‘Idol’ Top 20 Revealed: It’s Not Reigning Men

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks (New)

It’s no secret that the “American Idol” powers-that-be want a girl to win this season. Or that they’ve wanted a girl to win for at least three seasons. In the past, they’ve tried various transparent tactics to orchestrate the result they so desired—saving Jessica Sanchez from early elimination in Season 11, creating a dramatic overcoming-adversity storyline for Lauren Alaina at the Season 10 finale, aggressively hyping the female contestants at every opportunity throughout Season 9—and nothing has worked. But now I think crafty Nigel Lythgoe and company are onto something. This season is the season when they've finally figured it out: Hey, if they don’t want another “WGWG” to win, then they just won't put any “WGWGs” in the top 20 at all. Eureka! Problem solved, right?

You see, after this Thursday’s final Vegas round, Season 12’s top 20 was officially solidified—and now, interestingly, among the 10 remaining boys there is nary a Phillip Phillips or Lee DeWyze wannabe in the bunch. There’s old-school R&B (Vincent Powell, Curtis Finch Jr., Burnell Taylor); new-school R&B (Cortez Shaw, Elijah Liu); adult-contemporary pop (Lazaro Arbos, Nick Boddington, Devin Velez); and, despite the addition of Keith Urban to the judging panel this year, only one country boy, Paul Jolley (who actually comes across as adult-contemporary pop much of the time). The closest contestant to the cute-folk/rock-boy mold of recent seasons is Charlie Askew, but let’s face it, that crazy kid is in a category all his own.

It’s all too obvious what the producers and judges are trying to do here. It was obvious weeks ago, when they cut Dustin Watts—a hunky firefighter with a strong country singing voice, the kind of contestant who would’ve had cougars and tweens alike speed-dialing in droves. It was obvious last week, when they cut Adonis-esque country stud Jimmy Smith (or when they cut Ken-doll clone Johnny Keyser, although he really did deserve to be eliminated). And it was beyond obvious this week, when they cut Josh Holiday, a piano-playing singer-songwriter who performed a (surprisingly decent) original song and kind of looked like David Cook’s little brother while doing it. Josh seemed like the type of guy that wins “Idol” every year—i.e., he seemed like a genuine threat to this season’s girls—so of course, the judges got rid of him, pronto.

While this new diversity among the boys is a good thing for “Idol” in some ways (sure, I suppose it’d be nice to see someone win who isn’t a plaid-flannel-swathed amalgam of “Idol’s” past five champions), it may be a shortsighted move on the producers’ part to not include any contestant who could appeal to “Idol’s” core power-voting base—especially considering the series’ slumping ratings nowadays. But perhaps "Idol's" even stupider move is how the show has crammed the top 20 with so many subpar male singers—of any genre or ethnicity—just to make the girls look that much better and further skew the odds in the ladies’ favor. C'mon, are these really the 10 best male contestants that the judges could find in the entire country? Really?

And that brings me to my final point/complaint: If “Idol’s” producers want this to be a “girls’ season” so badly, and if there really was so much more standout female talent than male this year, then why adhere to the show’s silly gender quotas at all? Why not just have the top 20 consist of, say, 15 girls and five guys? Why must it be 10 and 10? Next week, when this top 20 is instantly, brutally trimmed to a top 10, comprising five extremely talented girls and five not-quite-as-talented guys, Nigel Lythgoe may be second-guessing his casting strategy this season. But it will be too late.

Okay, venting session over. I feel slightly better now, after suffering through one of the more tedious “Idol” episodes in recent memory. Seriously, some of Thursday’s guys practically seemed like day-one Hollywood Week rejects from Season 2, and the most interesting thing about the entire episode was watching Zoanette Johnson dance like a madwoman in the aisle and namecheck the Smurfs. But my recapping must be done regardless, so here’s a full rundown of the final 10 boys who competed in Vegas this week:

Mathenee Treco – When in Vegas, do as the “Vegans” do, I guess. So Mathenee did some Elvis Presley, of course. I suppose that was a better cover-song choice than Liberace. And as a hotel entertainer by trade, Mathenee certainly seemed at home on the Mirage resort’s Vegas stage. Perhaps a little too at home. His performance of “A Little Less Conversation” was fun and energetic, and he really sold it, but it had the faint whiff of ripe Vegas cheese. He had such a modern, cool look, but his hokey performance just didn’t match. “You have the voice to make a connection, and sometimes the entertainment can get so big and so assaulting that I’m missing you underneath there,” said Keith Urban. “It didn’t feel current; it felt very cheesy and karaoke,” said Nicki Minaj. “The song choice was so wrong for you. It makes me question what kind of artist you want to be,” said Randy Jackson. (Mathenee answered that he’s in fact influenced by classic rock and hip-hop. Okay, then. I guess that’s why he covered that great classic-rock/hip-hop act, Elvis. Facepalm.) Mariah Carey then embarrassingly admitted that she was unfamiliar with the Elvis song (DOUBLE-facepalm), and then she kinda/sorta invited Mathenee over to her house. At least I think she did. But in the end, she didn’t invite him to the top 20. Mathenee got the boot.

Gurpreet Singh Sarin, aka “The Turbanator” – Turb did James Morrison’s “Nothing Ever Hurt Like You,” and ironically, the judges blasted him for NOT playing a guitar during his performance. (Apparently IGWGs are acceptable this season, but WGWGs are not.) Personally, I wish he’d whipped out his dad’s sitar, morphed into an IGWS, and done a classic George Harrison song or something. His Morrison cover was just such a snoozefest. It was more like the Turd-a-nator, for real. I was so disappointed, and so were the judges. “I don’t know what’s happening. You should have come back out with your guitar. You had something intimate, and you’ve left that behind,” lamented Nicki. Randy yelled something like, “Dawg! No! Gawd! Ugh! Dude! Yo! That was terrible.” So it was a shocker to absolutely no one when the Turbanator was terminated and sent home.

Vincent Powell – Vincent is so old-fashioned sometimes, he can make Ruben Studdard seem hip and current. I have no idea what Randy was thinking when he compared Vincent’s cover of Lenny Williams' “‘Cause I Love You” to something by Miguel or Frank Ocean. It wasn’t even like Billy Ocean. But hey, the man can really sang. Vincent’s was THE best vocal of Thursday night, by far. I’m not sure how much of a compliment it was when Nicki amusingly/ickily told him, “I can envision a bunch of 40-year-olds and 50-year-olds throwing their panties at you,” but older ladies do tend to be avid “Idol’-watchers, so maybe Vincent will bring in the votes after all. Vincent will get that chance next week, because he made the top 20. So, in the words of Zoanette: “Get it, Papa Smurf!”

Nick Boddington – Nick was an early standout contestant of Season 11 (I’m still waiting for a Groove Sauce reunion), but I remember his voice being more distinctive last year, or even two weeks ago, than it was this week when he covered yet another James Morrison song, “Say Something.” Nick’s talent was undeniable, but this was a deadly-dull performance with neither groove nor sauce. “There’s a timbre in your voice that I really love; it’s so easy to listen to. But the one thing I kept waiting for was a feeling of being connected to you as a person. And I didn’t feel it,” said Keith. “I love that warmth in your voice. There’s a very truthful thing about you, in that you never seem to try too hard. It wasn’t a 10, but it wasn’t bad,” said Nicki. “I don’t know if that was the right song for you. You’ve got one of those big ole voices. I’m looking for moments from all of you guys. And you never had a moment,” said Randy. Well, maybe Nick will get his “moment” next week, because despite all these middling critiques, he made the top 20 anyway. I think he can do better than this, so I am rooting for him to turn it all around.

Josh Holiday – As I mentioned before, Josh was as close to typical “Idol” frontrunner material as Season 12 had: A cute guy who plays piano (not a guitar, but hey, good enough), writes his own songs, and appears to put some sort of product in his fashionably tousled hair. It was a risk for him to perform an original tune, but I commended him for his guts, and really, the song was kind of catchy. However, the judges' reaction was meh at best. Keith told Josh he needed to cut loose more. Nicki said he should have stayed at the piano for the entire song (she was right, actually; Josh did seem more legit and less cheesy before he stood up and started working the stage). Randy said he wasn’t “wowed.” Mariah basically advised Josh to stick with songwriting, because that’s where the real money is. Too bad “Platinum Hit” isn’t still on the air so Josh could audition for that show instead, because he didn’t make "Idol's" top 20. If only Josh had tried out in any other “Idol” season, he probably would’ve sailed through to the top 10. Sometimes timing is everything.

David Oliver Willis – David did a swampy blues-folk-funk guitar cover of the old standard “Fever,” and while the song choice didn’t give him much chance to showcase his vocal range, I was intrigued, and I wanted to see more of this dude. (In general, David really should’ve gotten more screentime this season.) He was original, he was a natural onstage, he had a certain laid-back cool, and he played guitar, doing just what the judges had wanted from Gurpreet. Keith compared David to Gary Clark Jr. and Michael Kiwanuka (I didn’t really get that vibe, but whatever) and called him a “soulful cat.” Randy dug David too. Nicki flirted with David a bit, but upon realizing that David’s sweet young wife was in the audience, she suddenly brought out her claws and cruelly likened David’s performance to something a kid would do in a living room after getting a guitar for Christmas. (Harsh!) Well, Christmas did not come early for David this year: He got eliminated as well. Along with Josh’s cut, this was another big upset for me.

Bryant Tadeo – I thought Bryant’s rendition of “New York State Of Mind” was treacly and cabaret, but it was a really strong, solid vocal, and the audience ADORED him. He even received a standing ovation. This certainly seemed like enough to get him to the next round, especially after Keith lavishly praised him with: “You have a beautiful voice, and that was a really good song for you, and you handled it really well. People got on their feet. You made a connection.” But then Nicki, who really seemed to have her own panties in a bunch this evening, told Bryant: “I liked that falsetto at the end. I didn’t like anything else.” (Super-harsh!) Bryant didn’t make the top 20 either, and this seemed to be an even bigger shock/scandal than the eliminations of Josh and David, judging from the very vociferous audience boos that erupted inside the Mirage when Bryant received the bad news.

Burnell Taylor – There was a lot to like about Burnell: the whole modernized-Urkel image, the effervescent onstage charisma, the newly slimmed-down physique. But his vocal on John Legend’s “This Time” was far from perfect. He was definitely flat in parts. I am glad/relieved that he made it through, because I think there’s really something special about the kid, but if he wants to get past the top 20, he’s going to have to do better than this. At least two of the judges, however, seemed to harbor no worries about Burnell’s rosy future. “Gosh, I liked that performance. It was strikingly original: the way you move, the way you phrase, your cadence,” said Keith. “Right now, today, I would pay to see you sing…you were the best by far tonight,” said Nicki. Randy and Mariah were less enthusiastic, but they appreciated Burnell’s raw talent. Now that Burnell has made it to the top 20, I hope he is able to stick around, so he has time to grow and tap into his full potential.

Lazaro Arbos – Already a fan favorite due to his heartstring-tugging backstory (Lazaro is a severe stutterer), and looking adorable in a pink shirt and bow-tie that put Burnell’s bow-tied ensemble to shame, Lazaro did his best singing a song of Keith Urban’s, “Tonight I Wanna Cry.” But that title pretty much summed up how I felt about this entire episode, because this was yet another disappointing performance. While I was rooting for Lazaro, I had to admit that this was not a good vocal. At all. It was shaky and amateurish, and I’d remembered him sounding much better at his emotional first audition. Even Keith didn’t think this was a good song choice for Lazaro, but he added, “You've got this spirit that burns through your vocals.” Nicki went easy on Lazaro too, after a night of tearing the other contestants new you-know-whats, saying, “You played it safe, but in a good way. You always give us you. Don’t change nothing.” Randy and Mariah gave him a free pass too. So Lazaro made it to the top 20, and he will probably coast on his sob story to the top 10. But if he keeps on giving performances like these, he shouldn’t go much further than that. We shall see.

Cortez Shaw – There was no denying that Cortez, with his chiseled, movie-star-handsome face, really lit up the small screen. Or that his song choice, “Titanium” by David Guetta and Sia, was the most current and relevant of the night. But still. This vocal was a mess. He really struggled, so maybe it wasn’t the best idea for him to cover an electronic song that was originally processed with every possible bit of vocal-sweetening studio wizardry at Guetta’s disposal. I honestly did not understand why the judges raved so much about Cortez’s performance and didn’t call him out on his vocal shortcomings. Said Keith: “There was a lot of inconsistency, but there was total redemption at the end." Said Randy: “Your range surprised us today. There were some pitch things here and there, but at the end when you hit those notes, I was shocked. I’m a fan!” Said Mariah: “I have enjoyed you since the very beginning, and I am glad that you are still here.” And Cortez will be here for at least another week, because he made the top 20 as well. I think he made it through mainly because of past goodwill and his good looks, because this was not a winning performance.

So now we know our top 20. The top 10 girls, who will compete for America’s votes next Tuesday, are (listed in my order of preference, from favorite to least favorite):

Zoanette Johnson
Candice Glover
Kree Harrison
Breanna Steer
Angela Miller
Janelle Arthur
Adriana Latonio
Amber Holcomb
Aubrey Cleland
Tenna Torres

And the top 10 boys, who will compete next Wednesday, are (again, ranked in my order of faves):

Charlie Askew
Vincent Powell
Elijah Liu
Burnell Taylor
Devin Velez
Nick Boddington
Lazaro Arbos
Curtis Finch Jr.
Cortez Shaw
Paul Jolley

Yep, this really will be a girls’ season, by the looks of this very lopsided list. Once the season gets down to a top 10, and all of the finalists are competing against each other on the same stage, on the same night, it’s sure to be a bloodbath for the boys. I just hope the “Idol” powers-that-be know what they’re doing. See you then.

Parker out.

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