This Is Our Now: Our 30 Favorite American Idol Performances

We’ve reached #IdolFinale week, and as I write this post, 50+ Idol alumni are rehearsing in Los Angeles for the finale on Thursday. Here’s a pretty millennial sentence for you: American Idol’s Snapchat is taking us backstage of the finale rehearsals, and thanks to alumni shout-outs from Season 2’s Kimberly Locke, to Season 6’s Melinda Doolittle, and more, I am instantly nostalgic about these past 15 years. Looking back at Idol’s tenure and re-watching old clips on YouTube, it’s dawned on me just how much this show has been a part of my life.

I’ll miss the sense of community Idol formed, from the engaged viewership voting week to week, to music and TV critics and bloggers, to the contestants themselves. What makes this show so special is that we, the viewers, have a sense of ownership of these contestants. We’ve supported and invested in their artistic growth. We journeyed along with them from their obscurity to stardom. We fell in love with their stories and for a brief moment of confetti, the American Dream felt real.

For myself and my Idol partner-in-crime, Jonathan Yu, we’ve lived and breathed Idol for half our lives. We’ve had lengthy Gchat debates after each episode. We’ve blogged and blogged and blogged about this show. We auditioned for Idol Season 10 together at AT&T Park. We’ve attended Idol tours and concerts. We participated in online Fantasy Leagues. I even won an iPod Nano in a Fantasy League once… which I traded in for cash to buy Idol concert tickets. Between the two of us, we’ve seen all the Idol winners perform live, excluding Ruben Studdard, Taylor Hicks, Phillip Phillips, and Nick Fradiani (sorry, boys!). So yes, we’re Idol geeks, and my heart belongs to this silly show.

So without further ado, here are our 30 favorite American Idol performances: 15 from me, 15 from the other Jonathan. You know, to celebrate Idol’s 15 seasons.

This isn’t a list of the 30 “Best” American Idol performances, mind you. These are the moments that have stayed with us all these years and will for years to come, until Idol is inevitably rebooted.

American Idol Fave Performances

JONATHAN AMORES’ 15 FAVORITE PERFORMANCES

1. Kris Allen: “Heartless” (Season 8)

Seasons 7 and 8 were peak Idol. The show didn’t just find a great group of singers those years, but it showcased a diverse range of memorable musicians who delivered surprises in different styles each week. For me, Idol reached the apex at Season 8’s Top 3 night. Kris Allen was going up against the brilliant risk-taker Adam Lambert and the perpetually frustrating Danny Gokey. The week before, Danny performed an abysmal “Dream On” and miraculously survived elimination. If he managed to outlast the sublime Allison Iraheta with that train-wreck, he would certainly derail Kris. No pressure, Kris…

“Heartless” was the right song at the right time. Not only was it a killer acoustic performance, it was a seismic shift that rocked Idol viewers. Kris’ a cappella intro into soared through the air and he began to accompany himself on guitar. A few more bars in, and you realize, “Oh damn, this entire song is acoustic.” Kris was making a statement. “Heartless” grew in intensity from there, creating a beautiful arc, rising up to some killer high notes. When the song ended, a smile registered on Kris’ face. He did it. The game changed. Kris made it into the finale. In fact, this was moment he won the entire season. Never underestimate the underdog.

2. Haley Reinhart: “Bennie and the Jets” (Season 10)

I had to impose a limit on this list: only one performance per contestant. If I didn’t self-impose, I’d have listed Haley Reinhart’s “I (Who Have Nothing),” “House of the Rising Sun,” “What Is and What Will Never Be,” AND “Bennie and the Jets.” To put it bluntly, Haley is a magical siren and we are #blessed to have her in our lives.

Here’s a little truth-bomb for you, I HATED Haley’s performances up until this point in the competition. I just couldn’t wrap my ears around her slinky growl or her jazz-influenced style. That all changed with “Bennie and the Jets.” It was like watching a beautiful rocket ship blast off to the moon. There was so much joy emanating from her being as she bit into every “Benniiiiiiie!” She owned the stage with every confident step and arm wave and everything just clicked. Haley had arrived and “Bennie and the Jets” instantly became my ringtone.

3. David Cook: “Billie Jean” (Season 7)

David Cook is the most influential American Idol winner, not through his post-Idol career, but in the way he approached his performances on the show. He made theme nights work for him, rather than molding his songs around the often stodgy themes. David flipped songs on their heads, maintaining and strengthening his artistic integrity, while staying true to the songs’ lyrical content. His bold approach to Idol performances paved the way for artists like Kris Allen and Adam Lambert the following season, all the way to Season 15’s MacKenzie Bourg.

The judges love to use the phrase “Making the song your own,” and with “Billie Jean,” David did just that. He took Michael Jackson’s R&B dance-pop classic and transformed it into a commanding and haunting ballad. He imbued every lyric with swagger and amplified it with his vocal prowess. Each of his renditions were a surprise. David Cook bent the competition to his strengths and inspired contestants for years to come.

4. Carrie Underwood: “Alone” (Season 4)

As a contestant on the show, Carrie Underwood’s Idol performances were underwhelming. She had all the charisma of a farm girl who had never stepped onto an airplane before the show. After seeing two of her arena tours, I can attest that she’d definitely grown into her confident persona. Her songs on Idol were well-sung, yet wholly unremarkable. Well, all performances except one.

When Carrie tackled Heart’s classic anthem, she instantly lit up the screen. Powerful vocals aside, “Alone” was all about three things: the hair, the smoky eye, and the power stance. After her electrifying performance, Simon Cowell made his prophetic critique: “Not only will you win this show, you will sell more records than any other previous Idol winner.” He was right and the rest was history.

5. LaToya London: “All By Myself” (Season 3)

LaToya London was the first singer on American Idol that I claimed as my own. I voted for her each week, as she delivered flawless performance after flawless performance. I became defensive on her behalf when she was criticized for not having a dynamic enough personality. I was utterly heartbroken at her elimination, falling just short of the finals in fourth place, behind the over-her-head Jasmine Trias. LaToya was the least flashy of the Three Divas (LaToya London, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia Barrino), and I loved her even more for that. She was my powerhouse singer.

LaToya broke onto the scene during the semi-finals with a jaw-dropping rendition “All By Myself.” Her astonishingly clear vocals, stunning grace, and profound emotional resonance aimed straight to my heart. Not to mention, she was from Oakland. Bay Area REPRESENT.

6. Jena Irene: “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (Season 13)

I can’t help falling in love with Jena Irene’s suave, stripped-down arrangement. The way she envelopes you with her voice while accompanying herself on the piano—it’s truly breathtaking. The Queen did the King proud.

7. Kelly Clarkson: “Natural Woman” (Season 1)

There’s a reason that Idol is the House That Clarkson Built. Her confidence and vocal prowess in “Natural Woman” are unmatched. And that whistle note. My God.

8. Allison Iraheta & Adam Lambert: “Slow Ride” (Season 8)

“Slow Ride” is the best duet that has ever been performed on American Idol. Granted, the bar was never very high, but this tag-team of two powerhouse rockers is pure perfection.

9. La’Porsha Renae: “Diamonds” (Season 15)

It’s such a thrill to watch La’Porsha Renae perform. Her runs and phrasing are insane and wonderfully unexpected, yet she is always in control of her powerful instrument.

10. Allison Iraheta: “Cry Baby” [Elimination] (Season 8)

Yes, picking this song is a cheat, but this performance is SO good it has to make my list. Allison fuels her send-off with the pain and heartbreak of her undeserved elimination. (GTFO Danny Gokey smirking!) Just look at the tears in her eyes. Allison just lets it go and leaves it ALL on the Idol stage.

11. Blake Lewis: “You Give Love a Bad Name” (Season 6)

Blake Lewis knocks it out of the park with his fresh, invigorating take on a Bon Jovi classic. His beatboxing tricks may come across as cheesy now, but they jolted life into the Season 6 finale.

12. David Archuleta: “Imagine” (Season 7)

Archie is just pure vocal honey. His voice is rich, creamy butter. He is all puppy metaphors wrapped up in a fuzzy blanket with a little red bow on top.

13. Avalon Young: “Yo (Excuse Me Miss)” (Season 15)

This performance just puts a smile on my face. Avalon Young is a refreshing breeze of flirty R&B swag. She exudes a coolness unlike any other contestant in Idol‘s fifteen seasons.

14. Skylar Laine: “Stay with Me” (Season 11)

Skylar Laine is a firecracker, plain and simple. She feels the music so deeply, she just HAS to stomp her feet and shake her hands. Her unbridled energy needs to be released into the world.

15. Naima Adedapo: “Umbrella” (Season 10)

Fearlessness. Pure fearlessness. In one song, Naima dances. Naima raps a self-written rap. Naima shouts, “BOOM! FIYAH!” I mean, come ON. How can you not be entertained?!

JONATHAN YU’S 15 FAVORITE PERFORMANCES

1. Haley Reinhart: “House of the Rising Sun” (Season 10)

Everyone loves an underdog, and no one embodied that better on Idol than Haley. While I have liked her since her over-the-top but fantastic rendition of “God Bless the Child” in Hollywood, it was easy to see why she was not exactly a fan favorite in the first few weeks of live performances. Thankfully, she somehow managed to stick around until her tide-changing performance of “Bennie and the Jets.”

On Top 5 night she sang the bejesus out of an unreleased (at the time) Lady Gaga track, “You and I,” which earned only lukewarm comments from the judges (who would later go on to bus her harder than any other contestant). This made the revenge even sweeter when she came back in round two with one of the best performances on Idol ever – “House of the Rising Sun.” It’s a comfort to know that she is gaining viral success thanks to her frequent collaborations post-Idol with Postmodern Jukebox and unlikely partnership with Extra Gum (and no thanks to revisionist JLo).

2. Jasmine Trias: “Inseparable” (Season 3)

Back before the age of YouTube, I used to frequent Idol forums to read up on the latest Idol news and get MP3 rips of performances (S/O to idolforums.com!). At the beginning of Season 3, there was a whisper of a Hawaiian girl who really wowed the judges at her first audition, but did not get any airtime before the semifinals. I was instantly drawn to her because here was someone getting buzz who looked like me. In an age where Asian American representation in the media boiled down to, ironically, William Hung from earlier in the same season, I just wanted her to be good so badly.

While her initial outing during semifinals week did not elicit a “Wow” as much as a “This girl has potential,” her second live performance, on the Top 12 episode, made me so incredibly happy. I had my doubts about her choice of “Inseparable” by Natalie Cole (RIP), since I loved Kimberly Locke’s rendition of it from the previous season. However, as soon as she opened her mouth, I shut mine, and then opened again as my jaw hit the floor during the chorus. This is probably the most excited I have ever been about an Idol performance in my life. #Representation. It’s a pity she went on a steady decline after and overstayed her welcome, but INSEPARABLE, y’all!

3. Allison Iraheta & Adam Lambert: “Slow Ride” (Season 8)

Duets on Idol can be a really hit or miss sort of affair. And on the first night they were introduced, we saw both sides of that. On one hand, a duet can bring out the worst in the contestants, turning a performance into a shouting match (see: “Renegade”). On the other hand, when the two contestants are in sync, it’s one of the most joyous things to witness.

Case in point, when Adam and Allison teamed up for “Slow Ride,” they produced something greater than the sum of its already great parts. While duets are more often duds than not, I am just thankful that this performance opened up the doors for the Jessica/Joshua and Caleb/Jena duets that followed in its footstep. Let’s just forget this ever happened.

4. Fantasia Barrino: “I Believe” (Season 3)

I’ll be the first to admit that, while I appreciated her talents, Fantasia was not my go to diva of Season 3 initially (go JHud!). Heck, she wasn’t even my second go to diva of the season (Go LaToya!). Her distinctly rough yet nasally tone peeved me, along with many others, if internet comments are to be believed.

Somewhere along the way, though, I started to understand the appeal in her raw and passionate vocals. “Summertime” remains the best Idol performance of all time, in my opinion, but it’s her coronation song that made me cry (but not out loud!). Idol winner singles are usually trite and corny affairs, but she made it a soulful and uplifting anthem. American Idol trades in inspirational stories, and hers is one most hopeful.

5. David Cook: “The World I Know” (Season 7)

Season 7 was a pivotal season for Idol. It was the last season before Kara DioGuardi would introduce the word “artistry” into the her critiques (read: every critique). In an era where the norm was essentially vocalists singing karaoke (granted, VERY good vocalists singing VERY good karaoke), David came in and broke the mold.

With a string of innovative performances (“Hello,” Billie Jean,” and “Always Be My Baby” come to mind), he forever changed the game. His mic-drop moment, for me, came in the finale when he chose to end with “The World I Know” instead of a reprise, much to the chagrin of Simon. The haunting and beautiful choice was the perfect ending for an Idol run that defied expectations.

6. Sonika Vaid: “Bring Me to Life” (Season 15)

One of the prettiest voices to grace the Idol stage. This performance lived up to its name and BROUGHT. ME. LIFE. It’s a shame that she went the way of Jasmine Trias afterwards though.

7. Jennifer Hudson: “Weekend in New England” (Season 3)

It seemed like she was finally on track to go far after her spectacular performance of “Circle of Life,” but alas, it was not to be. Her final Idol performance gave me goosebumps for days. Still the best pure belting voices on Idol ever.

8. Tamyra Gray: “A House Is Not A Home” (Season 1)

While I did not watch Season 1 when it was on, I went back and re-watched most of Tamyra’s clips before Season 2 started. This was a perfect performance, and her boot was the controversy that put Idol on the map for many people, including myself.

9. Kelly Clarkson: “Stuff Like That There” (Season 1)

After proving she can sing pretty much any Aretha Franklin song, it was unexpected to hear her sing this song, and sing it flawlessly. It goes to show that Kelly Clarkson can, in fact, sing ANYTHING.

10. Jena Irene: “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (Season 13)

When it comes to piano ballads, Jena is the queen. This was moving and so perfectly suited for her unique and powerful voice.

11. LaToya London: “Don’t Rain On My Parade” (Season 3)

As far as I know, this was the one and only time Idol let a contestant do two songs back to back. Following “Too Close For Comfort,” which could be career best for any other contestant, she proceeded to take it home with “Don’t Rain On My Parade,” which remains one of the most perfect vocal performances on Idol ever.

12. Elliott Yamin: “Moody’s Mood For Love” (Season 5)

Jazz is a bit underrepresented on Idol, but thank goodness for Elliott, who managed to completely nail this incredibly difficult song. Boy’s got SOUL.

13. Sarina-Joi Crowe: “Mama Knows Best” (Season 14)

The entire performance was like a vocal high-kick, and then she finishes it off with an actual high-kick. *Mic-drop*

14. Carrie Underwood: “Alone” (Season 4)

The only Idol performance of Carrie’s that a normal person would remember. This performance sealed the already-sealed deal for her, and inspired too many pale imitations to this performance on later seasons (save Allison Iraheta’s also-fantastic rendition).

15. Kris Allen: “Ain’t No Sunshine” (Season 8)

This performance propelled him from “great contestant” to “contender.” The finale reprise was somehow even better than the first show-stopping performance.

My Final American Idol Rankings: Season 15’s Top 10

THIS… is the Farewell Season of American Idol! Who will be the final winner in the House that Kelly Clarkson Built?

It’s only fitting the biggest thing to come out of the Top 10 reveal night was Kelly’s vulnerable and heartbreaking performance of “Piece By Piece,” quite possibly the crown jewel of American Idol performances. She gave the last batch of contestants a master class in pure, emotionally connected performances. Some people wait a lifetime for a moment like this. What a talent.

This fifteenth season will be my fifth and final year writing about this silly pageantry I hold so dear in my heart. Here is my ranking of American Idol 2015 Season 15’s Top 10, from most to least favorite contestant:

American Idol Season 15 Top 10

Avalon YoungAvalon Young: Avalon Young will not win American Idol. It’s a damn shame, because she’d make a perfect bookend to Kelly Clarkson’s win. Like Kelly, Avalon is someone you’d just want to hang out with. She’s just sooooo cool, sitting in a pocket of 90s flirty swag. Avalon exudes an effortless, breezy confidence and her beautiful, infectious R&B-toned performances just look and feel so natural. I worry that we’ve seen all that Avalon can do, but I have faith that she has that killer competitive instinct to deliver knockout moments. All in all, Avalon is just such a f*cking delight.

LaPorsha RenaeLa’Porsha Renae: La’Porsha Renae should win American Idol. In terms of pure talent, she is head and shoulders above the rest of the competition. She masterfully commands the stage with her powerful runs, yet she is always in control of her vocals. Her musicality surprises at every turn, and in each performance you can see that she’s hungry for the win. La’Porsha has the vocal dexterity, emotional connection, and the inspiring motivation as a single mother to drive her to the end. She would be the perfect final winner. Even guest judge Kelly Clarkson predicted her win after La’Porsha’s showstopping “Diamonds.” It’s a must-watch.

MacKenzie BourgMacKenzie Bourg: MacKenzie Bourg will win American Idol. He performs like an Idol winner. He sounds like an Idol winner. He looks like an Idol winner. MacKenzie is the absolute epitome of Idol‘s White Guy With Guitar winners (David Cook, Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze, Scotty McCreery, Nick Fradiani). MacKenzie’s style is closest to my #1 Mr. Allen, but he isn’t nearly a strong a singer as Kris is, nor has he taken any creative risks as Kris has yet. MacKenzie hasn’t expanded his musical palette and needs some strong creative performances and surprising re-arrangements to really set himself apart. He’s got the doe-eyed angst, now let’s see the artistry.

Sonika VaidSonika Vaid: Sonika is the quintessential American Idol old-school contestant. She’s a technically proficient singer, with a clear, strong vocal instrument. Sonika needs to figure out how to harness and deploy her voice effectively and tap into her emotions, or she could follow in the footsteps of the dearly departed Pia Toscano. Thankfully, she’s beginning to show signs of personality. Exhibit A: her dramatic rendition of “Bring Me to Life.”

Trent Harmon: Poor Trent will forever be known as the Guy with Mono. I like his buttery, soulful tone, but his vibrato can get away from him. In his higher register, he sings right up to the edge of wailing, which can grate on the ears (while his face-pulling can grate on the eyes). On the plus side, Trent is nothing but genuine and open-hearted.

Olivia RoxOlivia Rox: Olivia is spunky and confident, and possesses maturity that stretches beyond her 17 years. I like her warm pop-rock tone, but she can sound squeezed in her vocals. Her bright stage presence makes for appealing performances, although at times, moments come off as a bit rehearsed and stagey.

Dalton Rapattoni: If Mackenzie Bourg doesn’t win American Idol, I could see this mini Billie Joe Armstrong right up there. Dalton is all about interpreting music into his own Forever 21 rocker style, yet he cultivates an air of unconvincing inauthenticity. His performances come across as all flash, little heart. Unlike La’Porsha, whose passionate hunger motivates her performances, Dalton just comes off as #THIRSTY.

Tristan McIntosh: Now we get to the three 15-year-olds, who don’t deserve to be at this level. It’s unfortunate that this is the farewell season of Idol, as Tristan, Lee, and Gianna could really benefit from five or ten more years of experience. The raw talent is there, but it’s too raw at this stage. Go out and LIVE, kids! Tristan is somehow both overly-emotive and overly-dull, both of which amplify her tendency to sing flat. Kudos to her for wanting to be a country star as a woman of color, though. In a few years (or more), she’ll gain the emotional intelligence and experience to really make an impact with her music.

Lee JeanLee Jean: Lee Jean is pleasant, slight, and inoffensive. There is honestly nothing remarkable about him, other than his fresh-faced demeanor. Charm can only get you so far. And we get it, Lee, you love your Ed Sheeran. Move on, please.

Gianna IsabellaGianna Isabella: Gianna would not have gotten this far if her mother weren’t pop singer Brenda K. Starr. Gianna is certainly a determined teenager, but you can see her thinking so hard about hitting the right notes. She’s so transparent and paint-by-notes, it’s like watching a child play dress-up in her parents’ clothes. Gianna lacks the emotional maturity to ground her unrefined singing. There’s nothing behind her eyes, just steely eyed pluckiness.

Who Will Win and Who Should Win American Idol 2015

This… is the end of American Idol. FOX announced Monday morning that next year’s 15th season of the Show that Simon Cowell Built will be its last. FOX chairman and CEO Dana Walden said that it was a “pretty emotional decision” to end the once mighty juggernaut and I can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. This is the right decision at the right time.

At the ratings peak of its 5th season in 2006, the show drew an average of 31 million viewers, with the finale drawing in a whopping 36 million viewers (#CatchTheMcPheever). Cut to last week and season 14’s Top 4 episode drew in a measly 7.3 million viewers. Once able to defeat all shows in its path, Idol now is consistently beaten by the 30th season of Survivor. The Death Star has finally exploded.

While the cultural watercooler has moved on way past the days of #TeamClay vs. #TeamRuben, or even #TeamAdam vs. #TeamKris, we still have this year’s Idol finale to get through. Join my trusty Idol partner-in-crime, Jonathan Yu, and I as we break down the season 14 Top 3 contestants of Clark Beckham, Jax, and Nick Fradiani.

Idol_Season 14_Top 3

CLARK BECKHAM

Jonathan Amores: Clark Beckham will win American Idol this year. The resident blue-eyed soul singer certainly fits in the inoffensive White Guy with Guitar-type that Idol’s audiences have come to know and love and vote for to win. He also has the musical chops to claim that he’s earned the win. During Top 7 week, judge Harry Connick, Jr. called Clark “the only musician left in the competition,” much to the chagrin of Clark’s fellow musicians.

However, I can’t seem to get fired up about him at all. During the semi-finals, Clark appeared to have so much potential with crackling performances like “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” but his soulful promise has largely gone unfulfilled. He’s undeniably talented, but he’s shown that he’s not going to push himself enough to be provocative. Clark has stuck firmly to his artistic guns, for better or for worse.

Idol_Season 14_Clark

Jonathan Yu: Sorry to say, but I think it’s for the worse, and came out of nowhere. Up until that point, he’s picked songs that would position him as a soulful John Mayer à la “Gravity,” but *TWIST* the John Mayer that he really wants to be is the afternoon bedroom jams version à la “Your Body Is a Wonderland.” Which, while not the worst thing in the world, is a bit of a bait-and-switch. It’s unfortunate that the most passion we’ve seen from Clark all season is when he vehemently defended his choice of song and arrangement for “Your Man.”

JA: The trouble with Clark is that while he’s a killer singer to listen to, he’s a flat-out bore to watch. What’s most frustrating is that his blue-eyed soul never reaches his eyes at all. We hear the passion in his voice, but all we see is a vacant stare. Clark has failed to grow as a performer, especially in these past few weeks when peaking at the right time is crucial. I’d be more supportive of his impending victory if he were able to find deeper emotional connections with his songs.

JY: Yeah… his lack of visual emotions is certainly disheartening, and his lack of growth makes for a boring contender. That said, I still think Clark should win, simply because of his magnificent voice. Sure, Clark has been stagnant pretty much from the beginning, but for me, where he started from still trumps where some competitors have grown to. You can’t teach a soulful growl like his.

The Clark performance you need to watch: Ed Sheeran’s “Make It Rain”

JAX

JA: Of the Top 3 contestants, Jax is the most willing to push the musical envelope and expand her artistic palette. She’s full of surprises while Clark and Nick deliver more of the same. Outside of Quentin Alexander and Joey Cook, Jax is the only contestant who turned songs inside out and spun songs on their head.

From rocking out with the Idol band to playing heartfelt ballads on the piano, the longer the season dragged on, the more her spirited performances stood out. She’s the only left with the energy, or, to put it bluntly, the f*cks, left to give. Jax and her fiery fearlessness is my close second for who should win this season.

JY: Yeah, I think you’re right in that she mostly falls into three modes: Rocker \m/, Piano Ballads, and Jaxperimentation. While I appreciate Jax’s willingness to experiment and switch up the arrangements, I would say it only works out for her half of the time. For every “Bang Bang,” there is a “Poker Face.”

Jax’s rocker side is convincing, even if sometimes the song can overwhelm her (see: “Are You Gonna Be My Girl” (GUY?!?!?!)). When it comes to piano ballads, however, she truly shines. “White Flag” is one of my favorite performance of the season. When she tones down her vocal affectations and displays vulnerability with her voice, she is magical.

Idol_Season 14_Jax

JA: “White Flag” is one of my favorites as well, and I agree that overall, Jax is hit or miss. Vocally, the affected slinkiness in her voice just doesn’t sit well with me either. At times, she comes off as trying a little too hard. Perhaps it’s her age, but she can come off like she’s playing dress up, especially when she has her rocker pants on.

But let’s be honest, I really just wanted Jena Irene to win American Idol last year and Jax is the next best thing. It’s easy to compare the two young sensitive rockers (heck, they’ve both covered Paramore and Evanescence), but Jax simply pales in comparison. Jena was able to tap into a deeper, more powerful well of emotion than Jax has this season (see: Jena’s masterful “Can’t Help Falling In Love”), but at least Jax attempts such depths at all, unlike her male competition. Here’s hoping Jax can make it to second place, as Jena did the year before.

The Jax performance you need to watch: Dido’s “White Flag”

NICK FRADIANI

JY: Nick “Daughtry With Hair” Fradiani. Where do I even begin? I ask not because I have a lot of say about him, but because I have none. His particular brand of adult contemporary is just not very exciting to me. While Daughtry was groundbreaking in the context of the show, as rock was never a fully represented genre on Idol before season 5, by season 14, it just feels stale.

Idol_Season 14_Nick

JA: Agreed. Yes, Nick knows who he is as an artist; yes, he’s grown in his stage presence and performance level; yes, he’s peaking at the right moment. But at the end of the day, all of his performances blend together into a guitar-laden blur that will never appeal to me either.

What frightens me (what hurts the most?) is that Nick Fradiani could win the sash and crown without taking a single freaking risk. Nick has stayed squarely in his AC lane with classic rock hits from The Boss and Tom Petty, but while he’s adept in the driver’s seat, there’s never any danger of speeding or taking unexpected turns. Where’s the thrill in that?

The Nick performance you need to watch: Rascal Flatts’ “What Hurts the Most”

WHO REALLY SHOULD HAVE WON THIS SEASON

JY: Sarina-Joi Crowe had it all: The inspiring backstory (if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try and try again) matched only by her voice. Her sound harkened back to the olden days of Idol where big-voiced singers ruled, except she came in a contemporary package that could be heard on the radio today.

Sarina-Joi’s choice of this incredibly difficult Jessie J song is perfect for the semi-finals. It showcased all the power in her voice while simultaneously remaining controlled. And let’s be real, any performance that ends with (*spoiler alert*) a high kick is a performance I can get behind.

The Sarina-Joi performance you need to watch: Jessie J’s “Mama Knows Best”

Your Handy Guide to American Idol 14’s Top 11 Finalists

As a new Empire rises, another Idol continues its slow descent. This is season fourteen of American Idol. Fox was smart to schedule to launch the fledgling primetime soap behind its veteran reality competition, giving the buzzy newcomer a strong marketing push right out of the gate. Empire‘s audience went up every week it aired, with March 18 finale reaching a height of 17.6 million viewers (6.9 A18-49), becoming the top-rated new series in a decade. In comparison, Idol‘s most recent airing on March 19 brought in 8.51 million viewers (1.8 A18-49).

With Empire finished for the spring, the show must go on. American Idol expands into two hours, featuring a new crop of fresh-faced contestants singing for your votes. Ever the dutiful Idol fan, here is my ranking of this season’s Top 11 finalists, from my most favorite to least favorite (and one of the worst Idol finalists in history). Click on the singer’s name to watch their best performance thus far.

Idol_Sarina-JoiSarina-Joi Crowe: Before we get to the real Top 11, I’d like to take a moment to pour one out for arguably the most talented singer this year, Sarina-Joi Crowe, who was eliminated after an uncomfortably sharp rendition of One Republic’s “Love Runs Out.” Damn you, Ryan Tedder! Why is this elimination so heartbreaking? Sarina-Joi possessed more potential than most of the remaining finalists will ever realize on this show. Poor Sarina-Joi finally made it as a finalist after auditioning for four years, only to be taken from us way too soon.

Idol_TyannaTyanna JonesI hate it when the judges incessantly and incredulously parade around the ages of young contestants during critiques (“Dude, you’re only 16 years old!”). But with Tyanna, DUDE, she’s only 16 years old! Tyanna owns the stage like a consummate professional. While she’s unfortunately not invincible, she’s able to swim through her performances effortlessly. Her performance of Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope,” for example, was a breezy joyfest. Tyanna exudes a cool and commanding confidence while dripping with a bold panache. And don’t forget: she’s only 16 years old!

Idol_ClarkClark BeckhamClark is the very definition of blue-eyed soul, as filtered through the Idol lens. He’s a talented and handsome,22-year-old street performer whose musicality shines through with both the piano and the guitar. I’ve taken issue with many of Idol‘s WGWG (White Guys with Guitars) in the past (see winners Lee DeWyze, Phillip Phillips, and Scotty McCreery), but Clark’s undeniable respect for the music he’s playing sets him apart. While, at times, his performances may have erred on the side of being too slick, Clark continued to show great promise with his recent acoustic arrangement of Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning.”

[To be quite honest, the order of the next five contestants, from Joey down to Quentin, is pretty interchangeable. Heck, I’ve changed it three times over the course of writing this list. It just goes to show you that with a talent field this deep and this even, song choice is crucial. The wrong song could make or break you. RIP SJC.]

Idol_JoeyJoey Cook: Here’s Miss Quirk with a capital Q. During the semi-finals rounds, I wasn’t buying what Joey was so peculiarly selling and I rolled my eyes at every one of her quirks: the hair touching, the wide side-eyed wonderment, the irksome garbled vowel pronunciation. Everything changed with her performance of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” Armed with a Postmodern Jukebox arrangement, all of her stylistic choices felt organic and her stage presence became fully realized. It all just clicked. The more Joey takes risks and taps into the grounded, emotional core of a song, the better.

Idol_QaasimQaasim Middleton: Qaasim is a vibrant showman. Don’t believe him? Just watch. Qaasim is a strong singer. Don’t believe him? Well…actually, it’s ok to doubt him on that one. He’s a firecracker of an entertainer and his passionate command of the stage generates enough electricity to light the entire Idoldome. Unfortunately, stripped of his theatrics, Qaasim’s vocals don’t quite measure up. I call it the Adedapo Effect. Remember season 10’s Naima Adedapo? Her reggae-inspired numbers included dance breakdowns, rapping, and (on the live tour) even cartwheels. However, once she put her vocals front-and-center, she was swiftly voted out. We’ll see how long Qaasim can hang in there by the skin of his dancing. I am going to enjoy watching him breathe life into each performance along the way.

Idol_JaxJaxJax has long been considered a front-runner, but I’m just not fully in her corner yet. While some may hear a distinctly rich timbre, I hear a greatly affected slinkiness and whereas some may see a confident performer with a flair for the dramatic, I see a young musician trying hard to make an impression. But hey, I did a full 180-degrees on season 10’s Haley Reinhart, so stranger things could happen with my opinion on Jax.

Idol_AdannaAdanna Duru: Without a doubt, Adanna has a powerful voice, throwing her heart and soul into every performance. Her leave-it-all-on-the-stage attitude is refreshing, but she needs to keep her emotions in check. When her wild stage presence gets the best of her, Adanna’s pop/R&B vocals are tricky to maneuver, but when she taps into that fire, her talent radiates with heat.

Idol_QuentinQuentin AlexanderOne word comes to mind when thinking about Quentin: #haunting. Here’s another: #moody. Quentin is a powerful and riveting presence with a keen sense of who he is as an artist. Not to mention, his carefully curated New Orleans-inspired fashion sense always makes a statement. Quentin’s velvety vocals compliment his suave persona, but he also possesses an unfortunate tendency to waver on long notes.

Idol_RayvonRayvon Owen: Rayvon is a smooth, smiley, and sleepy (read: boring) singer. Graced with a buttery falsetto, Rayvon knows exactly where and when to deploy it to its greatest effect, but onstage he simply meanders. Rayvon is blessed with one of the best voices left in the competition, but his performances desperately need substance, depth, and, most importantly, a jolt of urgency. Vocal dexterity alone won’t propel him past his competitors for very long.

Idol_NickNick Fradiani: Old Man Fradiani is an ancient 29 years old and in his most recent performance of Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” (song choice, people, song choice) revealed that he gives off major Chris Daughtry vibes. Luckily for him, his age works to his advantage. Nick’s Alice Radio adult contemporary performances are greatly polished, allowing his maturity to shine through.

Idol_MaddieMaddie WalkerMaddie is a Country Pageant Princess, whose big, bright eyes can’t help but illuminate the fact that there’s nothing really behind them. She can hit the notes and voice possesses a sweet twang, but she hasn’t quite formed her artistic identity past that country inflection. She’s young, impressionable, and is nothing more than an imitation of the genre she adores.

Idol_DanielDaniel Seavey: Let me tell you a story. The summer after I finished first grade, my family and I went on a Caribbean cruise. I entered a talent competition and sang “Puff the Magic Dragon” a cappella. Halfway through the performance, I blanked on the lyrics and the emcee got the entire audience to sing along with me to close out the number. Cute, right? I won first place. (As did everyone else in the talent show, but that’s beside the point.) This, my friends, is Daniel Seavey.

He’s a 15-year-old kid who is in way over his head. Daniel has coasted along on his cuteness factor, which he, himself, admitted to having. Ick. His performances are simply excruciating. Daniel’s a one-trick foal still going through puberty. Watch as he attempts and fails to hit high notes! Marvel at his over-rehearsed movements as he “feels” the music! Witness him mumble through forgotten lyrics! Daniel should have waited five years to audition for Idol. There’s talent down there somewhere, but thanks to his string of consistently painful performances, Daniel Seavey is one of the worst American Idol finalists in history. This kid does not deserve to be on my television.

Man, what a downer. Let’s end on a positive note, Sarina-Joi Crowe SLAYING Jessie J’s “Mamma Knows Best”:

5 Carrie Underwood Songs That Should Be Turned Into TV Shows

Carrie Underwood is back, y’all!

After tackling the role of Maria in NBC’s live production of The Sound of Music, the country superstar is making a triumphant return to our television screens in what is possibly the most bizarre television news of the year. According to Deadline, Carrie Underwood will executive produce a television show for FOX based on her own song, “Two Black Cadillacs.”

I repeat: A country song. Will be turned into a TV show. That will air on national television.

AND I CAN’T WAIT.

As a fan of both ridiculously delicious melodrama (hello, eight seasons of Desperate Housewives, 1.5 seasons of Nashville, and two episodes of Lone Star!) and of Carrie Underwood (hello, two live Carrie concerts!), this news fills me with giddy anticipation.

This six-hour limited “event series” comes from Warner Bros. Television and the ubiquitous producer Jerry Bruckheimer. The hit single centers on a Southern love triangle, wherein a wife and a mistress realize they’re involved with the same man and—what else?—conspire to murder him.

Yeah, they took turns laying a rose down
Threw a handful of dirt into the deep ground
He’s not the only one who had a secret to hide…

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Source: onchwell.tumblr.com

But why should we stop at “Two Black Cadillacs”? Why not turn more of Carrie’s oeuvre into television shows?

“Before He Cheats”: What happened before she took a Louisville Slugger to both headlights? A mother recounts to her son and daughter the events that led her to divorce their father. [Spoiler Alert: He dies at the end.] Jenny Slate starts in this fresh new sitcom.

“Cupid’s Got a Shotgun”: The Millionaire Matchmaker meets Duck Dynasty. A high-powered agency executive pairs wealthy hunters with the men and women of their dreams.

“Cowboy Casanova”: Welcome to the Dude Ranch, where a single woman must find her one true love among a herd of desperate and delusional beast mode cowboys. For these reality competitors, it ain’t their first times at the rodeo.

“Unapologize”: An LAPD agent has a rare medical condition that gives her the ability to detect out false and coerced confessions using only her sense of smell. Tatyana Ali headlines this potently pungent police procedural.

“Jesus, Take the Wheel”: A single mom joins Alcoholics Anonymous following a life-changing car crash and finds her restored faith in the unlikeliest of places: her sponsor named… Jesus. Academy Award nominee Naomi Watts and Soap Opera Digest Award nominee Eddie Cibrian star in this half-hour dramedy.

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_13_Top_3

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

How Survivor is Outwitting, Outplaying, and Outlasting American Idol

“Outwit. Outplay. Outlast.”

Survivor’s motto has been part of our pop culture lexicon for nearly 14 years. The long-running reality competition is now in its 28th iteration, with at least two more on the way. Survivor airs head-to-head on Wednesdays at 8pm with another reality TV titan, American Idol, now in its 13th year.

In this battle of the time slot, the two shows occupy opposite sides of the entertainment spectrum. Survivor is firing on all cylinders, delivering what could be its best season with Survivor: Cagayan, while American Idol is a train-wreck and a snooze-fest all at once.

How has Survivor managed to outwit, outplay, and outlast American Idol? Let’s break it down.

OUTWIT:
Survivor has dynamic characters…

This season, the Survivor producers divided its 18 castaways into three tribes, each tribe embodying an aspect of the game used to win: Brains, Brawn, and Beauty. But it doesn’t matter how many twists producers can throw out there, if there isn’t an engaging cast of characters maneuvering those obstacles, the show suffers (I’m looking at you, One World cast!).

Survivor_Tony_Vlachos

Tony Vlachos

Luckily, the Survivor gods have bestowed upon us a casting bounty with Cagayan. We have everything from larger-than-life personalities, to sympathetic underdogs to root for, to hotheads, to boneheaded decision-makers.

Cagayan‘s standout character is Tony Vlachos. Tony. Tony. Tony. He is a mad scientist, constantly scheming new ways to best his opponents, and even his allies. He is a shark. He needs to keep making big moves or else he’ll die. “I like big moves, bro,” he admits. Tony’s gameplay compares to the infamous Russell Hantz, but unlike that Survivor troll, Tony’s gameplay never devolves into spiteful personal attacks. Tony is a master of deception and his childish glee exudes from every pore. While he’s far from the perfect player (see: the “Top five, baby!” slip that came back to haunt him), Tony is above all, damn entertaining to watch.

It wouldn’t be Survivor without underdogs, and Cagayan has them in spades with Spencer Bledsoe and Tasha Fox. These two survived a near-decimation of the Brains tribe and survived their former Brains ally, the emotionally charged Kass #ChaosKass McQuillen, flipping on them and their majority alliance.

Spencer is making the right measured moves at the right measured times. He maximizes his opportunities and shows a great deal of patience in his execution. Who didn’t cheer when he found the hidden immunity idol during the #MadTreasureHunt? Tasha’s social connections and physical prowess makes her a threat to win, even if she does get #StoodUp by the charming and rugged LJ McKanas. Their strategic wheels are always turning and make it easy to root for them.

Are you ready for an #UnpopularOpinion? My favorite castaway this season is Trish Hegarty. Let’s be real. Trish is playing a cunning game. She finds her targets and she executes accordingly. She engineered Cliff Robinson’s ouster behind her fellow Brawns’ backs and she slyly convinced #ChaosKass to flip, even after Tony patronized her and told her not to. You could even argue that she pushed Lindsey Ogle out of the game. As an astute social observer, Trish is silent (endearing laugh aside), and deadly. The best part, she’s not making any real enemies. However, she’ll need to pull out an amazingly articulate jury speech to convince her peers of her strategic acumen. It’ll be an uphill battle for her, but I trust Trish is up for the challenge.

These are all memorable Survivor characters, and I haven’t even mentioned the #NinjaStealthMode master Yung “Woo” Hwang, the fierce police officer Sarah Lacina, and Boobs McGee herself, Morgan McLeod.

American Idol doesn’t.

Perhaps I’m just a crotchety old man now (at the ripe ‘ol age of 26), but boy are this year’s American Idol contestants young. The oldest singers, CJ Harris and Jessica Meuse are 23 years old. When you have a theme of 80’s music and not a single singer was born during that decade, that’s saying something.

Idol_Alex_Preston_Sam_Woolf

Alex Preston & Sam Woolf

Quite honestly, all this youth and inexperience shows. Aside from the piano pop-rocker Jena Irene (see: “Decode”) and the retro-rocker Caleb Johnson (see: “Dazed and Confused”), none of this year’s finalists have been ready for the big stage. Yes, they’re talented. Yes, they can sing. But their passion doesn’t fill the television screen, let alone reach through and grab us the throats. It’s as if they don’t understand or even care that this is a competition. Listen up, kids, you need to IMPRESS us! You need to fight for our votes.

Flanked by Harry Connick, Jr. and Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez has become an astute judge this year. Last week, after one of the many country performers Dexter Roberts phoned in one of the many country performances, Lopez warned him, “These performances need to be spectacular… The room’s got to RATTLE. It’s got to SHAKE… You need to PUSH yourselves.” Really, this critique was an impassioned plea for all the contestants. And just like that, America eliminated Dexter the next night. Nothing distinguished him from any other country dude performing in bars across the country. He failed to stand out and make us remember him.

That’s the story with nearly all the singers this year: adequate, but not remarkable in the slightest.

OUTPLAY:
Survivor has unpredictability…

Survivor_Cagayan_Tribal_CouncilNever has there been a more unpredictable season of Surivor than this one. Just look at the picture above. Look at those seven players with seven different facial expressions.

In the first post-merge Tribal Council, Tony surprises the tribe by giving LJ a hidden immunity idol before the votes were cast, causing the other alliance to scramble. LJ dropped another bombshell when he whipped his out immunity idol and gave it to Tony. Let’s look at the picture again. Observing left to right, we see Jefra’s joyous relief, LJ’s smooth confidence, Sarah’s stony bitterness, Tony’s beaming pride, #ChaosKass’ smug glee, Spencer’s sheer disbelief, and Tasha’s simple appreciation for the daring move.

But that’s not all the crazy! After all the idol dust settles, #ChaosKass blindsided her alliance and flips to the other side. Sarah goes home in a shocking elimination. #ChaosKass’ controversial move of flipping from presumably the top of a majority alliance to the bottom of a minority alliance sparked much debating among fans: Did #ChaosKass make the right move?

Now, two weeks later, we’re discussing a new power move: Did Tony make the right move? Was turning on his loyal alliance partner, LJ, brilliant gameplay or deranged? Both? Did Tony get one step closer to becoming a millionaire or did he fall prey to unnecessary paranoia? By blowing up his own alliance, he creates many possibilities for everyone to make it to the end, including himself. He’s down (under Spencer and Tasha, if the two of them get to the finals) but he’s not out (mend that relationship with Trish, stat!).

Speaking of unpredictability, who could have foreseen these once odds-on favorites to win the game fall from grace? Sarah’s tantrum-throwing and abuse of her swing vote power took her down. LJ’s false sense of security and slow-moving strategy allowed his fellow players to get the best of him.

Survivor players have evolved into savvy gamers who make their bold and brassy moves at Tribal Council, keeping viewers on their toes for the entire hour. Typical protocol once saw players enter into Tribal Council with their minds already made up, but now we watch big power plays unfold at Tribal Council. Following a one-two-three-four punch of PhilippinesCaramoan, Blood vs. Water, and now Cagayan, we are living in a time where risky moves and blindsides are the spectacular norm. What an embarrassment of riches.

American Idol doesn’t.

This year’s American Idol contestants are sorely lacking a drive to push the creative envelope. For the most part, the contestants are content with songs from their coffeehouse and bar show set-lists. Sure, it’s simpler to do songs already in your repertoire, but that doesn’t make them entertaining to watch. No matter how much constructive criticism the judges give, there’s still not much charisma onstage. All this indifference is wearing thin. (Could you look anymore dead behind the eyes, Jessica Meuse?! Do you even want to be here?)

I favorably reviewed the contestants after their Rush Week performances. Where did all that promise go? Where are the #moments?

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CJ Harris

Contestants were first allowed to play musical instruments back in 2008 during the show’s seventh season. The first couple seasons following that introduction heralded a musical reinvention renaissance. The guitar was a sign of fresh-sounding departures. Think Kris Allen’s “Heartless” or Phillip Phillips’ “Volcano.” This year, however, the guitar is a crutch. Six out of the top ten have played a guitar at some point this season. The bland guitaryness of each contestant’s songs blend together, a little acoustic jam there, a little country twang there.

I’ll go ahead and say it: guitars are ruining Idol. Not only have the guitars stifled the musicality, it’s also kept the performances physically stationary and stagnant. No amount of lightbulbs, floor lamps, or living room couches can inject excitement into a Sam Woolf performance.

So props to the aforementioned guitar-less Jena and Caleb who bring a breath of fresh air when they work the stage. Their performance of “Gimme Shelter” was KILLER, with nary a guitar in sight. It was one of the scarce highlights this season.

That vital surprise factor is gone. No one is taking risks and turning songs on their head, à la David Cook’s “Billie Jean.” We are no longer shocked or awed by a Jason Mraz-lite performance by Alex Preston. We can predict CJ Harris’ Ray Lamontagne-lite sound. So what’s the point of tuning in anymore, especially if those performances are simply okay? When 80’s week revealed, I jokingly predicted we’d see an “Islands in the Stream” duet between Jessica and Dexter. And guess what? They did! YAWN.

Challenge our expectations. Do something different. We need to be SURPRISED. I’m beginning to sound a lot like J.Lo (sans auto-tune, naturally).

What’s worse is that I honestly can’t recall any of the country songs CJ or Dexter have sung, save one or two. They’re obscure (“Keep Your Hands To Yourself”) and forgettable (“Boondocks”). And in CJ’s case they’re obscure (“Radio”and forgettable (“If It Hadn’t Been For Love”and off-key (“Invisible”). This is a huge problem. Look, if you pick a song the audience isn’t familiar with, make it count. Rattle that room. Shake that room. Make us remember you. Paging Candice Glover’s “Lovesong”!

The broad themes aren’t helping. It’s been a long-standing complaint that we’ve been force-fed the same tired themes year after year (disco, big band, etc.), so this year, the producers dismissed specific themes and aimed more broadly with ones like “Home,” “This Is Me,” and “I’m With the Band.” But these themes have failed as well, by allowing the contestants to stay squarely in their wheelhouse. Specific themes challenged contestants to think outside-the-box, rearrange songs to their own musical styles, and most importantly, to develop their sense of personal artistry. All the producers have done is breed complacency.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the generic themes aren’t stopping any time soon. The next one is “A Little Bit Country, And A Little Bit Rock ‘n Roll.” What a cop-out, Idol producers. Let’s give country and rock genres to the mostly country and rock performers. That’ll shakes things up dramatically…

OUTLAST:
Survivor has steady viewership…

Let this tweet from Vulture’s West Coast editor Joe Adalian sink in for a second. The once-mighty ratings juggernaut came in second place to Survivor. And this wasn’t the first time either; Survivor has bested Idol every week for the past four weeks.

These ratings are just more bragging rights for the four-time Outstanding Host for a Reality Program Emmy Award-winner Jeff Probst. Ryan Seacrest, however: six nominations, zero wins. Still, Survivor: Cagayan is hitting all-time series lows. Unsurprisingly, ratings have declined across the board for nearly every broadcast show.

American Idol doesn’t.

Idol_Ratings_ChartThis sobering graphic courtesy of The Wrap shows that downhill slide that is American Idol‘s ratings. The simple fact of the matter is that the tired and overstuffed reality singing competition genre is past its prime, and this particular brand has been around for 13 years. Idol‘s main rival, The Voice, most recently averaged a 2.7 A 18-49 (2.7% of all homes with viewers ages 18 to 49 tuned in).

Idol‘s highest ratings for viewers ages 18 to 49 was in the show’s fifth season in 2005, with an average rating of 12.6. Now here we are, eight years later, and Idol scored a 2.2 the week of April 16th. YIKES. The Death Star is dead, but its admirable reign was long and mighty.

As long as Survivor keeps introducing vibrant new characters ready to make huge moves, it will continue to keep its fans happy and its head above water. Are you taking notes, American Idol? A blindside this late in the game would be a shame.

Is there anything that would draw viewers back to Idol? My two cents: a farewell season with the triumphant return of Simon Cowell. Those were the good ‘ol days.

The 2014 Oscars: Big Night for Lupita Nyong’o & Adele Dazim

Let’s face it. We will always complain about the Academy Awards telecast. The awards ceremony will either be too crass (Seth MacFarlane), too toothless (Billy Crystal), too WTF?! (Anne Hathaway and James Franco), and in this year’s case, too boring. Sorry, Ellen DeGeneres, but this year’s Oscars was a flat and endless flop, save for one funny monologue joke aimed at Jennifer Lawrence and her many stumbles: “If you win tonight, I think we should bring you the Oscar.” As a whole, the winners were predictable, but who would have predicted that the reliable DeGeneres would have brought such a muted, disruptive tone.

Five years now, we’ll remember how Oscar night came down to a race between Gravity and 12 Years a Slave for Best Picture, and everything else will become a boring blur. When we look back to this year, we’ll fail to recall Kim Novak’s awkward appearance with Matthew McConaughey. (Jacqueline Bisset, you’re off the hook!). We’ll overlook the umpteenth salute to The Wizard of Oz (seriously, it feels like there’s one every year). We’ll forget, but not forgive, the endless parade of montages: Animated films! Heroes (guys, guys, Jennifer Lawrence, and more guys)! These old movies! Those old movies! On a classy note: Fortunately, the producers muted all applause for the In Memoriam segment and gave all those featured equal screen time. Unfortunately, Bette Midler flapped. her. wings. at the end of “The Wind Beneath My Wings.”

So what will we remember from these ceremonies? What moments will leave a profound mark in our pop culture memory banks? Probably not much.

The morning after, without a doubt, the biggest meme to come out of the night was John Travolta’s hilariously horrible mispronunciation of Idina Menzel’s name as “ADELE DAZIM.” What the actual f*ck, John Travolta?!

Adele Dazim was the name that launched a dozen fake Twitter accounts. Think of the mishap as this year’s Angelina Jolie Leg from the 2012 Oscars. The mispronunciation unfortunately upstaged Menzel’s show-stopping performance of Frozen‘s Oscar-winning song “Let It Go,” written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and EGOT winner Robert Lopez. But what followed wasn’t Menzel’s best showing either. Perhaps it was nerves that got the best of Menzel’s stiff physicality, as she and the orchestra fell out of sync, and ended with strained final notes.

Pharell Williams’ soulful performance of Despicable Me 2‘s “Happy” was also memorable, not only for the return of The Grammy Hat, but for the celeb dance-offs, started spontaneously by 12 Years a Slave‘s Lupita Nyong’o. The song delivered a much-needed jolt of energy to the snoozy proceedings. Who knew that all we ever wanted to see was Pharrell bring Nyong’o and Amy Adams to their feet in joyous dance and get Meryl Streep to shimmy? What an infectious performance that perfectly complimented the cool stylings of the #1 song in America.

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The theme of this year’s Oscars was “Heroes in Hollywood,” but night came across as “Celebrities Are Just Like UsOnly Better!” They eat pizza! They take selfies! They carry cash on them! DeGeneres’s drawn-out self-involved shtick found her strolling down the aisles of the theater time and time again, casually chatting it up to nervous audience members. These bits could have been organic and fun, but they never took off the ground. Typically, award show hosts disappear mid-way through the night, but DeGeneres simply refused to let the night go undisrupted by her antics, which were more entertaining on paper than they were in execution.

Early in the evening, DeGeneres asked the celebrities if they were hungry and wanted pizza, to which the somehow still-pregnant Kerry Washington cutely raised her hand immediately in support. In a surprising bit of continuity, the delivery guy showed up later with three pizzas and we watched semi-amusingly, as the slices distributed to the likes of Harrison Ford, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Julia Roberts. (But how endearing was it that Brad Pitt was distributing napkins?). Uma. Oprah., meet Pizza.

But nothing came close to the Selfie Seen ‘Round the World.

In a bit of shameless plugging of the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, DeGeneres enlisted the help of Meryl Streep to break the record of most retweets. They were soon joined by Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and other A-listers. (Don’t wave, Angelina Jolie, this isn’t a Vine!) Again, what could have ended up as cute and spontaneous, ended up feeling forced. At any rate, the selfie beat out President Obama 2012’s victory tweet, with 2 million retweets and counting. So… hooray? Celebrities love themselves and need us to love them back; we get it. Just icky and pandering.

Speaking of celebrity fandom, where was Oscar presenter Andrew Garfield? My favorite celebrity was sadly a no-show. Producer Neil Meron had stated, “Andrew Garfield is going to be part of what we hope is a very moving moment in the show… He is going to induct a new superhero into the fraternity of superheroes.” Instead, we got the “talented Chris Evans.” Yawn. A Garfield appearance wouldn’t have saved the telecast by any means, but it would have been nice to see him.

[UPDATE 3: Phew! So as it turns out, the appearance was confirmed by the Academy to be cut “due to the logistics of production.” In fact, Garfield spent time with Batkid at Disneyland. That’s my Andrew! UPDATE 2: According to Page Six, Garfield “refused to go by the script… He had a tantrum. He stormed off.” Yikes. UPDATE: Andrew Garfield’s appearance was with Batkid! The two even rehearsed together the night before. How could the producers cut out Batkid, of all things?! And there was still time for THREE of Ellen’s pizza bits?! That makes me dislike this year’s Oscars even more.]

To end on a positive note, we will remember the emotional acceptance speeches, from 20 Feet from Stardom‘s Darlene Love basking in her spotlight and singing a line from “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” (Go out and watch 20 Feet, an insightful, stirring look at gender and racial politics in music.), to Dallas Buyers Club‘s Jared Leto sweetly giving tribute to his mother, to Lupita N’yongo’s beautiful and moving words of encouragement:

When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.

The night simply belonged to N’yongo. We were witnessing her Hollywood coming-out party, from her exuberant “Happy” dance, to her and her brother goofily taking part in the selfie and pizza payment. Already a red carpet fashion icon, the 12 Years A Slave star blossomed before our eyes. And what a narrative for Hollywood to latch on to: chase your dreams, kids. Play us off, incongruous Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory music!

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”:

Why Harry Connick, Jr. Is American Idol’s Saving Grace

If there’s one reason to tune into American Idol this season, it’s Harry Connick, Jr.

Now if you go back a year in my blog, you’ll see that I opened with the exact same line in the post, “Why Nicki Minaj Is American Idol’s Saving Grace“; just substitute in this year’s crooner king for last season’s rap queen. But boy oh boy, was I wrong.

Hindsight is twenty-twenty and Nicki Minaj’s dynamic charisma soon wore thin. All the asinine cat-fighting between her and fellow judge Mariah Carey became tiresome quickly and quite frankly, Nicki’s fervent over-the-top passion sometimes came off as abrasive. The discordant judging panel was a huge turn-off for many of Idol‘s core viewers, resulting in its lowest-rated finale ever. But the two divas are both gone this year, along with Randy “Obnoxiously Useless” Jackson (phew, FINALLY!). In their place are returning judges Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban and newcomer Harry Connick, Jr.

I came upon this season with an overwhelming sense of dread, knowing that I would have to slog through hours upon hours of the same, tiresome auditions. But you know what?  It’s been surprisingly good. And fun (a word I’ve never used to describe this show). It’s definitely been a huge shock to my jaded viewing routine.

Thank the Idol gods for the entertaining, knowledgeable, and extremely charming Harry Connick, Jr. We’ve only seen him in the audition room thus far, but Harry is quite possibly the best judge in the franchise’s thirteen years.

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As a jazz musician who has also paid his dues on Broadway, Harry has brought an invigorating perspective to the show. He single-handedly attempts to correct what singing competitions have thrived on since the beginning: over-singing. “Some people on this panel are very easily impressed by licks,” he tells one auditioner, dropping a not-so-subtle hint that it sure isn’t him. He tells Quaid Edwards, another attractive hopeful with a decent voice:

Yeah, bro. You’re cute. The girls are gonna scream. I promise you, you sing your first run: ‘Oh my god, he can really sing.’ But if you want to be a great singer who changes the game, you’re headed in the wrong direction.

Not since Simon Cowell have we seen critiques of the “that was good, but not good enough” variety. But unlike the harsh Brit, Harry’s charisma deflects any meanness in his honesty. And as a result, Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban have really stepped up their own judging game, delivering pointed criticisms of their own. No longer a cheerleading panel, it’s refreshing to see the judges disagree with each other.

Gone are thirteen years of Randy Jackson’s signature misnomer: “pitchy.” Harry flat-out nixes the word from the judging panel. “It’s called singing off-pitch,” he remarks. In its place are insightful constructive criticism and musical knowledge not seen from a judge outside of The Sing-Off‘s Ben Folds. Unimpressed with one melismatic singer, he tells her, “I’m not as taken by the smoke and mirrors of pentatonics.” J.Lo expresses confusion at the term and after the audition, Harry explains her, and to America, the basics of a penatonic scale:

What’s wrong with challenging America? Here it is: there are twelve notes. You know you have do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti. There’s also di, ri, fi, si, li. Pentatonics are the classic go-tos for R&B singers, gospel singers, jazz musicians. Those are the five notes that you hear everybody do the runs on.

How cool is it to see actual music theory on a show about singing? Well Harry Connick, Jr. makes it even cooler. And this delightfully discerning and attentive judge knows the difference between real singers and people imitating what they hear on the radio. During one audition, he calls out 16-year-old Johnny Newcomb for being derivative:

When Eddie Vedder sings, that really is Eddie Vedder. I just don’t believe that’s your voice. I think you’re highly impressionable because of your age; you have to be. I think you’re doing the right thing. You’re emulating your heroes, but I think it’s a little premature for you to be an American Idol right now.

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This is a new era of American Idol. We have thankfully moved past the sob stories, the humiliations, and cynicism of years past and are now focusing on the actual talent. The judges treat contestants with care and dignity. Now, more than ever, they’re focused on fostering the talent of real people with real dreams. J.Lo tells us in an interview package, “It’s not about gimmicks. You’ve just gotta get up there and sing and touch America.” In fact, we breeze through these auditions, baring witness to more Golden Ticket auditions than ever. So many good people are shown that it’s hard to keep track of them all. And that’s not the worst problem to have.

“I think people like watching American Idol because you never know what you’re gonna get,” Keith remarks. And this is true, especially with Harry on the panel. He is the life of the party and isn’t afraid to make fun of himself. Whether jokingly admitting to being Chris Issak, literally standing next to a contestant singing “Stand By Me,” or making fun of J.Lo for never flying coach like “the rest of us,” Harry is quite the self-effacing entertainer.

No other audition sums up what Harry has added to the panel than the final audition in the premiere episode. After an amusing segment where people struggle to identify Tony Harry Connick, Jr. (“He’s white, but he sounds black,” explains one mother), we meet Munfarid Zandi, a 19-year-old who reads Harry’s Wikipedia page every night before he goes to sleep. Harry promises him, “If you blow us away on the first song, I’d like to pick you up and hold you like a baby on the second.” True to his word, after an excellent rendition of an Adele ballad, Harry leaves the panel to cradle Munfarid in his arms. It is a magnificent sight to behold.

Outside the audition room, a dumbfounded Ryan Seacrest asks Munfarid, “Why was he cradling you?” Munfarid responds wistfully, “Because I love him.”

So do I. And so does America. With Harry Connick, Jr. at the helm, we’re in good hands. And strong arms.

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