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Thoughts On American Idol: Top 9

March 28, 2012

Image edited from original by sean dreilinger via Flickr, used under Creative Commons

Opening moment: Seacrest says to the contestants “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Wait, so in addition to singing the contestants must hunt and kill each other until one is left standing?

Theme: Contestants sing songs by their “personal idols.” On paper these vague theme nights should be good for variety, but based on past song selection I bet we’ll still see a lot of boring ballads. To fill out the show contestants will also sing in groups of three, Also, Tommy Hilfiger is still on the show? And they have an American Idol fashion brand now? This show finds new ways to disappoint me every season.

Mentors: Jimmy Iovine and Stevie Nicks. Guess who has aged better.

Here are the Top 9 performers and 3 trio medleys in order of appearance on the show

1. Colton Dixon – “Everything” (Lifehouse) Aw man, not Lifehouse! If Colton picked a Christian rock artist with more verve (Plumb, Jars of Clay, even Relient K) he could come off good. Instead he picked one of the nu-grunge hunga dunga durr acts that helped me define the kind of music I didn’t like when I was in high school. As for the performance itself, Colton’s singing is improved, though it’s still whiny and flat. He does the “breathy” thing ok, but he’s just not very engaging. Don’t put the audience to sleep so early, dude! Also, I guess we have a new chosen one (aw shit!)

2. Skylar Laine – “Gunpowder and Lead” (Miranda Lambert) Skylar’s opening is a bit to nasally for me. She picks up in the chorus when she’s cushioned by the backup singers, but she’s not bringing her A-game. I think that she’s trying too hard to sound like Miranda Lambert and her naturally hard nasal twang. It’s a shame because otherwise Skylar has performed really well this season and this song has a lot of power to it. In theory these two should go together like no other, but it didn’t quite work. If Skylar tried to put her own spin on things she could have brought the house down. She’s still really good and there’s a chance this could still be the best of the night, but this is not her best work.

3. Trio: Colton, Elise, and Phillip – Well we kick off the trios with two really bad guys and one lady who’s been getting better every week. Colton is first on stage and once again he puts me to sleep with “Landslide.” Elise thankfully puts a stop to hit with surprisingly on-point belting on “Edge of Seventeen.” Then Phillip finishes things with “Don’t Stop.” That’s such a happy song and Phillip looks really happy on stage. It’s just a shame that even when he’s dorking it up like a Disney World cast member he sounds like he’s going to rip your head off. To their credit, this trio harmonized pretty decently

4. Heejun Han – “A Song For You” (Donny Hathaway) Just as predicted, Heejun goes back to the boring ballads after ending up in the bottom three for doing something clever and fun. At least he’s singing pretty well on this song. Seriously he’s showing the most vocal range since the audition rounds. The tune still sounds plodding and stale, but at least in those confines Heejun executes really damn well. Piss on Tyler and Iovine for boxing the comedian in and trying to obliterate his personality.

5. Hollie Cavanagh – “Jesus Take The Wheel” (Carrie Underwood) Zzzzzz…. Didn’t Lauren Alaina do this last season? This song feels so overdone that even if Hollie exuded genuine emotion and elicited super pathos (which she didn’t), I wouldn’t be able to connect with the material. Just like the rest of her performances, Hollie blasts out a lot of the big notes and does some cool vocal swan dives, but it feels so calculated. Even if she sounds better than other contestants, she won’t place as high because her performance wasn’t as fun. Also, it looks like the producers got rid of the Tim Riggins-lookalike fiddle player and replaced him with some nondescript guy in ill-fitting business casual.

6. DeAndre Brackensick – “Sometimes I Cry” (Eric Benet) DeAndre gets off to a great start by showing off some good contour in his range. Then 20 seconds in he stalls out in falsetto land and I lose patience with his overreliance on the tip top of his range. If he actually tried to sing a little tenor, he could have had a chance of placing with me, as it’s not like he has heavy competition tonight. Instead he comes across more like some semi-chipmunk novelty act.

7. Jessica Sanchez – “Sweet Dreams” (Beyonce) I should be a little upset with Jessica for forcing an uptempo song to be yet another damn slow song in this groaner of an episode, but she deserves points for actually making changes to a piece of music and making it more her own. She showed considerable restraint in her delivery, even as she was chewing the scenery and gliding across the stage. When she went for the colossal notes, this time it felt heartfelt, genuine, and just a little melancholy. It was pretty cool. Welcome back to the forces of good, Jess.

8. Trio: DeAndre, Heejun, and Josh – For this Michael Jackson medley, the three high-voiced guys do a lot more trading off of parts than the last group. As a result, it feels more like a true group performance. They also harmonize really well. The medley starts out with a whimper with “The Lady In My Life,” the lone bad song on Thriller but quickly dispenses with it for “Rock With You” and “P.Y.T.,” which both kick ass. We also see that DeAndre can pop, Josh can moonwalk, and Heejun either can’t or won’t keep up with the choreography. Dammit, Heejun this is the one time where falling in line is a good thing! Otherwise, decent performance!

9. Phillip Phillips – “Still Rainin’” (Jonny Lang) I give Phillip props for sticking to his strengths and going with a blues-rock artist from the past twenty years who makes him sound really authentic. Phillip’s blues rock schtick can get annoying, but here’s a situation where it makes sense. The arrangement really compliments Phillip’s growly belting and his pained wails at the end (the vein was popping out of his head) had me convinced that he was really trying. He demonstrated a good sense of build and he nailed most of his notes. What a pleasant surprise!

10. Josh Ledet – “Without You” (Mariah Carey) First, points for Josh for choosing someone of the opposite gender as his personal idol. Otherwise his performance felt a lot like Hollie’s. Don’t get me wrong, Josh sang circles around Hollie, but in the end I felt like this was more of a vocal show-off session than anything with an emotional connection (or, you know, a song.) This felt cold, calculated, and pageanty. It’s a pity because Josh is so freaking talented!

11. Trio: Hollie, Skylar, and Jessica – OK, Hollie needs to do more upbeat dance pop, since she is killing it on this medley of early Madonna music. Jessica dominates “Like A Prayer” with her laser-beam singing and tough stage presence as everyone expected her to (with the white jacket and pants to boot), but when the music switched to “Borderline,” Hollie belted with near perfect pitch, showed just the right amount of attitude, and most importantly connected with the audience. She looked happy to be up there and she wanted the audience to feel just as happy. Poor Skylar was a fish out of water and could barely keep up with her competitors. She looked like she wanted to rush through the song and sink into the background. This just wasn’t her thing.

12. Elise Testone – “Whole Lotta Love” (Led Zeppelin) Just like Josh, Elise deserves credit for picking an inspiration of opposite gender. And that’s where the comparison stops. Elise brought some much needed ROCK to the proceedings. She had the Robert Plant blues wail, vocal power chords, and manic stage presence. And that on-key screech at the end….fuck. Elise was unyielding! With her blonde locks, bell bottom pants, and slinky stage moves, she even looked like Plant did back in the 70s. Like the song says, Elise just took her competition to school. I was rooting against her early on in the season, but every week she has shown improvement and a willingness to attack the gaps in the song choices to stand out. Worst to first!

And what would I have sung? This is a tough one, as most music figures I consistently admire end up on the producer side of the studio and don’t sing much: Fatboy Slim, Mark Ronson, Freemasons, etc. To be a personal idol one should be cool as a person and make good music to boot. That’s why I have to go with something by Pharrell Williams. Since the early 2000s I have admired Pharrell’s catchy production catalog, willingness to blend music genres, personal style (though I would never attempt it), and ability to be simultaneously popular and dorky. We’re getting into the tough middle third of the show so for song choice I’ll go with something familiar, cool, and bouncy – his Grammy-nominated Jay-Z collaboration “Frontin’.” My falsetto isn’t nearly as convincing or sustainable as Pharrell’s, so for my arrangement I’d keep the Neptunes drum track but lower the key to something more like the Jamie Cullum cover. To keep things exciting I would drop in some of the Jay-Z verse on the bridge before one more chorus.

My Top 3 Performers
1. Elise Testone
2. Phillip Phillips (Commencing heart attack in 3…2…1….)
3. Jessica Sanchez

My Bottom 3 Performers
1. Colton Dixon
2. DeAndre Brackensick
3. Heejun Han

This episode was alternately hard to watch and awesome to watch. On one hand there were too many slow songs. I like to get into the music and for me that’s easier with uptempo goodness. Half of the contestants seemed to focus on technical execution rather than having fun or giving the audience pause. Luckily there was that other half. Big ups to Elise, Phillip, Jessica, and Skylar (who was barely edged out for the top three) for making the night fun.

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