American Idol is determined to shake it up this season, and that means the show we thought we could read like the backs of our hands is putting on a whole new face. First, Hollywood week was altered by separating the genders like a middle school dance and by having producers pick the group night groups like substitute teachers running a field trip. In that instance, the changes didn’t exactly work and we were left yawning through what is usually the best segment of the competition. Now, we’ve reached the Las Vegas portion of the show, where we usually run into some leftover group drama and start meeting the singers we’re really going to care about for the next few months. But this season, Idol is doing it differently. And as much as I hate change on this show, I must admit, the new slash and burn process really works.
Rather than letting the contestants put together performances in the comfy little bubble of friend groups and delivering their songs in front of only the judges, Season 12’s contestants are thrown into the fire of a live performance in a packed arena and made to sink or swim for their chance to make it to the big stage in Hollywood. It feels slightly more like a pageant, but when the performances started rolling out, it was clear that this process was the way to weed out the weaklings from the herd. Sudden death may have been conceived as a ratings ploy, but it works as a talent-sorting process.
Add to that the fact that Nicki Minaj is coming to the stage with her (mostly) natural hair, which I can only assume helped her to spew her brutally honest commentary all night. Whatever it is, it’s working. And if Nicki’s coif wasn’t enough, we get the return of Jimmy Iovine, who’s in the house as the tie-breaker, should the judges find themselves tied up at sudden death time. This isn’t the Idol we know, but it’s not half bad.
RELATED: 'American Idol': Is This Girl a Frontrunner Already?
For round one, we watch the first half of the top 20 girls perform and watch five of them go home (probably dramatically crying) at the end of the two hours. It’s simple, but it’s effective and largely brutal.
First up is Jenny Beth Willis with “Heaven, Heartache, and The Power of Love” by Trisha Yearwood. She’s got a solid, old fashioned country voice, but in her black and pink saloon dress and slouchy cowboy boots, she looks like what Avril Lavigne would dress as if she was going as a country star for Halloween. And if her performance was amazing, it wouldn’t matter what she was wearing at this stage in the game, but the judges all agree that something was missing from her lackluster performance. She was simply boring. There were no dynamics for a song that packs a lot of energy. The judges were in agreement, though Mariah took it upon herself to tell the girl, “That last note hit it out of the park, you gotta work on the rest of it.” See, that’s a big problem, when “the rest of it” is two and a half minutes of eye-rolling performance time.
Miss Camp Mariah, Tenna Torres, takes up the task of going second with “Soulmate” by Natasha Bedingfield. Tenna’s vocals have never been what I would call perfect during this competition. She’s a little shrill here and there, but what’s important to cull from this performance is that whether or not her vocals are spot on, she commands our attention on stage. Technically, she’s alright, but as a whole package she turns a relatively sleepy song and absolutely ropes us in in a way that the original singer never did. The judges naturally love the performance (Nicki, is however, incensed by Tenna’s far-too mature hairdo), and Randy goes so far as to burn the poor little country singer who started the show saying, “THIS is the start of the night.” Ya burned, little Jenny.
The hits keep coming with Adriana Latonio, the first semi-finalist from Alaska (I find this hard to believe, but I’ll take Ryan Seacrest’s word for it). She sings an Aretha Franklin song because even though she’s 17, she’s ballsy as hell. And despite my momentary distraction with her tomato red junior prom dress, she kills “Ain’t No Way,” hitting the most difficult notes like she’s been doing it for years. Unfortunately, the way the camera hugged Tenna and helped TV viewers understand the intimate nature of her performance, the camera worked against Adriana, so when the judges were praising her for coming so close to their fortress of solitude during her performance and the way it made the performance so personal, we couldn’t really keep up. Luckily, at this stage, it’s the judges who decide to keep singers on the show, so that camera work isn’t a problem just yet.
RELATED: 'American Idol Recap: Girls Light Up Hollywood Week
The unlucky lady following the phenomenon from Anchorage, Alaska is 26-year-old Brandy Hotard, who’s seen lots of singers on TV and totally knows how they act on stage. She’s perfected the art of pantomiming the pop star. But when she sings “Anymore” by Travis Tritt, she’s sweet, but it’s completely empty. She’s doing all the motions she thinks she has to do as a “famous” singer, but as every judge but Mariah points out, the girl is smiling while singing about devastation (something the resourceful young woman says can be attributed to the fact that she’d never beg a man to take her back the way the song’s lyrics do, which makes us wonder why the hell you chose the song, pretty girl). It’s simply not genuine, and it’s not something we want to watch for the next few weeks. Luckily, Keith and Nicki get really honest, Nicki even straight up tells the girl this was a pageant performance and they’re looking for an artist. For some reason Mariah finds a reason to praise her (we’re guessing it’s pity), but this girl’s fate is sealed.
And someone who walked into the room full of promise was young Shuba Vedula. The judges love her, something I never really understood, but this is the time for those colors to really show. Unfortunately, she showed all the wrong ones. She starts out sitting a piano, which let’s face it, makes her automatically more interesting. But then, she’s singing a slow version of a Lady Gaga song, which makes her automatically less interesting. And she ruins any little bit she had going for her when she hops up from the piano to sing a karaoke queen version of the song, prance-hopping around the stage like my dog the first time he goes outside and there is snow on the ground. It was disjointed, she was all over the place. Underneath the mess, she’s got a good voice, but it’s not enough. It’s simply not the performance of someone who’s ready to be a star, and Nicki agrees, giving Shuba the harsh criticism that her comical performance is like “a mashup of Christina Aguilera and the Gangnam Style guy.” Randy defends her, but only to ease the pain of Nicki’s harsh, personal criticism. But the girl does not know how to perform. She plopped a run on every note, her stage presence was off-putting and confusing. No matter how nice Mariah was at the end, this girl is not making it through.
Kamaria Ousley is a know-it-all. She’s been in the music business “for years,” and she once sang background for the group that was relevant for five minutes, Diddy Dirty Money. It’s a wonder then that her performance of “Mr. Know It All” by Kelly Clarkson was the worst of the night. The song runs her, and she’s off-key the entire time. Plus, the song is a very powerful pop song. People know it, they want to sing along, but there was nothing about this performance that would evoke that in a human being. It was awful. Randy couldn’t even muster some weird metaphor about a lost fish. It was that bad.
The least fussy performance of the evening also happens to be one of the best. Kree Harrison, who you may remember told a story about losing both of her parents years apart. Singing “Up To The Mountain” by Patty Griffin, Kree is dressed in simple clothes, delivering an effortless, emotionally-connected performance. She’s dynamic and her voice is incredible. That’s all there is to it. After giving her a standing ovation, Keith and Nicki sing her praises, and all of the judges love the fact that she gives a performance that’s organic as it is beautiful.
Angela Miller returns after blowing everyone away with her original song during Hollywood week. This time, she’s not as mind-blowing with “Nobody’s Perfect” by Jessie J, but she’s still pretty perfect. The judges love her, but they’re all stuck on last week, every single one of them doling out praise for a performance she gave back in December when Hollywood week was taped, but if it means she sticks around, that’s all that matters, even if it means we have to endure more of Mariah’s descriptions akin to “You had me clothed in goosebumps and bathed in tears.” (My theory is that as the last seat on the panel, Mariah sits there formulating all the ways in which she can one-up Nicki’s commentary but ultimately ruins it with her penchant for hyperbole. Nothing beats a good burn.)
RELATED: 'American Idol' Recap: Boring Boys in Hollywood
The girl with only one name, Isabelle, proves that she doesn’t belong in the Beyonce/Madonna one-name artist category. (And even if she did, Isabelle is not the name to do it with.) Like seven thousand Idol contestants before her, she sings “God Blessed the Child” with a cheesy, Vegasy arrangement. It sounds like she’s affecting her own voice instead of just singing with beauty and ease. In truth, she’s good. She’s got crazy pipes. But thankfully, Randy agrees with me. The only redeemable quality about this performance is the fact that the girl can sing, but it’s a matter of taste, and I’m not prepared to listen to this girl wade her way through bad taste for six weeks until Jimmy Iovine finally drills it into her skull that nobody wants to hear a Vegas lounge act. What’s more perplexing is that she says she saw Kree Harrison and her heart and wanted to be like her. First of all, DON’T BE LIKE ANOTHER CONTESTANT, BB GRL. Second of all, it seems you missed the point of Kree’s performance, ladybug.
Finally, washing away the awkwardness of Isabelle’s performance, returning contestant Amber Holcomb got more than just a makeover between last year and this year. The girl learned to perform. She sings “My Funny Valentine” with a somewhat dated smooth jazz arrangement, but her vocals are so strong that it works. It’s simple, without flash or pomp. We just get to witness an incredible voice and a compelling performance with an easy connection. The girl is simply incredible, even Mariah gives her a standing O, and Mariah doesn’t do that.
Nicki is concerned that the viewers at home can’t grasp how wonderful it was in person, and if that’s so, I can’t imagine how incredible the performance actually was because it definitely came through the TV, in spades. But if there’s anything that signals just how powerful this girl’s singing was, it was Mariah’s line of commentary: “Congratulations on just your talent.” Amber is someone who’s going to be important this year.
With all the performances complete, the judges pop out of the floor in director chairs to shine a spotlight on each girl before they tell her their fate. And after a few fakeouts, they chose to keep Tenna Torres, Kree Harrison, Angela Miller, Amber Holcomb, and Adriana Latonio. Of course, this is Idol so the cuts were somewhat dramatic, ranging from splitting up best friends Adriana and Shuba to watching Isabelle storm off stage before Keith is even done telling her that he fought for her because she’s got a great voice. In the end, the five girls who were cut were Jenny Beth Willis, Brandy Hotard, Isabelle, Kamaria Ousley, and Shuba Vedula.
Thursday night we’ll watch 10 of the guys face the same fate, though with the talent pool on the girls’ side being so much richer this year, something tells me the guys’ night will be a little less exciting. Then again, there are a few “exciting” bits from this first Vegas round that I never want to see again, so perhaps it’s for the best.
Follow Kelsea on Twitter @KelseaStahler
[Photo Credit: Michael Becker/Fox]
From Our Partners:25 Forgotten Celebrity Crushes of the ‘90s (Vh1)30 Stars Who Have Gone Topless (Celebuzz)
“We’ve got a competition!” –Randy
S10E18: Well, I hate to be a contrarian right out of the gate, but while the judges were all abuzz about how great the Idol competition is and how fantastic everyone was, I can’t help but disagree. I truly think that these contestants – as a group – have taken a few steps backwards. I remember just a few weeks ago, we were all talking about amazing everyone was and wondering how the hell we would choose between them and while the unique qualities that made us fall in love with a lot of them are still there, they seem to be struggling under the pressure. Granted, they are pushing themselves out of their comfort zones and that’s not easy and a few folks have begun to stand out in the midst of all these fumbles, but after last night most of the contestants really need to bank on the strength of their previous performances to sway Idol voters.
Another issue is that the folks had to choose songs from the years of their births and I suspect many of them felt detached from the songs they were crooning.(Also, are you ready to feel old, because even this late 80s baby was feeling like an old lady when I found out when these folks were born. Casey Abrams was born in 1991! Thia was born in 1993! Mind blown.)
Here are the top 12 from loved-it to pull-that-sucker-off-the-stage-with-an-old-timey-cane.
“If You Don’t Know Me By Now” by Simply Red
What?! Your eyes are not deceiving you. Not only is Casey not my number one, but the kid I said should have been booted over my beloved Robbie Rosen is suddenly the best of the bunch? No, I’m not on some weird substance that’s forcing me to see things upside down. Stefano is just blowing the competition out of the water. He’s still not my favorite overall, but I can’t ignore the fact that he rocked it last night.
Simon Says: I’ve got nothing bad to say about that.
“I’m Your Baby Tonight” by Whitney Houston
Now, I know a lot of folks are going to disagree with me on this one, but I think Haley was fantastic. I understand what Jennifer said about her learning to move her body more organically, but at heart this is a singing competition and this girl can sing. What I love about her is that she’s got that young girl/major voice dynamic going, but instead of using it to sing boring, cheesy standards like youngins before her (Katie Stevens, anyone?) she’s learned to play with it and use it in unexpected places. And this Whitney Houston song is not an easy one to take on, but not only did she rock it, it felt very Haley instead of just another cover on the shiny stage.
Simon Says: We’ve said this week in and week out. You are very young and it shows in your performances, but I like you.
“Where Do Broken Hearts Go” by Whitney Houston
There was a whole lotta Whitney going on last night, but she kind of ruled that early 90s sweet spot when most of these folks were born so it makes sense. Pia finally broke out of her ballad box and gave as an upbeat song for once and while she didn’t do great with the upbeat songs during the audition process, it seems that she’s kept her fire going this time. She wasn’t as mind-blowing as she was on the first night of the competition, but it’s obvious that she belongs here and that she’ll be on that stage for a good long while.
Simon Says: It wasn’t your best performance. It’s obvious that you are a ballad singer, but I like that you tried this.
“I’m The Only One” by Melissa Etheridge
Again, I know I’ll have quite a few people on the other side of the fence with this one, but let me remind you Lauren had the flu and got up there and delivered one of my favorite performances I’ve seen her do thus far. Sure, she had a few vocal missteps (phlegm is killer when you’re sick and trying to perform), but what the flu forced her to do was to push herself in ways she wasn’t before. Yes, she’s got a great voice. Yes, she’s a natural born performer. But she wasn’t stoking the fire and with this little ailment, she’s forced to push herself and I think the result was fantastic.
Simon Says: It was alright. Yes, you’re sick but look, that happens and you have to work through it and you did, but it wasn’t your best performance vocally.
“Can I Trust You With My Heart” by Travis Tritt
Oh Scotty. He’s so good at what he does and this time was no different, but the problem is that “what he does” is the same thing every week. While other contestants are stretching themselves and trying on new genres and keeping it interesting, Scotty’s playing the same well-oiled note. He did try to change up his range this time around, which I appreciate, but it’s starting to feel a little monotonous for this competition. I have no doubt he’d do great on his own as a country singer, but here, it’s not universal enough.
Simon Says: You’re perfect for country music, but for this competition it’s getting a little stale.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana
I know, Casey is so low on this list, but there is not something wrong with my head. I still adore the guy, I just think that this particular performance wasn’t quite at the same level as his others. On the up side, I like that he brought NIRVANA TO AMERICAN IDOL. That’s ballsy and I love it. I also love that he brought a bass onstage to perform said Nirvana song. I even like that he got really angry and raucous when he performed the song – you CANNOT croon “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and he gets that. I did think that he was a little to screamy (or "screamy-screetchy" as Jennifer said) and while the song definitely takes some serious ire to do it right, even Kurt Cobain kept control over his voice to evoke the right emotions instead of simply yelling. (Still love Casey though.)
Simon Says: I didn’t like it. You tried to be different and I appreciate it, but it just wasn’t likable.
“Alone” by Heart
This one is also going to anger some folks. Look, I like Jacob, I do. He’s talented and he can sing for days, but I don’t like him for pop music. I like him for Luther Vandross style ballads, but in other genres his voice seems out of place and with this Heart cover, that was the case. He seemed to feel a bit out place as well, evidenced by his vocal missteps in the middle.
Simon Says: You’re talented but it wasn’t great.
“I Guess That’s Why They Call it The Blues” by Elton John
Apparently Paul was sick too. Still, this performance was just a little wonky for my tastes. The good thing is that Paul’s style of performance is so reliant on his style and unique voice that it was still enjoyable to watch. I just hope voters love him as much as I do and he sticks around for a while.
Simon Says: I know you’re sick, but it just wasn’t there for me.
“I’ll Be There for You” by Bon Jovi
James is really starting to prove me right here. Yes, he’s got super stage presence. Yes, he can hit crazy high notes. But is the rest of his performance enjoyable? Not really. He really belongs as the front man of an 80s hair band. Unfortunately for him, the hair band craze died long before he started hitting those ear-piercing notes. I’m not really sure where to place him in the music world as we know it.
Simon Says: It was rather unpleasant.
“Colors of the Wind” by Vanessa Williams
Rule numero uno of American Idol: if a ballad was used in the end credits of a Disney movie, DON’T DO IT. I happen to love that Disney movie (Pocahontas) and I happened to perform that song in elementary school, but the only reason my parents were clapping is because they love me. The song is a total snooze. Thia has a really great voice, but her boring song choices are keeping it in a box and killing her chances. Where did jazzy, awesome Thia go?
Simon Says: I’m going to be honest. It was absolutely boring. I could not keep my eyes open.
“Love Will Lead You Back” by Taylor Dayne
Yes, Karen did better than she did last week. BUT LAST WEEK WAS TERRIBLE. This small victory means very little. The judges were all abuzz about how she’s "back," but they were just being nice. She’s like a lost little sheep in shiny clothing and a bun that would make Carrie Bradshaw jealous; she just doesn’t belong up there.
Simon Says: You have improved, but it’s not enough.
“What’s Love Got to Do With It” by Tina Turner
Why? Why does she insist on throwing vocals to the wind? This is a SINGING competition, you have to SING well and it’s like she’s forgotten how to do that. Sure she’s having fun, but I have fun when I get up in front of my friends and drunkenly try to sing Eddie Murphy’s “Party All The Time” while promptly forgetting half of the words (this is actually on tape, sadly) but I’m not one of 12 finalists in a singing competition. There is a really great voice in there somewhere; Naima needs to step it up or go home.
Simon Says: What happened to you? Absolutely dreadful.
Martha Stewart heads to "Camp Cupcake"
If she has to serve time, she might as well do it at a prison where typical inmates cook, serve food and do laundry. Martha Stewart will serve her five-month jail sentence for lying about a suspicious stock sale at a minimum-security prison in W. Va., Alderson prison, locally known as "Camp Cupcake," where she is to report by 2 p.m. (EDT) on Oct 8., Reuters reports. The homemaking maven had said she wanted to serve her jail term at Danbury, Conn., or Coleman, Fla., but the U.S. Bureau of Prisons sent her to Alderson because she would receive less media attention there when reporting for the sentence. The facility, located about 200 miles south of Pittsburgh, has no gates or fences and houses more than 1,000 inmates, mostly drug offenders, who sleep in bunk beds in dormitory-style rooms. Past inmates of note have included two women who attempted to kill President Ford, Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme of Manson Family infamy and Sara Jane Moore, and Billie Holliday (on a drug charge). Speaking at a news conference earlier this month, Stewart said she is looking forward to getting this behind her and to vigorously pursue her appeal. After her release, Stewart will still have to serve five months of house arrest at her home in suburban Bedford, N.Y., and submit a complete a written report to her probation officer within the first five days of every month. Stewart was found guilty in March of conspiracy, making false statements and obstruction of agency proceedings stemming from her suspicious sale of stock in biotech company ImClone Systems Inc. on Dec. 27, 2001.
Miramax preparing to distribute Moore's Sicko
Miramax is preparing to finance and distribute Michael Moore's upcoming documentary Sicko, which takes aim at the American healthcare system, Variety reports. Moore's last documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 was purchased by Miramax chiefs Bob and Harvey Weinstein's ad hoc Fellowship Adventure Group and released in association with Lions Gate Films and IFC Films after Disney refused to handle the pic. Although the doc is not necessarily as inflammatory as the politically charged Fahrenheit 9/11, it's unclear what Disney's stance on the project is. According to Variety, a stalemate over Sicko could exacerbate the already fragile relationship between Disney CEO Michael Eisner and the Weinsteins.
Lawsuit against DiCaprio dismissed
A judge Wednesday threw out a lawsuit against Leonardo DiCaprio and two other men for their alleged roles in a street fight over Showgirls actress Elizabeth Berkley, the AP reports. DiCaprio, 29, and three others were sued for $45 million by Roger Wilson, 44, who claimed the Titanic star encouraged his friends to attack him outside a Manhattan restaurant on May 4, 1998. Wilson, an actor who appeared in two of the Porky's movies and was dating Berkley at the time, approached DiCaprio and his friends about calling Berkley repeatedly. Wilson's suit claimed DiCaprio aided and abetted the assault by shouting, "go out there and kick his (expletive)" to his friends. DiCaprio's friend Todd Healy admitted to hitting Wilson, claiming it was in self-defense when he thought he saw him reaching for something, possibly a weapon. But Judge Paula Omansky dismissed the action against DiCaprio because Healy never heard the alleged remark, and therefore could not have been incited by it. Omansky, however, said the lawsuit could proceed against Healy.
CBS tops premiere week
In a week during which CBS was fined $550,000 for Janet Jackson's infamous Super Bowl stunt and its news division had to apologize for shoddy reporting, at least the network lead in the ratings. AP reports that during the first official week of the new television season, Sept. 20-26, CBS averaged 13.6 million viewers followed by NBC (10.6 million); ABC (10 million); Fox (5.3 million); the WB (4.2 million); UPN (3.1 million). The top 10 shows were: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CBS; CSI: Miami, CBS; Without a Trace, CBS; ER, NBC; CSI: NY, CBS; Survivor: Vanuatu, CBS; Law & Order special, NBC; NFL Monday Night Football: Minnesota at Philadelphia, ABC; Lost, ABC; Everybody Loves Raymond, CBS.
Franken challenges O'Reilly to a bowling match
On his radio show Wednesday, satirist-commentator Al Franken challenged Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly to a "friendly" bowling match. The proposed face-off would be a part of The Great American Bowl-Off, an Oct. 7 event being organized by the Web site Meetup.com in bowling centers around the country designed to give political partisans a break from campaigning. "If Kerry and Bush supporters can put aside their differences for a day to compete, well then, so can Bill O'Reilly and I," Franken said. But a spokesman for Fox News Channel told AP O'Reilly "is not going to respond to anything Al Franken says."
Star-studded concert tribute held for Ray Charles
Ray Charles, who died June 10 of liver disease, was honored in Los Angeles with a tribute concert that praised the late singer's life and his ability to transcend race and musical genres, AP reports. "Make no mistake about it, there will be no pity party," said music producer Quincy Jones, who met Charles when the two were teens. Jones told the packed audience at the Beverly Hills Hotel Wednesday night that Charles "lived more lives than any 900 of you. In his last days, he told me, 'Man, I've already lived it all.'" Performers included Stevie Wonder, country singer Travis Tritt, former Doobie Brother Michael McDonald, and R&B artists James Ingram and Patti Austin, who sang Charles' hits. The event, hosted by Bill Cosby, raised money for the $15 million Morehouse College Center for the Arts in Atlanta. Charles gave the black liberal arts college $2 million to help fund the complex, which will contain a performance space in his name.
Famed NY radio personality dies
Scott Muni, one of the legendary voices of New York radio and who was an AM and FM disc-jockey for nearly 50 years in the country's biggest radio market, died at the age of 74 Tuesday in Los Angeles, Reuters reports. The cause of death was not immediately known
Kit Bowen contributed to this report.
("Put Some Drive in Your Country" "Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof" "Here's a Quart (Call Someone Who Cares)" "Tell Me I Was Dreaming" "Sometimes She Forgets" "T-r-o-u-b-l-e.")
Singer, songwriter and actor Travis Tritt returns home to his Marietta, Georgia, ranch and performs a concert in a nearby nightclub. He offers a tour of his ranch and talks about his musical influences and the personal experiences that inspired many of the songs he has written.