By Chaz Lipp

Host Ryan Seacrest opens show saying there will be “game-changing news” later in the show. Turns out that beginning next week, American Idol will be broadcast live in ALL times zones—with the voting results revealed at the end of the show. First time in the series’ history that everyone will see it live.

But for now, a recap of the most entertaining episodes of season 16. Each of the top 14 perform again, with six being sent to safety, i.e. the “Victory Zone,” based on America’s vote. The other eight are in the “Danger Zone,” and those are the eight who are critiqued tonight. Four will be selected by the judges to go home. And yes, those very four may in fact NOT be reflective of the voting results. We can’t have our cake and eat it too this season, it seems, so at least we can bask in some of the strongest performances these 14 have delivered to date.

But it must be said—shame on the judges/producers/etc for blaming the viewers for who which contestants were sent to the “Danger Zone.” As it turns out, American Idol voters apparently love white singers more than people of color. Only one non-white singer wound up in the top six. But every time one of the remaining eight was revealed to be in danger, the judges prattled on about not knowing “what’s wrong with America.” While it’s apparently true (historically as well as specifically this week) that the show’s primary voting audience leans heavily toward Caucasian performers—how can that be argued, it was plain as day—it’s Idol’s fault for not allowing the voters to choose the ENTIRE top ten. Anyway, onto the performances…

Maddie Poppe – Victory Zone – “Walk Like an Egyptian” (The Bangles)

Happy to see Maddie make it to safety! The competition needs her dignified understatement. She seems nervous even taking a victory lap, but it’s fun to see her doing something energetic and uptempo. A few of her liberties with the melody slip away from her grasp towards the end, but this is a solid job. Grade: B

Michelle Sussett – Danger Zone – “I’m a Dreamer” (original song) – The judges’ take: Luke-“You did a great job. Congrats on doing an original song. You did a great vocal just then.” Katy – “I’m so glad you pulled that ace from up your sleeve. You saw it as an opportunity to rise again…I believe in you.” Lionel – “We don’t know who you are until you show us. Use that bilingual ace in the hole.”

Not really a huge surprise Michelle, who’s been inconsistent and doesn’t have the strongest voice, is in danger. But way to the play the game—an original song for her “sing for your life” choice? Brave. It’s not the greatest song in the world, but it holds its own against some of the modern pop choices made on this show. She throws her all into it and winds up delivering arguably her best vocal of the season. Her plea to stay on the show doesn’t sound desperate, either. It sounds like a believable statement of purpose. Part of the uphill battle for votes is undoubtedly the result of unfair prejudice against her Venezuelan heritage and DACA status (the subject of her original tune). Grade: B+

Marcio Donaldson – Danger Zone – “Jealous” (Nick Jonas) – The judges’ take: Luke – “That was not the strongest thing we’ve seen from you. I do know enter this so emotional. You react emotionally.” Katy – “You have always been enough. Embody it with every step you take.” Lionel – “You’re going to hear more ‘no’s’ than ‘yes’s’. It’s a part of the journey.”

Sounds conspicuously like the judges are setting Marcio up for a fall. He’s emotional, yes. I’ve criticized him in past recaps for not reigning in his emotions like an adult. He’s got a great voice when he utilizes it well. Tonight’s Nick Jonas routine was far better than last night’s Barry Manilow travesty. But again, the judges’ comments sound like a ‘goodbye’ and Marcio’s mature enough to realize that. Grade: C

Cade Foehner – Victory Zone – “Bright Lights” (Gary Clark Jr.)

Ay-yi-yi. Of course Cade is safe. My assertion that he should be dismissed was, of course, wishful thinking. The band sounds good, Cade’s guitar sounds good, but his voice is a slurry, growly mess—as usual. I have a strong suspicion American will eventually tire of the sameness of his performances. Grade: C-

Garrett Jacobs – Danger Zone – “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” (CCR) – The judges’ take: Luke – “Way to state your case. Good song choice. Some little pitchy things in the end, but way to state your case.” Katy – “I agree with Luke, this is best you’ve ever sounded.” Lionel – “This is so serious at this point. You have to bring style now. Who are you? That’s what you’re looking for.”

Lionel’s comments make it clear which way the judges are leaning here. But to be completely fair, Garrett sounds invigorated on this Creedence classic. If he’d been this invested and focuses in previous performances, who knows? But honestly, it’s clear he’s one of the weakest singers and overall performers at this stage of the campaign. Grade: C+

Gabby Barrett – Victory Zone – “Little Red Wagon” – (Miranda Lambert )

No surprise she’s safe. But uh, this is an absolutely unhinged Gabby. Despite my misgivings about her overconfidence, gotta give her credit—she is playing to win. She ran around the stage doing karate kicks and just generally putting on a visual show. It was, admittedly, at the expense of a technically strong vocal but this is definitely a new side of Gabby’s presentation. Grade: B

Dennis Lorenzo – Danger Zone – “This Woman’s Work” (Maxwell) – The judges’ take: Luke – “I’m going to fight for you. You have shown me every style of singing. Great job.” Katy – “I fight for you as well. That was brilliant. It was so dynamic going from falsetto to the low voice.” Lionel – “America does not know what they’re doing. This is not over yet.”

No doubt Dennis will be among those chosen for safety. To be fair, blaming it on “America” is B.S.—for all we know, Dennis might’ve been seventh in the voting. This idea that the “bottom 8” (out of only 14!) were somehow REJECTED by the viewers is totally disingenuous. At any rate, Dennis proves himself worthy with a stellar version performance, sliding in and out of falsetto flawlessly. Grade: A

Jonny Brenns – Danger Zone – “Demons” (Imagine Dragons) – The judges’ take: Luke “That style song really suits you the best.” Katy – “You have grown leaps and bounds. You look like a rock star. I would have Gabby teach you about stage movement.” Lionel – “You’re growing right in front of us.”

Hard to tell based on their comments whether the judges have decided about Jonny yet. But I have: send him packing! He’s one of the few—if not the only!—tonight who doesn’t manage to outdo the previous night’s performance. Nice voice, easygoing personality, but he ain’t ready for this. Grade: D+

Caleb Lee Hutchinson – Victory Zone – “Getting You Home” (Chris Young)

Good call, voters. Because I think the judges aren’t unanimously sold on Caleb. And I think he’s also playing to win this thing. His victory lap performance here is honestly not as striking as his work the previous night, but—like Maddie earlier—he delivers a confident, enjoyable performance. Grade: B

Mara Justine – Danger Zone – “Love on the Brain” (Rhianna) – The judges’ take: Luke – “I’m still in shock America didn’t vote you through. You sang your tail off.” Katy – “All things have to align – It’s about timing sometimes.” Lionel – “It’s not just singing, it’s the package. I still don’t know what’s wrong with America. I’m really proud of you.”

Lionel seems flustered, like he already knows he’s not letting Mara get through but doesn’t know quite how to let her down easy. And Katy? Well, she just seems to have it out for Mara for reasons unknown. Last night Katy claimed she wants “everyone to win” but it’s quite obvious she does not feel that way about Mara.

I have criticized Mara (as recently as my previous write-up) for her gushingly over-the-top emoting—in her interviews and generally stage presence I’ve always thought she was a good singer. And tonight she delivered one for the Idol HALL OF FAME. Not since Todrick Hall wowed and amazed with her “goodbye” performance of Queen’s “Somebody To Love” back in season 9 have we such a self-assured and flat-out AWESOME vocal performance by someone doomed for a farewell. And Todrick Hall rebounded. Hopefully young Mara (16?!?!) will do the same. I liked her enthusiastic Etta James rendition at the close of Hollywood Week, but this? This was in a different realm. From a pure vocal standpoint, she outdid EVERYONE. Grade: A+

Jurnee – Danger Zone – “Never Again” (from The Greatest Showman) – The judges’ take: Luke – “Yesterday your performance showed us something new. You make it look so easy. You got me sold.” Katy – “Never have I ever seen a more qualified woman for the job.” Lionel – “I love you.”

There seems no doubt at all that Jurnee will be rescued. And this is, in fact, a redeeming performance after the previous night’s disaster. Nice voice, not a ton of personality. Jurnee isn’t that distinctive. She seems undeniably frazzled tonight by being in “danger,” even after the judges make it clear they’ll let her slide by. Grade: B

Michael J. Woodard – Victory Zone – “Believe in Yourself” (from The Wiz)

BIG reaction from the judges on Michael’s safe status, and it’s no surprise why: the top ten’s color barrier has been broken. The segregation that has so far dominated this week’s voting has ended. Michael delivers a performance easily strong enough to back up the Top 6 vote and takes his seat amongst the white folks. He’s an interesting performer with a strong voice. Grade: B+

Catie Turner – Safe – “Havana” (Camila Cabello)

Catie has a nice voice, but it’s not Mara-level. She seems to be trying to find a balance between her aggressive goofiness and a more mainstream presentation. That might cost her some support in the long run. But it’s nice to see someone quite humble—Catie is genuinely shocked by being chosen over Ada (astute viewers are not—Ada is a person of color, and a man who presents himself onstage as a woman, and that still doesn’t fly in wide swaths of America). Catie is better tonight than last night, but uh… yeah, we saw Mara belt everyone out of the auditorium a few minutes ago… Grade: B

Ada Vox – Danger Zone – “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” (Jennifer Holliday) – The judges’ take: Katy – “I think we do know talent when we see it. We’d like to make an executive decision right now.”

Boom! Just like that, Ada is sitting with the “chosen six.” And rightly so. But Ada did not, repeat: DID NOT, out-perform everyone here tonight. The song, from Dreamgirls, was purpose-built as a showstopper. But Ada is not Jennifer Holliday and not Jennifer Hudson. And I don’t think he’s LaKisha Jones, either, who delivered a Hall of Fame rendition of this on Idol season six. The song is so ripe for OVER-singing and that’s exactly what Ada does here. Still, no doubt at all that Ada deserves a spot in the top ten. Grade: B-

Saved – Ada Vox, Jurnee, Michelle Sussett, Dennis Lorenzo

Going home – Marcio Donaldson, Mara Justine, Jonny Brenns, Garrett Jacobs

One big mistake made tonight by the judges. One very, very big mistake. Choosing Michelle, who I DO like, over Mara, who made me a true believer tonight. I think Michelle stood her ground, make a standout bold choice by singing an original that actually had some real declarative weight. And she’s a very natural performer who knows exactly how to work a crowd. But after lamenting the dismissal of Thaddeus after his Hollywood Week knockout punch, now we lose another contender.

Chaz Lipp

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