By Chaz Lipp

Just a reminder to judges Lionel Ritchie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan: quit complaining about how “hard” it was to cut five contestants. If this had been like American Idol of years past, the public would’ve been making those decisions via the voting process. Some perplexing choices were made after a set of sometimes interesting, but mostly middling, celebrity duets.

Caleb Lee Hutchinson with Bebe Rexha – “Meant to Be” – The judges’ take Katy – “That was really fun to see you outside your comfort zone.” Luke – “Nobody has awe shucks country boy down better than you.” Lionel – “That was amazing.”

“Amazing” it was not, sorry Lionel. Too easy to throw that adjective around about everybody and everything. Caleb delivered a serviceable duet and nothing more. There’s not spark of anything special about Caleb, though he seems to be loosening up and letting some welcome humor into his persona. But that doesn’t really help his singing. Grade: C+

Ada Vox with Lea Michele – “Defying Gravity” (from Wicked) – The judges’ take: Lionel – “Ada goes through the ozone. There’s no denying your voice.” Katy – “Your sound transcends words. I wonder if you have any extra notes in there.” Luke – “You figure out a way to bring the house down all the time.”

This was solid, but a word of advice to Ada: don’t let it go to your head. In seasons past, there have been early favorites who the judges, the public, or both turned on. Actually, after knocking it over the fence the previous night, Ada verged on over-singing here. Grade: B-

Maddie Poppe with Colbie Caillat – “Bubbly” – The judges’ take: Luke – “I think you’re probably our most complete artist. Great job. I’m sold.” Katy – “That was so beautiful.” Lionel – “I applaud you.”

“Our most complete artist” – what does that even mean, Luke? I swear, some of the comments these judges throw out there are not only unhelpful, they’re downright nonsensical. Maddie has a pleasant voice. Her lack of pretension and ego is refreshing, though her whole “I don’t really think I deserve to be here” routine is beginning to wear thin. In duet with Caillat, she seemed more like a backup singer than co-vocalist. Grade: C

Ron Bultongez with Banners – “Someone to You” – The judges’ take: Katy – “It was fun to see that adventure that you just took. It wasn’t perfect, but perfection is boring.” Lionel – “You were there and you handled it.” Luke – “You have a special thing that pulls people in. Good job.”

Woah. Whatever the judges saw in Ron early on hasn’t been in evidence either of these nights. This was just rough. A poor song choice, poor duet-partner match, and ill-advised jumping around and cheerleading all conspire to sing Ron even further than his baffling “pimp spot” disaster from the previous night. Grade: D+

Amelia Hammer Harris with Bebe Rexha – “Me, Myself & I” – The judges’ take: Lionel – “It’s not about the win, it’s about the platform. You have a solid grip on the platform.” Katy – “I think you’re a star.” Luke – “We haven’t seen it done that well quite yet. Good job.”

Katy thinks she’s a star. But that’s utterly meaningless because all three judges have declared everyone in the top 24 a “star.” Like several of the duets tonight, this sounds like the contestant merely attempting to mimic the star. Close your eyes and the only difference is that the star is singing better. The approach is the same. And this was boring as a result. Grade: D+

Shannon O’Hara with Cam – “Burning House” – The judges’ take: Luke – “That was mesmerizing.” Katy – “It’s so fun to see you get not shy. I want to see more of that in the future.” Lionel – “You did all the body language right. You were singing together. That’s what a duet is supposed to be – together.”

“I want to see more of that in the future,” says Katy, which implies they plan to see her again. What a cruel way to “critique,” by suggesting to every single contestant that they will be back onstage for more. Five are going home tonight. I didn’t really want one of them to be Shannon, but she hasn’t overcome a bland stage presence. Grade: C+

Alyssa Raghu with Banners – “Yellow” (Coldplay) – The judges’ take: Katy – “I thought it was a good push and pull of two different voices. Your tone is spectacular.” Lionel – “I know what you can do, but that didn’t give me what you shine on, what makes you stand out.” Luke – “No matter what happens, we’ve seen your wheelhouse.”

Oh, this one hurts. I just love Alyssa’s maturity and the crystal clear tone of her voice. Her delivery is remarkably assured, regardless of her youth. But like many before her, the Idol machine did her no favors by suggesting she change up her approach. Too much “coaching” has left young Alyssa second-guessing her own talent. This pairing was terribly conceived and the song was simply not cut out for duetting. This is a repetitive slog, unfortunately—Alyssa is much better than this. Grade: C-

Marcio Donaldson with Allen Stone – “What’s Goin’ On” (Marvin Gaye) – The judges’ take: Lionel – “It was a spiritual moment. Let that magic shine.” Luke – “It’s so fun watching…” Katy – “You are a different person than what we saw yesterday. You’re meant to be here and you know it now.”

Wow. Easily my fave of the night, and I say that as a late-arrival to the Marcio celebration. And special kudos to Allen Stone for being such a trooper to step back in after last week to fill in for an ailing Toni Braxton. For once, the judges’ fawning is entirely justified. Marcio has great vocal range and it was on full display here. And doing old school classics by the likes of Natalie Cole and Marvin Gaye will help cement his popularity with older Idol viewers. Grade: A

Jurnee with Lea Michele – “Run to You” – The judges’ take: Luke – “I just love everything about your voice.” Katy – “I felt your heart even more so in that song tonight. It was so beautiful.” Lionel – “The journey you’re taking us on is unbelievable. The sky is the limit for you.”

Jurnee has a nice voice and confident presence but, I don’t know. She’s missing that spark. Nothing really wrong with this duet at all, just nothing that sticks out as being truly memorable or noteworthy. Grade: B-

Garrett Jacobs with Colbie Caillat – “Lucky” – The judges’ take: Katy – “Your heart was in it. It was beautiful. You grew a lot from yesterday. I believe that you’re super-cool now.” Luke – “That was a great step in the right direction for you. I was proud of you there.” Lionel – “All you have to do is work on presentation. Just grow.”

I wonder how many of these contestants inspire mixed feelings among the judges. Something tells me Lionel doesn’t believe Garrett belongs in this contest. And he’s right. But something tells me the show’s producers want a teen heartthrob. This was better than his foul attempt the previous night, but still—what’s he doing here? He defines average in every way. Grade: C

Mara Justine with Rachel Platten – “Fight Song” – The judges’ take: Lionel – “You found your center. I love you.” Luke – “Way to shine.” Katy – “I feel like you could use a combination now. I thought tonight was beautiful.”

“Way to” do this and “way to” do that—cliché after clichés from the judges. But this was quite good—second of the night only to Marcio. Unlike with Alyssa, the coaching of Mara’s presentation has paid off—she’s dialed it back and delivered impressive pure vocals. The “combination” Katy speaks of is that of her singing skill and performance flair. And she’s right. Now’s the time for Mara to find a balance between her voice and her unlimited energy. Grade: B+

Effie Passero with Cam – “Diane” – The judges’ take: Luke – “Great job!” Katy – “That was good.” Lionel – “You’re on fire.”

Luke and Katy seem reserved in their praise, while Lionel resorts to empty hyperbole. Like Marcio and Allen Stone, this duet was a last-minute throw-together (Jessie J couldn’t make it). It’s good work, much more restrained than the Heart histrionics Effie displayed the previous night. And although I predicted her impending dismissal in my previous write-up, it’s not because she’s one of the worst five. Grade: B

Judgment time. Going home: Shannon, Amelia, Effie, Ron, Alyssa. Boy was I wrong. In my previous recap, I only successfully predicted Amelia and Effie. I’m going to truly miss Alyssa, as I think she would’ve brought a lot to the contest. She has that “talented underdog” quality of someone like Elliot Yamin. I also think both Shannon and Effie are better than at least a few of the seven chosen ones.

Oh well, now we have the top 14 and it’s onto the voting rounds at last. We can only hope that Idol lets the public truly decide who goes home each week, unlike last season where the bottom two were revealed and the judges decided who was leaving.

Chaz Lipp

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