I went into Wednesday night’s performance episode debating whether or not to bother with this season of “Idol.” On the “pro” side, I like the judging panel. I liked most of the talent I was seeing before I took a few weeks off to watch the Olympics. And the line-up for the Top 13 that emerged last week was surprisingly different from what I was expecting.
On the “con” side, I am burned out on this show, and I was already seeing some really disheartening producer-driven hijinks going down during Hollywood Week. And I would LOVE to have three-plus hours of my life back every week.
So I had decided that I was going to check out the talent and let that be the deciding vote. After all, this is what host Ryan Seacrest himself referred to as an “epic talent show.” Without the talent, what do we have?
Apparently what we have is a lot of flashy production values and quick cuts, a largely mediocre group of singers, and a completely useless panel of judges. Oh, and Randy Jackson. We still have Randy Jackson. And like four or five legitimately good singers. Basically it felt less like “Idol” and more like the American version of “X Factor.” And absolutely NOBODY wants that.
The theme for the week was “This is Me,” which was broad enough to give the singers flexibility in song choice, but didn’t provide much of an actual framework. Some of the contestants picked songs that said something about themselves, or their styles, or their journeys. Others just picked songs they liked.
There are a bunch of “improvements” this year. Fancy new stage.New ways to vote (I suspect they’re desperate to make the voting as easy as possible, because those numbers have to be WAY down). The contestants now sit in an area on stage watching the others perform, which seems awkward and probably hurts their own preparation. There’s lots of split-screen work during performances, largely to poor effect. This was especially true during “mentor” Randy Jackson’s introductions, in which he was virtually impossible to hear over the mindless shrieking of the audience. But I am still confident in my assertion that he said absolutely nothing of value. (Come back, Jimmy Iovine. All is forgiven.)
Anyway, here is how the Top 13 stacked up in my book:
Dexter Roberts did an upbeat country song I did not recognize. He seemed nervous at first and a little uncomfortable on the stage -- there was a LOT going on around him, so I suspect some of that might have been sensory overload. It got better as it went along, but it was far from his best performance. The pitch was very problematic. Keith Urban said it was a solid cover, but Dexter’s challenge is going to be finding a way to make a song his own. Harry Connick Jr. encouraged Dexter to get rid of his ear monitor, because he wasn’t singing completely in tune. Jennifer Lopez also encouraged Dexter to pick songs with a higher range, so that he can hit his “sweet spot.” The judges were kind to Dexter.
Malaya Watson picked “Runaway Baby” by Bruno Mars, which was disastrous. I like Malaya -- I really like her. This was awkward karaoke. It was shouty and out of breath, and did not showcase any of her wonderful vocal qualities. She had terrific energy, but nothing else was good. Nothing. Lopez said, “It wasn’t your best vocal performance.” That was WAY too generous. Connick fumbled around for a while before getting to her bad intonation and her nervousness. Urban basically told her that she needs to do better. JUDGES. Come ON. That was in no way a Top 13 performance. That girl should have been read to filth, 17 years old or not. It was nowhere NEAR what she should have been delivering at this point in the competition.
Kristen O’Connor did “Beautiful Disaster” by Kelly Clarkson. I know this is sacrilege, but I actually liked Kristen’s version better than Kelly’s. It had an 80’s power ballad edge to it. She had some pitch issues, and she needs to work on her presence. But she was easily the best vocal of the first three. Connick questioned the delivery of the song, and the meaning, which Kristen said she changed to be about herself instead of a guy. Eh. Urban liked that the song showed off her range. Lopez thought Kristen was thinking too much and not going for the moment. Kristen kept interrupting the judges during their comments. Kristen: do not do that. It is offputting.
Ben Briley did Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” and it was fine. He got really into the performance, and even though he was shouting for a good half of it, he still did so musically. Urban made the controversial statement that he loves Johnny Cash -- no shit, Keith. Thanks for that sterling insight. He thought the tempo was too fast, and that Ben came awfully close to kitsch in that performance. I agree. Connick thought it was the best performance of the night at that point, and liked that Ben picked an older song. I’m going to respond to that with a giant eyeroll, because it is hardly like “Folsom Prison Blues” is some dusty gem that Ben unearthed from the vault. It is not obscure. It is frankly pretty damned obvious.
C.J. Harris did Darius Rucker’s “Radio.” He struggled through the verse but sounded much better on the chorus, and he seemed to be having a good time on stage. I’m not sure why he had his guitar with him, as he didn’t play it for the vast majority of the song. C.J.’s voice sounds better when he doesn’t push too hard; unfortunately, he pushes it pretty consistently. Lopez enjoyed the upbeat tone most of the contestants were bringing to the show. I’ll agree with that, I just wish the singing was better. Connick wanted C.J. to sing something that showcased the more interesting parts of his voice. C.J. needs to learn how to speak succinctly, because Ryan had to cut him off not once, but twice.
M.K. Nobillette did “Satisfaction” by…someone. Not the Rolling Stones. This was almost painfully awkward. M.K. can clearly sing, but she does not have anywhere close to the charisma or the commitment to pull off that song. Urban, bless him, brought up the “deer in the headlights” thing, which was the nicest way possible to say that M.K. looked petrified to be singing that song, on that stage, on national television. Lopez called her awesome and said she loved it. The judges were just full of fail tonight.
Majesty Rose picked “Tightrope” by Janelle Monae. A great song, but a tricky one for this show. She had a rough start, some pitch problems, and she got weirdly quiet in parts. But she was fully alive during the chorus and overall it was mostly good. (Mostly.) Urban praised the song choice and wants Majesty to become more confident in herself. Lopez loves Majesty’s individual style and approach, and called her “blessed.” I like Majesty, but I expected more from her.
Jena Irene did “The Scientist” by Coldplay. It was, for me, the first performance of the night that felt worthy of an “Idol” finalist. Jena blew away every other contestant who performed before her with a beautiful, powerful vocal, and I enjoyed that very much. Connick asked her why Coldplay called the song “The Scientist,” and Harry, that is why Wikipedia exists. Both Lopez and Urban mentioned some pitch issues in the beginning, but said that once Jena committed to it, it all worked out. I just want to point out that, based on the judges’ reactions to all the other contestants, you would think that Jena’s performance was simply just as good as everyone else’s, instead of a quantum leap ahead of all the others.
Alex Preston did Jason Mraz’s “Beautiful Mess.” Alex has a beautiful voice, and this quiet, simple presentation was exponentially more riveting than 90 percent of the relentless stagings that preceded it. He had a few bum notes in there, but the vast majority of it sounded spectacular. Connick thought it was “brave” to come out and do something so stripped down, but he did not respond to the piece emotionally. Connick was really showing his ass tonight, folks. I like him a lot, but he was WAY off. Urban had an opposite reaction. But to me, it was again a question of consistency. You’re going to give a tepid response to Alex’s performance, but tell the earlier contestants how great they did? Give me a break.
Jessica Meuse did “The Crow and the Butterfly,” and she came out like an actual bonafied rock star. THANK YOU, JESSICA. The vocal was VERY strong, and it had some great moments where she inflected some cool grit and gravel on to it. Urban thought it was a bold song choice, and appreciated the edge and the rasp to her voice. Lopez said that the power of Jessica’s voice gave her “goosies.” Actually, that was true for me as well. She encouraged Jessica to relax her body a bit, but called it “dope.” Pearls of wisdom. Pearls.
Emily Piriz sang Pink’s “Glitter in the Air.” The song was way too low for her. The verse was strictly amateur hour, but the chorus sounded good. Emily has a really corny delivery style -- it’s very pageant. The judges talked about how brave Emily was to sing that song, which is nice. But NOBODY bothered to mention that she was barely getting through the first quarter of the song, which scraped the bottom her range. But hey, let’s be proud of her for picking a song, singing it exactly as recorded, and performing roughly half of it well. Hugs for everybody!
Sam Woolf performed “Unwell” by Matchbox Twenty. This was fine, I guess. I couldn’t help shake the feeling that Sam was trying to make some grand philosophical statement…via a Matchbox Twenty song. And that’s just bad comedy. Connick thought the vocal was too “nice” to fit the song, while Urban thought it was too slow. Lopez called Sam “a quiet storm” -- whatever that means -- and wants Sam to come alive a little more on stage. Let’s start with having him wake up, and then NOT PICKING SONGS BY MATCHBOX TWENTY.
Caleb Johnson did a song I didn’t know by Rival Sons, but he did it well. Really great rock vocal on a cool song. Caleb reminds me of a less-annoying, more vocally talented Jack Black. I think he’s probably still super annoying, though. But guy can sing. Urban loved the song and the band, and thought Caleb performed well. But he warned Caleb that he has to find a way to not be such a throwback. Yep, I suspect his shtick is going to get old in about three weeks. The other judges raved about him.
Honestly, I cannot even predict who will be in trouble, much less going home. The judges really failed not only these contestants, but America as well, with the universal, “Everything is awesome” take. Connick was critical, but it was almost insanely applied -- he came for Alex but not for anyone in the first third of the evening? Are you kidding me?
I am undecided on whether I’ll even bother to watch Thursday night’s episode, or anything beyond that. I haven’t been this disinterested in a crop of talent since Season 7. Based on tonight’s performances, Alex, Jessica, Caleb, Jena, and Majesty are the only ones I care to hear from again. That is a terrible ratio. And I’m not at all convinced that those contestants even have legs in this competition. Sam will be there a long while, and I suspect Dexter and C.J. as well. And given the shrieking from the audience, so will M.K. and Malaya. (And I really have enjoyed many of Malaya’s previous performances, but man, she was awful tonight.)
What did YOU think of the Top 13?