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By Chaz Lipp

Finally, we viewers get a say in the “Farewell Season” of American Idol. But not before the judges – Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick, Jr. – automatically select 4 members of the top ten. This season has been kind of a slowly-unfolding disaster so far. The judges’ favorites have been some of the weakest of the series’ entire run. Simply put, this season has felt a lot like work just to sit through. I can’t say I have found any contestant I truly like at this point.

Of the big four that received an automatic pass to the top ten, only Trent Harmon was a surprise. He’s an alright vocalist, but I’m still pissed Shelbie Z was cut last week – I’d have taken her over Trent any day. I suspect Shelbie was cut because the judges were already favoring La’Porsha Renae and wanted to avoid having two overweight singers. Don’t get me wrong: La’Porsha is almost certainly the best vocalist of the current crop and was unsurprisingly selected for the top ten, too. The others were the Disney Channel-ready, photogenic popsters Dalton Rapattoni (he of the hypnotically piercing blue eyes) and the annoyingly named Olivia Rox.

Some thoughts on the remaining ten who performed last night (with only one judge commenting per contestant):

Manny Torres – “Master Blaster” (Stevie Wonder) – Great song choice (Keith didn’t think so; he was wrong), although I still remember DeAndre Brackensick positively killing this back in Season 11. Torres ably approximates Wonder’s vocal mannerisms but does little to put his own stamp on the song. Still, it’s a lively, energetic performance and Torres’ confidence shines through. Grade: B

Gianna Isabella – “I Put a Spell On You” (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) – Jennifer says Gianna has one of the “best voices” and that she “belong(s) in the top ten.” She certainly has polish and it shows on this technically accomplished but strangely passionless take on this classic. Grade: B-

Thomas Stringfellow – “Story of My Life” (One Direction) – Harry got tough with the terminally cute Thomas, telling him about the fine line between between being an idiosyncratic vocalist and merely displaying bad habits. The “hiccuping” note-cracking thing that Thomas punctuates his vocal with is what Harry was referring to. This guy has so far exhibited little more than the potential to be a preteen heartthrob. If you like this style of whiny, thin, forced adorability – Stringfellow might be for you. He’s not for me. Grade: C-

Tristan McIntosh – “What Hurts the Most” (Rascal Flatts) – I guess I didn’t realize Tristan, the bubbly teen with the very pop-friendly voice, wants to be a country star. This performance, praised by Keith as “beautiful… a side of you we’ve never seen before,” was limp. Tristan sounded uncharacteristically unsteady and almost uncomfortable. By the end of the show, I’d nearly forgotten about her. Not a good sign this early in the competition. Grade: C

Avalon Young – “Yo (Excuse Me Miss)” (Chris Brown) – I love Avalon’s casual, devil-may-care vibe, but I wasn’t crazy about her “How y’all doin’?” greeting as the song began (repeated emphatically after the audience was initially unfazed). Her vocal was “smooth like butter” according to JLo, which is pretty accurate. Avalon may need to up her intensity level a little bit if she wants to stick around, but this was a solid performance. Grade: B

Jenn Blosil – “True Colors” (Cyndi Lauper) – Harry loved it (“a flawless lyric delivery”), but honestly this had just as many pitch problems as Jenn’s performances last week. The sparkly eyebrow thing offered a distraction, but not enough to hide the fact that this was a near-butchering of a classic song. Jenn’s overly-affected, super-forced “quirkiness” grew tiresome a long time ago (actually beginning with her audition), but now it’s evolved into something intolerable. I’m hoping she’s among the first to be cut now that the viewers have a say. Grade: F

Lee Jean – “Make It Rain” (Ed Sheeran) – This guy has exhibited, hands down, the most likable, self-effacing personality of the bunch. But he’s just not ready for the Idol stage. Keith pointed out how nervous he seemed to be. That said, he really acquitted himself quite well. This wasn’t a breakout number for him, but he got through it without any serious problems (it just wasn’t exactly memorable). Grade: B-

Sonika Vaid – “I Surrender” (Celine Dion) – Am I the only one who thought this was a total mess, with lots of off-key moments? I mean, JLo breathlessly exclaimed “I got goosies on my face!” Online reaction seems to be very positive. Maybe it’s due, in part, to the overall weak competition this season. But Sonika’s take was the sort of big, pageant-esque ballad that has always been par for the course on Idol. There’s literally always at least one singer like her – and in this season’s case, I think she might get cancelled out by the more polished and confident Gianna. Grade: C-

Jeneve Rose Mitchell – “Ring of Fire” (Johnny Cash) – Who was worse, Jeneve or Jenn? Who’s the more annoying onscreen presence, Jeneve or Jenn? Last night, I’d say Jenn won both those dubious honors. But Jeneve wasn’t far behind. The girl plays a mean cello. But without one of her many instruments, she’s just so ordinary (aside from her outlandish cowgirl outfits). This version of the Cash classic (which she has already performed, to better effect) was dreary, dull, and tested the lower limits of Jeneve’s vocal range (a test that she didn’t really pass). Grade: D

MacKenzie Bourg, “Roses” (original song) – I’ll start with this: I hate the idea of original songs on Idol. Songwriting shouldn’t factor into the competition. As Simon Cowell was fond of reminding everyone, it’s a singing competition. Interpreting songs written by others, challenging each contestant to put his/her own stamp on the song, often stretching themselves stylistically and in terms of technical vocal range, has always been the series’ hallmark. Singer-songwriters generally tailor their material to precisely play to their personal strengths, hiding any weakness.

That said, MacKenzie threw the gauntlet in the battle of the wimpy troubadours – leaving his close competitor Stringfellow in the dust. The audience loved it, Keith loved it, and it was an overall very strong performance that ended the night on a high note. Grade: B+

Chaz Lipp

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