Wednesday night's first top 24 bombshell on "American Idol" was the jaw-dropping elimination of the sob-storied Chris Medina...which served as a sort of cliffhanger, with Thursday's "Green Mile" episode opening with even more footage of Jennifer Lopez's breakdown as she grappled with guilt over having to let Chris go. Some cynics thought J.Lo was faking it for the cameras--and I do admit, there was some serious drama going on--but come on, did you see Maid In Manhattan? Gigli? Anaconda? J.Lo's not THAT great an actress. So I think her tears were legit.
That being said, there was little doubt that, despite her "I don't want to do this anymore!" protests, Jennifer would pull it together. Did we REALLY think she'd forfeit her $12 million "Idol" paycheck that easily? So within the first five minutes of Thursday's episode, the show did go on, and the Green Mile cuts continued over the course of a very draggggged out two hours. And then, at the episode's end, there was another shocker: the elimination of fan favorite Jacee Badeaux.
This cute teenager quickly became America's sweetheart with his sweetly soulful voice and big-fringed resemblance to a plus-sized Justin Bieber, but just as I agreed with Wednesday's controversial decision to cut Medina, I think the producers knew what they were doing here as well. Jacee, who is only 15 (and looks 12), had previously cracked under pressure--crying onstage and forgetting his lyrics during last week's Group Round, for instance--and really, if he couldn't handle Hollywood Week, then he's not ready to perform (and possibly receive brutal critiques) on live television. Also, as was the case with Chris, I think Universal Records toughie Jimmy Iovine worried that Jacee might've won based on his huge popularity alone...and let's face it, Jacee just isn't that marketable. He has the voice, sure, but onstage he has always been too tentative, never exhibiting any true star power. I think Jacee may have what it takes in a few years, and he should try out again, but his time just isn't now. "Idol" made the right call here.
So whose time IS now? Well, a few other standouts were shockingly passed over, like country-crooning mama's boy John Wayne Schulz, R&B dynamo Jerome Bell, and singer-songwriter Colton Dixon, the latter of whom was cut the same time as Jacee for extra drama. I guess the "Idol" powers-that-be aren't always right. But many promising contestants did make it through, ensuring that the live shows, which start airing next week, will be must-see TV.
So without further ado, here's your Season 10 top 24--a very strong bunch indeed--ranked in order of (what else?) my personal preference:
1. Paul McDonald - His Nashville audition of "Maggie May" was only 15 seconds long, then he was never seen nor heard from again until this week. But 15 seconds was enough for me to seek out music by his band, the Grand Magnolias, and I was grandly impressed. I sincerely hope Paul's relative lack of screentime so far is the producers' way of priming him for a big wow-moment surprise, an out-of-nowhere amazing top 24 performance. I know he has it in him.
2. Casey Abrams - His "Lullaby Of Birdland" and "Georgia On My Mind" auditions are already the stuff of "Idol" legend (Randy Jackson said Casey's the most talented musician in the series' entire history), and he's got "Likability Factor" written all over his grinning face. C'mon, who wouldn't want to go see a concert by this guy, or at least shoot some billiards with him after the show? I'm just crossing my fingers and toes that he recovers from his sudden illness in time to compete. Losing this guy before he even hits the live stage would be a major blow to the show. I think I'll hold a candlelight vigil until he recovers.
3. Brett Loewenstern - This cool kid's got it all: a good attitude, a unique sense of style, a timely anti-bullying backstory, vocal chops, original songs, and a pleasing resemblance to Simply Red's Mick Hucknall (look it up, kiddos). I think he's simply awesome. And judging from the huge amount of face time "Idol" producers have given him so far, it seems the producers think so, too.
4. Jacob Lusk - This male diva made a major impression during Hollywood Week, after his first audition generated little fanfare. He instantly went from no-one to one-to-watch to one-to-beat. (Randy even told him his "God Bless The Child" was the best "Idol" performance EVER.) After several seasons featuring few truly strong R&B contenders, Jacob, with his uniquely mush-mouthed gospel stylings, is a promising frontrunner and budding soul star. I just think he needs to stop oversinging so much, lest he quickly become a parody of himself.
5. Rachel Zevita - When this young soprano first auditioned in Season 6, she was a four-eyed nerd in geek glasses and pink tie-dye. Now she's back, all grown up and looking like a stunning '40s screen siren, and I'm so glad she got another chance. Her eccentric personality, unique style, and wailing high notes remind me of last year's kooky free spirit Siobhan Magnus (my fave girl of Season 9), and I can't wait to see Rachel wear an over-the-top outfit, and maybe bust out a little opera, on the main stage.
6. Clint Jun Gamboa - OK, so he was a little mean to Jacee during the Group Round, and that's no doubt going to hurt his chances. But the bottom line is, he's funny, he's interesting, he's got cool glasses, and he can sing his butt off. After the unjust elimination of class clown Carson Higgins, we need this wacky karaoke host in the running to keep things lively and fun.
7. Naima Adedapo - I dig this chick's total vibe: the earth-mama image, the soulful voice, the Cinderella backstory about how she performs janitorial work for Milwaukee's Summerfest when she really ought to be performing on the festival's main stage. She hasn't received much screentime since her memorable first audition, but with her standout style, she won't remain ignored much longer.
8. Ashthon Jones - Diva alert! It's been a while since we've seen the likes of Ashthon on "Idol"--you'd have to go back to Season 6 with Melinda Doolittle and LaKisha Jones, or Season 3's Fantasia Barrino/Jennifer Hudson/LaToya London holy trinity. But as her Hollywood Week powerhouse performance of "And I Am Telling You" proved, this girl is ready for the big leagues. Here's one contestant who'll be able to tackle the Mariah/Celine/Whitney songbooks without embarrassment.
9. Julie Zorrilla - This here's another contestant who's got it all: the looks of a supermodel, the voice of an angel, the piano-playing skills of Alicia Keys, the backstory of a Lifetime Movie (she's a Colombian refugee). She's one of this year's strongest female contenders, but due to her lack of screentime so far, we've yet to see much of her personality. Her likability factor will be what tips the votes in or out of her favor. So far, though, I like her--and her cute pouffy skirts.
10. Tim Halperin - Every "Idol" season needs a heartthrob or two, and Tim fits the bill nicely this year. But since he was one of the few highlights of the Los Angeles auditions (aka The Worst Episode Ever) and his Vegas Beatles duet with Julie was flat-out amazing, Tim seems like more than just a pretty face. Regardless of how America's females vote, Tim will surely have J.Lo's support, since there was some serious flirtation going on between them in the "Idol" L.A. audition room. Let's just hope Tim doesn't get disqualified in some sort of Corey Clark-esque scandal as a result.
11. Robbie Rosen - His whole "I used to be in a wheelchair but now I'm not and I conveniently have no photographic evidence of that period in my life" backstory irked me at first. (Was he lying? Was he sending the negative message that disabled kids shouldn't even be photographed?) But this 16-year-old has since won me over with his solid performances and sweet, sweet falsetto. His gorgeous cover of Sara Bareilles's "Gravity" last week earned my respect, and he was even more impressive in Vegas. This talented guy doesn't need to fall back on any sob story to compete.
12. Thia Megia - The undeniably gifted onetime "America's Got Talent" semifinalist is a total stage kid, with the poise and chops of a seasoned cabaret singer twice her age (she's only 15, by the way). This gives her an advantage--she's clearly more comfortable onstage that some of her competitors, plus she has experience performing on live TV talent shows--but sometimes she seems just a little TOO polished, to the point of being almost robotic. Right now she's the most-searched-for Season 10 contestant on Yahoo!, thanks to a strong overseas Filipino following, but will American viewers vote for someone who doesn't quite have that relatable underdog quality? We shall see.
13. Lauren Alaina - She started off the season with a big Tyler-endorsed bang, when Steven joined her on an "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing" duet at her first audition and then declared her to be "The One." But she's never quite impressed as much since then, she's seemed to rely way too much on sucking up to Steven to get by, and now Steven's premature praise has already kicked off a backlash. I still think Lauren is a shoo-in for the top 10, but she'll really have to bring it week after week, and deliver on her early promise, if she wants to go farther than that. And I suggest she NOT wear that bizarre purple lampshade dress again, by the way. That getup won't earn her any votes.
14. Jordan Dorsey - His controversial flip-flopping during the Group Rounds last week, when he ditched one team for another at the 11th hour, probably gained him few fans. We'll see if voters remember his bratty, unsportsmanlike behavior (quite unbecoming of a music teacher like himself) later on in the competition. As far as Jordan's talent goes, however, he's got it--and again, he's one of the few great R&B hopes this season.
15. Karen Rodriguez - This season, "Idol" held auditions on MySpace, but such a gimmick unsurprisingly attracted mainly fame-seeking attention freaks angling for 15 minutes of ce-Web-rity. Karen was the one genuine MySpace find of Season 10, and you know, maybe she made the whole needle-in-haystack procedure worth it. A talented girl with big pipes and the pipe dream of becoming the first Latina "Idol" winner, Karen already has J.Lo's support. Now I'm hoping Karen's MySpace talents can translate to the live stage.
16. Stefano Langone - This man didn't make much of an impression on me--he's the one covered in tribal-looking scars from a car accident, correct?--but his juicehead Situation-ist looks might win over female voters who find Brett and Robbie too wimpy or Tim and Paul too scruffy and indie-skinny. I need to hear more from Stefano before I start fist-pumping on his behalf...but I'm impressed that he took a risk by performing an original (good!) song on piano this week.
17. Lauren Turner - She's got the voice, and the vibe, from what I've seen...but she's one of "Idol's" many victims of the dreaded TV disease called "lack-of-screentime-itis." To quote Lauren's own slang from Thursday: "Who dat?" Her lack of familiarity may cost her votes.
18. Kendra Chantelle - Um, who? This chick has "cannon fodder" written all over her. She's received so little screentime, she'll have to deliver the performance of a lifetime (something that builds on the promise of her lovely "Blackbird" duet with Paul McDonald) next week in order to make enough of an impression to survive.
19. Scotty McCreery - He seemingly only knows one song (Josh Turner's "Your Man") and he sings in only one key, which makes me suspect that this junior cowboy is a one-trick pony. OK, so he also performed Josh Turner's "Long Black Train" once. But I'm still bitter that a) he was excused for the cardinal "Idol" sin of lyric-forgetting in Hollywood Week, when others weren't cut the same slack, and b) he made the top 24 over the much more talented country boy John Wayne Schulz. However, since Scotty is holding it down for the country contingent on his own (I have no idea why, according to Ryan Seacrest, there "wasn't room for two" country singers in the entire top 24), I suspect he'll stick around a while. Let's just hope he learns some new, non-Josh Turner songs.
21. Haley Reinhart - Another also-ran, Haley's most memorable moment so far has been her bizarrely mumbled Vegas performance of "The Long And Winding Road." She didn't win any points with me for ruining a perfectly good Beatles song. I expect her road on "Idol" will not be long or winding at all.
22. James Durbin - He showoffily screeches WAY too much for my taste, coming across as a poor man's Adam Lambert. (If James were aware of the passionate voting patterns of this nation's Glamberts, he'd realize that copying Adam is NOT a smart move.) However, he's got some semblance of raw talent and a big vocal range. If he can learn to rein in his "almost painful" (J.Lo's words) harmonies and not scream for screaming's sake--and establish his own identity--I might warm to the guy.
23. Tatynisa Wilson - I haven't seen much of this lady, but judging from her horrific Hollywood Week performance of "I Hope You Dance," complete with strangled-cat bad notes and mangled lyrics, perhaps it's for the best that I was spared from seeing more. But this competition does need more divas, divas, divas, and Tatynisa has cool hair accessorized by cute polka-dotted hair bows, so maybe that's enough for now. Let's hope she steps up her game soon, if she expects to move up this list.
24. Jovany Barreto - Ever since this big lug took off his shirt in an attempt to seduce his goddess J.Lo with his abs of steel and "Cuban flavor," he's bugged me. (Yes, Casey James peeled his shirt off when he tried out last season, but only upon Kara DioGuardi's orders. No one asked Jovany to strip.) Plus, Jovany shouted his Luis Miguel tune at his first audition; he didn't really sing it. He'd be wise to keep his shirt on and control his voice more when he performs next week.