In an Idol season that promised overhauled changes, there are many additions that I'm loving: The positive vibes. The focus on molding a relevant artist. The behind-the-scenes recording glances. The introduction of worthy producer mentors. And, oh, let's not forget a wickedly talented and diverse Final 13 (ahem, sit down Season 9).
But there are a few trademark Idol components that I'm missing:
A.) Well done re-arranging. So far all of the Top 13's attempts at originality have proven... interesting, if not totally dated. What Daughtry, Cook, Lambert, Allen and Iraheta all did so well, no Idol 10er has mastered yet: covering well-known songs in a way that makes them feel radio-worthy. All of tonight's "updating" just sounded really strange and out-of-place... but I'm hoping this was just a case of beginner's jitters.
B.) Instruments?! Where they at, Dawg??
C.) A Reality Check. Simon's frank honesty wasn't just crucial to Idol for its entertainment value (OK, that was a big part of it)-- more importantly, Simon's harsh words also meant that when he actually praised someone, it really meant something. Simon's stamp of approval was a crucial component in nearly every crowning Idol moment, so JLo and Steven (you too, Jimmy Iovine) need to learn that blanket complements not only get really boring really quickly, but they also steal thunder away from true Idol triumphs.
That being said, we're only on the second week of live rounds, so it's going to take another week or two for the contestants and judges to figure out how the Idol machine cranks and (hopefully) hit their strides. And now, onto more important topics: The Top 13, according to Z.
Pia Toscano: "All By Myself." So in my last two Pia write-ups, I mentioned both All By Myself and Celine Dion-- clearly we're on the same balladeering page. But let's get real: while Pia has now earned herself a spot in my Idol-Diva Hall of Fame, I'd like to see the following from her next week: a song that demonstrates her musical relevance in 2011 and that also features less that 33% of time devoted to vocal powerhousing. I mean, how many times can a gay hear the same All By Myself refrain in 1:40 minutes (admittedly, a lot). But what Pia currently lacks in artistry, she more than makes up for in humility, style and conviction, which is why she earns top honors for me tonight. Pia is clearly not here to play games, people, and I likes it. I likes it a lot.
Stefano Langone: "Lately." This is one of my favorite songs ever, and I've been waiting for Idol to do it some justice (screw you, Melissa McGhee). And while I don't think Stefano truly gave the song its propers with this bizarre arrangement, I understand how this choice reflects his place in music (as someone who can go toe-to-toe with the Bruno Mars and Ushers out there). Not only is this boy wickedly radio-ready, but lord, can he SING (and there really are dashes of Fantasia-ugly in there, aren't there?). If ever Idol had a pre-packaged artist, it's Stefano. Can anyone say Dark Horse? I'm calling it now-- Stefano probably has the best shot at winning out of everyone, thus far...
James Durbin: "Maybe I'm Amazed." Maybe I'm amazed that James has been one of this season's most consistent live performers! And dare I say, James even won me over with this earnest, interesting and impressive showing. We finally got to hear James's normal singing voice (with only a few well-placed screams), and really, it's quite nice. Extra points awarded for having the best arrangement of the night bumps James into front-runner status (inserting previously-hating-foot in mouth...now).
Casey Abrams: "With A Little Help From My Friends." In Casey's defense, there were several fantastic notes in this performance drowned out by the ever-crushing bandzilla wall of sound. But it really is a little early to be rolling out the gospel choirs, especially when Casey needs to focus less on showboating and more on nailing the notes/timing/emotions of his songs. This all felt way too Lee Dewyze "Hallelujah" for my liking... someone needs to dig out that bass and kick it old school, stat!
Haley Reinhart: "Blue." Even though Haley didn't necessarily wow with this performance, I think it at least displayed that she deserves her Top 13 slot. If she finds a way to inject this same level of vocal restraint into a more commanding song, she might just have a shot at underdog status. And I'm still holding that Haley has a unique quality in her voice worth preserving... so needless to say, I'm rooting for you, gurl!
Lauren Alaina: "Any Man Of Mine." My hopes (and my tolerance) for Lauren are quickly waning. As the judges so mildly put it, Lauren lacks that fire in her gut (and performances) that demonstrates her desire to win. Right now, it feels like Lauren thinks she doesn't need to try that hard-- which isn't this case. If she keeps up these lazy, mid-tempo, forgettable showings, she's doomed. Lauren needs to acknowledge the wildcard passion gauntlet that was thrown onto the stage last week... because I'm afraid America is going to demand nothing less this season.
Scotty McCreery: "The River." Objectively speaking, Scotty is on course to win this whole damn thing (perhaps deservedly so). Selfishly speaking, this thought horrifies me to the core (perhaps unfairly so).
Jacob Lusk: "I Believe I Can Fly." Here we go again. It seems Jacob's Idol journey will resemble Janet Jackson's extreme yo-yo dieting, constantly adding and shedding vocal pounds. Unfortunately for Jacob, he has proven again that he has no idea what to do with this big ol' voice of his. He's like a kid who has had too much ice cream, screaming "Look what I can do! Look what I can do!" His ridiculous screeching was mostly unpleasant to listen to (minus one final glory note) and not only that, but Jacob's song choices lead me to believe he has no place in popular music (anyone whose Idol is R.Kelly doesn't deserve a recording contract. I'm sorry).
Naima Adedapo: "Umbrella." What happened to the crazy gowns and cabaret stylings? Did anyone else think this reggae-infused dance ditty came completely out of left field? I can't say I loved it, but I can't say I hated it either (a common trend with Naima, which is never a good sign). Certainly memorable enough to carry her through this week, but with such unfocused showings, I fear for Naima's Idol future... I think the best she can hope for is a spot on the Idol tour, at this point.
Paul McDonald: "Come Pick Me Up." Remember what Tim Halperin sang last week? Me either. And I suspect Paul's performance will suffer the same fate next week, save for some really over-the-top affectations. Seriously, Paul needs to tone down the animal impressions (kangaroo! rabbit! chicken! t-rex!) and focus on delivering a striking vocal performance-- Paul, like Lauren, could benefit from a brush with elimination to jolt him into competing form.
Ashton Jones: "When You Tell Me That You Love Me." There was so much wrong with this performance: the schmaltzy and inferior arrangement. The vocal stretching. The unflattering silver dress. The matching glittery eye shadow. Ashton really needed to kill this performance to remain viable and sadly, she didn't. At least she got to display some of that trademark stage swag and a killer Ross fro!
Karen Rodriguez: "I Could Fall In Love." When you walk out on stage in a sparkly two-piece midrift-bearing faux-pantsuit, you should know something isn't going to go right. But in all seriousness, in theory this should have been a perfect showing for pageant-queen Karen, but she somehow failed to connect to this song emotionally or vocally. However, she's just down enough to not be out (as the rules of Idol physics dictate).
Thia Megia: "Smile." Oh, sweetie-- I really want to like you! But since Thia seems to know how weird/bad this performance was, I'll refrain from picking it apart. Singing aside, Thia needs to learn how to appear less vacant and ramp up the charm/warmth, or America's voting fingers are going to start growing cold.
Predictions: My gut tells me that Ashton is going to bite the dust, with a one-two punch of wildcard-worthy vote lagging and forgettable mediocrity. I also suspect Haley and Thia may round out the bottom three... but we shall see!
To conclude, I must admit that JLo is totally right-- this is one tight race. I mean, in my own personal Idol journey, early favorites have fallen into mid-pack runners and all my early cannon fodder picks have become front-runners. With the bar spread evenly in terms of talent and uniqueness, something tells me we're setting up for a spectacular season...