American Idol’s Top 13 Sing Whitney and Stevie

America’s premiere talent competition, American Idol, marks its 400th episode with the debut of the Top 13. This week, it’s Whitney Houston for the girls and Stevie Wonder for the boys. While I admire a tribute to the music of the late, great Whitney, I’m disappointed it’s not being saved for later in the season for fewer singers, wherein both sexes could tackle her music. Remember the musical inventiveness of David Cook’s take of Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby”? For the first time, the judges will determine who will go home, deciding between the guy and girl with the least amount of votes. Its bad enough Idol introduced the Judges’ Save. So let’s get this party started, shall we? Jimmy Iovine and Mary J. Blige are also here to mentor the contestants. Also here for the party? Randy Jackson’s bejeweled face pin. Anyway, let’s get into tonight’s performances.

Joshua Ledet – “I Wish”
Giving one of last week’s standout performers the dreaded opening spot serves to even out the playing field. “I Wish” is a lively and energetic opening to the show. This song doesn’t display Joshua’s vocal range, as much as it does his vibrant energy. The looseness is welcomed, but man, this bouncing is way distracting. “Flavorless–I mean, flawless,” says Randy. “Shut up,” says I. And just when I thought the nickname “Mantasia” was all but forgotten, Joshua invokes it on himself. Le sigh.

Elise Testone – “I’m Your Baby Tonight”
Oh boy. Poor Elise was pressure into changing her song mid-week by Jimmy. Godspeed, Elise. Obviously, this performance doesn’t feel as comfortable for her as last week’s did. Elise is reaching and straining for the high notes, but I quite enjoy the drowsy warmth of it all. Wait. Is Randy is giving a critique? What is going on here? The audience doesn’t boo him, so that doesn’t bode well for Elise’s chances tomorrow night.

Jermaine Jones – “Knocks Me Off My Feet”
Jermaine desperately needs to work on his stage presence. One minute he’s on the cautious prowl, the next he’s working a furrowed brow, then a goofy grin’s plastered all on his face. Jennifer Lopez asks him to relax and connect more with the song. And I agree. Jermaine’s snoozy singing by numbers just doesn’t add up to anything of substance.

Erika Van Pelt – “I Believe in You and Me”
There is maturity about Erika that is really refreshing and stands her out in this competition. She reminds me of an Idol-era Kelly Clarkson, down to that jaunty fedora. This performance is solid, but the low notes don’t seem to resonate well. Apparently, we haven’t been treated to all of her powerhouse vocals yet, but just when are we going to see them? OH, AND J.LO’s GOOSIES ARE BACK, Y’ALL!

American Idol's Top 13

Colton Dixon – “Lately”
Colton appears to have watched the tapes back from last week and saw how absolutely ridiculous he was rocking out on top of a piano. Dialed back and simply standing still, Colton is 250% more watchable than when he’s mooching off of James Durbin’s performance spectacles. Heck, even his skunk-do seemed to take it down a notch. The performance is shrill at times, but man, that final falsetto note was a strong ending.

Shannon Magrane – “I Have Nothing”
Shannon, your immaturity is showing. The growling is ineffective and the song is marred with flat notes. She is trying way too hard to impress, that it’s all sorts of Karaoke-level bad. When J.Lo’s critique starts out with “Baby…”, you know you’re in trouble. And not only that, she leads off Shannon’s critique with a “Sweet baby…” Expect to be in the bottom, Shannon. If she really wanted to stay in the competition, Shannon should have taken a page from the Kristy Lee Cook Handbook and sung the “The Star Spangled Banner” as performed by Whitney at the 1991 Super Bowl.

DeAndre Brackensick – “Master Blaster”
“The hair ain’t gonna be enough tonight,” says Jimmy Iovine. But will DeAndre still entertain with all the hair-flipping nonsense? Let’s see. “Master Blaster” is more successful than Naima Adedapo’s reggae-tinged “I’m Still Standing,” however this song isn’t showing off his vocal range, as much as it his talent at raspy scatting. I appreciate that it’s a side of him we haven’t seen before, ‘cuz his Maxwell side could get old fast.

Skylar Laine – “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?”
MARY J. BLIGE HAS GOOSEBUMPS, Y’ALL! While the actual performance doesn’t quite capture that vulnerability as in the rehearsal clip, Skylar does give off a warm Reba-styled vibe. I just love her and her natural country ease. With this performance, I loved seeing her frenetic energy bubble under the surface at the end. But that being said, I’d rather watch whirlwind spitfire Skylar than nuanced and poised Skylar.

Heejun Han – “All Is Fair”
“I didn’t expect Heejun to sound like he did.” I see what you did there, Mary. At this point, there really isn’t much more to say about Heejun that hasn’t been said before. There’s his comedic charm, his buttery tone, his muddled phrasing, his praise from the judges. So can we please move past that? Heejun isn’t going anywhere soon, so I’m looking forward to seeing what else he can bring to the table. Why not inject your sense of humor into your performances?

Hollie Cavanagh – “All the Man That I Need”
I still don’t quite get Hollie, the small girl with the big voice. I’m left cold by her talent. What she lacks in personality, she more than makes up for with soaring, controlled notes. So… there’s that.

Jeremy Rosado – “Ribbon in the Sky”
I’ll be honest, for the vast majority of Jeremy’s performance I wasn’t sure if he was singing in English or not. I could understand the phrase “ribbon in the sky,” but that’s about it. This is a really bland, forgettable performance. And can we stop with the cuts to those empathetic J.Lo faces? I simply hate them. Seriously, what does she see in him? At least there were no tears this week.

Jessica Sanchez – “I Will Always Love You”
What a huge risk in taking on Whitney’s iconic anthem. Jessica performs it effortlessly and fully deserves the standing ovation from the judges. She may have pressed a bit hard on the bigger notes, but I didn’t mind one bit. “Not only are you one of the best singers tonight – I think you’re one of the best singers in the whole competition!” exclaims Randy, Master of the Obvious and the Baffling. What’s the difference there?

Phillip Phillips – “Superstition”
So we’re giving Phillip the Pimp Spot? How many times this season will he perform in this slot? My guess is four. And really?! “Superstitious” is the most predictable song choice for Phillip and he performs it just as you’d imagine he would: as a Dave Matthews Band re-interpretation. While it’s overly shouty at times, I admire his commitment to his performance. I’ll give him that.

Overall, it was a strong night for the Top 13. We were treated to a captivating showstopper from Jessica and didn’t have to suffer through any real clunkers, save for Shannon and Jeremy. (Elise and Jermaine will also join them in the bottom.) The night wasn’t the trainwreck I feared it would be tackling such big songs as Whitney’s. And as a bonus, we got some actual constructive criticism from the judging panel tonight, mixed in with the typical effusive praise. Plus, Mary J. Blige was a fun, helpful mentor. Win win win! There’s a deep playing field here, which will make for an entertaining season. Here’s hoping a girl, crossing my fingers for either Jessica or Skylar, can upset Phillip Phillips’ eventual confetti-showered win.

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