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.
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.
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.)
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.
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[Photo Credit: Michael Becker/Fox]