Welcome to Miss American Idol, an exciting new reality series from Fox where gorgeous, talented women take the stage and sing for your votes — and then the ones with the skinniest legs advance to the finale.
Wait, that’s not an actual show? Then please someone tell me what I spent two hours watching tonight as a white-hot rage percolated through my circulatory system and turned me into the kind of cussing, fork-throwing (yes, I may have slammed cutlery into the hard wood floor), definitely-not-enjoying-myself monster you’d typically see on a show like Bad Girls Club or The Real Housewives of the Ninth Circle.
Yes, yes, I know…Idol has always been the kind of show that wears its agenda on its sleeve — usually spelled out in the blood of the contestants it hasn’t pre-selected as its Chosen Ones (TM) — but tonight, the commentary from Keith Urban, Nicki Minaj and Randy Jackson was so despicably biased against Candice Glover and Kree Harrison that I half-expected exec producer Nigel Lythgoe to send a marching band across the stage to drown out their voting numbers as they were read. You know, just in case you hadn’t gotten the message.
Add to that the Ringling Bros.-esque parade of dancing ladies, cartwheeling elephants and tightrope-walkers to herald THE OFFICIAL SEASON 12 ARRIVAL OF AMBER HOLCOMB (hinky upper register, occasional flat notes and coma-inducing song choices not included), and you had a recipe for one of Idol‘s most blatantly manipulated, blood-pressure raising, franchise-destroying nights of all time ever.
And if you think I’m being melodramatic, please bear in mind that Candice’s second performance critique was hijacked by Nicki & Co. defending Amber’s cover “Macarthur Park” against Jimmy Iovine’s completely legitimate critique. But then again, Amber can put on a white pantsuit and perform an ancient Celine Dion ballad completely stationary atop a set of glowing fuchsia stairs and be called “current,” “2013″ and “amazingly perfect.”
Oh. Mah. GAH. I better get to tonight’s set list and letter grades before all my anger causes the internet to implode. (I’ll be back overnight to update this post with full reviews of every performance, so do bookmark, refresh and enjoy!)
But first…a pox on Nigel Lythgoe & Co. for RUINING what should’ve been an incredible One Hits Wonder theme with what you know had to be a shortlist of halfhearted, unimaginative, brutally enforced “suggestions” for the Top 4 ladies. Imagine how much fun it would’ve been if Duffy, Estelle, Concrete Blonde, Dionne Farris, The Verve, Gnarls Barkley, New Radicals, Everything But the Girl, Lucy Pearl, When in Rome, Blind Melon and Everlast were on the “cleared songs” list? Oh man…
Amber Holcomb: Laura Branigan/Celine Dion’s “The Power of Love” | Remember those innocent early days of Idol when Paula Abdul would tell a female contestant she looked beautiful — only because she couldn’t think of something nice to say about the singing? Now we’ve got Nicki Minaj asking for a moment of silence to contemplate Amber’s undeniable gorgeousness — as if aesthetic considerations are the only (or at least the most important) point of the Idol experience. Disgraceful. Anyhow, Amber started out strong with a nearly a capella intro, but by the midway point, her voice was straining to hit the high notes, and the end result was not entirely pleasing to the ear. Even worse, though, Amber’s delivery lacked the appropriate amount of fire to fully sell such a fusty old ballad. It was the equivalent of trying to cook a thick steak with a lit match. I mean, if you’re going to belt a line as schmaltzy as “I’M YOUR LAY-DAY! AND YOU ARE MY MAHHHNNNN!” at the top of your lungs, you’d better feel it all the way to the tips of your Manolos. In Amber’s case, though, this felt like more of a vocal exercise — “Look, ma, I can do what Celine does!” — more than a deeply felt interpretation. Good thing we had Jimmy on hand to acknowledge the vocal strain, then insist the perfomance would be “very difficult to beat.” (See how much easier “judging” is when you write out your script before the performances?) Grade: B-
Candice Glover: Drake’s “Find Your Love” | First, can we have a moment of silence to acknowledge the immense creativity and risk-taking spirit of Candice’s extremely current “contestant’s choice” selection? (If you don’t know Drake’s 2010 original, then click here and give it a listen — just so can appreciate the audacity of what Candice brought to the Idol stage tonight.) Okay, with that out of the way, I’ve got to admit it wasn’t Ms. Glover’s finest performance of Season 12 — mainly because she tried a little too hard to bring “vocal moments” to a song that calls for a certain level of sing-song simplicity. Nevertheless, I appreciated the sophistication of Candice’s phrasing, the way she personalized every single word as if she was speaking to a special someone. She drew me in from the proud-yet-vulnerable intensity of the opening line (“I’m more than just an option”) to the world-weary surrender of the bridge (“Too many times I’ve been wrong/ I guess being right it just takes too long”). What Candice rarely gets credit for is the fact that she’s a first-rate actress. Whatever mood she’s called on to deliver — romance, heartbreak, yearning, anger, flirtatiousness — she brrrrrrrings it. (And yes, in her case, “bring” has seven r’s and is most definitely italicized.) And instead, she gets RANDY *&#^%@ HACKSON telling Candice she doesn’t need to put runs into every phrase (something she’s never done before!) and that he doesn’t want people to think of her as “THAT CHURCH GIRL” (something no one has said about her at all this season). I mean, why not just say “We don’t want anyone to look at you and think that you stab kittens, Candice!” It’d have the same ludicruous effect of calling into question all the facts we know about Candice, but at least it would clearly be comedy, yknow? And as for Nicki calling a Drake cover “old-fashioned” — on a night where she praised “The Power of Love” for being current — well, let’s just say her pre-judgment was as visible as her thong was during last week’s results-show deliberation. Grade: B+
Kree Harrison: Susan Tedeschi’s “It Hurt So Bad” | I understood to a small degree Mariah’s critique that she still to see Kree “get lost in song,” only because there wasn’t a big crescendo of pain and longing over the course of the performance; instead, it all percolated in that laid back, just-below-the-surface way that Kree seems to dig, without ever coming to a boil. And on Top 4 night, she might have been better off burying herself alive in the blues, rather than riding sidecar alongside the blues. Nevertheless, you’d think that the judges would’ve given some consolation points for the fact that Kree didn’t miss a single note or — if vocals don’t count for anything anymore — at least for her relaxed, joyous stage presence (a definite upgrade from last week’s occasional awkwardness). Instead, though, we had Nicki claiming Kree had given us a performance that wasn’t even worthy of her Top 4 slot! Um, why? Because she’s over 18? Because she’s the type of artist who’s not going to go sans pants in her music videos? Or because Nigel Lythgoe whispered into Nicki’s ear monitor that Kree is no longer the ladybug of choice? Well, Nicki gurrrl, none of those reasons pass the validity test. You are dismissed — do not pass go and do not pass the microwave to pick up your waffles on the way out, either. Grade: B+
Angie Miller: Jessie J’s “Who You Are” | I could quibble that Angie had already covered Jessie J in her audition, in Hollywood Week and in the Vegas round, but so what? The end product here was one of Angie’s best efforts all season — and the sense of earnestness she brought to the rambling piano ditty felt absolutely genuine, both within the moment and within Angie’s “Type-A Girl Learns to Break Free and Embrace Her Imperfections” Idol Edit. I didn’t even mind the breathlessness on the fast-and-furious bridge, or even the furrowed brow during the closeup* before “that’s my home.” Both presumed negatives became positives within the framework of “Who You Are.” I would’ve stopped short of giving the performance a standing O — as all the judges did, except for Mariah, whose train was caught under her chair — but it was probably enough on its own to guarantee Angie a Top 3 finish. But just to be sure, Uncle Nigel had Seacrest call Angie’s adorable, emotionally overcome grandmother onto the stage for a hug**, because Angie loves her Grandma, and grandmas love to vote for Angie. Grade: A-
*one of 147 exquisitely framed closeups she got during the first performance alone
**RIP: Subtlety (Dawn of Time-2013).
Amber Holcomb: Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park” | To quote Amber’s big, crapastrophically held note — “Oh nooooooooooooooooooooooo!” I mean, come on now. For starters, how is it that none of the judges pointed out Amber’s cluelessness in choosing a track that’s more square than a White Castle hamburger, and then for doing absolutely not a damn thing to bring it anywhere near the vicinity of 2013? And if not the song choice/arrangement, perhaps they could’ve pinged her on her poor diction, which rendered the entire bridge utterly incomprehensible? (Not that the song makes a lot of sense anyway, but I’d have liked to have known if Amber was correctly reciting the lyrics, or just randomly dropping a syllable salad of “la la la mrmmm macarth cake mmm la la.”) And lastly, there was the small matter of Amber’s pitch, which veered to and fro like Mariah trying to make her way to her judging chair in a pair of sadistic heels and a dress with a runaway train. But nope! Why talk about that when we have Nicki Minaj on hand to say that of all the girls in the competition, Amber (whom she mistakenly identified as Angie — way to be invested here) is the one she’d most want to be friends with? UM, THIS ISN’T THE AMERICAN GIRL DOLL STORE, NICKI, IT’S A SINGING COMPETITION WITH A MAJOR-LABEL RECORD DEAL AT STAKE. JESUS! Keith, almost equal in his ridiculousness, waxed poetic to Amber that “Summer has set in for you and it’s here to stay.” Bloody hell, please someone tell me Nigel Lythgoe wrote those words down on a cocktail napkin and paid Mr. Urban to recite them, because it those fell out of his mouth organically, he has much explaining to do. Okay, I’m gonna stop this paragraph here because I’m getting furious all over again and it’s not good for my mental/physical health. Grade: C+
Candice Glover: Samantha Sang’s “Emotion” | This won’t rank as my favorite Candice song choice all season, but honestly, she’s got such incredible vocal prowess, she could sell me on just about anything (except maybe those dreadful sparkly face pins Randy Jackson always has on his lapel) (okay, maybe even those). I loved the run she executed on the repetition of “in the words of a broken heart,” the low notes she struck on “come home to me darlin’,” the little added jazz inflections she tossed off to differentiate her rendition from the many (including Destiny’s Child’s) that came before it. My sole complaint, alas, was that the background singers sounded like they were straining from the beginning of the performance to the end — adding a sort of “hyena giving birth” undertone to the proceedings that I definitely could’ve lived without. Keith, of course, decided to weigh in on how old the song choices were for One-Hit Wonder theme — rather than waiting till after Angie had performed her 1953 composition — but at least Mariah took a moment to point out Candice was struggling with a bad cold (not that I’d have noticed). Then, of course, Nicki had to drill home her “TeamAmber” talking points by — in an incredibly disrespectful twist — using Candice’s critique to get on Jimmy’s case for his post-ad break put-down of ”MacArthur Park.” Somehow it ended with Jimmy coming back out on stage and insisting the judges acknowledge that Candice was superior to Amber in Round 2, while still somehow everyone made it all about Amber. Amber, Amber, Amber! Actually, Candice, Candice, Candice! (I feel a little better now.) Grade: A-
Kree Harrison: Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale” | I’m going to stop talking about the judges’ critiques for a paragraph because, in the end, they’re just a lot of words, pre-written in the Idol writer’s room (most likely) and brought to life by folks who aren’t nearly skilled-enough actors to really make ‘em stick. (Plus, I’ll rain more fury down on them when Melinda Doolittle and I shoot Idology on Friday.) So I’m just going to focus on the delicate oasis Kree created with her heartfelt cover of “Whiter Shade of Pale” and the way it brought back memories of my 11-year-old self blasting The Big Chill soundtrack on our family’s record player back in the day. Good music — and good singing — can do that: Calm your frazzled nerves, make you feel nostalgic, transport you to another time, another place. And as Kree belted out that big ole “and so it wah-ah-ah-ahhs,” all those things happened at once. She was up there on that stage, lost in the enigmatic words of a band I never realized only had one hit (they weren’t, exactly), mercifully unincumbered by the trappings and manipulations of a reality TV competition. And that, Kree Harrison, was everything I needed in my life today. So thank you. Grade: A
Angie Miller: Julie London’s “Cry Me a River” | This was a pretty good performance of a pretty song by a girl with a pretty voice. There was a lot of fog on the stage, and a crescent moon hanging in the background. Did I really believe at any point that Angie had truly “cried a river” over the object of her affections? No, I cannot say that I did. Was there much gusto behind the performance aside from that of a teenage girl thinking “if I can just get through this, maybe I can do another Jessie J jam next week”? If so, I didn’t hear it. Did the performance give off a hint of Eau de 1987 Telethon? Yeah, but there are worse perfumes you could find in grandma’s dresser drawer. And yet it inspired Keith to call Angie “mystical and celestially powerful,” and Nicki to accuse Angie of snatching her rivals’ wigs right off their heads. And I’m not going to pretend I know what to say to/about that. Can I plead the fifth, on the grounds that it’s really, really late and I want to go night-night? Grade: B+
Amber & Kree: Adele’s “Rumour Has It” | I’m not sure why Nicki dumped all the blame for the failings of this duet on Kree, but why veer off script on the duets when there’s an agenda to enforce? To my ears, Amber never really settled into the beat of the song, whereas the usually languid Kree actually was hitting her marks with more authority. Frankly, this isn’t a song either of these ladies should ever cover again, but any person with a shred of musicality could’ve told you that before the performance even happened, no? Grade: B-
Candice & Angie: Rihanna’s “Stay” | I loved all the stank Candice put on this usually delicate Rihanna number, and I loved how Angie uglied up her vocals just a bit to match Ms. Glover’s intensity level. The harder-edged arrangement was perhaps a wee bit odd, but I warmed to it mostly because Candice and Angie proved so compelling. The only thing that could’ve made this epic duet better would’ve been if the ladies had dropped their mics to the floor at the end of the performance and walked off the stage before the judges had had a chance to speak. Grade: A
And with that, let me turn things over to you. What did you think of Season 12 Top 4 performance night? What did you think of the judges’ comments? Do Candice and Kree have bus tracks on their backs? Who’s going to be in trouble come results night? And will the “special twist” Ryan Seacrest hinted at mean there’s no elimination this week? Sound off in the comments, and for all my Idol-related news, recaps, interviews and videos, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!