The cheerleading of judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan has reached nauseating levels. Throughout tonight’s Top 14 performances, they simply decline any form of actual critique in favor of buttering up. This kind of “you rock!” geeing up isn’t actually going to help of these contestants figure out how to improve, despite the judges’ apparent believe that they are somehow preparing them for the weeks to come.

Laine Hardy – “That’s All Right” The judges’ take – Katy – “You know your strengths and you’re playing them well. It’s great to see a good-looking man step into his personality.” Luke – “Get a little looser. I wanted to see you let go. I don’t want to critique you too much. Your voice has come so far from last year.” Lionel – “I want to say nothing, just do it some more.”

Laine needs to dig a bit deeper. He’s having fun and choosing solid, crowd-pleasing numbers. Lionel wants to say nothing, so he proceeds to do basically just that—again, offering zero in the way of guidance. There’s a glibness to Laine that is becoming a bit off-putting and, although this Elvis number was cool, he needs to vary things a bit. Grade: B-

Evelyn Cormier – “The Middle” (Jimmy Eat World) The judges’ take – Luke – “One of the most important things to do on this show is to come out here and elevate the game. We like to see a whole other element. Good job.” Lionel – “That’s what show business is all about. Congratulations.” Katy – “Great song choice. Thank you for taking a chance, it really paid off.”

Evelyn’s low, smoky tone doesn’t really fit this tune. In fact, it’s an outright mismatch. But the judges are beside themselves over her mid-song kick. As if it was a feat of great acrobatics (she reprises it twice post-performance). At times, her voice disappears in the rock arrangement and that’s a problem. Grade: C-

Alyssa Raghu – “She Use to Be Mine” (Sara Bareilles) The judges’ take – Lionel – “The sauce is on fire. Spicy sauce. Every time you come out, you give us a little more of a peek at your growth. I America understands the work you’ve put in.” Katy – “I’m a fan. I thought that was a great song. I just want you to keep playing those dynamics just a little bit more.” Luke – “It was very angelic and perfect. Make sure you have little ways to keep the audience engaged through the whole song.”

Alyssa has earned her second chance and, despite a slightly too-dramatic reading (as if she was acting out the lyrics in a musical), this performance is evidence of that (the song plays perfectly to her strengths). With her assured, crystal clear intonation, Alyssa is an early contender for best of the night. Grade: B+

Eddie Island – “Bennie and the Jets” The judges’ take – Katy – “I thought it was really good. Don’t forget you’re a magnificent singer.” Luke – “You are here because you make us smile. Just vocally, make sure you stay on top of it.” Lionel – “All I’m going to say to you is, isn’t it great being different? You’re straight down your lane, where you’re supposed to be. Stay on it. Rock it.”

Woah. The abomination that is Eddie Island reaches a total nadir. The judges were high on crack when they picked this clown for Top 14 and now here’s the payoff. A total camp take on Elton John might work if he had an inkling of how to sing it. The judges’ non-committal commentary is the closest they’ll come to negativity all night. This joke of a “performance” is among the most execrable moments in Idol history. Grade: F

Riley Thompson – “Suds in the Bucket” (Sara Evans) The judges’ take – Luke – “How does it feel becoming a star? Great choice of song. That’s a high note on that song. Great job.” Lionel – “Are you watching, America?” This has been an attack of the 16-year-old.” Katy – “You keep growing to the next level. It’s so natural. You are owning the stage.”

Kellie Pickler did this years ago, and Simon Cowell criticized it as a poor song choice, but it’s a bouncy little number that somehow fits Riley’s cute-as-a-button persona. And speaking of cute, Riley’s seven-year-old sister makes it impossible to be too cynical or negative about Riley’s spit-polished “perfection.” But it does fall into that forgettable category of “average Idol” that won’t attract voters over those terminally addicted to anything C&W (and there are a lot of viewers that fit that bill). Grade: B-

Wade Cota – “Trouble” (Ray Lamontagne) The judges’ take – Lionel – “I’m giving you the name Wade the Hammer. That was powerful.” Katy – “Great song choice. You picked the right song. It was amazing, it was emotional, it was strong. I believe in your voice so much.” Luke – “It was a spiritual moment. When you sing with your body it fires us up.”

It pains me to say it, but I think Wade peaked a couple weeks ago with his Hollywood Week solo. His limitations have become all too apparent. The raspy voice, which he explains in a pre-performance package evolved out of his previous stint as a metal screamer, sounds hoarse and utterly exhausted tonight. Taylor Hicks helped bring this great tune into the Idol Hall of Fame, but Wade can’t quite take command of it. Grade: D+

Dimitrius Graham – “Perfect” (Ed Sheeran) The judges’ take – Katy – “You do look perfect. You’ve really developed into an artist. I think you’re exceptional singer. Don’t forget to make the hairs on my arm stand up. You’re a miraculous singer and incredible artist.” Luke – “Don’t forget to use that microphone.” Lionel – “You take it in a quiet form and take us to that Kaboom. Give us that for the rest of your career.”

One of the top voices this season, Dimitrius falters a bit early on. He delivers toward the end, but this felt a bit lacking in his usual confidence. It needs to be said, by the way, host Ryan Seacrest offered more astute post-performance commentary than any of the actual judges by actually talking to Dimitrius about his arrangement choices. Grade: C+

Madison Vandenberg – “Fallin’” (Alicia Keys) The judges’ take – Luke – “That is how you put yourself in contention. You have become a diva now.” Lionel – “We need security on the set. You killed it.” Katy – “You’ve just carved out your own – you’re your own person. Please keep giving that and more.”

Madison is a very technically-sound, accomplished vocalist. It would be nice if, sorta like Laine (although they’re obviously stylistically very different), she would really dig in and connect emotionally with the material. Verging on show-offy, this is a strong, brassy performance that is ultimately too superficial to usurp Alyssa for best female vocal of the night. Grade: B

Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon – “We All Fall In Love Sometimes” (Elton John) The judges’ take – Lionel – “You went past Freddie Mercury and you Jeremiahed the whole thing. It was amazing. Your voice is amazing and your career is going to be amazing.” Katy – “I’m a mess. I’m just so proud. You’re a light to the world. Your story is everything and your talent supersedes all.” Luke – “I’m not worthy to be sitting here watching.”

Speaking of connecting emotionally, Jeremiah does that nearly every time he sings. Last week’s “Time After Time” duet was a bit blah, truth be told, but move over Eddie Island—THIS is how you do Elton. At first it seemed too obscure a number to make an impression, but Jeremiah rendered such concerns irrelevant by thoroughly owning his moment. Grade: A

Uché – “Finesse” (Bruno Mars) The judges’ take – Katy – “Are we allowed to show that performance on television. Whatever happens on this competition, keep swinging, you’re going to hit.” Luke – “That was like the opening of the best awards show ever.” Lionel – “You are wonderful. You’re the show stopper.”

Showman-extraordinaire Uche performs like a man possessed. His vocals get a bit smothered by the arrangement, and this is—as Simon and Randy used to remind us regularly when the judges actually mattered on this show—a singing contest. Uche is still one to reckon with, but hopefully he can find a better balance between precise vocals and his incredible stage presence. Grade: B

Alejandro Aranda – “One Dance” (Drake) The judges’ take – Luke – “In my eyes you can do no wrong. You just became Las Vegas selling out DJ.” Lionel – “Versatility is the one thing you have to have. You are so versatile. I’m jealous.” Katy – “It was incredibly smooth. You were just like a shape-shifter. Don’t forget as a true artist there’s a push and a pull.”

The acoustic troubadour trades in the guitar for the DJ console. Rave Alejandro might not connect with audiences as well as coffee-house Alejandro, but I doubt voters will have figured out they’re being rooked just yet. And even if they do, the judges aren’t going to let Goofy slip away yet. Grade: C-

Ashley Hess – “Fix You” (Coldplay) The judges’ take – Lionel – “Everybody is ruling tonight. Your performance was very, very strong.” Katy – “You’re a true singer-songwriter.” Luke – “What I love about that performance is that’s what embody. You’re being the best you possible.”

Ashley is one the best female voices of this group and she does Coldplay just fine. But this falls into that forgettable “average Idol” territory. It seems too safe and easy a choice for her at this point. Grade: C

Laci Kaye Booth – “I Miss You” (Blink-182) The judges’ take – Katy – “You look gorgeous. You sing timelessly. You are the definition – in my own opinion – of Idol.” Luke – “Nothing was going to stop you from getting to this point where you’re at right now.” Lionel – “It’s almost like we’re the parents and we’re watching the kids jump out of the nest. You’re blossoming.”

Another breathy ballad from one-gear Laci Kaye. Her act is getting old. She has more potential than her moody kindred spirit Evelyn, but it seems like we’ve been hearing the exact same performance from her week after week. Grade: C-

Walker Burroughs – “Climb Every Mountain” The judges’ take – Luke – “That was one of the most interesting performances I’ve seen you do. You brought the whole house down. What a tough, tough song.” Lionel – “You’re dressed for GQ. The most important thing is you have grown so much.” Katy – “You literally climbed every step of the mountain of that song.”

Walker shores up the grandma vote with this Sound of Music chestnut, but his usual over-earnestness make it a bit hard to pin him down. He’s been consistently confident, but falters mid-song with some timing errors. He has a nice voice, but it’s a bit bland—especially when compared with the likes of Dimitrius, Jeremiah, Uche, and Laine. The men are usually strong this year and Walker, despite being awarded the coveted “pimp spot” tonight, is likely not going to be around long. Grade: C+

Who knows what the judges will ultimately decide, but who should be going home based on tonight’s performances? Eddie Island, Evelyn Cormier, and—I hate to say it—Wade.

Cinema Lowdown

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