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American Idol Recap: It Moves Us All, Through Despair and Hope [UPDATED]

Cue your local locust swarm and saddle up the proverbial four horses, American Idol fans: The end times are definitely nigh!

How else to explain Zoanette Johnson being named by the show’s rebooted judges’ panel as one of the 10 most promising unsigned female singers in the country? Yes, Zoanette Johnson, the same chick whose tattered, Season 12 audition cover of “The Star Spangled Banner” caused Keith Urban to literally fall out of his chair — and was punctuated by an alarming booty drop.

Honestly, is it time to put down the remote control and pick up the Book of Revelations? Or could one of the following theories explain the judges’ thinking:

A) Nigel Lythgoe made sure the microprint in Keith, Nicki and Mariah’s contracts allowed him to override their common sense and good taste at least three times per season. (He is, after all, producing a TV show.)

B) By virtue of his 11 previous seasons on the panel, Randy’s vote counts for double — allowing him carte blanche approval on various contestants, no matter how aggressively Nicki throws her side-eye (see accompanying screengrab, captured at the exact moment when Randy tried to justify cutting Candice Glover in the Season 11 Vegas round). (Let’s hear it for the girl, girl, girl!)

C) The judges deliberately chose to advance a few cannon-fodder contestants into next week’s Top 20, thereby ensuring speed-dialing Idol voters will advance their true chosen pets.

D) At the end of Thursday’s telecast, the judges will give a reprieve to all five women who got axed tonight, send five additional male contestants to the guillotine, and give us a gender-imbalanced, 15-chica/5-niño semifinal round. (MAKE THIS HAPPEN, @DizzyFeet!)

E) Zoanette was put here on this Earth to disprove the old adage that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

F) Somebody spiked the Coke cups.

Me? I’m going with some combination of A, C, F, and E — no, Zoanette wasn’t good in a note-hitting kind of way, but she definitely made me feel…something (though by morning I could just attribute it to indigestion).

Anyhow, let’s cut to the set list for the second “sudden death” episode of Idol‘s 12th season — along with my letter grades for every performance:

Melinda Ademi: Jessie J’s “Nobody’s Perfect” | Melinda showed tons of promise in Hollywood Week solo, but much like the ill-advised bottom half of her outfit tonight (black booty shorts over purple tights, with black knee-high boots!?), her “Nobody’s Perfect” was a bit of a mess — perhaps, as Mariah pointed out, due to nervousness that put a peculiar “waver” in her voice. The good news is that Vegas-week ejectees can still come back for Season 13 (a fact I confirmed with Fox publicists), which means the 19-year-old might be able to take another crack at getting her vocals to match her outsized charisma and appealing stage presence. (Conspiracy theory side-note: Anyone else find it funny that Nicki complained about Melinda having covered Jessie J more than once this year, while failing to call out the same habit in Angela Miller, who also sang “Nobody’s Perfect” last week, as well as two additional Jessie J. songs for her initial audition and her Hollywood Week a capella solo?) Grade: C+

Candice Glover: Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” | From the restrained opening verse that showcased her bell-clear tone to the sensuality (and “come to mama” hand gestures) that informed the “ooh, baby what ya done to me” bridge to the outsized runs that ended the set, Candice’s vocal was an undeniable triumph. (Bonus points for the steel in Ms. Glover’s eyes as she’s performing, too.) Perhaps more than any contestant this season, in fact, Candice brings a sense of authority to the stage that makes me feel at ease with wherever she wants to take a song’s melody. I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t admit just a slight bit of ennui with the expectedness of Candice’s song choice. Girlfriend needs to bear in mind that, since she doesn’t have a ton of room to grow vocally (I mean, how much better can her voice actually get?), she’ll have to compensate by growing artistically — and not fall into a pattern of using her No. 2 pencil to fill in her standardized test of big-voiced soul divas like Aretha, Alicia, Mariah and Whitney. Grade: B+

Juliana Chahayed: Demi Lovato’s “Skyscraper” | Every year of Idol, there’s at least one major early-season injustice that stings so badly I end up referencing it in my recaps for the next five (or 10) seasons. And I’m displeased to report that the victim of Season 12′s felony larceny was this soft-spoken high school sophomore who reimagined Demi Lovato’s booming radio ballad with a glorious tissue-paper delicacy. Sure, as Nicki noted, Juliana’s lilting upper register and acoustic tendencies meant she had the potential to be swallowed up by the massive audience and Idol house band during voting rounds, but she might’ve also had the potential to provide welcome relief from the melisma and vocal gymnastics that are certain to dominate the show from now until late May. (Oh, and I couldn’t disagree more with Keith’s aside about Juliana “struggling with pitch.”) Maybe Fox was contractually obligated to axe Juliana after she publicly dissed X Factor judge Demi by saying she’d picked “Skyscraper” after her vocal coach told her to play around with a song she didn’t actually like (hilarious, BTW), but I’m going to try to comfort myself with an optimistic outlook: Julia’s too-early exit just means we’ve already got something to look forward to in Season 13. Grade: A-

Jett Hermano: Rihanna’s “Only Girl (In The World)” | Keith was right that by virtue of turning it into a slowed-down piano jam, Jett brought out a heretofore unheard sexiness in Rihanna’s upbeat radio smash. Unfortunately, the arrangement was also in a key that stretched Jett’s voice into unpleasant territory for at least half the song. And since this isn’t Song Arrangement Idol, I can’t really fault the judges for giving the old heave-ho to the pretty legal assistant. Grade: B-

Cristabel Clack: Alicia Keys’s “No One” | It takes more than talent to win American Idol, it also takes a penis the innate ability to choose interesting songs that bring out the best in your voice. And alas, while there’s no arguing the beauty of Cristabel’s signature rasp, it’s equally true that — like a Price Is Right contestant who gets the “wah-wah wah-wahhh waaahhh” fail horn, Cristabel made altogether too many wrong choices: The rote pick of done-to-death-on-Idol Alicia Keys, the momentum-busting revelation to Ryan Seacrest that she almost dropped out of the competition because of insecurity, the unfortunate sweater adorned with images of little black bows. Cristabel’s biggest misfire, though, was essentially following the advice Randy Jackson gave to Jett: “Wear it out vocally.” Indeed, Cristabel packed so many runs into the opening verse alone and stretched her range to such shrieking extremes on the bridge that the entire performance began to crumble like a box of crackers under the weight of a Diet Coke 12-pack. (Sigh…will grocery-store baggers never learn?) Naturally, though, Cristabel’s subpar effort had Randy leaping to his feet in celebration. (Maybe he lost count of which contestants Uncle Nigel told him were supposed to get Standing O’s?) Grade: B-

Aubrey Cleland: Beyoncé’s “Sweet Dreams” | I can’t lie: I love it when contestants who’ve received the cannon-fodder edit achieve almost total pitch perfection and force the judges to reconsider their pre-conceived pecking order. Aubrey certainly did that with a cover of “Sweet Dreams” so clean and shiny, I could almost smell a hint of Lemon Pledge on it. Was the whole performance maybe just a tiny bit too sterile? Yeah — and especially compared to Jessica Sanchez’s rendition from Season 11. Would it have been nice if Nicki hadn’t focused so much on Aubrey’s looks (complete with leering cameraman’s pan from her shoes all the way up her legs and to her face)? Absolutely — because if I wanted to watch a show like that, I’d still be DVR-ing Top Model. But I’d also put Aubrey as the night’s fourth or fifth best vocal, so you won’t hear me complaining about her forward march to the semifinals. Grade: B

Rachel Hale: Grace Potter And The Nocturnals’ “Nothing But The Water” | Mariah had a good point that Grace Potter’s rockin’ blues jam might not have been the best showcase for Rachel’s ethereal tone — as Keith noted, there were moments the song got on top of her, and not the other way around — but it was interesting to see the perpetually smiling Arkansas native bring some fire and aggression on a typically ballad-heavy night. Who knows, had Rachel not performed the entire song with a “pre-K teacher greeting her students in the morning” smile, she might have forced the judges to give her the night’s fifth and final pass to the semifinals over the more-hyped Janelle. Here’s at least hoping she gives the Idol thing another try in Season 13, yes? Grade: B

Breanna Steer: Jazmine Sullivan’s “Bust Your Windows” | Like Aubrey, Breanna might as well have begun the Vegas rounds wearing white robes and chained to a rock, waiting for the Kraken to devour her in three or four gory bites. And frankly, after hearing a brief snippet of her torturing “Be My Baby” during Hollywood Week group rounds, I thought I’d be okay with the Louisiana native suffering that kind of fate. Imagine my surprise, then, when Breanna made a brilliant strategic song choice and left me snapping along with Nicki Minaj’s overheated critique: “Miss Little Lady Bug, work, work, work!” Okay, yeah, if I’m being honest, I heard an occasional wobble in pitch on some of the trickier notes of “Bust Your Windows,” but there’s a huge difference between giving the night’s most spotless vocal performance and giving the night’s most enjoyable vocal performance. And for my money, Breanna’s ability to paint vivid pictures with her voice — and her willingness to choose something with a little bit of tempo! — was far more important than the fact that there were three or four wonky notes in the mix. Here’s hoping Vegas is the start of Breanna’s comeback story, and not just a one-week blip before she’s subsumed by the pageant-queen Borg Collective. Grade: A-

Janelle Arthur: Lady Antebellum’s “Just a Kiss” | Keith gave an incredibly astute critique (damn he’s got a good ear — even underneath so much hair!) when he noted that Janelle kept trying to up the stakes of Lady Antebellum’s not-exactly-range-y melody, and unfortunately for her, the strain of her effort was evident in a vocal that felt slightly under the melody from start to finish. It was jarring indeed to hear the much-hyped front-runner collapsing beneath the weight of early expectations — though, to be honest, her final Hollywood solo on “I Told You So” had its share of problems, too — leaving me wondering if she’s on the sort of Baylie Brown/Kristy Lee Cook trajectory where the big-stage performances don’t live up to the intimacy of the small-room auditions. I wasn’t outraged that the judges gave their early favorite one more chance and let her through to the voting rounds, but if I’d been in one of those four chairs, I’d have given the slot to Rachel (who was more vocally on point) or Jett (who showed more creativity). Grade: B-

Zoanette Johnson: Elton John’s “Circle Of Life” | I don’t think words are entirely appropriate to critique Zoanette’s crazy-awful-awesome-astonishing-peculiar interpretation of “Circle of Life.” I mean, if you compare it to, say, Jennifer Hudson’s revelatory Season 3 rendition, Zoanette’s cover borders on comical. And yet while it would be easy to take Nicki’s feedback — “you’re the person we’re going to remember tonight” — and add a “because you were so ridiculous” to the end of it, I’m not sure that would be entirely fair, either. There was something undeniably stirring about hearing Zoanette’s completely earnest tale of her family’s escape from Liberia paired with a full Lion King-Zulu language intro that found Zoanette with knees bent, spinning around and inviting the entire audience into her world, as the background singers grinned coyly and Nicki raised a Gospel hand and began to tear up. Sure, the melody train derailed repeatedly once Zoanette settled into the regular English portion of the song, pounding out notes flatter than your average tortilla. But…I don’t know. I…uh…didn’t not enjoy it? Maybe I just need to use an emoticon here to get my point across. (o.O) Grade: C+

Did that make any sense? I have no idea. Which means it’s probably a good time for me to turn things over to you. What did you think of the third Vegas round of American Idol Season 12? What did you think of the judges’ decisions? Who was your favorite? Did Juliana get robbed? Did Zoanette commit a crime against music? Or are you warming to her particular brand of cray-cray? 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!

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