Pay no attention to the man alongside the curtain!
Yes, folks, this week on American Idol, Jimmy Iovine surrendered his “mentoring” role and pre-performance “advisory” sessions and instead put on his Justin Bieber Bigboy Collection (TM) cap to bark like a snake-oil salesman and rally a nation of speed-dialers behind Angie Miller and Amber Holcomb after their Round 1 “Songs From the Year They Were Born” numbers.
Did Jimmy possibly pre-tape his commentary before the live Top 5 telecast? It sure felt that way, considering his effusiveness about Amber’s moderately successful stab at Mariah Carey and Angie’s vocally dubious Pretenders cover that seemed to connect only because she’d started by dedicating it to the bombing victims in her home state of Massachusetts. C’mon, though, if we were judging this competition on sentiment, Lazaro Arbos would be poised to inherit Phillip Phillips’ crown and sash.
If Jimmy’s #TeamAmber t-shirt and #TeamAngie placcard weren’t enough to sway the public, the judges added four exclamation points during Round 2 (a drearily executed “Divas” theme). Keith, Nicki, Mariah and the foolio who’s always yapping “in it to win it!” all got on their feet for Angie and Amber, as well as Candice Glover and Kree Harrison.
Had this been a kindergarten singing lesson, then poor Janelle Arthur was playing the role of the cheese, standing alone, waiting for the Uncle Nigel Great Symbolic Tours Bus to pull up and carry her directly to the summer tour, without passing go, and without upsetting the pre-ordained order of How Things Were Meant to Be*. (*Unless there’s still a “Save.”) (There’s probably still a “Save.”)
To be fair, Janelle had arguably her weakest night in all of Season 12, but her shortcomings weren’t a magic elixir that fixed Angie’s intermittent pitch problems.
Anyhow, let’s get down to reviewing the evening’s set, shall we?
Songs from the Year They Were Born
Candice Glover: Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” | I’m a hardcore conspiracy theorist when it comes to Idol — and tonight I was struck by a bone-chilling realization while suffering through some shoddy camera work that too often focused on the back of Candice’s head. No matter how much the judges praise Candice’s performances, they never mention looking forward to her post-Idol albums or concerts. In their feedback, Candice only exists within the confines of the competition, and it makes me worry that it’s a not-so-subtle campaign to undervalue the most creative, most daring and most vocally spot-on woman in the Top 5. (Hmmm…didn’t Haley Reinhart get the same treatment back in Season 10?) All that aside, “Straight Up” proved to be yet another masterful interpretation of an unexpected number from The Lady Glover: In her hands, Paula Abdul’s chirpily delivered earworm became a swaying jazz ditty, muscled up with upright bass and bongo drums for good measure. As Keith noted, Candice’s expertly placed runs were like slow winks from across the bar, and her “buh-buh bye-byes” were so saucy and expressive, I let out an involuntary whoop of delight in response. Jimmy jumped on to the screen to yap that Candice needed a bigger song with a broader range, but that made no sense. I mean, did he miss the part where Candice lifted Paula’s narrow vocal line like a baby up on her shoulders and took it on the journey of a lifetime? Sheesh! Grade: A-
Janelle Arthur: Vince Gill’s “When I Call Your Name” | There’s not a whole lot to say about Janelle’s performance this week: It was a pretty but somewhat pedestrian rendition of a Vince Gill chestnut about the unexpected end of a love affair. And as Keith pointed out, the central pain and loneliness were absent from the performance, like a juicy hamburger that’s void of even salt and pepper: If you eat it on auto-pilot while reading emails at your desk, it’s perfectly acceptable; but once you close your eyes and pay attention, you can’t help but be a wee bit disappointed. Grade: B
Kree Harrison: The Black Crowes’ “She Talks to Angels” | Kree’s opening number prompted the first live argument between Mariah and Nicki all season, one that ended with Nicki’s madcap plea of, “Simmer down, sir!” But hey, at least the neophyte lady judges are acknowledging each other’s presence again, right? You’ve gotta start somewhere. But I digress… Kree’s vocal was supple and inviting as always — like a nice glass of Pinot Noir that you end up topping off, even if you don’t need to — but Mariah was absolutely right in noting a lack of organic-ness in the actual performance (even if she buried it under more “keep doing what you’re doing” blatherspeak). Kree kept smiling at the most inopportune moments — and then added to the weird vibe with a series of head shimmies that almost made it look like she was dismissing the notes that had just come out of her mouth. Was it the stupid spike-heel boots she wore for Nicki? Come on, Kreedom, boots or barefoot next week! Grade:
A- B+ (hate to downgrade this from my original mark, but it’s a televised performance — and visuals count!)
Angie Miller: The Prentenders’ “I’ll Stand By You” | Look, I’m not going to complain at all about Angie’s shout-out to her family and friends near Boston at the start of a ballad that’s all about lining up shoulder to shoulder with your loved ones even/especially in their darkest hours. (Having been in Boston myself this year to watch a friend run the marathon, I still haven’t completely processed the unspeakable events that occurred just as we were heading out of the city.) But ultimately, this is still a competition — not a benefit concert — and therefore the judges had a responsibility not to give a standing ovation (at least Nicki stayed seated), but to give some honest feedback about Angie going shrill on her high notes, going flat in her lower register, flubbing her cues on the lines “when the night falls on you” and “standing at the crossroads,” and using her Xacto-knife diction to blunt the flow of Chrissie Hynde’s original. Jimmy calling this “the performance of the night” makes me wonder if he pre-recorded his commentary after dress rehearsals or if he’s now part of Uncle Nigel’s pre-season storyboarding process. Otherwise, The 50-Year-Old Bieber needs to simmer down. Grade: C+
Amber Holcomb: Mariah Carey’s version of Badfinger’s “Without You” | Is it just me, or did Amber sound just ever so slightly behind the band for the opening verse of the song she was scared to sing in front of Mariah Carey? Perhaps that was part of the emotional flatness that Nicki so astutely noted in the face of a standing ovation from her three fellow judges. To make matters worse, the opening pair of “can’t lives” were pitched too low for Amber, and her approach to a couple of the big honkin’ glory notes made my nose crinkle involuntarily (and not in a good way). The bigger crime, though, was that Amber lacked that desperate break in her voice that makes Mariah’s rendition so haunting. This was more an undertaking to admire than a performance to be felt deeply. And thus, my second downgrade from my first impression. (Ugh, I’m the worst tonight.) Grade:
Candice Glover: Mariah Carey & Whitney Houston’s “When You Believe” | I get it, I get it, it was a “DIVAS” theme tonight on Idol, but I wish the Season 12 Fab 5 had dug a little deeper into their selected artists’ catalogs to mine some of their more modern-leaning anthems. I mean, imagine Candice on “Heartbreak Hotel” or “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” or “Heartbreaker” or “We Belong Together” (aka the Best Song Mariah Has Ever Recorded)? (Look at me, so deep in my daydream.) But then again, this…is American Idol. Sometimes you have to give the
people Grandma what she (thinks she) wants. And it’s darn near impossible to fault Candice on the technical skill with which she scaled (and then rappelled down) Mt. Mariah and Mt. Whitney — without even breaking a sweat. Candice’s body language was just a tad stiff — those outstretched arms felt a little bit like a crutch — but she ticked the final empty box marked “I can do soundtracks, too” box in the “total package” worksheet. If she’s the lowest vote-getter on Thursday, then I hope that creepy entity who interrupted last week’s “Lovesong” comes back and puts the Idoloonie nation in the naughty corner. Grade: B+
Janelle Arthur: Dolly Parton’s “Dumb Blonde” | I’m pretty sure Jimmy’s rant that Janelle needed to go emotional on her second performance was stuck in her craw before she sang the first word of Dolly’s cutesy but hardly seminal “Dumb Blonde.” Knowing her song choice was never going to arrive in Terminal E(motion), girlfriend figured she might as well stand on the flight attendant’s desk in Terminal F(un) and give everyone a rompin’ stompin’ good time. Yet what began as determination quickly turned to desperation. All that moving around seemed to leave Janelle breathless and occasionally drown out by the amped up guitar and bass: Her voice almost disappeared on a number of the song’s more staccato notes, and veered off pitch in places where she stretched her upper register. Maybe Nicki’s warning that Janelle could be in jeopardy will spur her fan base and put Candice or Kree or Amber at risk, but I suspect this is the number that stamped Janelle’s membership to the Fifth Place Club. Grade: C+
Kree Harrison: Celine Dion’s “Have You Ever Been in Love” | Much like Candice’s second performance, Kree’s was a strongly sung, pitch-perfect (well, except for the opening note) cover of a song that’s as exciting as dryer lint. (Actually, I take that back: Removing lint from the dryer — and marveling at its fabric-esque cohesiveness — is one of my favorite unofficial household responsibilities.) I could go on about how I wish Kree had done “Taking Chances” or “I Drove All Night” or even “Where Does My Heart Beat Now,” but they can’t all be “Evidence” or “Up to the Mountain” or “What the World Needs Now,” I suppose. Nicki, neck deep in a pool of hyperbole that she’ll probably be stuck in through mid-May, went on and on about how Kree isn’t country, she’s worldly, she’s iconic, she’s Adele, she’s Celine, she’ll be as viable at 20 as she is at 50 (whoops! she’s already 22!), and that “Have You Ever Been in Love” had just elevated her personal net worth. And then Nicki built a giant, vapor-filled bubble around Kree’s personal performance space, to ensure Kreedom’s highly valuable instrument never gets dehydrated. The end. Grade: B+
Angie Miller: Beyoncé’s “Halo” | Angie definitely wins the award for Best Dressed (was that draped mini made out of metal?). And she also takes home the prize for Most Disconcerting Backdrop (twin images of her face, in black and white, standing sentinel as Uncle Nigel prepared her coronation). But despite all the first-rate production, the judges’ post-performance rapture and Angie’s elbow grease (her desire to win this thing never seems to waver), I thought the arrangement was abysmal, and the vocal more solid than spectacular. Granted, the former was more the fault of the show’s backup singers, who transported me back to the Spyro Gyra concert I’ve never attended, but the latter shortcoming falls squarely on the shoulders of Ms. Miller. The opening two-thirds were pretty solid — aside from a loss of power on those upper register “oohs” — but the real trouble began in the final third, as Angie’s repeated ad-libs (“pray it won’t fade away!” “don’t fade away!”) dissolved into a shouting, not-entirely-musical chant. That mood shift, to my ears, missed the point of Beyoncé’s rapturous anthem: “Halo” is a celebration of those angels who come into our lives and change us forever, not a plea so they won’t abandon us in our time of need. I might be in the minority, but that disconnect scraped up against my ears like a shopping cart against the side of a brand new car. Grade: B-
Amber Holcomb: Barbra Streisand’s “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” | Since Amber got her “Mariah Moment” out of the way in Round 1, it freed her up to return to the jazzy first-impression she made back in Vegas with “My Funny Valentine.” And like a favorite old t-shirt you find crumpled at the back of your drawer, the tone and range of “How Are You Doing…” proved to be a flawless fit for Amber. Girfriend caressed the melody so delicately, it was as if she barely left a fingerprint, and yet at the same time, she drove home the gooey romanticism at the center of the composition. Randy, in his infinite ineloquence, somehow name-checked Rihanna in his critique — as if Riri is capable of running Babs through her goat-bleat processor! — but let’s pretend that didn’t happen. Amber showcased a more classical side of her artistry, and while it didn’t quite provide a “Love Song”-level rafter shaking (and while her diction could still use a little work), it certainly ranked as one of her finest Season 12 moments. Grade: A-
And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of Season 12 Top 5 performance night? Did four of the last five performances earn Standing Os? Who was your favorite? Who’s going to be in trouble come results night? How obvious was it that the show wants Janelle to get gone? Take our poll below, then sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!