Kelly Clarkson was the very special guest judge this Thursday on American Idol’s top 10 show – and she was a fantastic judge, almost as great at dishing out witty critiques as she is at singing her face off. (I don’t remember her ever being this insightful on Duets!) Seeing her sitting behind that big desk in between Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr., 14 years after the Idol audition that changed her life, was such an emotional full-circle moment. I got all verklempt – and I didn’t even have raging hormones to blame, like the “very knocked-up” Kelly. It just made me realize what a huge part of my life, and so many lives, and of pop culture in general, American Idol has been since 2002.
And then Kelly showed everyone in the top 10 how it’s done, with an even more emotional performance of “Piece by Piece,” a song about the father that abandoned her when she was just 6 years old. More tears flowed. And I got goosies. Seriously, can we just vote for Kelly again, and make her the “Season 15 bookend” the show is looking for?
OK, enough with the sappiness. But it’s still time for some sad news. At the top of Thursday’s episode, after the first public vote of the season, four contestants were sent home: kooky off-the-grid cowgirl Jeneve Rose Mitchell, sensitive singer-songwriter Thomas Stringfellow, raspy maverick Jenn Blosil, and wannabe heartthrob Manny Torres. The first two eliminations were bummers, but they weren’t really surprises. (I loved Jeneve, but I knew she’d never connect with America. As for Thomas, he had an off night Wednesday.) The last one wasn’t a bummer at all. (Manny will still go down in history as Idol’s last golden ticket recipient ever, but his time was obviously up.) But Jenn? I’d fully expected Jenn to be this season’s Joey Cook. Now it seems she’s just this season’s robbed Lilly Scott. I blame the glitter press-on disco caterpillar eyebrows that she wore Wednesday; I think they frightened America. But all I really know is, Season 15 will be a lot less interesting without Jenn Blosil.
So after Manny, Jeneve, Thomas, and Jenn were quickly dispatched in the first 10 minutes of the show, the remaining contestants sang – and while only the phenomenal La’Porsha Renae came close to a Kelly Clarkson level, a couple others did really bring it. Here’s how it went.
Taking the stage looking like a modern-day Andie Walsh in a puffy pink prom dress and biker jacket, Olivia belted Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally,” and, dare I say, she sang it better than Katy herself. This has always been my least favorite Katy single due to its 17 different bizarre pronunciations of the word “unconditionally,” but Olivia’s performance felt natural and easy. Even the risky semi-a cappella intro worked nicely. “You’re so on an artist trajectory right now,” raved Keith Urban. Kelly loved the “tasteful” soft beginning of the song, and confessed that she’s been an Olivia fan for a while now. “You did everything you had to do. Nice job,” concluded Harry.
Gianna took a risk doing Beyoncé’s mighty Dreamgirls song “Listen,” but it didn’t pay off. This was more of a nightmare than a dream. The performance started off tentative – I didn’t sense 100 percent commitment from Gianna – and then, when she tried to go for the power notes, she missed completely and her pitch was all over the place. This song was way too big for this young girl. “That was not your best performance… it was very shaky,” said a stern Jennifer. Kelly advised Gianna to not overthink and to just let go. Harry agreed that the song felt “very arranged.” The judges weren’t as hard on Gianna as they could have been, maybe because she’s only 15. But Gianna should not get a pass just because of her age. This was not good. I can’t believe this girl stayed over Jenn.
Lee is someone that I didn’t think should have made the top 10 – not because he’s not talented, but simply because he’s not ready. This week I enjoyed his performance, mainly because he did Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” instead of one of his typical predictable Ed Sheeran covers. But I was still not blown away. This was pleasant, with nice phrasing, and I liked the jaunty arrangement, but it was so even-keel; it went nowhere, and had no major moments. And on an evening when contestants like Olivia and La’Porsha were going for broke, Lee was bound to get lost in the shuffle with something this laid-back and understated. Kelly liked Lee’s “chill” vibe, but noted that he could stand to step it up a notch. Harry warned Lee that fellow Sheeran fan MacKenzie Bourg is his biggest competition, and told him to “focus on pitch.” J.Lo advised Lee to pick songs that really mean something to him. All of this was good advice. Hopefully Lee can heed it and work on his craft during the next six weeks… but that probably won’t be enough time to turn him into Idol material.
Avalon is my favorite girl of Season 15, but her rendition of Shawn Mendes’s “Stitches” was her first misfire. She sort of came unstitched. The song just didn’t have enough swag or funk for her, and her voice sounded strained. Something about this performance felt stilted and off, not like Avalon’s usual awesome, confident self. “This one fell flat for me… I don’t think this was the song for you,” said Harry. Keith noted that Avalon seemed nervous, and that she only loosened up at the halfway point. J.Lo made the same observation, and blamed the song choice. Kelly called Avalon “captivating” and said, “You make me love everything you sing.” I still love me some Avalon, but I guess I don’t love everything she sings. Because I didn’t love this.
I probably could go my entire life without hearing the Plain White Ts’ overplayed ”Hey There Delilah” ever again. But if I must be subjected to it, then I will go with Dalton’s upbeat punk-pop version; his remake was actually an improvement on the sleepy original. “You are the really cool, cute guy, but you also have a lot of heart,” said J.Lo. Kelly noted how comfortable Dalton always is onstage. Harry told Dalton he’s “batting a thousand.” I agree. I think Dalton could win this thing. He better sleep in his best eyeliner the night before the finale.
Was Tristan chewing gum during this number? Had she just gone to the dentist and the Novocain hadn’t quite worn off yet? This performance of Dan + Shay’s “Nothin’ Like You” was a mushmouthed mess. Her diction was really off-putting; I could barely discern a word she sang. She also seemed to have no idea of how she should work the stage, so she reverted back to the manic mannerisms that marred her awkward “Good Girl” and “Best Days of Your Life” performances last week. You see, this is what happens when the show’s producers pack the top 10 with amateur-hour teens in some lame attempt to court millennial viewers, rather than going with seasoned singers who actually know what they’re doing. “You guys are still kind of figuring things out and finding yourselves,” J.Lo mused, which was a nice way of saying, “None of you youngsters are ready for prime time.” Kelly diplomatically referenced Tristan’s amazing first audition (a moment Tristan unfortunately hasn’t recreated since). Keith and Harry said that Dan + Shay’s “very lyric-y song” was tough to take on, and Harry added that Tristan’s flustered ad-libbing to the audience compromised her vocals. Until Tristan can sort all this stuff out, she just needs to stay behind her piano, which is the only time she excels. Kelly was right about that. Kelly is always right.
OK, I have severe Ed Sheeran fatigue this season on Idol, but MacKenzie’s “I See Fire” caught my attention. It wasn’t totally fiery, more like a slow-burner, but his quiet intensity drew me right in. This is a guy who knows how to work the camera (and work the screaming girls in the front row, of course). “You know exactly where you want to go, and you’re already there,” raved Kelly, who also mentioned that for the first time that night, her unborn baby started bopping around in the womb during MacKenzie’s song. Keith said MacKenzie was “in the zone.” Jennifer said she was excited to see what he’ll do next. I’m excited, too. But no more Sheeran songs, please.
OK, this is when the show truly got going – when La’Porsha, a real woman in a season of little girls and boys, made Rihanna’s “Diamonds” entirely her own with this glorious, torchy interpretation. Not only was this a total 180 from her corny Tina Turner impersonation act a couple weeks ago, but it was curly-head-and-shoulders above every other performance on Thursday night. This was modern, cool, and flat-out thrilling. This was theater. This is how you do it, people. This is what an Idol should do in 2016. The audience was screaming so loud for La’Porsha, the judges’ critiques were barely audible, but Kelly – who, as I mentioned earlier, is always right – could be heard exclaiming, “If you don’t win, I just don’t understand!” (Note: Upon learning who the top 10 were at the start of Thursday’s show, I ranked the contestants based on their past efforts. At that point, La’Porsha was at #6. Suffice to say, she has already skyrocketed right up my list after “Diamonds.” If she keeps giving performances like this one, she’ll soon be at #1.)
I’ve spent much of this season criticizing Sonika’s stiff, deer-in-headlights stage persona and blank affect. So I am not sure what happened to her tonight. What she reading my blog or something? This was an entirely different Sonika. Kelly theorized that maybe it was having to follow the magnificent La’Porsha that made Sonika step it up. Maybe it was that amazing Disney-villainess dress. But whatever it was, I hope Sonika does this week after week. She belted Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life,” and she was indeed brought to life. She was fiery and fierce, working the stage in her sweeping Goth ball gown and even dramatically dropping to her knees at the song’s climax. And it was magical. “It had the right drama, and everything played to your strengths,” said Keith. “Baby, you’re dangerous!” howled Jennifer. Harry loved Sonika’s “angst and passion.” I didn’t even know Sonika had this sort of angst and passion in her. Now that her performance skills are starting to match her already spectacular vocals, she could be unstoppable.
Trent is such a singular talent, with such a distinctive voice. He transformed Sam Smith’s “Like I Can” into a swampy, bluesy gospel stomper, and it totally worked. He was so connected, so committed, so compelling, and bursting with preacherman-level passion. I practically forgot this was a Sam Smith cover; it just sounded like a Trent Harmon song. “Your voice is so unique and so different, and you do such exciting things with it,” said J.Lo. “Tremendous job,” said Harry, who said that La’Porsha and Trent are the only two singers in this year’s top 10 who can pull off singing complicated runs. I think Trent can pull off doing just about anything. He’s fabulous.
So next week, Idol will pull a page from the Voice rulebook and send home two contestants, not just one, as part of this season’s mad dash to get to that six-weeks-premature April 7 finale. Who will those ousted two be? I’m predicting Gianna and Tristan – but Lee may be in trouble, too. Tune in next Thursday and see if I’m right! Until then, Parker out.