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Thoughts On American Idol: Top 7 Again

April 18, 2012

Image edited from original by Encore Entertainment via Flickr, used under Creative Commons

Theme: To pad the show out, contestants perform two songs – one #1 hit from the Billboard charts from the past 12 years, and one retro song inspired by Soul Train.

Mentor: Jimmy Iovine all by himself, though with all these songs his screen time is thankfully limited.

Here are the Top 7 performers in order of appearance on the show

1. Hollie Cavanagh – “Rolling In The Deep” Heh heh heh whoever picked this song needs a creativity transfusion. Or a self-awareness graft. OK reality show contestants can we agree to no more Adele covers until 2013? Sigh. Now is Hollie at least trying to a different mix? Other than an acapella intro, Hollie’s performance is pretty note for note. As well as she executed, I’ll say the same thing that I said about her that I said about poor little Eben Franckewitz: she’s singing about emotions she’s likely too young to have felt. This is just slightly better than her pageanty tripe. Way to start the night!

2. Colton Dixon – “Bad Romance” I’m not sure that I’m ever going to get over the tone of Colton’s singing. It’s so abrasive and whiny, unless he’s singing low and fades into the mix. Nonetheless this performance was ok. It was all rocked up and Colton was wailing like Matt Bellamy doing “Uprising.” He also gets props for playing with the order of the song section to make it more like a well-executed highlight reel. Also, he finally did some uptempo material!

3. Elise Testone – “No One” Elise deserves a little praise for taking a risk and going outside her blues/rock hot zone. However, this performance felt repetitive, plodding and anemic (though that’s somewhat because I’m not a fan of the original song.) Elise’s singing was at maybe 66% effectiveness as well – every third note felt like a flub. I will complement her for her emotional commitment – based on her body language she seemed fully invested in the performance.

4. Phillip Phillips – “U Got It Bad” This is one of my guilty pleasure slow jams. All Phillip changed with the song was its instrumentation, but otherwise it was a pretty faithful performance. Phillip’s growly singing style really conveyed the earnest lyrics and heartfelt tone in the Usher original. His singing was occasionally strained, but it wasn’t a big distraction. He looked like he was really getting into it emotionally as well. Props for including the cheesy sax again too.

5. Jessica Sanchez – “Fallin’” Another Alicia Keys song? Yeesh. To her credit, this is totally Jessica’s bag and she does this tune pretty well. She kept her vocal runs well spaced and varied in execution. Her stage presence and emoting were dynamite, and that super low vibrato about 2/3rds in rocked pretty hard. It’s what took her above a mere copy of the original, which is what I dinged Hollie on. Only jeers were for the dirge of a song choice.

6. Skylar Laine – “Born This Way (Country Road Version)” This was a pretty good fit for Skylar. I wish she went beyond the first verse and the bridge, though. When Gaga sings “If I wanna make it country it’s ok,” she is taking a legitimate risk and is “born to be brave,” since she’s otherwise a dance artist. When Skylar sings it, she’s playing it safe. If she wanted to really embody the spirit of the song (unlike the billion other times it’s been played on this show on group medleys,) she would have sung some of the song’s other verses or chorus parts. Then again, that would be against Idol’s rah rah spirit and would result in a near instant boot, which is a shame. Still, Skylar executes like a pro and delivers a fun performance.

7. Josh Ledet – “I Believe” Josh’s singing on this song was some of the technically best of the night. He also stuck to singing the song, using a few select vocal runs at the show-off points. That shows maturity as a performer. Otherwise the performance felt kind of rote and depressing. It was a stock motivational poster of a song. For me it wasn’t emotionally engaging or fun or listen to. Zzzzzz….

8. Hollie Cavanagh – “Son of A Preacher Man” I think Hollie stepped up her game for this performance. She had some great runs in the song and she seemed a lot looser onstage. It felt more genuine as a consequence. I think she tends to come off better when she can find moments both to belt and to dance awkwardly. It makes her seem like a regular person with a good voice.

9. Colton Dixon – “September” This sounds like a Fray rip off – sleepy, flat, and blandly faux-emotional. It would be perfect for Grey’s Anatomy or Private Practice or Combat Hospital or any of those shows. There weren’t even any neat vocal runs to break up the bleating. This was even more boring than Josh’s “I Believe” performance. Thumbs down for taking a dance classic and turning into a mushy piece of junk.

10. Elise Testone – “Let’s Get It On” OK this was a super step up for Elise. Just like Phillip on “U Got It Bad,” Elise struck a fine balance between committing to the song and not taking herself too seriously. After all, to me a song like this is soft, sexy, and just a little silly. She also whipped out more of those screams that she used to rock out on “Whole Lotta Love,” a few weeks back and it still all fit together. This was one of her best performances in awhile!

11. Phillip Phillips – “In The Midnight Hour” This feels like the first time I’ve seen Phillip do upbeat material sincerely sans guitar and actually do ok without sounding angry or retreating into his shell like some kind of Teenage Mutant Singing Turtle. Vocally this was more of a step back to me. I’m not sure he could have done much on top of the big instrumentation, so when he did go into his runs, he was mushy to the point of falling apart.

12. Jessica Sanchez – “Try A Little Tenderness” Jessica found a new way to surprise me with her vocal arsenal. For about 80% of the song, she sang pretty decently and had a few solid holds with the occasional bout of mush mouth. She danced around a bit and had some fun with the piece. It was solid. Then she got into the part that seemed to be lower than her range, dropped her voice an octave, and answered the question “What if Ja Rule performed on Soul Train?” The kicker is she still managed to hit the notes. It was kind of weird but the more I think about it the more I liked this performance.

13. Skylar Laine – “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” Skylar shows off her music history knowledge by kicking out a performance based not on Marvin Gaye’s version or CCR’s version, but Gladys Knight’s. Listen to Skylar’s phrasing – it sounds a lot like Knight’s. The song’s core had a good oomph that let Skylar add some country-fried instrumentation and mad hot belting. At times she sounded messy, I’ll concede, but I thought she executed really well while managing to be stylistically consistent.

14. Josh Ledet – “A Change Is Gonna Come” Unlike his performance in the first half of the show, Josh came off much better in this song. He carried himself a lot better and let loose with the emotional moments (vocally and physically) for the big middle and end. The song itself felt more genuine as well, so it doesn’t feel like Josh is wasting his talent. The emoting was grounded earned. This style is fairly predictable for Josh and for most singers would come off as mere audition fodder or inspiration bait, but somehow I felt ok with this performance.

And what would I have sung? For the “#1 Billboard Song” challenge, I’ll go with “Cry For You” by September, which hit #1 on the Billboard dance charts around 2006. It’s both catchy in its production and cathartic in the built-in belting, so I could really emote with this one. If the band lowers the key to my range I just might be able to knock it out. I will also continue my practice of dancing around the stage like a dork.
For the retro soul challenge, I’ll keep things uptempo with the Dazz Band classic “Let It Whip.” The bassline alone is super-fun and it’s not too vocally demanding otherwise, though I might try for some falsetto moments on the bridge.

Performance Rankings
1. Elise Testone
2. Phillip Phillips
3. Skylar Laine
4. Jessica Sanchez
5. Hollie Cavanagh
6. Josh Ledet
7. Colton Dixon

This ranking was difficult to do. I thought Skylar and Jessica were consistently better performers, but they didn’t have the “Wow!” moments that Elise and Phillip did, and I watch this show for the individual performance moments. This is why past performance doesn’t have any bearing on my rankings every episode. For a similar reason, I ranked Josh and Colton, the contestants with the two individually worst performances, at the bottom of my list. Overall I feel like the second half performances were better overall, but a show like this tends to be more comfortable with the retro material. See you for the results show!

Finally, rest in peace, Dick Clark. His programming and music taste helped form the pop music landscape of the past few decades. His American Bandstand show laid the groundwork for modern music competition shows like American IdolThe Voice, and more. As I said on Twitter, he was pop culture’s master of ceremonies. He will be missed.

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