By Chaz Lipp
Now we’re having some fun. Thus far the “farewell season” of Idol has presented a highly uneven tone, mixing self-congratulatory nostalgia with the requisite hype about “our best bunch of talent ever.” That tone continues, but at least the voting audience now has a say in things. The top ten performed, with the original idol – Kelly Clarkson – sitting in with the judges.
The voters got it mostly right with the four contestants sent packing at the show’s outset: Jeneve Rose Mitchell, Thomas Stringfellow, Manny Torres, and Jenn Blosil. Of the four, only Manny was really at his best the previous night (but going first might’ve hurt, despite his energetic “Master Blaster”). Though she clearly wasn’t finding her stride, I will miss Jeneve because of her unpredictability. No tears, however, for the overly-affected vocal stylings of Thomas and Jenn.
The top ten graded, in the order they performed:
Olivia Rox – “Unconditionally” (Katy Perry): The first of the judges’ automatic top ten picks, Olivia reminds me of Julie Dubela, one-time American Juniors semi-finalist and infamously “precocious” (as Simon Cowell labeled her) Idol auditioner. Like Dubela, Olivia’s whole act seems overly calculated. After this so-so performance Keith Urban told her, “You’re on an artist’s trajectory.” That’s setting the bar for “artistry” fairly low. Grade: C
Gianna Isabella – “Listen” (Beyonce): Gianna got off to a well-controlled start, but faltered when it came to some of the song’s “big” moments. Kelly assured her she’d “outgrow” being “pitchy.” That case may be, but the only thing that matters is how she sounds right now. Harry Connick, Jr. hit it on the head: this sounded overly rehearsed. She might be in trouble. Grade: C-
Lee Jean – “Skinny Love” (Bon Iver): I’m really taking a shine to this kid. Mature beyond his years, Lee’s pre-performance package demonstrated a level of sensitivity uncommon among teens as he emotionally recalled 2011 Idol contestant Chris Medina (whose wife had recently been left with serious car-accident-related injuries; Chris was in the audience last night, incidentally). He related it to his experience with the untimely passing of a family member. The problem with Lee is that he’s such a low-key performer, he’s at risk of getting swallowed up by the hugeness of the Idol spectacle. Now that Stringfellow’s gone, Lee and MacKenzie will duke it out for the “sensitive balladeer” spot. Grade: B-
Avalon Young – “Stitches” (Shawn Mendes): Kelly likes Avalon personally, but isn’t thrilled with her taste in music. I agree. Avalon’s cool (but, importantly, not arrogant) vibe is her greatest asset. Jennifer Lopez went with the tired “It wasn’t the right song for you” argument, which is one of Idol judges’ most hoary cliches. Anything can be the ‘right song’ if it’s sung well. This was okay, but hardly memorable. Avalon’s number just might be up. Grade: C
Dalton Rapattoni, “Hey There Delilah” (Plain White T’s): All style, zero substance. The second of the night’s “judges’ picks,” they’re predictably rapturous about Dalton’s flashy but monotonous rendition. He bops around the stage almost hyperactively, but to say this song doesn’t tax his vocal range is an understatement. In fact, it almost sounds like Dalton works within a three-note range. It’s not so much that it’s bad, just unforgivably boring. Grade: D+
Tristan McIntosh – “Nothin’ Like You” (Dan + Shay): It happens every season: the Idol contestant who doesn’t know who he/she wants to be. Though she showed early promise, teenybopper Tristan is starting to feel more and more like a focus group-tested construct instead of a flesh-and-blood performer. Last week we found out she really wants to be a country singer. Harry advised her last night to “choose songs with more crossover appeal.” She’s an enthusiastic kid, but she also feels distressingly artificial and overly coached. Grade: C-
MacKenzie Bourg – “I See Fire” (Ed Sheeran): Stringfellow’s out, so the wimp-rocker fight continues – now between Lee and MacKenzie. After his show-stealing original tune Wednesday night, he’s pretty solid again (about as solid as Lee was tonight). However, as JLo seemed to suggest, MacKenzie didn’t make much of an impact tonight. Grade: B-
La’Porsha Renae – “Diamonds” (Rihanna): Was anyone even close? Was anyone even in the same ballpark? Not by a long shot, though let’s not lose our heads (Keith: “What you gave was pure humanity.” Huh?). If anything is going to hurt La’Porsha, it’s that she already comes across like such an accomplished pro that some voters may she her as a ringer. Kelly literally declared her the “winner” (how did the other nine feel hearing that??). There hadn’t yet been a true Idol “moment” in Season 15. Now there has. The vocal “runs” got a tiny bit too excessively flashy in parts, but luckily didn’t quite lapse into poor taste. Grade: A-
Sonika Vaid – “Bring Me to Life” (Evanesence): Following up La’Porsha was an unenviable task, but Sonika (who I wasn’t particularly taken with the previous night) managed to fairly well kill it with this power ballad. It really did feel like she knew this had to be several notches above her usual level, coming directly after such a great performance. I felt Gianna trounced her the night before (in terms of a stylistically like-minded performance), but here Sonika fought back hard. Runner-up for the night. Grade: B+
Trent Harmon – “Like I Can” (Sam Smith): The pimp spot for this? The last of the judges’ four “free passes” to the top ten, Trent proved as goofy as ever. He comes off like a cross between Jason Mraz and the lead singer from New Radicals (at least in terms of the “look” he’s cultivated). His voice actually sounds very pleasant when he’s singing right in the middle of his range, but it sounds kind of strangled when he reaches for higher notes. Of course, given that they pre-selected him for the top ten, the judges all spazzed out about how great they believe he is. It was just a’ight. Grade: C+
Oh, and Kelly Clarkson closed out the show with “Piece by Piece,” reminding us all that the “farewell season” of American Idol is just as much about looking back on the past 15 years as it is about the current crop. As for the top ten, right now it’s La’Porsha’s contest to lose.
American Idol Images: FremantleMedia; 19 Entertainment; FOX