By Chaz Lipp

If these “judges”—Lionel Ritchie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan—don’t start offering some tangible critiques this is going to be a very long season. There’s no more fear or nerves associated with facing the judges. This season has been, “Okay whether we liked your or not, stand and receive our most enthusiastic raves.” I hope to God that this changes at least somewhat once the actual competition begins.

I’m starting to wonder if the general public will have any real voting power at all this season. Read between the lines of some of what the judges have said following various contestants’ performances, and it becomes easier to envision a “new” Idol where the judges wield the power to save anyone at any time. I could be wrong, but I feel like there might be a potential “judges save” every single week once the voting period begins. We’ll see.

For now, the judges do in fact hold all the power. Over two nights we saw half of the Top 24 perform solo and duets with established stars. Here’s our Night Two recap, the duets, and some thoughts on whether or not the Holy Trinity let the right five singers go at the end.

Catie Turner with Andy Grammer – “Good to be Alive” – The judges’ take: Katy – “You are such a natural. You are amazing.” Lionel – “I’m sure you are several people. You’re doing things you’re not supposed to know yet. You killed it.” Luke – “It was amazing.”

Right off the bat, the judges are on “up with people” autopilot. The fact is, as annoying a presence as she is, Catie is a good singer. Lionel loves “her whole thing,” which basically means he is amused by her spazzing out all the time. Close your eyes when Catie performs and just listen. Grade: B-

Cade Foehner with Bishop Briggs – “Never Tear Us Apart” – The judges’ take: Lionel – “Put the tickets on sale. Amazing.” Luke – “You want to come on tour? Just keep doing your deal.” Katy – “You really have it.”

‘Amazing’ and ‘you have it’ are apparently going to be catchphrases of ALL THREE judges. Seriously, these big stars can’t think of ANYTHING more creative to offer by way of useful feedback for these contestants? Anyway, Cade Faux-ner continues to trot his “Rock Star” act to the endless fawning of three judges who should know better. But this season more than any other, Idol is a form of subliminal brainwashing. I don’t know that we’ve seen ANY genuine reaction from the judges—it feels like they’ve been told who to plug and, as they collect massive paychecks, they’re programming us for who to vote for. And they want Fake Poseur to make the top two. At least Bishop Briggs, who’d I’d never heard of, was rockin’ this INXS classic. Grade: B+

Layla Spring with Sugarland – “Stuck Like Glue” – Luke – “You just fit in with them (Jennifer Nettles/Sugarland).” Katy – “You have talent and personality.” Lionel – “You handled yourself as if you’ve been there forever.”

The judges don’t quite shower Layla with praise, which is a bad omen indeed. Layla’s enthusiasm borders on psychotic at times and it’s been clear from day one she isn’t ready for this kind of competition. She’s been having fun though. And maybe she’ll mature into a good country pop performer in a few years. Grade: C-

Dominique with Aloe Blacc – “Wake Me Up” – The judges’ take: Katy – “I don’t know how to critique anymore.” [Ed Note: When did you, exactly?] Lionel – “Do you have any idea how smooth that was. You might be capable of being famous.” Luke – “Your versatility…you’re just a world-class singer.”

They seem to really like him. I do too. Dominique delivered a mature, seasoned, emotive performance. Maybe he’s all wrong for this particular season of Idol. Grade: B+

Brandon Diaz With Luis Fonsi – “Despacito” – The judges’ take: Lionel – “You were toe to toe.” Luke – “Great song choice, great job.” Katy – “It was really beautiful, you really held your own tonight.”

From one gimmick to the next—last night he sang Lionel’s biggest song, tonight he’s one-upping Michelle by doing an entire performance in Spanish. It’s okay, but Fonsi shows him up hardcore. I’ve been predicting this guy’s outster for some time. But to hear the judges’ assessment, they seem to be ready to crown him this year’s winner. Real nice, guys. Grade: C

Kay Kay with Pat Monahan – “Drive By” – The judges’ take: Luke – “Great job. It was a little outside of your comfort zone. You’re such a natural on stage. Good job.” Katy – “I thought the blend of you guys was amazing.” Lionel – “You took care of business, I commend you.”

The producers tip their hand with Kay Kay. In a move that is downright cruel by this season’s “we love everyone” presentation, they show rehearsal footage of Kay Kay having difficulty hearing herself over the band. No one else had to suffer this particular indignity. The song was not a good fit for her either. All things considered, she did a decent job but clearly the producers want us to know there are dark clouds on the horizon. Grade: C+

Trevor McBane with Bishop Briggs – “River” – The judges’ take: Katy – “It was amazing to see you come out of your shell.” Lionel – “That was the real deal. You did well.” Luke – “You give us such a consistency. You have a clear path in your artistry.”

They’re trying hard to fool us with their endless, overstated, hyperbolic praise, but after a rough performance it’s clear Trevor is existing on borrowed time. By the way, this Bishop Briggs is a great performer. But the way their duet is staged, Trevor is basically her backup singer. And maybe the song was in a tough key for him, or maybe he just doesn’t have enough range, but Trevor seems lost. I like his voice when he’s doing his growly thing (better than Cade, to be sure) but he has trouble carrying the melody here when given the chance. Grade: D

Michelle Sussett with Luis Fonsi – “I Can’t Make You Love Me” – Lionel – “That was what you call chemistry.” Luke – “I didn’t want it to end.” Katy – “No matter what, you made me a believer.”

During the rehearsal footage, we see Fonsi suggesting that Michelle isn’t quite conveying the song’s heartbreak. The performance is entirely passable but not particularly noteworthy. Michelle is better at this point when she’s doing her Selena thing, dancing and engaging the audience. Grade: B-

Jonny Brenns with Andy Grammer – “Back Home” – The judges’ take: Luke – “You did great.” Lionel – “You were having some fun on that one.” Katy – “Maybe take a couple undercover ballet classes or movement classes.”

Well, Katy revealed she’s not entirely onboard with the Johnny Brenns Express. Clearly the producers see this guy going up near (or at) the top. But here he’s phoning it in. And Katy calls him, a bit obliquely, on the apparently “aw shucks, I’m nothin’ special” laziness he usually exudes. Grade: C

Dennis Lorenzo with Allen Stone – “Unaware” – The judges’ take: Katy – “That was so special. Keep doing what you’re doing.” Lionel – “That was spectactular.” Luke – “You’re like the Little Engine That Could.”

Nice work by Dennis, and Allen Stone graciously allows that he might have been out-sung in this case. Most of the pros have mopped the floor with the contestants tonight (as well they should, given their stature and experience), but Dennis delivers the performance of the night. Grade: A

Michael J. Woodard with Pat Monahan – “Angel in Blue Jeans” – The judges’ take: Lionel – “You are really rising to the occasion.” Luke – “I have not been able to take my eyes off you.” Katy – “You’re just a beautiful chameleon.”

Michael has a unique vocal delivery and a genuinely awestruck persona that makes him nearly impossible not to root for. Monahan, who comes off like just about the nicest guy in all of show business, is much better paired here than earlier with Kay Kay. It’s clear now how the night was structured: open with a couple strong contenders (in the judges’ minds), get all the iffy folks (again, in the judges’ view) out of the way, and keep ramping up the stronger singers. Grade: B+

Gabby Barrett with Sugarland – “Stay” – The judges take: Luke – “We’re seeing someone today who just nailed it from top to bottom.” Katy – “Way to show up.” Lionel – “It’s one thing to follow the dots, it’s another to hit the points.”

The coveted “pimp spot” has arrived. It’s absolutely clear they fully expect Gabby to take it right to the top. But her air of entitlement—the sense that she seems to already fully believe she belongs here—will ultimately be her undoing. Mark my words. (Unless, of course, I’m also right that this season the judges will be able to prevent anyone going home who they don’t want to.) Gabby did great last night, but here with Sugarland, she seems to be walking through it without much energy. Hardly worthy of closing the show. Grade: C

Now, as host Ryan Seacrest proclaims, it’s time for “the results.” Of what? There has been no voting. The audience has no say. Does anyone really believe for a second that the judges didn’t already know who they were sending packing going before even hearing these performances? As it turns out, after “wowing” us with Catie and Cade, the five unfortunate singers going home were lined up in a row.

Going home: Dominique, Layla, Trevor, Kay Kay, Brandon

Did they get it right? Almost. I called four of the five even before hearing the duets. I would’ve retained Dominique, for sure, and probably cut Michelle. Onto the other half-dozen, next week!

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