By Chaz Lipp

Oh boy. I was right. In previous American Idol recaps this season, I’ve been speculating that the public will wield as little power as possible in voting. Host Ryan Seacrest kicked off the first voting week of the year (though not, for some reason, a live show) by saying that we, the public, are actually voting on the top six. Not the four contestants who will be eliminated this week. No, the judges—Lionel Ritchie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan—will decide which four of the remaining eight will go home.

Quite frankly this is a farce. And it will grow increasingly depressing if, as the season proceeds, viewers find themselves powerless to decide who will be going home. If the judges will be deciding who leaves and who stays—as they are tonight—theoretically the person who eventually wins this season might be someone voted off, if the viewer vote actually counted. But we’ll see how things proceed. This week, it’s all still in the judges’ hands.

Anyway, a quick look at the Top 14 performances…

Caleb Lee Hutchinson – “Midnight Train to Memphis” (The Steeldrivers) – The judges’ take: Katy – “I’m so proud of you. You were so nervous it painted some of your performance.” Luke – “Great job on the song, I’m not crazy excited about the song choice.” Lionel – “The girls started screaming and you forgot about the song.”

Caleb comes out swinging with his best performance yet and this is when the judges decide to get tough. Let’s face it, based on their attitude relative to some of the performances to follow, the judges seem to have deemed Caleb fodder for elimination. But he’s playing the game as smart as possible. His physical transformation, achieved via hard work, is impressive (though his casual assertion that he’s challenging Garrett and Jonny for “heartthrob” status exposes a troubling race-based prejudice—the men of color in this competition apparently aren’t in the running?). But even more impressive, and important, are his newly aggressive vocals, boosting some impressive belting we haven’t heard before. Great start to the night. Grade: B+

Michelle Susset – “Friends” (Marshmello & Anne-Marie) – The judges’ take: Luke – “You became a pop star tonight. That’s what we need on this show.” Lionel – “You owned it right there.” Katy – “I think you have to remember there’s a difference between performing live here and for the people at home. I don’t think was the best song choice.”

Calling every single contestant “a star” has emerged as the judges’ biggest crutch this season. None of these people are stars yet, of course. Most of the recent Idol WINNERS have not become stars. Yet here these three industry pros are, proclaiming every hopeful wannabe an instant “star.”

Anyway, obligatory rant against the judges over. Though I agree with Katy about the weak song choice, I do believe Michelle put on a strong performance overall. Her voice is probably the least technically strong of all the females in the Top 14, but her presence is one of the strongest. This is maybe her best outing so far. Grade: B

Marcio Donaldson – “It’s a Miracle” (Barry Manilow) – The judges’ take: Lionel – “That was old school. Keep developing, keep growing.” Katy – “I thought that was really good, I thought it was really joyful. You’re an inspiration.” Luke – “I wasn’t all the way sold on the song just then. Good job on showing us another element.”

Woah. What?! After last week’s “What’s Going On?” triumph (with Allen Stone), the Crying Man comes out like a cruise ship entertainer on meth. The spastic dancing. The over-exaggerated facial expressions. The vocal that’s fighting to be heard over the insanely busy arrangement. Nothing is working for Marcio tonight. I never thought I’d say this, but this actually makes me miss seeing him constantly on the verge of tears. Grade: D

Mara Justine – “This is Me” (from The Greatest Showman) – The judges’ take: Katy – “I feel like you have come a long way. I know you’re better than that. I’m looking forward to hearing you sing again.” Luke – “I wouldn’t say I was completely emotionally invested in that performance.” Lionel – “I know what you’ve been through. You’re bringing your inner-strength forward.”

Over a text conversation during the show, my dad nailed the problem that has emerged with Mara. He described her overconfidence as “sickening.” After a frankly over-the-top performance, Mara reacts as if she’s just won the whole season. Mara’s emotions just take her into a cartoonish realm. Even though she has a strong voice, she really seems far too immature for this competition. Grade: C

Garrett Jacobs – “Raging Fire” (Phillip Phillips) – The judges’ take: Luke – “A very dynamic performance from you. You took us on a little ride. You’re our first performer that really looked comfortable.” Lionel – “Stay in character.” Katy – “I believed you were comfortable up there. I want everyone to win. You’re doing great.”

Katy admits she wants “everyone to win,” which means she has absolutely no business being a “judge.” Garrett shouldn’t have taken a number of people’s spot in the Top 14, nor should he have taken numerous people’s spot in the Top 24. The guy simply defines bland in every way. He’s a big blank spot on the screen. As inoffensive as he is, there’s absolutely nothing interesting about this guy. If he sticks around it’s because of some unseen agenda on the producers’/judges’ part. Grade: C-

Ada Vox – “The Show Must Go On” (Queen) – Lionel – “You have no idea how fabulous you are. You came here tonight to shop the show. You take us to another level.” Katie – “You finally started the show. It’s exciting to see you spread your wings.” Luke – “The biggest voice I ever heard. That’s all I have to say about that. Good job.”

I like Ada’s voice a lot, as does seemingly everyone. The problem is, nothing about this reliably grand-scale performance adds to our appreciation of that voice. Everything sounded good, but Ada will need to continue figuring out ways to surprise us via song choice and delivery. Grade: B-

Catie Turner – “Take Me to Church” (Hozier) – The judges’ take: Katy – “Whatever happens, I would like to personally sing with you. I think you are exactly as you should be.” Luke – “I told you don’t read stuff online. You can win this thing by the way.” Lionel – “You are truly authentic unto yourself. You’re on your way to something.”

Catie has read all the mixed opinions of her manic personality and often forced-feeling “goofiness.” And she comes out as restrained as we’ve ever seen her. And even though I was one of those “haters” (not really, I’ve always liked her singing—I just thought her persona was highly annoying), I miss the old Catie in a way. Her presentation lacked everything that made her stand out in this contest. If this was the first night of the season you watched, you’d have to wonder what all the talk of “haters” was even about. This performance faded from my memory as soon as it ended. Grade: C

Cade Foehner – “Black Magic Woman” (Santana) – The judges’ take: Luke – “My wife loves you. That performance shows so much about you. You don’t have to do the big vocal, you can rip the guitar and get the big audience reaction.” Lionel – “We call that the package. You are the package.” Katy – “My mom is obsessed with you. [Ed. Note: Katy took some of his hair for her mom and didn’t say anything else].

You know the John Mellencamp song “Play Guitar” (from 1983’s Uh-Huh)? If not, go take a listen. It describes Cade to a T. You know who else he reminds me of? Brendan Fraser’s brilliant performance as a big ol’ tool of a wannabe “rock star” in Airheads (1994; a seriously underrated, forgotten classic comedy).

Cade appears to be a capable guitarist. But his whole image, his range-free voice with its affected rawk growl… yeah, just ain’t working. Nice to hear an old classic rock song though. Grade: C-

Dennis Lorenzo – “In My Blood” (Shawn Mendes) – The judges’ take: Lionel – “You have just taken that next step m y friend.” Katy – “I thought it was a little shaky at the start. You showed me another thing tonight. You’re totally like a rocker.” Luke – “You’ve showed us so many sides of you. It was a new definition of rock and R&B fusion.”

Interesting, if confounding, take on Katy’s part: “a new definition of rock and R&B fusion.” Dennis’ performance sounded like neither. I, for one, have no idea who Dennis wants to be. He was in good voice though. It just wasn’t very memorable. Grade: B-

Maddie Poppe – “Homeward Bound” (Simon & Garfunkel) – Katy – “I closed my eyes and I thought I was listening to Joni Mitchell. You have incredible musical taste.” Luke – “The way you interweave from your high voice. It’s so seasoned.” Lionel – “You present you on every song. That’s what we call a career and maybe a winner on American Idol.”

The delicate arrangement and daring vocal approach exposed every slightly off-key moment. But it was also heartfelt. Maddie is humble and mature. It makes her standout amidst all the wannabe “stars” this season. It may not have been technically perfect, but it felt right. I hope Maddie is safe. Grade: B

Jurnee – “Bang Bang” (Ariana Grande, Jessie J., Nicki Manaj) – The judges’ take: Luke – “Thank you for showing us another side. Good job.” Lionel – “Oh yeah. You’re bringing it.” Katy – “I’ve never seen you move. We know you can sing. I think you’re an artist now and not some wedding singer.”

Further proof the judges simply aren’t listening. Jurnee was so off throughout this chaotic performance that she was almost singing in another key—or at least wobbling in and out of the desired one. This was in fact the very worst vocal, from a technical standpoint, of the entire night. But yeah, just listen to Lionel, she’s “bringing it.” Katy even thinks she’s an “artist now and not some wedding singer”—implying that that’s how she regarded her previously. So let me get this straight: dancing around while performing a shaky cover of a disposable pop hit is enough to transform someone into an “artist.” Just.. wow. Grade: F

Jonny Brenns – “This is Gospel” (Panic! At the Disco) – The judges’ take: Lionel – “I love watching you perform. Half of the game is we get on stage to do what we love. Forget the notes.” Katy – “Thank you for taking my advice. I thought this performance was really fun. I think you can work on the notes.” Luke – “This completion is forcing you to attack big notes you’re not used to. Kudos to you for just having fun.”

In terms of stage presence, Jonny—like Garrett—is a complete non-entity. But Jonny has a pleasant voice. Usually. This was one of his lesser vocal performances and a terrible song choice. Luke offers kudos for “just having fun.” This is a competition. Caleb, who the judges uniformly dissed tonight (well, relatively dissed by their soft standards), has been refining his strategy. Yet Jonny is praised for just taking it easy. Bizarre. (Well, it would be bizarre to hear a judge take that stance in any previous season of Idol). Grade: D+

Michael J. Woodard – “Titanium” (David Guetta featuring Sia) – The judges’ take: Katy – “I met a star today. You sang your song incredibly well.” Luke – “People are going to love you.” Lionel – “You are a Martian. You are giving another level that is so pure. You are a star.”

Michael’s a “star,” so say the judges. Were these lyrics in English? Admittedly, I don’t know the song. But I honestly couldn’t understand half of what Michael was singing. I generally like the tone of his voice, but tonight this didn’t do anything for me. But apparently he’s already a full-fledged “star.” Grade: C

Gabby Barrett – “The Climb” (Miley Cyrus) – The judges’ take: Luke – “That was my favorite vocal situation of the night. I feel like you’re not playing around anymore. Good job.” Katy – “You went through the star wash. You look like a star. You sound like a star.” Lionel – “I think what we’re watching right now – ‘A star is born’ – we’re watching the beginning.”

So funny, Katy—she went through the “star wash!” Again, when EVERYONE is a “star,” the very concept of being a “star” is rendered null and void!

At the very least, Mara seems genuine overwhelmed by all the praise and adulation. Gabby is a different breed. She’s apparently been told all her life that she’s a star. She’s been groomed for this. And when the judges lavish all this insanely generous praise on her, she takes it in stride. She nods and smiles, with a look in her eye that says, “I already know I’m all that.”

Gabby is beyond even faking humility. And for that alone I hope she doesn’t win. But the judges’/producers’ agenda seems clear: we will likely be seeing Gabby all the way to the top, or very near it. Her overly-affected country twang says it all about how prepackaged she already is.

Her take on Miley’s hit is polished and technically as close to perfection as can be. It’s also passionless. Gabby has a nice voice she needs to do something to startle us, because this “pimp spot” performance was par for the course. Grade: B-

Who knows which four the judges will send home? I’m kind of guessing the judges already knew even before they heard tonight’s performances. If it were entirely up to me, I’d cut these four: Jurnee, Garrett, Jonny, Cade.

Chaz Lipp

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