I shed a few tears during this week’s American Idol — for reasons both totally expected and somewhat surprising.
On the former front, let’s be like Randy Jackson and keep it really real, dawg (OMG, I already regret typing all of those words): The Hometown Visits episode is like the world’s most potent onion. Once you cut into it, everything’s over but the weeping, the snuffling and the slightly embarrassed dabbing of one’s eyes with half a box of tissues.
La’Porsha, Trent, Dalton and MacKenzie — and let’s not forget their sweet, barely-holding-it-together families — did their part to ensure the waterworks. But special credit goes out to La’Porsha, with her sobering and important visit to a local shelter for battered women. (Who says no good can come from reality television?!)
What I didn’t anticipate, though, was an encore performance from the water in my eyes as Ryan Seacrest closed the telecast. I kinda, sorta, definitely wished he’d gone with a nostalgic “Seacrest, Out!” — but he nevertheless got me with the way he looked a little choked up as he thanked the show’s dedicated cast and crew, then noted, “From Stage 36 for the last time: Goodnight, America.”
Yep, next week’s finale will be live from the Dolby Theater — which means we’ve just witnessed the final Idol broadcast from the show’s studio setting. (Well, of course, until Fox reboots the show for its 2018-2019 season… c’mon, Gordon Ramsay: Hell’s Fishmonger isn’t going to pull a 1.5 million demo rating!)
Anyhow, while I’ll be back overnight to update this recap with more detailed performance reviews — and an explanation of my feelings on La’PorshaGate*, let me offer my letter grades. (*I know, I know, it wasn’t that serious!)
CONTESTANT’S CHOICE (AKA “HOMETOWN” DEDICATION)
MacKenzie Bourg – Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” — Grade: B | I’ve waxed poetic about MacKenzie’s magical, crumbly tone – full of more nooks and crannies than a Thomas’ English Muffin — for weeks now. But his choice of “Hallelujah” — a song that sounded so fresh and unexpected when Jason Castro tackled it in Season 7, but has become something of a singing competition cliché in subsequent years — lacked any of the troubadour’s flair for the original. Whether or not dude knew this was going to be his swan song, I wish he’d grabbed an utterly unexpected number, flipped it on its head, and forced the powers that be to retire his Idol jersey to the rafters. Instead, he gave us a solid performance that didn’t quite match up to prior efforts like “Say Something,” “Billie Jean,” “Titanium,” and especially his original track “Roses.”
Dalton Rapattoni – Blue October’s “Calling You” — Grade: C+ | Props to Dalton for having the guts to choose a left-of-center (aka completely unknown to me) ditty from a Texas rock band that’s been one of his greatest inspirations. Any student of Idol history knows that unfamiliar tunes frequently resonate with voters (i.e. “Falling Slowly” and “Mad World” back in Season 8). The problem for Dalton wasn’t in concept, though, but in execution. His voice repeatedly got swallowed by the band, and he threw away too many phrases like a grade-schooler with a ziploc bag of carrots in his lunchbox.
Trent Harmon – David Allan Coe/George Jones’ “Tennessee Whiskey” — Grade: A- | I would’ve liked to see Trent’s song choices veer more toward soul than country this week, but to his credit he brought an R&B fervor and some startling technical hoo-ha to his sole personal pick. The a cappella breakdown — complete with falsetto glory note — would’ve made me yell “Goosies!” if I didn’t hate that J.Lo catchphrase so much. And Ryan bringing out Trent’s family for a surprise on-stage reunion only added to the “I need to vote for this guy” vibe that permeated through the performance.
La’Porsha Renae – John Legend and Common’s “Glory” — Grade: A- | If this is the kind of tune La’Porsha envisions herself covering in a post-Idol career, then somebody get her into the studio and start recording by the weekend, OK? The way she used her growl and vibrato to infuse the song’s lyrics with depth and gravitas was as mesmerizing as the sparkle emanating off her seashell hair clips and her blinged-out microphone. As a result, Keith’s critique that he felt like he’d just had a baptism didn’t seem off the mark in the least.
Sent to Safety
SCOTT BORCHETTA’S CHOICE
Dalton Rapattoni – Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” — Grade: B+ | You know when you go to a fancy cocktail reception and a waiter approaches you with some unrecognizable hors d’oeuvre and your first inclination is to pass? But then you think, “Hmmm… maybe this unfamiliar thing will be delicious!”, so you bite in and discover… it’s weirdly tasty? That kind of sums up my feelings about Dalton’s cover of “Dancing in the Dark” — a slice of ’80s pop perfection infused with longing and restlessness and the kind of hook that will never quite leave your brain. The way Dalton dressed it up in heavy synths on the verse — then a frenetic emo-rock bounciness on the chorus — may not have quite gelled with the lyrics, but at least it was interesting and in tune. Bearing that in mind, Harry’s backhanded compliment — that Dalton is smart enough to arrange songs around his vocal shortcomings — seemed unnecessarily cruel, no?
La’Porsha Renae – Lorraine Ellison/Bette Midler’s “Stay With Me” — Grade: B | I’ve been longing for someone to cover “Stay With Me” on Idol since at least as far back as Joshua Ledet’s Season 11 run (see evidence here) — so imagine my surprise when La’Porsha’s rendition turned out to be decent, but ultimately underwhelming. I mean, it’s not that La’Porsha wasn’t in tune, but her turgid phrasing left her consistently behind the beat, taking away the urgency and raw drama that makes “Stay With Me” one of the great heartbreak anthems of all-time ever. Plus, her melodic tweaks – usually so spot-on – didn’t quite land, either, leading to a conclusion that was sometimes more screamy than stirring.
Now, as for La’Porsha’s affably cheeky admission that she’d never sing a lyric begging a man to stay with her… I’m of two minds. In fairness, she got asked a direct question by Harry about why she’d hesitated to cover the tune when mentor Stevie Van Zandt suggested it last week, so you can’t really fault her for her honesty about the lyrics not appealing to where she’s at in her life. But… — and feel free to zing me down in the comments for my stance — even with La’Porsha’s history of fleeing an abusive relationship, I was taken aback by her oversimplification of the story she was telling, as well as her understanding of her job as both a reality competition contestant and an artist. “I would never tell a woman to beg, but I just had to get in character,” La’Porsha argued. To which I’d ask, at what point in the lyrics of “Stay With Me” is there a call for the listener to mimic the overwhelming desperation of the narrator? Does La’Porsha mean an artist can’t tell a story about the absolute depths of human emotion without endorsing said emotions? And are musical artists only supposed to delve into feelings and narratives that are purely autobiographical? (If that’s the case, then no more sad songs for Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson or Fantasia Barrino now that they’re all happily married!)
I’m asking subjective questions, for sure, but La’Porsha is a week away from ending a Farewell Season that has no summer tour and no guarantees of a contract that will help her get her music to a larger audience. She signed up for a competition knowing that Top 3 week inevitably requires abandoning song choice to the judges and mentors. Once “Stay With Me” was set in stonem I wish she’d have put aside her reservations, put her heart and soul into it, and tried to find the value in making 10 million people understand the reality of loneliness, longing and losing the person you love — and realizing there’s strength in that storytelling, even if the narrative is about weakness. (I know, I know… my Reality Check co-host Melinda Doolittle is going to refute my overly long argument by re-wearing her “Nope” t-shirt on our next episode!)
Oh, and by the bye, if you don’t know “Stay With Me,” give a listen here to Bette Midler’s version from The Rose soundtrack, and imagine what might’ve been had La’Porsha fully invested herself in the music.
Trent Harmon – Justin Timberlake’s “Drink You Away” — Grade: B | Trent broke through with moments of brilliance on the first JT track cleared for Idol, but the performance was also punctuated by instances where the band’s aggressive guitars — and to my ears, a brutal sound mix — left him struggling to stay above water. As a result, Trent seemed a little disconnected from the relationship drama at the heart of the ditty — at a moment where it was imperative for him to maintain focus… no matter what the obstacles.
Dalton Rapattoni – Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” — Grade: C- | It took me a second to recover from Dalton’s super-choreographed head-tilt at the very top of the song, but unfortunately, the performance got less appealing as it went on. Arranged in a key too low for his register and at a tempo too mopey to engage, Dalton couldn’t seem to ever get a grasp on his pitch, resulting in a performance that flopped around like a salmon on the floor of a fishing boat… struggling mightily, but never escaping its most harrowing predicament.
La’Porsha Renae – Adele’s “Hello” — Grade: A- | On paper, the judges’ choice of Adele’s most ubiquitous anthem seemed like handing Supergirl a winning Powerball ticket made from pure Kryptonite. She’s got the money, but how is she supposed to cash in? La’Porsha, however, stood grounded at the mic, roughed up the verse with her rumbling vibrato, then twisted the melody just enough to bring an extra twinge of sadness without stripping the tune of its soaring crescendo.
Trent Harmon — Parson James’ “Waiting Game” — Grade: A- | Like Keith, I’d never heard this song before, but who cares? It sounded like the best and least sunshine-y coronation single Idol‘s never commissioned (even if dude’s probably going to be runner-up). I loved the way the tune allowed Trent to demonstrate his crazy range — without sacrificing the intimate and enigmatic lyrics about a man grappling with questions of faith and purpose. Trent continues to surge at the exact right time — and if it adds suspense to the series finale, who can be mad at that?