"Is one of these faces our first female winner in FIVE seasons?" Ryan Seacrest asked dramatically, and possibly rhetorically, at the start of Wednesday's "American Idol" top 12 girls show. His question was quickly answered when he walked by an assembly line of mostly blonde Hollies, Haleys, and Hallies, and I realized I barely recognized any of them. Ryan's referring to these ladies, talented though they may be, as "some of the most buzzed-about people in the nation" was a little bit of a stretch. With so many interesting characters among the top 13 boys, who performed the night before--pouting rockers Colton Dixon and Phillip Phillips, eccentrics Reed Grimm and Creighton Fraker, R&B powerhouses Joshua Ledet and Aaron Marcellus--it was hard to imagine that any of these almost interchangeable girls would generate a similar level of excitement among "Idol" voters.
And they certainly wouldn't if the judges had anything to do with it. After going ridiculously easy on the boys Tuesday--calling Deandre Brackensick's shaky falsetto "perfect," saying Jeremy Rosado's bland performance was "beautiful," and simply pleading the Fifth when it came time to critique Adam Brock--the judges apparently got the memo that the viewing public thinks they've been way too soft. And they got that memo just in time for the girls' show. "We were a little lenient on some of the boys last night," Randy Jackson admitted, regretfully. I didn't disagree with him; I think this judging panel was too lenient on the entire cast of Season 10, actually. But the timing of the judges' tough-love epiphany was a bit odd, and more than a little bit unfair.
So the judges' sudden increased negativity, combined with the girls' overall lack of screentime and compelling story arcs throughout this season, made the chance of any of these 12 girls breaking the female curse (which has loomed over this show since Season 6) seem very, very slim. To be fair, some of these girls deserved their criticism: Not all of them gave stellar performances this Wednesday, and many of them weren't nearly as interesting as this season's eclectic boys. But some of them were VERY good, and interesting, and a couple of them just may have what it takes to become Season 11's dark horse, or even Season 11's winner. So do NOT count out the girls just yet!
Here's how the top 12 girls fared Wednesday:
Chelsea Sorrell - Poor Chelsea was quadruple-doomed this evening. She was one of THREE country girls (compared to the one country singer among the boys); she sang in the kiss-of-death slot ("It sucks to go first," Jennifer Lopez pointed out); and she probably got the least facetime this season of all the girls. Compound that with a song choice, "Cowboy Casanova," that would inevitably earn her unfavorable comparisons to "Idol" sweetheart Carrie Underwood, and there seemed no chance she'd make the top 13. Chelsea did a decent job with the song, but she brought nothing exciting or new to it--Carrie's cowgirl boots are mighty big ones to fill, you know. Randy broke out his first negative critique of the night, questioning Chelsea's song selection and saying, "We've kind of seen the Carrie thing. You now have to separate yourself out and say, 'America, here's who I am.'" J.Lo called Chelsea "nasally." Steven Tyler told her to "watch her phrasing." These were probably the first sensible things any of the judges had said all season, but I still felt bad for blind-sided Chelsea, who'd probably expected to get the same smoke-blowing and softballing the guys had received the night before.
Erika Van Pelt - One of my favorite girls this year, EVP proved she's got some of the mightiest pipes of Season 11 by daring to sing Heart's "What About Love." You don't mess with Ann Wilson unless you can really sing, or unless you're really stupid. Luckily, Erika fell into the former category. There was something a little dated about her performance (it's sometimes hard to separate Heart's 1980s arena-rock material from its cheesy era), but Erika sure handled the big notes with ease. Steven called the performance "beautiful," of course. Randy, who seems to think Adele is the only modern female singer he's allowed to reference during a female contestant's positive critique, lazily compared Erika to Adele. (Erika is good, but she sounds nothing like Adele. Whatever.) Jennifer was the most critical, telling EVP that she'd held back too much. "I think you could have gone even further, knowing you. Come on, Erika!" No, you come on, Jennifer. Where was this sort of straight-shooting advice when Eben Franckewitz was ruining an actual Adele song on Tuesday?
Jen Hirsh - Speaking of Adele, Jen covered Adele's "One And Only," a major risk, and she was the first girl to really grab my attention this evening. Her performance was the perfect mix of girl-next-door approachability and divalicious sex appeal, and she nailed every note and looked like she was having a lot of fun along the way. "You're the first person who came out here and let loose a little bit. I felt the feeling in the song," said Jennifer. "There's something about confidence that makes a voice fly," marveled Steven--although he couldn't resist sneaking in a dig and claimed there was a "little trouble at the end" that apparently only he and maybe dogs could hear. (Jen sounded just fine to me, no trouble.) Randy raved, "You got that swag. I think you're one of the greatest singers in this competition this year." I agree. Jen is one girl who really could be a threat to this season's boys.
Brielle Von Hugel - BVH went into the top 25 with the built-in disadvantage of having an overbearing stage mom who received more screentime than she ever did (and whose obnoxious ways had already unfortunately caused most of America to hate her daughter). Was this performance enough to put the focus back on Brielle and her voice? I'm not so sure. She sang Otis Redding's "Sittin' On The Dock Of The Bay" capably, but she just seemed to be trying way too hard, and I am sure her personality, which isn't SO different from her mama's, will continue to grate on some viewers' last nerves. Beginning the song surrounded by male admirers (the top 13 boys) was a bit cheesy, and I am sure her playful flirting with resident heartthrob Phillip Phillips didn't earn her many new fans among jealous female voters. Brielle was good, but not as good as she probably thought she was (or as good as her mom thought she was). The judges thought Brielle was good, however. "You got a great sense of the blues. BEAUTIFUL!" said Steven. "I think people underestimate you," said Jennifer (making me think maybe she's read my blogs before, and by "people," she meant ME). Randy rightfully said the song started off too low, but then said Brielle eventually found the "sweet spot," adding: "You surprised me; I didn't know you had all that swag!" (Side note: I guess Randy's new 2012 buzzword, aside from "Adele," is "swag." What happened to "in it to win it"?)
Hallie Day - Hallie's been one of my favorite girls of Season 11, which is why I've been worried about her chances since she all but disappeared from the show after her memorable first audition. (She was barely shown at all during the Hollywood or Vegas Weeks.) I was also worried when I found out Hallie would be singing "Feeling Good," since it's well-known that that song is cursed. But Hallie did a very nice job with the song, and she looked positively Marilyn-esque. (Maybe "Smash" can create a storyline for her, have her compete for a Marilyn role against ex-Idol Katharine McPhee!) "You look like a star," Jennifer said. This time it was Steven who pulled the "Adele" card, while only Randy was unnecessarily critical, musing, "I was just kinda trippin' on what kind of artist you wanna be. You got the voice, but where does that all fit?" Then he made some sort of lame Lana Del Rey comparison, which is obviously not a compliment on any singing competition. (Shut up, Randy. Go play your video games.)
Skylar Laine - I didn't expect Skylar to be one of my favorites of the night, but man, she was a revelation! From the ballsy song choice, the Faces' "Stay With Me," to the sassy delivery and the fun table-turning of Rod Stewart's original misogynist lyrics...there was a lot to enjoy about Skylar's vivacious performance, which was just the cowgirl-boot-kick up the bum that this show needed. With this, Skylar easily set herself apart from the cookie-cutter country of fellow contestants Cheslea Sorrell and Baylie Brown. "This is the first time we've had a rocker country singer on the show like this. It's like Reba mixed with Kelly Clarkson. It's wild, man!" howled Randy. "It's like Tina Turner went country! You're a natural born performer," said J.Lo. And Steven said, "You were on fire! You're a pistol. Keep it up, girl!" I never thought I'd say this, but I love me some Skylar Laine--not quite enough to go hunting with her, but I do think she's rad. I'd take her out for veggie burgers any day!
Baylie Brown - Before this evening, I thought Baylie, not Skylar, was the country girl to watch this year. But much like last season's Julie Zorilla, poor Baylie went from frontrunner to also-ran during the course of just three ill-fated minutes. Baylie's cover of Lonestar's "Amazed" was not amazing at all, and I was truly shocked at how much she struggled--especially since she's been performing professionally for the past few years. Baylie's performance was especially disappointing following a country standout like Skylar. Simply put, this did not go well. Steven and Jennifer chose to praise Baylie's undeniably "pretty" and "beautiful" face rather than say anything remotely positive about her less-than-pretty/beautiful voice. "You never seized control of the song," Randy lamented. And she won't seize control of America's votes, after this. Bye-bye, Baylie.
Hollie Cavanagh - Hollie got more screentime last season, even though she was cut during Hollywood Week, that she did this entire season. It almost seemed like the judges put her in this year's top 25 as an afterthought. So she had a lot of making up to do tonight. I wasn't too thrilled by her song choice--Christina Aguilera's clichéd Disney ballad "Reflection," from Mulan--but she sure sang it well. (If this was "The Voice," Christina would have gotten up onstage and dueted with her!) "You were one of my favorites from the start," Steven told Hollie (proving he has no influence on how this show is edited). "I still think that you could win this," said fellow longtime fan Jennifer. "You're one of our favorites since we started this whole audition process," said Randy (who obviously also has no say in this season's editing). Hollie is definitely good, so I think her biggest obstacle will be hoping that America's voters don't confuse her with Haley or Hallie when they pick up their phones.
Haley Johnsen - Oh, man. I don't quite know what to say about this one. On the positive side, I liked Haley's song choice (the Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams"), her rock 'n' roll energy, and her sort of modernized-Stevie-Nicks persona. But oof, there was so much on the negative side: She started off the song sounding like she had a cold (talk about "nasally"!), and she ended it by pretty much shouting it in the judges' faces. (I will say this, once again: Shouting and good singing are not the same thing. Please don't get them confused.) This was a mess--a fascinating mess, at least, but still. "I hope America could hear all the beautiful things coming out of your voice," sighed Jennifer. (Sorry, Jennifer, but they couldn't.) "Some of your turnarounds weren't perfect, but what in life is?" shrugged Steven. Randy, however, really let his dawg-claws come out. "Um, um, how do I say this? It was a bit of a nightmare for me instead of a dream," he said. Yikes. Haley's only hope now may be if America accidentally votes for her when they meant to dial Hallie or Hollie's numbers; if she does get through to the top 13, remember, you heard that conspiracy theory here first!
Shannon Magrane - Shannon is basically Pia 2.0. She's tall, gorgeous, and she likes to sing big ballads while standing totally still in a pageant-y column dress. Simply put, she's good...but she's boring. While neither I nor the judges could find any fault with her vocals on Kathy Troccoli's CCM anthem "Go Light Your World" (odd song choice, there), I was bored. I certainly wasn't as moved or excited as the judges, who put their negative critiques temporarily aside when fawning over Shannon. "What a way to come out swinging! You got so much promise! Every time I hear you sing, I'm so impressed!" gushed Randy. "You sing with such passion for a 16-year-old! You gave me my first goosies of the night," raved Jennifer. Steven even used BOTH of his favorite adjectives, "beautiful" and "gorgeous." But if Shannon makes the top 13, in a few weeks' time the judges will probably be advising her to switch it up and go uptempo, and then she'll get voted off in ninth place and everyone will be outraged and storm the Fox gates with flaming pitchforks in hand. "Idol" history has a tendency to repeat itself like that.
Jessica Sanchez - "America's Got Talent" veteran Jessica is a pro, so she didn't let a little thing like swollen vocal cords keep her from putting on a great performance of "Idol" diva Jennifer Hudson's "Love You I Do." By the end of her song, Randy was barking, the audience was chanting her name, and all three judges were giving her a standing ovation. "I don't know about no doctor, but that girl can really sing. One of the best of the last TWO nights!" howled Randy. "You're beyond your years; it's crazy!" declared Jennifer. Steven called Jessica "perfect." Jessica is almost TOO perfect--there's something a little stage-parented and robotic about her sometimes--but there's no denying she's one of the finest female singers of the Season 11, and her ability to perform under these less-than-ideal circumstances proved that.
Elise Testone - Yay, my favorite girl got the pimp spot! And she was just the right lady to close the show. She also covered "One And Only" in a night packed with Adele references and tributes, and while I didn't think Jen Hirsh's excellent rendition of the song could be topped, Elise took it to a whole other level of awesomeness. She played piano--which made her the only girl in the top 12 to play an instrument this evening--in a way that sort of reminded me of Lady Gaga's more tender acoustic moments. And even though she blamed the rasp in her voice on the emotion that overwhelmed her onstage, I liked that. If that's how Elise sounds like when she's on the verge of tears, then she should stick a raw onion in her face every time she's about to go onstage, because the weepiness works for her. "You blew it out of the water. That was [...wait for it...] beautiful," said Steven. "You may be the best singer here...you are one to watch," agreed Jennifer. "I hope America gets you, because you are definitely a force to be reckoned with," said Randy. I reckon Elise is a shoo-in for the top 13. How could America not get her?
So now, it is picks-and-predictions time. Five of these girls will be automatically voted through to the top 13 this Thursday--along with five of the male semifinalists, who competed on Tuesday. (Three more Wild Card judges' picks will round out the overall top 13.) Which five girls will it be? If it were up to me, it'd be Elise, Skylar, Jessica, Jen, and then either Erika, Hallie, or Hollie. The judges, when grilled on the spot by Ryan, rattled off this same list of names, so I suspect America will vote this way as well. But for possible Wild Cards, I wouldn't rule out Shannon, whom the judges seem to adore.
Find out Thursday if I'm right, when the top 13 are thrillingly and officially announced! Until then...Parker out.
[all photos courtesy of Fox]