After last week's unbearably cheesy '50s-themed Vegas episode was mistaken by many Fox viewers for a junior-college production of Jersey Boys, this Wednesday the final 42 "American Idol" hopefuls thankfully had the opportunity to sing songs of their own choosing, in a last-gasp attempt to impress the judges. By the end of the two-hour episode--and the show's infamous long and winding "Green Mile" walk--only 24 of them remained standing, with 14 of them being dramatically announced this evening.
Among the most shocking early Green Mile cuts was Lauren Gray, whose final Vegas performance of Etta James's "I'd Rather Go Blind" was stunning, and who'd been compared to Carrie Underwood and Lauren Alaina after her first audition in St. Louis. (Sadly, despite the judges' encouraging her to try out again, Lauren tearfully revealed that she has no plans to do so.) Another disappointing elimination was charismatic R&B/pop singer Neco Starr, who could have been "Idol's" Bruno Mars. Much less disappointing, however, was the judges' decision to cut psychotic cowboy Richie Law, whose obnoxious type-A ways during the Group Rounds probably had "Idol" producers thinking he'd be a lot more trouble than he was worth.
But among the 14 confirmed semifinalists were a few real standouts. I do think so far, this season's boys are a much stronger bunch than the girls--which indicates that "Idol" may end up with a FIFTH consecutive male winner this year. Still, there were thankfully a few ladies in the mix that kept me feeling the girl power. So without further ado, listed in order of my "ones to watch" personal preference, are Season 11's official semifinalists so far. (The remaining 10 will be revealed Thursday night.)
Heejun Han - Heejun came across as a joke at the beginning, with his deadpan personality and tendency to waggle his arms like one of those used-car-lot inflatable dolls whenever he got nervous. But who's laughing now? I guess the joke's on anyone who ever doubted Heejun, because he is through to the live shows! However, Heejun proved he has a serious, sensitive side this week, when he broke into sobs upon making it through to the top 24. I cannot wait to see Heejun bring the comedy--and the Bolton-esque vocals, and maybe some tears--to the stage next week.
Creighton Fraker - Along with Heejun and (see below) Reed Grimm, this eccentric street busker is Season 11's maverick, the one that viewers will be eyeing to see what he'll do (and sing) next. In a cast filled with conservative contestants who'll probably cover the usual done-to-death Jason Mraz and Edwin McCain songs, Creighton will definitely keep things interesting. AND HIS DAD WAS IN FLOTSAM & JETSAM! Creighton should win based on that alone. Even James Durbin couldn't claim that sort of awesome metal pedigree.
Reed Grimm - He entertained with his "Family Matters" and "Willy Wonka" theme songs earlier this season, but proved his versatility and credibility--and earned flattering comparisons to last season's multi-instrumentalist Casey Abrams--when he pulled a Phil Collins/Don Henley and played live drums during his later performances. Reed is a showbiz natural, and immensely likable. And just think how awesome it'd be if he broke out a little "Facts Of Life" or "The Love Boat" on the live shows! Come to think of it, Fox should just give Reed his own sitcom.
Colton Dixon - Colton was totally robbed last season, when he made it to the top 40 before getting cut. This year, he supposedly only attended the Season 11 auditions to give his (now-eliminated) younger sister Schyler moral support. Yeah, right. We all know that scenario was as staged as Magic Cyclops' audition. We all know what really happened is the producers saw the huge error of their Season 10 ways and called Colton back to the show. Wise decision, "Idol"! Colton is the kind of boy that girls will block-vote for, and he already seems destined to at least make the top four.
Phillip Phillips - P-Squared (who apparently is just "Phil" now) almost seems like he was created in an "Idol" lab by mad 19 Entertainment scientists trying to build the perfect "Idol" beast. He plays rocked-out Michael Jackson covers, like David Cook; he wears a lot of plaid, like Kris Allen; he has a regular-guy working-class job, like ex-paint salesman Lee DeWyze; and he's a Southern gentleman, like Scotty McCreery. He's also cute enough to grab the girly vote and Dave Matthews-esque enough to please the dudes. Really, Phillip's victory already seems like a done deal.
Joshua Ledet - This soul showboater, the son of a preacherman, is already garnering comparisons to last year's similarly initialed scenery-chewer Jacob Lusk. This may or may not be a good thing. (Jacob was a powerful gospel belter, but also very polarizing.) I actually think Joshua seems a little hipper and fresher than ol' Lusky. "Idol" hasn't spawned a major male R&B star since, well, Ruben Studdard, really...can Joshua break the R&B male "Idol" curse?
Elise Testone - I have adored Elise ever since her first blink-and-you'll-miss-her audition weeks ago. She's a no-frills rock chick with a Clarkson/Iraheta/Bowersox edge that Steven Tyler declared "one of the best singers we've had." And I like the fact that she's 28 and has knocked around a bit; I'm tired of all these 16-year-olds with no life experience to infuse into their lyrics! Elise is truly the real deal. Elise for the win.
Erika Van Pelt - EVP is just plain cool. She's a mobile DJ, which is kind of rad, and she has that approachability factor; she's not so sexy or vampy or flashy that she'll alienate the all-important female demographic. Plus, she can sing. Maybe Erika can break the long-running "Idol" female losing streak this season. EVP may be the girls' MVP!
Jen Hirsh - This brunette-next-door came out of nowhere during Hollywood Week, wowing the judges with her powerhouse vocals on "Georgia On My Mind." She's a soulful underdog who may very well be this year's Haley Reinhart. Or at least this year's Lauren Turner...
Baylie Brown - This country cutie is another repeat auditioner: She tried out for "Idol" five long years ago, when she was 16. Since then, she's been a backup singer on CMT's "The Singing Bee" and a staff writer for the Universal Music Publishing Group, so she's gotten some experience under her cowgirl belt and now seems ready for prime time. She's gorgeous, she's got perfect hair, and she can sang with twang. With Lauren Gray out of the running, is Baylie now "this year's Underwood"?
Jessica Sanchez - Jessica is a baby diva from the classic Mariah/Celine school of singing, whose mature style belies her mere 16 years. She would have been perfect for "American Idol" Season 3. Is she right for this season, though? I guess that will depend on the songs she chooses. Otherwise she might end up being another Pia (or another Thia Megia). I personally think Jessica should youth it up a little bit more on the live shows.
Brielle Von Hugel - This repeat auditioner from Season 10 has a good voice, for sure. But her overbearing, Real Housewife Of New Jersey mother--who butted heads with likable frat boy Kyle Crews during Hollywood Week, and led group prayers in the aisles with the other stage moms--did her no favors in terms of establishing her early popularity with viewers. (Neither did Brielle's own bratty attitude, even if Ryan Seacrest diplomatically described it as "moxie.") Anyway, if Mrs. Von Hugel wants to help her daughter out and do some damage control, she should keep a low profile on the "Idol" set from now on.
Haley Johnsen - I need to see more of this girl; she can sing, for sure (her final Vegas performance impressed), but I have no idea what she's all about musically--as in, what type of genre she represents. But Haley already looks like a pop star, I'll give her that.
Chelsea Sorrell - "Idol" may be stacking the country deck this season, hoping to find another Lauren Alaina, or another Kellie Pickler, or, if all goes well, that obviously longed-for second coming of Underwood. (Carrie's "Flat On The Floor" even played in the background when Chelsea received her good news Wednesday.) I can't imagine Chelsea will out-perform Baylie, but Season 10 proved that "American Idol" voters love them some country music, so she may far go farther than expected.
So Thursday night, we will learn the fate of the other contestants--including the fate of old-fashioned, churchy balladeer Adam Brock, who was left awaiting his verdict during Wednesday's cliffhanger. (Side note: I hope he didn't make it through. He kind of bugs me.) Tune in then to get a complete top 24 list, and until then...Parker out.