‘American Idol’ Vegas Rounds, Part 1: Girls’ Night Out

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks (New)

This Wednesday, “American Idol” headed to Vegas, baby, Vegas, where of course showgirl-style divas like new judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj fit right in. But the new judges weren’t the only Season 12 format change in effect: For the first time in “Idol” Vegas rounds history, the show took place in front of a live audience (inside the Cirque Du Soleil theater at the Mirage resort), with separate groupings of 10 contestants competing for coveted spots in the top 20. On Wednesday, this season’s kickoff Vegas episode, the first batch of 10 girls sang for their lives, and by the end of the show, only five--as selected by the judges, after an uncomfortably voyeuristic Green Mile process--survived.

But let’s talk about those judges for a bit, shall we? Wednesday’s show was the first time that the new judging panel--Nicki, Mariah, Keith Urban, and old standby Randy Jackson--did their thing live. (Well, semi-live, anyway; the episode had been taped the night before.) And their chemistry was a thrill, or at least a relief, to behold. They were getting along! Mariah had energy and was offering specific, useful vocal advice! Nicki was tough and made sense! Keith, who always spoke first and thus set the tone for the entire panel, was spewing the wisdom of a musical sage! And even Randy stayed away from his usual hackneyed catchphrases, aside from an occasional “for me” here and there. Overall, the judges came across as surprisingly invested, engaged, opinionated, and informed; really, if this was how they’d been presented from the get-go, instead of producers short-sightedly pushing that silly "feud" angle to generate some tabloid heat, this season would be better off, ratings-wise, right about now. Longtime “Idol” viewers, who were instantly turned off by the prospect of watching two alpha-females bicker like Real Housewives or Teen Moms all season, would've been much more excited about this sort of panel. And I know I am excited now. I sincerely hope the judges can keep it up.

So Wednesday’s episode definitely gave me renewed faith in Season 12...but is it too late for the majority of “Idol” fans? Has the show already alienated its core audience? Maybe not, but of course, what will really keep viewers tuning in, in the long run, are the contestants. And a few of the 10 contestants who competed this Wednesday could generate a decent-sized ratings boost, based on their impressive first live impressions. Here’s a rundown of all 10 performances, along with the reveal of which five advanced to the public voting rounds, which start March 5:

Jenny Beth Willis – Um, who was this? Does anyone remember this contestant from the auditions or Hollywood rounds? The poor girl never had a prayer; before this week, she’d seriously received less screentime this season than even Randy. And then she got the death spot this Wednesday, just to render her even less memorable. Jenny’s rendition of Trisha Yearwood’s “Heaven, Heartache, And The Power Of Love” was fine, nothing particularly wrong with it--but it certainly didn’t set her apart from this season’s many other country-crooning gals. (Cute party dress, though. Very Betsey Johnson/“Carrie Diaries.” The dress was the best part about Jenny’s performance, really.) Keith said he had “mixed feelings” about Jenny’s Trisha cover, telling her “it was not the best song” for her, but he added that he admired her “effortless confidence.” Nicki told her, “I didn’t think you came alive until the very end” and observed that the audience had actually exuded more energy than Jenny had. (Ouch.) Mariah mildly described the performance as “nice,” but said Jenny could have been “more dynamic during the verses.” And then Randy called Jenny “a little jerky” and said, “I don’t think it was your best performance.” Er, excuse me, but what other performance was Randy comparing this to? Did Jenny even have another performance? Nope--not one that America got to see, anyway. And it seemed pretty unlikely that she'd get to ever do another one, after this.

Tenna Torres – This former Camp Mariah girl-scout sang Natasha Bedingfield’s “Soulmate,” and she certainly had the mighty pipes to pull it off. (She must’ve earned a Camp Mariah musical merit badge, back in the day.) But her performance had an odd cabaret vibe to it, as did her cocktail outfit and Stacy Francisian hair. And with Tenna being one of the older contestants in the competition, at age 28, coming across as old-fashioned probably wasn't the shrewdest move. Nicki cited both pluses and minuses with regards to Tenna’s throwback, Taylor-Dayne-ish style, praising her for sounding like “one of those 1980s R&B singers; there’s no tone like that in the business right now,” but also telling her to “lose the hair; the hair that you had originally made you look younger.” I have to say, Nicki was right; maybe she can lend Tenna one of her very youthful pink Barbie wigs in the future. Keith called Tenna, hair and all, “beautiful.” Randy called her “95 percent perfect.” And her old camp counselor Mariah told her, “This was all you. You gave every bit of your emotion. You really went in.” So maybe all Tenna needs is a minor makeover (not one orchestrated by last season’s scissors-wielding Tommy Hilfiger, though), and she could do all right in this competition.

Adriana Latonio – At first this 17-year-old Alaskan seemed like another fodder female, since I honestly couldn’t remember her at all from earlier this season. (Where has producer Nigel Lythgoe been hiding these girls, huh?) But once Adriana started singing “Ain’t No Way” by Aretha Franklin, she made much more of an impression than Jenny did. Seemingly determined to make the most of whatever small amount of screentime she was going to get, Adriana dug deep into her song, and she greatly impressed--especially with that final note. Randy and Keith were so impressed, in fact, that they gave her a standing ovation. “Now the night has started! Your emotion and everything completely belied your age,” raved Keith. Nicki told Adriana she “commanded the stage” and noted, “I didn’t see one ounce of fear from you.” Howled Randy, “This girl is born to do it!” And Mariah graded Adriana an “A-plus.” Suddenly it was obvious that this girl would be getting a lot more screentime on future “Idol” episodes.

Brandy Hotard – Another one of Season 12’s many country girls, Brandy had seemed like a promising contender earlier this season, but she really missed the mark with her flatlined cover of Travis Tritt’s “I Don’t Love You Anymore.” Oh, the vocals were decent, sure, but there was something a bit off, a bit too safe, and more than a bit too robotic about her whole performance. It almost seemed like she was singing the words phonetically, off a teleprompter, without even bothering to mentally process the lyrics. Keith rightfully criticized Brandy’s “emotional connection inconsistency...it’s a pretty heartbreaking song, and there were times when you seemed like you were happy about it.” Nicki agreed, saying, “Why are you smiling? That was a pageant delivery of a song. It didn’t feel real. We don’t want you to smile at us if it doesn’t feel truthful to the song.” Randy echoed Keith and Nicki’s sentiments with: “You didn’t have the right connection to that lyric...it didn’t tell me enough of who you are, what kind of artist you want to be.” Mariah was the kindest among the judges (“It didn’t bother me,” she shrugged), but even she had to agree that this wasn’t Brandy's best. And so it seemed that the judges didn't love Brandy anymore.

Shubha Vedula – Kudos to Shubha for giving the riskiest performance of the night: a vampy interpretation of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” that started off at the piano and ended up, well, basically all over the place. No one could say that the girl didn’t give it her all, that’s for sure. But maybe Shubha gave just a little too much. Or a lot too much. This was a very A.D.D. effort, lurching along with many stop-and-start, slow-and-speedy tempo switches; there was so much going on, in fact, that I think I spotted a kitchen sink onstage. She was just trying way too hard--which was a shame, since her solid voice would have been enough on its own. "You crammed a lot into that song...it was confusing,” said Keith. “I almost feel like there’s a comical thing there, like a mashup of Christina Aguilera and the Gangnam Style guy,” mused Nicki. (Yes, I know this was rich coming from a woman with 15 alter egos who once simulated a live exorcism at the Grammys, but Nicki did have a point.) Lamented Randy, “The potential in you is amazing. I would have preferred it if you’d stayed at the piano.” Mariah agreed that Shubha seemed much “less forced” when she was just playing the keys, but gave the girl some credit for trying to please the crowd. It was just clear, unfortunately, that Shubha hadn’t pleased the judges.

Kamaria Ousley – Okay, who? Seriously, the “Idol” editors did a major hatchet job this season. Here was yet another mystery girl that I wouldn’t have recognized if she'd walked up and bitten Ryan Seacrest on the behind. When she sang the “you don’t know a thing about me” line in her song, “Mr. Know-It-All,” truer words had never been heard on this show. I really didn’t know a damn thing about her. But sadly, when Kamaria finally got a chance to make a first impression, she epically failed. (Her outfit was cute, though. There was some good fashion on Wednesday, with nary a Hilfiger outfit in the mix.) Kamaria made the massive mistake of taking on a song by the nearly untouchable original Idol, Kelly Clarkson, and she sounded shrill and unfocused--and certainly far from Kelly-esque. “I don’t know if that was a great song for you tonight. Finding that emotional connection never happened for me,” said Keith. “It didn’t work, babe,” grumbled Nicki. Mariah called Kamaria “adorable,” “vivacious,” and “marketable,” all of which was true, but Mariah also admitted that it seemed like Kamaria had struggled to hear herself throughout the performance. Randy was the toughest, grunting, “From the start of the song, it never caught on. The pitch was all over the place. It was your worst performance...there was nothing redeemable.” Once again, I wasn’t sure which performance(s) Randy was comparing this to, since Kamaria never received much screentime before. But it was apparent that she wouldn’t be getting a chance to redeem herself later on this season.

Kree Harrison – Performing “Up To The Mountain,” the lovely Patty Griffin ballad that served as Crystal Bowersox’s almost-coronation song in Season 9, this demo singer’s professionalism totally came through. (“I felt like I was at your show and you’ve been doing this for 25 years,” observed Randy.) Kree exuded natural beauty, natural talent, and pure class, and she exhibited all the real, palpable emotion that Brandy and Kamaria had lacked. She earned a standing ovation from Keith and Nicki, with Keith gushing, “You are such a natural-born singer. It’s so beautiful to watch you sing. You don’t have to try; it’s authentic, and God bless you for that.” Said Nicki: “I would be very afraid if I were any of these other girls tonight. Every time you sing a song, you make love to the song. Some women have to show so much skin to feel sexy, but something about how you sing is so sexy. I am in love.” (Yes, I know this was also rich coming from a woman known for performing in hotpants and brimming-over corset tops, but once again, Nicki was right.) “You’re lost in the song, and that is a beautiful thing to watch. You sang the hell out of that song,” declared Mariah. This was the first true standout performance of the night, and I think Kree really could go far. At least I hope she does.

Angela Miller – Angela stunned with her original song, “You Set Me Free,” last week, setting the bar very high for herself and for Season 12 in general. Maybe she set it a little too high, actually: Angela’s performance this week, of Jessie J’s “Nobody’s Perfect,” was actually pretty close to perfect (at least 95 percent, as Randy would say), but the judges spent WAY too much time comparing it to “You Set Me Free,” instead of judging it on its own merits. (“You know nothing is going to compare to that last performance,” Nicki flat-out told Angela. Discouraging!) That being said, I do think Angela delivered on her early promise, and I still think she could be this season’s breakout star. She did try a tad too hard this Wednesday--which is probably why Nicki advised her, “Don’t overdo it; you’re already a top contender,” and Keith said, “You have a big, big gift that doesn’t require any compensating.” But Randy wisely proclaimed, “I think America is witnessing the building of a superstar,” and Mariah told her, “Your potential is limitless.” I just hope Angela hasn’t peaked too early.

Isabelle – I had great expectations for this country girl, one of the standouts from earlier this season. And I thought her “God Bless The Child” performance mostly lived up to those expectations and was one of the more solid vocal efforts of the night. Keith and Nicki seemed to think so too, with Keith saying, “To every guy who didn’t invite you to prom, let that song be the key on the side of his car,” and Nicki chiming in with “Eat your heart out, boys!” (Isabelle had been overweight and unpopular in high school, you see.) But Randy and Mariah weren’t crazy about the song’s old-fashioned arrangement, and Randy even thought the performance came across as pageanty. At least Mariah had the common sense to point out that the arrangement probably wasn’t Isabelle’s fault, saying, “Your vocal could have been over any song. Your vocal is what is selling you, and your heart is what’s selling you.” But the judges didn't seem totally sold on Isabelle.

Amber Holcomb – It was very interesting that a girl who’d seemed like another little-seen also-ran ended up getting the pimp spot. She certainly seemed to come out of nowhere. Amber’s smoky, smoldering performance of “My Funny Valentine” had a certain pleasing J.Hud vibe to it, and the audience was loving her, breaking into wild applause every time she hit a money note. Even Mariah was beaming and clapping along. “Why do you make it so hard on everybody else? You took this song that could have easily been some old song and made it timeless. You knocked it out of the park,” said Keith. “That vocal was A-plus-plus-plus,” said Nicki, although she added, “I’m wondering if that inner shine is going to shine through the TV [to viewers at home].” Randy also questioned Amber’s confidence and star potential, warning her, “You have to believe it before anyone at home is going to believe it.” But Mariah didn’t doubt Amber, saying, “I think you know how brilliant that performance was. You have to know. I wanted to smack you. In a good way! I can’t wait for you to get in the studio and make a record.” I think as long as this girl gets more screentime going forward, she’ll have no trouble shining through the TV.

So the contestants were under special pressure this evening, not just because they were performing in front of a studio audience for the first time, but because they also had to walk their Green Mile in front of that audience. (FYI, "Green Mile" is Idolspeak for the walk of fame/shame that semifinalists take when they find out if they’re moving on to the top 20.) At the end of Wednesday's episode, each contestant learned her fate, facing the panel one by one, while the Mirage audience just sat there and watched the girls' dreams get either realized or crushed. It was awkward, but it was admittedly pretty good TV. And luckily, the judges made pretty good decisions, for the most part.

Yes, once again, the judges proved their worth by getting it mostly right, putting through Tenna Torres, Kree Harrison, Angela Miller, Amber Holcomb, and Adriana Latonio. Only that first decision was a head-scratcher; personally, I would've swapped Isabelle for Tenna. And judging by the audience boos that erupted when the judges chose to eliminate Isabelle, many others agreed with me. (Maybe if Isabelle had attended Camp Mariah as a child, she would have had more of a shot. Just sayin'.) But overall, when all was sung and done, the show was left with a strong first five.

So Thursday night, “Idol” will do it all over again with 10 guys: Charlie Askew, Chris Watson, Curtis Finch Jr., Devin Velez, Elijah Liu, Jimmy Smith, Johnny Keyser, JDA, Kevin Harris, and Paul Jolley. As long as Charlie and JDA make it through, I’ll be happy...and if the judges keep doing a bang-up job, I’ll be even happier. See you then.

Parker out.

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