with a clearly pre-fabricated metaphor about cake batter — activated my side-eye big time.

Tristan McIntosh – Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” — Grade: B- | This was probably as in-tune as Tristan’s been since the live shows began, but at this point in her artistic development, the 15-year-old is simply not a mature enough storyteller to breathe any kind of life into tales of grown women overcoming hardships and obstacles. Emotionally, it’s all a shoulder shrug and a sigh — at least from my couch. Maybe someday Scott Borchetta will have the last laugh when Tristan becomes one of Idol’s greatest exports, but her Season 15 run was mostly as incongruous as reading The Grapes of Wrath to your toddler at bedtime.

Sonika Vaid – Demi Lovato’s version of “Let It Go” (from Frozen) — Grade: B | The wind machine helped for sure, but despite a few moments where her focus seemed to drift, Sonika dug in and hit a good majority of the notes on a Disney princess ballad that’s way high on the “technical difficulty” chart (as anyone who’s participated in a road-trip parental sing-a-long can attest). I would love to see Sonika attack a song with what Randy Jackson might call “in it to win it” gusto — she showed way back when on “Bring Me to Life” that she’s got it in her — but at least her “I could maybe finish fourth!” vibe gave us an unexpected upset in the final Judges’ Save in show history.

Bottom 2: Tristan and Sonika
Eliminated by the Judges: Tristan (right call — but I didn’t think they’d make it!)

Round 2
Dalton Rapattoni – Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” — Grade: B | Dalton’s Blink 182-isms are fairly outside my preferred musical stylings, but I liked that he took a risk and brought harder guitars and angstier energy to a tune that’s known for its hushed power. Pitch continues to be his white whale, but I enjoyed this nonetheless, and I’m just going to pretend he didn’t dip the whole performance in a jar of Tostitos Salsa con Queso by sitting down on the floor with an emo sigh at the very end.

MacKenzie Bourg – Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” — Grade: A- | Did I overgrade this performance on Thursday night? Mmmmayybe. Should I have given it a B+ instead? I can’t argue that strenuously either way. Because on the plus side, MacKenzie took the audience on a journey through the “rock star in need of Maury Povich” lyrics with his plinky, acoustic arrangement and subtle vocal breaks. But at the same time, as I listen back, perhaps there were a few moments where he twisted the melody into such a complicated knot, it was hard to tell if it was intentional, or actually a mistake.

Trent Harmon – Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” — Grade: A- | Trent’s been such a sublime soul man all season that I wasn’t really optimistic about him making a foray into southern rock. Which, in retrospect, makes me want to give myself a crisp slap. From Kelly Clarkson’s “Stuff Like That There” to Blake Lewis’ Bon Jovi cover to Adam Lambert’s “Ring of Fire,” there are dozens and dozens of examples in the Idol history books of contestants rising to new heights by eschewing genre, zigging when we expect ’em to zag. The way Trent took the lyrics, infused them with his own brand of plaintive soulfulness, and then added a dash of Gospel-esque fervor, was truly lovely. Dare I say it was probably enough to erase memories of his needed-to-be-erased OneRepublic cover? In other words, he’ll totally make the final four.

Sonika Vaid – Zedd’s “Clarity” — Grade: C | Oh, gosh, no. How much does Scott Borchetta not want to sign Sonika that he allowed her to cover this piffle of an EDM track, then jump around incessantly so her breath support collapsed like a wet bargain-brand paper towel holding up a pint of cherry tomatoes?

La’Porsha Renae – Mary J. Blige’s “No More Drama” — Grade: B+ | My Reality Check co-host Melinda Doolittle has promised to read me for filth when we tape our next episode of Reality Check (see last week’s show embedded below), since she thinks the B+ I gave “No More Drama” is insane, bordering on sacrilege. Fair enough. I can see how La’Porsha’s backstory of escaping an abusive relationship — combined with her explosive, emotional reading of the MJB classic – activated America’s tear ducts. I felt what she was emoting, too. It’s just that the entire first verse was completely out of the pocket, and several of La’Porsha’s transitions wobbled beneath the tears bubbling up to the surface. I needed to hear a tiny bit more control if I was going to give this one an “A” grade — even if failure to do so creates all that much more drama in our comments section. (See what I did there? Cue the Young and the Restless theme, stat!)

OK, your turn. Vote for your fave performances in our poll below, then hit the comments and share your reasoning — and your thoughts about this week’s elimination!

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