Wednesday, March 09, 2011

American Idol Top 13

After seeing the spoilers for the songs that were performed tonight, I worried that the program might be a bit dull, and a couple songs certainly were, but all in all, it was a strong evening, in what seems to be a far more interesting season of American Idol than last year. I like the fact that I do not have a favorite in the competition and thing seem a bit "wide open" as to who could win it all this year. I do not know if there are any obvious future mega-stars among the Finalists, but there is some good depth of talent there. In my mind that is a bit of a difference from the potential 2012 GOP field (putting aside Mitt Romney.)

It seems this year as though the whole business with theme nights and celebrity musician or actor mentors will be done away with and the contestants will be free to sing their own style of music week after week. The "theme" this week was given as songs from the contestants' own idols. I kind of like the greater freedom actually, for the change from previous seasons aspect alone. I think it will help the public get a far better idea about what kind of artists these kids would all be, and the involvement of the producers from Interscope Records as in house mentors could prove to be interesting.

The lucky 13 took the stage tonight in this order:

1. Lauren Alaina- "Any Man of Mine"

Tempting the Idol gods, Lauren sang the very song that got Mandisa and Siobhan Magnus kicked off the show, the only other two times it has been performed. Furthermore, she did it in the lead-off position of a two-hour show and received mixed reviews from the judges? Should she be concerned?

I think she is safe, despite only doing a credible, but not exciting job on the Shania Twain song. There is no doubt that Lauren has decided to fully commit to going pop country from here on out, and that is probably a wise strategy for her. While her personality often comes across as spoiled and entitled, she is a very good singer, and a natural performer. I really think she is the one The Powers That Be want to win it all. Having said that, I sort of really suspect that having her go first, get some critical comments, and maybe even be "just ok" on a pretty annoying song could be part of the master plan. Knowing the long history of backlash against front-runners in the show's recent history, they don't want to make it seem like she is "The Chosen One" too early. Was she even perhaps told to go at it at half speed tonight? Grade B-

2. Casey Abrams- "With a Little Help From My Friends"

If Lauren is trying to emulate the Carrie Underwood Idol winning strategy, Casey is going to try to follow in the footsteps of another winner, Taylor Hicks. His performance style is so manic, yet impressive, that is hard to ignore those comparisons. Like Taylor though in his season, I also do not see how Casey would make it as a big star in the real music world, outside of the Idol bubble of crazed super fans (largely composed of middle aged women.)

Like Naima Adedapo, Casey also grew up in the Chicago area I have learned, and has been actively studying music for a long time. There is no doubt he has a ton of musical knowledge, and when instruments are finally allowed back on the Idol stage, will certainly take advantage of those talents. His singing tonight was really pretty good, and once again showed his impressive ability to move seamlessly between growling and singing falsetto. I definitely look forward to seeing what he will do next. I wonder how many young viewers will know that the song Casey sang tonight was about drugs. Casey did not alter any of the lyrics. Between this and recent episodes of "Glee", the Fox network is walking a fine line. Grade: B

3. Ashthon Jones- "When You Tell Me That You Love Me"

Wasn't this some sort of cheesy charity single the kids from Season 2 or something released? Apparently though the song was originally done by Diana Ross, and Ashthon has already been compared to her. The hair is definitely similar, and after her successful wild-card performance, the contestant continued on the theme to an extent. She certainly seems to want to have people tell her that they love her.

Vocally, she was ok, but to my ears, something seemed missing. I am certainly not a vocal expert, but the song just did not seem to soar as much as she probably wanted it to. I have to question her judgment in picking yet another song that most voters will not really be that familiar with. Jennifer Lopez had it right tonight when she said that Ashthon would have been better advised to have chosen something that people could have grooved along to. Grade: B-

4. Paul McDonald- "Come Pick Me Up"

This song, I definitely did not know, but unlike JLo, at least I had heard of Ryan Adams before. Paul's quirky style of moving on stage is going to continue to receive a lot of notice. I envision people trying to copy the moves. Some may stumble over and injure themselves in the process.

You know, based on what we saw in Hollywood week, etc, I really do think Paul is quite a talented singer, but I was not as keen on his performance last week compared to many "Idol experts" and I have to say that I just did not get it at all this week. Maybe it's just a stylistic thing, but I just cannot get into his voice yet, the same way I was unable to get into Megan Joy's style during her season. Even the judges said he was not as his best tonight. I just did not get this performance at all, but despite that, I sense that Paul maintains a legion of fans that will vote for him no matter how he sounds, and he should be safe. I really do want to like one of his performances on the stage soon. Grade: C

5. Pia Toscano- "All By Myself"

The glamorous (and thus far humble) singer from Queens made a lot of people take notice in her "pimp spot" performance last week, and I think she likely continued that momentum tonight, as she took the stage in a short gold dress.

This song was originally done by Eric Carmen (hard to see how he would be anybody's musical idol) but was famously redone by Celine Dion, which inspired Pia to make the choice. I certainly think she sang it very well, but during the performance, I was actually thinking back several years to when LaToya London did it on Idol, and thinking that her version was probably a bit superior. Pia definitely continued to show her talent though and her real potential as a pop diva. I like the fact that she brings back memories of strong female singers from other Idol seasons, but I just really wonder if a NYC contestant could actually win Idol. Would the heartland actually voter for a New Yorker in a final? Rudy Giuliani never got the chance to find out. Grade: B+

6. James Durbin- "Maybe I'm Amazed"

Even many skeptics admitted last week that James was better than expected on his heavy metal number. This week, he may have surprised me even more with his superb take on a Paul McCartney sung tune. Put aside all the attention that has been given to his backstory, his living with a form of autism, and the comparisons to Adam Lambert; the fact is that he can really sing. I will probably feel freer now to enjoy the next time he does some Hair Metal.

Much of what they had shown of James performing in Hollywood or Las Vegas during the audition rounds was vocally questionable, but tonight he sang his song nearly perfectly, and looked completely at home on stage and as a performer. It was controlled, but also contained some impressive high notes as well. There are people who might potentially read this that could spontaneously combust in a moment, but I think he has already proven himself to be a more genuine singer on the Idol stage than Adam Lambert (who will be present tomorrow night on the results show.) Looking back two seasons ago, I do not think I ever had Adam ranked at the top of my list. Will James get that honor this week? Keep reading. I did not vote tonight, but as an Illinois Republican, I could not have ever previously even fathomed voting for someone named Durbin. Grade: A-

7. Haley Reinhart- "Blue"

Her parents are in a cover band (and Haley has taken part too according to local media stories) that perform in my area. I wonder what they sound like.

I think she was better tonight than she was last week, and the yodeling aspect of the LeAnn Rimes song was technically good, but it was still a bit boring and I have still not been very impressed by Haley. For the second week in a row, Randy Jackson seems to agree with me on her. She probably has enough fans to last one more week at least, but she really needs to stop looking like she is about to be physically ill and defensively responding whenever The Dog criticizes her. That is going to piss people off soon, if it has not already begun. Grade: C+

8. Jacob Lusk- "I Believe I Can Fly"

First of all, Jacob claimed that R. Kelly is one his heroes? He should have clarified he was just speaking about the music (or only some of the music.) Also, is he going to sing in a jacket and tie every week? Is that a deliberate response to all the talk from people (including fans) who seem to want him to actually perform in drag?

Once again he proved his talent tonight. His passion and emotion were missing from so many of the contestants last season. It was a very good performance, complete with a robed choir on stage with him (lots of visible backup singers tonight.) When he really got into it though, some of the notes may have fallen off a bit. He needs to either keep it properly controlled or just commit to letting himself go. I was anticipating him to have eventually ran around the stage flapping his arms in a flying motion tonight. Had he done that, I might have actually picked up a phone. Grade: B+

9. Thia Megia- "Smile"

Another song with a spotted Idol history, and one that I sort of hate. It was originally done by Charlie Chaplin, but also covered by the late Michael Jackson, to whom Thia was compared to in vocal tone last week. She thought it would be a good idea to try to build on that comparison. but of all the contestants, she really was surprisingly disappointing tonight, after a strong performance last week.

The song itself is a bit depressing, but the arrangement of her performance was mixed up towards the end, with a bit of a jazzy techno beat going on. Still though, Thia sang it in the same style as the original, and it just seemed a mess. It seemed to have some significant technical problems. While she was receiving harsh comments from the judges, I said that if she were smart, the sometimes robotic 16 year old, should break down in tears for sympathy. She kept it together on stage, but back from a commercial break, she was indeed teary in discussing her performance to the backstage camera. Grade: C

10. Stefano Langone- "Lately"

Like Thea, Stefano also tried to speed up a ballad, and I also think it did not work too well for him, despite the fact that the judges seemed to like it.

I think Stefano is a very good singer, and he was fortunate to have the opportunity to prove it during the wildcard round last Thursday, which likely won him over some new fans. His performance of this Stevie Wonder number though just seemed to be lacking to me. He reminded me a bit of Chris Richardson from a few years back, in being a young male contestant, who was intent on trying to show some swagger and coolness, but having the vocals struggle a bit in the process and looking a bit swallowed up on the big stage. I still think he is going to be around for a while. Grade: C+

11. Karen Rodriguez- "If I Could Fall In Love"

For some reason, I keep forgetting that Karen is part of the cast this year, but she definitely does not want Hispanic-American Idol voters to forget about her. Singing a song by the late, martyred Selena is going to make a lot of people happy. Based on her outfit and the fake ponytail, she also seemed to be trying to look as much like Jennifer Lopez as possible. If she continues that, it could get a bit stalkerish.

To my ears, Karen sang the song ok, although I found it a bit boring once again. The judges criticized her a bit more on the vocals than I expected. Maybe I just need to watch it again. Like Thea with the Asian-American vote, I think Karen is very fortunate to be the only true Latin American (Stefano says he is half Spanish and country boy Scotty is a quarter Puerto Rican) left in the season. Grade: B-

12. Scotty McCreery- "The River"

His main musical influence may be Josh Turner, but tonight Scotty took on a Garth Brooks song and will continue to cruise along the early stage of the Finals.

I know what he is going to sound like before he sings a note. It's always going to be a country song with him, and his impressive deep voice, perfectly suited for that kind of music, will be close to technically perfect, but it will not really be the type of song or performance I personally like. That is certainly the way it went tonight, as there is no doubt that Scotty sang the song well (though maybe a bit less than perfect technically in a couple parts as he tried to also stand up and play to the audience.) I think I would like him more if he could play his guitar while singing. Scotty has a fan base that he does not really have to worry about splitting votes with (although that could happen eventually with him and Lauren), and is going to be around for several more weeks. If by some freak occurrence, he would be cut this week, there is no doubt that he would be signed by a major country label and will wind up having a nice career. Grade: B

13. Naima Adedapo-"Umbrella"

I was a bit surprised to see her in the pimp spot (figured the producers thought the wild card entry would need the boost) and that she might do a Rihanna song (her style has been a lot more African roots than Hip Hop/R&B), but I definitely now see why that decision was made. I found her sort of boring up to this point in the competition, but she definitely was not tonight.

I try to judge on vocals alone, and the judges all said she had some problems with those, but it was tough for me to notice. Maybe I was just a bit impressed by the performance itself (as the judges all raved about) and how different it was is usually seen in an Idol competition performance. She danced, I thought she sounded credible covering a recent song, and there was even a reggae rap breakdown in the middle that I think she pulled off. Has any Idol contestant ever attempted to rap before? She knows how to perform. I think she may have been holding back some of these skills to this point. I guess I will have to watch it again to try to find the technical problems, but in the moment, she mostly managed to fool me into believing it. Grade: B+

Rankings from worst to best:

13. Paul McDonald
12. Thia Megia
11. Stefano Langone
10. Haley Reinhart
9. Ashthon Jones
8. Lauren Alaina
7. Karen Rodriguez
6. Scotty McCreery
5. Casey Abrams
4. Jacob Lusk
3. Pia Toscano
2. Naima Adedapo
1. James Durbin

I strangely feel guilty for having Paul McDonald at the bottom (though Vote for the Worst is supporting him this week) because I think the "hipster" Idol crowd will continue to rave about him, but that's just the way I saw it tonight.

I think Paul is safe though. My mother, whom I watched the show with, thinks that Thia and Karen are most at risk. I think that their respective ethnic votes will keep them in the game. I think that will leave Ashthon Jones as the odd woman out, no matter how she pleadingly made eye contact with America while Seacrest gave her numbers tonight.

Ashthon's song choice is just not going to inspire many people, and frankly, she is splitting the perceived smallish African-American Idol fanbase vote with Naima, who is going to get the younger hip hop/R&B people now, and Jacob, who is going to get those who love themselves some divas.

I just do not think the math is there for Ashthon, and in a season of very strong competition, one average performance could prove fatal. I wonder a bit though if there might be an issue with Naima performing 13th, but having her numbers end in 36. Will people be calling the wrong number? I am afraid to dial the one ending in 13 to see what it is. A couple of years ago, that was an issue for Alexis Grace going 13th, because it was some sort of "adult services" line that Idol could not buy out. Is that still the case? Seacrest claimed they did not want to use 13 because it might be seen as "unlucky?" I am skeptical. I do not think though that Naima will be returning to Wisconsin in defeat this week (unlike 14 Democrat Senators.)

So, my prediction is that Ashthon will be voted out, and while she was given a reprieve last week, will be off the show. Nothing was said about a double elimination, and based on the number of weeks left, I think there will only be one person getting the boot to the strains of David Cook covering Simple Minds. I do not know if the "judge's save" is effect again this year, but I sort of hope not.

When the people speak, we need to respect that. Elections have consequences.