For years, "American Idol" has been a boys' game (we've had four male winners in a row, and last season, the first controversial five eliminations were all female contestants, among them shocker Pia Toscano). These developments have of course led irate viewers to wonder how the show can be "fixed" so that the girls can have more of a shot. My personal suggestion has been to limit the number of votes per person--which would limit, if not totally eliminate, the possibility of little girls and their moms phone-banking and block-texting for hours on behalf of their favorite boy-toy of the season. But this Wednesday, for "Idol's" 400th episode and its first girls-vs.-guys episode of Season 11, the show had another solution: Copy "The X Factor." Yes, somewhere right now in a house in the south of France, Simon Cowell must be gloating and grinning.
Basically, at the start of this Wednesday's top 13 episode (on which the boys covered Stevie Wonder and the girls covered Whitney Houston, assisted by mentor Mary J. Blige), Ryan Seacrest announced that this week, instead of having the usual bottom three and having the overall lowest vote-getter go home, there will just be one bottom guy and one bottom girl...and the JUDGES will decide which of the two will get cut (presumably following some sort of "X Factor"-style singoff). And considering that there are seven boys and six girls in the top 13, it's possible that the judges could send home the boy who lands on the chopping block this week, no matter who it is, just to make a point and even out the top 12.
Jessica Sanchez is the girl to beat
I am not so sure this is a great idea. Yes, I'd like to see the girls finally get a fighting chance this season--but fairly and squarely, not like this. And in a season that has already seen a bonus contestant (Jermaine Jones) brought back to the semifinals, along with the usual Wild Cards and that all-important Judges' Save up for grabs, this additional component of results-manipulation by the judges just does not sit well with me. But you know, it may be a moot point, since some of this season's girls don't even need this advantage--like the amazing Jessica Sanchez, who dared to take on Whitney's "I Will Always Love You" this week and was so great, she rendered Jennifer Lopez "speechless" and "made 40 million people cry," according to Steven Tyler. Jessica's performance was arguably the first big MOMENT of Season 11.
So anyway, hopefully when the judges make their decision Thursday, they'll save whoever sang better this week, with no gender quotas or other agendas in mind. Here's how the boys and the girls did this week:
Mantasia sings "I Wish"
Joshua Ledet - This season's only real traditional R&B belter was totally in his zone doing Stevie's "I Wish." Dang, Mantasia took this to church! He looked like he was having so much fun, and it was fantastic to see him breaking away from his usual ballads. Joshua is arguably the technically best male singer in the top 13, and he made singing a Stevie song look and sound easy. "You just wore it out!" howled Randy Jackson, before he accidentally called Joshua "flavorless" when he apparently meant to say "flawless." (I don't see how Randy made that mistake. Joshua had tons of flava!) Steven told Joshua he "nailed it." Said Jennifer, "I love that I just felt your performance more than anything." I was feeling it too. I just hope that Joshua's kiss-of-death, first-slot placement in this two-hour show doesn't thwart his chances.
Elise sings "I'm Your Baby Tonight"
Elise Testone - Elise, my cool raspy rock chick with the room-service flowers in her hair, is my favorite girl of Season 11--but this was NOT my favorite Elise performance of Season 11, and I must say I am a little worried for her this week. After Mary J. Blige and Universal Records' Jimmy Iovine talked Elise out of doing Whitney's "The Greatest Love Of All" and suggested "I'm Your Baby Tonight" instead (a song Elise freely admitted she did not know), it all seemed to go downhill for her. (I sincerely doubt Jimmy and Mary were trying to sabotage Elise, but they may as well have been.) Elise was just way too growly and awkward here; she seemed really uncomfortable, and I think she would have been better off doing something like, say, the original Dolly Parton version of "I Will Always Love You" on her piano. "Whitney's a beast, and it's about taking this song and making it your own. I think that's what you were struggling with....you just felt a little unsure," said J.Lo. "Your voice has so much character, so you've got to find that just-right song....I missed that from this song," lamented Steven. "It wasn't your greatest performance....you were boxing with the song," sighed Randy. I think Elise is awesome, and I sincerely hope she stays in the game, but this performance may be the damning evidence that she just won't be able to adapt to "Idol's" many (often-cheesy) themes as the season goes on.
The Gentle Giant sings "Knocks Me Off My Feet"
Jermaine Jones - This season's bonus boy, who somewhat surprisingly made the top 13 via the public vote last week, did "Knocks Me Off My Feet," and it was a good effort. Was it current or cool? Well, not really. But his voice sounded in fine form, and he'd clearly--unlike Elise--chosen his song very well. "That song fit you like an Armani suit; it was perfect," said Steven. The other two judges were not as wowed--Randy liked the chorus more than the verses, and J.Lo didn't think Jermaine connected enough to the lyrics and lamely suggested she sing directly to her next time. But the point is, there probably will be a next time for Jermaine. Only one boy will be up for elimination this week, and I don't think it's going to be this guy.
EVP sings "I Believe In You And Me"
Erika Van Pelt - EVP is another one of my favorite Season 11 girls, but I was a bit underwhelmed by her rendition of "I Believe In You And Me." Yes, she hit every big Whitney note (not at all an easy thing to do), but it was disappointing to see my cool rocker/DJ girl in a long pageant gown doing a conservative ballad. I was bored. However, the judges seemed really, really excited. "You have an amazing voice and an unbelievable tone....you can sing anything!" raved Randy. "I had goosies before you even started singing," squealed Jennifer. "It was so beautiful," said Steven, predictably employing his favorite adjective. I do think EVP did a solid job here, but when she told Ryan afterwards, "I got fire inside me," I didn't really believe her. I want to see a lot more of that fire next week.
Colton sings "Lately"
Colton Dixon - Emo-rocker Colton was especially challenged this week ("Stevie Wonder is not his wheelhouse," cautioned Jimmy Iovine), and his three-piece-suited, relatively sedate performance of "Lately" was a bit of a letdown after last week's piano-jumping Paramore tour de force. And the song also did unfortunately draw attention to some of Colton's vocal shortcomings (many contestants had this same problem this week, as Stevie and Whitney songs are very tricky). But there was still a dark, Muse-y quality to Colton's performance that I appreciated, and as the song built in intensity, I was drawn in. Colton is just very...intense. He is basically the Rob Pattinson of "Idol." Said fellow rocker Steven, "Amazing, outstanding, well-done!" Jennifer praised Colton for rising to this week's non-rock challenge. Randy was a little critical, saying, "Technically, for a second, it wasn't picture-perfect. But when you hit your power point, it was always spot on." (Then Randy called Colton's last note "flawless." I assume he did not mean "flavorless.")
Shannon sings "I Have Nothing"
Shannon Magrane - Ooh boy. This was not hot, humid, or happenin' at all. Poor Shannon sang "I Have Nothing," and unfortunately for her, the title was prophetic. She started off the song--one of the most vocally difficult Whitney classics--decently enough, though she seemed rushed in parts and a bit breathless. But when it came time for that big money note towards the end, it was a seriously ouchie moment. Shannon missed the note by what sounded like an entire couple of octaves, and in the process she suddenly went from frontrunner to also-ran. She looked defeated, and the judges were unusually blunt with her, putting their usual nicey-nice life-coaching aside to tell her the cold, hard truth. "Nerves got the best of you, baby. It's a huge song, and you kind of crashed and burned in the turnaround," Steven admitted. Randy told her she "derailed." And while J.Lo tried to diplomatically give Shannon the benefit of the doubt and said, "There's nothing in that song you can't do," obviously that was untrue, since one thing Shannon could not do was handle that note.
Deandre sings "Master Blaster"
Deandre Brackensick - I really dig this kid, and he definitely gave one of the most upbeat performances of the night. Deandre totally jammed on "Master Blaster," coming across as fresh and funky and fun--and YOUTHFUL--on a night when so many other contestants opted to do snoozy ballads. So he really stood out. He was dancing, he was whipping his hair like Willow, he was rocking out in the middle of a drum circle...last year's Naima Adedapo would approve! Steven actually told him, "You got that male Naima in you. You got that different flavor from anyone else." Jennifer said, "You have rhythm, soul--you got swag up there! You just know how to perform." Randy loved that Deandre showed another side of himself this evening. I loved that too. Deandre, like Colton, seems like the kind of artist who might actually sell records in the real world--and I just might be one of the people buying those records.
Skylar sings "Where Do Broken Hearts Go"
Skylar Laine - Along with Jessica Sanchez, Skylar is Season 11's best bet for a female champion, I think. While Skylar's low-key performance of the ballad "Where Do Broken Hearts Go" wasn't quite as enjoyable as her vivacious Faces cover from last week, she believably turned it into a country song, managing to sound like herself while still doing the iconic Whitney proud. "You gave us our biggest moment of the night [so far]," said J.Lo. "That was a thing of beauty," said Steven, before using the word "beautiful" two more times. And Randy said, "What I love about you is you're a country girl, but what you just proved is you can sing any song." I agree. Miss Laine stays in her lane, but she always keeps things interesting.
Heejun sings "All Is Fair In Love"
Heejun Han - I love me some Heejun, but I wish he was as fun and entertaining onstage as he always is in his interviews and Twitter posts. His banter with Ryan, as he explained his latest bizarre Twitpics, was a hoot; Heejun is always good for a silly soundbite. But then, whenever he gets behind the mic, he croons dull stuff like Michael Bolton or last week's "Angels." This week, he did "All Is Fair In Love," and while he handled the big, belty song better than I'd thought he would, I still would have preferred to watch him crack jokes for three minutes instead. I wonder how long he can coast on personality and goofiness before America tires of him and his boring song choices. But I think he's safe for now, and I certainly have not grow weary of him just yet. Nor have the judges. "I love you. I loved you from the first time you sang for me, and I still love you now," gushed Jennifer. "I love your voice, man. There's something about it that's real special," said a similarly smitten Steven. "It wasn't perfect, but it was really good," said a too-nice Randy. All is fair in "Idol," I guess. But I hope Heejun steps it up, and switches it up, on future episodes.
Hollie sings "All The Man That I Need"
Hollie Cavanagh - How does such a big voice come out of such a small girl? Little Hollie looks like she weighs about 80 pounds soaking wet, but she sings like the "large black woman" Adam Brock always claimed he had trapped inside his own body. The girl has a queen-sized set of pipes, for sure, and she tackled "You're All The Man That I Need" with ease. "You love taking on these big songs. And dude, you nailed it!" said Randy. "We may have a singoff between two girls in the finals this year. That's what I'm hoping for!" Jennifer predicted, somewhat prematurely. "That was really nice," swooned Steven. I agreed with the judges' praise, but I just wish Hollie wasn't so old-fashioned all the time. She's a very young, very cute girl, and I'd like to see her cut loose the next time she hits the stage. Because obviously, there WILL be a next time.
Jere Bear sings "Ribbon In The Sky"
Jeremy Rosado - I still don't quite get why J.Lo is so crazy for this kid, but I will admit that he did a nice job with "Ribbon In The Sky." But it was merely NICE. It was more like something we would have seen in Season 2 or 3, not in what Randy annoyingly insists on calling Season One-One. Jeremy, who was saved last week when J.Lo picked him for a Wild Card, just looked so happy to be onstage, so it was hard not to root for him just a little...but this was not the performance he needed to give to convince me, or the rest of America, that Jennifer made the right decision last week. Anyway, Jennifer borrowed Steven's go-to adjective and called Jeremy's performance "beautiful," but the other two judges were more critical. Steven called Jeremy's voice "velvety smooth," but added, "You didn't get a chance to fly like you normally do." And Randy came down hard on Jeremy, saying, "It wasn't your best performance; it's a very difficult song, and it's the kind of song that you have to put more swag in to have people believe it." I agreed, for once, with Randy. I didn't quite believe Jeremy tonight.
Jessica sings "I Will Always Love You"
Jessica Sanchez - Okay, THIS was the performance of the night. Jessica easily established herself as the girl to beat--and maybe the overall contestant to beat--with her note-perfect performance of "I Will Always Love You." It was a massive risk for her to sing Whitney Houston's signature song--which former "Idol" diva Jennifer Hudson had so memorably nailed on the Grammys not long ago, and which Randy called "one of the hardest songs in the world"--but Jessica completely pulled it off. By the end, the audience was howling, the judges were on their feet, and everyone has goosies. "Jessica Sanchez is LEGIT!" shouted Randy. "You are not only the best vocalist of the night, but one of the best singers in the competition. In the country!" J. Lo added, "Just amazing. I don't even know what to say. I am speechless." And Steven even said, "You may be The One." And you know, Steven may be right.
P-Squared sings "Superstition"
Phillip Phillips - In the "pimp spot" closing the show was Season 11's clear-cut male frontrunner, the one Jimmy Iovine already seems ready to have sign on Interscope Records' dotted line. Phillip did what he does so very well, which means he pretty much turned "Superstition" into a Dave Matthews Band song. (Dave Matthews doesn't even do DMB as well as Phillip does these days.) I think P-Squared's shtick could get old in a few weeks, but there's no denying that he's the man to beat right now, and if he can keep up this momentum, he could be "Idol's" fifth consecutive male winner. "There's no words for it--you just are," said resident Yoda judge Steven. "You took it and made it your own, and you killed it," said J.Lo. "We need you in this competition. You're probably the most different artist that we have this year," said Randy--before he once again ignorantly described DMB as "alt" and "indie" and made me want to punch my TV screen.
So now, it is prediction time. Who will be the bottom girl and bottom boy this Thursday? And which one will the judges choose to send home? It's looking likely that the lowest female vote-getter will be Shannon, who epically failed this evening, although Elise, who was the first female to sing and also choked a little bit, may be in jeopardy. (Wow. Both of these ladies had seemed like such ones-to-watch only last week; it's incredible to imagine that either of them may leave the show so early.) As for the lowest male vote-getter, I think it might be Jeremy, who only scraped into top 13 in the first place thanks to the kindness of J.Lo. But if Jeremy is in the bottom two, of course Jennifer will fight to save him...and that means Shannon will probably go home. So there goes my cockamamie conspiracy theory about producer Nigel Lythgoe coming up with a new last-minute rule-twist to help out the girls, huh?
Anyway, tune in Thursday to find out if I'm right. Until then...Parker out.