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American Idol, Reviews, Television

Thoughts on the American Idol Top 13

All right. I’m getting serious with my reviews, hence the new, professional-looking WordPress blog. Ironically, my typical posts are not about things traditionally considered “important,” but that is of little consequence to me.

So, what happened this week that I consider important enough to spend time blogging about?

The American Idol Top 13 were announced, of course!

Now, at a later date, I will attempt to defend Idol to the vast amounts of nay-sayers, but for now, I am just assuming that if you’re reading this, you care enough about Idol to see what I have to say. And I must say that America got it (kind of) wrong, at least with the girls.

I’ll start with the boys. First and foremost, if Casey Abrams had not made it to the finals, it would have truly been a crime. His frenzied and slightly manic rendition of “I Put A Spell On You” was simply the best performance of the semi-finals, hands down. He has such a delightful amount of quirk, and he knows his voice so well, so he is able to tailor each performance to suit him perfectly. (See those last two notes of the above song.) My next favorite guy was Paul McDonald, who sang a raspy version of Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” that was a little sound-alike, but his stage presence brought it firmly out of karaoke territory. I fear that Paul might be a little too cool and not mainstream enough for a traditional show like Idol that values balladeers over musicians, but we’ll see how America feels after a few weeks.

Jacob Lusk, the season’s resident black diva (who just happens to be male) also cracked the elusive top 13 after his histrionic and overwrought performance of “A House Is Not A Home.” Don’t get me wrong, he sounded pretty great, but the dude is going to sing himself into a heart attack if he sings every performance without holding anything back. He does have a spectacularly velvety tone to his voice, though. James Durbin also made it to the finals after his Judas Priest (really?) cover of “You’ve Got Another Thing Comin’.” Speaking of contestants who could potentially kill themselves while singing, Durbin has to be the next thing on the list. Yes, he has incredible range, but that doesn’t mean that every song needs an octave-defying scream or ten. However, I am very excited to see what else he can do, specifically when he reigns it in and shows off his chest voice alone. Rounding out the men is Scotty McCreery, the deep-voiced country crooner. I was shocked that he didn’t cover a Josh Turner song (like almost every other time he sang), and though he makes crazy faces when he sings, he did a good job. I probably wouldn’t have put him through to the finals myself, but I can see why he made it.

Those gents were the five chosen by America, but three other guys got the chance to redeem themselves with a wildcard performance, and I was baffled by two of the three the judges chose. First, Jovany Barreto? Really? His performance of “I’ll Be” brought a carbon copy of Edwin McCain’s original to the stage that no one really wanted to see, and his bilingual (hey, it worked for Karen Rodriguez; why not Jovany?) rendition of Jon Secada’s “Angel” reeked of desperation. Sorry, dude. You’re a fine singer, but just too boring for Idol.

Next, Robbie Rosen, a perfectly pleasant high school student from Long Island who just happens to have a case of “Whisper Syndrome” was selected. I didn’t particularly have anything positive or negative to say about his cover of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel,” but after his results-night rendition of “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word,” I was ready for whispery Robbie to make his exit. I never really bought his performances. He just seemed like he was singing the words, but he had no concept of what they meant or how to properly phrase a song. Classic example of a singer who would have benefitted from two years off to refine his craft and then return to the competition. Thankfully, the wildcard boys were redeemed by Stefano Langone, who delivered a powerhouse, heartfelt rendition of Smokie Norful’s “I Need You Now.” His voice just floated on the lyrics and he earned his wildcard spot handily. There was just no possibility of Robbie/Jovany getting it over him. Look at how James Durbin is reacting to the performance at 1:20! How could a contestant who makes another contestant look like that not make the finals?

Now, onto the girls. I’m not going to lie; I have beef with the majority of the women who are proceeding into the finals. I’ll start with who I actually approve of: Pia Toscano, Lauren Alaina and Thia Megia. Pia’s cover of The Pretenders “I’ll Stand By You” was an absolute powerhouse. Far and away, the best vocal of girls night. Her final vocal riff is flexible, powerful and completely in tune, despite it being near the top of her mix. She killed it. I liked Lauren’s performance of Reba McIntyre’s “Turn On The Radio,” though I find Lauren herself to be a little too young for Idol. She’s only sixteen, and it really shows in her performances and her interviews, but her voice is decidedly more adult than sixteen. If she can tone down the precociousness, she may win me over entirely. Thia, this season’s youngest contestant (and the show’s youngest-ever), also is noticeably teenage, especially in her seeming inability to choose a single pronunciation style while singing (she affected a very strange pronunciation in her initial audition which mysteriously subsequently vanished), but her tone is rich, colorful and surprisingly mature. Her cover of “Out Here On My Own” was understated, ballsy (an a cappella opening!) and deserving of a finalist spot.

The other two women who round out the America-chosen contestants are Karen Rodriguez and Haley Reinhart. I’m very ambivalent about Karen. On the positive side, she has a beautiful vibrato, gorgeous head voice, and quick riffs, even if they are a bit predictable. On the negative side, her upper chest voice sounds a bit weak, she chose Mariah Carey’s “Hero,” which has been done to death on Idol, and she sang half the song in Spanish. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt, but if I get too many more Spanglish songs, she definitely goes on the “dislike” list. And now: Haley Reinhart. I’ve been saving my snark for her, specifically. Annie Barrett, EW.com re-capper extraordinare, compared her singing to that of a drunk baby, and I cannot agree more. Haley’s performance of “Fallin’” included every vocal trick in the book: scoops, tone color changes, growls, riffs, flips into head voice from chest voice, and then some more growling. And she repeatedly kept bending at the knees when she hit a “power note,” to show how much effort and oomph she was putting into her singing. UGH. When Randy was critiquing her negatively, she had a stink face on that, to me, read as follows: “It’s OK, Randy. J. Lo and Steven will like me, I’m a better singer than you, and I WILL win this competition. I’ve been ordained since birth.” I am most certainly not a fan.

The three wildcards the judges chose were Ashthon Jones, Kendra Chantelle and Naima Adedapo. Ashthon started the performances off with a lower-side-of-soulful cover of “And I Am Telling You (I’m Not Going),” which she hilariously attributed to Jennifer Hudson, despite the fact that i was originally performed twenty years earlier by Jennifer Holliday. Ashthon has an okay voice, but the fact that she has enough attitude to show up the rest of the Top 13 combined definitely makes her one of my less favorite contestants. Kendra was the next to sing, delivering a deeply-felt version of “Georgia On My Mind” that was the best of the wild-card performances. She started low in her range, and by the end of the song, she was screaming those high notes like she meant it. She was not going down without a fight. Ending the women’s performances was Naima, with a shaky rendition of “For All We Know” that ended with the singer breaking into tears. (Despite the fact that she was holding back emotion the entire time, I still preferred her performance to Ashthon’s, due solely to the fact that Naima showed the audience how she truly felt, while Ashthon covered up her nervousness and desperation with loads of fake bravado and ‘tude.)

And, as Idol usually manages to do at some point while picking the finalists, they screwed up. Clearly, the most deserving of the ladies was Kendra, proving that she had range, versatility, and clarity of tone both on performance night and results night. Yet the judges chose to boot Kendra and give the final two spots to Naima and Ashthon. I’m excited to see what Naima will do with her second chance, as I think that she will choose eclectic songs and deliver solid, if not exceptionally flashy, vocals. Ashthon, however? All she will add to the competition is sassy, less-than-competent covers of soul and R&B classics. Like that hasn’t been done before.

In the end, I’m happy with the majority of this season’s Idol finalists. I’d like to switch out Ashthon/Haley for Kendra/Clint Jun Gamboa (maybe; I’m still unsure about his karaoke host background, although the show took care of that for me by not voting him through), perhaps, but I have faith that America will wise up and pick off the weaklings, not the powerhouses in the first few weeks of the live shows. Right, America? Right?

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About Cory Hershberger

Neurotic/eclectic critic obsessed with pop culture who enjoys good food, good company, and, most of all, good books.

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