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Okay, let’s just cut to the chase. This Wednesday, Zoanette Johnson made it through to “American Idol’s” live top 20 shows, which kick off next week. Yes, that Zoanette Johnson. (Could there ever be more than one?) The one who mangled the National Anthem at her bizarre Oklahoma City audition. The one whose Hollywood Week solo performance was a scream-of-consciousness jazz-funk improv behind a drum kit. The one who showed up this week in a lightsocket-shocked Dee Snider weave that made Nicki Minaj’s hair look like Anne Hathaway’s crop. On Wednesday, 10 more female semifinalists competed in Vegas, five of them were instantly eliminated…and Zoanette survived. In fact, she was the very first contestant that the judges saved.
Oh—and did I mention that Zoanette got the pimp spot, and that she sang Elton John’s Lion King anthem “Circle Of Life,” which was Jennifer Hudson’s signature song on “Idol” Season 3? Yep, that actually happened.
But here’s the thing: Zoanette was actually pretty good this week. No, she was not perfect—her lower register was iffy at best—but when she hit her power notes, she actually sounded impressive. And she also showcased a softer, more serious side of herself, proving that she’s not just Season 12’s William Hung or Sanjaya. Tapping into her West African background as tribal drums pounded dramatically behind her, Zoanette (later dubbed “the queen of the jungle” by judge Keith Urban) delivered an emotionally rousing performance, while her Liberian-refugee siblings watched teary-eyed in the Cirque du Soleil theater audience. And by the end of Miss Z’s performance, she wasn’t screaming and caterwauling, like she usually does. She was sobbing.
“You make me so emotional,” raved Nicki, who was welling up herself, “because when I think of you coming from Liberia, and all those siblings, and how they’re going to see you on this show…I’m so proud of you. I don’t care what people say about you. You’re the one people are gonna remember tonight!”
“I know a lot of people were wondering, ‘What are those judges thinking?’’ admitted Randy Jackson, knowing that the decision to put Zoanette through to Vegas in the first place had been a controversial one. “But America, Zoanette showed you this is why she’s here! That spirit! It's the spirit of a lion and a champion.”
“I’m so proud and happy for you,” gushed Mariah Carey. “It’s almost like your spirit is too big to be contained, and that is what you wanted to give everyone tonight. Whether you fit into what people think is the cookie-cutter person, you have the personality.”
I actually think Zoanette deserved to advance, although I am sure there will be plenty of outraged folks in the blogosphere and Twitterverse (and in this very page’s comments section) who will quite vocally disagree with me. But Zoanette’s over-the-top performance was a pleasant surprise this Wednesday, and on a night of pageant ballads, the sort of fare we've seen again and again over the past 11 "Idol" seasons, this lioness definitely stood out, wig-topped-head and shoulders above the rest.
But Zoanette will no doubt remain a polarizing contestant, and while it was the judges’ decision to put her through to the top 20, next week, her fate will be in America’s hands. Will conservative “Idol” viewers, many of which were already hating on the flamboyantly bewigged Nicki Minaj, vote for someone as out-there and outlandish as Zoanette—a woman who made her first impression on the public with a completely bastardized rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”? A woman who, hypothetically at least, took away a top 20 spot from other talented girls who performed this week? We shall see. All I know is, I can’t wait to see what this Lion Queen does next. She is woman, hear her roar.
Here’s a full roundup of the other nine girls who competed on Wednesday—the ones who made it through, and the ones who weren’t so lucky:
Melinda Ademi – Melinda’s cover of “Nobody’s Perfect” by Jessie J (the same song frontrunner Angela Miller did last week) was certainly one of the more upbeat and high-energy efforts of the night, and Keith noted that it was a great way to start the show. Melinda stormed out of the gate, ready to compete, and I gave her credit for giving it her all. But there was something about her performance that seemed stilted and insincere, and just a little theater-schooled. It didn’t connect with me. Still, she had the vaguely Demi/Selena-esque vibe of a budding teen star, which I thought might give her an edge on this youth-fetishizing show. Keith thought Melinda seemed nervous (Mariah made the same observation later), but said, “Halfway through the performance, I could see you get into the zone.” Nicki unfavorably compared Melinda’s version of the song to Angela Miller’s and shrugged, “I liked it; I didn’t love it.” An equally underwhelmed Randy said, “It was okay. I don’t know if you had enough big moments in there.” In the end, improving halfway through the song was too little, too late. Melinda did not make the cut. Melinda was also rejected in Season 10; I wonder if she’ll ever try out for this show again.
Candice Glover – Candice, another returning contestant (who really should have made it through last season), was about as close to a frontrunner as this Wednesday had. But even with that being said, she surpassed expectations. Taking on Aretha Franklin’s almighty “Natural Woman” (Kelly Clarkson’s signature song from Season 1), this woman proved she was a natural for top 20, delivering the song with Mary J. Blige-like panache and a big, big finish. Keith gave her a standing ovation as the audience went insane. “Baby, that was beautiful. The second you started singing, everybody responded,” said Keith. “You definitely were born to do this. It boggles my brain that you didn’t make it past Vegas [last year]. Clearly you have one of the strongest voices in the competition,” said Nicki. “You are one of my favorites,” added Randy. And Mariah praised the song's arrangement, which was Candice’s idea, for helping Candice “reach the notes you wanted to.” It was no shock when Candice later sailed through to the top 20. And it will be no surprise when she makes the top 10 next week.
Juliana Chahayed – I barely remember Juliana from earlier this season, and I imagine this is due to her mousy personality: The poor 15-year-old girl was shaking like a little ladybug as she sang Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper.” But there was something about her. I liked the fact that she played acoustic guitar, and that she took artistic liberties with the song, and that she had this delicate, sweet, girly quality. Her vocals were shaky and thin at times, but when her voice hit a certain sweet spot, she sounded magical. And the bottom line is, she brought something a little different to the show. In a way, she reminded me of another talent-show contestant who once covered this Demi song, “The X Factor’s” Drew Ryniewicz. The judges all saw potential in Juliana. “You were struggling with pitch in places, but there was a purity I loved,” said Keith, comparing her to Jewel and Taylor Swift. “You are one of the people here who already has a signature sound to your voice. You do seem very, very, very timid, but it works for what you do. But it may not work with all of these bigger voices and personalities,” said Nicki. “I liked the honesty of your delivery. You gave us exactly who you are,” said Randy. “There was an angelic quality that I felt. Celestial. Especially when we could hear the air in your voice. Your vulnerability was a beautiful thing to witness,” said Mariah. In the end, the judges did not put Juliana through to the top 20, and I understood why; she didn’t seem fully ready. But the girl is only 15, and I hope that, like many other “Idol” contestants we’ve seen, she tries out again. Give her a couple years, and she might go far.
Jett Hermano – Jett, whose first name is obviously awesome, was the only girl other than Juliana to play an instrument this evening, sitting at a piano for a slowed-to-a-crawl interpretation of Rihanna’s “Only Girl In The World.” There were a few ouchy sharp notes here and there, but overall, I really enjoyed this performance. It felt real, and it was interesting. Jett seemed like a genuine artist. “I love that you did this unique arrangement. I applaud taking a song and making it your own. The musicianship is fantastic to see. You brought out the sexiness in the song,” said Keith. Mariah also praised Jett, calling her a “unique addition to this contest…there’s something different about you…I’m not sure exactly where you’re going to take it, but I think it’s very, very intriguing." But Nicki and Randy were not as impressed. “I like the breathy falsetto stuff, but I felt it was going to climax to something, and I never felt it,” sighed Nicki. Randy said Jett should have gotten up from her piano midway through the song, even though he’d criticized Shubha Vedula for doing exactly that during her half-seated, half-standing performance just last week. In the end, the lack of unanimous enthusiasm across the judging panel led to Jett’s downfall. Even without a Jimmy Iovine tie-breaker, Jett was told to fly home. Too bad. Of all the eliminations this evening, this one upset me the most.
Cristabel Clack – Cristabel was an early standout for me this season, and I had predicted that she’d make it to the top 20. But her cover of Alicia Keys’s “No One” definitely had some issues. Although I appreciated her attempt to change up the song, she changed it up too much, dragging it out the way Alicia herself had dragged out the National Anthem at this year’s Super Bowl. But despite her performance’s many awkward moments, Cristabel had a funky look and a feisty soulfulness that I thought might have earned her a spot in the top 20 after all. Randy gave her a standing ovation, telling her, “You were on point. I love the rasp. You’re one of those racehorse singers. You allowed yourself the freedom to just go!” Keith gushed, “That was fantastic! Gosh, I love your voice. I hope we get to hear more and more from you.” But the female judges didn’t seem to want to hear much more from Cristabel. Nicki thought Cristabel’s trademark rasp had gotten “a little out of control.” Mariah spent much of her critique actually praising the backup singers, which was not a good sign. And when Mariah told Cristabel, “Please come back and sing more,” it seemed like an invitation for her to audition again in Season 13, rather than an offer for her to join the top 20 this year. And later in the episode, Cristabel was cut. I actually would encourage her to try out again next year, but if she does, she should stay away from Alicia Keys songs.
Aubrey Cleland – There was no debating that Aubrey could sing, and her rendition of the slowed-down version of Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams” (the same version Jessica Sanchez did last season) was polished and professional. But I was bored. I absolutely did not understand why the judges were so over-the-moon for her. Keith loved Aubrey’s “balance of poise and fire.” Nicki practically screamed, “I am obsessed with you! [Editor’s note: Nicki is obsessed with a LOT of contestants on this show.] For the first time, someone came out here looking like a current artist. You felt right. You’re right now!” Said Randy: “I would sign you right now. You look amazing. You command the stage. I feel you have the whole complete package.” Added Mariah: “I think you’re limitless.” However, I do think there are limits to what Aubrey can achieve. She may have mass commercial appeal, but I don’t think she is that distinctive or interesting; she's just another pretty girl with a pretty voice. The judges unsurprisingly put her through to the top 20, but they may be disappointed next week, when America doesn't vote her through to the top 10.
Rachel Hale – Rachel's bubbly personality has tended to bubble over on this show, and there have been times when I’ve found her borderline-insufferable. So I was pleased when she took on a leftfield song, “Nothing But The Water” by Grace Potter & The Nocturnals, that made her seem less annoyingly Pollyanna-esque. This performance had some sass, some edge, and some outlaw-country realness. Rachel was a real firecracker on this one. Unfortunately, the song wasn’t the best showcase for her voice, so the judges’ opinions were mixed. “I haven’t seen that side of you before, and it was good to see. I think the song got on top of you a bit in parts, but overall, what I love about you is your spirit,” said Keith. “Where did this burst of crazy confidence come from?!” howled Nicki. “I love seeing this side of you. You are fearless,” said Randy. But Mariah was a bit meh, praising Rachel’s smile more than the voice behind it. Rachel was smiling a little bit less later in the episode, when she didn’t make the top 20.
Breanna Steer – Breanna's voice was too nasal for my tastes, but man, she was fierce! She had exactly the right attitude for her vengeful breakup song, “Bust Your Windows” by Jazmine Sullivan, so much so that I almost imagined a crowbar or baseball bat in her hand. (Keith in fact seemed a little skerred, saying, “You made me believe you could literally bust the window out of my car!”) The girl had swag for days. And she seemed current. “You are the other one that I said I would sign right away. You have the whole package. You brought us drama!” said Randy. Mariah called Breanna “extremely marketable and gorgeous and talented and just wow.” And Nicki raved: “Werk, werk, werk! Right now—a record deal could go out, you could shoot videos, you could be number one on the charts. You and Aubrey should do a group. Get two more girls who look sexy, and you guys could take over!” Maybe if things don’t work out on “Idol,” Breanna and Aubrey could form that girl group and give it a go on “The X Factor.” That’s as good a backup plan as any. But for now, Breanna will be joining Aubrey in “Idol’s” top 20 next week.
Janelle Arthur – This was Janelle’s third try on “Idol,” and while I’d figured the third time would be the charm for this girl based on her great performances throughout this season, her cover this week of Lady Antebellum’s “Just A Kiss” was just okay. The whole thing fell flat, and the performance didn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t memorable at all. The judges came down pretty hard on Janelle, and it seemed like she’d have to get back in the parking-lot queue next year and audition for Season 13. “The melody kept pulling you back down. It wasn’t a great song choice to show what you can do,” said Keith. “I’m upset, because you are one of my favorite girls,” whined Nicki, who thought Janelle seemed “disconnected.” Randy agreed: “It didn’t give you what you naturally bring. It was just one of those [off] nights for you.” And Mariah said, “Something simpler may have been a better thing for you to do.” But clearly the judges already had their minds made up, possibly before Wednesday’s show even taped, because they put Janelle through anyway. Now that she’s been given another chance, let’s hope next week she can deliver a performance that lives up to her early promise.
So next week, Zoanette, Aubrey, Candice, Breanna, Janelle, and the 10 contestants who made it through last week will all compete for viewers’ votes for the first time. But five more boys will be joining them to round out the top 20, and we’ll find out who those boys are on Thursday night, when the final male-contestant Vegas round takes place. See you then.