"American Idol's" search for what Randy Jackson calls the "ultimate top 10" continued Wednesday, with the top dozen girls singing in what was surely Season 10's most sudden and deadly sudden-death round. This was their one shot, their one moment on the live stage, before seven of these ladies would be unceremoniously cast aside like J.Lo's last-season Louboutins. "They're singing for their lives today. They've gotta sing like it's their encore song," advised Steven Tyler. "Don't underestimate the importance of tonight's vote; it is all on the line this evening," intoned Ryan Seacrest.
So no pressure, then.
Too bad the girls faced the added pressure of having to struggle to be heard over the din of "Idol's" new over-amplified house band. The musical accompaniment sadly often drowned out the singers, who would've been better off going a cappella (like Thia Megia did) or playing their own instruments, which once again didn't seem to be an option tonight (no one played instruments on the top 12 boys' night, either, frustratingly). But some ladies did make themselves more heard than others. One favorite, Julie Zorrilla, shockingly faltered, while a new star emerged in Pia Toscano, who received the first judges' standing ovation of the season. It's truly amazing how one performance can change a contestant's prospects in three minutes or less.
Ta-tynisa Wilson - Ta ta, Ta-tynisa. More like Bye-bye-nisa. Oh, these puns practically write themselves. Anyway, Ta-tynisa had already left an indelibly bad impression on viewers with her "I Hope You Dance" Hollywood Week fiasco (more like "I Hope You Don't Sing")--so she had a lot to prove here. And she looked adorable, like a little pop star, and she had stage skills...but ultimately all she proved is that she's NOT the next American Idol. Singing the difficult, high-registered "Only Girl In The World" by Rihanna, a tune that RiRi herself can't sing all that well live, Ta-ty struggled from the instant she opened her mouth until the moment she finally, mercifully, closed it. (Here's one case in which I wish the house band had played even LOUDER.) Nicey-nice judges Steven and Jennifer Lopez went way too easy on her, with S.Ty calling her performance "beautiful" and J.Lo telling her she "brought it all the way home" and "moved the crowd." Randy, aka The New Simon, who I NEVER thought would become "Idol's" voice of reason, was the lone dissenter, calling Ta-tynisa "just OK" and telling Jennifer, "I'm the part of the crowd that wasn't moved." (Oh snap!) Wow, I can't believe how many times I've been Team Randy already this season. The bottom line is, Ta-tynisa is not the only girl in the world, or even in this competition. She's fodder, and she was easily upstaged by all 11 girls who sang after her.
Naima Adedapo - Naima looked like a stately queen, a sort of modern-day Josephine Baker/Lena Horne hybrid, in her self-designed royal yellow gown--what a unique look for a truly unique contestant. Her only trouble was her less-than-unique song choice: "Summertime," a song immortalized by Season 3 champion Fantasia in what is still widely considered to be THE best "Idol" performance of all time. This did Naima no favors, as comparisons were inevitable. But Naima's vocals were totally on point--Fantasia herself would be impressed--and she lit up that stage with her sunny dress and sunny smile to match. "You bring color," Jennifer mused. "You're like an exotic flower in a rose garden." Randy thought Naima's retro-chanteuse vibe was a little too "lounge-acty," and he of course brought up the Fantasia thing, but he conceded that Naima (wait for it) "made it her own" by the song's climactically wailing conclusion. Steven made another comparison, an extremely favorable one, calling Naima an "early Ella Fitzgerald. This is what the world needs right now. It's a new old-timey thing, but it can be new!" I just hope Naima's "Summertime" will be judged on its own merits. Naima is definitely one of a kind.
Kendra Chantelle - Kendra, a dark horse in this competition so far, belted out Christina Aguilera's "Impossible," with its chorus of "It's impossible to love you." But Kendra was hardly impossible to love. It wasn't really my thing, and as Randy pointed out there were some sharp notes here and there, but overall it was a surprisingly strong performance from the low-key contestant. Randy adored Kendra's "Lauryn Hill-esque" vibrato and her connection to the lyrics. Steven exclaimed, "You did it again!" (Um, again? This was really the first time Kendra had made any impression on me.) And Jennifer said, "You have heart. You fought your way into the top 12, and you belong here." But does Kendra belong in the finals? We'll see if she can continue to fight the good fight.
Rachel Zevita - Rachel had been my favorite gal up until this point, and honestly, I still think she should be fast-tracked to the finals just because she chose to wear a hooded gothic cape on this show. (Best "Idol" cape since guest performer Katy Perry wore her ADAM LAMBERT one in Season 8!) I love how Rachel takes risks, both with her fashions and her song selections ("I know I'm going to shake things up, and that's fun and exiting," she boasted)--and man, her choice to do Fiona Apple's "Criminal," re-imagined as a burlesque/cabaret torch song, was a big risk indeed. I'm just afraid it's one risk that won't pay off. I loved her smoky tone and bad-girl vibe, and at least she was INTERESTING, but the arrangement and staging were messy--and, as Randy rightly pointed out, Fiona's song was rendered nearly unrecognizable. "I loved your strut, and your swagger, but it was a little too Broadway to me," Steven griped. Jennifer agreed with him, although she said, "You obviously belong on a stage." Randy was, unsurprisingly, the toughest, barking, "It wasn't great. It just didn't work." To quote Fiona, what Rachel needs is a good defense, indeed. Her chances are slim now.
Karen Rodriguez - Karen sang in Spanish, or Spanglish, so she's going to make it through. Period. It didn't hurt that she sang WELL, very well, and looked good doing it, but her emphasis on her Latina heritage was a very shrewd move (one not lost on Jennifer, of course...and Randy actually said he preferred it when Karen sang in Spanish than in English). I just wished Karen hadn't picked such a boring ballad, Mariah Carey's "Hero," a song that sounds dull and dated in any language. But all of the judges thought Karen sounded muy bonita. J.Lo simply pointed to the goosebumps on her arms (which I am sure would have been more visible if I'd been watching in HD), while Steven called her a "one-of-a-kind singer" and "fantastic" and suggested that she duet with fellow Season 10 powerhouse Jacob Lusk. (I'm sure the producers of this year's "Idol" finale took note.) If Karen doesn't make the top 10 after this, I'll eat my sombrero.
Lauren Turner - This underdog, aka The Other Lauren, took a stylistic risk doing a lesser-known and not exactly teen-friendly Etta James song, "Seven Day Fool," but she served it, and it totally suited her spunky, sassy style. (The line about "scrubbing dirty floors" was relatable, too, because Lauren is a housekeeper by day--and may return to scrubbing floors pretty soon, if she doesn't make it past this week.) J.Lo likened this dynamite lady to a young Bette Midler. Randy called her "Amy Winehouse meets Florence & The Machine." Steven just called her "Lauren Turner meets Lauren Turner." That last comment was most apt, since Lauren the T is quite an original. And her voice, as J.Lo put it, is "undeniable." But I'm afraid Lauren is still going to be denied votes. I just don't think this will be enough to help her beat out more pimped, popular contestants...like Lauren the A.
Ashthon Jones - Diva alert! This girl's just got it going on. Her hawt performance of Monica's "Love All Over Me" had "top 10" written all over it. It was very Gloria Gaynor, very Thelma Houston, very Anita Baker--very Diana Ross, even, as Jennifer suggested--and yet it seemed so modern, too. And she LOOKED like a superstar, playing equally well to the camera and live audience. "You've got the confidence of a queen," Steven declared, bestowing her with the first nickname of the season, Jonesy (which is a lot easier to spell than Ashthon, actually). "We found one!" (Wait. I thought Lauren Alaina was The One?) Randy agreed, saying, "I feel like you've been doing this forever." And J.Lo told her, "You've got all the makings of a diva," to which Ashthon sassed back, "I get it from you!" But Ashthon's got one up on Jennifer, because, unlike J.Lo, she can really saaang.
Julie Zorrilla - Julie was a frontrunner going into the semifinals--at her first audition, J.Lo even predicted that Julie might win the whole show--but after this, she better start hoping there's a Wild Card with her name on it. Like Naima and her "Summertime" song, Julie foolishly cast herself in the shadow of a former great Idol by taking on Kelly Clarkson's "Breakaway." And while her voice sounded decent and she looked gorgeous, there was just something wooden and pageanty about her performance. I just wasn't moved. Oh, if only she'd played her piano, as she so memorably did during Hollywood Week. (Where ARE the musical instruments this season?) "That was not the best thing we've ever seen from you," J.Lo lamented, saying Julie seemed emotionally disconnected from the song. Randy correctly said Julie's "Breakaway" wasn't nearly as good as Kelly's. Steven agreed it was just The. Wrong. Song. Julie insisted to the judges, "I can bring it!"--but I don't know if she'll have another chance to do so.
Haley Reinhart - Alicia Keys's "Fallin'" is one of many songs that should be forever banned from "Idol," but for some reason contestants keep getting offered it and keep foolhardily accepting. (There's hope, though: Randy did suggest this evening that the song should be blacklisted from "Idol" from now on.) Haley was the song's latest and perhaps last victim, delivering a trying-too-hard performance filled with contrived camera-flirting and excessive growling that I assume was supposed to be sultry and edgy. I fell out of love with Haley straight away. Randy said it "didn't do anything" for Haley and didn't showcase her trademark raspy tone. But Jennifer and Steven were--surprise!--much nicer. Steven skeevily told Haley she was "just the right amount of sexy" and then amusingly told Randy, "If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong." Jennifer told Haley, "We saw a lot of different colors in your voice." One color I didn't see is platinum, though. I simply can't envision this girl selling many records doing this sort of shtick.
Thia Megia - Although she's only 15, this ex-"America's Got Talent" semifinalist is an old pro, so she did something very smart by starting her song (the Fame movie theme "Out Here On My Own") a cappella, so that the audience would actually be able to hear her lovely voice for 30 seconds before the Ray Chew Band came crashing in and drowned her out. J.Lo expressed gratitude for "such a quiet moment in the middle of all these big performances...truly special." Raved Steven: "Sometimes a person's pitch can be so perfect that it doesn't matter what they sing...and you just did that." Randy concurred, "This is what hot singing is all about!"--although his comparison of Thia's tone to a young Michael Jackson's took the praise WAY too far. I just find it interesting that after the judges criticized Julie for her lack of emotional connection, they didn't call out Thia for the same thing. Yes, she sounded technically superb, but she also flatlined emotionally. Whether her robotic demeanor comes from a lack of life experience or a life of being aggressively staged-parented into submission, I do not know, but SOMETHING just seems to be missing from Thia's prissy, too-perfect performances.
Lauren Alaina - Ah, here we go: "The One." OK, so I've been skeptical ever since Steven prematurely called the competition in favor of this 16-year-old, but after seeing her on the big stage, I do think she has a real shot at winning. The main reason I think this is Lauren did a very smart thing: She went country. Before this evening I wasn't quite sure what genre she wanted to focus on, but there was no doubt after this good ole Southern girl belted out a vivacious, almost Gretchen Wilson-ish rendition of Reba McEntire's "Turn On The Radio." It was a fun song, and genre, that totally suited her--and considering that one of "Idol's" most successfully alums is Carrie Underwood, and even original Idol Kelly is on the country charts right now dueting with Jason Aldean, this is clearly the kind of stuff "Idol" fans dig. And the judges dug it too--Randy even dubbed her "Carrie meets Kelly," no faint praise indeed. Squealed J.Lo: "You don't even have to try! It's crazy to me! It's amazing how much of a natural you are." And Steven just dubbed her "the best." Maybe he was right about her all along.
Pia Toscano - When I first learned that Pia would be singing last, in the "pimp spot" usually strategically saved for the producers' favorites, I was a little shocked. Pia had barely been on my radar before this week. But I guess the powers-that-be knew what they were doing. While I always think anyone who covers the Pretenders' "I'll Stand By You" fails to bring the raw rocker-chick attitude of the original's Chrissie Hynde, Pia sang the power ballad beautifully, and she looked beautiful doing it. Like J.Lo said, she was the "total package." By the song's end, everyone in the house was up on their feet, including all three judges. "You just put yourself in the top!" howled Randy. "I knew you were a standout, but you were saving that for when it counts!" exclaimed Jennifer. And Steven brought it all home with his best zinger of the night: "After Monday and a Tuesday, even a week says WTF!" Come on, we all know he'd been waiting for a Wednesday show to unleash that doozy. Pia should feel honored that she was on the receiving end of it.
So now it is time for my predictions and picks. This one's a little easier to call than the boys' tight race was. Barring any upset of Esperanza-Spalding-at-the-Grammys-esque proportions, I strongly believe the top five girls will be Pia, Lauren A., Thia (who as of this writing is the most-queried contestant on Yahoo! Search), Ashthon, and Karen. But if I had it my way, I'd give the much more interesting Naima and Rachel second chances. Hopefully they'll have a shot at Wild Card redemption soon.
Tune in Thursday to find out who will make the top 10! Until then, Parker out.