Who Should Win American Idol 2018?

I called this season’s American Idol Top 14 the strongest field of competitors in years, just a month ago, but on the dawn of finale night, it seems I may have spoken too soon. This isn’t all the contestants’ fault, necessarily. This extremely truncated season robbed these singers the opportunity to develop into more mature artists, comfortable on the Idol stage. Over the years, we’ve been privileged to witness singers’ transformations, from aspiring auditioners, to bona fide stars. But now, growth arcs are gone, and we’ve barely gotten to know these kids.

We’re left with three (blonde, white) performers who still have so much room to improve. We have Caleb Lee Hutchinson, the blandest of bland country guys, Maddie Poppe, an acoustic singer-songwriter with cool musical taste, and country queen Gabby Barrett, whom Vulture’s Louis Virtel affectionately called “Very Underwood.”

My American Idol partner-in-crime, Jonathan Yu, has joined me to share who should win this 16th season of Idol and our favorite performance of the season.

Jonathan Amores on Who Should Win: Maddie Poppe

Maddie Poppe has such an excellent gift: She is able to uncover the soul of a song and imbue a performance with genuine emotion and moving vulnerability. She has delivered the most consistently delightful performances, leaning into her crystal-clear vocals and multi-instrumented abilities. It’s as if each week, she reveals a new song from her personal concert set-list full of eclectic song choices from Simon and Garfunkle’s “Homeward Bound” to Melanie’s “Brand New Key.”

Speaking of song choice, I think Maddie deserves the crown based on one night alone. Top 10 Night was Disney night and I was hoping that these contestants would pick bold, out-of-the-box songs, like “Ev’rybody Wants to Be a Cat” or “When She Loved Me.” Instead, we sat through expectedly banal performances of “The Circle of Life” and “Colors of the Wind.” Maddie, however, stood out with a ukulele-fied “Bare Necessities.” For that audacious song choice alone, Maddie Poppe should win American Idol.

I think that Gabby will actually win the season, and I wouldn’t be upset if that happened. She would be a worthy winner and I’m sure ABC would be thrilled with an Underwood-lite champion. Just as long as it’s not yet another White Guy With Guitar winner.

Jonathan Yu, On Who Should Win: Gabby Barrett

The odds are supposedly in her favor to become just the 6th woman to win American Idol in 16 seasons, and for good reason. This girl can SANG. She already commands the stage like a seasoned performer with incredible control over her voice. Her repertoire of audition songs maybe seem to overlap entirely with Carrie Underwood’s discography, but I actually think that the combination of nasal and grit in her voice is more effective on songs that lean more soulful – her rendition of “Ain’t No Way” by Aretha Franklin from Hollywood Week is probably my favorite bit of singing from the entire competition.

Here’s to hoping that she pulls out a showstopper performance this week, more in the veins of “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” than “I Hope You Dance.” To be honest, though, I will be almost just as happy if Maddie “Consistent” Poppe gets the crown. Just please, dear God, not Caleb.

Jonathan Amores, On His Favorite Performance: Michelle Sussett’s “Remember Me”

When recalling this season’s performances, a handful have stood out. In terms of pure vocals, I’d choose Jurnee’s gorgeous Showcase performance of “Never Enough.” For sheer joy and surprise, I’d choose Michael J. Woodard’s “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret. Instead, I chose a performance that embodies this new era of Disneyfied American Idol: Michelle Sussett’s “Remember Me,” the Oscar-winning song from Coco.

Michelle was far from the best vocalist, but she had the strongest stage presence. She knew how to work a room, electrify an audience, and perform. The judges continually urged Michelle to sing in both English and Spanish (Michelle is originally from Venezuela), and in this performance, she delivers in spades. There’s so much joy in this performance and she lights up the stage from the first note, sprinkling in just the right amount of theatrics. Michelle had a rough run on Idol, but she left the competition on a high note.

Jonathan Yu, On His Favorite Performance: Ada Vox’s “Feeling Good”

There were many performances that I considered picking for my favorite performance of the season – Jurnee’s “Never Enough,” Dennis Lorenzo’s “This Woman’s Work,” or Michael J. Woodard’s “Beauty and the Beast” come to mind, but in the end, I decided to pick Ada Vox’s “Feeling Good.” She may have peaked a bit early with this performance, but it will forever be one of the most important performances on Idol ever for me.

I thought I had seen it all with Idol, but a drag queen crushing her competition unapologetically in a semifinals round, bringing Katy Perry literally to her knees, still brought a tear to my eyes. The song fit her over-the-top vocals (that range!!) and persona (that braid!!) perfectly. Even if she never quite lived up to expectations the rest of the season, I am still thankful that Idol gave a platform for a performer such as her. ❤


Jonathan & Jonathan’s 13 Favorite Performances of American Idol Season 13

Cue the confetti canons: American Idol celebrates its landmark 500th episode tonight. Throughout these 500 episodes, we’ve experienced soaring highs and strident lows. As season 13 crowns its winner next week (please, oh please, be Jena Irene), my fellow faithful Idol viewer, Jonathan Yu, and I have come up with our 13 favorite performances of the season. We know you’re not watching anymore, so why not let me and my Idol partner-in-crime guide you through this year’s greatness.


IDOL Top 3: Caleb Johnson, Jena Irene, & Alex Preston

Jena Irene: “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley
Hands down, this is the performance of the season.

Jena is simply magic behind the piano. Pure and utter magic. Stripping the Elvis classic down to mere piano chords brought Jena’s passion to the forefront. She danced through the song with delicate intricacy, while the ache in her voice made her yearning all the more immediate. Striking. Haunting. Vulnerable. This is the performance that should crown Jena the winner of American Idol. Don’t let me down, America. – JA

Jena Irene: “Decode” by Paramore
Jena is, without a doubt, at her best behind the piano. While I have never been a huge fan of this Twilight-associated song, Jena totally annihilated it. My favorite parts of Jena’s voice are her dark undertones, and they were on full display here. It’s no wonder she names Hayley Williams of Paramore as a singer she’d like to collaborate withI can easily hear a duet version of “Decode” on the radio right now. – JY

Jena Irene: “My Body” by Young the Giant
I chose this performance based on Jena’s sheer joy alone. Sure, it wasn’t the most technically demanding vocal, but she infused “My Body” with such vibrant electricity that it was hard not to get swept up in it all. Jena owned that stage with her youthful energy and commanding presence. You see it in her physicality. You could feel it in the audience. She invited us to get caught up in the music with her and for two minutes, American Idol was truly a Jena Irene concert. – JA

Jena Irene/Caleb Johnson: “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones
While duets on Idol have been, for the most part, a hit or miss affair, when they hit, they really hit. Like Adam and Allison before them, Caleb and Jena just make sense together. On paper, the duet works; in practice, it WERKS. Jena effortless nails the Mary Clayton vocals, while Caleb holds his own as Mick. Not even the wacky sound mixing could detract from the chemistry between these two, who sounded like they’ve been singing together for years. – JY

Caleb Johnson: “Dazed and Confused” by Led Zeppelin
No one owns the stage like Caleb does. The stage is his playground. It’s where he comes alive. It’s where he demands our attention. He craves it. He fights for it. And he fights for it so effortlessly. Given a classic rock song, he exudes a cool confidence that can’t be shaken. His swagger matches his soaring high notes. It’s a pleasure to watch his rock persona take over. – JA

Caleb Johnson: “Maybe I’m Amazed” by Paul McCartney
Vocally, Caleb is always on point. This is typically a good thing, but given the wrong song choice, he can easily veer into “really good cover band” territory (see: “You Give Love a Bad Name”). With “Maybe I’m Amazed,” he really came alive, especially in the latter half when he let go and just dialed his wail-mode up to 11. Rocking, soulful, amazing. – JY

Alex Preston: “Say Something” by A Great Big World
This is Alex in his element: a nuanced, stripped-down performance. Sometimes he filters songs through his acoustic lens, like “Every Breath You Take,” while Alex delivers others straight-forward, like “Say Something.” Alex played with simple, yet effective, deviations from the melody, while tapped into the emotional root of the song. His earnestness resonated throughout the piece, performing a delicate balancing act with his silhouetted singing partner. Kudos to her for making Alex shine. – JA

Alex Preston: “Yellow” by Coldplay
I may be a bit biased by my immense love for this song, but this was one of the few times I felt an actual connection to Alex. Despite all the faces he makes in his performances, I always feel a general disinterest in his delivery. Not here. Props to Alex for following up Jena’s showstopper with what would have easily been a top performance contender on any other night. – JY

Jessica Meuse: “Human” by Christina Perri
I’ve struggled to connect with Jessica’s performances, no thanks in part to her vacant (read: dead behind the eyes) glare. This performance, however, broke open both her stoicism and my hostilities towards her. Unsurprisingly, it took a song from with the lyrics “I’m only human / And I bleed when I fall down” to beautifully expose her vulnerabilities. Jessica’s emotional plea built in such an effectively dramatic fashion that I found my arm up in the air alongside hers. While some of Jessica’s high notes may have erred on the sharp side, it was her emotional connectivity that won me over. – JA

Jessica Meuse: “You & I” by Lady Gaga
My issue with Jessica “Dead Eyed Lie” Meuse has always been her struggle connect with songs. Her performances, while never a train wreck, rarely amounted to showstoppers. In this case, her blend of country/rock really elevated “You & I” to another level. She hadn’t sounded this at home since her performance of “Blue Eyed Lie,” her own composition. The guitar, her newfound presence, the soulful rasp – it all came together for her here. – JY

Malaya Watson: “When I Was Your Man” by Bruno Mars
At every turn, Malaya threatened to go off the rails, with her big voice and even bigger personality. But unlike her frenetic rendition of “Runaway Baby,” this Bruno Mars song was grounded with heartfelt emotion. Her tone dripped with honey and pierced through the air like a rocket. Malaya delivered a performance that brought her raw, yet tightly controlled, sincerity front and center. – JA

Majesty Rose: “Happy” by Pharrell Williams
Majesty burst onto the Idol stage with a wide-eyed and radiant enthusiasm. Her fresh and funky take on Pharrell’s ubiquitous song opened up the season’s live performances with rays of sunshine pulsating through her every guitar strum. While Majesty’s nerves contributed to her early elimination, her magnetic charisma easily made this a memorable performance. I dare you to watch “Happy” and not smile. – JA

MK Nobilette: “All of Me” by John Legend
This performance solidified her as one of my early favorites when she sang it in the semifinals. On a night filled with disappointing first appearances, MK shone bright. It may also have helped that “All of Me” was not yet an overplayed Billboard #1 hit, but just on the rise enough for the choice to sound fresh. Combined that with MK’s earnest approach and unique sound and look, it made this one of the early standout performances. – JY

My Definitive Ranking of American Idol 13’s Top 13

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.

Idol_Majesty_YorkMajesty 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.

Idol_Sam_WoolfSam 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.

Idol_Malaya_WatsonMalaya 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.

Idol_Jena_IreneJena 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.

Idol_Ben_BrileyBen 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.

Idol_MK_NobilletteMK 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.

Idol_CJ_HarrisCJ 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?!

Idol_Emiliy_PirizEmily 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.

Idol_Alex_PrestonAlex 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.

Idol_Dexter_RobertsDexter 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.

Idol_Caleb_JohnsonCaleb 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.

Idol_Jessica_MeuseJessica 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.

Idol_Kristen_OConnorKristen 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”:

Jonathan & Jonathan’s State of the Idol Union Address

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.


Angie Miller, Candice Glover, Janelle Arthur, Kree Harrison, & Amber Holcomb

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?

JY: Amber Holcomb – “My Funny Valentine”
I had stank face the entire time she sang this. Her butter vocals are on full display here.


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.


Janelle Arthur performing “The Dance”

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.


Amber Holcomb performing “Love On Top”

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.


Angie Miller performing “Love Came Down”

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?!).


Kree Harrison performing “What The World Needs Now Is Love”

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.


Candice Glover performing “Lovesong”

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.