By Chaz Lipp
The theme for American Idol this week is: America’s Choices. I don’t know how it works, apparently viewers voted for what they thought the remaining six contestants should sing. But remember, Season 15 isn’t really about the current crop of contestants. It’s about saying goodbye to Idol after a decade and a half. It’s about reliving past glories, which is why Adam Lambert is on hand to open to the show with a reprise of his stirring reading of “Mad World” (and perform a new single mid-way through).
Halfway through tonight’s two-hour episode, we have our top five. The season has rocketed forward in a blur. We haven’t really had time to get to know the singers. There hasn’t been time for a true underdog to emerge (though Trent is easily the closest to that). And the judges? It’s the most shameful display of empty-headed cheerleading the series have ever seen. Even Harry Connick, Jr. – once the tough love judge – has sunk to vapid “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all” superficiality. It’s a depressing way to bring the once-great series to an end.
But anyway, round one featured all six remaining performers…
Trent Harmon – “Counting Stars” (OneRepublic) I have to admit, Trent is growing on me. Between this and his second round performance, he’s arguably the winner of the night. Certainly amongst the guys. The judges start out surprisingly tough, blasting America for the song choice and saying “you’re a lot better than that” (Harry). I don’t know how it sounded live, but Trent came out swinging with possibly his season best, so far (soon to be topped). Grade: B+
Dalton Rapattoni – “Numb” (Linkin Park) It’s as if the judges collectively realized they had lapsed into providing an actual critique, because with this lazy performance they’re back to making bizarrely enthusiastic proclamations. To be fair, Jennifer Lopez is pretty lukewarm (she felt his arrangement took the “oomph” out of the song). It’s pretty transparent at this point that the show’s higher ups think Dalton could be a star. But he’s simply terrible. A poseur. A prefab “rock star” assembled from a kit. I tried to be more objective last week, because I did like his handling of “Eleanor Rigby.” But here he’s back to his usual posturing. Grade: D
La’Porsha Renae – “Ready for Love” (India.Arie) La’Porsha delivers a tasteful rendition of this ballad. It was as professional and polished as anything La’Porsha has done so far. That’s no excuse for not offering any substantial feedback. Keith Urban said, “I realized I’m not even judging.” No kidding. The judges were duly wowed, but that’s not exactly their job. We can be wowed (though for me, this particular performance was a bit too sedate to quite hit “wow” levels), but the judges should be saying more than what Harry came up with (“It was phenomenal”). Grade: B+
MacKenzie Bourg – “Wild World” (Cat Stevens) First week out, on his original tune “Roses,” MacKenzie seemed serious about his craft. Ever since then he has projected the less becoming image of a grinning “cute nerd.” This weightless reading reduces Stevens’ classic to third-rate Train or Jason Mraz jam. JLo “loved every second.” Keith blabbed about MacKenzie being like raw cake batter, “not cooked, but still good.” MacKenzie seemed to think this was a high compliment, but honestly it was damning with faint praise. Grade: C-
Now for the bottom two… It’s Tristan and Sonika, two very similar performers.
Tristan McIntosh – “Independence Day” (Martina McBride) Poised and confident, Tristan does just about everything right with what becomes her swan song. It’s extremely obvious from the judges’ unimpressed reactions that they’ve already made up their minds. They’re dismissive of this performance. “We’re seeing the same performance over and over,” says JLo. Oh, but we’re not with Dalton, MacKenzie, or Sonika? “Time is the only thing that is going to help you,” Harry admonishes (again, as if the same can’t be said of any else in the contest). Grade: B-
Sonika Vaid – “Let It Go” (Idina Menzel) I find it hard watching young singers tackle this song. They always look like they’re auditioning for a stage production of Frozen, every fierce, confident, defiant look practiced in front of a mirror a thousand times. Sonika, who has rarely exuded those aforementioned qualities (despite JLo calling her “a fighter”), delivers a perfectly acceptable version and ends up winning the final judges’ save. But honestly, you could’ve flipped a coin between her and Tristan. Grade: B
Round two… we’re down to the big five, each of whom shares a personal struggle they’ve battled…
Dalton Rapattoni – “The Sound of Silence” (Simon & Garfunkel) (Personal struggle: diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 9.) Dalton pretty much butchers a classic, with his painful over-enunciation and annoying vocal affectations. He strives for high drama, but the result feels embarrassingly immature. The judges, of course, love it because they’ve been cheering him since day one. If any performance perfectly encapsulates how range-less Dalton’s singing voice is, this is it. Grade: F
MacKenzie Bourg – “Billie Jean” (Michael Jackson) (Personal struggle: survived heart failure-inducing virus, had to give up high school sports.) Rah-rah-rah, three cheers for MacKenzie. That sums up the judges’ response. Truth be told, this is a huge improvement over the earlier Cat Stevens debacle. He’s just not in the same league as this season’s heavy hitters. Grade: B-
Trent Harmon – “Simple Man” (Lynyrd Skynyrd) (Personal struggle: best friend passed away) Super silky smooth Trent tackling a blues-drenched Skynyrd anthem? Turned out to be just what Trent needed to solidify his contender status. Trent is far and away the best male singer this season and it would be a true shame if the superficial cuteness of Dalton or MacKenzie managed to push him out of the running. JLo was reduced to tears by Trent’s performance, which in turn reduced Trent to tears. But unlike so many “moments” the producers have manufactured so far this season, it felt real. Grade: A
Sonika Vaid – “Clarity” (Zedd featuring Foxes) (Personal struggle: shyness) Had Sonika known the judges already had her marked for the save, she would’ve been better off saving her “show-stopper” (“Let It Go”) for round two in order to finish the episode more memorably. This performance emphasized everything weak about Sonika’s skill set. Though she has far more range and technical prowess than MacKenzie or Dalton, she doesn’t have much personality. I’d rather see her progress to the next week before either of them, but I have a feeling that probably won’t happen. Grade: C+
La’Porsha Renae – “No More Drama” (Mary J. Blige) (Personal struggle: escaping an abusive relationship) They could’ve made this season super short (and increased the judges’ power even more) by crowning La’Porsha the final Idol. I’m all for the viewers deciding via votes, but thus far the viewers haven’t decided ANYTHING… so, when you think about it, why start now? Normally, in seasons past, I always said, “Give the viewers their vote and let the chips fall as they may.” But in a short season that has seen unprecedented control bestowed upon the judges, it seems pointless to risk letting a bunch of preteen girls voting Lil’ Mac or Billie Joe, Jr. into the winner’s spot. Grade: A
American Idol Images: FremantleMedia; 19 Entertainment; FOX