Welcome to the halfway point of American Idol season twelve. Before the final rounds began, I shared my thoughts on the Top 10 finalists. So how is the show faring five weeks later and where does it go from here? To deliver the State of the Idol Union Address, I’ve enlisted the help of my trusty Idol partner-in-crime, Jonathan Yu, with whom I also discussed Idol last year at this time. For this season, we went and ventured deeper into the wild world of Idol, so sit back, open up a Coca-Cola, and enjoy our take on this season thus far!
Jonathan Amores: Here we are at the Top 5 finalists: Amber Holcomb, Angie Miller, Candice Glover, Janelle Arthur, and Kree Harrison. Each one of these females are richly more talented than their male counterparts (though one could argue in Burnell Taylor’s favor). Goodbye, guys! And good riddance! That the women would prevail over the men is an inescapable, yet thankful, outcome. But while last year’s inevitable march to Phillip Phillip’s victory was a painfully forgone conclusion, this season, we’ve just been patiently and eagerly waiting for this cream to rise to the top. Now the season can begin in earnest. Watching these five females duke it out in the remaining weeks will be a thrilling thing to behold.
Jonathan Yu: My feelings for this season are a mixed bag right now. The positives: I don’t think I’ve ever see a more generally agreeable order of elimination, minus He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, who has at last wore out his welcome. The Top 5 girls are all talented, and more diverse than the diva-fest that was season three Top 4. We are guaranteed a relief from our female Idol drought at this point [queue collective sigh of relief]. This, however, came at the expense of excitement and unpredictability. Every results show this season has been extremely expected, which is good for my American Idol pools, but bad for television. I want the girls to do well because they are talented, not because the producers wanted them there. The heavy manipulation cheapens what is otherwise a fantastic outcome so far.
Jonathan Amores: It doesn’t cheapen the talents of these ladies, though. No amount of producer manipulation could deny us the pleasure of watching these five vocalists shine over the course of the next couple weeks. Well, except for more uninspired and retread theme weeks, like Music From Before Your Grandparents Were Born, and those duets and trio performances. Those songs are nothing more than excruciatingly and embarrassingly lame time-fillers. Let’s just trim the fat and get right down to the solos! It was an amusing experiment when they were first introduced with Allison Iraheta and Adam Lambert’s “Slow Ride” in season eight, but they’ve been diminishing returns ever since.
And speaking of time-wasters, what was up with Mariah Carey’s filibustering last week? Did she really need to take 12 minutes to tell LazaNO that he didn’t change keys when the band did? Following Mariah’s endless word vomit, Nicki Minaj was fortunately good-humored enough to give a highlight of the night, simply stating: “Let’s just say I already gave my comment.” It’s cutting barbs like these that make Nicki Minaj a huge asset to the judging panel, which I went into in-depth here. As for the men of the panel, Keith Urban and his accent continue to endear, and Randy Jackson actually delivers an insightful critique now and again. He’s still The Dawg though, so unfortunately, his rare nuggets of logic are sandwiched between a “HAHAHAHA” and a “WHAT??!!!” Ugh.
Jonathan Yu: I think you pretty much hit each judgey nail on their respective heads. There is no doubt that Mariah is the judge that needs the most work. It’s frustrating because sometimes you can tell she has relevant critiques that are drowned out in a sea of platitudes, politeness, and general lack of GETTING THE F*CK ON WITH IT. She does best when she sticks to pointers and tips about the musical or vocal side of things. Save the talk of generous spirit or inspiring story for someone else. Randy, on the hand, has had one-one seasons to improve, and has only just now started to learn to actually say coherent things. An improvement, I suppose. Nicki, like you said, is a breath of fresh air. I was reading Rolling Stones today, and they brought up a good point, which is that Nicki, unlike any other judge who has ever been on the panel, watched Idol before she was famous. This really shows in her insightful critiques, but sometimes also shows in her crazy obsession with certain contestants (e.g. Curtis Finch Jr.). Keith is a very fine judge, but tends to get drowned out by the bigger personalities on the panel.
JA: Ok, enough about the judges. They have more than enough screen time as it is. What have been your favorite performances of the season thus far?
Kree Harrison – “Up To The Mountain”
Like the great renditions of the song on Idol before, this one sent shivers up my spine.
Burnell Taylor – “Ready For Love”
Not a competition performance, but I think this showcases Burnell as the only guy who even held a candle to the girls. As is the case with Amber, I can’t help but get goosebumps when I hear Burnell’s voice.
JA: We have pretty similar tastes this year. And somewhat unsurprisingly, we both chose pre-Finals performances. For me, my favorites have been:
Amber Holcomb – “I Believe in You and Me”
I’ll admit that I didn’t quite get on the Amber train until Top 10 Girls, but once I hopped aboard, I instantly fell in love with these breathtakingly gorgeous vocals, alternately delicate and powerhouse.
Burnell Taylor – “Ready for Love”
I agree with you 100% on this one. This performance is Burnell in a nutshell. Warm. Velvety. Quirky. Masterful.
Angie Miller – “You Set Me Free” (Hollywood Week Solo)
Now THIS is Angie I picked to win this whole dang thing. Her beautiful passion overfloweth in this self-penned song. You see that winning spark in her eyes. That hunger. Can’t you just picture the finale confetti rain down on her as she sings this original song?
[Jonathan Yu hadn’t seen this performance before. At this point, he watches Angie’s Hollywood Week breakout solo for the first time.]
JY: Oh wow, that was really, really good. She definitely has not sounded that good since. Angie was so committed here. When she sings now, the passion doesn’t come across as naturally to me, but here, wow. That fire.
JA: Now you can see why I, and the rest of America, was so pro-Angie in those early rounds, huh? But for me, despite this “moment” (Sorry for that Randyism), there really wasn’t a clear front-runner leading the pack of finalists as we entered the Top 10. How do you feel about the contestants now, going into the second half?
JY: Let’s start with the ladies at the bottom of the pack. Janelle is, in my opinion, the underdog in the competition at this point. Although she’s only been in the bottom once so far, that’s once more than three of the other girls (we’ll get to Ms. Holcomb shortly). While it’s not fair to compare Kree and Janelle directly, as they represent different sides of the country coin, the fact that judges keep doing so has created this Kree vs. Janelle “rivalry” that Janelle simply has no chance of winning. With the majority of her performances falling somewhere between serviceable and no-thanks, she is not long for this competition.
Amber, on the other hand, is possibly suffering in a similar way with Candice taking away diva votes, even if the judges have not pit them against each other explicitly. Her penchant for singing only boring ballads, albeit beautifully, also do not help her. The difference between her and Janelle is that the judges seem to love her (full disclosure: as do I).
JA: I agree that Amber and Janelle are at the bottom of the diva totem pole. In examining Amber, it seems that every season, there are extremely talented contestants that simply don’t quite connect with the voting public (Hello, Haley Reinhart and Allison Iraheta!). You once compared Amber to a young LaToya London from season three (one of my all-time favorite contestants). What an apt comparison. Both women feature even-tempered personalities that don’t quite entertain as well as their soaring vocals do.
Mentor Jimmy Iovene remarked that he doesn’t get why America hasn’t warmed up to Amber yet. I don’t get it either, although her penchant for eating frozen shrimp out of the bag doesn’t help her case in the least. And neither do her choices to perform ballad after ballad after ballad. I want Amber to push herself musically and I’m still waiting for her to blast off on her Idol journey. I want to witness an arc that blossoms her from underdog to knockout, but so far, she’s merely plateaued. Encouragingly, she exhibited a game fierceness in “Love On Top,” and while it wasn’t quite Beyoncé-level in execution, her up-tempo choice was just what she needed at this point in the competition.
JY: Thank you for mentioning LaToya London, because I have been unable to shake the shades of LaToya I see in all of Amber’s performances. It’s an apt comparison, too, because unless she can step up her song-choosing game in the next few weeks, she’s going to get a LaToya-style fourth-place finish, and it won’t even be a shocker. However, “Love On Top” from last week has rekindled my faith that she has more tricks up her sleeve for the coming weeks. Go forth, my favorite dark horse.
JA: As for Janelle, she needs to distinguish herself further than just “that blonde country gal.” On a scale of Kristy Lee Cook to Carrie Underwood, Janelle is an overheated Lauren Alaina. Her vocals aren’t as strong as her female counterparts, but her haunting reinvention of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” was a highlight of Music of Detroit week. It was clear to me only then why the judges continued to support her. Janelle needs to continue on this trajectory of personalizing her song choices. However, she backpedaled a bit last week, churning out two safe and inoffensive songs. In order to stay alive in the upcoming weeks, she can’t merely be a presence on the show. She needs to own that presence.
JY: This leaves the three front-runners: Candice, Kree, and Angie, who are, perhaps not coincidentally, the top three vote-getters the Top 10 week. If I have to pick a third place out of the trio, I would have to go with Angie, who’s been on a sort of Jasmine Trias trajectory since Hollywood Week. The judges clearly love her (full disclosure: I do not), but there’s no denying that she has not lived up to the hype placed on her since the beginning of the season. She got back to her female Colton Dixon roots this past week with “Love Came Down,” but it may not be enough at this point, as indicated by the results last week where she was 3rd (or 4th, but let’s be real, Janelle did not get more votes than her), behind Candice and Kree. There is simply a lack of self-awareness that is stopping her from being her best. At her worst, she comes off as the winner of your local high school singing (and Miley Cyrus look-alike) competition, which Idol material does not make.
JA: If this were high school, Angie Miller would win the pop poll for Most Disappointing. In my pre-Finals analysis, she was my pick to win it all, because of, and perhaps in spite of, all the hype. She appeared to be the total package. In my Top 10 breakdown, I likened her to one’s “pretty younger sister,” but with each passing week, it becomes more apparent that she really is just that high school drama club girl: all teeth and no grit. Sing out, Angie! She makes performing look too easy, too smooth. Thankfully, she has the judges in her corner, who give her the most constructive critiques of all the women. The most pointed and honest critique of the season thus far came from Nicki who went on a tirade last week, telling Angie that impassioned ballads at the piano are her only shot at winning, as those emotional performances showcase her “doing something them other girls can’t do.” #truth
So this leaves us with Kree and Candice as our top two. And rightfully so. There’s no denying the vocal prowess of these female titans. Kree gave a stunning a cappella opener to “What The World Needs Now Is Love” last week that kept me glued to my television set (both of us actually, as you and I watched the Top 6 together). But there’s something about her that I can’t quite connect with. For me, for her, something’s missing from Kree’s performances. A raw sense of urgency. An electricity. A… something. In my head, I keep wanting to compare her to season seven’s rock diva Carly Smithson, who brought an immediacy and tenacity every week. But am I wanting something from Kree that just isn’t there? Should I just accept that flawless and effortless vocals are all we’re going to get from this country crooner? I appreciate her level of talent and vocal maturity, but I’m just not jumping up and down for her (Oh God, am I turning into Randy?!).
JY: I understand the comparison between Kree and Carly (The dark hair! The vocals! The similar face shape!), but I actually think they are quite different. The difference, I think, is that Carly had let the judges’ comments get to her head, and ended up trying a little too desperately to please them, losing herself in the process. Kree, on the other hand, has always remained herself through it all. It’s no surprise that the judges repeatedly comment on how every song she sings is “always Kree”. What I appreciate about her is her sense of self-awareness. Every song she has chosen has been smart and right up her alley (minus the duets, but let’s just forget those exist). I can see why people could think she isn’t connecting with the audience, but for me, I have always felt that she is incredibly connected beneath her somewhat icy delivery, and I love the understated way she delivers her performances. That said, I would love to see her let loose to a groovy uptempo sometime, just to switch things up.
JA: I’d love to see that too. We saw some glimpses uptempo realness with her rock-tinged victory song, “Evidence,” so perhaps Kree will surprise us in the remaining weeks. She’ll have plenty of chances to do so. As far as surprises go, to me, Candice is both the least surprising and most surprising contestant of all the Top 10. I’m not at all surprised by her vocal murderation of every song she tackles. Why she didn’t make it past the Vegas rounds last year is the second biggest head-scratcher of season eleven (Just behind: Really, Colton? You’re wearing that?). However, I’m most surprised that of all the contestants, she’s given the freshest interpretations and most reinvention to all her songs. Candice gets what it takes to win this competition and the judges are finally getting Candice. She knows who she is as an artist and fills a void in today’s musical landscape: a retro-soul diva à la Adele. Candice makes a fifty-whatever year old song like “Don’t Make Me Over” sound R&B radio-ready today.
JY: I think you bring up a good point. I fully expected Candice to be the “typical” diva contestant a la Vonzell Solomon or Lakisha Jones. It’s been a pleasant surprise to hear her put her fresh touches on classics such as “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” On the flip side, it’s disappointing that the contestants I expected to rework songs have not done so with as much frequency. After the tour de force that was “Lovesong (ft. Exorcist Demon)” [Go to 1:10 in the video below to hear for yourself], the crown is hers to lose at this point. A criticism I have is that I don’t find her to be connecting to her songs as much as she should. It’s like I should be more excited about her, but I am simply not as fired up. This past week’s performances were outstanding because I feel like for the first time, I felt her wanting to win. If she keeps this up, she will be untouchable.
JA: You took the words right out of my virtual mouth. When Candice performs, I’m fully aware she’s performing. But I don’t just want to watch someone slay a song, I want to feel them do it. I want to dive those emotional depths with Candice, not observe her vocal gymnastics from behind a glass wall. Like you, it wasn’t until last week that I became lost in her translations (until that demon pulled me back out). I’m eagerly anticipating where Candice goes from here.
But in the end, there can only be one victor. Who do you think will be the first female American Idol winner since Jordin Sparks?
JY: I had picked Kree to win the whole competition at the beginning of Top 20, and I still think she will be in the finale. Last week was a major turning point for the competition. Candice knocked one out of the park at exactly the right time. Her string of impressive showstoppers early on, combined with last week’s aptly-timed performance of “Lovesong” that even my Facebook friends who don’t watch Idol were sharing, I think I have to call an edge for Candice at this point.
JA: “Lovesong” was certainly the Exorcism Heard ‘Round the World. Everyone took note as Candice took names. This sweeping fan momentum can only push her closer and closer to that sash and tiara. It’s her competition to lose. Again, I’ll admit that I chose Angie Miller to win at the Top 10, and while I’d love to win my Idol pool, I think Angie has veered too off-course to win. While no one should underestimate America’s love for the underdog, at this point, I think we’re headed for a Candice-Kree finale.
This is your now, ladies.