By Chaz Lipp

Poor judges. Lionel Ritchie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan’s carefully crafted roster of contestants was shattered tonight on American Idol’s first-ever Disney-themed week. Up until the live show Sunday, in which the Top 10 (as chosen by the judges, rather than popular vote) performed animated film classics, there was no true viewer impact the entire season.

Okay, “poor judges” was somewhat sarcastic. It’s really poor contestants, for having their hopes unrealistically built up by the non-judgmental judging panel. At no point so far in Season 16 has any of these Idol-hopefuls received anything approached useful critiquing. Just an endless barrage of “congratulations,” “you’re the whole package,” “you’ve GOT IT,” and so on. Never are the contestants nervous to face the judges because they know by now they’ll just be showered in Hallmark platitudes. “That’s our job,” said Luke Bryan to Jurnee, in a moment that encapsulated the entire outlook of ABC’s American Idol. The look and sound of the show may be familiar, as is the reassuring presence of host Ryan Seacrest, but we’d be watching a drastically different show if any of the previous judging panels was involved (let alone the bracingly, unsentimentally honest Simon Cowell—heck, even Ellen DeGeneres had harsher words than the current three).

But there is an even larger problem with Season 16 than the judges (who are, admittedly, likable and entertaining personalities). Never before has Idol ditched the “Results Night” show. And never before has Idol slashed the Top 10 to the Top 7 in one fell swoop. It is a terrible idea that makes the notion of competition virtual impossible. Text, online, and app-based voting for ALL contestants opened up simultaneously with the start of the show, closing abruptly during the final commercial break. Get your votes in now for people you haven’t even heard sing. No reflection on the performances needed—that’s all secondary, just ask the judges. Who do you think is the cutest guy or gal, who’s the nicest, who’s the most put-together, who’s from your hometown… I mean, it’s not like these superficial factors haven’t informed Idol voting in years past. It’s just that we at least had to watch and listen to each contestant before the voting opened up. And we were treated to the weekly suspense of seeing which one performer would be sent home.

So it’s a new era. Not a better one. And the landscape of Season 16’s competition has been drastically reshaped.

Maddie Poppe – “Bare Necessities” (Jungle Book) – The judges’ take: Lionel – “You are absolutely coming of age right in front of our eyes.” Katy – “I’m so proud of you. I appreciated your bravery taking on those new notes. It was so magical. You did a great job.” Luke – “Your voice feels timeless. It makes me want to keep listening and listening.”

I agree with Luke—I want to keep listening too. Maddie isn’t nearly the most technically accomplished of the bunch, but that shouldn’t be the only factor. She has an old-school sensibility, both in her song choices and straightforward presentation, that sets her apart from the showier performers. This was the perfect song choice for her and a great start to the night. Grade: B+

Jurnee – “How Far I’ll Go” (Moana) – The judges’ take: Katy – “You seem connected, you seem vulnerable That’s a strength.” Luke – “Great job. I don’t want you to get too heavy with not getting voted through last week. Stay positive.” Lionel – “Sometimes people get it wrong. Stage presence is something we can’t give you.”

This was pretty enough but lacking in passion. Jurnee seems overly nervous most of the time and tonight was no exception. She has a nice voice, but while there was nothing really wrong with this it just kinda sat there. Grade: B-

Cade Foehner “Kiss the Girl” (The Little Mermaid) – The judges’ take: Luke – “Way to show us another side. You can bring the rock and roll genre back. I’m so excited to see what you’re going to do.” Lionel – “Instant identity. You have brought that to the table in spades. I love what you’re doing.” Katy – “I felt like the only person in the room. I’ve never seen that side of you. Way to bring it out at the last minute.”

Anyone who has read my previous recaps no I’ve been pretty hard on Cade. But tonight he made a smart choice, taking a break from the rock stuff and turning a Little Mermaid calypso-styled song into a Bryan Adams-sounding ballad. The arrangement reveals the limitations of his voice (and they are significant), but it was still a bold move that stood out. Grade: B

Ada Vox – “Circle of Life” (The Lion King) – The judges’ take: Lionel – “You are a movement unto yourself. Keep it up.” Katy – “I feel like you really embodied Ada Vox.” Luke – “Good job.”

Tonight might’ve been a good night to perform as Adam, not to be “untrue” to himself or anything like that but just to change things up. The routine is getting schticky—especially tonight with the lion’s mane wig and animal print dress to accompany The Lion King music. And even though the judges’ll never point it out, Ada does sometimes have pitch problems on those increasingly BIG notes. Tonight isn’t his best, but Ada is still an important part of this season (though not enough voters agree, apparently). Grade: C+

Michelle Sussett – “Remember Me” (Coco) – The judges’ take: Katy – “The sound was a priority and that’s the right direction to go. You are a star.” Luke – “You nailed it perfectly. You showed us you really are a singer. Good job.” Lionel – “Your true identity just came through.”

Smart choice tonight by Michelle, who displays more self-assuredness each week and—better yet—more vocal range. She’s a good competitor. While there were perhaps better vocalists who weren’t selected for the Top 24, Michelle has really made the most of her time on the show. Grade: B

Gabby Barrett – “Colors of the Wind” (Pocahontas) – The judges’ take: Luke – “You have all of the tools to win this thing. Great job.” Lionel – “I put you under that star quality.” Katy – “I really appreciated the difference tonight. You brought that pop stardom tonight.”

Gabby stumbled badly with this uncertain rendition. Confidence has never been an issue for her, but tonight she exhibits a poor grasp of the melody. Lionel, who usually heaps on empty praise to anyone who performs, is considerably less vocal in his empty praise for Gabby. Grade: D

Michael J. Woodard – “Beauty and the Beast” (Beauty and the Beast) – The judges’ take: Lionel – “My little Martian. I love you so much, we love you so much, they love you so much.” Katy – “You really make my heart smile. You fit between a Michael Jackson and a Frank Ocean.” Luke – “Like Disney, you are magical.”

Is “Martian” really a cool thing to call someone? Michael is a bit unusual, but really – “Martian?” The trouble with Michael, who has a very nice voice, isn’t terribly different from Ada: predictability. Always full of wide-eyed wonderment, Michael knows how to deliver a big ol’ ballad. But it would be nice to hear him do something outside his comfort zone. Grade: B-

Caleb Lee Hutchinson – “You’ve Got a Friend In Me” (Toy Story) – The judges’ take: Katy – “It was so friendly.” Luke – “That was a great song choice for you. Way to make America smile.” Lionel – “All you have to do is open your mouth. That voice and that smile is so identifiable.”

The smartest player in the game. Dedicating his song to his dog?? Genius. Caleb tweeted his reassurances that he was being completely on-the-level, not merely attempting to snag more votes. And I believe him. But it was still a brilliant maneuver. This guy’s going to win the show. Grade: B+

Catie Turner – “Once Upon a Dream” (Sleepy Beauty) – The judges’ take: Lionel – “You took us on a magical, magical, magical journey. I love you so much.” Katy – “The growth, the evolution you’ve been able to show us. You went from a girl to a woman right there.” Luke – “They stole all my words. You sing from a part of your soul. It flows out of you. It’s truly inspiring.”

Ugh. Twirling around in her princess costume, Catie continues to unravel a bit week-by-week. And her largely falsetto performance, while not unpleasant, is lacking in strength. She sounds too thin in her upper range. And the whole retro performance feels like something out of a high school (or middle school?) talent show. Grade: C

Dennis Lorenzo – “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” (The Lion King) – The judges’ take: Luke – “Home run tonight.” Lionel – “I love the way you put a little BBQ on Lion King.” Katy – [stress eating an apple; no comments]

Thanks, Katy, for helping Dennis – one of your faves – score some votes. Who among those on-the-fence voters trying to decide whether or not to text his number a few times, at the tail end of the show, wouldn’t be inspired to after seeing you eat an apple?

Dennis got what is normally thought of as the “pimp spot” – the last appearance of the night and therefore the most likely to linger in viewers’ minds during the two-hour voting period. But Dennis is saddled with a two-minute voting period. And viewers chose not to utilize it, even though he’s one of the most talent vocalists this season. Grade: B

Going home: Ada, Dennis, Michelle

Just like that, the Top 10 is reduced to the Top 7. And Ada’s larger-than-life presence is by far the biggest loss tonight.

Prince Night next week. Which probably would’ve never happened during The Artist’s lifetime. If I’m not mistaken, only Paris Bennett was approved to do any purple music, when she delivered “Kiss” in Season Five. But I’m looking forward to how they handle it – lots of great possibilities for these seven. Hey, they should do “7” as a group number, considering. Though they might not appreciate singing, “All seven, and we’ll watch them fall.” I can see Cade trying “Let’s Go Crazy,” with the big guitar solo at the end. Given her “Walk Like an Egyptian” last week, maybe Maddie will try “Manic Monday.” Looking forward to hearing how Caleb countrifies a Prince song. Enough predictions, we’ll see next week!

Chaz Lipp

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