Welcome to "American Idol's" Rush Week, a collegiately named new Season 13 gimmick segment possibly even rougher than having one's backside paddled in a "thank you sir, may I have another?"-style fraternity hazing. Actually, there were parts of Tuesday's Rush Week episode that were quite enjoyable — from a viewer's perspective. But the process was no doubt difficult for Tuesday's female semifinalists…especially for the five who, after weeks of preparation, never got to sing at all.
So here's how it worked: Fifteen girls practiced for their live TV debut this Tuesday, but the judges only picked 10 of them to sing for America's votes. The other five just sat backstage for a couple hours (while their loved ones sat in the audience), waited in vain for their names to be called, and eventually went home. They didn't even get to put to use all the wisdom they'd gleaned from Randy Jackson, Chris Daughtry, Adam Lambert, and the show's new "non-denominational spiritual advisors" at this season's boot camp.
[Related: Surviving Randy Jackson's "Idol" Workshop]
Sigh. The five contestants who didn't make it were Austin Wolfe, Andrina Brogden, Kenzie Hall, Brandy Neelly, and Jillian Jensen. No real reason was given for this decision. This bombshell news must've been especially disappointing for the latter two girls: Brandy was a repeat "Idol" auditioner, and Jillian was shockingly cut right before the live shows of "The X Factor" Season 2. Once again, these girls had narrowly missed getting their big break.
On Wednesday, "Idol" will do this all over again with the male semifinalists. But we already know the name of one of the boys who'll be heading home along with Austin, Andrina, Kenzie, Brandy, and Jillian: Neco Starr, the extra 16th contestant who lost out to Ben Briley in last week's fan vote.
I suppose it wasn't surprising that "Idol's" core conservative fanbase picked the good ole Southern boy who sings country over the Bruno Mars-style showman who wears wide-brimmed, Pharrell-worthy chapeaus. But I was still rooting for Neco. Like Brandy, he was a returning "Idol" contestant (from Season 11), and a darn good one at that. Starr had always seemed like a star to me. I'd been hoping this would be his year.
Man, "Idol's" judges might be much nicer than last season's, but the producers this year are not playing nice. This evening was harsh. You know what was also harsh? Some of the girls' vocals. Not all of the 10 who made it through and actually sang proved that they'd deserved a chance over, say, Austin, Kenzie, or Jillian. While three girls gave great performances, others had me wondering if, even without Neco, this may be another "boys' season." Because many of these ladies failed to impress.
Anyway, without further ado, here's how the top 10 girls did…
Majesty Rose – It was no surprise that adorable Majesty, possibly the most likable girl on the planet, was selected first by the judges. And while normally I'd worry that her death-spot placement would hurt her in the voting, I can't imagine anyone not voting for Majesty. Her show-opening performance of Pharrell's "Happy" was so wonderful, so effervescent, and just so, well, happy. I couldn't stop smiling during her number, especially when she started bopping around at the end. "That's how you're supposed to come out here! Ready for showtime!" exclaimed a delighted Jennifer Lopez. "I feel very fortunate that you have set the tone, because you have done a fantastic job," said Harry Connick Jr. Majesty indeed set the tone, and the bar, for this episode — and she would turn out to be a hard act to follow.
Kristin O'Connor – Kristin sang Adele's "Turning Tables" capably (not as capably as Adele, of course), but she suffered from two problems that hampered many contestants on Tuesday evening: She seemed nervous as heck, and she didn't appear to connect to the song at all. This didn't seem like the ballad of a woman scorned. This was just a nice pageant performance. Harry called Kristin's vocal "powerful," while J.Lo and Keith Urban said she hit her stride about halfway through (admitting that the first half of the song was shaky). J.Lo also praised Kristin's "special tone." Kristin does have a lovely voice, and is a lovely girl, but I don't think this performance was special enough. I question if she's the complete "Idol" package.
Briana Oakley – Briana, another returning contestant, was another girl with a great voice but no stage presence. She stared down the camera lens during her performance of Demi Lovato's "Warrior" with the enormous eyes of a headlights-facing deer, a victim of aggressive eyelid surgery, or Cindy Brady on that quiz-show episode of "The Brady Bunch." Her unblinking, panicky gaze was disconcerting, and she seemed very much inside her own head. "You looked a little scared to me. I wanted to give you a hug to help you relax," said Jennifer. Still, J.Lo compared Briana to a young Whitney Houston, and Keith said Briana reminded him of Irena Cara. Maybe Briana needs a little more time to develop. The voice was there, of course (although Harry criticized Briana's tendency to show off), but everything else about this performance felt stilted.
Jena Irene (formerly Jena Asciutto) – Jena certainly didn't hold back, really tearing into her hard-rock cover of the Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black," and I wholeheartedly appreciated the rawkin' element she brought to the night. We need more rock chicks on "Idol"! But she too seemed very tense. Not to sound like the Season 12 judges harping on Angie Miller, but I wondered if Jena would've been better off staying at her piano, where she may have felt more comfortable. Jennifer loved Jena's "nice sultry quality" and confessed that Jena is one of her favorites, calling her "badass" (or J.Lo tried to say that, at least, before the censors overzealously bleeped her). Then Harry put Jena on the spot and asked her if she knew what the Stones song was about (just like he did during his facepalm-y "My Funny Valentine" mentoring session with Amber Holcomb last season), and all Jena could answer was "darkness." No wonder she wasn't 100 percent connected. None of these girls were paying attention to the words coming out of their mouths!
Bria Anai – Bria did Melanie Fiona's "Wrong Side of Love," and it was the wrong song choice. She was just YELLING the song, as if her lyric sheet had been typed up in all caps. It was too much; there was no nuance, no variation, no subtlety, just a whole lot of hollering. "I think there's a difference between being incredibly passionate and just shouting the song," Harry said; this critique elicited his first studio audience booing of the season, but he was right. Jennifer was kinder, telling Bria, "You have 'star' written all over you." Bria definitely had stage presence — she was one contestant who didn't seem nervous — but this did not work.
Marrialle Sellars – Marrialle got a lot of screentime early in the season and is clearly a favorite of the producers, so maybe she felt some extra pressure going into this phase of the competition. Because really, she tanked. Her performance was actually the weakest of the night, at least vocally. Eschewing her trusty acoustic guitar to do a big pop production of Katy Perry's "Roar" that would have made more sense on "The X Factor," she was a mess: rushing ahead of the song, struggling with the lower register, and tripping in her Gaga-high heels at one point. Even the judges couldn't fawn all over her and pretend this was great. Keith didn't like the song choice, griping, "Too karaoke, baby. You're much better than that." Said J.Lo: "I would have loved to see you do that on guitar." Harry told Marrialle she wasn't in tune or in the pocket, and said, "I didn't see any of that superstar [that you were before]." Suddenly, "Roar's" line "I am a champion" didn't ring true anymore. No one was buying what Sellars was selling. Before this, I'd had her pegged as a frontrunner, but it's amazing what a difference one bad performance can make.
Jessica Meuse – At first, Luke Bryan's "Drink a Beer" seemed like a smart song choice for Jessica. After all, "Idol" fans love them some country music, and the sensitive ballad would hopefully showcase a sweeter side of this sometimes off-puttingly tough rocker. But this was another disappointing performance. First of all, I'd never seen Jessica look nervous before, not even when facing off with a bossy New Jersey stage mother, but she really crumbled on live TV. She seemed scared to death. Second, she too seemed disconnected from her song, smiling aloofly through much of her performance even though "Drink a Beer" is about Luke Bryan's DEAD BROTHER AND SISTER. Considering all of Jessica's road-warrior experience as a gigging musician, I was shocked by how badly she fumbled this. Harry and Keith pointed out the disconnect, with Harry saying Jessica had a "wall up." Jennifer, however, while making note of Jessica's nerves, said, "Underneath all of that edge, there's a softness…I hope we get to see more of it." I have a feeling we may not get to see more of any side of Jessica, however. I don't know if this was enough to get her through to the top 13.
Emily Piriz – Emily, who just turned 18, sang Grace Potter's "Paris (Ooh La La)," even though Harry has made it clear that he hates it when any woman under the age of 30 sings this sexy little down-on-the-floor number. The song choice didn't bother me at all, and I thought Emily exhibited a lot of poise and confidence onstage (J.Lo called this "one of the most relaxed performances of the night"), but something about this wasn't quite believable. It felt forced; Keith said Emily came across like a kid in front of the mirror pretending to be a rock star and hiding behind a persona, not a real artist. Victorian-minded prude Harry was apparently still creeped out by "Paris's" seductive lyrics, barking at Emily, "Is that really what you want to sing?" This was a little slut-shaming of him (it seemed like Emily wasn't even in a position to say, "Yes, I do want to sing a song about being down on the floor," if that was indeed how she felt, without looking bad). But Harry had a point. Emily didn't appear to have a clue about this song's meaning, and she even admitted that she'd willfully ignored its storyline. Why wasn't there a "Lyrics Interpretation 101" class in Randy Jackson's workshop? Some of these girls sure could have used that sort of training.
M.K. Nobilette – Finally! I was beginning to think that Majesty would be the only stunner of the evening, but then M.K. arrived. Here was a woman with quiet confidence, a fabulous song choice (John Legend's "All of Me"), and a real connection. This was a simple performance, but a beautiful and effective one. Even Marrialle was crying (maybe because she'd suddenly realized that this sort of performance would have been a better route for her to take than "Roar"). "The crowd loves you! The perfect song choice. I loved your vibrato. There's such simplicity about how you sing," raved Keith. "At the end of the day, it's about making people feel something…and that's what you gave up there," said J.Lo. And Harry put it best when he told M.K., "You belong here." M.K. also belongs in the top 13, in my opinion.
Malaya Watson – The episode ended with another bang, thanks to this awesomely goofy girl who, according to Keith, "makes braces and glasses look cool." Her performance of Ray Charles's "Hard Times" (intriguing song choice for such a youngster) was far from perfect, but she showcased her quirky personality and her "Slyancé" (Sly Stone-meets-Beyoncé) style, and what impressed me most was her total lack of fear. Malaya just went for it. "There's no doubt you're one of the powerhouse singers of the competition," said Jennifer. "It was to-the-wall energy, which is a good thing to have, but I look forward to you settling into a space," said Harry, which was his nice way of saying Malaya may have been a little too boisterous right out of the gate. But regardless, I look forward to seeing more of Malaya as well. I just hope she doesn't "settle" too much; I dig this girl's kookiness.
So, which of these ladies will make it to the top 13 on Thursday's results show? Now that, for the first time in "Idol" history, voting has been limited to 50 votes per method, the outcome ought to be interesting. I think the shoo-ins are Majesty, M.K., and Malaya (they're also my top three, in that order). But after that, it's really a toss-up. I do believe, however, that if Jessica or Marrialle don't make it — and that's a good possibility — they could get saved as Wild Cards and get a shot at redemption.
Come back Thursday to find out! And come back Wednesday for the boys' Rush Week round, when 10 guys sing — and five guys don't.