It’s no secret that American Idol‘s ratings have slipped in Season 12, and tonight — despite some stellar performances by the Top 4 ladies — we witnessed several moments where you could practically feel the Nielsen numbers dropping by tenths.
There was Randy Jackson leering at Angie Miller after a particularly harsh critique and declaring, “I do like the leather shorts!” [Tonight's mathematical truth: Randy + the word "Leather" x Sexual Innuendo = Saw-level horror.] There was Nicki Minaj, trying to insert herself (her favorite pastime) into the middle of one of Mariah Carey’s critiques, and later, Ryan Seacrest breaking up one of the female judges’ tiffs with a “someone needs to be put in the corner!” scolding that played up the anti-feminist notion that “girls” simply can’t get along. Oh, and in other Nicki news, we had the “Starships” rapper telling the incomparable Candice Glover that she’d suddenly become marketable — then asking if she’d lost weight.
And if that wasn’t soul-crushing enough, the show’s producers flashed an onscreen hashtag of Randy Jackson’s most irksome catchphrase, you know, the one that makes America collectively cringe every time he barks it: #inittowinit. Hashtag: HOW?
All that went down, of course, before guest mentor Harry Connick Jr. and Randy hijacked poor Kree Harrison’s second performance critique to get into an extended pissing contest regarding their level of music credibility. Harry won, obviously, but was it worth claiming poor Kree’s dignity as collateral damage?
Practically lost in all the low-brow shenanigans was another jaw-dropping evening for Candice Glover — who fought back from last week’s shellacking to score back-to-back standing ovations from the panel (not that they mean anything anymore, but…). Combined with Kree’s magnificent first performance and Amber’s solid (albeit rehashed) second number, it left presumed front-runner Angie Miller as the contestant who endured the most difficult night — both in terms of “having a moment” and suffering from so-so feedback.
Still, last week’s 38 million votes are being added to this week’s tallies — and knowing that Candice and Amber were last week’s Bottom 2, Thursday night’s results-show telecast may be the most suspenseful of the season.
With that in mind, let’s jump to my letter grades for tonight’s performances:
“Now” (Songs Released/Charting in 2013)
Angie Miller: Rihanna’s “Diamonds” | Angie came into this week knowing she was already in the Top 2 vote-getters, so I appreciated her refusal to play it safe, instead choosing an unexpected artist like Rihanna and reimagining her huge recent hit as a dramatic piano ballad. Despite Keith’s complaints about missing the “percussive muscular weight” of the original, I thought the arrangement worked. Angie managed to breathe added life into the new-agey love story that, in Riri’s nasal bleat, sounds like little more than a cryptic chant. The problem here, though, was that Angie’s actual vocal wound up being a little flawed — thanks to the haywire glory note on “toniiiight” and the intermittent sharpness as she pushed her upper register at the end. Plus, as Mariah noted, Angie worked so hard at maintaining eye contact with the camera that it started to become a distraction. None of those issues were deal-breakers, mind you, but they left this one shining more like a cubic zirconia than the full dazzling diamond it could’ve been. Grade: B+
Amber Holcomb: Pink & Nate Ruess’ “Just Give Me A Reason” | For the contestant who’s been most lauded by the judges as “current” and “commercial,” Amber sure seemed out of her element in the “Hits of 2013″ part of the competition. And no, I’m not buying the judges’ excuses about how hard it is to learn new lyrics or to be a “carefree,” “relatable” girl under the pressure of Top 4 Week. Amber’s got a big, lovely voice — there’s no denying it — but she’s never shown the kind of emotional rawness or sly conversational delivery necessary to tackle anything in the Pink songbook (not even “There You Go”). Perhaps even more troubling, though, is that when Amber is faced with a tune that doesn’t fit her as snugly as her many pairs of Daisy Dukes, she hasn’t exhibited the musicality or creativity to reinvent or reinterpret it as her own — or even to act on advice as simple as Harry’s note to snap her fingers and stay in the pocket. Thus, what Amber ended up delivering was a rote recitation of “Just Give Me a Reason” — mostly on pitch except for that high note that sounded like a small dog had gotten caught underfoot — but without any guts or passion or high-wire audacity. Good thing Mariah was there to hold the party line and tell voters that she already knew Amber’s second performance was going to be great. Wait, did Paula leave her Idol crystal ball at the judges’ table when she stopped by the other week? (And here I thought Jason Castro had smashed it out behind the dumpster back in Season 7!) Grade: B-
Candice Glover: Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man” | I couldn’t believe all the pre- and post-performance discussion of Candice not changing the word “man” in the chorus of Bruno Mars’ current chart-topper. I mean, even a dimwit like Randy has to recognize that music isn’t some kind of algebraic exercise where a misplaced decimal or a miscarried digit throws the whole thing off, but rather an entirely visceral art form. Candice’s performance served as a stark reminder of this fact; she didn’t so much try on the song like a sweater off the rack as she did shed her own skin and temporarily inhabit the narrator’s body. When she hit the lines, “I’m probably much too late/ To try and apologize for my mistakes,” a shiver went right through me, and her use of pronouns was the furthest thing from my mind. I just wanted to throw a hand up and be like “You shoulda bought flowers! And now it’s too late, fool!” And oh that sweet falsetto note right at the end, the one that led into one last jazzy run — it was seriously so good I couldn’t even kvetch when Nicki belatedly made her fellow panelists get up and give a standing ovation. Yeah, there’ve been too many instances of Tweedle T-Shirt, Tweedle-ME!, Tweedle-Duh and Tweedle-Dahhling on their feet all season, but this one actually was worthy. Grade: A
Kree Harrison: Carrie Underwood’s “See You Again” | I know Kree is, at heart, a country artist with a bluesy underbelly, but I was still a little flummoxed when I heard she was tackling Carrie Underwood’s current radio hit — one that, to my ears, has always sounded a little blah and impersonal. How interesting then that The Contestant Most Frequently Berated for Not Feelin’ It — and who even desperately told Ryan in her pre-performance interview that “I need to connect” — found an unmarked access road right into the heart of the song. As her entire face lit up with emotion, and the insanely pretty silk of her voice occasionally crackled with pangs of sadness, it wasn’t hard to imagine Kree singing the lyric to her late parents. Who knows if that was actually Kree’s intent, of course, but I got lost with her in the lyrics and transported into a different headspace. And isn’t that one of the many things good music should do to you? Maybe it’s blasphemous to say this, but I’m with Harry: Kree’s cover actually improved on Carrie’s original, her understated approach adding an ache and a vulnerability that have me eager to download it come Thursday morning. Grade: A
Angie Miller: “Someone to Watch Over Me” | Angie’s standard started promisingly enough, with just her and Hot Idol Guitarist Dude serving up a quiet little lullabye. Alas, though, that gentle approach was short lived. As Angie began to float across the stage in her violet nightgown getup, the band kicked in with (apologies for agreeing with Randy) a confounding and noisy arrangement that managed to sound equal parts old-fashioned and perturbingly garbled. The end result was that Angie’s voice trailed off a bit in spots, while her vibrato became just a wee bit overwrought in others.
(I could’ve also lived without the dramatic, wide-eyed inhalation before the finale “Meeeeee!” but it sounds too bitchy to actually type the words.) I don’t think Nicki helped by noting the “Disney princess” quality of Angie’s “look, voice and disposition,” but hey, at least we know “Someone to Watch Over Me” has “special significance” for Mariah, and that’s really what it’s all about, right? Except they didn’t give the number to vote for Mariah! Or Nicki for that matter! “Hashtag: Urgh!” Grade: B+
Amber Holcomb: “My Funny Valentine” | Randy was correct… OH EM GEE, I just had a thought that if God struck me dead about 11 seconds ago, my last act on earth would be typing “Randy was correct,” and my entire life’s work as an American Idol recapper would be tarnished forevah, dahhling. Sorry, let me get back to my point. Randy was correct that Amber took the stage looking defeated, but I mean, wouldn’t you do the same if the show’s producers had devoted an entire segment with Harry Connick Jr. trying to drive home the message, “She’s cute, but maybe not that bright”? Yeesh, that was brutal, especially after Amber’s first package was all about her failure to remember her lyrics. Granted, it was great to see some real, actionable mentoring happening — and I kinda wish we’d had that happening all season long — but I can’t imagine being in Amber’s shoes and having to take the stage seconds after a video in which it’s pointed out that you couldn’t even use basic comprehension and deductive skils to determine the meaning of the lyric “Is your figure less than Greek?” Or that you have no idea what your signature Idol song is actually about. I’d suspect a case of producer sabotage, but given how hard Uncle Nigel and the judges have pushed Amber for the last six or seven weeks, that theory seems a little tenuous.
Whatever the case, though, Amber gave another lovely performance of “My Funny Valentine,” one that was slightly more sophisticated but perhaps a little less surprising than when she first did it during Top 10 Girls performance night back in Vegas. And that’s the problem of a repeat performance on a reality singing competition: There’s simply no recreating a magic moment at two separate points in time. (Doctor Who should probably devote an episode to this topic.) However, Amber’s post-performance tears — combined with a standing ovation from the judges and Nicki declaring her a “beautiful budding red rose” regardless of whether or not she goes home — might score her enough votes to put Candice or Angie or Kree at risk. That would be unfortunate, though, because to me, “Funny Valentine” (Part 2) wasn’t enough of a statement to shake the feeling that Amber is the No. 4 contestant behind three other women who just happen to be savvier strategists, bigger risk-takers, more creative thinkers and more believable interpreters. Grade: B+ (downgraded from A- because we already heard it before!)
Candice Glover: “You’ve Changed” | Yowza! I know Candice’s “Lovesong” is widely considered the Performance of the Season, but if for any reason that Cure cover is unable to fulfill its duties, the title will be handed over to first runner-up “You’ve Changed.” I mean…do I need to count the ways I loved this performance? The world-weary toss-off of that first “you’re breakin’ my heart.” The way Candice doubled up on the “I can’t, I can’t” and then had to double-time the “realize that you ever cared” with an unexpected rhythmic flourish. The transition from a huge, growling “You’ve changed!” to a heartbreakingly whispered “the sparkle in your eye is gone.” Yes, Randy managed to drop another offensive “church girl” dismissal, and Nicki actually passed on offering any feedback on the night’s inarguably best vocal, but to quote Harry — whose mentoring got a little heavy on the “stick with the melody!” ranting, but was delightfully specific and actionable — “14-year-olds” probably weren’t ever going to get Candice anyhow. Grade: A+
Kree Harrison: “Stormy Weather” | I have to agree to an extent with Nicki that Harry’s unvarnished brand of mentoring may have been “startling” to the Top 4 ladies — especially when they had to hear a highlight reel of his critiques seconds before their performances. Perhaps that explained Kree’s almost timid stage presence during “Stormy Weather,” which to me is supposed to be sung by a woman who thinks of herself as a broad or a dame or a tall glass of water. That wasn’t the case for Kree, whose phrases drifted off like the down on a dandelion, and who seemed to lose her cadence when she hit the bridge. The tone of Ms. Harrison’s voice never fails to thrill just a little — it’s the ace that she’s got in every hand — but after such a deeply connected “Now” number, the “Then” lacked the urgency of a contestant knowing this could be her final time on the big Idol stage. To make matters worse, Kree had to stay on said stage for a loooong and drawn out argument between Randy and Harry that ended with the guest mentor shouting “Randy! Stop! Stop!” (We’ll dive deeper into said dustup and its origin in next Monday’s Idology episode.) And while we’ve all wanted to yell “Randy! Stop! Stop!” for about 12 seasons now (or maybe even put it on a t-shirt), I’m just not sure it was fair for Kree to have to be in the middle of the fracas. Maybe next time Harry could send out a strongly worded Tweet instead? Grade: B
Top 4 Ladies: Little Mix’s “Wings” | Yep, they sang it.
And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of Season 12 Top 4 performance night (Part Deux)? What did you think of the judges’ comments? Who was your favorite? Who’s going to be in trouble come results night? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!