Last year’s Season of the Girl turned out to be a bust, so with the new American Idol producer comes a new mandate: Bring on the WGWGs (White Guys With Guitars)! But even when nearly a third of the finalists are white guys strumming the ‘ol guitar, there’s still room for a solid line-up of diverse talent. From the powerhouse to the coffeehouse, this season covers many musical bases. I’m most thankful that we’ve steered away from the “precocious teen” route of seasons past. While the youngest contestant, Malaya Watson, is only 16, her goofball charm offsets any pageant show inanity.
We’ve yet to witness a real knock-out performance from this bunch, but I concede that to faulty episode structuring rather than to insufficient talent. During the newly-instated Rush Week, only 10 guys and 10 girls out of the Top 15 were chosen to compete. So for the entirety of the episode, contestants anxiously waited for their name to be called, then had to perform immediately after hearing their name. These extremely stressful conditions and wild mood swings, not to mention a frenzied run up to the stage, didn’t always yield the best results.
Most importantly, judges Harry Connick, Jr., Jennifer Lopez, and Keith Urban (with the help of new producer Per Blankens, and, yes, America, too) assembled a solid, if not yet spectacular, crop of finalists. Thankfully, the refreshingly helpful and meaty critiques have continued from all three judges during the live shows. Contestants, you better be listening. You can skip over the advice from “mentor” Randy Jackson, though.
Let’s get on with it! Here is my ranking of the Season 13’s Top 13, from my most favorite contestant to my least favorite. Click on the singer’s name to watch their Rush Week performance.
Majesty Rose: Radiant. Majesty Rose is simply radiant. Sunshine beams through every guitar chord she plays, every wide-eyed glance she gives, and every breezy note she sings. Majesty is a commanding charmer who owns the stage with a winsome presence. Vulture’s Dave Holmes described Majesty Rose as a “a little like a funkier Corinne Bailey Rae” and nothing could be further from the truth. But don’t underestimate her charms; she still possesses powerful vocal chops.
Sam Woolf: Cue the confetti cannons, this WGWG is your next American Idol. I called it the moment he walked into the audition room, as I did with Season 11’s Phillip Phillips. His inherent earnestness will easily propel him to the top. I originally had Sam a few pegs lower on this list, but then I simply listened to his voice. This kid’s perfectly-pitched tone is as clear as a bell and just makes for really enjoyable radio-ready listening. So since we’ll spend the remaining three months with Sam Woolf, here’s hoping that he’ll push his musical creativity to the limits. What made Lee DeWyze, Scotty McCreery, and Phillip Phillips underwhelming victors was their insistence on staying in the same musical lanes. Sam was just accepted into the Berklee College of Music, so that bodes well for his musicality on Idol.
Malaya Watson: Malaya seems to thrive on being on the edge. She appears to be a confident mess of contradictions all at once, with a threat of energy that could derail a song at any moment, but that’s what makes her all the more endearing. In Tagalog, “malaya” means freedom, and that is exactly what Malaya is about. The hair. The glasses. The braces. The wild abandon. It all works. The question now is: For just how long will it all work? Will she ever crash and burn? As long as she doesn’t let her unbridled enthusiasm get the best of her, Malaya could really surprise us. Control will be the key to her success.
Jena Irene: While her rendition of “Paint It Black” was a disconnected misstep, Jena’s Wildcard original song, “Unbreakable Me,” was the best performance of the week. When she can tap into the right emotional resonance and knows what she’s singing about, she delivers a stark and believable rawness that sets her apart. Showcasing her deft songwriting ability has done wonders for her, as opposed to say, fellow Wildcard contestant Spencer Lloyd’s vapidly shallow original song. The display of her piano skills also supports her large-ranged vocal artistry rather than acts as a crutch.
Ben Briley: Ben impressed me the most during Rush Week. His powerful and invigorating performance turned my head and make me take note of a contestant that barely made a blip on my radar the week before. He’s got grit. He’s got soul. He’s got the claim to the first Idol guitar solo. He exudes such a cool confidence that lights up the stage that I can’t help but root for the guy. Plus, he’s got some fashion sense. Harry Connick, Jr. called him out on his tie: “That’s not a Half-Windsor. That’s not a Full-Windsor. That is Windsor Castle around your neck!” Love it.
MK Nobilette: Jennifer Lopez summed it up perfectly: MK is a “quiet storm.” What she lacks in vocal pyrotechnics, she makes up for in subtle emotional connectivity. No other contestant made as much of a sheer emotional impact as MK did. There’s a vulnerability and roughness in her delivery that makes her performances all the more human. On Idol, understated often get overlooked, so MK’s triumphs have been really refreshing and encouraging.
CJ Harris: CJ is the sentimentalist of the bunch. You just know that within him is a deep well of passion just waiting to overflow. But CJ is just so full of passion, that he pushes his vocals a little too hard. At this early in the game, his warmth and humility can make up for his sharp vocal tendencies, but if his pitch continues to be a problem, it’ll be harder to overlook. Don’t you just wanna give him a big hug, though?!
Emily Piriz: I loved the vulnerability Emily showed during her Hollywood Week performance. It was a breathtakingly gorgeous piano ballad that tapped into a strong sense of yearning. However, that yearning became a misguided mess during Rush Week. She told Randy Jackson, “I’m kind of playing more into the emotion, not more of the storyline.” As a result, her confident delivery was all surface, no purpose. To succeed in this competition, she’ll need to actually listen to the judges’ advice and bring an emotionally authenticity that befits her beautifully soaring vocals.
Alex Preston: Alex knows who he is as a musician. And as Idol would say, Alex knows who he is as an artist. The show hasn’t seen a contestant with as much musicianship as Season 10’s Casey Abrams. This calm, cool, collected vibe suits Alex well and it will be fun to watch him play with the songs each week and reinvent them in the singer-songwriter style he’s accustomed to. If anyone will push the musical envelope, it’ll be Alex.
Dexter Roberts: Dexter is the least distinguishable of the three country guys (advantage: Ben and CJ). He performs with a solid, relaxed assurance (well, he just stands there and plays guitar) and his resonant voice is the authentic real deal. But as Keith Urban cautioned, “There’s a thousand guys just like you fronting country bands in honky-tonks all over America right now and what you’ve got to do is figure out what makes you different from everybody else.” Well said, Keith. Well said. Good luck, Dexter.
Caleb Johnson: Caleb is one confident crooner. And his powerhouse performances are just that: performances. His 1970’s rocker vibe brings an unmatched energy to the stage this season. Only time will tell if he can use that tenacity to dig deep into something that rings true emotionally. At the moment, there’s nothing really there under his slickness and polish, but add a touch or two of grit and vulnerability and he could go far.
Jessica Meuse: There’s a wall between Jessica and the audience that she needs to tear down over the course of her Idol run. Jessica has a clear country tone and a decent musicality with her guitar playing, but there’s an emotional connectedness that’s preventing me from fully appreciating everything she’s doing. We’ve seen her dramatic side during Group round, but we’ve yet to really see her light up the stage with that same fervor. It’s in there, I’m sure. She said it herself, “Drama follows me everywhere.” So let’s see it, Jessica.
Kristen O’Connor: If I had my druthers, I would switch out Kristen O’Connor for Malcolm Allen. He has the charisma and charm that she just doesn’t. Let’s face it, Kristen is bland, bland, bland. She’s a paint-by-the-numbers singer who colors safely within the lines of what she pictures a pop diva is supposed to be. Sure, Kristen is pretty and sure, Kristen can sing, but she’s utterly and dreadfully forgettable. What were her Rush Week songs again? Yes, she performed more than once. Just think of her as this season’s Haley Scarnato. Who’s that, you ask? Think: #legs.
Sorry, did that memory get you down? Let’s have Majesty Rose bring us back up. Here’s her magnetic performance of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”: