Tuesday's "American Idol" Rush Week episode started off with 15 talented female semifinalists. But then five of those girls, including popular "X Factor" alum Jillian Jensen, never got to sing at all. The judges and producers, based on never-quite-explained/elaborated observations they apparently made during the week's dress rehearsals and earlier in the audition process, decided to ship those five hopefuls straight home.
A glance at fans' social media reactions (especially Jillian's fans' social media reactions) quickly indicated that this cutthroat new system was not popular with "Idol's" audience. Viewers weren't feeling the Rush, so to speak. And I imagine some of the show's fans were even more disgruntled on Wednesday, when Rush Week continued apace and five boys were sidelined — also without getting the chance to perform.
Those five fallen fellows were Briston Maroney, Jordan Brisbane, Casey Thrasher, Maurice Townshend, and Ethan Harris. While the first two eliminations were understandable (Briston and Jordan are just so young and green), it was a shock to see handsome single dad Casey, the guy who'd almost taken a top 30 spot away from C.J. Harris and had been aggressively pimped this season, not make the cut. Maurice, the soulful, dreadlocked music minister, could have brought a unique energy to the show. And not including the adorable "lost Osmond," Ethan? That was like kicking a puppy. A really cute puppy wearing a really cute vest. My only explanation for that baffling decision is the show's producers must still be hoping for another female winner…or they didn't want to give Season 13's other teen pretty-boys — Sam Woolf, Alex Preston, and Spencer Lloyd — any stiff competition. Because tween-baiting Ethan could've won this whole thing. (Cougar-baiting Casey probably could have, too.)
Sigh. Keith Urban tried to pep-talk the eliminated boys by pointing out that this week's guest advisors, "Idol" veterans Chris Daughtry and Adam Lambert, didn't win their respective seasons but managed to do quite all right for themselves. But it was an argument, however well-intentioned, that fell flat. Chris and Adam had the chance to sing for America's votes about a dozen times each. Briston, Jordan, Maurice, Casey, and Ethan never got to do that once. Big difference, there.
[Related: Surviving Randy Jackson's "Idol" Workshop]
Anyhoo, as for the 10 boys who did get that chance this Wednesday, some really proved they deserved their spots, while others struggled with the usual setbacks: bad song choices, bad song arrangements, bad cases of nerves. Here's how everyone fared:
Caleb Johnson – This tenacious, Tenacious D-like belter stormed out in full-on Bo Bice stadium-rocker mode and slayed the Faces' "Stay With Me." What an awesome song choice to showcase his herculean pipes and hesher-dude style, not to mention the right song to appeal to "Idol's" classic-rock-loving fanbase. This was a massive crowd-pleaser and a massive way to kick off the show. "Man! I thought you were going to take that microphone stand through the stage. That was killer. You're born with it," raved Keith. "That was some real rock-star ish right there. You're the real deal," said Jennifer Lopez. "It's going to be tough for the guys following you," said Harry Connick Jr., correctly.
C.J. Harris – Ray LaMontagne's "Shelter" was such a perfect song choice for C.J.'s raw, ragged voice. Chris Daughtry suggested C.J. set aside his guitar and focus on that voice, and C.J. seemed amenable to the idea…but when he got onstage, lo and behold, his guitar was back. (Ha. How Phillip Phillipsian of him to ignore professional advice. Well, at least he agreed to wear the fedora hat that the show's stylist foisted upon him.) I think C.J. was smart to keep the six-string; it was way too early in the competition to pull a 180, something Marrialle Sellars learned the hard way when she ditched her own guitar on Tuesday. C.J. seemed right in his element and in the zone. Harry thought C.J.'s intonation was too sharp, but J.Lo swooned for C.J.'s vocals, saying, "When you sing, you make me feel so many things. It's just beautiful. I hope that we get to see you for the rest of the competition." Keith loved C.J.'s mix of "Dobie Gray and Jonny Lang." Then Ryan Seacrest revealed that C.J. had just undergone a root canal! What a trooper. So, what was more frightening — facing the dentist, or facing a live TV audience of millions? C.J. didn't say…
Emmanuel Zidor – Oh, I had so many issues with this performance: Emmanuel's dated disco song choice (the Emotions' "Best of My Love"), his off-the-rails theatrics, and his lack of vocal control towards the end, which Keith and Harry attributed to an over-abundance of adrenaline. But my biggest issues weren't with Emmanuel, but with his most ardent supporter on the judging panel, Jennifer. After telling Emmanuel, "I Zidor you," she asked Emmanuel to sing a snippet of a more suitable song, Rose Royce's "I'm Going Down," to prove what he really can do. Emmanuel eagerly obliged, of course. And this was totally not fair. Other contestants who faltered on Tuesday and Wednesday didn't get that second chance. For instance, when Marrialle tanked Tuesday night with a terrible song choice (Katy Perry's "Roar"), J.Lo didn't say, "Hey, sing a bit of 'Grenade' right now, so America hears how good you actually are." So, did J.Lo give Emmanuel an unfair advantage here? Possibly. Or, maybe it'll backfire on them both.
Sam Woolf – A favorite of all three judges, Sam was an easy pick for the boys' top 10. I enjoyed his laid-back cover of David Gray's "Babylon," a song very much in his wheelhouse (or coffeehouse), but I'm not sure if it had the "wow factor"; the song didn't really give Sam's voice anywhere to go. Luckily for Sam, one of the most likable boys of this season, he could have sung, well, "Best of My Love" and been just fine. "The people like you, Sam," Keith pointed out. "It's no surprise that everybody has fallen in love with you before you even made your way to the stage," gushed Jennifer. Harry thought Sam needed to work on his confidence more, but if Sam keeps getting so much love and praise on "Idol" every week, I have a feeling that a lack of confidence won't be an issue for him.
George Lovett – Well, I'll give George credit for giving a passionate performance; unlike some contestants this week, who were tentative and played it safe, he really went for it. But maybe he went too far. His cover of "Grenade" was so intense, he lost all control of the song. His voice was trembling, his hands were shaking, his neck-veins were bulging, and everything fell apart. Said Harry: "I think it's possible sometimes to become so emotionally invested in this lyric and the performance and the moment that you almost sing yourself off of the microphone. I felt that you were so passionate that it spun out of control." Jennifer told George, "What I'd like for you to do is control all the runs so much more. Because when they do come out and they're perfect, it's so impactful. When it's every other phrase, it's hard to follow you." Of course, J.Lo could have done what she did with Emmanuel, and asked George to sing a few bars of something else. But she didn't.
Dexter Roberts – Dexter, in my opinion the weakest link in the "Backstreet Cowboys" (the Hollywood Week group he formed with Ben Briley and Casey Thrasher), definitely played it safe with his song choice, Craig Morgan's "This Ole Boy." He had that "bro country" thing going on, which is very marketable and popular right now. But what did he do this Wednesday to differentiate himself from all the Craig Morgans out there? Not much, and that was the problem. "You're a typical modern-day country performer. I think the curse of that is I wonder what is going to set you apart outside of 'Idol,'" warned Harry. Keith agreed, saying, "There's a thousand guys like you fronting country bands in honky-tonks all over America right now. What you have to do is figure out what makes you different from everybody else." Will Dexter have the time on this show to do that? Maybe, but with strong performances on Wednesday from fellow country bros C.J. Harris and Ben Briley, there may not be room in the top 13 for Dexter as well.
Alex Preston – Alex was my favorite of the night. Yes, I know he's a little Phillip Phillips-y, with his scrunched-up guitar faces and jammy guitar-picking. And I know that Alex doing Damien Rice's "Volcano," one of Phillip's signature covers from Season 11, will only drive home those comparisons. I don't care. Alex did a GREAT job with "Volcano." His talent and musicianship was erupting all over the stage. This kid could definitely follow in P-Squared's footsteps and make it all the way to the finale. "It was so right that you played guitar. That was probably the best song choice of the night. That's a song that you could have written," said Keith. "You're really in your own lane. You're a very interesting artist," observed Jennifer. "I get the sense that music is like a religion to you. You eat, breathe, and sleep it," Harry said admiringly. Then Alex and Harry engaged in a little music-geek talk, and it was adorable.
Malcolm Allen – I remember Malcolm having so much good energy when he sassily entered the audition room on Season 13's premiere episode, playing air guitar and proclaiming his desire to "marry music, if I could." But I wasn't getting any of that personality from his Wednesday performance of Anthony Hamilton's "Coming From Where I'm From." He seemed unsure of himself, flailing awkwardly and looking blank and glassy in the eyes. The voice was there, though; this song is not easy to sing, but Malcolm mostly pulled it off. He definitely has what they call in the biz a "recordable voice," but he needs to work on his stage presence. "I wanted your performance to hit me more. I should have got goosies on that one. I need you to bring the heart and soul next time, OK?" said Jennifer. I just hope there is a next time for Malcolm, because I like the guy.
Ben Briley – Ben totally surprised me with his cover of the Allman Brothers' "Soulshine." I'd been angry on Tuesday when he snagged the final spot in the boys' top 15 over one of my favorite contestants, Neco Starr, but Ben proved he deserved that spot with his red-hot country-rock performance, which featured some really cool electric (not acoustic) guitar. He was giving me some Casey James realness here. Harry called Ben an "interesting and powerful performer." Keith praised the "first shredded solo we've seen on 'American Idol.'" And J.Lo said, "You came alive onstage tonight. You were even better now than you were [in rehearsal]. That's a sign of a true performer." Maybe one day Ben can release a concert album called Briley Comes Alive.
Spencer Lloyd – Spencer was the last guy to get in, at the aforementioned expense of Casey, Ethan, et al, and I was annoyed. I was still holding a grudge against Spencer for his jerky and unsportsmanlike behavior during Hollywood Week, when he forced his fellow group members to sing a song only he knew well, then did nothing to save them as they floundered onstage. I don't think Spencer's cover of the Fray's "Love Don't Lie" was strong enough to make me to drop that grudge. It wasn't great. He had the pop-star swagger, I'll give him that, but his vocals were not on point and his smugness was off-putting. "I don't know that that was your best vocal performance tonight, but sitting here and watching everybody's faces, looking up at you was undeniable," said Keith. Jennifer also praised Spencer's star quality. But Hatchet Harry was unimpressed. "When you sang 'Say Something' in Hollywood at the piano, that is your strong suit. Stick to what you know. This was not good," he said flatly.
So, which of these boys will make the top 13? If we were still in the days of unlimited voting, the obvious shoo-ins would be cutie patooties Sam, Alex, and (ugh) Spencer, or Southern everymen C.J., Dexter, and Ben. But now that — for the first time in "Idol" history — voting is restricted to 50 times per method, it could be an entirely different game this year. All those tween girls and their moms can't block-vote for their favorites like they used to.
I will reveal, however, which contestants I would like to see make this season's top 13…
GIRLS: Majesty Rose, M.K. Nobilette, Malaya Watson, Jessica Meuse, Jena Irene
BOYS: Alex Preston, Sam Woolf, Caleb Johnson, Malcolm Allen, Ben Briley, C.J. Harris
WILD CARDS: Savion Wright, Tessa Kate
Ha. OK, obviously this is not how it's going to go down, although I can dare to dream. On Thursday's first live results show of the season, five girls and five boys will be voted through, and then the judges will select three Wild Cards from whoever's left. If America and the judges choose wisely, we'll end up with a great top 13 and a very strong comeback season. If not, then I'll be back to kvetching like I did throughout much of troubled Seasons 9 and 12.
See you Thursday, either way!